“That is an XC-class soulcycle,” said the most beautiful girl in the world. The thing she was pointing at sat off to the side of the auto shop floor. It looked more or less like a motorcycle, but it had metal wheels instead of rubber and where a gas tank would normally go there was a thick glass barrel which stood completely empty. “Comfort has been picked clean and I think that’s our best chance of getting workable transportation. I can’t do it without you.”
“Two questions,” I said. “First, you haven’t given me a name.”
“That’s not a question,” she replied. “But if you’re Juniper, you can call me Cypress.”
“Second, who or what is Comfort?” I asked.
“Comfort is this town’s name, and from what I saw while I was falling, it’s the only place of note for a dozen miles,” she replied with an arched eyebrow. “You missed the giant sign?”
“I guess I was distracted by all the zombies,” I replied.
Skill unlocked: Comedy!
But apparently the humor was lost on her, because she lifted her gun back up and pointed it right at my chest.
“What did you say?” she hissed.
I swallowed hard. “We, uh, don’t say the z-word?”
She slowly lowered her gun again as her pale blue eyes searched my face. “I didn’t believe you, when you said that you were a dissident. I know that things have gotten bad, especially for the poor, but … there are still traditions worth keeping. There are still rules worth following.” Her eyes left mine as her thoughts went elsewhere.
“Uh,” I said. “Okay. I really didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t know that calling them z-um thing like that would be a big deal.”
“That’s the whole problem,” she spat. “It’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater, assuming that there aren’t reasons.”
“No, I mean, I’m not from around here,” I said. “I’m from Bumblefuck, Kansas. The first thing I saw of this world was the inside of the plane just before we dropped. I don’t know if I was magically transported here or what, but I’m not even from this world.”
Achievement Unlocked: Full Disclosure
Cypress looked me up and down again, which gave me more time to think about how pretty she was, not that I needed it. I was starting to get annoyed with myself, but that didn’t really stop me.
“I see,” she finally said. “You’ve been dream-skewered.”
“Uh … what?” I asked.
“It’s okay,” she said. “We can still make it out of this and I can get you the help that you need.” She spoke slowly, as if to a child.
“I’m not dream-skewered,” I replied. “I’m from a place called Earth.”
Cypress nodded. “I know it,” she said. “It has seven continents, two large oceans, and it’s a spinning globe with ice at the top or bottom. Right?”
I nodded, slowly.
“That’s the dream that skewers,” she said. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “All thoughts and memories wiped away in an instant, replaced by the dream of Earth and a different life there. It’s a fate only slightly better than death.” She shook her head. “You can still help. We still need the soulcycle up and running so we can escape the Coterie. It’s just going to make things a little bit more difficult.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m sorry, I need to ... “ I paused and tried to gather my thoughts. “I need more. How many dream-skewered are there? Do they all have delusions of being the one to have thought up this place? Do they all see the game overlay? Do they level up like me?”
She bit her lip. There was something new behind her pale blue eyes, a softer emotion. “There have been perhaps a thousand of the dream-skewered,” she said. “They are cared for and studied at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny. To my knowledge, their only delusions are of their lives lived on Earth. You think that you created Aerb?”
Aerb. That was exactly the sort of laziness that I would have shown if a player had asked me the name of the world and I hadn’t had one available. “Parts of this world look similar to ideas that I had come up with back on Earth,” I said. I didn’t know the full scope yet, but there were about four or five points of similarity so far, and I had only seen a very small fraction of the world. Please, please don’t have Fel Seed.
Cypress frowned. It was a pretty frown. “How narcissistic,” she said. “Nothing against you, obviously, I’m just thinking about it in the context of the delusion. The interesting thing about the dream-skewered is that their records of Earth match up, even if they haven’t had communication with each other. But for you to work elements of this world into your delusion … if, when we get out of here, you’ll have to consult with the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny.”
Quest Accepted: Straddling Worlds!
I’d done nothing of the sort, but I was starting to realize that accuracy of language was not the game layer’s strong suit.
“What about the game overlay?” I asked. She gave me a questioning look. “There are words that appear over my field of view,” I said.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” she said. She looked toward the motorcycle - the soulcycle, I guess she’d called it. “Whatever is wrong with you … it has to wait. We’re safe here, I think, so long as the Coterie doesn’t attack en masse, but that’s only a matter of time. We need damned souls to fuel the soulcycle.” She walked over to the work bench. I noted that she still held her gun in one delicate hand. She picked up a small jar with thick glass walls, put a long spike in it, then handed it to me. Our fingers touched briefly.
