NEXUS: Part 5

[For Part One, start here]



smartphone-1281632_640.jpg

Grant didn’t know what time of day it was. He wasn’t even curious to check. His eyes burned as he flipped between fifteen tabs open on his browser.

Brainbacker. The basic subscription was a modest monthly fee though some legal fees would have to be paid once the conditions were written into the living will.

A bottle of pain medication sat next to his mouse. It was nearly full, but it should be enough to do the job. His cursor hovered over the ‘Purchase Plan’ button. He clenched his eyes shut but couldn’t bring himself to click. At least, not yet.


The realm of NEXUS was abuzz with activity. The news was out that the event was coded for Morphestus to never die and for every avatar to be crushed under his dark power. The next week, the developers released special Soul Diamonds to be collected in a long chain quest that would enable the players to actually do damage to Morphestus.

Everyone was out collecting these incredibly rare items, leaving the Thornhold empty. Only Xavus and Ipsum were there, standing among the NPCs who could only say scripted things once you clicked on them.

Grant found Ipsum sitting among them.

IPSUM: Hey, man. What’s up?

XAVUS: What do you think of Brainbacker?

IPSUM: I think it’s an incredible product available at such a reasonable price. Technology, amirite?

Grant sighed, and his mage knight seemed to sigh too.

XAVUS: I was thinking of signing up for it.

IPSUM: Great!

XAVUS: I was thinking about leaving meatspace a little early. You know what I mean? I got enough pills to pull it off.

The face of Ipsum’s avatar never lost its ambivalent expression. It was a full minute before Ipsum rose from his chair and wandered toward the bar.

XAVUS: Ipsum, did you hear me, you second-rate replicant?

Ipsum turned toward Xavus, opened a trade window and gave him a Thornhold Slow Craft Ale.

IPSUM: Whatever happens, I’ll be thankful for what I was given.

XAVUS: Now you’re just telling me junk that’s on your social media.

IPSUM: Remember when we totally wiped on Morphestus?

XAVUS: What am I supposed to do now? The guild is gone! You’re gone! I’ve got nothing. No job, no girlfriend, nothing. My back hurts all the time. I saw my mom die in that crash. I’m scared to leave my house! If this is life, then I don’t want it.

Ipsum’s avatar twitched like he was being held in place while he was trying to walk. One arm didn’t move along with him and was left behind at the bar, twitching and straining.

IPSUM: 9995641003

XAVUS: Oh, what’s that? Another error?

IPSUM: 9995641003

XAVUS: What am I supposed to do with that? Report your malfunction to Brainbacker?

IPSUM: 9995641003

XAVUS: Okay. It’s obviously a phone number. I’ll call it and I’ll make the life of whoever picks up a living hell.

Grant picked up his phone, dialed the number, and gritted his teeth. After the third ring, someone finally picked up.

“Grant, sweetie?” Aunt Doreen said. “So glad to hear from you. How are things?”

Grant felt his heart drop into his stomach.

“Grant? Are you there?” Aunt Doreen asked. “Did you butt-dial me?”

“Aunt Doreen?” Grant’s voice trembled. There was absolutely no reason he would have told Ipsum his aunt’s phone number.

“Sweetie are you okay?” she asked. “You sound strange.”

Grant looked back at the computer. The pill bottle stood next to his mouse.

“Aunt Doreen,” Grant said. “I’m not okay. Nothing’s okay.”

“Do you need me to come pick you up?” She didn’t ask what was wrong. She was just prepared to run out the door for him.

“I need help.” He sobbed into the phone.

“I’ll be right there.

Grant stuffed his bags with a few clothes and the rest of his Twizzlers. He sat at his desk and stared at his monitor.

“Ipsum,” Grant said. “Thank you. For putting up with me. For being my friend. For everything. Thank you. I gotta go now.”

His face was still and calm as his hands flew over the keyboard. He deleted his NEXUS account just as Aunt Doreen knocked on his door.

END

NEXUS: Part 4

morphestus the ruiner

[For Part One, start here]

Twenty-four hours later, Ipsum was still missing.

Three days later, Grant began to panic. Morphestus the Ruiner was coming. The big, game-wide event that only the most powerful characters could even think of joining was just days away. The guild wanted to try and fight the big bad monster, but it would take a dedicated leader to assign them all to various parties, to arrange the correct healers and damage dealers and damage takers and...and Ipsum was nowhere to be found. Worse yet, Xavus was the second-in-command and would have to lead.

