Short Story: Too Real

She’d be at it near-on forty hours by the time it was over. She knew it ahead of time. Weekends like this weren’t uncommon for the chronically unemployed Sonia Rakes. She’d settle in on Friday night, greasy crap-food on one side of the desk, soda and water on the other with a bottle of Jack chilling beneath it in the mini-fridge. While her marathon choice of game booted, she rolled fat joints and blunts to pass the time, mind racing in anticipation of the glory ahead.

To say she was a burn-out would require ignoring the intense passion she wrangled out of herself for each and every imaginary world she eventually conquered. Sure, she was a little overweight, but the chair-sized ass she sat on made her all the more comfortable during the marathon sessions. Even if her pudge spilled over her waist-line, stuck out nearly as far as her free-bagging double-Ds, that just meant there was more of her to love. Besides, she’d long ago abandoned the realm of such social pressures in favor of the confined, fantastical ones she occupied for days at a time.

She sparked up a blunt, took a deep hit, and swigged down some cola home-run style. The cola was swallowed away to allow a plume of smoke emerging from her nose and mouth. Her lungs re-inflated with fresh air and the high trickled in through the back of her brain. The slow immersion of brain into cannabis relaxed her shoulders and chest. She sank into her gaming chair with a deflation that would’ve made “truth” ads jealous.

But this was no ordinary immobilization of inebriated limbs. In fact, it was just the beginning of what had always been the ultimate in relaxation and comfort. Contrary to some opinions, that were no longer popular, getting high only enhanced most things. One of them, at least for Sonia, was the imagination. Gaming was nothing if not stimulating for the imagination.

She booted up, set the blunt aside for a minute, and made the momentary keyboard clacks to put her in-game. With the blunt hanging from a corner of her mouth, she plunged into the post-apocalyptic world of her now-favorite title.

Her avatar was made to look like her; long brown hair, big boobs, and slightly pudgy with green eyes. Most of that pudge had been lost during gameplay by the game’s now-famous strength building system. Many of the game’s mechanics were touted as revolutionary. For an RPG, they were somewhat ahead of their time, even if most had been explored before. Everything had a modifier to it, and every modifier affected a stat; every stat, in turn, gained XP each time it’s level changed, and those experience points then went into an overall character level.

Once leveled, a player could immediately boost stats instead of working them up, and gain new perks that allowed them to take on new challenges or better overcome older ones. It was, for all intents and purposes, a game with refined mechanics that flowed beautifully, to say nothing of its atmosphere, characters, or narrative.

But what set it apart, Sonia knew, was its Artificial Intelligence. She’d barely seen a third of the game, but her awe of the AI was unsurpassed. Whomever programmed the game certainly had the chops to pull off the best work she’d ever seen. Most games’ characters were like cardboard cutouts; at a distance they appeared real, their “lives” full, but the closer you got, the more you noticed they merely wandered along set routes, repeated a few lines of dialogue, and were otherwise one-dimensional.

This game was different, and she’d only begun to scratch the surface of how. Her inebriated mind wandered, wanting to immerse itself deeper in the game’s world before fully committing to a quest that might forward any progress and inch her nearer its conclusion.

She found herself in the center of a small town. It was hardly a town by any standard, really, merely a few buildings forming a three-sided rectangle around a large well. Small shacks and lean-tos kissed the horizon around it, built scatter-shot across fields of mutated corn, tomatoes, and wheat. She aimed for the old-style saloon in the center of the open rectangle.

The whole place was an anachronism, a sort of wild-west area built up along a bombed-out, rural highway neglected into disrepair since the bombs. She liked it for that alone. It was rare to find such attention to detail that even the Non-playable characters’ cultures differed from settlement to settlement.

With that in mind, she sauntered up to the saloon’s swinging doors, but hesitated. An NPC down the wrap-around porch mentioned something about needing to “head ‘cross the wastes for Ban’oover.” Something about his twang intrigued her. He had that friendly sort of sound that put her at ease, made him seem either an easy target, or possibly, a new companion, if she found him to her liking. It was an instantaneous decision to follow him.

She whirled to follow the NPC’s ratty flannel and cowboy boots, gave him a good head-start, then passed by the other NPC he’d been speaking to. It uttered a “howdy” with a slight head tilt as she crouched at the edge of a corn-field, and began to track the NPC. Her stealth skills were only high enough to keep him unaware of her at larger distances, but she could easily keep to the cover of cornfields and rocky, desert roads that would lead to Banhoover.

