My heart races as I watch the words slowly dissipate and then the screen disappears. I’m not sure what I’m feeling, but I know this was incredibly stupid of me. What if this isn’t what I was sent back to do? I pull up statistics for the degree plan that I’m currently in and start to waver. In six weeks, I could have my degree and start the slow climb politically. Yes, there was a huge chance that I couldn’t figure out what was the cause of the bombings, but it was safer. Then I look up viewership rates and cross reference them with how often their faces are seen to how politically revered they were, no matter their past. Money, power, success, and most importantly being able to talk with the people that know something about immortality. It isn’t about how much you know, it’s about how much the population likes you. Being likable is the key factor to becoming the small percentage of people that owned everything. I needed to be able to rub elbows with these people, I need to be seen as one of them. It has been this way since the turn of the new century. Lunar Lander was just one of the companies that was part of several other companies that were effectively owned by the same company. I have a sinking feeling that no one is actually aware of what the company does and with a team of lawyers behind them, they would be virtually unstoppable to do as they wished. What were they planning to get out of us in the competition? As much as I hate to admit it to even myself, this was the only way I was going to be able to get to where I needed to fast enough.
I close out the tabs, and then open the game back up. The official meetup was in a week, which means that the contest isn’t going to official start until after the interview. It makes me wonder, if our current scores will actually be used, or if it is going to reset us to zero. I’m hoping that it will be based off of our current scores and that they will start officially grading us based off of the rules. I frown thinking about that. If that’s the case, I definitely have some catching up to do. I look at the time and gasp. I have wasted two hours dicking around with the contest entry. It is past three in the morning and I haven’t even started on the game. In a blind panic, I open up the scoreboard and sigh in relief. Eric’s score hasn’t changed, he must have decided that it was a large enough gap and that he could relax tonight. He’s probably snoring his head off about now. I eat the last portion of the candy bar slowly and then finish off the coke. That was probably the last time I was going to be able and enjoy something that tasty in quite some time. I know my nervous bladder was going to be a huge issue, so I make sure to take care of business before hopping back on. I push the table back into its place against the wall and then slide the headset over me. I decide to remain in a relaxed seated position, knowing that this will keep me comfortable for at least eight hours. I’ll refrain from drinking any water unless I absolutely need it and I have the pitcher next to me with a two glasses in case I do. On a more gross level, I have a second glass here if I find the need to relieve myself again. Having a nervous bladder is the worst. I generally have to use the restroom several times before doing anything that I know will be time intensive. I know it’s all mental, but it hasn’t stopped, so I assume it’s pretty safe to say that it’s not going anywhere.
I’m back to the title screen again, but this time I’m looking it over. The colorful pixel images greet me and I’m looking them over with renewed interest. Why is this so different from the main game? And in our time, the fact that the graphics are outdated is the understatement of the year. Especially considering that you can’t distinguish reality from fantasy if it wasn’t for the fact that you were wearing the gear. If I had really splurged, I would have turned this entire space into a fully immersive world complete with wind effects, smells, you name it. It might be my youth kicking in, or stupidity, but I’m really debating on doing that with some of the funds I pull out next month.
I’m really not sure how kids could take these games seriously back then. The bright, flashing colors hurt my head. I don’t want to stare at this longer than I have to, but I know I should be more careful and pay attention. Eric didn’t just get that score off of beating the Night Queen alone. That was an impossibly large score for the first boss battle. I relent, looking at the score. Was there any game I could actually think of that kept a scoring system at all like this? Especially, a first person shooter? Hell, even a puzzle based RPG, or role playing game, like Dragons of Evermore that released last year. It was considered one of the toughest games to complete and was notorious for taking so long to complete raids or dungeon crawls that a few people had been reported dead while playing it. I was with a small amount of people that believe this was a publicity stunt set up by the game company Fantasy, Lunar Lander’s biggest competition. A raid is basically a large team of people online that ban together to defeat a particularly hard boss. Dungeon crawlers are viewed as incredibly redundant to some people, but I love them. And with the luck of the draw on loot mixed with randomized terrain, or dungeons that included crypts, mountains, underground, abandoned buildings, or even other planets─ the possibilities are endless. You have to bust your ass to gear up and somehow defeat something that has several times your hit points, or health, and find a way to outwit them. I am excellent at figuring out patterns, which is why I love this type of adventuring. As much as I love loot, I love the storylines even more. They are often tales of tragedy, or a people wronged. Basically, it follows some nobody from a random village who is destined to save the world. It’s one of the oldest tropes known to the western world but I can’t get enough of that shit. Ironic, considering the position I’m in if I can’t locate my own crew.
