Harold the Magnificent

by Troy Masters

 

A few swift blows and blood covered the screen. The shrieks came a moment later. Greg watched until the blue set of units finished destroying the buildings, at which point he turned to the designer sitting nearby.

“What the hell was that?” he asked. The impending deadline for the project did not allow for any pleasantries.

“Well,” one of the designers started, “clearly we have some balance issues to fix.”

“Quite an understatement, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, you guys should lower some of the stats on the ogres.” Tim Aralis’s comment made Greg shake his head. This was the man he was training for his replacement? Greg had no idea why the board had recommended Tim for the apprenticeship; the young man seemed to be the only member of the human race that lacked gaming knowledge.

The two designers were equally appalled. They avoided any direct confrontation of the ignorance, but managed to reveal a couple of arrogant smirks.

“We can’t just lower the stats on the ogres,” one started to explain.

“What if we decrease their speed a little? We allow the archers more time to fire on the ogres before they reach them.”

“That ain’t gonna work,” the other designer said.

“What do you mean it won’t work?”

“I mean that it’s like giving heroin to a crack addict to cure his habit,” the man responded coldly. After working on the project almost non-stop for the last three days, he was losing patience. Greg could understand his unwillingness to answer ignorant questions, but he could not completely undermine Tim in front of them. He would talk to Aralis in private.

But Tim just stared blankly at the designers. Finally, one designer decided to translate.

“He means that changing the speed might solve this problem, but it would far worsen the other problems. For example, the ogres are already too slow to wage any sort of battle against centurions. Centurions can go around and kill everything before the ogres even get a chance to strike.”

“So we just make the ogres weaker!” Aralis was making a complete fool of himself, and Greg decided he had better save the man before allowing the designers to answer another question.

“I think what Aralis is getting at is… what will it take to balance the various clans to make their array of characters even?”

“Well, if we increased the speed of the ogres just a little, everything else would be balanced. Unfortunately, this leaves us with an even greater difference between the elves and the ogres.”

“So you’re saying we’ve got five sides of a Rubik’s Cube.”

“Basically.”

“This is just great,” said Greg. “We’re supposed to have this at VR by now, and we have to tear apart all the balancing! Alright, how much can we salvage?”

“Well, the base units are pretty standard and remain unaffected. However, with the larger ones…”

A young gamemaster slammed open the door, interrupting the lead designer.

“Mr. Conwell, we have a real problem.”

“Not right now,” answered Greg.

“I’m afraid it’s an emergency, sir.”

Greg turned from the computer screen to the young man. He could see the sweat dripping down the forehead of the gamemaster.

“The world better be ending,” Greg admonished.

The young man took a deep breath. “It is.”

“I’m getting too old for this,” mumbled Greg as he headed for the door. The world of Hero Kingdom 7 was supposed to hold out for at least another year before becoming obsolete. Hero Kingdom 8 was hoped to be out within the week, but from Greg’s discussion, it appeared as though it would be another six months.

He was in such a hurry to leave the room that he failed to bring along Tim, who continued to ask the designers some more imprudent questions.

“Is it hackers?” Greg asked.

“No, I wish it were only that,” the gamemaster explained. “We’ve got a simple hardcore gamer on our hands. A solid player—knows all the rules, executes perfectly.”

“How far has the HG gotten?”

“He’s approaching the demon portal.”

“That’s impossible,” Greg managed to say through grinding teeth. He was glad that they had replaced the reflective windows along the wall. He would have hated to see himself at that moment, as a grumpy old man, listening to the young gamemaster blabber on about the HG’s incredible combination of strategy and skill.

Greg suddenly despised the nervous young man walking beside him. He loathed the effortlessness that the man exerted in crossing the office, when it took Greg such pain to move at the same pace. But most of all, Greg hated the gamemaster’s praise of the hardcore gamer. This designer—though he worked for the company—was just like every other member of the indolent public.

The public. They filed into work every morning, put in their two hours, and rushed home to plug in. All day they remained in that VR world, playing whatever current version of Hero Kingdom was out, often forgetting to sleep.

Oh, how Greg hated them. He was going to hear plenty from the board for this blunder. Hero Kingdom 7 had only been out for two years, and already someone was on the verge of becoming Grand Champion.

“You should’ve made it harder,” they would say. Never mind the fact that the worst twenty-five percent of the public already complained it was too difficult. Greg would spend hours explaining that if it were any harder that twenty-five percent would rebel. This lower class would not stand for being frustrated all the time. Greg did not want to be responsible for a whole revolution.