She kept him at the extreme edge of her visual field, then knowing his intended target, fell back to bask in the world around her. Through the haze of caffeine, liquor, and weed, the hot sun kissed her skin while arid winds carried dust across her path.

A sudden screeching shattered her serenity. She froze, terrified. Her big, anaconda revolver was out, sweeping the horizon for threats. She crouched low to steady her aim, circled in place. The screech sounded again; metal nails on a chalkboard. Her teeth rattled, nerves stabbed by the sound. Something small staggered and swayed onto the road ahead. It weaved left, then right, fell forward. Her weapon sank at the pitiful sight of a massive crow with a bloody puncture in its torso. She swallowed her fears and approached carefully. The screeching sounds came louder, faster with each step.

She crouched again by the bird, examined it carefully. It was easily the size of her torso, and given the wound, near death. Her med-skills weren’t great, but might be enough to help. These types of random events weren’t uncommon. She’d yet to see one in this game, but so much of it was unexplored such an event didn’t surprise her.

The way she saw it, there were two options; try to heal the bird, or put it out of its misery. She’d gotten lucky a few hours into the game, and had been healed by a passerby on a similar road to this. Like the bird, she’d been bleeding out, the world phasing in and out of blackness. She saw no reason not to try and repay the debt to the collective gaming Gods.

With a few hotkeys and clicks, she’d drugged the bird with painkillers, and did her best to patch the wound. A quick flicker of XP, and the sound of a leveled stat told her the action succeeded. The bird hopped up, swayed a little, then examined her with a few tilts of its head. With a running start, it took flight and soared off into the distance. She chuckled, continued along the road.

It wasn’t long before she found the NPC she’d been tailing. More accurately, he found her. He’d hidden in the bushes a mile or so down from the bird. Five minutes of walking were interrupted by him leaping from the bushes. He held a big revolver like hers, trained for her head. A flicker of her HUD said he had a head-shot trained on her.

His shouts affirmed it with the addition of a demand, “Gimme all yer guns, clothes, and cash.” She remained silent, wondering how best to play it. He started shouting again, demanding, “Quit wastin’ time, there ain’t no other way out!”

A shiver shot along her spine as he cocked the hammer on his revolver. It was too real.

“Yeh, you best be shakin’,” he shouted from the beyond the revolver’s business end.

The revolver barked. A bullet whizzed past her ear. She felt it slice the air, buzz in her head. Her stomach dropped. Hairs on her neck stood on end. It was too real.

“I ain’t gonna ask again.” She hit the hotkey to drop her gun. He took a few steps forward, both hands on his gun. “Good. Now the rest.”

Her inventory menu appeared, and emptied at the “drop all” command. A moment later she was standing stark-naked in the middle of a desert road. He approached, licked his lips, chuckled to himself, then knelt to collect the gear in an arm. It disappeared into his hidden inventory as he stepped back again.

“Thank ye, kindly,” he said with a roaring laugh.

Something black flashed past, left him stunned. He growled, swirled around. She stepped back, terrified. Another flicker of black. Then again. More now. A shroud of black encircled him as he swatted at it. The revolver barked until it was empty. The NPC began to scream, flee. Sonia stood, petrified and dumbfounded.

It took a moment for her mind to comprehend the Murder of Crows attacking the NPC. It was almost a full minute before she could move again. By then, they’d brought the NPC down, had him in pieces on the ground. He let out a blood-curdling scream that upturned her stomach, then went silent, still.

A lone crow hopped over, its abdomen recently bandaged. It dropped something on the ground. She picked up a note that read; The crows will remember your kindness. She shivered.

Out of game her breath trembled, “Jesus christ, this is too real.” She stared at the crow, muttered, “Thank you.”

In-game the crow squawked. Sonia’s eyes bulged. It immediately took flight. The Murder followed in sync.

Whatever the hell had just happened, she was certain that bird had spoken to her. More importantly, even if she couldn’t understand how, it heard her. How? She collected her clothes and swallowed the ill feeling in her gut. She redressed, began to follow the road aimlessly, hoping to make sense of what the hell’d just happened.

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