I’m bored of that world. The world without latency. Nothing ever happens there. I get to do awesome stuff in my other worlds. I’ve single-handedly saved my worlds from tyrants, crime lords, demons, plagues… you name it. But never the world without latency. I’m not allowed to be a hero there.
I’ll go to the medieval world today. I’ll be strong and challenged there. I’ll feel adrenaline. I’ll hear my heart pound like a war drum in my ears. The medieval world is intense. Everyone wears cool, silver armors that sparkle in the sun. You get these awesome battle scars from all the terrifying monsters you beat. I’m buff there, too. Not all skin and bones like I am in the world without latency. No, the medieval world is where I’ll spend today.
I appear in dirt streets filled with wooden shops and stalls. There are no lines, of course. All the shop owners are here just for me. The townspeople are the same way. They all walk in circles, perpetually shouting for joy or crying in despair, the din of conversation repeating on an endless loop. People here say the same things over and over again, but I like their voices more than their words. Their sort of scottish accents, the way they sound so upbeat and grateful all the time.
The townspeople tell me about lost dogs and troubles in distant kingdoms, and I accept a quest to go rescue the butcher’s daughter. Some of the people even give me things. A potion that I shove in my backpack, some money as thanks for a quest that I’ve already forgotten… stuff like that. When I’m in the medieval world, I spend every day feeling like I’m strutting down the red carpet at Hollywood.
I run around outside for a few hours, slaying whatever monsters are unlucky enough to cross my path. My stats are so high that I think I could just poke the bad guys and they’d fall over and die. Not like in the world without latency, where my stats are so low that I couldn’t fight a house cat, let alone a demon. I wish I could boost my stats there. But someone like me could never level up, and besides, there’s not a number for the stuff that’s important there, like “how well you can you ask people out” or “how well you can deal with stupid people.” None of my worlds have numbers like that.
I can remember when the medieval world used to be hard, but today it isn’t. My body is so jacked here that I can run for miles and miles and not hit zero stamina. I rescue the butcher’s daughter like it’s nothing. Swinging my massive greatsword is effortless. The monsters cower, the people cheer, I get richer, and I’m supposed to feel amazing about myself for doing nothing. It’s boring. Just as boring as the world without latency. Maybe more boring. I’ll try a new world tomorrow.
I’m frustrated with that world. The world without latency. See, it started out when my that-world Mom came up to me and told me that I had to eat at least once. That was fine—the world without latency has some pretty great food, sometimes—but after that, she just stood there. Like she expected me to stay in her world. But it’s not her choice. I can spend my days in any world that I want to. Like today. I think I’ll go to the running world.
I’ll be fast in the running world. I’ll feel the wind tickle my scalp. My legs will ache and burn. I’ll feel sweat dripping into my eyes. The running world is simple. I’m trim and lean in that world, and I’ve got this great build to me. Not as big and bulky as I am in the medieval world, but still strong. And tall. Really tall. It took me ages of leveling up to get that tall, but now I look down on everyone instead of having everyone look down on me.
I appear on an empty dirt road, and I start running. Sometimes when I come here, the ground is astroplane in some sort of rainbow color that sparkles under the sunlight. Sometimes it’s an empty street at night, and I run under flickering fluorescent street lamps. There’s dozens of different settings, but it’s always the same goal: run. Pump my legs forward and jump over any hurdle that comes at me. It’s nice. Refreshing.
Sometimes I wish it could be that simple in the world without latency. In the running world, I see a hurdle and I jump. If I time it right, I’ll sail right over it every time. There’s no fear, no worry. I just jump. I win races, they put medals on me that don’t mean anything, and then I keep running, watching the world turn into a blur as I bolt past.
Running is great for a few hours. It really is. But the more I run, the worse I feel. It’s stupid, I know. The world without latency doesn’t matter right now. But this one little thought nags me, and that’s the fact that I’ll never be able to jump hurdles like this, back in that other world. I don’t have these nice, strong legs to run on. My legs there are the wrong kind of slender. I always cover them up with a blanket because I hate seeing how gross and atrophied they’ve become.
But this is a better place to run, anyway. This is what the runner’s world is made for. It’s a simple, easy place. The only thing I have to do here is run. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to feel anything. Just run.