Five days later and people stopped asking about Ipsum. They just started to leave the guild. No reasons were given. He looked at the dwindling number of members and realized they had no chance to beat Morphestus. 

Grant returned to REnerd. He hated having to do it, but he was going to post on Ipsum’s page.

GRANT EVERETT SAYS: what’s up? Morphestus is in 3 days

He forced himself to check for a reply only every half hour. Despite his patience, he saw nothing.

Grant returned to NEXUS empty-handed. By the time he looked at the guild stat screen, he found that only thirteen people remained. Why had there been such an exodus? Was it really because of Ipsum’s absence? He was a cool guy and a damn good Deathstalker, but Grant didn’t think things should be going to hell this quickly.

Ipsum was still missing when the Morphestus event came.

Grant was determined to see it, whether he was with a group or not.

A huge smoking crater sat in the middle of a desolate field. Dead trees burned in the flat gray land. There were no quest-givers or NPCs of any sort. There weren’t even enemies wandering through the area. Morphestus, devourer of mortal minds, was coming to wreak havoc in NEXUS and a place had been set aside for him ever since launch day.

A clock appeared at the top of the screen. It read COUNTDOWN TO MORPHESTUS: 30:00

Thirty minutes? That’s how long he had before the biggest boss ever touched down in NEXUS? Grant thought about rallying those who were left in the guild, but they probably wouldn’t answer him. It didn’t matter. They still would not be enough to take down Morphestus.

An avatar came running into Grant’s view. The black-and purple armor was instantly familiar.

XAVUS: Ipsum! You’re here!

IPSUM: *Ipsum dances*

XAVUS: Where have you been? The guild is pretty much gone now!

Ipsum stopped dancing and turned to Xavus. Almost a full minute passed before he replied.

IPSUM: Xavus! How’s it going, man?

XAVUS: Dude, I just told you. The guild is an empty mess and we’re in no way ready for Morphestus.

IPSUM: We can do it if we try.

Back in meatspace, Grant slapped his forehead.

XAVUS: The event has already gone live over in Japan. I read that even 40-man parties can’t take him down. No one has beaten him yet. People are kinda freaking out.

IPSUM: We’ll be the first. *Ipsum flexes*

XAVUS: He’s going to touch down right here in 30 minutes. Our best bet is to just get away from here and watch from a distance.

IPSUM: Why are you here then?

XAVUS: I had nothing else better to do.

IPSUM: That’s as good a reason as any to try! *Ipsum laughs*

He was still laughing when the huge shadow loomed over them and let loose its deadly cry.

A half hour later, they were able to drag their corpses away from the encounter. Hundreds of dead player bodies lay around the crater that marked the site of Morphestus’ landing. The game lagged as though time was something to be experienced in stuttering gasps and frantic moments of freedom. NEXUS just 

couldn’t handle that many players in one place and when they all died, it couldn’t handle them trying to resurrect themselves.

Finally, Ipsum and Xavus revived themselves and sat at the Thornhold, the best inn in the whole game. Dozens of players filled the tavern, telling stories about how they had gotten killed at the Morphestus event.

XAVUS: What the hell happened back there?

IPSUM: Too many players, I guess. Pretty brutal lag, right?

XAVUS: No, not that. Sure, we were up against something even the most elite guilds couldn’t take. I’m saying it just looked like you were hitting the boss with your swords.

IPSUM: Well, I don’t have spells like you.

XAVUS: But you weren’t using any of your Deathstalker techniques. Nothing to help you hit harder or more frequently. When your hit points got below 50%, you didn’t even drink a potion. It’s like someone else was playing.

IPSUM: Maybe I’m rusty. I’ve been gone for a while, you know.

XAVUS: Yeah, I guess. Sorry.

IPSUM: Hey, Xavus.

XAVUS: What?

IPSUM: Remember that time when we fought [SCENARIO NOT LOCATED] and we totally wiped?

A chill rippled through Grant.

XAVUS: What are you talking about?

IPSUM: Haha, that was a great time.

Grant stared at the monitor. Sweat beaded up on his forehead. He shivered even though his room was set to a consistent 72 degrees.

