7400 (June 4, 2007).
The metropolis was bustling again. August grunted as he was rudely reminded of why he stopped visiting the city in the summer setting in the first place so many months ago. But this time, he was searching for something, so he endured the crowdedness and pushed forward, switching the background music to a more soothing ambient piece that might mitigate the flood of urban anxiety.
He arrived in front of an old-fashioned wooden building and proceeded to climb onto the top of the awning, then into the second-story window, as instructed. The shutters snapped shut behind him, and he was now in a room lit only by a lone candle in the center. It flickered a bit as he felt the weak breeze of a person entering.
gAugust, so you are here after all,h said a voice.
gYes,h he answered.
gYou do realize that the action you are about to take will be drastic, and that you may or may not be able to return here, right?h
gI know,h replied August.
gNot just Metropolis in the summertime. I mean this world, where you can talk to everyone at any time, where you will never be lost and you will never die.h
gI know,h repeated August.
gAnd have you told Hannah?h asked the voice.
gI did. Last night, I talked it over with her, and she told me that I should do what my heart tells me. And she made me promise that I would come to find her.h
gIn the dreamworld?h
gYes, in the dreamworld. She said that it wouldnft be fair if only I knew how beautiful it was, and that I should come to claim her, should it be real.h
gBut she does not wish to leave right now?h
gShe has her shop to tend after – itfs her only livelihood,h said August.
The room suddenly jolted and the walls crashed down, revealing a large meadow of green.
gIs this the closest warp point?h asked August, not able to see anything beyond the endless fields.
gYou are mistaken – we are not looking for a place here. The key to escaping is not in the real world.h
gIt isnft?h asked August, dumbfounded.
gThis is my private domain, the only place where I can tell my secrets without the threat of the administrators catching me.h
August finally looked at his guide, seeing a beautiful girl with long purple hair that shone in vaguely iridescent colors.
gWhat do you know about your dreams?h
gI only can remember fragments,h admitted August. gThey involve consumption, consumption of some sort of substance. It is almost always the same.h
gAnd have you seen yourself?h
gMy hands,h said August. gI see my hands in my dreams.h
gWhat do they look like?h pressed the purple-haired girl, pulling out a brush to untangle some of the strands.
gStrange c pale c .h
gAnd you wish to know more?h
gI want to see my face,h said August resolutely.
gYou will be frightened,h said the girl. gI was frightened.h
gBecause it was different. The girls here, they all look like me, donft they?h
gLike you?h asked August, a look of perplexion on his face.
gBeautiful. Attractive enough that you would kiss them if they wanted it.h
gThere are some plain-looking girls,h admitted August.
gPlain, yes, but hideous?h
August looked at the girl in shock. gYour face was hideous?h
gLike a monsterfs,h said the girl, nodding. gMy eyes were too far apart, my chin too large, my ears angled strangely so that I looked like an elephant.h
gIs the dreamworld really that strange?h
gIt is also dim. And quiet.h
gSolitude. There is no music but your own voice. For the first week, I had to sing to myself to shoo away the silence.h
August was frightened, but he didnft want to let it show in front of a girl.
gDo not worry, August. You will soon find your own strength.h
gWhat would I do? Are there any quests? Any businesses to run?h
gNot in the way your are accustomed. I have come across an old library in the dreamworld, and I have come to realize that it used to be a lot like this one. But now it is different – desolate, decrepit, devoid of human activity.h
gAnd yet I wish to explore it,h said August with a sigh of self-amusement.
gYou will be okay,h said the girl, emphasizing her earlier optimism. She took his hand between hers and smiled. gNow listen carefully to what you must do, because once you rip yourself away from the Dream, you will no longer be able to communicate with me until you actually find me, which may take several months.h
gCan I write it down somewhere?h
gIt will be of little use,h said the girl. gNot until much later, when you have grown accustomed to treating the real world as a toy and not your life. Until you feel in your heart that the dreamworld is your home, you must not touch the grand apparatus. Which means that your notes will be of no use to you. Remember it in your mind.h
gOkay,h said August. gI will.h
gSo when will your next Dream be?h
gIn three hours,h said August.