The board would research more into the problem and then question him once again. “Hero Kingdom 7 was far too similar to Hero Kingdom 6. The gamer was already too good at the game because of his skills in 6. You never added a learning curve.”

Of course it was similar. It was a sequel! If Greg changed any important aspects of the game, the public would have hated it. That would be worse than a revolution—it would be complete anarchy! What would people do with sixteen hours of idleness every day?

But Greg would get fed up with their questions and leave, as he had done so many times before. Each time, he harbored the secret hope that they would fire him. He was tired of his job. He was the only one in the entire human race that worked full-time. Not the new definition of “full-time”, which had popped up in the last twenty years, but the old working hours of the early twenty-first century.

Greg and the young man arrived at the giant, twelve inch mainframe. Collins, the head gamemaster, was sitting with his arms crossed and a VR mask over his face.

Stan Collins was in charge of overall maintenance of HK7. While this sometimes included technical stuff like fixing bugs and combating hackers, it more than often dealt with maintaining gameplay fun for everyone.

Greg got a mask for himself and plugged into the system. A fully interactive world of 3D graphics surrounded him, as the introduction to Hero Kingdom 7 sent him flying across a seemingly never-ending world of dragons, knights, and magical wizards.

He stamped his foot quickly upon the ground, and was immediately transported into a room with four doors. The three on the left looked exactly the same, except for the signs. They were labeled “New Character”, “Load Character”, and “Spectator Mode”. The spectator mode door was unique to the company mainframe. On the far right, there was a fiery red door with thorns growing all around it. It looked as though it opened into Hell itself. This door was labeled “Quit”.

Greg walked in through the spectator door. He found himself amongst a collection of clouds, falling fast through the air. The VR mask and body suit provided mini gusts of wind that made sure he felt the same sensations that he was seeing. Pretty soon, he had made it through the layer of clouds, and the figures on the ground were growing ever larger.

He was terrified of heights, and was not particularly fond of the designers that had added this little animation in “for fun.” But when he was within ten meters of smacking into the realistic landscape, a fluffy cloud appeared out of nowhere and caught him in place. Greg released his breath. No matter how many times he went through the drill, he still couldn’t manage to exhale during the falling animation.

“He named his character Harold the Magnificent,” said Collins from a nearby cloud. They both stared down at the soldier below. He was battling a sort of mutated wolf, jumping out of the way each time the wolf tried to strike. In one hand he carried a giant hammer, and in the other hand was a flaming sword. His body was engulfed in some sort of neon green armor.

“Is that the Radiant Armor?” Greg asked in disbelief.

“I’m afraid so.”

“I thought I told them not to put it in the game!”

“Yeah, I talked to Burns. He said some of his people put it in there just for the heck of it. He says they put it in a place where nobody could find it, guarded by a monster that nobody could defeat.”

“Well, they were wrong! For heaven’s sake, is that guy unbeatable now or what?”

“Not entirely. It’s got a lot of extra buffs, sure, but it’s not invulnerable.”

Harold the Magnificent finished off the wolf with one strike, spouting pixels of blood all the way up near the clouds where Collins and Greg were sitting. Suddenly, a giant of a monster came bounding into view, traveling the remaining ten yards in only a few steps.

“That’s Mackie,” pointed out Collins. “He chose a war troll. Best thing we could figure for one-on-one encounters.”

Mackie’s position as senior gamemaster was desired by almost everyone in the company. He, along with the few other elite GMs, had the privilege of trying to stop the best players in the game from getting too good. They would throw obstacle after obstacle against the top players, and, if need be, would engage in direct confrontation.

The players themselves did not mind the intervention, so long as they knew there was no cheating to beat them. The people that did encounter GMs felt flattered, while anyone that beat a GM was worshiped as a god by the rest of the world.

Mackie’s character completely dwarfed the smaller Harold. The only thing more intimidating than the hideous green skin covering the troll’s body was the jagged and bloodied axe that it carried. The troll started twirling the giant axe with his fingers.

“What is he doing?” Greg asked impatiently.

“He’s showboating, knows you’re watching him. Mackie’s a cocky bastard, you know, but he gets the job done. A death at the level of Harold will send him back quite a few months.”

The troll grinned ferociously, mimicking the movement of Mackie’s face.

