Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

Everquest

Gopal knew before he booted up the game—a Christmas present from his dad—that his character would be some form of elf or human, because the other races were all ugly, and he didn’t play games to be ugly. And he knew too, although he didn’t say it, that his character would be a girl. He always played girls online, although he’d be ashamed if anyone knew it, precisely because it played into the online belief that most girls in most games were “really” men, fat and acne-ridden, sitting in their underwear, hands down their pants, leering at that wood elf ass in those hot little leather shorts their avatars wore, and “catfishing” dudes online, pretending to be women to get some sick pleasure.

Gopal himself was a fat, acne-ridden dude, and in his last online game he’d gone out of his way to claim he was a girl in real life too (upping his age from thirteen to eighteen in the process). As a result he’d gotten “married” to another man—at least someone who said he was a man—and Gopal had hoped for some gross cybersexting thing to happen with his “husband,” for them to write each other about their quivering tits and cocks like in the sex stories he read online, but the sexting never came, and eventually the game grew stale and the husband disappeared.

Gopal never thought about whether this made him gay or straight or trans or bi. He knew, without knowing how he knew, that he needed to keep all of this, everything, from his mother. During his last game she’d come in once and seen his character, all dolled up in her sorceress’s garb, and she’d asked far too many questions, and a few weeks later had cancelled his account.

He simply booted up his game and created a wood elf thief named Gayatri, which name he chose not out of conscious remembrance of mythology, because he didn’t remember anything at all—didn’t remember Rama and Hanuman and Sita, didn’t remember Sikhandin, who was born as Amba, the princess who Bishma rejected, and who turned herself into a man so she could kill the man who’d humiliated her. All these things were lost to Gopal, lost like his home country, the nation where everybody looked like him, the nation he half-hated that year, the year of this game, because the internet in this country was so fucking slow that he couldn’t play for shit, and the food so rich and greasy and addictive that he gained thirty pounds, the year he attended a new school—which had girls, unlike his school in the U.S. which was all boys—a school that had girls whose creamy skin he longed to touch, and who he fantasized about in odd, flinching, sinister ways that he would learn to hate long before he learned what was really signified by all these desires.

He did not name his character Gayatri because of this country, did not name it those words because he retained some memory of his half-literate grandmother telling him stories about gods and goddesses and the many worlds they had fought for and saved and created.

He chose the name because it sounded pretty.

And during those hot nights when he could patch through to the servers, when things weren’t too slow, when the lag not too intense, Gayatri ran free through the elven forests. She backstabbed, she stole, she scammed. She joined a guild of other thieves, a guild dedicated not to advancement, but to merriment. Because of her lag issues Gayatri could never level much, she died too frequently, left corpses in half a hundred dungeons, and it grew to be a joke, resounding often over guild-chat, that Gayatri could in the middle of the safest city on the planet and manage to find the one wandering giant, or aggro the one lonely guard; that Gayatri was the only player who could in a fight glitch out and backstab herself; that even crossing a bridge was dangerous for Gayatri, that she had to think through every keystroke, because with her connection, she might stutter onwards forever, the lonely keystrokes doubling and redoubling in the long undersea cable between India and America, like the migration of some flock of butterflies where the parents inevitably died mid-journey and left their children to struggle onwards to home grounds they’d never seen.

Meanwhile, upstairs or in the next room, she heard her mom get up to go to the bathroom, and she held perfectly still, frantically keying the “lower brightness” button on the laptop until the screen turned off, and waited there, not responding to messages, dying repeatedly to mobs, until the rustling ended and the screen could be turned safely back on.

Despite all these difficulties, Gayatri had a certain cunning. She made friends. She cajoled. She scammed. People liked Gayatri; she remembered their names, remembered them for what they wanted to be remembered for; she remembered Tak’s midnight raid across the Heavens, when he aggro’ed the Sky-King and caused the whole world to die. She remembered Vakharov swooping in out of nowhere to killsteal the World-Dragon and ninja-loot his boots that appeared in only one in a hundred drops. She remembered the awesome hack, discovered by Sorpedon of their own guild, that let him delete the online banks of a thousand players, causing briefly a level of deflation that sent their server’s economy into a great depression from which, some said, it never recovered. Sorpedon, Vakharov, Tak, they were all banned for their exploits, while shy, nervous Gayatri waited in the corner and watched.

She joked sometimes, “You think I’m really a dude, don’t you?” And always the answer was “No.”

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t sound like one . . . Because you don’t wear revealing clothes, even when they have high stats . . . Because, I don’t know, you can just tell.”