I’m wasting too much valuable time thinking about this, so my attention goes immediately back to the flashing images on the screen. Phantom scrolls from the top of the screen to the middle and blinks a few times before fading. On the bottom right a guy walks across the screen and pauses in the middle. His hair is brown, and he is wearing a pair of blue pants, and what looks like a white sweater. His hands go up and a bunch of pixelated mean-looking cops enter from the left, their guns drawn. One of the officer’s fire and the man holding up his arms falls to the ground. Red pixels fill the bottom of the screen and then the entire screen turns red. Then, it twinkles and turns into the night’s sky. This is all that happens, before the scene replays. I watch it for a fourth time, trying to see if there is some clue based off of what they are all wearing, but nothing is jumping out at me. Then I notice it. The background is a pixelated version of the constellations, all slowly twinkling. The only reason that I realize this is because the pattern of the twinkling. Sudden, the shape of Ursa Major, or the big dipper. Pops out at me. Next, I spot Hydra and then Virgo, which is incredibly hard to spot until I watched it for a third time and realize that the star Spica, which represents the ear on a grain of wheat from her hand is there. Then one last one appears and I stare for a moment at it. The pattern looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t exactly remember which one it is.
Upside down, I muse. That’s what is throwing me off. There was something else bugging me about this, but I can’t figure out what. What did an ancient fairy tale have to do with the game? I don’t even bother glancing at the time, I knew it had to have been close to five in the morning. It wouldn’t be long before I would lose every advantage I have with Eric choosing to sleep tonight. Maybe I should just play the game instead of messing with a stupid title screen. Maybe it was just some artistic flair the developers decided to add to do something different. That was a more popularized trend these days, finding a way to really stand out from the others. Games were often portrayed as fully immersive and real life. Especially first person shooters. They were beloved by people because it was something that they could use to get away from real life. It was a way to finally become that action hero that saves the world and is adored. It wasn’t just that way with first person shooters. Many people could live out dating sims, survival horror, pop idols─ you name it, it could be simulated in a way that was exactly like real life. Somewhere along the line, people traded their own dull lives for living in an online adventure. Who honestly wouldn’t? Compared to what was actually available in the real world, why would you even second guess? It isn’t entirely present now, but it’s getting there. Soon, any and all social events will be converted to online and no one will have a need to come face to face with each other. At least, for the next year.
What was interesting about what Lunar Lander was doing, was that no one had used the pixelated graphics like this except for nearly fifty years ago when there was a revival of the old pixelated games. This is the reason why it was so different, and why I was so hung up on an opening screen. With it being a huge point of debate on all of the online forums only strengthens what I originally thought. I pull up the Phantom forums, including the sites that are most known for helping others. We’re talking the sites that you have to click on several different links and read through thousands of comments to find. Usually only the most popular votes appeared at the top, but you have to do some digging if you are going to find what you need to. Almost all of the sites I pull up are huge disappointments. Since the competition was announced people have either removed their comments, or moderators have in the spirit of the game. This meant that not only did Eric probably know more than me, he also had gotten to see all of the clues on the message boards. Not only him, but potentially thousands of others that had read the comments before me. My heart sinks as I think about not only the people that saw them, but the moderators. How much do they know? The trail was going to be completely cold on all of the major sites that much I know. I need more time to think. It’s like the world has pulled the rug out from beneath me and I know I’m about to fall, but I’m protecting myself along the way to prevent too much damage.
It’s seven a.m. when I spot it. I’m literally at the end of my rope, and nearly about to give up when I find my first real clue in one of the most unlikely places. It’s a single comment in a child’s game forum. The game is called Mini-Game Haven and it’s a collection of all the puzzle games ever created within every game ever made in recorded history. Its sole purpose was to let kids play just the mini-games if they didn’t want to play the actual games themselves. Everyone else is discussing how to defeat Medusa in the third mini-game of Pantheon. Pantheon is a game in which you played out all of the Greek or Roman gods’ stories and how I actually remembered learning ancient history in one of my specialty courses. All of them were comments geared toward how to defeat her, except for the one comment about two-thirds of the way down the main page. I’m laughing at myself for actually believing this person, especially since the user’s name is uncle strawberry. I stare at the sentence, trying to scrutinize if it is legit or not. No one in the forum has caught on to what they are saying because it actually has nothing to do with the mini-game. It even has several down votes and people calling him an idiot. The comment reads, “For you see, one look at the beast’s head turned the viewer into stone.” There is a line break and then it is an asci picture of the upside down constellation of the woman. She looks the same except for one difference, there are a series of points on the top of her head. I take a screenshot and then pull up the story. The others on the forum might not be aware of what this is, or how much this is actually worth, but I am. This has got to be a clue, or one of the most well-placed troll comments I’ve ever seen. I scan the few lines of text and then compare it to the information that Alexa has gotten for me. I scan through the fairy tale and then pause halfway through. Cassiopeia was defeated by Medusa’s head which is what caused her to ultimately die and be placed in the night’s sky as punishment. I lean back and look at the art again, then back to the information. What was it I was missing? What in the blue hell did this have to do with the game? I thought on what I actually had revealed with the game.