“He had better win this,” said Greg. “For all our sakes.”

Harold the Magnificent was the first to make his move. His double weapon attack was impressive and difficult to parry, but the war troll managed to fend it off. Then, as if to demonstrate his superiority, the troll began doing the worst impression of an Irish jig that Greg had ever seen. He turned and saw Collins crack a smile, but he himself remained horrified.

The troll ceased his jig and refocused upon Harold. With all the power of his giant hind legs, he leapt towards the soldier, growling furiously. Harold was not intimidated. He mumbled a few words and threw dust into the air, freezing the troll for a second in his motion.

Harold then took the time to jam his fiery sword into the ground, sending a wave of rock directly in a path for the troll. Greg and Collins watched helplessly as the troll’s life drained to three-fourths of its total hit points.

“That powerful attack is damaging, but not devastating to a character as strong as Mackie’s,” Collins explained. But Greg could sense that even as he spoke, he was losing some confidence in the giant war troll.

Harold wasted no time while the troll was trapped underneath the rock. He managed a quick swipe with the giant hammer, taking away another quarter of the troll’s health. The troll’s face grimaced and he threw the rock off haphazardly, revealing Mackie’s anger.

“I didn’t know we were going to use lame spells,” growled the troll. “Time to even the score.”

The troll began to utter something in a low voice.

“He’s using a confusion spell,” said Collins. “He can see that Harold is strong and wants to use that strength against him.”

A gust of blue smoke flew towards Harold, showing the graphical representation of the spell. But Harold had been mumbling something as well, and the smoke quickly turned around and struck the troll.

“Geeez, he just used a reversal spell!” Greg shouted.

The troll started to wander aimlessly about.

“Mackie’s smart, he won’t try to attack while he’s confused.”

“Doesn’t look like he’s going to have a choice, look!”

Harold had used a taunting move, which managed to bring the troll’s attack against Mackie’s will. The giant troll swung his giant axe carelessly, horribly missing the enemy and striking himself. The remainder of the troll’s life disappeared. It fell to the ground, disappearing from the game soon after.

Harold the Magnificent looked towards Collins and Greg, giving them a giant thumbs up.

“I thought he couldn’t see us,” said Greg.

“He can’t, but he knows we’re here. We’ve been sending all kinds of obstacles and GMs at him. None as good as Mackie though.”

“Mackie’s the best you got?”

“I’m afraid so,”

“Did you try the younger GMs? Maybe we got a prodigy in our midst.”

“Nah, I already checked. None of them can hold a candle to Mackie. If he can’t beat Harold, none of my guys can.”

“So you’re telling me this guy has a legitimate chance to beat the game?”

“I hate to say it—but I don’t see anything that will stop him.”

Nobody ever beat the game. It was a scenario they could not let happen. Once somebody had defeated it, what would the people do? The game was the only source of entertainment; it was not as if they could just spend their time elsewhere. The company had to pump out the next version before anyone could beat the current one.

Early on, the company had debated whether they should even make an end to the game. It was risky after all. But they found that people would not stay addicted for long unless there was an end, a goal, something that they had to strive for. The public had to feel as though it was moving forward.

“What do I pay you for?” asked Greg in bitterness. “You can’t stop a freaking HG?”

“Come on Greg, that’s not fair. Ever since the labor unions decreased the full-time hours per week from ten to eight, people have an extra day to play the game. How can we compete with that?”

“I don’t care. It’s your job to stop them.” But Greg did care, and he could understand Collins’ position. The entire race played the game relentlessly.

“I think the only way to prevent this catastrophe is to use a cheat. It will be real…”

“No cheats!”

“I can understand your hesitation Greg, but I’m not sure we have any other choice.”

“Stan, you weren’t around when we used the last cheat. It was back in the second Hero Kingdom, when I was only a middle-aged designer myself.”

“I read about the devastation, but in the midst of our current…”

“They were worse than animals Stan. When they found out we had used a cheat, that their world was a lie, they reacted as bloodthirsty piranhas. Riots around the world! If the public had known the location of this company building, I guarantee you I would not be alive.”

“I suppose it’s your call, Greg,” mumbled Collins. A long pause ensued. Finally, Collins began to speak once more.

“You think we can avert this disaster?”

“I sure hope so,” Greg answered as he watched Harold the Magnificent dance shamelessly. “Let’s get out of here and back to the real world.”

