Cold sunlight streamed low over the horizon, casting dappled shadows on the ground from the sparse trees stretching up around me. The comic book store behind me was gone, replaced by a bluff that towered high overhead and continued outwards in either direction before the vast forest that surrounded me covered my view of the rest of it. The air smelled like my childhood, clean and fresh. Years of living in the city had caused me to take something like clean air for granted. This only added to the peculiarity of where I was now. A frigid breeze cut through my clothes and it looked like it was going to get worse before it got better.
“I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore,” a little voice inside my head said.
“Okay, deep breaths, Taylor. Reasonable explanation for everything.” My voice seemed out of place to my ears. “This is a dream, or a coma, or a coma dream.” I had watched enough TV and movies to know that at any moment someone would jump out and tell me I’m being punked or, and much more likely, I would just wake up.
“I don’t think this is a dream.”
“No one’s talking to you,” I told myself. That voice in my head sure was negative.
The deep breaths helped, and my heart started to return to normal. It was easier, for the moment, thinking this was a dream than confront the possibility that this was real.
I quickly conducted a self-check, hands reaching to my hair to make sure I wasn’t bald. Check. I wiped one hand down my face to see if there was anything wet. I wasn’t crying and there wasn’t a bleeding head wound. Check. A quick cupping of the scrotum followed by a visual check of all lower extremities. Hello there. Check.
“Nice,” my inner voice commented, finally getting with the program.
There was an unexpected weight on my hip and I looked down to find the rugged leather of a gun belt wrapped securely around my waist.
I had definitely not been wearing that when I dressed this morning.
The gun belt was old, but well kempt. I traced my fingers along the simple silver buckle and felt the embossed designs along the front. Swirls, etched in the leather stretched around from the sides, intricately carved into the leather and stained black, still easily visible in the dark brown leather. They stretched out like ever curving and intertwining fractals and were impossible to follow either by sight or by touch. It was beautiful and chaotic.
My left hand felt the smooth leather of the gun holster attached to the belt and rested gently on the handle of the gun it carried. Other than the Arcade and a Bass Pro Shop I once entered thinking I might learn to play guitar to impress girls, this was the first time I had touched a real gun. My mother had always been against them and I hadn’t even had squirt guns growing up.
The gun came out of the holster smoothly, spun once around my finger and laid heavily in my hand. The barrel, chamber, and hammer were all stainless steel and caught the light in strange refractions as I turned it over. There was a texture in the grips along the handle, but the black inserts were so dark that I couldn’t see any details in them. They were set so smoothly into the steel handle that it looked to be one piece.
“Very nice.” It could have been my imagination, but that little voice was sounding smug and just a little British. It was a nice gun, and it felt right to be holding it.
My drunk-o uncle had always said to ‘accept the things you cannot change,’ usually just before taking a long swig from a beer bottle. As a kid, I hadn’t really understood what it meant, but it had always helped me adjust to change and guided me through some of the more challenging parts of my life. When I had moved to a new school, I was resentful, but accepted it and made the best of it. When my one and only girlfriend broke up with me with no real reason, it had hurt, but a two-week binge on ice cream and the Mantra of Acceptance had helped me to move on.
This was just another change, and the best thing to do was accept it. I needed to prioritize and concentrate.
“Good. Now that we’ve gotten to this point, let’s get a move on and find some shelter. Health is going to start dropping soon.”
“Who the hell are you?” I asked with a start, spinning around trying to find where the voice was coming from., gun hand outstretched and searching. I was starting to get sick and tired of people sneaking up on me.
“Who the hell are you?” The voice in my head echoed indignantly.
“Who said that? What’s going on?” I was trying to do my best at accepting everything, but each time something new happened, the strange was ratcheted up another notch.
“Okay, take a deep breath. Let’s start over.” The head voice paused and I had the impression of it clearing it’s throat. “Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-dan Armada…”
“Really?” I asked hopefully.
“No, dipshit,” It said, exacerbated. “Why do they always stick me with the noobs?”
I wasn’t sure how, but I could picture the voice looking up to the heavens for strength.
“Here’s the situation,” it continued. “You made a deal with one of The Seven and essentially and part of that deal has landed you here. Unfortunately, since it’s your first day, you are only at level 1, and, as I said before, we should probably find some shelter before our health drops.”
