I tipped the large cardboard box over, spilling expanded polystyrene across the carpet of my bedroom.
Rummaging around inside the box I found the Future Of Gaming console and the headset controller with it.
Both were painted a matt black, both had the FOG logo and annoying slogan printed on them too.
"'Welcome to the future'," I read. "God, that's so dorky."
"I was going to say that," replied Suzie, from the phone I had clamped between my head and shoulder.
She was in Seattle, where she'd always been. I was in Miami, the place I was born.
Yes, we are a couple, I assure you, no we've never met in real life. It's not like that, really.
Actually, I do know what she looks like. We send each other pictures and call each other all the time.
We met in a chatroom, no I'm not saying which one, a year ago. We hit it off straight away and we've been a
couple ever since. Yeah, she likes computer games almost as much as I do.
Suzie is a cutie, as I've always said. She's 17 years old (like me), about 5'2", with blond hair
(that she dyed blue a month ago) and the most beautiful set of curves, in spite of her height.
I remember this one time, when she sent me this photo once, of herself, completely topless except for a white
ribbon tied around her gorgeous boobs - I almost died! No, it was quite tasteful really.
Long story short, I love her to bits, and I'm sure she loves me too.
The headset in my hand was very large, but remarkabley light.
The horseshoe-shaped main section that conatined the viewing screen and ear plugs was attached to the
neural interceptor port using secure-looking belts reinforced with metal wires.
Leading from the interceptor was a single electrical wire leading to a plastic plug that matched the
plug socket on the console's side. I looked over the console. It was circular, with a plug socket
on opposite sides for two headset controllers and a dip in the centre of the top, where the logo was
"It looks like a donut," I said flatly.
"I know, isn't it cute?" Suzie replied. Her voice indicated she was every bit as excited as me.
I'd been waiting two years for this console and now I was really excited. The industry promoted the FOG
console prolifically, even when its release date was suddenly delayed for a year.
When it finally came out it made record-breaking first-day sales, even with the whopping $800 price tag.
From the day it was released, Suzie and I had saved every penny we earned and read every review we
found of this machine. Suzie had bought her own only two days ago.
I had spent the last six months waiting for this moment. I knew it was worth it. I just hoped it worked.
There was only one game program to run on it. A full-immersion internet-based
RPG-style game world, like virtual reality, but better.
"David?" Suzie asked, "what are you doing?"
"I'm looking at the interceptor," I replied.
Better because of the neural interceptor. This little invention is pressed against the back of the
neck and translates nerve impulses into in-game movements, and vice-versa.
"Oh, it's so cool! It makes the world you enter feel really real," Suzie told me.
"You can feel the wind blowing through your avatar's hair, the rain beating on her face,
the cloth hugging her thighs, the weight of the sword on her back, the beating heart in her chest,
everything! It's amazing!!"
"Sounds it. I can't wait," I said.
"Meanwhile, the interceptor keeps your own body breathing and your own heart pumping in the real world.
And if your avatar gets hit, the interceptor filters out all the pain-"
"I know all that already," I said, perhaps too bluntly. I'd read a lot about the game.
We've been looking forward to this for so long now, we'll get to hang out together,
not like in Ultima Online or on ICQ, but really hang out. I'd be able to see her, be with her, touch her.
I couldn't wait.
"Well sorry," she replied, indignantly.
The game takes place in an fully-functioning artificial world. Ether is its name. It's a mix of many things,
fantasy and sci-fi, real world locations and imaginary continents. Basically a catch-all wonderland.
They say the sheer scale of the Ether world itself is what made them put the release date back.
Apparently, not even one percent of it is 'colonised' so far by users. I remember the internet ad campaign,
cleverly sidestepping the usual censors to proclaim that Ether is as big as Heaven itself and "twice as fun".
Somehow I doubt the same slogan would've been so successful in a mainstream medium, though I prefered it to
their tacky 'Welcome to the future' commercials on TV. I prefered it 'coz the idea of Gods runs through
the whole game.
"The developers made their own 'God' avatars for Ether," Suzie added. These avatars have powers in the game
that are way above that of the normal users."
"I heard about that. People say their power is even infinite within the game."
"They're called Gods for a reason. Why there's even temples set up that are dedicated to them.
The most powerful one of them all is Lance Quaid, the head programmer. His avatar is-"
"Lancelot. I know." I know this already too. I know all about the Order of Lancelot.
It was exactly where I wanted to be in Ether. At Lancelot's side. He's a man I really wanna meet.
Forget Ether, I practically worshipped him in the real world. The man is an undeniable genius.
Everyone knows FOG was his brainchild and now he has half the online community worshipping him.
To the FOG users, he really is a God. If only I could join the Order of Lancelot and meet Lance Quaid.