Xavus: Yeah, remember that time when we crashed the server after killing the King of Kuruma?

Ipsum: Oh man. That was awesome. Classic. Just classic.

He and Ipsum had never crashed the server. Grant had lied.

Without saying goodbye, Grant logged out of NEXUS and logged into REnerd again. Grant didn’t need to scroll far to find out what had happened to his only friend in the world.

DAKOTA VASQUEZ SAYS: I’m so sorry for your loss. 

KIMBERLY BROWN SAYS: I hate cancer! can’t we get a fundraiser together to help stop it? I got like five bucks

AMOS DAGUERRO SAYS: He fought as long as he could. At least he doesn’t hurt any more.

FRANCINE GIONOVETTI SAYS: Thank you all for the kind words. I know that Gregory would be happy to see so many friends come together for his Celebration of Life. I’m going to leave my son’s page up as a symbol, so that there isn’t a hole in your friend list. He lives on, he’s just not here anymore.

Grant logged out of Renerd and stared at his monitor for an hour, not believing what he read. Ipsum was dead. And yet still in NEXUS.

NEXUS: Part 3

brainbacker

Before the others could protest, Xavus logged out of NEXUS. It felt so strange. Logging out of the game felt much different than logging into it, like he was leaving something behind. He lay in his bed for a while, wondering what could have happened to Ipsum. He sighed, knowing where to look first.

He typed in the address for REnerd, a social media site specifically designed for self-proclaimed nerds, geeks, otaku, and other marketable undesirables. Grant had joined the site in the beginning and it was fine for a while. He never posted much but he liked looking at the goofy videos Ipsum seemed to find out of nowhere. He had made 'friends' with many of the guild members but had soon grown disgusted by their ridiculous updates. Out-of-focus images of food, blurry pictures of shrieking girls holding drinks and meaningless quotes were bad enough, but he couldn't handle all the baby pictures. Even cockroaches can breed, Grant always thought, so your babies are nothing to be proud of.

The phone near his bed exploded with its cheerful ringtone. He answered it, forgetting to check who was calling.

“H...hello?” he stuttered.

“Is everything okay?” the caller asked. “You sound out of breath.”

Oh no, it's Aunt Doreen. Grant had to use all his willpower from sighing.

“Yeah, everything's fine,” he answered, his voice coming back to him.

“Good. Sorry, did I wake you up? It's kind of early, I guess.”

Grant glanced at the clock. It blared 9:13 AM at him.

“No, it's fine.”

“Good!” Aunt Doreen said. “I'm sorry, I just got so excited. The last time I talked to you, you said you were looking for a job. I think I found you the perfect one!”

“Oh.” Grant forgot he told her that. He hadn't been looking for a job; he hadn't even planned on it. If he was careful, he could make the settlement money last him decades, maybe even for the rest of his life. Sure, the crash had killed his mom, given him permanent back pain, constant nightmares, and a massive fear of driving, but at least he had been paid.

“It's at that video game store in the mall. You know, Press Start? They're looking for a part-timer and it turns out that the day manager is the son of Emily, a gal I go to church with and I said such good things about you and he...”

“I...uh...I already have a job lined up.”

“That's wonderful! We were worried about you for a while, you know, after everything that happened last year.”

“Yeah.”

“You just seemed so lost and withdrawn for a while, but I knew you just needed some time.”

“Yeah.”

“Your mom would be so proud with how strong you're being.”

“Yeah.”

“So where are you working at?”

“The...uh...internet.”

His aunt didn't miss a beat. “That's right up your alley. What exactly are you doing?”

“Uh...I'm a board moderator.” It didn't make sense, mods weren't usually paid, but he bet that his aunt didn't know that.

“Good for you, sweetie! Good for you! I knew you were smart.”

“Heh, thanks.”

“If you don't mind me asking, how much does it pay? I mean, I don't need numbers, really. Just...will you be okay?” she asked.

“I'll be comfortable.”

“Good. That's real good. Well, I'll let you go then. I just wanted to check up on you.”

“Thanks, Aunt Doreen. Well, bye.”

“Oh, just one more thing...” It was always one more thing when she called. “Will you be coming over for Memorial Day? We're having a great big cookout. The whole family will be there and...”

“I don't know. I think my job might keep me really busy.”

