As Bruce turned on his computer, this childhood rhyme played eerily in his mind:
Five little ducks went out one day,
Over the hills and far away.
Mother duck said, “Quack Quack Quack Quack.”
But only four little ducks came back.
Bruce had just spent a long day at work and was ecstatic to find out that the new expansion of his favorite massively multiplayer online game, Realms of Combat, was now available. He signed in as Bruce255 and checked to see if any of his other gaming buddies were online. He quickly recognized KeiraM, Parsnips, Sturgont, and Tariq_the_ValorousVagabond.
“Hey, guys,” Bruce255 audiochatted into his headset. “How is this level?”
“There’s not much to do,” said Sturgont.
Bruce255 looked around him and so far he had to agree. They were on a grassy plain beneath a dreary sky. Reggae-influenced muzak was playing on the soundtrack. In the distance was some sort of Gothic manor house.
“Maybe we’re supposed to head over there,” said Parsnips.
“Only thing there is to do,” agreed Tariq_the_ValorousVagabond. "I wouldn't mind getting a close look it. The masonry appears solid but with an elaborate facade and expensive balustrade above."
"Do me a favor and don't talk about architecture in the middle of a fight," said KeiraM. "I need to know that you have my back."
A moment later they had reached the doors. A bunch of guys brandishing swords and pistols burst out of the manor and tried to stop them from entering. The skirmish lasted until Bruce and his friends managed to push the other players off the front landing. Then they went through the doors and bolted them from the inside.
They found themselves in a spacious room paneled with dark wood. The paintings hanging on the walls were so ancient or badly cared for that they were flaking away. The soundtrack had changed to a haunting Classical or Romantic art song, perhaps Schubert or one of the Schumanns.
“Neat atmosphere,” said Bruce255.
“I don’t know,” said Sturgont. “Doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun. I want go back to that city where we battled all those cyberwarriors.”
“Welcome,” came a new voice. “It is indeed a bit of change, isn’t it?”
The gamers turned around to face a silver-haired woman in an elegant dress.
“Yeah, it is a bit of change,” said Parsnips.
“Won’t you sit down and have a bite to eat?” asked the woman. She stepped towards a dining table lined with delicate art nouveau chairs.
“As long as it raises my health meter,” said KeiraM, and sat down in one of the chairs. A plate of eggs and vegetarian sausages appeared in front of her, or so read the text that popped up next to the dish.
Tariq walked to the seat at the head of the table where a set of clothes were laid out, including a handsome overcoat. He selected them and they instantly appeared on his avatar. He now looked like a country squire from a Regency novel.
“Splendid!” said Tariq. “Absolutely splendid!”
“I don’t know,” said Sturgont. “I think I’m going to go play something else.”
He must have logged off because he vanished from the room.
“Interesting,” said the woman. “Well, you have the run of the place. See what you can uncover.”
KeiraM tried to indicate a shrug by rapidly raising and lowering her avatar's arms. It didn't really work.
"I guess there is a lot of nice detail in here. A lot of nooks and crannies. Things I could jump on."
She proceeded to try to climb the pillars and entablature carved into the woodwork. If the game designers and modelers had made any mistake in their digital construction, KeiraM would surely find it, as she always did.
They did indeed spend a couple of hours exploring the house and the grounds, and they found more than they were expecting. Bruce255 discovered a pile of old love letters, nibbled by rats, in an ornate dresser. On his audio feed he received updates from KeiraM, who was exploring a derelict fountain on the grounds, and from Tariq, who was navigating a kitchen piled with unwashed pots and pans and trying to get down to the furnished basement.
It was a very calm and peaceful evening, except when a space zombie jumped out a closet in the nursery and almost killed him. Luckily, Bruce255 still had the sword fashioned from a giant sunflower seed that he had bought in an ancient city last year. The zombie, failing to lower Bruce255’s health meter any further, gave up and escaped down the grand staircase.
