I feel my avatar’s virtual body again but it’s a weird experience. I have my wings, of course, but they don’t feel that real to me anymore. I try stretching them and they respond nicely but the sensation is rather dreamy.
Is this how VR is like to normal players? What the hell happened? I’ve never heard of any cases of people’s immersion ability going down as it can only go up based on how many hours a player’s brain spent connected. The brain gradually adapts, it’s a proven fact. It can get stuck at a certain level when one’s mind reaches its limit but never decrease.
Then I realise another thing which makes me shiver. My telepathy… it’s still on. A bit clouded, but I feel emotions that aren’t my own. How is that possible? Shocked, I look around but I’m alone in the royal office. Is it coming through the walls? It seems ridiculous that I’d be able to perceive other people’s emotions in VR when their real bodies are often thousands of kilometres away but I need to make sure.
I check the map of the palace. With my administrative rights, I can actually see players who have permission to be here as little dots. The royal palace is basically a guild house and I’m just a glorified guild master, after all.
I can see a few dots that represent guild members quite near me so I try focusing on them. I get nothing specific, though. What I feel comes from a totally different direction. No, it’s just not possible to feel other people’s emotions here. Players are connected from all over the world. Sure, my telepathy got stronger just a couple of hours ago but it’s still impossible.
Then it hits me. I can identify these emotions! They are familiar, belonging to my neighbours. Somehow… I can still feel telepathic waves from the real world. It’s a vague mixture which unnerves me. I’m used to either feeling everything and assigning it to specific people or nothing at all in VR.
Is it because my immersion ability dropped? With 87% immersion, it would mean that my brain is still 13% in the real world. Normally, people shouldn’t feel any difference because they don’t possess extrasensory abilities. But I do. A huge difference. Could my helmet be simply malfunctioning? Please, let it be the case!
Liana’s avatar materialises just two minutes after me.
“H-hi,” I say, startled a little. It’s weird to feel other people’s emotions but not from the person in front of me. I’m suddenly unsure how to talk to her.
“Are you okay?” she notices something’s off about me right away.
Should I tell her? I can’t mention telepathy, but…
“Just tired,” I decide to lie. “Do I play too much, Li? How many hours do you play?”
“Usually around six at workdays,” she says and is looking at me with suspicion as I’ve never doubted my gaming habits before.
“That’s not that different from me when I’m at school, hmm…”
Liana is eyeing me analytically.
“You don’t look comfortable,” she summarises. “I don’t want to preach but it’s never a good idea to ignore your body and play when you’re sick in real life.”
I need to tell her at least something or I’ll go crazy.
“No, I don’t have flu or anything like that but lately… I don’t feel well-rested after gaming and my back is sore,” I confide.
Her expression changes.
“I also feel really tired recently,” she admits.
“Do you think there might be something wrong with our VR helmets?” I suggest.
“It’s possible that they’re trying something new with the upcoming update, but…”
Our debate is interrupted by Fefnir’s message asking me what the hell is taking us so long.
“Let’s go, we can test our helmets when playing,” Liana proposes so we teleport to the dungeon’s entrance.
I see Gotrid already fully equipped in his battle mage armour. At first glance he seems a bit uneasy but then he notices me and beams.
“Your Highness, good evening,” he bows to me theatrically. I wonder why he looked troubled just a second ago. Damn, now I could really use my telepathy.
“A new seraph that one, huh?” Fefnir asks me, sitting on the rock and sharpening his sword. He’s a bulky Dragonkin wearing armour we Celestials wouldn’t be able to move even an inch.
“Gotrid, Fefnir is our tank and physical defence,” I force myself to act cheerful and introduce my old gaming buddy. “He’s level 80, a warrior class and one of the best tanks in the game. It would be better to have an Earthborn for a healer but no such luck this time so I guess I’ll pose as a cleric.”
“You won’t attack?” Gotrid is confused. “Your damage must be ridiculously high.”
“It would be a total overkill,” Fefnir says while materialising his favourite helmet out of the inventory and putting it on. “This is one of the hardest dungeons, sure, but we’re all veterans. If Aefener attacks as well, it won’t be a challenge.”
“Don’t worry, I actually like healing,” I smile. “I can’t do antidotes and debuffs like an Earthborn but my healing skill is unrivalled.”
“Which active spells do you have then?” Gotrid is curious. “I’ve always taken you for a pure magic damager.”
“All of them,” I say truthfully.
“Wh-…?” Gotrid is speechless. “But that’s impossible!”
“The system allows it,” I remind him. “If you don’t choose a class, spell tiers won’t get blocked.”