“Oh. Well, let me know, okay? Take care, sweetie. Bye!”

“Bye.”

She hung up. He hadn't even wanted to get a phone, but Aunt Doreen insisted and even paid for it. It got practically no use except whenever she called. Grant sighed. He hadn't felt good about lying to her. He knew she was just worried, but he only wanted to be left alone. He sat for a moment in silence until he remembered Ipsum.

He logged into REnerd and he made his way to Ipsum's profile. 'Gregory Gionovetti' was his meatspace name and Grant had to remind himself every time that Ipsum had a life outside of NEXUS. He browsed through Ipsum's profile, looking for updates that might explain what happened back in the Nameless Tomb. He knew Ipsum wasn't a hermit like he was. He had other interests, other friends, even actual girl friends which baffled him. There he was, some Jewfro'ed dude who was even chubbier than Grant, standing next to a lean, lithe girl with a tan. She wrapped her arms around him like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Ipsum had friends, loads of them, and they had all posted things in his profile. Ipsum had so many friends that Grant didn't see the same one post twice.

DAKOTA VASQUEZ SAYS: Good luck, man!

KIMBERLY BROWN SAYS: Just stay positive! We're with you!!!

FRANCINE GIONOVETTI SAYS: You can do anything with Jesus.

Grant rolled his eyes. That last one was probably from a grandmother or something. They were always going on about Jesus or some other junk. He scrolled down to the last post that Ipsum himself had made. It looked like it went up twelve hours ago.

GREGORY GIONOVETTI SAYS: No matter what happens, I'll be thankful for what I was given. #psalm119:71

Grant blinked in surprise. Ipsum never spouted religious stuff in the game. He shrugged, scrolled further down the page and saw the inevitable 'suggested ad' that appeared whenever you did a search on certain things.

This time under the suggested ad, a single word glowed gently at him. Brainbacker. A video appeared with a generic Asian-looking man in a lab coat talking calmly at him while pointing to the NEXUS logo.

“After joining with the most popular MMO in the world, Brainbacker finally has the means and resources to preserve your consciousness and upload it into your avatar. Finally, you can really...play your way.”

A phony-looking presentation with an Asian woman in a nurse costume began to play. This is how a lot of porn starts, Grant snickered. She hooked some dude up to all sorts of diodes and asked him a bunch of dumb questions like ‘what do you think the color blue smells like?’. After a while, it didn't look like it going to be porn. Grant skipped ahead. The vaguely Asian labcoat man appeared again and smiled.

“Do not think you are limited to your NEXUS account. You can sign up for any number of online services. And, as always, we guarantee premium protection in our state-of-the-art servers. There is no danger of being deleted or corrupted when you are in Brainbacker's hands. Go to brainbacker.nrv and fill out an application for digital personhood. Secure the dream for tomorrow, today--Brainbacker.”

Grant found himself hovering over the popup link that appeared in the video. He was about to click on it when he yawned so hard, his eyes watered. Stupid body. He hadn't slept in a day and a half and already it was complaining. He set his alarm clock so that the next six hours were assigned to just sleeping. After that, he was going to get right back to NEXUS. Maybe Ipsum had returned.

NEXUS: Part 2

skeletons

IPSUM: You should have gotten lunch meat. It's cheaper and better for you than freakin’ Hot Pockets.

XAVUS: That's not the point.

IPSUM: Well, whatever. You did good. Yokohachi and some others should be here soon.

XAVUS: Oh god, are they coming too? I thought you just wanted to farm for that dumb hat you wanted.

IPSUM: The others need our help.

XAVUS: That's bullshit.

IPSUM: They're not so bad.

XAVUS: They're casuals. *Xavus makes a rude gesture at Ipsum*

IPSUM: I know. But they're lower level and I promised them I'd help. The world is a hard enough place on your own, you know? We may as well make NEXUS a little better than regular old meatspace. *Ipsum laughs*

Together, the two of them waited outside the dark, sinister entrance to the Nameless Tomb, one of the older dungeons in NEXUS. The massively multiplayer online game was Grant's escape and sanctuary. How could it be surprising to his relatives that he would be in NEXUS for the bulk of his waking hours? They were normals just like the rest of the world. Especially his aunt who wouldn't leave him alone after the accident. They wouldn't, couldn't understand.