After that Bruce left the computer to make himself a snack. He switched the audio from the game to his external speakers, and a song with a Latin sound filled his apartment:
Away, away, together we go
Across the plain to the dreary house
The horse knows the way
Won’t you come and play?
The next evening Bruce went online again and went back to the same manor house. KeiraM and Tariq had returned as well; Parsnips had apparently opted to spend time elsewhere. The three of them went out into the garden to talk to the silver-haired woman in the elegant dress, who was cutting away some dead thorny branches and planting new rosebushes.
“So what is the deal with this place?” asked KeiraM.
“Yeah,” said Bruce255. “For a long time not much happened, although I enjoyed the gothic atmosphere. Then, all of a sudden, I got attacked and my health almost went down to zero.”
The woman sighed. “Maybe it’s time I tell you. The game you’ve been playing, Realms of Combat, is actually part of social experiment I created. I’m on the research faculty at Central Research University. I wanted to see what might happen when gamers encountered a totally unexpected change in setting. I received a major grant to do this work, which angered other researchers who think my work is trivial. They hacked into the game and added all sorts of enemies to attack any players who stuck around in the peaceful, sombre levels like this one.”
“So does that explain those people who attacked us all of a sudden at the entrance?” asked Keira M.
“And the zombie that jumped out of the closet?" asked Bruce255.
The woman nodded.
“Those scoundrels!” exclaimed Tariq.
The woman shrugged. “At any rate, I’m glad you three are still here. I hope that more will join."
Over the next few weeks Bruce255 went back to the Gothic manor many times. It was nice to have a single special place. That’s something that everyone’s looking for, Bruce reflected, whether they realize it or not. A special place where one can feel united with others.
The attacks from the jealous researchers continued, however. One day KeiraM was killed off. It took a week of rebuilding her online persona and battling through other sections of Realms of Combat for her to return. The next day Bruce255 entered the manor to find all the silverware arranged on the floor to spell out:
Two little ducks went out one day,
Over the hills and far away.
Mother duck said, “Quack Quack Quack Quack.”
But only one little duck came back.
An hour later it was Game Over for Bruce255. Several zombies got together and tossed him over the battlements. Then they tried to get Tariq, but he went and got his horse and his pack of hounds and drove those zombies over the hills and far away. For the time being.
That day was a major setback for Bruce 255, but he was not going to be deterred by a few zombies and scoundrels set in place by jealous grant-seekers.
Eventually, more and more gamers found their way to the manor and came to respect the idea behind it. The idea of a respite from all the quests and missions that left their fingers aching and their nerves raw. Sure, there were 2D puzzle games with beautiful artwork, but compared to those the manor was a 3D fractal of a building that gave them a sense of really being there.
Bruce couldn’t remember who was the first to seriously suggest the idea, but somehow he and KeiraM and Tariq and other players decided to pool their funds and buy an actual old manor in the physical universe. A manor with the same dark wood interior and a grassy plain surrounding it. A place where they could get away from virtual ambushes. It had just popped up one day in a real-estate advertisement while one of them was surfing the web. Fixing it up would be a major endeavor, but each of the gamers brought their own talents to the project.
It was fascinating for Bruce to meet the others in real life. Tariq was revealed to be an obese, middle-aged Arab-American veteran with an architecture degree. Keira was a thirty-something woman who showed up in a dirty sweatshirt that stank of cigarettes (she had just quit, she announced). She had a decent knowledge of carpentry and was adept at fixing up interiors. Bruce himself suspected he did not fit everyone’s expectations. He was a little person and significantly younger than the others, but already he had attained expertise in restoring antiques. The researcher who had begun the original project also visited during the renovation of The Respite. She was a tall woman with an unusually shaped nose who wore jeans and a blouse covered in kittens and cakes and centipedes.
Together, they created a sombre world that lit a quiet a joy inside them.
They sang as they worked:
Away, Away, over the plains
To our special world we’ll go
Waltzing, waltzing, waltzing, waltzing
Won’t you come and play with me?