This story is by C.M. Ferrari and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
MoonQuest-UR had been Milo’s birthday and Christmas present combined – the upside of having a December birthday. For Milo, it was well worth the lack of other presents and the months-long campaign it took to convince his parents. The UR stood for Ultra-Realism technology, a full digital integration of sensory consciousness.
Once the game launched, Milo could no longer sense he was in the recliner-sized gaming capsule at all. He could only see what was going on in the glowing moonscape under the inky blanket of space. He could actually feel the heavy blaster in his hands and a light breeze blowing the powdery sand into his face. The cool air smelled faintly of dust and diesel.
It was just like the advertisement claimed – An adventure so real, you’ll think you died and went to gaming heaven! It was like being reincarnated as a superhero. Milo ran up the steep banks of craters and leaped over massive crevasses but never tired. Plus, he could blast orcs and rack up space gold with anyone – even his best friend Blaine, who had moved to Cleveland last summer. It was ten-thousand times better than Milo’s regular reality.
But something had gone wrong. Milo had been playing MoonQuest, like he did every afternoon, only this time, when he aimed his blaster at the hulking form of an enraged lunar orc, he heard a loud error sound. Suddenly, the orc and all the avatars flickered out, followed by the moonscape around him. All that remained was some sort of basic digital scaffolding. Milo froze, expecting the world to flicker back into existence any second. When it didn’t, his finger reached instinctively for the red exit button on the armband of his avatar, except it was gone. Not just the control panel or the button – his arm too.
His virtual body, seconds ago an impressive physique outfitted in space armor, was now a flickering miasma that rippled through the chaotic background as he moved. He called to his friends, but his transmitter was silent. Seconds turned to minutes. The game should have rebooted by now. Why hadn’t it ejected him when it went down? He ought to be back in his body, inside the dark gaming capsule, with the menu screen glowing in front of him.
Now, as he found himself alone and bodiless in the expanse of the defunct game, he wondered how he would exit without a functioning avatar. For once it would have been a relief, rather than a disappointment, to return to the dark claustrophobia of the capsule. Realizing he was stuck in the game, Milo thought of Player X.
Rumor was, you didn’t have to be living to play MoonQuest. Supposedly, decades earlier, a kid with a terminal disease was given the chance to play one of the first UR prototypes of the game as a final wish. He had died unexpectedly, his consciousness still in the game, and his parents never disengaged him – so the story went. They sealed up his corpse in the gaming capsule, and his avatar lived on. They agreed not to sue, so long as the designers left him in the program. Supposedly, there was a warning about the incident hidden in the fine print of the user agreement. That was the story, at least. Known as Player X, reported sightings of him were common, especially on level eight in the Grey Mountains, but most assumed he was just an urban legend.
When Milo first heard the story, he thought getting to live in a game was a better deal than having to die when you’re only a kid. Now he wondered what it would be like to never leave, to never see the inside of his bedroom again, or his parents, or be outside in the fall air. He checked again for the red button – no luck.
He swallowed the lump rising in his throat. That’s just a story, thought Milo. You can’t really get trapped inside a game. He tried closing his eyes. To his relief, the flickering stopped. He opened his eyes again and sighed. Nothing had changed. It occurred to him that maybe, if he could just move past this level, he’d reach a part of the game that was still functional. Milo tried it and found he could float through the wreckage of the game like a ghost. He picked up speed. With any luck, he would reach another level soon.
Eventually the digital webbing grew sparse, and Milo found himself in total darkness. Though formless, he could now see his movements more distinctly, like a blanket of stars blowing in the wind. He turned and saw something that might have made his jaw drop if it still existed.
The huge glowing numbers of the game clock floated in the air against a wall of darkness. As Milo stared at it, the clock changed, causing him to ripple in surprise. It was later than he’d guessed. If the clock was correct, the game had been down for hours. Why had no one come to extract him from the capsule? Surely his parents would be upset he wasn’t in bed yet. Had they managed to forget about him tonight of all nights?
Then Milo saw a shimmering form nearby and realized he was not alone.
“Hey!” called Milo, “Can you help me?”
“Just a minute. I’m resetting the clock,” said the shimmer as it swirled around the clock numbers. The numbers flashed and began to move backward. As the numbers changed, the game faded back into existence little by little. Milo could hardly contain his excitement as the outline of his avatar body became visible.
“You fixed it!” said Milo.
“Sort of,” said the other player, “When the clock resets, your avatar should re-materialize and eventually the game should restart.”
Milo watched as his surroundings changed. They were standing on a mountainside looking off a cliff at a majestic view. “I’m Milo. What level is this? I’ve never been past six.”
“Eight,” said the other player. “I’m, uh… Joey,” he said, as if it took him a moment to remember his own name. As the two of them re-materialized, Milo noticed that Joey’s avatar wore a slightly different design of space armor than his own, something he’d never seen before.
“What happened?” asked Milo, “How’d you fix it?”
“Oh, I’ve been trying to hack out of this game for years. Finally realized it can’t be reset in gaming mode. I had to deactivate the graphics, sensory connection – everything.”
“Wait – is that why I’ve been stuck here all this time?” asked Milo, “Because you were messing with the game and broke it?”
Joey shrugged, cradling his blaster. “You haven’t even been here that long.”
Milo prickled at the sneer in Joey’s voice. This hacker kid didn’t seem to care about anyone but himself.
Suddenly, Milo was distracted by a new sensation. He could feel his body again. He did a little turn and stomped his feet. He lifted his blaster. He wanted to jump for joy, but before he had the chance, his legs were knocked out from under him. He crashed to the ground, falling helmet-first, dangerously close to the cliff’s edge. His blaster skidded away. The next thing he knew, Joey was standing over him with his blaster in his face.
“Hey! What was that for?!” yelled Milo.
“Sorry,” said Joey, “We’re not done yet. I still need your armband to get out. Hand it over.”
“No way,” said Milo, “Blast away. I’ll just reset.”
“I could, but I’m warning you – you won’t reset,” said Joey, “Not anymore. If you want to get out of this game alive, you’ll have to do what I say.”
What? Not reset? What was the alternative? What exactly had this kid done to the game?!
Joey snapped the control panel off his own forearm with his free hand and threw it down next to Milo. This kid is a psycho, Milo decided, but if he wants to swap armbands, best to just give it to him and get out already.
He snapped off his armband and flung it at Joey. “Here. Now get me out of here!”
He hoped Joey would get kicked out of the game for good after this, or be arrested for being a hacker.
Joey picked up Milo’s armband and snapped it in place with a smile. He looked right at Milo as he traced the design of his strange chestplate with his finger. Milo gasped. The design was in the shape of an X.
“Oh, I forgot to mention – the exit button on that one is broken,” said Joey.
Before Milo could even reply, Player X pressed the red button and disappeared.
Someone was knocking on the gaming capsule. “Milo! Are you still in there? That’s it – no more MoonQuest for the rest of the week!”
The game capsule cracked open, and Milo’s face peeked out, eyes wide. “That’s okay. I think I’ve had enough for a while.”