And Gayatri reveled in this illusion and never ever allowed her mask to fall. But that was easy. People didn’t discuss real life in the game, because the game itself offered enough of a world that you could get lost in it. They discussed camping, they discussed stats, they discussed new zones and new strategies, they discussed hunts and griefing and player-killers and new drops. And they discussed each other. The highlights and lowlights of everyone in the guild: they discussed who was great, who was funny, who was useless in a raid, and who was just an overleveled noob.

Eventually Gayatri’s mom discovered the game. She didn’t forbid it, not outright, but she started coming around to the subject elliptically. “That game of yours is fun, in moderation, isn’t it?”

“Mmmhmmm.”

“It’s fun to pretend.”

“Yep.”

“I notice you always play girl characters . . .”

“Mom! It’s normal. Lots of guys do it.”

“I know, I know . . . but it’s not good to spend too much time in another world.”

The game grew large and great, while Gayatri, hampered by both lag and her parents’ watchfulness, stayed the same. Perpetually low-level Gayatri, who wore gear far outside her level range, who knew every mountain and every zone, and who had journeyed to all the Sky Levels and had found safe places in each to watch the epic raids conducted by her betters. She was Gayatri the Traveler, Gayatri the Schemer, Gayatri of the Tall Boots and Gayatri who wore Cerebral Armor not because it was good (it wasn’t) but because, although form-fitting, it was jet-black and didn’t display her body as lasciviously as did 95% of the outfits in the game. She was Gayatri who played in the wrong time-zone, and so was always on extremely late at night when others were drunk and high and barely made sense, and who whiled away the empty hours of the American morning by picking through the leavings of the day’s raids.

And she was Gayatri who simply disappeared one day, her account password changed. She tried everything to get in, assumed she was hacked, made frantic phone calls to customer support, wrote on the guild forums, and even had several of her friends offer to buy her a new account or let her share theirs.

When her mother got home, she found her son on the computer, sweating in the warm Mumbai night, and she took him into the kitchen and sat him down and said, “Son, we are worried about your grades. This is an important time. You are in high school now, and you should be focusing on the things that matter.”

Her parents had cancelled her account. Her characters would be deleted. Her computer access was limited. She went to school, and she studied, and eventually she got her computer back, but forever after when she asked for the account to be reinstated, they refused.

Now only Gopal remained. As he grew older, he turned against all forms of fantasy. He grew large and dark and odious; he spoke loudly about escapism and about wastes of time. He got into a good college, learned to code, and when the time came to get a job, he opted not to work in gaming—the numbers didn’t make sense, you didn’t make nearly enough money for all the work, and anyway he didn’t want to program games, he wanted to live them—instead he started a company of his own, then when that failed he started another. His body was an encumbrance; he didn’t think of it. And the complex sexual feelings of his youth were transmuted into heterosexuality of the grossest sort.

At first his mother pleaded, “Why are we not close, like we used to be?” and later grew angrier, “You are selfish. You never tell me anything about yourself.”

Meanwhile, the game got older and was superseded by others, but the company remained in existence. So long as a few hundred thousand were content to pay ten dollars a month, the company was willing to maintain the servers. But the world contracted. Servers were combined, one by one. And Gopal learned that canceled accounts never actually got deleted; instead they were suspended in perpetuity, waiting to be reactivated.

Then one day he got an email to his old hotmail account.

“Gayatri is waiting for you.”

He didn’t understand the email. When he googled it, he found nobody else had received one like it, only him. He assumed it was some sort of promotion, and he ignored it, but the emails kept coming: “Gayatri is waiting. Gayatri is waiting.”

Finally he clicked the links, was taken to a form that asked for money in order to reactivate his account. There was a moment of disappointment. He’d hoped, of course, that magic was real, and that the email had been some mystical call sent by the spirit of his youth. But at the same time, Gopal shrugged: whatever, it was a good marketing ploy on the company’s part—a way of juicing the fading revenues for an ancient game—and anyway he was a bit curious about what’d happened to the old stomping grounds after all these years. So he entered his credit card info and reactivated the account.

The graphics were jerky, the writing was moronic. Everything was tiny and stupid. He maneuvered that lithesome elf across a grainy tree-city, and he felt absolutely nothing, no sense of freedom, no sense of release. And when the fairy appeared and offered him a special quest to save the world, he clicked through the dialogue without paying attention. The lore had never truly interested him. He wasn’t actually sure what had.

But life these days was empty, and he had plenty of spare time, so he found himself playing through the quest, just to pass the time. His friends were gone. The world was lonely. When he queried the game for a player-list, he got a list of about a hundred active players, almost all of them extremely high in level. And they seemed to mostly be in Hub-City, a sky-world, added in one of the newer expansions, that had portals to all the end-game raid-zones.