I’m wary of that world. The world without latency. My that-world Mom told me that Jamie dropped by again. I thought Jamie had given up a long time ago, like my friends did. I never blamed anyone for that. I gave up on the world without latency. It makes sense that people would give up on that version of me.
The thing is, Jamie and me had something really nice when my stats weren’t so god-awful. But that world is really stupid at stats. You can be doing okay, and have great stats, and suddenly, boom, they all hit zero. One bad moment, and now it’s all zero. Strength? Zero. Stamina? Zero. Speed? Zero. Whatever stat makes people think you’re worth anything? Zero.
At least, I think so. But I still don’t get why Jamie keeps coming back. Maybe Jamie has a high pity stat. No, that’s not it. I hate people with a high pity stat, and I don’t hate Jamie.
It doesn’t matter, anyway. I’m not going back to that world. I think I’ll go to the detective world today. I’ll be important there. People will treat me like I’m smart. It’ll feel like I matter, like I’ve done something with my day. I’ll get to help people in the detective world. Help them find closure. I think closure must feel really, really cool.
I get dropped straight into a crime scene. There’s a guy lying on the ground, his blood and guts spread out across the road. The whole place is cordoned off with yellow police tape, and the officers in blue are talking about how it looks like a standard hit-and-run.
I know what my line is supposed to be right now. I’m supposed to tell them that it’s not a hit-and-run, it’s a murder. But I can’t. I can’t stand the sight of a dead guy on the road with tire tracks running over top of him, the air reeking of burning rubber from a failed attempt at braking. I know how it must’ve felt for him—being blinded by the oncoming headlights, hearing the skidding tires scream at you to run away, trying to jump out of the way, and feeling your body fling through the air. Feeling your bones crack inside of you. Feeling your brain slam against your skull.
And now I’m supposed to tell the other police officers that this was faked? There’s nothing in the world that’s more real than this god-awful scene.
Besides, there’s no difference between a hit-and-run and a murder. It amounts to the same thing. Especially when the driver hits you just right, and you spend five months in the hospital where they do all these terrible surgeries trying to stitch you back together, and now it hurts you to breathe, and you feel like that will never go away, and for the rest of your life, you’re not going to be able to move anything below your chest, and even your arms are so weak that it takes forever to move the stupid things, and you realize that you are, and will always be, dead to the world. People can come and visit you and stand over your bedside and feed you all they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that you aren’t there anymore. A hit-and-run is still a murder because now, you are nothing.
I close my eyes and let myself drift out of all my worlds. I don’t like the detective world anymore. There’s too much latency there. Too much ping. Too much lag between what I want to do and what actually happens. I’ll pick a new world tomorrow.
I’m scared of that world. The world without latency. My that-world Dad keeps trying to get me back into highschool, online this time. He’s still being gentle, but I know how his AI works. First he’ll be gentle, then he’ll get firmer and firmer until he grabs me by the legs, heaves me over his back like a sack of potatoes, and throws me outside until I give in and do what he says. Maybe his pity stat is high enough that he won’t give me the sack treatment. But he will get firm. He’ll make me do it. I already missed one school year. He’s not going to let me miss another one.
He doesn’t understand what it’s like. When I see a normal person out my window. When I watch someone walk around like it’s nothing or grip something with their perfectly-functioning hands. I feel like shouting at them. Or maybe begging them, to share with me, and let me be them, just for one day. Just one is all I want. In my other worlds, when the Game Over screen pops up, I just push a button and start again. In the world without latency, Game Over happened seven months ago and there was no option to continue.
So I’m not going back. Dad can take away my other worlds, but he can’t force me to stay in the world without latency, and he knows it. I’ll go to a different world. I’ll pick a nice one and stay there forever. How about the forest world? That’ll be a good world for today. That world will try to break me, but I’ll win the fight. That world will make me feel like a conqueror. Like I can beat anything life throws at me.
I get thrown into a set of woods with only my clothes and a knife. It’s a weird kind of forest where I’m strong enough to punch down trees with my bare fists and where there isn’t any civilization no matter how far I go.