“Have you ever used one of -- no, sorry, your memories are gone, of course you wouldn’t remember if you had. Stab the spike into the heart or head of a corpse, the runes will draw the soul out. If you see someone die, you have thirty minutes to collect before the soul leaves the body. If their heart is still intact, you have maybe three minutes until they rise as one of the undead, but the soul is still retrievable so long as they’re put down before the half hour is up.” She went back to the bench and picked up a glass stopper. “Keep the jar sealed when there are souls within it, they’ll dissipate otherwise. We’ll need seven, I think, to get where we’re going.”
Seven Bells for Seven Hells. That was the first thing that really succeeded in affecting my impression of Cypress. She had killed the guy in the waiting room, I was almost certain of that, but that didn’t really bother me. She had pointed a gun at, variously, my face, throat, groin, stomach, and chest, but a defensive posture was something to be admired in a place like this. Destroying souls in order to fuel a motorcycle that would get us out of here … well, that was pretty metal, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Wait, is there an afterlife?” I asked.
Cypress’ lips formed a thin line as she looked at me. “I was serious when I said that we don’t have much time, Joon.” The sound of my name leaving her lips sent a shiver down my spine.
“Alright,” I said. “You want me to go out and scavenge. I can do that.” I looked at her gun, which she was still holding loosely by her side. “I would probably fare better if I didn’t have to go into melee.”
To my surprise, Cypress handed me her pistol. My surprise must have been evident on my face, because she gestured to the worktable. “I’ll build another,” she said.
Skill unlocked: Pistols!
I looked down at the gun in my hand. The boxy part had roughly the proportions of a deck of playing cards, but slightly bigger and set on edge. A rubber grip with a trigger was attached to it; it wasn’t a normal trigger you’d pull with your finger, but instead the kind of thing you’d find on a spray bottle, where the trigger extended down the length of the handle and was squeezed with all the fingers of the hand. I looked at the hole in the boxy part, but couldn’t see inside. There was no obvious mechanism for feeding ammo into it.
I had a bunch of questions for Cypress, but I worried that she would think they were dumb. Questions like, how the fuck did you build a gun in the hour or so we’d been here? Or, what does this gun even shoot? Or, isn’t this gun going to be difficult to shoot given that you have to squeeze your entire hand? And, given that, how did you manage to shoot a guy in the center of his head with this thing? She knew that I knew nothing about this world though, and had offered me the gun anyway, without deeper explanations, so I figured asking would just get her even more exasperated with me and wasn’t likely to get answers.
“Seven souls,” I said. “I’ll be back when I have them.”
Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 0!
I went out the way I had come, back through the dark hallway and into the reception area. The corpse was still sitting there, smelling up the place. I took a moment to take stock of my situation.
Theories as to What the Frick is Going On
- Dream theory: I’m either dreaming, in a coma, hallucinating, or having a mental break. This doesn’t feel like a dream, and I can’t really do anything about it if this theory is true, so ... noted but discarded.
- Simulation theory: I’m playing a game of some kind, with hyper-realistic visuals, full haptics, smells and tastes, in a world custom-made from elements of my own imagination. That explains the things that have been coming on-screen, plus the near-orgasmic level up, plus how someone as hot as Cypress (Amaryllis?) could possibly exist. It does not, however, bridge the gap between fifth period English class and sitting on the plane … in what was in retrospect, obviously a cutscene. Plus all the tech needed to do an in-depth, personalized simulation like this would basically require the Singularity to have happened.
- Actuality theory: This place exists, and I got here through hitherto unknown magic or technology, which slammed me into a body that was identical to my own (as confirmed by a check of the freckles on my arm). That didn’t explain the game overlay in the slightest.
- Dream-skewer theory: I was actually a guy from Aerb who was suffering from delusions that he was from a place called Earth, complete with memories of my pet hamster Mildew, the phone number of a Chinese takeout place in Bumblefuck, Kansas called the Great Wall, the time my grandmother had chastised me for using the salad fork during dinner, hundreds of little tiny things like that, along with all the big ones. Cypress had said that happened before, so maybe, but it didn’t explain the game overlay either.
Of course, the truth could be a mixing and matching of some of those theories. Anyway, the real question wasn’t so much what I believed to be true, but how I would change what I was doing on the basis of the possibilities. I considered the chance of Aerb being a dream fairly high, but that wasn’t particularly actionable. None of it was, frankly. If it was a game, the rules were opaque, and whether I was from Earth or Aerb didn’t immediately matter except in the metaphysical sense. It had been awhile since I’d looked at Maslow’s hierarchy, but I was fairly certain that metaphysics was fairly high up it, above more basic things like “not getting killed by zombies”.
