Jeff Briggs and his guild had cleared the first boss, and Jeff had looted an epic sword that he’d been trying to get for ages.
The raid leader called for a restroom break, and Jeff took the opportunity to go into his kitchen and grab a beer. When he returned and sat down, he saw an odd shadow, something that was distorting the game picture. It was right on the edge of the screen, like a smudge. He reached out and touched his monitor, thinking that he might have some dead pixels, but the shadow remained steady. It looked like it was a part of the game world itself.
There was a clicking noise coming from the monitor. It sounded like someone tapping on an old television screen with a long fingernail, very slowly, and very quietly.
Jeff put his headphones back on. The raid group was gabbing away.
“Hey, any of you guys see a shadow on your game board, kind of near where Kayman is standing?”
Kayman piped up. His avatar moved around in a circle, indicating that he was looking around the game space. “No, man, I don’t see anything. What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I guess my monitor must be acting up. Never mind. Let’s do this.”
With that, the group busied themselves with the important task of hashing out the strategy for attacking the next boss. It was clear that this would be a fight in which warriors, of which Jeff’s character was one of the best, would play a key role. He needed to keep the beast’s attention, take as much damage as possible, so the magic users could drain the beast’s hit points.
While the guild discussed the minutiae of their strategy, the shadow, and the clicking noise, slowly faded from Jeff’s computer monitor.
The guild had gotten as far as the third boss before wiping three times in a row, and had decided to call it a night and spend some time thinking about strategy. After eight hours of straight gaming, Marco Rubenstein’s eyes burned and his head throbbed. He looked at the clock. 2:30 AM. Shit. He had to be at work in six hours.
He rubbed his eyes, stretched, said goodnight to his guildmates, and removed his headset. At that moment, Marco noticed a shadow right at the lower left edge of his computer screen, like someone had used a fingerprint pad and then smeared it there. He tried to wipe it away, but he realized it wasn’t on the outside of the monitor.
He heard a tapping sound. Tap…tap…tap. He leaned in closer to the screen, squinting at the smudge, trying to make out what it could possibly be. It had no real defined shape; it seemed like just a dark spot, a place where the game world got dimmer.
As he leaned in, the tapping became louder, more rhythmic. Under the tapping, he thought he could hear…whispering?
Very suddenly, something scratched his arm, and he screamed, and jumped.
He looked down, to see his very bewildered cat. She had merely wanted his attention, and had been swatting at him as he sat at his computer desk.
“Silly cat.” He scratched her behind the ears.
When he looked back at the screen, a face was staring back at him. It was the face of a young girl, with stringy blond hair covering half of her sallow face. The face was hollow, dead, and it flickered like a bad television signal. Its lips were pulled back. Shadow smudges filled the sockets where its eyes should be.
Its mouth opened to reveal a gaping maw of darkness that flooded outward, escaping the monitor, and came straight at Marco.
This time, Marco screamed louder.
Jeff yawned. These late night raids were tough, especially after an eight hour day doing mindless transcription for a medical office. Still, the game kept him from going mad with boredom. Sure, he could go outside and meet real people, but that would require, well, going outside and meeting real people. He just wasn’t up for that. He preferred the anonymity of the transcription office and the relative anonymity of the online game.
He grabbed a beer, sat down at his machine, and put on his headphones.
“Hey hey hey! Anthros the mighty signing on. Let’s go kick some dragon ass.”
“Hey, Anthros – you heard from Kayman? He hasn’t checked in.” It was the guild leader, Thunderhoof.
“No.” Jeff couldn’t imagine why their top mage would be missing on a raid night.
“Hmm. Well, we’ll wait a little longer for him and then I guess we’ll have to just figure something out.”
The shadow was back. It was a dark patch on the screen, hovering where one of the guild’s healers, a lithe nymph named Ravena, was standing. The tapping was also back.
Jeff decided it had to be a hardware problem that would either resolve itself or force him to replace the monitor altogether. He wasn’t enough of a hardware geek to really know for sure.
He stood up and shook off a feeling of vague uneasiness by sucking down the rest of his beer and then going into the kitchen for another one. In the kitchen, the tapping sound was barely audible. Jeff stood there for a while, drinking his beer, unsure of what to do next.
The beer having magnified his courage center, Jeff walked over and sat back down at his computer. The tapping and the shadow were gone. He put on his headset. The guild members were discussing strategy.
“Hey, Anthros, so since Kayman is AWOL, we need you to pull out Panadar for this one,” instructed Thunderhoof.
“Right, I figured that. Be right back.” He logged off of Anthros and logged back on as his backup character, a damage-dealing mage named Panadar. His monitor flashed for a second. Jeff was struck by a sudden terror as he could have sworn he saw a skeletal face in the screen. Just for a second, two deep skeletal holes stared at him from where his game screen should be. A chill whisper, like the screech of a bad AM radio signal, escaped the screen.
The sound came out of the computer and scorched Jeff’s brain with ice.
Then the apparition was gone, and Jeff was left staring at his character, Panadar, on the game screen.