Yeah, the guy even has his own Knightly Order. I mean, how cool is that?
"Yeah," Suzie said. No indignant apology this time, she's probably not mad at me.
"He has an amazing temple in Epic City, where his Order's HQ is," she added. "A real temple!
You should see it, it's... it's... beyond words!!"
"Epic City? Cool, that'll be my first stop."
"I'll meet you there," Suzie giggled.
I found the right plug socket on the donut and inserted the bulky headset cable.
A moment later, Suzie asked, "Do you know about Sages?"
"They're the guys hired to keep the peace, right?"
"Yeah. When Ether first came online, a load of gamers were hired to be Sages.
They can do some things a normal user can't, so they can enforce the laws of Ether.
Some call them Wisemen or High Priests, but it all means the same thing:
They stand between the average users and the Gods. There are plenty of them about.
They get paid to play the game all day."
"Sounds like a dream job. Could I become a Sage?"
"Only if you're good enough, I think. You'd have to be very good..."
"Or know the right people."
"I guess. You have to report any unscrupulous avatars to the nearest Sage."
"Firstly, people who've hacked the system, given themselves powers way above that of your average user.
They're called Devils. Rumour has it there are some as powerful as the Gods."
"I haven't met a Devil yet, but I woudn't want to either. They tend to keep a low profile.
Then there are the usual player-killer crowd. Murder's a crime in Ether, so you should report player killers
to a Sage as well."
"Kill the monsters, not the players, okay. Just like every other internet game."
"David," Suzie mock-whined, "you're not going to be too busy killing things, are you?"
"Of course not, Cutie," I replied. "You know exactly why I got the FOG!"
She giggled and replied, "Of course I do! Oooh, wait till you see my avatar!"
I asked her what her avatar looked like.
"She looks just like me, of course! I spent forever putting my measurements into the game!
Oh, but I'm an elf, not a human! I love my little pointy ears, you have to see them!"
"Cool! I can't wait! What class are you?"
"I'm a Rogue," she said, gleefully. I could practically hear her smile!
"You're a loveable rogue," I replied. I put the last plug in place. "Look, I'm all set up here,
I'll have to hang up now. With luck, I'll see you in Epic City in half an hour."
"Yeah, okay. Remember, you'll have to find me, I don't know what you're going to look like!"
"I will, Honey. Love you!"
"I love you too!"
I hung up the phone and looked back at the console. This was it, the moment of truth. I went to the toilet.
Five minutes later I returned and sat down on the large bean bag in front of the FOG.
I took the headset in my hands and looked around my apartment one last time. Then I lay back,
as told in the instructions, and slipped the headset on. I depressed the power button on the helmet
and waited for the console's modem to connect...
Suddenly I couldn't feel my body anymore. I looked about, but everything was black, and so I couldn't see
my body anymore either. I saw a glimmer in the distance, then a white square about ten foot high came zooming
towards me out of the void. I turned from it, but it moved with me, remaining directly in the centre of my field
of vision. It grew and grew, until it filled my entire field of view. I couldn't tell whether it was still
growing or not. Then something appeared on the surface of the square, rippling into existence.
It was the FOG logo! Then a message followed:
WELCOME TO ETHER
Cool, I thought to myself, it's working!
Then another message appeared:
REALITY CHECK: 1 hour
This was the safety feature built in to Ether, to remind you every so often that what you're doing is playing a
computer game. I heard there were difficulties in bringing gametesters out of the virtual world if they weren't
reminded. It must have felt too real for them or something. And it's probably dangerous to remove the headset
from someone if they're still connected to Ether. Shock, for one thing. So they created this Reality Check,
like an alarm clock, to wake you from your dreams.
I thought, Yes I want to change the Reality Check, and then a new message appeared:
Three hours will do, I thought. I wanted to get a good play out of this thing before being reminded that
it's only a game.
REALITY CHECK: 3 hours
Yes, I willed. The screen in front of me changed again.
Reality Check can be altered at any time
And with that, the screen fled into the distance, vanishing in the darkness. I waited patiently for a moment,
then another screen whirled towards me, until it filled my field of vision again. This one was blue and one it
appeared the white letters:
START IN: Epic City
Please select what you want to alter
Then a wire-frame model appeared between myself and the screen, slowly rotating. It was meant to be a human male,
but it just looked like a muscle-bound freak.
This must be the basic model, I thought. Have to change that, then. I thought about advanced appearence options,
and all of a sudden I was presented with a screen full of measurements, each one paired to a scroll bar.
Making a likeness of myself suddenly became a little more daunting.
Then it hit me. Why should I bother making an avatar that looks like me? Here I could be someone else
entirely. Maybe I could give my Suzie a real surprise!
I mean, this is just a game right? What do I have to lose? With that in mind, I set about creating
my first avatar.....