In the game, Grant was Xavus, a level 102 mage knight. He was a master blacksmith as well as a master potion-maker. In fact, he was a master of most of the skills available in the game. He had well over a million in gold and was working on building his very own fortress. The guild itself had its own fortress but he didn't like how the other members came and went, picking through the loot like they had earned it. They would have died without his intervention; they could at least ask permission before they took anything.

XAVUS: Meatspace...I wish I never had to go back.

IPSUM: It's not that bad.

XAVUS: You don't know! I'd live here if I could!

IPSUM: You don't mean that.

XAVUS: I do! You heard of Brainbacker, right? Where they scan your brain and upload it into a computer? You'd be practically immortal! You could use it to live in NEXUS one day!

IPSUM: It doesn't work that way. I read how they just gather up stuff you post on social media and just assign values to what they think is your personality. Then they run it all through a program millions of times. That's not a person.

XAVUS: I don't see how it isn't.

Ipsum's avatar was still for a time. The black-and-violet armored Deathstalker stood, his legendary twin swords glowing a malicious red. Xavus wasn't sure if he was experiencing some internet slowdown or if he had run to the bathroom. Usually, he announced what he was doing if he was going to leave his computer but for the past couple weeks, Ipsum would go silent for long stretches of time. Sometimes a half-hour would pass before he resumed activity, always apologizing about the interruption. Xavus grew uneasy. The rest of the party should be arriving any moment. He didn't want Ipsum to get all weird on him before that.

IPSUM: I'd never play NEXUS again if it meant I could...

Before Ipsum could continue, three humanoid shapes flickered into existence. Yokohachi the rogue stood with his daggers drawn, like he expected to emerge into battle. His avatar was fitted with the girliest face and the most ridiculous spiky hair available in character creation mode. Yokohachi was an awful Japanophile who couldn't shut up about anime but at least he knew how to subdue and sneak properly.

Behind him stood Ysamyl, the elf priestess. She immediately cast a spell that raised their defense for thirty minutes, causing a graphic of neon leaves to circle everyone for a moment. Xavus didn't mind her so much, despite her insistence on staying in character. She was good for heals, sure, but Xavus doubted she was really a girl. She swore she was but in Xavus' experience, girls simply didn't play these games.

Tarantignome materialized, the last one of the party to arrive. Xavus hated him. He hated his stupid name, he hated the stupid way he talked, and he hated that he had to be a mage knight just like himself. They didn't need two mage knights in the guild and they certainly didn't need one who didn't know how to keep the attention of enemies on himself and off the healer.

YSAMYL: Greetings, all.

IPSUM: Hey guys. You ready to do this?

TARANTIGNOME: d00ds look @ this new cape i got [BLOODSPUN COWL]

IPSUM: That's pretty sweet, man. Did everyone remember to bring healing potions this time?

YOKOHACHI: Hai.

YSAMYL: With Arathe's blessing, we won't need them. But I brought extra just in case.

XAVUS: Good. I don't want a full wipe like last time.

TARANTIGNOME: lol

XAVUS: It's not funny, T. We wasted four hours last time.

TARANTIGNOME: sorry *Tarantignome dances*

Xavus bit his tongue. Saying anything more would just make this take longer. They formed a party, exchanged beneficial spells and journeyed down into the depths of the dungeon. They sat through the loading screen and emerged into a dimly lit, shadowy stone chamber. Cobwebs dusted every corner and skeletons hung from shackles on the walls. Strapped to thick wooden tables were dead bodies in various stages of dismemberment.

They ran through the first few chambers and easily dispatched the ghouls, golems, and other horrors like they were a well-trained machine. Xavus used his sword skills to make sure the monsters stayed away from Ysamyl, who hadn't needed to worry about healing people yet. Yokohachi had no trouble disabling the major spellcasters and Tarantignome hadn't done anything stupid yet, aside from insisting he use his new bow.

XAVUS: Mage knights don't need to use bows! They don't have a natural proficiency for them. They already have ranged attacks! They're called spells!

TARANTIGNOME: im gonna be the first bow mage k?

XAVUS: Can you act like you played this before?

TARANTIGNOME: can you act like its just a gaem lol j/k

Xavus was about to call for a bathroom break. He was irritated already, and they were nearly to the first boss' room. He knew that, depending on which boss was randomly chosen to occupy the room, it could get tricky even with a couple of high-level players.