“Yes, in theory. You’d have to know all the spells by heart without the system’s assistance,” he opposes. “And without a class, you don’t get perks.”
“I prefer a clever combination of various skills and having all elements at my disposal,” I explain. “I can make up for not having class perks that way.”
Gotrid gasps. Fefnir puts a hand on his shoulder and says: “People like Aefener have no real life and spend all time ingame. Don’t be impressed.”
“I do go to school!” I oppose, offended. “And this is actually my work.”
“Well, I can confirm that he certainly isn’t online all day,” Liana verifies. “He’s just a natural talent at gaming I guess.”
“I don’t know about that, I did train a lot,” I say. “I spent countless hours studying the Celestial magic system, practicing mana channelling and chaining skills one after another.”
“Spellcasting for sure, but flying is like breathing to you. Aefener is the only Celestial who managed to fly on the very first day when the game launched,” Liana pokes me. “Developers were astonished; they predicted that a player’s brain wouldn’t adapt for at least several weeks.”
For a moment I forgot about my pressing problem. The brain is supposed to be adapting. And now it seems my brain might have lost some of that adaptation. Or could my levelled-up telepathy be interfering? But how come Liana also doesn’t feel quite alright? I hope playing the game will tell me something. If my compatibility level really decreased, it should make me a less effective player.
“L-let’s do a formation and proceed,” I cough. “Fefnir to the front line…”
“What about equipping something more suitable?” Fefnir points out. “You can’t raid a dungeon in a dress, angels.”
“Oh, right,” I realise that me and Liana are still wearing royal attires. They’re very expensive and rare but only decorative. Fortunately, equipping our battle gear from the inventory takes only a few seconds.
I’m a bit worried about Gotrid because he isn’t used to our style of fighting but him having level 60 means at least three years of gaming experience and I relax when he defeats a level 70 monster on his own.
There’s something off, though. We all feel it. We proceed quite successfully but we’re not in sync. Fefnir is slow with his aggros, Liana isn’t effective with her mana consumption during spellcasting and Gotrid seems a bit unfocused.
My healing can’t keep up with all these mistakes that cumulate and I’m also majorly distracted by leaking emotions from the real world. We make it in the end but if I was streaming our endeavour, I’d be deeply ashamed by such performance.
“Well, that was a weird run,” Fefnir snorts and kicks the dead Skeleton King.
“Sorry, I just feel weird, to be honest,” I sit on the ground as I’ve lost all interest in the treasure chest that appeared in front of us as a reward. I’m suddenly dead tired, something’s definitely off. And I bet for them as well.
I breathe in deeply and say: “I think there’s something wrong with my helmet. My immersion level… ehm… it dropped. The game feels dreamy to me, I can’t focus properly.”
“WAIT A MINUTE!”
All of them shout at the same time. So I was right, it’s not only me.
“I used to have 93% but today it was 90%,” Fefnir shrieks. “It was such a shock that I even thought of quitting on you, guys.”
“My 95% dropped to 92%,” Liana says.
“83… now 79,” Gotrid gulps. “I thought my helmet is malfunctioning.”
“Mine dropped by 13%,” I lower my head.
“Shit, that’s a lot, Aefener,” Fefnir shivers. “Do you feel alright?”
“Well… I know that 87% is considered great when it comes to one’s compatibility level but my surroundings feel too unreal to me,” I sigh. “My wings listen to me and everything but the air doesn’t feel as real as before.”
“Send a message to the developers,” Gotrid proposes and finally forgets about using honorific and role-playing. “They’ll surely listen to one of their best players. I bet they have you in their priority list when it comes to answering questions from customers.”
“You’re right,” I nod and materialise a virtual console in front of me. I send an official customer service request but even for me it usually takes a few hours to get a reply.
“It might be something with the game itself,” Liana is thinking out loud. “Let’s check the Internet in the real world. If it’s not only us, I bet players are already starting to complain about it.”
“Oh, Uriel is calling,” a notification window pops up in front of me.
“Uriel?” Gotrid tilts his head because he obviously can’t know everyone from the royal guild since it’s only his second day as our member.
“She leads our magic training team,” I explain quickly and put her call through.
“Hi, Aefener,” Uriel’s bust appears as a hologram in front of me. She has short blue hair and gray wings with a black pattern.
“Hi, Uriel,” I greet her. “I guess you noticed as well that something’s wrong with the game?”
“We did,” she says slowly. “So it dropped by 13% for you? Crap,” she swears. “The bug might be worse than we anticipated.”
“Huh? How do you know that?” I blink, confused. “Who’s we?”
Uriel chews her lip.