Lunar Lander had not only done something different with the main access page and credits, they also had done something that was unprecedented. They had done something that would have caused most major gaming companies to lose all of the money they actually put into their game and tank horribly. No one actually knew what the game was about. The trailers, were simply of the developers and the designers talking about how it was going to be something that changed the way the world played games. That’s why so many people found it intriguing. How could you expect to actually gain a following if people didn’t know what it was about? Yet somehow, it had the complete opposite effect. The game had an unholy amount of people that downloaded it, and the game forums had blown up talking about what they knew. Until yesterday when everything was removed. Here’s what I do know from what I’ve played: The main character, Victor Credence wakes up in a single cell room with no lights, no running water, and what appears to be a completely sealed room. He remembers his name, but little else. Sure, it sounds like every dumb action or mystery trope everywhere but this one feels different. Not only are you able to be fully immersed in the world, you could actually feel yourself crawling through spaces, smell the stale air, and hear the rats scuffling through the spaces and the soft murmur of the men. You have no other information than that, just a name. I have no idea how it manages to make me actually smell what the main character does, because my headset isn’t even capable of doing that. Part of me thinks that it must be lighting up the sections of my brain that causes smelling and that it is just creating the illusion that I am there when the character remarks about the smells.
There is a co-op version, but you have to play through the beginning solo and then you are able to meet up with the other players. But that was only in the player versus player arenas. The main story mode had to be played single player. The first part of the game didn’t leave you with much. All you literally had to figure out how to exit the room was the clothes on your back. I could hear muffled talking on the other side of the walls, so I had known that there was a way out. Banging on the walls only resulted in a slat opening and a single dart shooting through. This was a completely frustrating in-game time out. I had been locked out for twenty minutes until my character ‘woke up’ and I could try again. After figuring out that drawing attention to myself was not the way to go, I started really looking at the space that I was in. The entire room appeared to be made from an extremely durable plastic that was bonded with some sort of thick resin. When I knocked on the hard surface, the sound came out muffled. After nearly an hour of being stumped and several minutes of me cussing out the walls, a thought occurred to my dumbass. In hindsight, I gave myself tons of shit for not thinking of it beforehand and losing my cool like an idiot. The room would need a ventilation system. I wouldn’t need to leave this room for anything other than the restroom, but this was a game and bodily functions were never taken into account in the digital world. Since it was a game that meant it was probably going to be something outlandish. Instead of pace the room like I was doing, I decided to sit on the floor and close my eyes. At first, I was just a jackass sitting in the middle of the floor in a game. After several seconds though, there was a distinct sound to my left and just behind me where a window might be in an actual jail cell. As soon as I stood, it went away. When I walked over to where I had heard the noise, nothing happened. Frustrated, I sat down and closed my eyes again. There it was. It was now coming from my right since I had switched myself around the face the area I had first heard it. When I stood again and it ceased, I knew that it must be something I would have to view from the ground, or that I was activating it by placing pressure on the floor. I literally scooted my ass along the floor toward the sound and then broke into a smile. It had gotten louder and now I could feel it brushing against my skin.
