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Pixel Courage 44

I sat in my bedroom, having logged off the game.

Had to find Alex. Help her. Do what I could. At the same time, my body was killing me.

A faint light poured through my window. Bird by the window squaked loudly.

6 AM.

Couldn’t remember when I’d even logged on. The skin around my eyes felt sore. Touching it with my hand, I felt the indent where the VR goggles had been.

“Goddamn,” I muttered. Grabbed my cane, put on my smartwatch, and hobbled into the kitchen.

Stomach killed me. Felt like it was tightened in a knot. I took some mac ‘n’ cheese from the fridge and fired up the microwave. While the carton spun around on the microwave’s turntable, my smartwatch rang.

I pressed a button, picking up the call.

“Hey, Chris.”

“Paul,” I said.

“Your mom called me. She’s been looking for you.”

“Yeah, I’ve been busy.”

“With Throne Quest?”

“Yeah.”

“Chris–”

“Alex is in trouble,” I said. “The NPCs in the game are talking to me. Trying to explain how I can help her, but it’s all so…” I stopped. “You think I sound crazy.”

A long pause. Finally, she said, “It sounds like Alex is manipulating you. Making you jump through hoops to see her. Dragging you into her drama.”

“It’s not like that. I think the game’s got a life of its own. The NPCs are so self-aware.”

“Do you remember telling Alex you were trans?” Paula’s voice was soft. “How she reacted? You, coming into my dorm room? You cried. You called her such ugly names.”

“Alex was just scared. She’s not… I want to be with her. We belong to each other.”

“I’m sorry this world can be rough. But Alex isn’t good for you. You can’t get back what you two had. And what you had… You’ve gotta find something better than that, Chris. You deserve better.”

The microwave beeped. My mac ‘n’ cheese was done.

“Alex deserves something good, too. Gotta go.” I hung up.

Scarfed down the mac ’n’ cheese, hobbled back to my bedroom, and put the VR headset back on.

The datapulse whirred, as the world of Throne Quest booted back up again.

I’d logged off while standing at the base of the volcano, so that’s where I ended up when I logged back on. I stared up at the towering gray mass. The purple smoke billowed in the air, massive clouds of it getting spat out.

I began to climb.

Something in the climb felt oddly routine. It was no more exciting than cooking the mac ‘n’ cheese had been. I made sure to avoid the monsters I could avoid. The ones who weren’t easily avoidable were easily killable.

The Volcano of Dreams was spitting purple fumes again, so that when I got to its top, I once again couldn’t see anything.

I got to my feet. Saw a dark shape flying in the fog: Jhaness.

“Greetings, Hero,” she said.

“I’ve come with another coin.”

“Another? I don’t remember you.”

She didn’t remember me. Was that because I’d killed her? Did the respawn reset her memory? Was she a whole new NPC?

The why of it didn’t matter, I decided with some level of unease. Her not remembering would mean less trouble for me.

Of course, she could be lying.

“I’ve brought a coin. Can I throw it into the volcano?”

“Yes,” she said. “Make a wish — a good wish, a wish for the one thing you truly desire. If it’s the right wish, it’ll come true.”

I took a deep breath of the sulfurous purple air. Made my way to the edge of the volcano. Put the coin in my hand, slid my thumb across the grooves of its surface.

I wish I was close to you, Alex, I thought. I wish I could help you, make you happy.

I pulled my arm back, then snapped it forward.

Long seconds of waiting.

Figured Jhaness was going to tell me I’d fucked up again. That a video game couldn’t fulfill my emotional needs, or whatever.

To my surprise, a chat box opened up. It was bright white, easily readable and completely unobstructed by the smoke.

“ONLY YOU CAN KILL THE THORN SAGE, ALEX,” it read. “DO SO AND SAVE ME. THEN WE CAN BE TOGETHER AGAIN.”

Kill the Thorn Sage…

I couldn’t, could I? I wasn’t strong enough. He had guards, and I had power, but that much?

No way I could do it without my Lightning Eyes, and I still couldn’t figure out how to use them.

“Was your wish granted?” Jhaness asked.

“I have to complete a mission before it’s granted,” I said, “but yes.”

“What was your wish?” Jhaness asked.

“I want to meet…” I stopped myself from saying ‘Alex’. “I wanted to meet your God.”

“Why?” Jhaness asked.

“I knew her before, and we had a good thing. I’d like to see her again.”

“You sound troubled.”

“I am.”

“Why?” that was the trouble with Jhaness. In the few times I’d spoken to her, she’d shown such depth, such humanity. That scared me.

Still, it wasn’t really why I was troubled.

“Your God and I… things weren’t always perfect. Sometimes I felt like I was walking on eggshells. Like if I said one bad thing she’d be gone forever.”

“That does sound like a problem.”

“But you’re supposed to fight for the good things in life,” I said. “And God made me feel so, so good.”

“God has the power to do that.”

“There was a little piece of me, though. A little piece of me that thought I might be happy here, in your world.”

“And why is that?”

“I… Because your God created it, maybe. Because it made me feel closer to her.” I didn’t want to explain Raine and her kid. There wasn’t anything real there.

But what if there could be?

“Sounds to me like you’ve already made up your mind,” Jhaness said.

“I want to go on this adventure — to save a person I had some very good times with. But then I wonder if…” Wonder if what? Wonder if I should fall in love with an NPC?

Damn, I could be stupid sometimes.

“Forget it,” I said.

Watching the flying figure, her big bird-like wings and small fly-like body hovering in the purple smoke, it felt like I was talking to a ghost.

There was something calming about seeing her silhouette, as opposed to her true, monstrous form.

I left The Volcano of Dreams. Figured I’d go back to The Thorny Sword and talk to Raine one last time.

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