- // ZERƟ
- // by STΛQQ ƟVERFLƟ
- // スタックオーバーフロー
- I let out a reluctant sigh as I stepped outside and let the university lab doors close behind me. It should have been an afternoon for a carefree attitude. I was leaving work early for once, and while a bleak overcast was draped above everything like usual, it was, for once, a smog-less day in Shinagawa. But I couldn’t rest easy, even on a day as nice as this.
- I hadn’t seen my girlfriend in weeks.
- I hadn’t heard her voice or caught sight of her since the end of summer. I couldn’t forget that face of hers—I missed it so—but nevertheless, I hadn’t seen it in ages. However, she wasn’t dead. Far from it, in fact—I had been receiving messages from her all this time, telling me of her mystic location.
- She told me that she’d escaped to an online game, and that she wanted me to join her.
- It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard. Beyond the idea of foregoing the real world and staying logged into a video game, what about her life could even have been traumatic enough to drive her into doing something like this?
- I loved her like crazy, but it was stupid. It didn’t make any sense. Our relationship was remarkably normal, maybe even plain. We both met doing research at the university lab. We got to know each other, went on silly karaoke dates, and supported each other emotionally and physically like any regular young couple would. I felt like I was dreaming. And then at once, she disappeared.
- To be frank, she hadn’t even chosen a game that was particularly good. It was Sacred Grove Online. A high fantasy virtual reality MMORPG from a few years ago, when Neuronet technology was still new and the bugs were still being ironed out. It was a system launch title. The game has been holding its own all this time, I’m sure, but there are plenty of better looking, better performing games out there now. I’m not sure where she saw the appeal in something so clunky. Perhaps it was the only one she had, although I didn’t even know that she owned a VR terminal before all of this.
- On my walk back home, I took my phone out of my pocket and decided I would try one more time, maybe the last time, at attempting to talk some sense into her. I’d done so at least a dozen times by now, and it had become practically mechanical, but I was never going to give up. I’m not sure what I expected this time around, but I received the typical response.
- “Forget about the real world.
- Give up on it like I have.
- You’ll never be alone again, trust me.
- Let's be useless together.
- I love you.”
- I let out a deep sigh as I turned onto a busy street. What could I even do at this point? Even though it’d been 27 days since I’d seen her by now, I still couldn’t believe that someone as normal as her was doing something like this. Doing this to me. What had I done to deserve this? There were no scars in our relationship, and I thought we truly understood each other. It was beyond bizarre. Perhaps I lacked understanding, I thought. She’s being fucking crazy, but maybe I need to give her a chance? After all, I loved her. Or so I thought, anyway.
- So instead of heading home, I turned around and made my way towards the station, where I would be on my way to do something extremely brash. I caught a train to the Chiyoda ward and headed for the nearest electronics outlet. I purchased a VR terminal, the necessary peripherals, and dealt with a confused clerk when I asked for a download code for an older, out-of-style game before lugging all of that onto the train back to Shinagawa.
- It was pouring rain when I got off the train and began my walk home. Admittedly, I was feeling pretty indignant by this point, but I felt like I had to get the chance to see where she was coming from. Maybe I could talk some sense into her by “meeting” her in this video game.
- Completely drenched and slightly pissed-off, I slammed the front door behind me and made my way to my bedroom, immediately throwing everything I was carrying onto the floor. I gave up video games ages ago, but I would go through the trouble of figuring the technology out all over again if it gave me the chance to “see” my girlfriend, I decided.
- Having unboxed everything and hooked it all up together, I took my shoes off and laid on my bed, taking a deep breath. I took my glasses off and replaced them with the glossy immersion-enabling panels of the VR terminal, sliding them over my weak eyes carefully while I fastened the cups of my headphones over my ears. I closed my eyes and the dream began.
- I hastily made my way through the system’s first time startup screens, simply sticking with the default options for everything before launching Sacred Grove Online. At the title screen, I registered for an account with throwaway details and logged in, created a character, and within a single powerful swoop was transported immediately into the game’s world.
- Having nearly forgotten how amazingly immersive this technology was—even for a game that was a little dated—my heart was trembling when I spawned into the starting township. Even for such an older game, it all felt so real. The town was alive -- busy with villagers and other players. Children of the village were chasing after their runaway pets. A fresh pine scent was carried with the mountain breeze that blew past my body. It was… beautiful.
- But I wasn’t here to play the game. I wasn’t going to learn of the stories of all of these villagers, I wasn’t going to chat up any fellow players, and I wasn’t going to start the tutorial quests or decide on which class to play. I wasn’t going to explore this world.