Point is, after several more wasted minutes I figured out that the breeze was coming from a weak area in the back of the cell near the floor. When I’d finally managed to remove a hunk large enough to dig at the rest of the wall and pull myself free─ I was met with a new problem. The cell was part of many other cells that were suspended over a drop. A very large drop. The kind that you knew if you fell, there wasn’t going to be much of you left. My hands had instantly got sweaty looking down at it and I had to tuck my head back in to relax and take a deep breath. So the traditional ‘dropping down some ventilation shaft trope’ was a no-go. It took many more hours, but I had finally found out that my character had something called a stamina meter which appeared any time I had to climb, or exert myself. Given that there wasn’t much in my cell implied that my character was probably weak from sitting and doing nothing, or just doing push-ups and sit-ups. That meant that I had little means to train myself for lifting my actual body weight. There were no bars, which meant if I had managed to work out I couldn’t strengthen my hands or fingers to grip. They really had taken everything into account with this game, the sheer amount of detail was insane. I had no way of knowing who was keeping me here, or how long I had until they came back, but the music was becoming increasingly foreboding which meant I probably had little time before they discovered what I had done. Whoever ‘they’ were. Shit, for all I knew I was a damn criminal trying to escape. Maybe I was the bad guy. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to get the hell out of there. After several failed attempts and having to go back to my cage, I finally found a small indention that was marked every two feet. The notches weren’t much, but it was enough for my fingers and toes to grasp onto. I was nearing the top when my cell started to move. There was a tremendous rush of air behind me and I snapped my neck around to see what was going on. Loud buzzers went off as a roar filled the enclosed space. I actually had to turn the volume down on my headset it was so loud. At first, it reminded me of a rushing train or the tornado simulations I’d heard but then I realized with growing dread what it actually was. Water, lots of it.
There was a groan, and then suddenly I was weightless. Terrified, I climbed the rest of the way to the top of the giant cube. The only thing I can think that kept me on top was the sheer terror of my grasping onto my hand controls as I gripped the cable at the top. Well, that and dumb luck. I smacked my head and jaw as the structure made contact with the water. The entire thing twisted and spun as the other cubes landed around it. Then, we were on the move yet again. Even though I was spinning violently, I somehow managed to hang on. I felt like I was one of those men riding a bull, one-handed and blindfolded. There was so much water splashing around me that I couldn’t even keep my eyes open. After several seconds of struggled to orient myself, I realized where I was heading. It was the only place that made sense since it was where the air had been rushing from. The dark room had quickly faded behind me as the blinding light charged in at an alarming rate. The cubes around me were funneled behind my own and it took a moment to realize that there were bumpers on either side of the room. I bent my head around at the open space and gasped. There was an entire city out there, one that I had never seen before. The lines of the buildings were so smooth, it was almost unrecognizable as a city at first but then I noticed the gleam from the light and realized it was a reflection. Only one thing in nature actually did that, and it was water. Those shapes were too geometric to occur in nature, which meant that it was definitely man-made. I managed to twist myself around while holding on to the cable as the bobbing subsided and the ride was starting to even out. Everything slowed as we neared the edge of the giant open doors. This was probably the next area we were supposed to travel toward, but I knew it was probably going to take quite some time to get to. Judging by how long it had taken me to get to this point, I knew that traveling to a city that appeared to be several miles out, wouldn’t be easy. We had slowed nearly to a crawl and I was just starting to relax─ but then, I looked down. The only thing I knew to say was a word that was repeated over and over again, the whole way down the waterfall. That word, was shit.
That fall was so intense, I had nearly thrown up. Roller Coaster simulators had nothing on that drop. I’m not sure how the hell I managed it, but somehow my ass snapped into self-preservation mode and I had leapt over the side with the cable. I tumbled into bottom of the cube feet first and rolled to the opposite wall. The next thing I know, there is a huge crash as my cube hits the water. Now I know why the walls are so thick. Even though they are padded, every part of my body is singing in pain from crash. The cube topples a few times before it rights itself. Then it dawned on me, there must have been some sort of weight in the bottom of the cube to make it tip back. I was screaming like an idiot, whooping and laughing my head off when the next problem happened. In all my excitement to actually be alive, I’d forgotten two things:
one, I was inside the cube that now had a hole in it and two, we were in water.
As fast as the water rushed in, the color left from my face. Then I remembered the cable. The room was too small to gain enough leverage to get my way out, and the water was rushing in which meant I wouldn’t be able to have the strength to pull myself out. The current was my advantage here with the cable, it wouldn’t pull it from my hands. I needed to wait until it was mostly submerged and then pull my way through the space. The water had been icy cold that much I remember, and once it reached over my head, I had barely been able to feel my fingers. But I did it. I drug myself through the two and a half foot space. When I surfaced, epic music greeted me on the other side as I drug myself toward the tree-lined shore.
Enter me, currently.
This was where I had left off the first time that I had run through. I had been lying when I told him that I’d made it to the queen in the first part. The truth was, I had barely figured out how to get to the damn shore. I was only aware of the Night Queen because of all the forums online talking about the first big boss. The only reason I was second on the score charts, was because I hadn’t died yet. Apparently, each time you died it meant you had to work twice as hard to score higher points. Many of us had suspected that it was a way to also let the moderators grade us on our use of creativity. I’m not sure what I had done differently than the rest of them, but they must have liked something that I did.
