Chapter #1: Cocytus, the Burning River

I’m Athanasios, a virtual citizen of Elysium. I was born into this boring game world that everyone praises to be amazing and emulates paradise. How do they know it’s a paradise? We’ve never been to the real world or any other world besides this one.

“Oh man, I’m bored!” I snarl at Smeme, my best friend and colleague.

Our job involves playing boring games like Tetris, but somehow this helps the mainframe computer solve problems faster. We all do boring, repetitive tasks, like a program inside a game. Technically speaking, that’s what we actually are. Our real bodies are disposed of our artificial wombs in the sixteenth day, when the neural tube forms. Then everything else is just AI. At times I feel we’re fakes. I want to see how the real world actually is for once. But that’s just me. All the people I know, are happy with their lives here.

“I did it! I’m done for today,” Smeme’s lazy voice reaches my ears. He crawls from his chair and approaches me silently. “Still not done?”

“Almost,” I reply nervously to his Level-100 slime avatar. From the gazillion available avatars of different sizes and type, my friend chose the strangest of all for some reason. He said that it costed him just 1 processing unit coin, so why pay more? Compared to my great elven mage avatar I wear today, he looks half-pint.

The final pixelated boxes are in place and a notification popups before me: Congratulations! Main quest completed. You earned 3456 processing unit coins!

I dismiss the notification, then another, one I always hate appears, reminding me of my position: Leaderboard status 1024. Last again in my sector. Smeme always manages to be one of the top ten players. He’s a boring man, so makes senses winning on boring games! Ha, take that my friend. Joking aside, Smeme is great at what he does, a level-100 avatar, unlike me and my measly level-7 mage avatar. If he wanted, he could be admitted inside Elysium, instead of staying here in Asphodel Meadows with me.

Elysium world is divided in sectors: Asphodel Meadows, where the common folk like us stay. Elysium, for those who have been distinguished, and the Isles of the Blessed, for the elite few who did great things for our world. There’s Tartarus also, a place where criminals are transferred for all eternity.

“I wish I could see the real world,” I start the usual conversation that bugs my mind these last months.

“That again? We’ve seen several videos of the real world and there’s even a simulation of how it used to be. Seems absolute boredom to me. Besides, the only way to go there is by committing a serious crime here. They will strip everything of your avatar and even wipe out your memories.”

“I know,” I nod at him.

“But you should stop saying that you want to leave Elysium. I heard stories that people who don’t want to stay here, disappear, forever!”

“Elysium sucks for all I care,” I shout unconsciously. Smeme stares at me frightened with his slimy ball for a face.

Although there’s no penalty for expressing your negative opinion for Elysium and the Great Administrator openly, several have been transferred to another sector or disappeared for less. It seems that our Supreme Ruler is more despot than we’d like to believe.

We continue walking (and crawling), till we reach my home, a tower without door. “Home, sweet home,” I scoff in irony. “Well, see ya tomorrow!”

“B-bye…” Without waiting my friend’s reply, I open a portal and now I’m transferred inside the safety of my dungeon tower. Great! I was hoping I finish job early today, so that I become a Dungeon Core and accept low-level adventurers. Seems I barely have time to prepare the traps and the treasures.

Suddenly, the chat icon appears and I activate it. It’s Leda, another friend of mine and the leader of the adventurers who will try to raid my dungeon tower tonight.

Leda: Something came up, we won’t be coming today. Have a great day! :)

Me: What? We’ve been preparing this for weeks! You can’t just cancel everything. What happened?

The chat icon deactivates and Leda seems to be offline again. I try to message her, but the message box seems deactivated. Strange, it’s the first time I’ve encountered something like this in my twenty-four years. A glitch maybe? I thought that everything works perfectly in this paradise of ours.

My mocking is short lived. A message reaches my inbox. The subject says “YOU’RE INVITED TO PLAY A SPECIAL GAME EXPERIENCE”. What’s this? I’ve played everything Asphodel Meadows has to offer. Could this be a new game experience I’m being offered? Becoming an alpha or beta tester for new game experiences is certainly honorary in Elysium. There’s no way they sent me, a low-level player an invitation. Probably a mistake. Pfff, today it’s full of glitches and hitches, I guess. I open the message.

The only thing embedded in the message is a button that says PLAY GAME. No name, no body message, no nothing. That’s how game invitation for alpha testers work? I don’t know, it’s the first time I’m offered something like this. I heard that alpha and beta testers are granted extra processing unit coins, plus have the benefit to keep my level there once the game launches. This means I’ll be ahead of all others when they distribute it. What can I say, I’m probably lucky. Here goes nothing.

I activate the PLAY GAME button and a notification appears: Choose Gender: Male or Female.

I’ll stick with male for now. There’s always the option to choose from a variety of genders. This makes me wonder momentarily if Smeme is actually a man or a woman. Probably slimes are genderless.

Anyways, next step and I have to choose Race. There aren’t many choices here, probably that’s because the game is in alpha state. I chose Human.

The progress bar takes me to the third step. Choose Class. This one’s easy for me to choose as being a Mage is my favorite class.

And now I have to set the Difficulty. There are three levels: Casual, Expert and Hardcore. I’ll go with Hardcore; it’ll help me level up faster and in case something funny happens, I can always respawn.

“Your journey begins,” a soft, deep voice echoes in my mind and all of a sudden, I’m transferred before a burning river.

Wow, that’s a hell of an intro for a game. Look how realistic it is and I’ve never felt anything so burning hot in the past. I activate my insight skill and a tooltip appears above the stream of magma.

Tooltip: Cocytus, the Burning River.

The tooltip is dismissed automatically and I’m unable to move. A new notification message appears before me: Main Mission: Fall inside Cocytus.

“What?” I shout, but there’s no one here.

As if charmed by the searing flames, I start marching towards the blazing inferno and there’s nothing I can do. I can’t control my avatar anymore. The system has taken control over it. I can’t stop walking towards my doom and I’m actually worried as hell right now, because the fire burns my skin and my lungs. It’s oven hot, I’m sure there’s no way my avatar will survive this. Damn, I’ll suffer another level loss once I respawn. What were the developers thinking when creating this game? There’s no way I recommend this game to Smeme or anyone else, period.

And then, I fall into the streaming lava of Cocytus. What’s this intense pain? I command my avatar to decrease the pain level, instead, the pain increases in waves and never leaves a hope of an end. The flames rob my ability to speak, my mind is waling and my eyes are burned. Fucking developers! I’ll make sure I leave a one-star rating when I log out of this hell hole.

Suddenly, the pain stops and I feel a cool breeze. A voice echoes inside my head. “Hades Neural Control Interface activated. Gender: Male, Class: Mage, Difficulty: Hardcore, Threat Level: 1. Welcome to the Real World Athanasios. Your journey begins as of this moment.”

Real world? Level 1? What’s this nonsense? I should be level 7 as in Elysium. Probably another bug. Not my lucky day, I should have guessed better. But where I’m I right now? I try to get up, but it’s hard, almost impossible to move this new avatar of mine. Isn’t there a calibration mechanism for this shit? Ok, I’m bored already, how do I log out? Where’s the exit button?

I search my Neural Control for a couple of seconds for the exit button, but it seems impossible to find it. There’s no exit button! That’s the worst bug I’ve encountered in a game experience. Come on, you gotta be kidding me!

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