Tessa had frequently claimed that she was “dying to play her game”. Staring at the logout button which hovered in the air in front of her she wondered for the first time if not playing it might possibly kill her.
“This is interesting,” Lost Alice said, apprehension drawing thin, sharp lines around each of her words.
“Well, it looks like we’re not trapped here,” Rip Shot said. To Tessa it looked like she was holding her hand over empty air, but given their position Tessa knew Rip’s fingers were hovering near the virtual logout button being projected in front of her.
“We should hold off on clicking that for now,” Tessa said, her desires darting out from her in every direction, each balancing another so that she was held motionless in between them all.
“Probably better if we’re not ghosts when we go back, right?” Matt Painting said. He wasn’t reaching for a virtual control screen.
“Maybe?” Alice said. “We don’t really know what’s going on or how things work here.”
Tessa’s thoughts had been running in the same direction.
“She’s right,” Tessa said. “We might be in some strange state of grace at the moment. If we incarnate here, that might get us stuck permanently.” It didn’t seem likely, but since the entire scenario should have been impossible Tessa wasn’t willing to rule out anything that was at least somewhat internally consistent.
“Or the button might not work,” Alice said.
“Or the trip back might not bring us back to our bodies,” Tessa said. “I don’t know about you, but I saw myself turn to light. That had to be some kind of magic, so maybe it’s possible to reverse the process, but maybe not either.”
“One of us should try then,” Rip said and reached towards her screen.
“Wait!” Alice said, reaching for Rip’s arms and passing through her.
Rip flinched back and looked as surprised as Alice at the lack of physical contact.
“Guess we’re as ghostly as we look,” Tessa said, while a worse idea began to take shape in her mind.
“Yeah, that’s kind of weird, isn’t it?” Matt asked. “I mean, shouldn’t we look like our characters?”
“I don’t know,” Rip said. “I mean we’re the one’s who got called here. ‘Come Hero’ and ‘RISE’ and all that cheesy stuff.”
“You heard that too?” Alice asked.
“I guess we all did,” Tessa said. “I thought it was just game dialog at first.”
“Same here,” Alice said. “And hey, maybe it was. I mean Broken Horizon’s has been many things over the years but blessed with perfect writing is not one of them.”
“I thought everyone loved the story in this game?” Rip asked.
“Eh, a lot of people do,” Alice said. “Writing better than average in an MMO isn’t exactly a high bar to clear though.”
“It doesn’t help when you can’t count on people reading the quests or listening to the dialog,” Tessa said. “Even back when I was playing, I think the writers were mostly focusing on telling the story through dungeon encounters and boss battles.”
“That’s what we’ve been getting,” Alice said. “World Shift was supposed to change things though. Take the game in a whole new direction they said, but somehow I don’t think this is what they had in mind.” She gestured to her ghostly form.
“If they had, you think there’d have been something in the tutorial about it,” Tessa said, trying to keep her voice light and joking. Part of it was that she didn’t want to rattle Rip or Matt, and part of it was trying to keep herself from falling to pieces.
She could accept that she’d been drawn to another world. She could accept that it looked to either be the Fallen Kingdoms, or be modeled on them. Accepting something as true was not at all the same thing as having the capacity to deal with it though.
“Matt’s got a good point,” Alice said. “If we look like ourselves now, is this what we’ll look like when we reincarnate? It’s kind of a different thing wandering around this world as a level 1 [Grave Mender] compared to a level 0 nobody.”
“We could pick up a spark and take it back to our character’s bodies,” Tessa said. “That’s supposed to reanimate the body just as you left it.”
“That seems like it could cause as many problems as it solves,” Matt said. “I mean if anything’s going to get us stuck here, wouldn’t crawling into a body that’s not our own be the mostly likely thing to do it?”
“If we’re not already stuck here,” Rip said. “I mean it’s not like people haven’t thought about this kind of thing before right? Is there ever an easy way of getting back home?”
She hadn’t taken her hand away from the screen as far as Tessa could see but she wasn’t moving any closer either.
“Any of that could be true,” Alice said. “Fortunately, we have other options that just guessing. See if you can bring up the bug report screen. Maybe we can get in touch with a GM or something?”
“It’s worth a shot,” Tessa said. “It sounds like you’re going to try something else though?”
“Yeah, I’m going to see if chat still works. If it does, I’ll check with my guild and see if anyone there has heard of this happened to anyone else yet.”
Tessa thought back to the system message which had come up telling the players not to log off. Had the developers known, or even suspected, something like this was going on? Was her original guess about files being wiped by a logout correct, only instead of files it was all of the data that made up the person trying to come back? There were so many possibilities for how things could go horribly wrong that Tessa had to stuff those ideas away before they overwhelmed her.
“I’m willing to bet we’re not the first,” she said, as she brought up the bug report screen and began filling in the required properties.
Typing on the holographic keyboard that appeared with the screen was strange. Without any resistance or physical feedback, Tessa found her fingers drifting out of position quickly. What was worse though was trying to find the right categories for her report.
