#62: BLACK TREE
The door opened.
Creaking, a deeply unsettling feeling nestled itself in Ryuuji. He had unleashed something unto the world, as if the door was holding back some sort of presence. And then it spoke:
"Oh, a visitor."
The woman held the door open for Ryuuji as he walked in. The room was a mess of paper, and he found it difficult to find ample space to stand. Bookshelves lined with volumes of text in no particular order except for whatever its resident had deemed fit. Textbooks opened to various pages encircling them. A tall window was the only light in the room aside from the small lamp at his desk behind him. It had begun to rain on the car ride over, and the outside world was distorted by the wet window. Lightning illuminated the room, and above the desk, staining the wall in ink:
TO THE WATERS AND THE WILD
WITH A FAERY HAND IN HAND
FOR THE WORLD'S MORE FULL OF WEEPING THAN YOU UNDERSTAND
The room’s owner was revealed sitting underneath it. His face had sunk deep beneath a head of hair that hadn’t been cut for a while. The plain black lounging outfit he wore seemed to be inseparable from his skin, like a natural feature. He looked Ryuuji straight in the eye and began to speak.
"Do you like it? It's W.B. Yeats. How many years ago was it now that I first heard this poem? It feels like another lifetime. The aching of my bones as I move around in this room are the only thing that reminds me that time has passed at all. It was probably back then, around the time that was the beginning of all this. Around the time that I first saw the black tree.
"There was no rhyme or reason to it. At that time in my life I was finishing up my university days, just barely making it in after spending my high school years addicted to online games. I was a big fan, maybe unhealthily so, of all those old companies before Pluto's Kiss. The only thing that kept me studying was dreams of working at Umihara and developing those same games I loved.
"After Pluto's Kiss, I felt that despair everyone who was online before the 77 minutes did. That careful sadness that just couldn't be explained. Parents didn't understand. Friends didn't understand. The internet allowed for deeper connections than real life, and it was all lost in that one fell swoop. The political fallout after is one thing, but the losses on a personal level are innumerable.
"When I learned that a company called CyberConnect was developing the first online game since that awful day, I jumped at the chance to be one of its developers. Some goddess or the other shined upon me, because I became one of their few post-graduate hires, which was a small pool in those days considering how small the company was. I began working right around the time the beta test began. There were people seemingly from all around the world. This group of 1000, while random, seemed to be the results of many localized lotteries--they were specifically looking for users from all corners of the world.
"The test, for the most part, was what you would expect of an online game, and I partook so naturally that I almost forgot I was an employee. We wore clunkier, less consumer-friendly HMDs that were sent to us by mail to access the game. The feeling was unmatched. Of course, I would find out later this was the result of something far more sinister happening.
"For the most part people would simply play as if it were another online game. The lack of centralized discussion boards outside the game meant almost all communication was facilitated in the game itself. Players you met in towns and the conversations you had with them were the only sources of information exchange you could find, and as such each player possessed their own personal database of knowledge. I think, however, this was intentional by the developers, as we were expected to write a report of our experiences when it was over, so it was best to keep those experiences as uninfluenced as possible.
"So I played the game. But, perhaps, I took my role as beta tester too seriously. I became frustrated with the world around me, as players were simply playing and not testing. My enjoyment of the game quickly changed over the few months it was open, becoming less play and more akin to QA. I would obsessively note every imperfection I saw in the game, every bug, every error--it was a form of neurosis that I'm still afflicted by. Then came the day this," he said, motioning around the room, "all began."
"Deep night. Early morning. Whatever you'd like to call it--but I was online when I should've been asleep. I had been testing network latency; essentially transporting myself in and out of areas as I saw fit to see how many inputs it would take for the server to crash. Then I arrived there--the place where a Heavy Blade and a Wavemaster had been leaving. They were European, speaking German--a language I can speak fluently. The man told me to turn back, as the dungeon up ahead was bugged. The same enemy appearing over and over, he said, and it didn't even put up a fight. We got into an argument. I told him it was our duty as beta testers to seek these things out and engage them. It was the least we could do for being let into the beta test. He told me that wasn't what mattered to him, only that he had a good time playing with his daughter. The Wavemaster looked on, and I decided to stand down. A losing battle.