And here we are, back to me staring at these lines of text and an archaic way of drawing art on a computer. Ok, so a goddess placed in the night sky upside down and defeated by Medusa. Then a particular part of the text sticks out to me. Not a goddess, a queen. A queen placed in the night’s sky. “Alexa, give me all the names that Cassiopeia is known as.” “No problem,” she says, then, “Cassiopeia is also known as Queen of the Night’s Sky,” I ground my jaw in annoyance. Duh, I think sarcastically. “She is also known as Queen of the Night, and Night Queen.” My eyes grow wide as I make the connection. This was it, this was why it was placed on a random game forum. This beautiful person was giving us a clue on how to help with the Night Queen. The Night Queen was none other than Queen Cassiopeia and I had a huge clue on how to defeat her. I’m bouncing in my seat and clapping for joy when suddenly my alarm goes off. “Attention, tenant 10127, you have been online for eight hours. This is your daily reminder that you need to eat, use the restroom, and drink at least eight ounces of liquid. You also have not gotten in your four R.E.M. cycles, which is required to repair your body─” “Yes Alexa,” I interrupt. “I’m aware. Thank you for the warning, I will be fine for one day.” “Understood, however, your system is locked until you first complete these necessary tasks to ensure your survival.” I frown at the computer, “All of them? I can simply take a nap, right?” There is a slight pause. “You may take no less than a ninety minute nap to sustain normal bodily functions for the day.” I nod my head, “Yes ma’am, you’re the boss. I’m going to get up and stretch and do the other stuff.” “Understood, 10127.” Despite my grouchy-ness, I manage a smile as I stand, remove the headgear, and stretch. She was probably right. I get a whiff of my underarms and grimace. Yep, definitely needed a shower. My stomach growled loudly as I padded toward the kitchen. “Alright, alright, I get it,” I say patting my waist. I leaned down and pulled the door open, then remove a nutrition bar from the fridge. I quickly down it and a glass of water impatiently. The faster I got in a few hours of sleep, the faster I could get caught up to mister two million points.
I stripped off my clothes and stepped into the small shower, letting its heat massage my aching shoulders and neck. I really needed to invest in one of those fully immersive models, that way I didn’t have to sit uncomfortably for several hours. Which meant I could spend way longer than eight to twelve hours at the headset. The real problem was my damn body having actual needs. I didn’t even know Alexa monitored my sleep patterns, but it made sense. If bots were programmed to assist us that meant that they are going to remind us when our needs haven’t been met. My mind whirls with the possibilities from my earlier discovery. I might have figured out a clue on how to kill the night queen, but why was the comment there of all places? It could just be something as simple as someone didn’t want their comment deleted, so they placed it in a spot that no one would think to look. But that only raised more questions. If that is true, why would someone actually try to help other competitors if they are a competitor themselves? At this point, the entire US probably knew about the contest and with everything being pulled from online, even if someone wanted to help others they couldn’t. So why had this comment been spared? With all the search engines and bots that could have easily found it and deleted it, it was still there. Unless. Was it possible that this had been a clue planted by the Phantom creators themselves? Had Lunar Lander actually hidden this for someone to find? Then I think about how much trouble I had to go through to even enter the contest. This is absolutely something that they would do. I can’t believe it. I have found an official clue on how to beat the first boss. If that’s true, it is almost as if they wanted all of us to get to a certain point before the contest begins. The official orientation, much like the forms we are supposed to fill out, isn’t our interview. This was.
“Alexa, wake me in exactly 90 minutes or when I have completed exactly one R.E.M. cycle.” “Affirmative,” she responds, “your alarm is set and I will be monitoring your sleep patterns.” “Thank you,” I say following it up with a big yawn. I’m more tired than I realize, but the motivation to find more in-game is strong. I crawl into bed and slip beneath the covers. Thank god it’s Saturday and I don’t have to worry about class until Monday morning. “You’re welcome, tenant 10127.” My mind wanders as I feel my mind slipping away. Despite my obvious need for rest, I can’t sleep until I ask it out loud. “Alexa?” “What can I do for you?” her soft reply comes. “Can you call me something different?” There is a brief pause as she pulls up a personalization bar on the wall. “Sure. What would you like me to refer to you as?” “Please, call me Hull.” I whisper. The letters appear on the wall, “Is this correct?” I look over at them, “Yes.” “Confirmed. I will change this in all of your preferences and personalize your online experience.” “Thank you, that’s all.” I say. “Ok. Get some rest, Hull.” I only manage a nod before my eyes close and the world fades away.