Next Week

9 minutes read


The uproar of excitement of being in game quickly died after Morpheus made their announcement. There was a brief silence after the paralysis dropped from every player. All NPC indicators and player indicators disappeared, and then the chaos began.

The players all tried to open their menus to find the log-out button, to no success, then took a moment to look around at one another with shifting eyes. Those out in the wild ran from one another as they sought safety and solace, and all friends made their way to one another with absolute haste. After some of the chaos wound down, everyone received a message in their inbox.

‘Dear players,
We thank you for purchasing our game for this truly unique experience. We have many changes we think you will appreciate about this experience. Currently, we have disabled all messaging between players; instead, you must use in-world means of communication. Your friend lists will still exist, so you can monitor how your friends are doing. However, you can now only add players if they are within ten meters of you. To make sure no one has gone against this rule, we are wiping friend lists so everyone can start again. Remember, meeting new people is fun.
Furthermore, the NPCs have all been programmed with a new advanced AI that will make them nearly indistinguishable from real people. They have another little twist added to them, which we think people will love when it arrives.
Please enjoy the labour of hundreds of workers over the last ten years and venture into the world we made for you.

With love,
The team.’

By the end of the day, there was silence. Some players had taken the initiative to go out into the world to level up their combat power, find rare treasures, and risk their lives to become as powerful as they could for one reason or another. While many sat silently as the world went on, the NPCs looked at one another and tried their best to help the players, unsure what was happening.
In a community hall in a small isolated town of gnomes, their people met.

“We have a plague besetting our town; all the newcomers have collapsed with no visible signs of injury. They don’t appear ill but are beset by a sudden onset depression. We need to make sure that our people are safe, then we must help these newcomers. It is up to us to keep our home safe and to extend that safety to all who seek to call this place home.”

“I was watching a couple of them when it happened; two of them were running around like they were having the time of their life, then suddenly they desperately started to swipe the air with their hands before collapsing to the ground.”

“Yes, I saw the hand swiping too; it was like they were pushing something out of their way, then they started poking the air, and much like you, they then collapsed crying.”

“Very well, we need to keep an eye on each other; if we see unnecessarily hand swiping, we will make sure to avoid them, keep them isolated to their home, so we can monitor them safely.”

“I saw one of them read something, but it was strange; they pulled a note from their pocket, but the way they did it made it look like they were unaware of the paper until just a moment before. I don’t know how to describe it, but judging by their faces, they did not like what they saw on the paper.”

There was a long pause followed by murmurs in the crowd before someone spoke up.

“What if we are looking at this wrong? What if it is not a disease? What if where they came from, they heard distressing news? Mages can cast communication spells halfway around the world, and I assume if they can do that, they could transport a note. I think we should talk to them, find out what is happening to them, maybe if they can explain themselves, we can help. Maybe they just need community.”

There were the affirming sounds of a hall in unison in thought as the gnomes all nodded and hummed in agreement. One gnome cracked his knuckles before standing, small pieces of dirt falling from his overalls as he stood.

“I have much time to give as harvest is not for another couple of months; my wife and kids are currently at the farm doing what little work is needed. I’ll find the new folk, gather them up, and see what is happening to them.” The man took a moment to breathe out of pursed lips. “And if it turns out that it is a disease of some kind, then I should be the only one affected by it.”

There were small hums of disagreement but mostly silence as the gnome put on his cap with two hands before walking out of the hall.
He took his time walking around town, noting where he spotted the newcomers.

“Okay, six, I can see. This shouldn’t be too hard, surely.”

He wandered over to the first one and knelt in front of them.

“Friend, what has happened to make you fall to your knees in such a violent depression?”

The person looked up with tears in their eyes.

“You don’t understand; I can never go home; I am stuck here.”

“Well, we don’t have much, but we can help where we can; what stops you from making your way home?”

The player wiped their tears and laughed slightly as strands of snotty saliva stretched between their upper and lower lips.

“Someone has made it so that I cannot go home unless I complete an impossible task. One that would surely see me die before its completion.”

“Strange, I have never heard of Gnomes removing others from their homes, or did you come from a city perhaps? Did the others who are new come from the same place?”

The newcomer wiped their nose before laying back on the dirt with a heavy laugh.

“We may have come from the same place; I am unsure. Where I come from is huge, a world far from here with millions of people, and that is just in my city, the world… I mean, the continent has billions of people living on it, but a hundred thousand of us had the chance to come here, so we ventured out with hope, just to be told that we cannot return until we have conquered this land. We are banished essentially, unable to see or communicate with those that we love; them having to live with the knowledge that we will most likely never return, and us having to hold onto the hope that we can do what is needed to relieve them of their worry.”

“You need to conquer us?”

“No, we need to find something, something that we are not sure what it is, but it may spell our liberation if the right person finds it. Conquer was the wrong word to use; I am sorry if I scared you.”

The gnome farmer laughed with a hearty chuckle.

“Worry us, we were worried about you. You and your kind dropped to their knees in panic, in distress so harsh we thought you may have been plagued or hexed by some powerful magic. Regardless of whether you were gnome or not, we don’t let those in our presence suffer the affliction of dread; we shall do whatever is needed to ensure that all those around us are cared for. That is gnomish tradition, but that is also our people through and through.”

The Gnome farmer wrapped the newcomer’s cheeks in their hands, staring intensely into their eyes. They took a deep breath, closed their eyes, and pressed their forehead into the forehead of the newcomer before whispering.

“We don’t know where you came from or what has happened with your ruler, but here you are, family, and you shall be treated as kind.”

The newcomer cried deeply as the Gnome farmer pulled them in closer; removing their forehead, they brought them into a deep embrace to allow them to let out any grief that was still lingering from the situation. Around town, the other newcomers could be heard wailing into the sky as the Gnomish people all took turns helping them with their new reality.

Days passed as the Gnomes welcomed the newcomers into their homes, talking to them about how the world worked. Finding their knowledge to be like watching kids ask the simplest questions with absolute wonder when answered. The newcomers tried their best to explain the situation of the game and how they were trapped in VR. Still, the Gnomish kind was either programmed to not understand or, as to be expected, the concept would be far beyond anyone in their situation.

After a few weeks, that same Gnomish farmer walked out of town, a slow trudge as he made his way to a small glad nestled in a young forest. At the centre were three stone piles, each with a different flower nestled into the dirt that had settled into the cracks.

The Gnomish farmer took their time to pull the weeds from around the stones; using a small hand tool, they disturbed the dirt around each one. They did this until each base had a small dirt border that separated them from the grass. After taking a moment to think, the Gnomish farmer inhaled before speaking.

“Your time in our community was brief, which was probably to be expected considering how much you struggled to learn how our world worked. It has taken me a while, but I believe you about not being from this world. I had never heard of where you were from, and you seemed baffled by even the most common knowledge of our world; surely nature can’t be so different between islands, but worlds, maybe. I just wanted you to know that you will be looked after here; we will make sure that your stones remain until the last of us leave this land, and even then, we will do our best to leave them in the best condition possible. We see you, and you were good to us, so we shall do the same for you.”

The Gnomish farmer turned to walk away, taking one moment to look back over their shoulder.

“We are doing our best to keep the others safe, but as you know, the sadness has taken them quite spectacularly. I’ll be back next week; I’ll see you then, friend, hopefully with stories to bring you joy.”

The farmer went to continue before muttering under their breath to themself.

“That is enough; we will be back next week.” He paused before walking away. “Next week.”