The Moon in MMORPG

Bird flying over field
Photo by Sonny Mauricio on Unsplash

I.

His wife was a raven, flying. Beside her, another corvid, black and over-large. Their figures flickered on the screen, casting white light on his wife’s face, her real face, the face of pallid skin and distracted eyes.

The game had become, for Anita, a religion. In their suburban rambler at the tip of Copano Bay where the water lapped, then stilled depending on the season or maritime traffic, though usually the surface was only busy with seagulls—here she praised the night, the sham sky of her computer monitor, the machine humming and nearly overheated with the graphic overload of her simulated world.

The mice ran free and prone to harm.

II.

PRESS RELEASE – For Immediate Release

Fair Game is pleased to announce the newest technology in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. We are thrilled to introduce Corvus, where players are transformed into ravens, with the ability to fly, mate, and hunt. We have combined a new form of augmented reality with tactical immersion. Two electrodes, which connect to the temples, are all that players (“ravens”) need to relate to Corvus’s environment through touch, smell, taste, and sight. Our actors (“mice”) are real people physically affected by players’ movements. The hunt is real. In short, we have changed the world of physical laws.

III.

Their embrace stretched through a click of the minute hand. Anita turned her beak to him, her fat pink tongue. Their feathers ruffled in the breeze, quivered in mortal delight. Not her husband, Theo, not her once-beloved who had now turned so proper, so hum-drum with his dirty gardening palms and his pale herb garden, how he thrilled at old reality.

Below the two ravens, a mouse darted. She dove, but she could not catch it.

IV.

Theo searched the cupboard for the baker’s chocolate. He heard his wife shriek one room over from the kitchen—a now familiar sound, the volume pitched forward in an unnatural way. He had thought she was asleep, considering the hour. He crept to the office door and waited for an uncomfortable stretch of time. Then a muted scuffle, and the door opened into him, slamming against his loafers.

What are you doing? Anita asked, her young but haggard face masked by shadows. They had married a year ago, both at the age of thirty. It had been her green eyes that had made him weak for her.

I heard you were up. I came to check on you, he said.

Her dressing gown, the one with indigo buds, clung to her with sweat. Her hair was pushed back, exposing her flushed neck, and he noticed then—though he did not mean to notice—that the dull stone of her wedding ring was turned inwards towards her palm. She leaned on her cane. The residue from the game’s electrodes still clung to her temples.

I was playing the game, she said.

I heard, he said.

They moved around each other like two strangers trying to pass in a narrow, unfamiliar hallway.

I’ll make you some warm milk, he said, and reached out and grabbed her arm, gently, like a question.

It’s not right, he said. He sat across from her at the kitchen table.

How so? she said, though her eyes were not on him. She was watching the curtained window. She twirled her hair, tapped her red nails against the porcelain mug of milk, fresh from the can.

People get hurt. Real people, Theo said.

With their consent.

Sure, he said. He tried to hide judgement from his voice. But it’s so violent.

They get paid well. They know what’re they getting into, she said. Rebecca’s nephew does it.

He’s not a great example, he said.

She said nothing. She closed her mouth, closed her legs.

I’m concerned about you playing it, he said. Nothing good can come of it.

Half of them are terminal to begin with, she said.

So, what, it’s assisted suicide?

What if it is?

It seemed a good time for the doorbell to ring, for the tabby to push a dish to the floor, for a hunter’s gunshot to sound, here, outside the town’s ordinated shooting limits. Anything but this silence. Yet it was past midnight. Even the branches of the weeping willow did not knock against the window.

Ravens are not nocturnal, he said finally, just to hear his voice, her voice.

What do you know of it? she said.

I don’t know a lot, he said. Who do you play with?

Mice, she said.

I hear you speaking to someone else when you play, Theo said.

It’s nice to fly, she said.

V.

When Player 9840913 came to her each evening, she felt revived. This must be what adoration is, what loyalty looks like—his plume groomed and catching the low moonlight, as he circled down to lower branches to better see prey. As they hunted together, Anita checked off the logistical matters of leaving Theo. The splitting up of furniture, the lawyers, the problem of emotions and grief—what little might come—though it was sure to come.

Her lover with his loud, harsh call—he showed her the ruddy berries which tasted sour but fresh. Pure streams, cold on her pink tongue. And they glided. The sensation like jumping from a precipice without consequence. Her claws felt tacky on the bark of unburnt branches. She smelled, simply, soil and uncut grass. It was fine to love both Theo and 9840913 in a world that must be split—two existences and different suns.

VI.

PRESS RELEASE – For Immediate Release

Fair Game has heard the public’s concerns. We do not take them lightly. The wellbeing of our actors (“mice”) is paramount. We have thorough protocols in place to make sure our actors are fully cognizant of their role in the game. Our pay-to-play model ensures that our actors receive regular, robust compensation. Actors are given mental health screenings, access to doctors and emergency medical services, and robust employee benefits. Anonymous contracts for Corvus actors are available on our website, for educational purposes.

VII.

In the morning, he took his tacklebox and fishing pole to the pier. He watched seagulls fight over crab. A raven stole down and picked at a washed-up redfish, still flailing, yet swollen, greyed. The raven took nips at it, hopped sideways, finally went for the wet, blank eyes. Fewer people meant less garbage to scavenge.