gWhen you see something – the substance, your hands – just topple yourself over.h
gHuh?h asked August, dumbfounded.
gKick with all your might. Flail your arms. Contort your body. Keep doing this until you see your dream-self moving.h
gSo basically control that body.h
gYes,h said the girl, nodding. gKeep on doing this until something gives, until your dream-self falls onto the floor. Refuse to eat. Do not eat the substance, no matter what.h
gThen how am I to sustain myself in the dreamworld?h
gAfter you break free, then you can take the substance for yourself. You will understand: it is a machine that feeds your dream-self, and you must not let it feed you. You must feed yourself. Once you escape from your room, you will find that there are plenty of other things that can be eaten.h
gOkay, so I will flail a lot. Then what?h
gFind the door.h
gWhat does it look like?h
gHave you seen the basement door of the town hall?h
gYes, it looks just like that one,h said the girl.
gAnd it leads to a hallway?h
gYes, a very long hallway.h
gHow will I find Hannah?h
gBefore you leave here, go find her and use this to look at the bottom of her foot.h
The girl handed August a magnifying glass of sorts with a plain wooden handle.
gHow would this help?h asked August.
gJust trust me. Look at your own foot right now.h
August did as instructed and saw a number appear below the glass.
gThat is the number inscribed on your door. Find her number, and you will find her. Now, let us leave this place. You must never speak of the escaping the Dream to anyone but Hannah.h
August nodded. gThank you.h
The candle-lit room reappeared, and the shutters flung open.
gFarewell,h said the girl.
August hopped out of the window and quickly teleported to the countryside in the winter. The snow was falling gently as August trudged over to his home.
gHannah!h he cried.
The front door opened.
gWoah, you have new hair,h said August.
gYeah, I got tired of the old black one, so I got this brown one instead. Do you like the style?h
gOf course I do!h said August. gIt looks really beautiful.h
gSo you met with the guide?h asked Hannah.
gYeah, she told me to look at the bottom of your foot with this magnifying glass.h
gOh?h said his girlfriend, the two of them stepping into the house, the door automatically closing behind them. She sat down on a sofa and rolled up the right pantleg of her jeans to slide off her leather boots. August removed the gray wool sock below to reveal her slender feet.
g58359 N 23174,h read August.
gThatfs c me?h asked Hannah.
gI think any sprite that you use probably has that number on it.h
gHere, let me switch sprites and we can see if thatfs really the case,h said Hannah, going up to her room. She returned with bobbing green hair, her body more diminutive and with pinker skin. She took the magnifying glass out of Augustfs hand and set it above the bottom of the arch of her feet.
g58359 c N c 23174. Thatfs the same as last time, isnft it?h
gSo thatfs how youfll find me in the dreamworld?h
gThatfs what the girl said. But I need to memorize that number because I canft return to this world for several days after I break free from the Dream.h
Hannah nodded. gYoufre pretty brave, you know,h she said, snapping her fingers to change out of the bathing suit she had left this sprite in when she last used it. August had his head down, whispering the number over and over again to himself until suddenly he looked up again, apparently distracted.
gOh yeah, Hannah,h said August, switching off the background music on his end.
gCan you teach me that song you used to sing all the time?h
gThat silly lullaby?h
gSure, I guess I could.h She sang one phrase and August repeated after her. She sang the second phrase and again he repeated.
gThatfs all there is to it. Just sing the first phrase over again after you finish the second one.h
The two sat there beside the fireplace and sang the lullaby over and over again until the sun set.
gYour Dream is almost due, isnft it,h said Hannah with a hint of sadness in her voice.
August ran up to her and gave her an enormous hug.
gDo you want to c do it one more time before you go?h asked the girl.
August shook his head. gI hear itfs much better in the dreamworld.h
gThen youfd better find me,h said Hannah with a smile.
gWill do, 58359 N 23174.h
And with that, he walked up the stairs and changed into his pajamas, lying down on the bed, the world slowly fading from view.
* * *
All around him was blue and white, and gray as well. He realized that he was in the Dream. He caught a glimpse of his hand, and then things became fuzzy.
gDammit!h he thought to himself. gI need to keep it together here.h
He tried to move his hand, but it wouldnft budge. He tried harder, telling his body to flail with all his might, and he saw his hand shiver just once. Over and over again, he tried frantically to move. The box of substance moved ever closer to him. He thought about it and the thought of it made him sick.