Greg removed his mask after stepping through the red door. Collins followed a second later, looking significantly concerned.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“We need to buy some time. How strong is Harold’s base?”

“He’s made some solid allies to protect his stronghold. It would take a long time to break through their defenses.”

“We’ll have to try. Get all of the GMs that aren’t currently working on stopping Harold, and send them to attack his base. Maybe we can get Harold to return home.”

“And what should we do with Mackie’s group?”

“Keep putting up obstacles for Harold. We might not be able to stop him, but we can sure make it tough on him. What day is today?”

“Thursday.”

“Damn, the weekend starts tomorrow. We have to wait four more days before he’ll have to leave the VR.”

“What about sleeping?”

Greg shook his head. “Guys like this won’t sleep. I’m afraid we won’t either until we can get out of this.”

“What do you want me to do?” Tim asked from the doorway.

Greg had failed to notice him in the room. Tim was technically the leader on the upcoming Hero Kingdom 8, but his frequent incompetence had forced Greg to take over a significant amount of the responsibility.

“Tell the designers to get HK8 to VR.”

“What about all the balance issues?”

“We’ll have to deal with it in the patches. Try to hide them the best you can for now.”

“Right.”

The giant screen in the room was now exclusively focused on tracking Harold the Magnificent’s movements. A small crowd of designers and gamemasters started to gather around the monitor.

It took uncomfortably long for any members of the crowd to notice Greg glaring at them. With annoying carelessness, these members subtly notified the others, and pretty soon everyone was back to work. But Greg was not simply upset at their lax work ethic—it was the fact that they idolized Harold just as much as the rest of the public.

Greg had always remained optimistic that at least everyone in the company, those that designed and maintained the game, would remember it was only a game. That they would somehow know what was real. Yet all around there was proof of just the opposite. Only their slight sense of professionalism hindered their praise from rising to the surface.

Why could nobody else see that Harold was a fool? He could be responsible for destroying the entire human race; a feat which he would regard as the greatest victory. Perhaps after reality struck he would finally see his error. Greg could take his comfort in that thought.

But his own workers had no excuses for their admiration. They knew the consequences.

“I’m surprised he chose human,” said Collins.

“It is a little unusual.”

“Yeah, humans are very versatile; they’re usually picked by the worst players who just want to make an immediate impact on a team. They’re mainly good for leeching off of the better players. But Harold here is the heart of his team.”

Even Collins alluded to a slight admiration towards Harold.

“I wish he knew how big of an idiot he is. How by beating the game he could destroy us all.”

“Yeah,” Collins chuckled. “That sure would make our job a lot easier.”

Greg shook his head. “I have to wonder if it would even matter to him. They live sixteen to twenty hours in that machine everyday; to them it’s more real than anything in the outside world. For them, the period outside of the game is just like a bad dream.”

Collins nodded along with Greg but no longer seemed to be listening. Either that or he didn’t totally agree.

Another young gamemaster entered the room.

“We’ve started our assault on Harold’s base, if you want to watch.”

“Turn half of the monitor to follow the assault on the stronghold,” Collins ordered to one of the nearby technicians. Instantly, a collection of menacing beasts appeared up on the screen, ready to attack the gates of a city.

“Tell them to go,” said Greg. The gamemaster punched a couple keys and the creatures began moving in formation towards the walls of the base.

“Where are they?” asked one GM. The collection of character continued moving hesitantly into the mysterious stronghold. There was no sign of any protectors within the base.

“They are sure to have lightning towers to protect their base,” said one of the attacking monsters.

“We’ll take them out before they get back,” another one answered, and the entire horde pressed in through the door. Immediately, a collection of towers started firing at each of the heroes, but the defenses did little damage against such powerful characters.

“Take them out,” one ogre ordered. However, before the heroes could begin smashing the base’s defenses, a collection of new heroes appeared around the ogre. The sound of blades and arrows emanated from the screen as they focused upon killing the ogre, sending it to the ground and out of the game before any of the gamemasters could react.

“They were just camouflaged!” shouted Collins.

“Your GMs walked right into a trap,” said Greg. They watched helplessly as the remaining GMs were killed off amongst the deadly combination of towers and defending heroes. A pathetic amalgamation of men emerged from the gamemaster room within two minutes, their heads low to the ground.

“What do we pay you guys for?” screamed Greg. “The players know more about the game than our own GMs!”