Part of taking stock meant closing my eyes and looking at my character sheet. It had filled out a little bit more as I had unlocked more skills, but I was a little bit worried about the negatives to WIS and POI, which left both of them at a single point each. The ‘Cowardice’ thing seemed progressive, which meant that if I got hit with it again, I risked falling to zero on both of them. In various editions of D&D, hitting zero in any stat was special; you didn’t just suck at that thing, you became paralyzed, fell into a coma, or died depending on which one it was. Now, I didn’t know whether that would be the case here, but given that death was on the line I couldn’t risk it, especially since something like paralysis or coma would effectively be death.
But I’d gotten the two levels of ‘Cowardice’ affliction for what I thought were self-motivated but completely rational decisions. I’d been scared when I’d seen that girl surrounded by zombies (and the memory of her bones cracking made me wince) but I didn’t think that was what had motivated me to run. The problem was, if I was going to get punished by the game layer for not running in to be a big damned hero, then maybe the calculus slid the other way. If you asked me, running into a fight you didn’t think you could win solely because you were worried you would be punished with death didn’t exactly scream courageous.
I was also somewhat chagrined that offering to help Cypress by charging into danger wasn’t considered heroic enough to lose at least a level of ‘Cowardice’, but I figured I’d have more of a right to gripe when I had actually done something, instead of just sitting in the waiting room with a corpse. Speaking of which …
I went up to the body. Pink mohawk aside, he was dressed down, with light brown pants made of some kind of canvas and a plain, unadorned t-shirt. I took the small glass jar from out of my pocket (which it sat awkwardly in, like carrying around a can of pop), pulled the spike out from it, and approached slowly. I wasn’t quite sure how long he had been dead, but the blood hadn’t coagulated yet, which made me hopeful. I also wasn’t sure on the procedure, but I stuck the spike in his chest hole, trying to keep my fingers from touching him while I pushed it in. The head of the spike was almost touching his blood-soaked shirt when it began glowing a soft, pale white. I watched it, not knowing what would happen. Within the space of half a second, a ball of light had formed, which unceremoniously dropped down. I managed to catch it in the glass jar before it could land on the corpse’s bloody lap.
Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 1/7
The instant feedback was welcome. I pulled the now-dormant nail out of the corpse, wiped it off on a part of his shirt that was relatively untouched, stuck the spike in the jar, sealed it up, and let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. I had apparently just captured someone’s soul.
I went to the door, gun in hand and machete dangling from my side. The coast looked clear, but in a videogame this would have been a perfect place for a jump scare. I pushed the door open with my foot and went out into the oppressively gray sky overhead.
This, then, was the town of Comfort. I’d been paying more attention to the enormous monster than to the buildings, and after it was out of sight I was focused on the auto shop. Now that I was paying more attention, I saw something I’d missed: half the buildings were made of cobblestone, with thatched roofs. That fact hadn’t even registered with me. I wasn’t sure whether I had mistaken them for something else or simply not processed them, but it was another reminder that this wasn’t Kansas.
Now then, in a videogame, usually when some NPC gives the player what’s clearly a main story quest, the first thing any right-thinking player does is ignore it completely. Videogames basically trained gamers for it; no matter how many mouth noises the NPC made about the desperate urgency of the task, we knew that it wasn’t really urgent, not unless there was a countdown timer on the screen, and maybe not even then. It was considered poor game design to punish people for taking the time to see the sights and explore the world.
In tabletop RPGs, it sort of depended on what kind of DM you had. Myself, I wasn’t afraid to bring down the hammer hard if the players didn’t react to the word ‘urgent’ with actual urgency. To my way of thinking, if your words of warning meant nothing, then you’d shot suspension of disbelief in the foot. Of course, in a tabletop game it was usually easy enough to route to a different plot point if the village burned down, and I understood that game designers didn’t exactly have the luxury of rewriting the plot around every failure, but that was part of what I felt made tabletop games so much better.
So yes, there was a part of me that was screaming that the appropriate reaction to being in a game was to run back to the area with zombies and level grind until I was a badass so I could steamroll through the town of Comfort. But if this place was on some level influenced or inspired by my thoughts and ideas, then didn’t it become more likely that the game layer would agree with my opinions?
I was stuck by the door awhile, thinking about this instead of moving, paralyzed not by a precipitous drop in WIS, but by my own indecision and over-thinking. Who knows, maybe I might have sat there forever if two guys with pink hair hadn’t crept around the corner.
They started moving almost as soon as I spotted them, both keeping low to the ground and behind whatever cover they could find. I aimed my pistol at them, holding it with both hands. I wished that I had spent some time in the auto shop practicing instead of thinking myself dizzy or fawning over Cypress. One had a length of pipe, while the other, for whatever reason, was carrying a sword. I took aim at the one with the pipe as he scurried between cars -- my first time ever aiming a real gun at another person -- and squeezed the trigger.
The pistol made a little thwip sound, but there was no flash of light like I had expected and the recoil was like being pushed with a feather. At first I thought something had gone wrong with it, but the guy I had aimed at stumbled slightly and when he got behind a car I noticed blood where he’d been.
