5. Player One Ready?

Some people had sunk to their knees, others were in tears. The soldiers, who acted like this was just another day at the office, quickly got everyone up, barking orders at those still in a daze to snap them out of it.

“We have to move,” called out Captain Grayson. “The corpse will attract scavengers. We don’t want to be here when that happens.”

Slowly the shock wore off and we formed a vague line. With the soldiers on either side of us, we set off through the trees.

Nobody said anything as we all concentrated on working our way in and out of the densely populated trees, keeping an eye out for further attacks. Without shoes it took all your attention to avoid stepping on something painful. Ohs and ahs and shits rang out as people hopped around clutching their feet. Met by shushing from those fearful of drawing the attention of more monsters.

I was too excited to be scared. If this really was a game, would you have to collect experience points to level up?

Perhaps we’d be able to gain abilities and skills.

Was there a status screen to show us our stats and hit points?

I stopped and started slapping the air in front of me, trying to trigger some kind of user interface. I had hoped a futuristic HUD would appear, but nothing happened. I stood there trying different combinations of invisible button pushing like an epileptic body-popper. People walked past giving me odd looks until one of the soldiers nudged me to keep moving.

An hour later, we emerged into a meadow of wildflowers. I half expected to look up and see two suns or a floating city but the sky was blue and the clouds were white. A normal summer’s day, warm and mild.

A few minutes after that we came to a fence, beyond which crops grew in large fields. Wheat or something similar as far as I could tell. In the distance stood buildings, maybe a dozen or so. It took us another hour of trudging around the edge of the field to finally arrive in town, although it more resembled a small village. A sign probably said the name of the place, but it was in a weird script I couldn’t read, or even recognise.

Our escort led us to a large hut. We went around the outskirts so didn’t get a chance to see the town properly or its inhabitants, although there were banging noises coming from somewhere and weird smells I couldn’t identify.

Inside the hut there were benches. People sat down and immediately started complaining. The soldiers came round with a pail of water and a small cup we had to share. We were also given a bun that tasted sweet. It wasn’t bad. Then we were shown where the toilets were, and a mad rush followed.

I didn’t need to go so I stayed sitting on one end of a bench and looked around the room. Apart from the benches, there was a desk and what looked like a map on the wall. Some boxes stacked next to the desk seemed to be full of clothes.

People returned from the bathrooms looking unhappy. Most RPG games didn’t take their realism all the way to needing toilet breaks, but I assumed facilities would be on the basic side. A hole in the ground, even.

As I tried to look for clues as to what kind of world this was and what it required from me, someone sat next to me. I turned to find the squinty black guy with the Batman onesie. I wondered if he was even a real person. If I really had become part of an advanced virtual reality game without knowing it, these people could all be computer-controlled NPCs.

Then again, who would program a character to look like this? Clearly he was another player, and judging by his appearance, maybe a huge nerd. He might actually be better at these sorts of games than me.

“Hey,” he said, “it’s like we’re inside some kind of computer game, isn’t it. My names Maurice, by the way.”

“Colin,” I said with a nod. “So, are you good at video games?”

“Can’t stand ‘em. I’m a board game purist, myself.”

Turned out he was such a huge nerd, even in the age of nerd empowerment, he ranked as totally useless.

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