“To be fair, this was the first game that fully implemented camouflaging. I suppose we forgot about that aspect.”

Greg scoffed. He was too angry to even bother scolding the thoughtless GM. He had not expected them to win, but he had at least expected them to force Harold’s return to the base. Instead they were mowed down in a matter of minutes by a fairly simple maneuver. With such incompetence throughout the company, its fall was inevitable. He left the room without a word.

At the moment, there was a certain need to find Tim that had never been present before. Greg discovered him a few offices down the hall.

“Tim, how long before we are set to go to VR?”

“About a week.”

“A week! I need it done by the end of the day!”

“That’s what I tried to tell the designers. But they insisted that they just iron out some of the balance issues…”

“I told you not to worry about the damn balance issues!” Greg burst out of the office and headed for the designers. Tim had no sense of priority, and did not command the least bit of authority.

“I want this going to VR now!” shouted Greg, startling the three designers present in the room.

“We told Tim that we would have it done once…”

“I know what you told him and that isn’t good enough. Do you think I’m completely ignorant of the problems with the new design?”

Greg was shocked by their stares. They sat with their lips pursed, as if weathering the temper tantrum of a small child. He was just a senile old fool in their minds. Since when had he lost all of their trust? “If we don’t get this out today, we will have far worse things to worry about,” he said meekly. The door closed uncomfortably slow behind him.

As he stumbled along the bleak walls of the office, the vague hint of unfamiliarity evolved into a full sense of alienation. It was not the vast amount of remodeling over the years that made him uneasy. Rather, it was the subtle changes in people’s expressions when they saw him; a small but visible doubt in his ability, lying just behind their empty smiles.

Collins was at his usual spot, monitoring the screen in hopes that one of his GMs would be able to stop Harold.

“I want to go in,” he said to Collins.

“Sure, we can watch up close again if you want.”

“No, I mean I want to battle this ‘Harold the Magnificent’.”

Collins began to chuckle, but held it back when he noticed Greg’s solemn expression. “You can’t be serious. When was the last time you even played in a VR machine?”

“I’ve done some testing.”

Collins frowned. “Very early on, and that’s completely different.”

“So, I know all the designs, I know how the game works.”

“Generally, that’s true. But let’s face it, you haven’t focused on any of the specifics of the game for some time.”

“We’re running out of options here. Just give me a shot at it, we got nothing to lose.”

Collins sighed. “Look, I really would like to give you a try. It really doesn’t matter. But the problem is that it will matter to the rest of the people here, who might see your failure to defeat Harold within the game as a reflection of your ability to run this company.”

Blood rushed to Greg’s face, yet he could see that Collins was sincere in his concern. “Who are they going to replace me with? Tim’s an idiot, everyone knows that!”

Collins brushed his hand across the back of his neck. “I don’t know if Tim is quite as dumb as you think. Some of the people really like his style. I’d sure like to see you run the company over Tim, but with others I don’t know.

“But if you still want me to hook you up, I’ll do it. In the end, I take my orders from you.” He smiled. Greg nodded and reached for the mask.

He was relieved to find himself within the body of a large rock giant. For one, it was more suited towards his tendency for slow, precise moves. In addition, it provided him with the ability to look down upon the smaller Harold, and eliminate early any chance of intimidation.

However, when the magnificent Harold came bounding into view, he could not help the sensation of inadequacy from sneaking up once again. There was something inherently different about battling Harold face-to-face. Somehow, this seemed scarier, even more real, than facing him outside of the machine.

“I can do this,” he told himself.

His strategy was simple—he would wait for Harold to approach and only swing when the character came within range. The rock giant’s strong resistance to magic and ranged attacks would turn the battle into a melee bout.

Harold entered into the giant’s attack zone. Greg swung his fist towards the smaller hero, expecting to feel the full impact. None came. Instead, Greg was thrown off balance, giving Harold just enough time to jump up from the crouch and strike the rock giant on the side.

Though the giant lost very little life in this first attack—primarily due to the tough rock armor—Greg immediately started to panic. He felt the slow, bumbling motions of the giant in trying to recover, and seemed to overcompensate in every movement.

Greg’s assaults grew more and more awkward. Each one was easily avoided and countered by Harold, who managed to strike back with a barrage of powerful—and more effective—attacks.

In less than a minute, Harold’s steady swipes and slashes managed to drain all remaining life from the rock giant. Greg felt a twinge of pain as his character slumped to the ground, and he was thrown back to a fiery altar.