“So, I’ve gone insane. I’m hallucinating and my inner voice is talking to me.” Going crazy had always been one of my biggest fears. There was a small comfort in knowing that I was losing my mind, though. I’d always imagined people whispering behind my back, ‘that’s the crazy guy, he doesn’t know... sssshh. Don’t tell him. Here he comes. Lovely weather today, Taylor. Your shoes look great today, Taylor.’ I always thought people like that were a bit monstrous.
“You are not insane, and I’m not your inner voice.”
“That’s just want my inner voice would say if I was insane,” I grumbled under my breath.
I could think of lots of ways that I would wake up suddenly in a forest and none of them were good. Anthony could have drugged me, aliens, my memory could have been wiped or parts of it just missing. I knew they weren’t the most plausible of explanations, but they were possible. Hearing voices, though, or one clearly frustrated voice, was pushing the boundary of acceptance.
I decided for the moment to assume that the voice was not my own crazy. I could always change my mind later on.
“Slow down and let’s take this one step at a time,” I said to the voice. “First, who are you? No, wait, let’s start this at the very beginning.” This time it was my turn to clear my throat and take a breath. Even though I was alone, I fell into an old habit of standing a little straighter when first meeting someone. “Um.” Suddenly feeling awkward. “My name’s Taylor. To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”
The voice hesitated. I wasn’t sure how I could tell the difference between a pause and the voice just not being there. It was like when you walked into a room and there was a feeling of someone being there versus the feeling of being completely alone.
“I don’t know if I have a name,” it said cautiously. The voice sounded suddenly guarded. “No one has actually ever asked me that before. They just start talking to me, or about me, or accuse me of being their inner voice.”
“Well, what if I call you Marv,” I asked, thinking of the first name that came to mind.
“I may not know what my name is, but I am pretty sure it’s not Marv.”
“Okay, let’s put a pin in that and we can come back to it later,” I said, moving the conversation forward. “Now, what type of thing are you?
“What I am is a little annoyed to be referred to as a thing,” Marv said testily. “But I suppose that makes it easier for you to comprehend. I am a construct of time and force. I am your point of access to the greater world and I am…” Marv’s voice became quiet as if he was turning his head and muttering into his hand. “Your companion.”
“Companion?” I asked.
“Yes. I am subject to your wishes and here to offer what aid I can.”
“Okay, then,” I said, feeling a little more upbeat now. Something was turning up Taylor for once. “What about the level 1 thing you said?”
“This is why we need to find shelter.” Marv paused again. “Since this is the first day, you are level 1. Because of the deal you made, you now are able to see an augmented world. An overlay of additional information. This provides the ability to view your health, stamina, and mana and what skills you have access to.”
“This sounds a lot like a video game.” My mind was going into overdrive, desperately trying to wrap my head around the uniqueness of the situation.
“This sounds a lot like a video game,” Marv echoed mockingly. “Maybe video games sound a lot like this.”
I ignored Marv’s flagrant sass. My next question came with a lot of trepidation, of which I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
“How much health do I have?” It felt like I was asking how much time I had left and when I was going to die.
“With your permission, I can bring up an overlay for you.”
Four bars suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision. In the top left was a red bar, with a green bar right below it. On the right was a blue bar. “Health, Stamina, Mana.” I said to myself. The colors were standard to nearly every game I had played before. I focused and the mana bar snapped into clear view. It was empty with a 0/10 next to it. Below it, there was a fourth bar. It was empty as well but had a gold outline around it. The label was 0/10.
Even as I was wondering what this meant, my attention was drawn over to the other side. Focusing again to bring up the health bar I saw it flash and drop from 10 to 9. Not good.
“Marv, how can I regain my health?” I asked in a panic.
Marv’s sigh was palpable. “The usual ways. Food, medicine, rest. It depends on what’s wrong with you. Look, I know you are viewing this as a game, but it’s not. This is real life, kid, and right now you are cold and suffering from exposure.”
In all the video games I had played, the cold always drained stamina. When I asked as much, Marv gave a clipped answer about how when you are cold you are not dying from exhaustion, you are dying because your body is freezing to death. With that news I turned towards the forest and began walking.