"They left the area. I continued on through the snow into the area. The dungeon was normal, no visual glitches or errors. As the father outside had said, however, the monster portal was decidedly bugged. Each one I would open, a fairy-like creature would appear--only a single one. 'Bring me to my end,' it would say, and it would repeat this in the same monotonous voice until I defeated it. Each portal, the end, the end, the end, it wanted me to bring it to its end, and I complied. I thought nothing of it at the time--I was simply testing it.
"Bring me to my end."
"And I did. Finally I had made it to the Gott Statue. The fairy had dropped no items, and this was the only chest in the area. When I tried to open it, however, it stood firmly shut. It sat there, and I assumed it must be part of the area's issues. I decided it was time to leave, but the Sprite Ocarina did not work. Perhaps a network error, one would assume, and as such I went to lift the HMD off my head.
"But it was gone.
"The weight of the HMD had disappeared. Suddenly I felt my body weight shift and a damp feeling across the membranes of my skin. The chest was in front of me, actually in front of me. I lifted it open carefully. The fairy appeared one final time, the room began to shake, my bones, I could feel it, my bones, the room, and then there was a white light, a flash that wrapped me in its light.
"When I came to I was staring at a wooden home at the bottom of a hill. It was twilight, and I was a guest. I looked around inside the home, a small wooden manor. A bed with teddy bears, a nightstand with an empty birdcage. Old framed photographs lined the walls. A grandfather clock's bell rang with long, deep rings, but it did not stop after twelve. It became unbearable, and I left the house. I made out the shapes of people at the top of the hill, standing apart underneath a black tree. This black tree beckoned, and I followed. As I got closer I noticed it was only one person--a man in a chair. The other was a dress standing upright. An unnatural thing devoid of a body. As I approached the man began to speak.
'--It's always like this.
'--I knew it in the depths of my heart that it would be like this.'
'--I still came, I still wanted it to be the truth.'
'--Where does that lie, now?'
'--A mystic union between two souls.'
'--Was there truth to that?'
'--Traveler, take this to heart.'
"And he told me the poem.
"After that, the earth itself began to rumble in rebellion of the exchange that had just happened. It felt like the planet had stopped moving and nature began to implode on itself. The Spear and I made contact, it appeared out of thin air, into my hands. The man was swallowed by his chair, and the room began to gouge itself out. The entire area broke into fragments, and I was in limbo--the only thing I could be sure of after that was the sensation of the spear in my hands: The Spear of Wotan.
"By the time my senses had returned to me, I was sitting in a board room I had never seen before.
"A group of men sat in front of me, people who were separate from the test. I had never seen them before. There were forms in front of me. NDAs, something like that. The atmosphere of the room seemed to say I wasn't allowed to leave unless I signed them, and I did. Then the center-most figure placed a tape recorder on the desk and began to ask questions. I told them exactly what I've told you now.
"I got put on the debug team after that. The spear was copied and handed out among staff. My young self had suddenly found himself in a position of power, and it was unusual. My noble tendencies became more pronounced, and I regret the way I acted those days... it was a different time, a different man.
"Slowly, surely, over time, that name abandoned me, and I became another man once again. Strange things started to happen--visions, overtaking my regular life at times. I became unable to distinguish the real world from what I had seen in the game, something that had felt like reality. I became unable to work. The doctors only diagnosed me with epilepsy, but...
"If it hadn't been for that tree, if it hadn't been for that damned tree, maybe I'd be okay. Maybe I'd be living a normal life. Maybe I'd be a father he could be proud of. I'm sorry, really, I am sorry, but this is the fate that's smiled upon me.
"I can't do it. I can't do it anymore. I can't.
"I just can't, that tree, you understand, that tree, that damned black tree."