“Get me out of here,” said Greg, not wishing to wait for his character to resurrect.

Outside, Collins’ expression was a mix of sorrow and inevitability. He seemed to be holding back a strong “I told you so”. Greg just shook his head in humiliation. On the screen behind him, he could see Harold slumped over and laughing heartily.

“Send me back,” he ordered.

“Greg, come on, you just witnessed…”

“Not to battle this time,” Greg interrupted. “I just want to talk with him.”

“Alright, but I don’t know how much good it will do. You haven’t been watching these people over the last few years. Their obsession with the game goes beyond all logic.”

“I have to try, before…” Greg stopped. Before the world ends. He was thrown back in front of Harold, this time in a smaller character and wearing a sort of diplomat outfit. Harold looked up from the grass where he had been laughing.

“What do you want?” the hero asked.

“Harold, I’ve got to talk to you,” answered Greg.

“You have two minutes.”

“Harold, I’m the leader of this project, the one who created this game. I’ve worked on all of the Hero Kingdoms.

“Yeah, so?” Harold was unimpressed. Greg had expected him to ask for a kind of sign to prove such a statement. Instead, there was no doubt that in Harold’s egotistic mind that he was being visited by the creator of the game. And still he did not care.

“You’ve done a good job so far,” said Greg, trying to hide his irritation behind flattery. “You have done all but beat the game. There is almost nothing left. You’ve beaten all of the obstacles and gamemasters that we have sent at you.”

Harold nodded along, looking very bored.

“You even beat me. I was the last one to come as a rock giant.”

A giant smirk appeared on Harold’s face. Instantly, Greg realized he should not have made this last statement. “That was you?! The creator of the game?” Harold started laughing uncontrollably. “I’ve seen worse heroes back at Narperring!”

Greg glared at Harold and waited for the character to finish laughing.

“You’ve won. You have defeated everything in the game. We need you to quit now.”

A sense of hatred appeared in the eyes of Harold, reflected impossibly well in the character itself. “Get out of my way!”

“Harold, don’t do this. If you win, if you beat this game, you will bring an end to the goals of all these people. You will doom the world.”

“I will not! I will be a hero in their eyes, the first one to ever beat a Hero Kingdom game!”

“Maybe at first, but in the history books you will look like the bringer of destruction.”

“You’re lying! Get out of my face,” Harold said as he pressed past the diplomat. Greg’s character quickly teleported back in front of Harold’s face. It must have been Collins’ doing—he always was good with effects.

“Think about what you’re doing Harold. Right now you have everyone’s respect, the most famous of all gamers! Why would you wish to bring down this game, and be lowered to the same level as everyone else? Don’t chew off the hand that feeds you, Harold.”

Harold jiggled his head angrily. “I can’t do it. I won’t let down the people who believe in me. I will be a hero!”

Greg did not know how to respond. Harold’s combination of arrogance and ignorance seemed impossible to defeat. Suddenly, he heard a low voice in his ear—Collins.

“Tell him that we’ll kill him,” it said. Greg nodded.

“Harold, there are plenty of side quests that you can still have fun with. But if you decide you want to beat this game, I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to terminate you.”

Greg noticed the eyebrows of the character lower, and Harold’s face became unusually somber. “You can’t shut off my service—everyone will notice that I’m gone. Then you’ll have your riots.”

“I mean we will be forced to kill you,” said Greg in a serious monotone.

Harold scoffed. “You can’t kill me! You said yourself you have been trying all day.”

“Not in the game, I’m talking about in real life.”

But Harold did not heed the warning. He sprinted past Greg and began shouting. “You can’t kill me! You can’t kill me! I’m too strong!” The last spec of the character disappeared beyond the horizon, and Greg exited from the machine feeling increasingly like a failure.

“He called our bluff,” he said to Collins upon removing the mask.

Collins rolled his tongue around within his mouth. “It wasn’t exactly a bluff.”

“What do you mean?” In the background, one could see Harold approaching the final monster. It would only be a matter of minutes.

“Well, we’ve developed a sort of contingency plan. We’ve created a special program that overloads the senses of anyone we choose that is hooked up to the VR, causing powerful seizures that can kill a person. We basically fry the brain.”

“What? When did we make this thing?”

“Tim authorized it. He said we needed something in case of an emergency. Perhaps he was right.”