Had the game crashed on her? Not exactly. She’d more crashed into it. Was she experiencing a problem with the game’s graphics? Nope. The world was higher resolution and with less video lag than ever. Did she have a billing complaint? Yes, at least insofar as she had no idea how she was going to pay for next month’s bill if she trapped inside the game without internet access.
In the end she settled on “Connection issue” as the bug reports category. It would probably be the first time someone complained about being too connected to the game and Tessa had no real hope that a random support flunky was going to have a Knowledge Base Article available on “How to Recall People Who’ve Been Yoinked to Another World”. If the message could even make it back to Earth though it would suggest that there was still some connection between the two worlds.
“If we can’t go back…” Rip began, and broke off for a moment before continuing. “We’ll still stick together right?”
She wasn’t looking at either Tessa or Alice, just Matt, who didn’t waste any time in answering.
“Yeah, I’m not leaving you,” he said. It was sweet but Tessa wasn’t sure if the question had been intended for her as well, and if so what her answer would be.
The two kids weren’t falling apart, which was a good sign, but they were newbies. There would be so much to teach them, and so much that she still needed to learn too.
The Broken Horizons of “World Shift” wasn’t the same place as the one she’d last played in, and it was possible that anything or everything she knew about the Fallen Kingdoms didn’t apply to the version of the world they’d landed in even if it was still true in the game.
The real problem wasn’t with the kids though. It was internal to her. She couldn’t quiet the rising voices of doubt which threatened to burst free on their own.
If she stayed with them would she really be able to help them that much? Would she even want to after a while? She’d seen too many groups start off with the best of intentions and then fall apart when the member’s interests didn’t line up. It wasn’t anyone’s fault necessarily even. Sure there were jerks out there, and it was always good to bail on a toxic situation before you wound up drowning in bile but sometimes people just wanted different things, or were comfortable with taking different risks.
Tessa was saved from further contemplations along those lines by Alice speaking up.
“Hey! Chat works!” she said.
“You were able to get ahold of someone in your guild?” Tessa asked.
“Yeah…” Alice said, distracted as she typed a response out, her frown growing more pronounced with each letter. “She thinks I’m joking.”
“That’s fine,” Tessa said. “Just tell her not to die, or log off.”
There was a pause as Alice flicked her fingers through a keyboard only she could see.
“So what happens if we talk like this around someone who’s just playing the game?” Matt asked.
“Forget that! We can talk to people in the real world!” Rip said. “This is amazing! We can get messages back home.”
“Yeah, but what are the people back home going to find when they look for us?” Matt asked.
“I don’t know but it means if someone there figures out an answer to this, they can let us know what to do,” Rip said.
Tessa saw worry and hope chasing each other through both of the kids. For herself though, she felt a weirdly liberating dread. She was free of any worries about what people might find when they checked her apartment, and that was terrible.
No one would be checking on her, except maybe her boss after she missed a day or two of work unannounced. She didn’t have anyone who would be sobbing and terrified over what might be happening to her like the kids had with their parents and families. So being trapped in the Fallen Kingdoms was great. And kind of pathetic.
Her heart twisted up at the idea that maybe the breakup with Crystal had come at just the right time. Maybe it really was for the best that she’d lost the last person who really cared about her just before she was whisked off to another world. Tessa could see the argument in favor of it, but the breakup was still too recent to feel good in any sense.
“Those idiots,” Alice whispered and began smashing the virtual keys in front of her.
“What’s happening? What are they doing?” Tessa asked.
“Enough people got stuck online tonight that they’re going to try for one of the new raids,” Alice said.
“Will that be too hard for them?” Matt asked.
“Definitely,” Alice said. “Especially without me there.”
“Could you really help much?” Rip asked, looking at Alice’s ghostly form.
“No,” Alice said, shaking her head. “We’re not a top tier group. If we were, we would have run all the raids while they were on the beta server. Instead, this will be the first time a lot of them even step inside the new dungeons. They won’t even try for a completion. It’s just about learning the mechanics for a few of the early fights. And that’s always a recipe for people dying.”
“Did they say which of the Raids they were going to do?” Tessa asked.
“Yeah, they’re going to try [Lunar Reaches]. They want to see what the moon looks like. Cease All thinks I’m just mad because they formed up without me.”
“How could you go on a Raid with them if you’re level 1 like us?” Matt asked.
“I’d have to switch over to my main,” Alice said. “Who I’m really wishing I had logged into tonight instead of starting up a new character.”
“I wonder if existing characters are even part of whatever’s going on?” Tessa asked. “Maybe they’ll all be safe and it’s only people who created a new character who can get drawn in?”
“It didn’t sound like Cease knew anyone else who had, so that might be true,” Alice said. “Of course if all of them have been wrapped up in preparing for a [Lunar Reaches] run they probably weren’t paying attention to the rest of the world.”
“So we still need to find someone to talk to then,” Tessa said.
> *GM Burnt Toast* whispers: “Glimmerglass? Is that you? Oh my god, tell me you’re not stuck in this too.”
Tessa froze. She’d known a player who’d gone by the handle of “Burnt Toast”. Burnt Toast been a fellow programmer and she’d always talked about wanting to go into game development.
She’d also been one of the first to leave when the guild Tessa had loved so much had crumbled to dust.