Deep down inside, Dave shuddered. Skazz was about to speak.

It wasn’t that Skazz was a bad person. In fact, he was one of the best people Dave knew. The problem was that Skazz entered every conversation like he was trying to win an Academy Award. He was a lanky 17-year-old with ridiculous dark blue hair – the academy would be decidedly unimpressed.

“The problem with games these days …” Skazz began, striking a theatrical pose.
Dave smiled, and wondered just how many of his friends were in Aldamar right now, wishing he could join them. “What is the problem with games these days, Skazz?”

“The problem with games these days is that they’re too social,” Skazz said, and sat down.
“Too social?” Dave scratched his head and stared down at his cafeteria french fries.
“Yes,” Skazz said, tenting his hands. “Far too social.”
Dave smiled. “Why’s that a bad thing?”

For a moment, Skazz looked like he was about to explode – or at least like he wanted to look like he was about to explode. “When was the last time you were able to be alone in a game?” Skazz demanded. “When was the last time you were able to just go off and kill some monsters by yourself?”

Dave shrugged. “It’s all fun – what does it matter in the end?”
Skazz glared at him. “It isn’t pure fun. It’s watered down, forcing people to play together, while trying to teach you at the same time.”

Dave shook his head. “It’s not that simple. It never is. There’s something for everybody to play. If you want adventure, you go to Aldamar. If you want some sort of perverted sex, you go to The Temple of Pagan Sacrifice. If you want to shoot people up, you go to The Wars. They’re all different.”

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Skazz leaned forward. “But what if you don’t want to play?”

The idea seemed foreign to Dave. “Hey, man, everybody wants to play. Online does everything better than real life.” Dave swallowed. “We should be getting to class. We’re supposed to be talking about the online Hamlet today.” As he stood and pulled on his backpack, he could feel Skazz’s gaze burning into the back of his skull.

***

Dave frowned at Steve and sheathed his longsword. The field before them was a brilliant emerald green – and also completely empty.

Steve stroked his bow. “Then the old crone was lying.”
Heather, her long robes swaying as her blonde hair tossed in the wind, tapped Dave on the shoulder. “Is there anything here?”
Dave shrugged. “Maybe there’s a cave somewhere in the valley.”
Heather sighed. “I gave up a night of sex in the harem sim for this?”

“Hey,” Dave said, “We need you, hot stuff. What happens if we get attacked by orcs, or even worse, demons? Where will we be without our sorceress?”

Heather grinned. “Okay, but just for you Dave. And you owe me big time for this – you’re going to have to do me yourself in the harem tomorrow night.”

Dave struck a theatrical pose, his hand on his forehead. “Oh very well, gentle maiden. I guess I can do that, since I haven’t gotten laid online for a while.”
“Once you two lovebirds have finished, shall we see what’s in this field?” Steve said. “Seriously, one day you two need to get a room, for real.”
Dave laughed. “I think-“

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The screen went blank.

He sat back in his chair, stunned. That had never happened before! He checked the power.

He began to sweat. It was a virus. It had to be. Nothing else could make his computer turn itself off like that. He reached over to turn it on, and then paused. If it was a virus, then he might only be making matters worse.

The phone rang. Dave picked it up. “Hello?”
“Dave, what’s wrong?” Heather said on the other end. “You just dropped right out of the game.”
“The computer turned itself off,” Dave said.
“So, turn it back on! We need you in here! I need you in here!”
“It might be a virus,” Dave said.

The voice on the other end went quiet. “Oh. You better not touch it, then. You going to call tech support?”
“No,” Dave said. “I’ll get Skazz to have a look at it tomorrow. The last thing I want is some government techie looking at what’s on my computer.”
“Well, you get it fixed soon,” Heather said. “Besides, you still owe me. I want to see you in that harem tomorrow night.”
“Oh, I’ll see you,” Dave said, putting a lecherous note in his voice. “As soon as Skazz fixes my computer, I’ll see all of you …”

***

“I can’t do it tonight, man,” Skazz said.
“But Heather’s expecting me,” Dave said. “And I’ve been itching to get onto Aldamar since the crash.”
Skazz sighed. “Has it ever occurred to you to take Heather out on a real date? Maybe even have real sex with her?”

Dave stared. “Have you got any idea of how risky that could be? There could be a pregnancy, a disease …”
“There’s this thing called a condom, Dave,” Skazz said with a flourish. “You’ll have more fun using it than a keyboard.”
“I don’t want some stranger looking through my files,” Dave said. “Please, fix my computer for me.”
“I can get to it this weekend,” Skazz said.

Dave patted Skazz on the back. “Thanks man. I owe you one.” Then he flipped open his phone to give Heather a call.

***

The first date with Heather felt weird, almost unnatural. Kissing her in reality was awkward, even though Dave had done it, and more, hundreds of times in the harem sim. By the second date, when he was brave enough to touch her and feel her press herself into him, it became easier. By the time they made love on the third date, and he lay beside her in her room, gazing at her body, Dave could not imagine being with her any other way.

They kissed as she walked him home, talking about plans for the future, all in the real world. As they rounded the corner, they were interrupted by voices coming from his front door. Parked across from his house was a official black government car. His parents were talking to four agents in dark suits.