August felt a fire within himself, and at the last instant, as the spoon with a heap of substance moved towards him, he felt himself falling and there was a loud crash.
He lay motionless for a minute – or perhaps more. He moved his arm to wipe his nose, and then he opened his eyes. He was in a cubical room, the walls all steel blue, an oppressive chill battering him as he lay there, head spinning in shock. Slowly, he began to roll to his side, then standing up, freeing his legs from their entanglement. In front of him, a small set of binoculars glowed brightly, the rest of the room extremely dark.
With his hands, he scuttled back until his shoulders rested against the far wall, and then he started to hum – Hannahfs song. The purpled-hair girl had been right: the dreamworld was so much quieter. He shivered, more out of loneliness than out of genuine cold.
For an hour, he just sat there, trying to reorient himself, and biting back any lingering regrets he still had floating around. He breathed deeply and stood up, walking over near the door and flicking a small switch. A light in the center of the room flickered on, and suddenly he could see colors. There were a few paintings in the far corner, above what seemed to be a dilapitated bed covered in a substantial amount of dust. He removed the top covers to reveal a teddy bear and a set of pajamas.
Suddenly realizing his own nakedness, save for a pair of boxers, August quickly slipped on the clothes – no wonder he had been so cold. And then he sat down on the bed. It was strangely soft, so foreign in a way. Sure, he had felt the same sensations before, but where had they come from? Certainly not in this manner, where his entire rear end and thighs were sparkling with points of contact.
He poked himself gently on the arm, as he had done so many times in the real world. The real world? He and everyone around him had always called that world the greal world,h but there were some old people who spoke strangely, who called that world a virtual one. They were called the Jesters, because they called the world and all its beings merely parts of a game. It was a joke to them, and yet they were not permitted to ever explain why, so everyone dismissed htem as looneybins.
What was real, and what was not? August stood up and opened the dust-caked drawers of the wooden desk. Inside were piles of spiral-bound books, showing a good deal of wear and tear beyond anything August had ever seen – in his world, the broken things were simply brought to a repair shop and fixed for a certain fee, no matter what type of damage there was.
But apparently, no such shop existed here. He opened the top volume to its first page and saw writing scrawled all over. It was a strange script that he had seen once or twice in antique shops, but he had never taken the trouble to learn how to read it. The letters were all inconsistently drawn, as if there were not any force that regulated handwriting.
It took a few minutes, but August was soon able to decipher a bit of the writing – it was definitely in English.
June 22, 2073.
The New World 3000 just came out today. My sister and I bought it but mom wonft let us play yet. I donft know why. It seems like so much fun, but shefs always so scared. Itfs free for the online part, anyway!
I want to try opening a business, because I hear that the money in the game can be sold for real money. Maybe I can earn enough to buy a new bike? Or maybe a soccer ball for my sister. She keeps saying how her ball is too old and raggedy.
Mom says the superintendent is considering having some classes available in The New World, as a test. He says that some people are willing to be teachers in schools in the game. But what fun is a game when you have to go to school in it?
The c New World? August blinked once and then his eyes widened. Thatfs what they always called Earth in the older maps over in the libraries. It was always gThe New Worldh in large, bold capital letters at the top of the page.
A game c entertainment c escapism. Ironic, though, because within the New World, there were games as well. But because so much was already possible, they were mostly games meant to be an outlet for the darker sides of humanity – lots of violent or sex-ridden games, as an outlet to prevent such behavior in the real – well, in the New World.
But even then, crimes in the New World were never so bad. Sprites could be erased, but the government made sure no entity ever was. People would just come back with new sprites.
Was that not the case here?
August flipped through the book, reading about Joeyfs cat, who died permanently in 2075, then about how his sister began to play the game obsessively and Joey tried to stop her by deleting her account. And then fear, confusion, insanity.
August shuddered and shut the diary. It was almost certain that the game had consumed her, and God knows what she did to her brother when he tried to take it away from her.