“I know because I got your customer request ticket, Aefener,” she says slowly. “I’m one of the developers.”
“You’re kidding!” my jaw drops and I’m not the only one.
“Well, you know,” she laughs nervously. “It wouldn’t be any fun just watching the game from above. How else could we really know what to improve?”
“Wicked,” Fefnir remarks. “Is one of you also in the Dragonkin leading guild?”
“Sure, he’s contacting Patriarch Deminas as we speak,” she nods. “Don’t panic, the compatibility drop is happening to everyone. We’re not sure if we messed something in the upcoming update which was implemented a few days ago or if it’s the firmware update in helmets that manufacturers are responsible for. We’re running all sorts of tests.”
“Makes sense why you wanted to lead the magic training team so badly,” Liana remarks. “You need willing beta testers, right?”
“There’s no misguiding you, Li,” Uriel smiles faintly.
“I bet you developers must be going crazy right now,” Fefnir says sympathetically.
“The drop in compatibility is one thing,” I decide to mention it, “but I’ve been experiencing strange fatigue and even back pain in real life.”
“I feel more tired as well,” Liana seconds.
“Oh,” Uriel is taken aback. “We have no such reports from other players but we can’t overlook anything. Thank you for telling me.”
“Do compatibility levels keep dropping as we speak?” Gotrid is curious.
“They do,” Uriel sighs. “I have to go now, sorry. You have no idea how much work and complaints we are dealing with right now. We’ll post new information on our official site and stay in touch with all race rulers.”
“Should we keep playing or take a break?” Liana asks.
“Try to play normally, we need more data,” Uriel pleads us. “I just hope we didn’t mess it up too badly… well, see you!”
Uriel’s call ends and soon she appears offline but I bet she’s still plugged into the game trying to fix things, just not with her casual avatar. Wow, I’m friends with an actual developer. How cool.
We discuss things a bit more but because it’s nothing we as normal players can solve, we decide to log out for now and try again tomorrow. Play normally as Uriel suggested.
“Just a sec,” Fefnir holds us when we reach for the log out button on our virtual consoles. “What’s the lowest immersion level needed for Draconia’s VR full-dive?”
“Hmm… 45% I guess?” Liana tries to remember but she isn’t sure. None of us knows exactly as we never needed it.
“If…,” Fefnir continues, “and is a big if just to be safe than sorry…. if the game eventually crashes, we should have some other means how to get in touch in the real world, don’t you think?”
“Right, a good point,” Liana scratches her chin. “What should we use? Nothing that links to our real names, though.”
“Well, I’m on Vortex,” I say. “I have my fan page there because you can link it to virtual games you play and stream through it.”
“I’m also on Vortex,” Gotrid seconds. “It’s a safe platform.”
“Watching Aefener’s feed I bet,” Fefnir smirks.
“Let’s use that,” Liana ignores his bickering. “Our nicknames will be the same to avoid confusion and we can find each other through Aefener’s account.”
“A great idea and…”
I don’t finish the sentence. Out of the blue, my head explodes with a severe migraine. I’ve never felt a headache during full-dive so it takes me by surprise and I collapse on my knees. I’m not able to keep my wings folded behind my back so feathers are suddenly everywhere on the ground. Not a nice view seeing a proud Celestial like that.
My friends jump to help me but the system notices an abnormality in a user’s brain and initialises an automatic safety log out.
WARNING: ANOMALY DETECTED
INITIALISING EMERGENCY LOG OUT…
I find myself lying on the ground next to my bed. My body must have tossed even though that should have been impossible when full-diving. The helmet is padded but it seems that I still hit my head pretty hard. I take it off and try to get up.
My head is spinning and I feel like throwing up. I resist it for a few seconds but then my last meal goes down the toilet. I take two painkillers, rather not thinking that eating drugs on an empty stomach is asking for digestion problems. Do I feel like this because of my telepathy or because of the possibly faulty helmet? I’m not sure which would be worse.
Anyway, I’m all sweaty so I take a shower right away, hoping it’ll clear my head as well. I expect relief but when hot water lands on my back, it starts to hurt almost unbearably. I quickly dry myself and inspect my back in the mirror only to discover that areas under my shoulder-blades are red. In panic, I reach for the only cream I have. I apply it to the affected places but it doesn’t help at all.
Is this really just from gaming? Can a person lie on their back so badly that it would irritate the skin or something like that? Should I… go see a doctor? What would I even say to them? That I have strange injuries from gaming? They’d send me right to a psychiatrist for sure!