“Void tunneler!” he called out. “Fuck!”
Naturally, the words meant nothing to me. I carefully watched the cars for movement, which was how I just barely had time to duck out of the way of a brick thrown straight at my head.
Skill increased: Dodge lvl 1!
The guy with the sword wasted no time at all in jumping over the hood of the car he’d been hiding behind and trying to rush me. It might have worked if the brick had hit me, but I was able to recover quickly enough to point the gun at him and squeeze the trigger. Another little thwip and blood started pouring from his chest, but while he was staggered, he was still coming toward me. I squeezed the trigger a second time, but the pistol beeped at me.
Blood had quickly soaked sword-guy’s shirt, and I could practically see his heartbeat by the way the bloodstain was spreading in pulses. He started running toward me, heedless of his wound, and I backed up toward the auto shop, gun still held in front of me. I waited as long as I could, until he was less than five feet away from me, then shot him in the chest.
Skill increased: Pistols lvl 1!
Fuchsia Coterie minion defeated!
He toppled to the ground, dropping his sword and giving out a gurgling moan. I stepped forward and kicked the sword away from him, then turned and looked for his friend just in time to see the pipe coming down on my arm. I heard a snap of bone right when it happened ( New Affliction: Broken Bone ) and would have dropped the gun if I hadn’t been holding onto it with both hands. His follow-up hit me in the shoulder, but it wasn’t the shoulder holding the gun, and I angled the gun under my arm to shoot him point blank in the stomach.
He howled in pain, which gave me enough time to scramble back away from him. He tried charging me, the same as his friend had, but I was ready for it and kicked him square in the junk. I got a notification about unarmed combat, he collapsed on his side, and a squeeze of the pistol’s long trigger caused another thwip that made a hole just above his ear.
Skill increased: Pistols lvl 2!
Fuchsia Coterie minion defeated!
The golden light came again, with a wind that blew errant bits of newspaper away from me, and I got that same glorious hit of ecstasy, like the opposite of getting hit in the face with a frying pan. It lifted me up, just a few inches, and when I came down the afterwash of it momentarily made me forget that my arm was broken.
At least, that was what I thought until I tried moving my arm. It felt perfectly fine, and delicate probing soon turned into rough probing as I tried to feel at where the break had happened. I closed my eyes and three seconds later was looking at my character sheet, moving my eyes to the side to switch screens until I got to the one labeled “Afflictions”. ‘Cowardice’ was still there, but ‘Broken Limb’ was nowhere to be seen.
Apparently all it took for me to heal from a broken bone was leveling up. I opened my eyes back up and breathed a sigh of relief. When I had been in 6th grade I had broken my arm doing a stupid BMX trick and spent eight weeks in a cast, which had made the summer one of the most boring in my life. Out here, I figured that a broken arm was basically a death sentence. If I hadn’t leveled up … well, it didn’t do to think about.
I looked down at the two bodies, then at the gun in my hand. It had been a clear case of self defense, but that didn’t really take the sting of guilt and horror out of it. I had no idea what the Fuchsia Coterie’s deal was, but even if they had meant to kill me I didn’t think that meant they deserved outright death. Their lifeless eyes were hard for me to look at, so I tried to focus on something else, which brought me to the glass jar still awkwardly sitting in my pocket. Right. I had a job to do.
The one with the pipe I had shot in the head, so I tended to him first. The spike was just slightly smaller than the hole my pistol made, so it was quick work to slip it in, and I was ready this time, so the soul fell into the jar without incident.
Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 2/7
The guy who had been coming at me with a sword (a sword!) I had hit in the chest, and I wagered based on the angle that there was a good chance I had hit him in the heart. I stuck the spike, still red with the other one’s blood, straight into the wound and waited for a bit. Nothing immediately happened, so I grabbed my pistol, aimed it right at his forehead --
His eyes snapped open, both of them glowing with a red light. I pulled the trigger almost immediately, which opened up a dime-sized hole in his head, but I realized almost immediately afterward that these zombies didn’t care about their heads at all. I scrambled away from him and drew my machete, then realized what I was standing next to, dropped the machete, and picked up the sword instead. As soon as the zombie got to his feet I was on him, stabbing forward through his chest right next to the hole I’d put in him. His eyes winked out and he fell down, again. I watched him for a moment, breathing heavily. After a brief second to think, I picked my gun back up, went over to the one with the pipe, shot him right in the heart, then went back to collect sword guy’s soul, praying that it would still be in there after he’d turned zombie.
Quest Progress: Seven Bells for Seven Hells, 3/7
Halfway done, I thought to myself, and even though that wasn’t actually true, it made me feel better to say it.