He watched the Texas sunrise over the calm waters. He cast his line. He hoped for spotted seatrout, black drum, sheepshead. Signs dotted the beach, warning of contaminants. Someone had pockmarked them with bullet holes.

All was quiet. In the last couple of years, he had noticed that fewer and fewer people came here, or came outside altogether. He was often alone, though sometimes he could see a boat bobbing, the silhouette of one person, also solitary, also silent.

After a couple of hours, he packed up and hauled the ice chest. The ice shifted inside as he dragged it along the rough gravel to his truck in the parking lot. Perched on his cab, a raven preened her wings.

His heart felt wrong, again. Short of breath, shaky, he hauled himself inside the truck and turned the radio on. Static, pulsating static. What had the doctor said? Less stress? But also glossy, costly pills. His little secret, that he would carry this thing in his body, and not even his wife would know. It felt good to have something all his own.

VIII.

Her body was a haunt of last year’s smoke and smoot. After the wildfire, the town clotted by a saturnine glow, she remembered saying to Theo, It must be an ending, and he had not responded. Everything wore a hard slap of copper, the sun—a harlot’s blush. Beneath each sea, in the obsidian murk, tectonic plates waited for their cue. Her existence, her husband’s, her passerine lover’s—all a moon tread towards eclipse. Had they not already lost so many friends and family members to the shimmering shelter of augmented reality? No one answered the door nowadays. Smoke, more smoke, then snow on embers. If she was a raven, she was at least elsewhere. Her spoiled hip did not ache. She wouldn’t kill, but she had the option, and it made her feel whole. She could fly towards a poppy field that looked like fire but was in fact grass-stained and obscuring shuddery prey.

IX.

Theo returned home smelling of blood. Fish scales glittered his t-shirt. He regretted his job as the grocery’s butcher. When people arrived for their cuts, they asked so many questions. Which bay did the catch come from? Was it tested? Was the beef enhanced? They interrogated employees about tomatoes, the pasteurized cheese. Husbands followed each other around, watching what they put into their baskets, as if they that would help them make decisions. Customers knew the answers to their questions, but still they badgered on.

Finally off work, but now the tabby pawed at him, followed him as he entered and took off his boots. She nipped at his heels as he walked to the kitchen. Her food bowl was empty. A dead fly floated in her water.

My little Missy, he said.

She rolled on her back and pawed at the air. Her belly was white and pink and vulnerable. She sneezed.

You’ve not been fed.

He filled her bowl with kibble, then added canned salmon on top as a sort of apology. Theo put on gloves to wash the dishes by hand. He preferred it that way—the tactile, repetitive effort. Down the hallway, muffled sounds of perch and pounce came through the shut door. Always a shut door. A raven’s gurgling croak, but his wife.

X.

The wildfire smoke was returning. It had blanketed further north in a malignant haze. He remembered the year before. The useless dusty scarf wrapped around his face, only his eyes visible. Unable to produce tears. Fruit from the market had tasted of soot, no matter how long he soaked it in the souring water. Anita had turned inwards. She had stopped combing her hair.

The moon outside—full and red from the smokey boil, announcing the smoke’s approach. He wondered about the sky in Corvus, if it mocked theirs with soft, glacier-white clouds. He could ask his wife, he knew.

How are you today? he said.

I’m fine, she said. Her body was halfway out of the doorframe, leaning into the office, where the computer hummed. She was coifed, her eyes were bright, but she gripped her cane—

white-knuckle. Theo noticed her tremor. He reached for her, but she leaned back slightly.

Have a good day, he said.

I will, she said, and closed the door behind her.

XI.

PRESS RELEASE – For Immediate Release

Fair Game has heard the public’s concerns. We are grateful for your questions. Our actors (“mice”) give full consent. Casualty is covered under their contracts. Corvus actors are reminded of the risk of casualty each quarter. 0.5 percent of our actors finish. Finishing provides their family with a full life insurance packet and dividends. Our unwavering commitment is to our valued staff, actors, and players. We thank the public for bringing their concerns to us, and we will continue to listen. Here at Fair Game, we are proud to bring the world the newest technology in augmented reality, and we will continue to grow and expand Corvus so that all might enjoy our products.

XII.

Theo’s fishing spot always waited for him, it seemed. There, he watched a raven watch the weeds. Beside him, in the brush, he saw a tiny toast-colored body. A mouse slept, quivering. He held his hand over the mouse, casting it in full shadow. The baker’s chocolate, warmed by his shirt pocket, was bitter and familiar. He let it melt on his tongue, mask the gummy taste of ash that never seemed to leave.

When he thought of Anita, he thought of her in a warm glow, surrounded by clover and daylight. Once she had sat with him on worn driftwood at a distant unnamed beach, and she had fed him avocado and chamomile tea. She had just taken off her t-shirt to ring out the sea, her bra—stained and water-heavy. He remembered thinking that she was worth wherever their path ended—embers, strawberry dusks, pushed by a blaze to the brink of a limestone ledge—and if this is how it all ended, he would remember to say thank you, kiss her bubblegum lips, stained by the sky, corvid-dark.

Theo hawked up blood.

Clearing the lungs, he said to no one. He laughed.

He placed his palm on the sandy grass beside the mouse, felt the heat of the earth. Beyond him, the shore moved away, unperceptively, like time that sulks off to tomorrow. He untied his boots, dug his toes into the muck’s warmth. The sun set behind Texas. Somewhere, he could not see quite yet, the moon rose.

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