XAVUS: Hey guys. Let's take a bathroom break.

TARANTIGNOME: wait u guys

XAVUS: What?

TARANTIGNOME: Ipsum is gone.

Either the Deathstalker logged out or had been disconnected long enough for the game to time him out. Xavus cursed. This wasn't like Ipsum. He always saw a run through to the end. Always.

XAVUS: I'm calling it.

YOKOHACHI: Nani sore!!!

XAVUS: Oh my god, shut up with that, will you? No one ever knows what you're saying. We're done with this dungeon.

YOKOHACHI: We can do it with just the four of us.

YSAMYL: That's right! Please, let us continue.

TARANTIGNOME: ya cmon

XAVUS: I'm going to find out what happened. Stay here if you want but the dungeon is going to reset itself soon.

NEXUS: Part 1

Ramen.

Twizzlers.

Instant rice.

Hot Pockets

Energy drinks. (But only if Red Bull was on sale. If not, he'd settle for Rockstar.)

Grant mulled over his list while his heart thrashed. His trembling hand reached for the doorknob. He glanced at the glowing green numbers of his digital clock. He knew what they said, and even worse, what they were about to say.

2:00 A.M. It was time.

He took one last breath, turned the knob, and stepped out into the darkness.

It was the first time in a month he had been outside.

*****

gas station

The clerk sat behind the counter and every so often, he would blink. His lank hair fled his scalp, leaving a shiny pink patch on his crown. He looked half-asleep.

Good, thought Grant, he might not talk to me. At least it isn't a girl this time.

Grant moved swiftly through the aisles, gathering up the things on his list.

Ramen

Twizzlers

Instant rice

Energy drinks (Damn it all, they only had Monster)

He had done well to make it this far. He hadn't run away when the door slid open this time. There had been a girl behind the counter during that outing and he hadn't planned for that. She had been pretty enough, but she had on too much mascara and it made her eyes look like spiders. Running away had been fine. He didn't like 3D girls anyway.

Grant stepped towards the counter until his legs decided to stop moving.

Treat it like a game, Ipsum had told him. Get through the real-life dungeon. Face the boss at the end. You can do it. Just take one step at a time.

Grant hated how his tennis shoes squeaked with every movement. The supplies clacked and clattered in his trembling arms. He ordered his feet to move but they would not listen. His back spasmed and his breath caught in his throat.

He was almost to the counter when everything in his arms slipped and clattered to the floor. The clerk looked at him,

blinked, and thankfully did nothing. Grant reached out to the giant box of ramen and placed the Twizzlers and rice on top of it. With his other hand, he gathered up the six-pack of Monster. He placed it all on the counter, keeping his eyes away from the clerk's. Grant pulled out his wallet and fumbled for cash. He was almost home free.

“Did you find everything okay?” the clerk asked.

Grant hadn't planned for this. Of course I found everything okay, you idiot. You were right there, watching me the whole time. I shouldn't have come here. I had enough to last another week, maybe two.

“Uh, okay,” the clerk said. “That'll be twenty tw...”

Grant thrust a sweaty, crumpled bill at him. The clerk took the cash, straightening it out as best he could.

“I still need two fifty-nine, man.”

Grant felt his insides fighting with each other. He could have sworn a twenty would cover everything. He rifled through his back pocket, found his wallet, dropped it, picked it up, and pulled out a five. He nearly threw it at the clerk in his panic.

“Have a nice night...or something,” the clerk called after Grant, who had scooped up the bag and was already halfway out the door.

Somehow the cool air lent Grant some courage. He was going to do it. Tonight was going to be the night. He opened his mouth to say something like “Thanks!” or “You too!” Instead he only let out a pathetic mew. He had forgotten to practice talking and now he was squeaking. He ran down the street until the blue and orange lights of the convenience store were long behind him. He leaned up against a post and caught his breath. Okay, so talking had been a failure but it wasn't a big deal. He had gone and bought his supplies. He was fine for another thirty days! He looked at the white plastic bag in his hands like it contained the rarest treasure.

Oh no.

He had forgotten the Hot Pockets.

Grant turned in the direction of the convenience store. He had another five on him. He could still go and get them. It wasn't too late.

“I don't need that much protein this month anyway.”

Grant went home.