The first thing I do is make a big, roaring fire. It’s super easy in the forest world. It doesn’t matter that it’s pouring with rain and all the wood is soaked. All I have to do is smack some sticks together in the general direction of some wood, and boom. Fire.
Then I sharpen some sticks and make some spears, and pretty soon I’ve killed and skinned a few deer, and I have this awesome set of hide clothing that fits like a glove. I boil some lake water so I’ll have something to drink, I make a nice tent with some wood and some hides, and I even light a few torches around my camp, to show the rest of the forest that this is my place. My heart races at the thrill of beating the odds and surviving, of showing that the world can’t beat me. But then it hits me. Why does it matter that I’m surviving?
I don’t have any goals here. There’s no golden city at the end of a long, hard battle. There’s no cup of hot chocolate waiting for me after staving off the cold. If I just wanted to survive, I could do that in the world without latency. I am doing that, and it’s much, much harder there.
Do people really think it’s hard going in the forest world? Try a world where your legs are paralyzed and you don’t have enough arm strength to get in and out of a wheelchair. Try a world where your walls are filled with pictures of pro soccer players because staring at pictures of people living your dream is easier than telling your parents to rip them all down. Try a world where everyone looks at you with pity and talks to you softly because they think you’re super fragile when the truth is, you’re tougher now than you ever, ever wanted to be. That is a world where survival is hard. That’s a world that will kill you.
But I’m still scared to go back there. To the world without latency. So I stay in the forest world. I wrap my arms around my fully-functional legs and I let my tears mingle with the rain.
All but one of my worlds have latency. It averages around sixty milliseconds and sometimes spikes up to one hundred. Just one-tenth of a second, at maximum. A lot of people say it’s so low that you can’t even feel it, but they’re wrong. I feel that sixty milliseconds, and it’s an eternity to me. Every time I take an action, that sixty milliseconds is there to remind me of the one thing that I have desperately, desperately tried to forget.
None of the other worlds are real.
They only exist behind screens, streams of ones and zeros that have nothing whatsoever to do with real life. All of the wishing, running, and hiding in the world won’t change the fact that there is only one real world. I don’t want to go back to it. I don’t want to face the fact that some jerk slammed her car into me after a few too many drinks, and now I’m stuck on a bed for the rest of my life while she’s out on parole.
If only it wasn’t for that latency. If only everything happened instantly, then maybe I could lose myself in a different world where things make sense and where I can be what I want to be. But I’m sick of the lag.
I look out the window. It’s very, very late. The sky is completely black, and the whole house is dead quiet. I stare down the little black beeper my parents keep at the side of my bed. I know that my Dad has work tomorrow, and I know that he and Mom won’t get any sleep if I press that button. But I also know that if I don’t call them up here, I’ll slip away again, out of this world and into one one of the other ones, where I’m strong, and important, and whole. Those worlds are only a few keystrokes away.
I press the little black button, then listen as my parents sprint up the stairs like a herd of elephants. They’re both in their PJs, but they look wide awake. It’s been ages since I called them up here in the middle of the night.
“Are you okay?” Dad asks. “How are you feeling? Are you having a hard time breathing? Do you need to go to the bathroom?”
I shake my head.
“I… I just…” my mouth stumbles over the words. I haven’t talked in weeks. The sound of my own voice is unfamiliar to me.
“Can you sit with me?” I ask. “Just… just for a little?”
“Of course,” my mom says. “Anything you want.” She and Dad sit down on the couch next to my bed. They look at me like I’m going to burst out crying or something. Maybe they’re right.
I strain at my arm until it moves over to my mom. She hesitates, since I usually get pretty mad when people try to touch me. Finally, she reaches out and grabs my hand.
There’s no latency in her touch. None at all. I can feel her warmth, her gentle pulse. My heart fills up, fuller than it ever gets in the fake worlds.
“Keep me here,” I whisper. “Please. Don’t let go of me. Keep me here.”
Ben Watson is an English undergraduate at BYU-Idaho who tutors in the Writing Center and runs a writing workshop on campus. In his spare time, Ben enjoys reading, cooking, singing at the top of his lungs, and wishing he’d gotten more sleep instead of staying up all night writing.
© 2020, Ben Watson