- I was going to find my girlfriend.
- She was the type of person to keep the same username on every service, so I knew I could find her. I used the game’s commands to directly message her avatar. Immediately responding to me, she was overjoyed but said that she was in a high-level area that I wouldn’t be able to reach without sinking a good few hours into the game. She said that she couldn’t leave, so she would mail my character an item that would let me teleport to her location.
- Sighing, I invoked my mailbox window. Ignoring her cutesy message, I opened the attachment and closed the mailbox window. I then opened my inventory and used the teleportation gem.
- Immediately, my surroundings changed. Gone were the homely echoes of the villagers and their livestock. I was now in what appeared to be a clearing in a dark forest. The desolate sky in this area was dark and cloudy, just like it was in the real world that day. At my feet and all around me in this creepy, silent place were flowers and tree roots. Just what the hell was this place?
- And crawling out of some dark trees in front of me was a female player. I had no doubt in the world who it was, although her character was customized to be beyond bizarre, having known her (or who she was before, I should say).
- Her character’s hair, beautiful and long, was a brilliant green. Her shoulders exposed, she wore a gray dress that evoked the idea that her character was something along the lines of a mage. To account for its strangeness, what was on her face was probably a cash shop item or something, but her eyes were covered with a solid black censor bar that prevented me from seeing what they looked like.
- It was overwhelming. My character having remained in the starting outfit, it was as if I were standing in the presence of a goddess. Regardless, I was elated to finally “see” her again.
- “Akane… I can’t believe it. I thought you were dead.”
- “You came after all,” she said without a hint of feeling. “Finally… It’s like a dream come true.”
- I looked around at the flowers and grass. “What is this place?”
- “It’s just a little grove outside of a forest dungeon. It doesn’t really have a name, but I like to call it the ‘memory garden.’ I like to sit here and think about things sometimes. Pretty, isn’t it?” She smiled. “I missed you so much.”
- I kept my resolve, staying true to my mission.
- “Akane, you can’t stay here. This is a video game. Log out right now… I’m worried about you.”
- “Why are you doing this? What made you want to do this?” I couldn’t hold back, even if I wanted to. Being able to speak to her again was too powerful for me to take. “How long have you been logged in? Are you even still eating or leaving your house? Or even your room?”
- “…none of that matters. This is my new home. This synthetic world is perfect. We can stay here forever, just you and me.”
- I balled my fists, unable to contain myself. “No, that’s bullshit. This is a video game. You’re going to die if you stay logged in forever.”
- “…I’m okay with that.”
- I couldn’t help but feel my voice growing weak. To hear her say these things in front of me, rather than through text messages, was breaking my heart.
- “How could you do this to me? Don’t you care about your family anymore? I don’t get it…”
- “The real world is cruel, Ryota. Day-to-day, we deal with people we loathe and struggle with vague anxieties that are never really resolved. Here, those things don’t exist. We can surround ourselves only with things we like. We can build up little walls. We can immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature. We can go on adventures.”
- “We can also do all of the things we would do in the real world, like cook, eat, and relax. But the most beautiful thing of all is that we feel no pain here.”
- “Akane, I still don’t understand. You can just play the game like normal if you’re stressed. But was something going on in your life that made you want to escape here?” I gulped. “…did I hurt you somehow?”
- She smiled, her arms behind her back. She was beautiful.
- “No. You didn’t hurt me.”
- “Then why—“
- “It’s simple. This world is just beautiful to me. It’s synthetic—completely fake. Designed by people just like us. Yet it’s more genuine than the real world because it’s trying harder to achieve something. To achieve mimicry. It’s perfect… it’s all I need, and I’m never going to leave.” The words that were coming out of her mouth were borderline evangelical. “I’m going to stay here forever.”
- “No, that’s impossible. You’re going to starve in the real world if you never log out.”
- “I think you’re missing my point, Ryota.”
- “This is my new home.”
- With nothing left to say, I logged out of the game out of impulse right on the spot, leaving her behind. I sat up and peeled the immersion glasses and headphones right off of my head before throwing them across the room in frustration.
- For the rest of the day, all I could think about was how disappointed I felt. Not even meeting her face to face in-game was enough for her to change her mind. I missed her so. I missed who she was before all of this, and I cherished the memories that we shared. I was in disbelief at what she’d become.
- After plenty of time to play the events over and over again in my head, I came home from work a few days later and sat on my bed, feeling slightly disappointed.
- I picked up the immersion glasses again and slid them over my eyes before putting my headphones back on just like I did the day before.
- I really missed her…
- Maybe she was right.
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