No, let’s analyse it logically. There’s definitely something wrong with the game but I’ve also been playing too much and my telepathy got stronger which could be a contributing factor. In any case, others didn’t mention any physical pain. I just need a good rest, that’s all. Tomorrow I’ll ditch school and tell my professors that I’m sick. Technically, that isn’t a lie.
After writing a message of apology to my supervisor, I go back to bed. I’m tossing for a few minutes as I can’t lie on my back, my migraine is at its worst and my head is full of catastrophic scenarios. I also feel my neighbours way too strongly. But sleep eventually comes when I’m thinking about Erik.
Crazily strong hunger wakes me up. I don’t even think of my back for a while because staring at a revolving plate in the microwave is somehow more alluring. I ravenously eat the whole pizza in just ten minutes and then continue with cornflakes and milk.
When hunger fades away, I start to think and most importantly feel my body again. My shoulder-blades are pulsating wildly and the unease spread to neighbouring areas. I rush to the bathroom, take off my shirt and inspect my back. Red areas are even redder and now also swollen. I try touching the swelling and it hurts like hell.
Doctors… I should… probably… see some doctors. Where is the nearest hospital anyway? Is my basic health insurance sufficient to treat this mysterious illness? I take out my phone to call an ambulance but my phobia kicks in and I don’t.
Instead, I look at my Vortex profile. Liana, Fefnir and Gotrid are asking me to confirm their friendship requests so I do. I consider writing Erik but what would I even say to him? That I’m ill from excessive gaming? That there’s a possibility that VR helmets can mess with one’s brain?
Oh, right, an unread message from him. I haven’t noticed for all that puking and panicking.
Going for my night shift, what about lunch together when I’m done and had some sleep?
No emergencies, bored. Did you have a good time with that raid thing?
I want to reply to him, I really do, but my eyes close and I fall asleep.
I’m looking at myself in the mirror. There’s only me and the mirror, nothing else matters. My reflection is confusing—it’s showing my virtual avatar while I’m still the real life me.
“What’s real?” I whisper. “Am I dreaming?”
I look around but I see only blackness. I turn back to the mirror and now it reflects my usual body. However, I feel a familiar comforting weight on my back. I have wings! The images switched places.
“This is also not right,” I say and the world around me starts to spin.
There’s nothing to hold on to except for the mirror. I clutch to it so desperately that it falls down and breaks to pieces. The reflection is fragmented and it’s showing my virtual avatar again. Who am I now? I inspect my body—I still have wings, even my hair turned silver and my eyes golden. Two images became one. Who am I at the end?
Then comes pain so excruciating that my vision blurs indistinguishably and when I regain consciousness again, I’m lying on the bed in my apartment. Not only my back, my ribs hurt now as well. All I can think about is food. Do I still have something left? Please, anything will do.
I look into my pantry and find some old toast bread. It’s a bit stale but luckily without mould. Good enough. I even find a jar of jam I probably got as a present for correcting someone’s essay. I spread the jam on the bread and nothing has ever tasted better in my life. I eat all of it, take more painkillers and after a few minutes the pain mitigates to the point I’m able to think straight again.
I’m afraid to check my body in the bathroom but I have to. I shiver when I see my reflection in the mirror. I look shitty. Moreover, a few millimetres of my hair from the scalp turned white. Is it because of stress or something? The state of my back isn’t that surprising considering that my whole torso hurts like hell. As expected, areas around shoulder-blades are even more swollen.
Call an ambulance? Call Erik? He does have medical training. For my whole life I’ve been terrified of doctors and hospitals. Now for the first time I desperately need them but every fibre of my body is warning me against it.
I collapse on the floor and start crying. My Mom had hallucinations before she died. Doctors said the tumour was causing it. Could her illness be hereditary? Am I going nuts because my brain isn’t okay? Is it because of my telepathy? After all, having telepathy isn’t exactly normal.
But my friends are also experiencing strange fatigue. It can’t be a coincidence. Maybe I’m not the only one experiencing weird symptoms apart from dropping compatibility level? What if it somehow affects all players of Draconia? It seems ridiculous, of course, but I have to make sure.
I check Draconia’s Internet forum. The most popular topics are usually strategies for dungeons and stat builds for specific classes. Used to be. The hottest topic in the last 24 hours is reporting problems with dropping VR compatibility but there’s nobody reporting strange physical symptoms in the real world.
I lie down on my stomach, a pillow under my chin, and put on my VR helmet. I need to talk to Liana. And other race rulers and basically everyone else this effects. I’m a little bit afraid how the connection will seem now but there’s nothing to lose, I guess.
CHECKING VR COMPATIBILITY…
WARNING: COMPABILITY FAILURE
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