Greg could not believe Tim would do such a thing behind his back. “Why can’t we just terminate Harold’s account?”

“The same reason we can’t hack into it—he will start complaining to everybody about what happened, and people will believe him.”

“So you’re saying we kill him and take over his account?” Greg shook his head violently. It seemed like an easy aversion, but to murder everyone that got too far was not a good policy to begin. “I can’t allow us to do something like that.”

“I know it’s a tough decision,” responded Collins. “But we don’t have much time.” He motioned towards the back screen. The final boss had already lost a majority of its life. Greg could feel all the sweat that had been on the verge of escaping finally breaking through his skin.

“Maybe not,” he answered. A touch of optimism sparkled in his voice.

Harold was backing away from the beast, despite an obvious advantage. He shook his head and threw down both weapons, walking slowly back towards the green fields. The hero shrugged his shoulders.

It was impossible to tell exactly why Harold had finally given in, and Greg did not care to know. It might have been the realization that the game would end and leave him with nothing. Perhaps he was overcome with sympathy for his fellow humans. Or maybe he was simply afraid of losing his own life. Either way, Greg had been successful in his negotiations. With a cheer from the designers in the room, he breathed a sigh of relief. It was time to go back to the office.

Suddenly, as he was about to walk out the door, he heard Collins curse.

“He’s going back to finish it!”

Greg froze. It made no sense—that look on Harold’s face had been unmistakable. The man was completely sincere.

“Where is Aralis?” asked Greg. Collins shook his head in defeat.

Greg burst out of the room on a quest to find Tim. If this man had created the murder program, what else had he come up with in case of emergencies? Greg was pumped so full of adrenaline that he seemed to shrug off the limitations that had come with age, arriving in Tim Aralis’ office within a matter of seconds.

“Where were you?” he asked Tim, who was startled from an intense focus on the computer screen.

“In here,” answered Aralis in a pathetic voice. The majority of his attention remained on the computer screen.

“What are you doing?”

“Come and see for yourself,” chuckled Tim. Greg felt uneasy about the cheeriness at such an inappropriate moment, and slowly approached the computer.

A second later, he covered his mouth in horror. Harold had completely destroyed the last monster, prompting Tim to remove his hand from the mouse with a grin.

Greg stared at Tim in disbelief. “How long were you controlling Harold?”

“For about the last two minutes. I gave him some help along the way, but once I saw that he wouldn’t get the job done, I took over his account.”

Greg could not wipe the bewilderment from his own face. “Why would you do it?”

“Wow, you really are getting senile. I want your job, of course.”

At last, as the absurdity of the entire situation broke through, Greg was relieved of all tension. He started to laugh.

“Hah, you could’ve had my job any time you asked.” Clearly this was not the response that Tim had expected. “I hate this job!”

Tim shook his head. “You’re lying. How could you hate it? Seven billion people are hooked up to a machine for the majority of their life, playing a game that you created. At your fingertips you have the ability to make the rich poor and the poor rich, depending on how you balance the game. You can destroy the world in a heartbeat.”

Greg stared coldly at Aralis. “And you’ve just doomed it yourself.”

“Well, technically you doomed it. You were the one in charge of the games, and you failed. You decided against using the cheat, you did not want to kill Harold either. Your list of allies is much thinner than mine now Mr. Conwell. You retain everyone’s respect, but few believe you are actually fit to continue running this company. And everyone will see your pathetic attempts to blame this on me as simple excuses.”

It was Greg’s turn to laugh once again. “You don’t have to worry about me trying to report you. I want no part in this job.” He turned towards the window. “The world doesn’t move anymore for me, and it won’t for you. Everyone is so worried about playing the game, about advancing in that world of pretend, that they don’t care the least bit about reality. Outside of this game, there have been no technical advances within the last twenty years. I have felt like a caveman frozen in time. Perhaps it is best that I leave this company now.”

He turned once more towards Tim, and then reached for the exit. Aralis could not resist making his last remark.

“You are just a senile old man,” he said. Greg turned around deliberately.

“It’s funny. All along I thought it was your ignorance that would ruin this company. But ignorance can be fixed.

“If you want to know why I’ve done this job so well over the years, it’s because I’ve always hated it. The very fact that you want it shows me that you are least fit to have it.”

“You act as if the world is going to end,” Tim scoffed.

“No,” Greg replied, looking him directly in the eye. “It ended a long time ago.”

 

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