August wanted out. But first he had to figure out where he was c and when he was. There was a window beside the bed, and he pushed the curtains aside. It appeared to be nighttime, with no way to control the time of day. A small clock sat on the bedside table: 3:53 AM. September 23, 2140. Joey would have been one of the Jestersf generation, then. His sister could still be alive.
It was early in the morning – this would probably be his best shot at evading whatever sort of enforcement there was roaming around – indeed if there were any in the first place. He cast down the journal onto his bed and opened the door, slowly but resolutely. The hinges creaked lightly, but there seemed to be no alarms whatsoever. The corridor was spacious, except the ceiling was rather low. August made his way down the hall, glancing at every other door to check the numbers. It seemed that he was in the 58359 Lfs, which made sense as he recalled his own number from when he met the purple-haired girl. Hannah would not be too far away. Not so bad, given that people next to each other in the game didnft have to be next to each other physically, although there were probably some mysterious forces that led to him dating someone in close proximity.
He reached the end of a hallway, still with no sign of other people around, except those presumably behind the doors. A sign on the wall indicated that the Mfs were accessible by going down the stairs. He followed the sign, hoping that the Mfs would then lead to the Nfs. The stairs continued for several stories until he arrived at a large door, also unlocked.
It brought him outside, and the first thing he noticed was a distinct odor. It was not like any of the odors from the New World – presumably there was only a limited selection available to be jetted through whatever mechanism delivered the scents. By this time, August had come to accept that his entire upbringing had been in a game, and everything simulated except for the real food – which must have been that mushy substance in the Dreams.
This odor was different. It was not like flowers or even like water or anything like that. It must have been one of the scents that humans had implicitly agreed on deleting by simply not including it in their new virtual world.
He crossed a long cobblestone footbridge, arriving at another building covered in creeping ivy. He stepped inside, the signs hanging from the ceiling indicating that M and N were ahead. Augustfs heart began to beat more quickly as he swung from corridor to corridor, searching, searching. But the building was much larger than anticipated, and at least five hundred stories tall, based on the summary directory. The boy punched in a search query for Hannahfs room, and the directory returned, in large green letters: 463rd Floor.
The elevator was large and centralized – August began to realize more and more that humans were not forced into this configuration. The buildings were freely accessible and efficiently designed. It was not difficult to move around. No, people had chosen to stay in their rooms. People had built these grand structures for the purpose of feeding the recluses as they played on and on, endlessly, as their entire lives shifted.
August shuddered again as he rode up and up, the elevator moving quickly and deftly, showing no signs of age. There were probably still people around who rode these. The system administators, perhaps? Or debuggers? Or maybe the ones who added new things to do in the game?
The elevator dinged three times and the doors flew open. August ran down the corridor, no longer caring that his feet made loud clanging noises as he crossed over the steel panels. Suddenly, there he was: the door was marked clearly with the placard 58359 N 23174. He gulped. Then breathed. Then gulped again.
His arm reached out, but it was shivering so violently that he could barely hold onto the doorknob. His hand slid off. Biting his lip, he tried again, and this time the door opened. He couldnft see anything, and it took a moment for him to realize that it was because he had just closed his eyes.
gNo matter what she looks like, she is my Love,h he reminded himself as he opened his eyes.
Before him sat a pale, ghastly-looking girl with very long hair, dressed only in a bra and panties, her face in goggles, her arms and legs attached to some sort of apparatus. She moved them around as if she were walking, but she stayed constantly in place.
He felt himself steadfastedly denying that this could possibly be his Hannah. How could it be her? She was always so energetic and bright and tanned; she moved fluidly and cutely, not blockily and flimsily like this.
But just as he backed towards the door, she opened her mouth and spoke, and it was undeniably her. That sweet, tender voice. She was making a sale at the store again.
How would he get her attention? He tried poking her first, but got no response. He prodded harder, and she flinched.
gWhat the heck is going on?!h she cried.
There was a pause, and then: gNo, it felt like someone just poked me really hard, but I canft figure out who it was. Is there some kind of anomaly going on?h
Desperate, August unhooked the arm and leg connectors and pried Hannah from the screen. She fell limp into his arms, and for the first time, he gazed upon her real face. It was dotted with several pimples and her lips were chapped, but otherwise, she was rather attractive, considering everything that he had heard from the purple-haired girl. Her looks were nothing like the game sprites, of course, but somehow he could not draw his eyes away from her. He cradled her warm body, feeling her skin press against his. It was a powerful, the touch of another human being.
