Chapter Thirty Two – Another World: Four
“What… the fuck… was that?” Amy asked.
“It sounds so funny when you curse, honey,” Derek said with a smile. It did not not lift his wife’s foul mood though.
“How can you joke!? I mean… You always see those ads, like in the restrooms or in rest areas? ‘If you think you might have witnessed human trafficking please call…?’ What the fuck has happened to that girl, Derek!”
“Honey, calm down. Your heart–!”
“Calm do—Calm down!? What… what!? How in god’s name am I supposed to calm down after that! She’s been conditioned to die in the game over and over again? Is she a coma patient being fed on an IV drip? Is she traumatized and believes the game is her real world? What… how can you be calm!?”
“Because getting worked up over it isn’t going to do anything,” Derek said.
“Still! That girl has been tortured! In a damn, video game! Dying isn’t really all that painful but dying enough times…? Oh god, I think I’m going to be sick. Get… get me…”
Derek handed her the medication with a glass of water he’d prepared beforehand. She smiled at him thankfully before swallowing the pills and gulping the water down greedily.
“Try not to get so worked up, honey. Do you want another heart attack?”
“Don’t talk like that! You’re no spring chicken either!” she bit back.
“Honey,” he drawled and she sighed.
“I just… want to help her. Is she stuck in the game? What would happen if we asked her to log out? Would we ever see her again?”
“About that… I wanted to ask you. Did you notice some of the things she said? ‘You invaders and your names?’ She called herself Gell the Jellyfae. Like… like Jellyfae was her race. It felt natural to her,” Derek said, stroking his beard in thought. “Not to mention those things she said about her ‘instinct.’”
“What are you trying to say?” Amy asked, curiously.
“I’m… not sure. Part of me still thinks she might actually be an NPC. But that’s crazy right?” Derek asked, thinking aloud.
“You talking to me, or the mirror?” Amy responded, cocking a sardonic eyebrow at him.
He laughed and then turned to the mirror. Dark skin was covered by a steadily whitening beard that did a decent job of covering the freckles that had always embarrassed him before he could grow it.
He stood slowly, bones creaking with the burden of many years. He was certainly no spring chicken.
He turned to Amy as she rose from the other side of the bed. Wrinkled skin hung off bones that had been ravaged by her heart disease. The gown she wore covered her similarly thin body. Crows feet decorated her sleepy green eyes, and a little bit of gunk lined the edges of them. Her hair was the only part about her that seemed unwilling to give in to her body’s slow failure, remaining almost entirely dark where it framed her skeletal pale face.
She was as beautiful as the day he met her.
That didn’t mean she could get away with being snippy though. He countered with humor and turned back to the mirror.
“Ahhh, dear mirror self! Tell me, when you can cease admiring the bastion of perfection before you, what do you think of the strangely life-like Jellyfae we’ve found ourselves babysitting? Take your time. I know you’ll need it.”
Amy giggled. “You’re an idiot. Also… Jellyfae? Whoever heard of such a thing?”
Derek grinned, turning to her. “The developer, maybe? Tell me what’s more likely: Gell is a comatose player who is being forcibly kept in the game and has been kept there for so long she’s forgotten the real world. Or… she is an incredibly elaborate NPC? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it's not worth it to stick with her. Beyond its ability to get rid of my damn back pain, she’s been the best thing about Tread the Sky since we started, considering the boring quests and the dull crafting system. Do you really think she’s actually a person though?”
Amy thought about it, actually taking the time to really ponder his words. It was one of the things he loved about her.
After a time she slid off the bed into her wheelchair, frowning. He’d have been impressed with her ability to lift herself if she didn’t weigh as much as a feather. “She seems like a real person to me. Like a little girl trying to make sense of the world. She’s just doing it in the wrong world.”
He frowned at that. Yes, he was still pretty certain Gell was an NPC, but even he couldn't deny that something was… off about her. At first, he’d written her off as a main character. They had scenes in the main story quests that felt every bit as complete as Gell did, in a technical sense.
Then again… there were little things. Little inconsistencies that NPCs would not have had. Gell behaved like she was real. She reminded him of their daughter. Well, back when she’d been a little girl anyway.
His mood plummeted at the thought of her, and he turned back to Amy, eager to forget his daughter for happier subjects. Like an NPC being tortured in a dungeon. Right.
“Should we make a list? NPC versus Player that we should be really worried about?” Amy asked with a light laugh. “Ideas for what our new friend could actually be?”
He paused, pondering the thought. It wasn’t a bad idea.
“Aright. Do you have any?” he asked.
“She’s a real girl. She gets mad about names, and even acknowledges how strange they can be,” Amy said defiantly.
He nodded, acceding that point. “Okay. One in the Player category.”
“Mmm,” Amy said, assuredly.
“The mount,” he said softly. “The way she let that mount go. That wasn’t… that didn’t feel like an NPC. NPC’s just… ride mounts. They never even acknowledge them. Gell did. Does.”