Without any people, the rest of the game-world was luscious and overcrowded. The NPCs spawned continually and fought each other, leaving corpses filled with the best drops and rarest loot. Gayatri finished that quest, and it led into another. Slowly, with the benefit of a much faster internet connection, Gayatri gained a few levels. She took screenshots of the ogres running across the Desert of Ra, and of the flights of dragons in the sky-caverns above the Under-City. She observed the glitching of a hundred weather effects, creating the world-storms that wrecked servers, rearranging houses and teleporting players at random, shoving zones together willy-nilly in ways that were left unfixed, despite numerous bug reports from the players, until the next server reset put things back to rights.

She became an oracle and a seer, a witness not to the paltry lore of the game, but to its vitality, to the things within it that were not planned and that had come alive anyway. And unbeknownst to her, she became a legend to the few remaining players who lived above her. They traded sightings of Gayatri, of the wild woman who lived like an animal, far from merchants, far from traders, far from high-level trainers. The woman who spent time in the dead zones, the newb zones, and who had raised her affinity score, through strange rituals and quests, until she could walk unmolested through these fields of goblins and dark elves alike, until she could talk to every NPC and wear every armor and use every spell, regardless of faction.

Gopal’s mother called him every day, but the calls went unanswered, and when her and Gopal’s dad dropped by the apartment unexpectedly, she rapped on the door and, when it didn’t open, launched into a free-form anxiety-ridden monologue on the problems with her son and his life. “I’m just worried you’ve gotten back into that gaming. Please, come on, just speak to us. We only want to talk to you.”

“Arre, what can you do?” her husband interjected. “He’s a grown adult now. If he doesn’t want to come out, if he wants to reject his family and be some shut-in, then it is his choice!”

“When you’re not on the games, you’re so gentle and sweet. It truly is an addiction. I’ve been reading . . .”

One day, an administrator sent a notice to Gayatri, saying that because of some odd activity she was under suspicion of using third-party hacking tools, and as such a ban was being initiated.

But the character did not stop. She crept through the lattices of the game, undetectable by the servers, moving sidewise across zones and continents, waging a terrible and singular war that only she understood. The game needed her, and she needed the game.

And in a small apartment somewhere within a large city, a man was found dead in his home office with his computer still running in front of him.

From within the game, Gayatri viewed the laughing responses, the ugly news stories, the sensational details about the tied-off athletic socks full of fecal matter found in a duffle bag in the corner of his room—an image so bright and startling that it was turned into a meme and entered the lexicon: A “poop-socker” was a greasy nerd who had no life. Everything was reported in breathless detail, whether it was the mounds of old pizza boxes, complete with mice scuttling around searching for scraps, or the neighbors who had banged helplessly on his door, concerned about the smell, only to be threatened by him with legal action for violating his privacy. Not least of these attention-getting details was the fact, reported in every article, that his character had been a woman.

It only took a few months for a certain level of myth to accumulate around the dark, smelly body of that man who’d died, of dehydration and exhaustion, because he was too busy staring at the ass of his wood elf character. He became synonymous with everything that was dark and wrong about the internet, and in particular about men on the internet, and female characters in games across the net were now taunted with links to articles about Gopal’s sad end.

For her part, Gayatri perceived little change in her situation. Where once she had typed, now she exercised her own muscles. Where once her back had ached from hours in a chair, now it ached from running across the plains. In this world, she—the boy who had never exercised, never bathed, never showered, the catfish with his man-tits and distended belly—took quietly to the rustic life, living in a simple hut at the outskirts of a deserted city, hunting for her own food, mining and foraging for the resources to craft her own weapons, and embarking on occasional quests and explorations that always looped around to her cosy tree-top home. It is a quiet existence, interrupted only by occasional visits from curious players who’ve caught wind of the body of rumors that surround the humble wood elf, and it will probably continue until someday the company, due to a dwindling player population, withdraws support for the game, and between one breath and the next, Gayatri’s world disappears forever.

But between then and now, Gopal’s mother, not quite divorced but not quite married, grown sad and old, will respond to an anonymous message—“Gayatri is waiting.”

The messages will keep coming, until, driven to distraction, she pursues them down a pit of rumor and supposition that will lead her eventually to sit down at a computer, puzzle her way through the instructions, and install that old game. She will make her slow, careful way through the woodland hills, dying continuously from the newest and weakest of mobs, until finally she comes to a tree-top home, and there she and her daughter will sit down, next to a fire, and they will tell each other all the things that in life remained unsaid.

Naomi Kanakia

Naomi Kanakia is the author of two contemporary young adult novels, Enter Title Here (Disney ’16) and We Are Totally Normal (HarperTeen, ’20), both published under the name Rahul Kanakia. Additionally, her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Lightspeed, The Indiana Review, and Nature. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and newborn daughter.