Dave pulled Heather behind one of the bushes and stared at the agents. Straining just a bit, he could hear what they were saying.
“It has now been four days, and your son hasn’t logged on,” the first agent said.
“His computer was broken, Agent Gedry,” his mom said. “His friend Skazz was going to fix it this weekend.”
“A friend?” Gedry said. “You are aware that such repairs are to be made by a government-licensed technician. We all know what virus problems there were when repairs were unregulated.”
“He’s on a date right now,” Dave’s father said. “When he gets home we can talk to him.”
“I think more positive intervention is necessary,” Gedry said.

“We’d better talk to Skazz,” Dave whispered. “He’ll know what to do.”

Dave stood up and then cursed under his breath. If he had learned anything in Aldamar, it was how to be stealthy – how could he have forgotten it now, the first time it really mattered? One of the agents spotted him and cried out, pulling out a gun.

Gedry stared him down. Dave could swear he saw the man smile. “We have a runner!”

The agent fired a projectile that zipped past Dave’s head. He grabbed Heather’s hand and broke into a sprint. with three of the agents close behind. He helped Heather over a fence and then climbed it himself, moving from yard to yard, getting closer and closer to Skazz’s house.

Heather stopped and looked behind, trying to catch her breath. “They’re not following us.”
Dave pulled up, panting as well. “Do you think we lost them?”
“If it’s anything like the games,” Heather panted, “they’ll be waiting to ambush us.”
“We’ve got to get to Skazz’s,” Dave said. “We’ll just have to take the risk. If anybody will know what to do, he will.”

They made their way through another couple of yards, Skazz’s house just over a fence. They peered through the fence, looking for the government car. Nothing.

“We’d better use the window,” Dave said.
Climbing the fence, they crept over to the basement window where Skazz had his “laboratory.” Dave could see Skazz working away at something on his computer, but all that was on the screen was text.

Dave knocked at the window, and Skazz glanced up at him, startled. Stepping up and opening the window, Skazz raised an eyebrow.

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“We need help,” Dave said. “G-men are after us for not playing online.”
“Is this some kind of joke for not fixing your computer?”
Heather shook her head. “They’re chasing us, and they have guns!”

Skazz sighed and removed the screen from his window. “You know, some people use the door.”

Dave and Heather climbed in, Heather yelping as she banged her elbow on the ledge. Dave looked at the screen of Skazz’s computer.

It was filled with source code.

***

“I had always wondered what would happen if somebody was offline long enough,” Skazz said after Dave finished filling him in, nervously tapping his fingers on his desk. “Now I know.”
“But you’re almost never online,” Dave said.

Skazz grinned. “I’m not. My computer, however, is. I programmed a bot to play for me after I discovered the signal.”
“What signal?” Heather asked.

“The subliminal message that is put on your screen every time you play,” Skazz said. “It’s very subtle, and I’ve never been quite sure what it’s for, or even who put it there. But it can’t be good.” He pointed to the source code on the screen. “That’s my answer to it. A virus that will block the signal. But I’ve got to get you out of here – if they’re chasing you, it’s only a matter of time before they get here and stop me.”

“Very good!” Dave heard Agent Gedry say from behind him. Dave turned around just in time to see the agent point his gun at Skazz and pull the trigger. Skazz fell back, a stun dart slamming into his chest. He gasped, unable to move. Gedry trained the gun on Heather. Dave swallowed.

“But it’s two signals, actually,” Gedry said. “The first makes you happy, content, and a good citizen that will do as he’s told. The second makes you want to keep playing. We found that combining both messages into one signal diluted them.”

“You can’t do this to people,” Dave said, glancing around for something that he could use to fight back. Heather stepped forward and Gedry shot her. She fell back into his arms, gasping as the stun dart took effect.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Gedry said. “I have the equipment to plug all of you back online right here.”
“This can’t be legal!”

Gedry laughed. “It’s perfectly legal. The entire nation had a vote on it twenty years ago! There was a time when people were worried about videogames making children more violent. It wasn’t long before somebody realized that if children could be made more aggressive by the games they play, then they could be made more passive too. And it worked. There are no more gang wars, almost no violent crime – everybody is safe and happy.”

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Gedry snapped his fingers. An agent came down with a bag, and pulled out three headsets, the expensive type that let you do everything with eye movement. “You’ve had your fun, but it’s time to become a good citizen again. The easy way or the hard way.”

Dave looked at Heather in his arms, and then Skazz. He glared at Gedry.
“Go to hell.”
Gedry shrugged. “Your choice.”

The agent pulled the trigger. As Dave gasped, paralyzed, the headset came down over his eyes, and the brilliant green fields of Aldamar stretched out before him.

***

It had been two weeks since the intervention. Dave would spend some time killing monsters every night, and then he and Heather would retire to their own virtual apartment and explore each other. They’d even started talking about moving in together after high school so that they could play in the same room while they raised a family.

Dave pulled out his longsword and stared at the fortress before him. It would be a tough one, but they could clear it out. Especially now that Skazz had joined them as a cleric.

Dave glanced around and grinned. Heather was at his side, Skazz was there and so was Steve. It was wonderful. He stood with his friends in the digital green fields of Aldamar, and all was right with the world.

Robert B. Marks is an author, editor, publisher, and civilian MA student in the war studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada. You can view a full list of his published works here.

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