“Two for player. Three. Remember the thing about Cycles. She doesn’t know what hours are? She’s been in the game so long she’s forgotten how to tell real time.”
“Uh… honey, I’d argue that’s a point in favor of her being an NPC,” Derek injected, and Amy blinked before agreeing with him unhappily.
“You’re right. Sorry. Confirmation Bias,” she murmured.
Derek grinned, but Amy had already moved on.
“She doesn’t remember anything but that cave. Nothing? I… am not sure which category to put that in. If she’s a player, that only makes sense if she’s… repressing or something. I’m no psychologist, but with the way technology has gone these days, who knows what’s possible?” Amy said dejectedly.
“Even if she isn’t a real player, something is strange about her,” Derek said softly. “I just don’t know what to think yet. She didn’t even have a mouth until yesterday… remember when she said that? What do you make of that?”
Amy went quiet again for a long while, before checking back in to reality. The doctors occasionally worried that that was a symptom of her sickness, but Derek had been watching her do it for years. Sometimes she spaced out to think, and usually she came back with something either insightful, or worrisome. This was the latter.
“I don’t know what to do here, Derek. Should we tell someone?” she asked while pensively biting her lower lip.
“I think… we shouldn’t get too involved with her. Honestly, we probably shouldn’t even guide her back to the city. If we get attacked the game isn’t going to realize that spiking your adrenaline could–!”
“Not an option. We’re getting that girl back to town, Derek,” Amy insisted. “At least to Bluebell, NPC or not.”
He smiled. “I figured. Just checking.”
“But in the real world. Should we do anything about her? Mention her?” she asked, her iron resolve replaced with worry in an instant. “At least to confirm if she’s a real player or an NPC?”
“I’ll send ‘em a message,” he said while grabbing their medications from the bathroom sink and bringing them over.
“Would you? Oh, that’s so nice of you! I was going to do it, but since you offered so generously–agghhk! I told you to stop that!” she exclaimed, laughing as he poked her in the side gently.
“Cheeky,” he said as he handed Amy her pills while he opened the cap on the date for his own scheduled medication, and then popped all four pills straight into his mouth before dry swallowing them. “But alright. Like I said, I’ll send them a message. If she’s just an elaborate NPC, then her developer is an ass who likes messing with players. If she’s real though…”
He paused a moment to consider. “Might send one to Red Thorn, too. Shady Woods Copse is her Home Point if you didn’t notice that. For a famous adventurer like her to hang on to that nowhere spot as one of her three home points…? Maybe she knows something we don’t?”
“Good. You do that. I’ll get us some dinner fixed.”
“TV Dinners!?” he asked excitedly between swallows of his pills.
“Your favorite!” she responded, beaming with enthusiasm.
He laughed. He actually was fond of the TV Dinners, though he missed the unhealthy ones he used to eat before these medical issues had descended upon the both of them. Honestly, he felt lucky. He had diabetes. Manageable. All you had to do was not eat all that much sugar. Poor Amy’s heart disease was… terrifying.
If she was afraid of the illness, she didn’t show it to him. He wondered idly if he’d have as much resolve, were he in her shoes.
He doubted it.
Both of them were in their eighties, despite what they’d told Gell. They’d found while playing in the cities that mentioning they were that old tended to… alienate other players. This was incredibly counterproductive to players like them who enjoyed the pain-free game but couldn’t… or at least shouldn’t, risk adventuring due to their “real world” conditions.
So of course Amy was going to try traipsing through the forest of… of… darn it. He’d forgotten the stupid name. All of them were pretty stupid, but the forest had been surprisingly memorable. Winkle? Wrinkle? The Twisted Wrinkle or something like that?
She was going to have a heart attack, likely for an NPC who had been programmed to act like a player by some overzealous programmer. He’d known her for long enough to know that there was no talking her out of it though.
At least getting to town shouldn’t be too hard...
He slowly crept over to the computer that ran both of their VR rigs. They had the high end ones that monitored their health and could even apply rudimentary treatments, should something go wrong while they were playing.
He sighed, looking at the rigs with annoyance. Ten more years and those youthful bodies in the game might’ve come… fully equipped for more than just a pain free existence. Alas, technology hadn’t quite come that far.
He looked over to a picture of his wife, then considered her in -game avatar, and decided that would probably be weird anyway.
He sat down at the computer gingerly as he heard Amy begin chopping something downstairs. God he loved that chairlift they’d installed. Sometimes enough to wish that he, too, was confined to a wheelchair. He was no spring chicken, but his long list of back injuries from a life working in construction sometimes had him feeling more frail than her. He was glad she’d volunteered to go downstairs. He hated the damn things these days. They made him feel like an invalid.
He pulled up the out-of-game message system that allowed him to run his auctions and sales in Variak, logging in quickly before he opened a new message.