She was the first person he had ever beheld in his life. It was a relief, almost, the culmination of a year of digging through ancient writings and pursuing Jesters, finally being able to see the truth with his own two eyes.
gHannah,h he said softly.
She wiggled slightly.
gHannah,h he said more loudly, this time kissing her on the cheek.
She opened one eye, then closed it. He tugged on her arm, holding her head to his chest. Finally, something stirred, and she sat up on her own.
gW-wha c who are you?! Where am I?h she cried, scrambling backwards away from August.
gA-August? It sounds like you. But – but c,h she managed. She was silent for a full minute. gIs this the dreamworld?h
August nodded. gBut this isnft a dream at all. This,h he said, pointing to himself, gis what a human really looks like.h He grabbed a can of the mushy substance. gAnd this is what we have been eating all these years.h
gEww, thatfs disgusting!h groaned Hannah.
gWell, if everyone is busy in the New World, I suppose therefs no one to prepare meals.h
gThe eNew Worldf?h asked Hannah quizzically.
gThe original name of the c game c that everyone has been addicted to for the past fifty or sixty years.h
gG-game?h said Hannah, her face draining even farther, even though it seemed that it could not become any more pale than it already was.
gCome with me for a moment,h said August.
He took Hannahfs hand and opened the door into the corridor, entering the facing room. There, another girl sat, playing as it were. Hannahfs hand dropped from Augustfs grip, and she simply stared – whether in awe, morbid fascination, or depression, it was hard to tell.
gHannah? Hannah?h called August.
gSo you found me like that?h she said, pointing, a bit awkwardly because she was still not fully accustomed to using her body to such extremes.
gYes,h said August simply.
gDamn,h she said. gI really should get some decent clothes on. Or off,h she mused.
gHuh?h her boyfriend said, a bit taken aback by her last comment.
gWell, you did promise me, didnft you?h She winked. And it was irresistably cute.
gWe need to be careful, though,h warned August. gI learned from an old Jester that doing it in a Dream has much greater consequences than doing it in The New World.h
gIs that so?h said Hannah, not completely believing him. gYou mean it isnft just to have a epleasurable bonding experience with a partner?f h
gNo, it is also the means of human procreation.h
gP-procreation?!h cried Hannah. gThatfs not what I bargained for! You said this world would be better! All I see is endless rows of gray and blue and weird ghost-looking people sitting alone in rooms playing games.h
gBut it is better, canft you already tell? Isnft everything so much more meaningful?h
gI donft understand. Why is it more meaningful to you? It certainly isnft that way for me. Look at this! Ifm some hideous cave-creature dressed in underwear! Therefs no stores, no good food, no nothing around.h
gBut therefs me. The real me,h said August pathetically.
Hannah laughed. gI guess so. Well, if youfre such the gentleman worth my whole world, could you at least get me some decent clothes to wear? Anything that covers my cleavage and midriff would be satisfactory.h
August reentered Hannahfs room and opened the closet door. He made a gesture.
gHere, these were probably someone elsefs, but perhaps something here might fit.h
gThanks,h she said, sifting through the hangers. She put on a t-shirt and a pleated knee-length skirt. gI guess this will do. So, where next, mister?h
gI told the purple-haired girl Ifd meet up with her. All I know is that she frequents a library around this area.h
gWill we still be able to play the game once in while?h
gI donft see why not,h said August.
gBut no hurry, right?h
August nodded. gYeah, no hurry.h
And hand-in-hand, the two exited the building, the sun peeking over the horizon as a new day on Earth began, all the world cloistered away save for the two souls basking in the warm rays of the sun for the first time. Their shadows cast as one, their lips busily savoring the unique and irreplaceable flavors of that singular first kiss between young lovers. At that moment of deep stimulation, August and Hannah both knew there was nowhere else they would rather be than out in the open, their vulnerable fragility as mortals exposed to the elements, their brief existences validated by the height of their glowing freedom.