It took him a little while to find the report button, and of course he felt stupid when he did, sitting with a shiny exclamation point at the bottom of the new message window.
He was about to begin typing when an entirely different possibility struck him. Could it be possible that Gell was actually an Artificial Intelligence? Like... a real one? If so... sending a message to customer support might endanger her more than it would help her.
Then again, A.I... like... a real one? In a game? They'd been talking about them ever since he was a kid and the closest they'd ever come was sophisticated personal assistants. V.I. Scare articles claimed that the first true A.I. might be the last invention humans ever made...
He began to type, his real concern over the possibility that Gell was a living person imprisoned in the game trumping the wild idea.
From: Iron Crock
To: Sky-Mod([email protected])
Subject: Possible Human Imprisonment in Tread the Sky
My wife and I were playing Tread the Sky today when we encountered something that has shaken the both of us. We’re a little afraid we’re both jumping at shadows but it has concerned us enough that we believe someone should be contacted.
In the far west of the continent of Dogaia, near the western edge of the Forest outside Variak, close to Bluebell Bridge we encountered a character named Gell, the Jellyfae. She is a race we have never seen before. Her hair looks like the tendrils of a jellyfish, while her ears look sort of like fins. Her body is a teal green, with freckles that glow different colors. Attached is a screenshot of the character.
This girl claims she has lived her entire life within Dungeon Home, a dungeon nearby the Shady Woods Copse, a safe point in the area.
She claims to have been forced to die, over and over and over again. Dying in Tread the Sky is not particularly painful. I hardly ever leave the main cities and I have experienced it once or twice, but this player claims to have never left the game. She doesn't know what hours are, instead measuring time by in-game Cycles. She also used one of our real world names after having heard it. No other NPC in the game has done that. What Gell seems to have gone through sounds like actual torture.
My wife and I were horrified by this. That said… we are… unsure if this is actually a player. It appears to be, but she acts… strangely. She speaks to the tutorial as if it were a real person. She speaks to us as if we are invaders and seems to associate with in-game monsters as if she were one of them.
Let me make this clear, in case you are not yet taking this seriously. Gell is at the very least programmed to act like a child. I’m loath to believe she is a real one but if she is… I need not spell out the concerns to you.
Please reassure us. If this is a player who has been forcibly kept in the game somehow, we would like to know how and why, or at least know that something is being done about her situation IRL. If this is an NPC who has been coded to act like a player… this seems like a cruel joke to play on your own players.
We will both attempt to assist Gell, as the girl seems entirely lost. If we discover she is part of a quest as an NPC then her designers have incredibly poor taste in their story design.
Thank you for your time.
There. That looked good. He tweaked a few things to make it seem formal and serious enough to be taken seriously before sending it off. As he was about to click send, he noticed something strange… His name was no longer Iron_Crock_584. Instead it was actually just “Iron Crock.”
He shrugged and decided it was likely just a fix or something.
“Hmm,” Amy said from over his shoulder, startling him, standing up from her wheelchair. Apparently she’d come back upstairs while he’d been composing the message. “Looks good. That subject line will probably get everyone involved. Good Husband.”
She patted him on the head like a dog and he rolled his eyes.
“I was about to get started on the one for Red Thorn. Did you want to hover over that one too?” he asked, exasperatedly rolling his chair aside to give her a spot to lean in.
“Oh no no! You do you! You’ve been well trained, I trust you,” she said with a laugh. “Food will be ready in fifteen. You willing to walk down the stairs or should I go back down and bring it up?”
“Up here,” he replied, not at all enthusiastic about hobbling down those accursed stairs again.
A spiral staircase would be great, they said! You’ll love it, they said! Well… they’d been right, right up until one too many surgeries turned them into a nightmare. Now he loathed them.
“You have to come downstairs sooner or later, honey,” she said.
‘Ah,’ he thought, with a sigh. ‘That was one of those questions that there was actually only one right answer to. Damn.’
“Alright, alright. I’ll be down. Just let me send off my fanmail,” he growled.
She beamed, unaffected by his grouchy annoyance. “Let me know if you need any help getting down! I'll shout up encouragement!”
“Yeah yeah!” he insisted, immediately feeling guilty about the harsh tone. Amy didn’t seem to mind though and she rolled out the room out of the room gleefully.
‘God help me, I love that woman,’ he thought as he turned back to the computer screen.
From: Iron Crock
To: Red Thorn
Subject: Gell, the Jellyfae
Sorry about the unsolicited PM. This might be a bit of a shot in the dark, but I was wondering if you might have ever encountered a girl named Gell...
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I'm Materia-Blade. I've been a long time fanfiction writer, and have recently decided to toss my hat into the original fiction arena. I love fantasy, sci-fi, and Lit-RPG's and have read hundreds of books from each genre.
My new story Artificial Jelly has released and is currently being pretty well received! Excited for it to hit trending! Thanks to those who support it, and me, and I hope it continues to impress!
Hope to hear from you soon!