Nobody else in the guild had seen the apparition, heard the whispering, the tapping, or even seen the shadows. Jeff was alone with this particular nightmare. Thankfully, whatever it was didn’t come back, and Jeff was able to help his guild defeat the third boss in the raid successfully.
Ravena, in particular, outdid herself. She was right there with her healing spells when needed, and nobody was killed even once.
“Hey, nice job, Ravena,” Jeff said over his headset.
“Thanks. I really felt like everything was clicking.” Ravena’s reply was distorted. Her voice sounded digitized, like little bits of the transmission were breaking apart, the very waves of sound disassembling themselves. Jeff strained to hear her. He took off his headset, shook it, and put it back on. Must be a loose connection, he thought. But something nagged at him.
He remembered then that the shadow he’d seen earlier had been hovering over Ravena, and as he looked, it was back.
“Ravena, is everything ok?”
“What? I don’t know…everything’s fine. What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. There’s some kind of a shadow on my scree-“
A scream pierced Jeff’s headset, distorted, unraveled, and then cut off completely.
The shadow around Ravena disappeared from Jeff’s game screen.
And so did Ravena.
“Ravena?” Jeff ventured.
“Ok, what the fuck was that?” It was Thunderhoof. He’d also heard the scream.
“I have no clue. Ravena?”
The line was silent, but for a distant electric crackling sound.
A headline the next day caught Jeff’s attention. The game was downloading a patch, so he had some time to kill before he could log on, and he was idly browsing the web.
“Man Found Starved to Death Sitting At His Computer.”
The headline linked to a video of a local news reporter.
“This is Chip Hedley in Tulsa. 21-year-old Marco Rubenstein was found dead yesterday in his apartment. Authorities are not releasing a lot of details here, but I’m being told that he died of starvation. His emaciated body was found slumped over his computer. Police suspect he may have been an online gaming addict…”
Jeff shut off the video. That was Kayman. Kayman was dead. But starvation? The guy logged off regularly. He had a job. Jeff knew this from the times they’d chatted during raids.
He went to Google News and typed “dead” and “computer” into the search box. A million things came up, most of them irrelevant. However, on the third page, an article caught his eye. It was from a couple of months ago. Jeff recognized the name. Erika Valle. She had raided with them from time to time, and she’d had an array of high-level characters, all with the best gear. She and Jeff had become fast friends during the raids, because she, like him, was a major introvert, and they had bonded over their shared social awkwardness.
She had disappeared about two months ago, and Jeff thought she’d moved on.
Jeff clicked on the article, headlined “Girl Found Starved to Death at Computer.” The story was horrible. The police had found her slumped over her computer, completely emaciated, her apartment a filthy mess, a dead cat in one corner. The autopsy revealed that she hadn’t eaten or consumed any liquid for over a week, and had died of starvation, dehydration, and exhaustion. The investigators discovered that her characters had been logged on to the game for more than 150 hours straight.
Jeff shuddered. He knew he gamed a lot, but he at least took breaks to eat, drink, and sleep.
The patch was finished downloading. Jeff clicked open his video chat program, put on his headphones, and logged on.
The shadow was back. This time it was over Thunderhoof. The tapping was louder, more insistent, and Jeff thought he could see the shadow pulse with each tap.
Fear gripped Jeff – Thunderhoof was a good guy and a great guild leader, but he was also one of only a few people Jeff could call a friend in the real world. Jeff looked up to Thunderhoof, who, though he was much older than Jeff, had always treated Jeff with respect. In fact, Thunderhoof was the only person who could drag Jeff out of the house once in a while to get a beer.
There was static in his earpiece. Behind the static, a high pitched keening. Behind that, a voice. A whisper. A bad radio connection. So hungry…
“Thunderhoof?” Jeff’s voice wavered.
“Yeah I’m here.” But his voice was distorted, crackling, broken, like Ravena’s had been.
Edgar Hansen was proud of his role as guild leader, and took it very seriously. His office was decked out with maps and charts and strategy guides. He knew what each member of his raid group was capable of. He had spent some time in the military when he was younger, and now, in his retirement years, was enjoying the challenge of leading a group of soldiers again.
He was focused on his computer screen, arranging his gear for the night, when the entire screen became shrouded by what looked like a cloud hovering over the game world. The monitor flickered and made a sharp keening noise, like an old television warming up. Behind the keening, a rhythmic tapping.
The shadow on the screen began to take a shape. Edgar stood up and backed away from the screen. His headset, which was making the same kind of shrieking electronic noise, reached the end of its cord and pulled out of the machine, severing his connection to the rest of the guild. But the sound from his monitor continued, and grew, and began to hurt his ears.
Carefully, he pushed the button to turn off the monitor. The picture and the sound died.
He plugged his headset back into his computer tower. The screeching was still there, and he winced.
“Guys, I’m going to have to log off – think my computer’s about to clunk out…” He just hoped they could hear him. He didn’t know a lot about computers, but this kind of a problem couldn’t be good.
He decided that for safety’s sake, he’d better turn off his entire computer, and then maybe have Jeff come over and look at it. Jeff was a good kid, and knew a lot about this stuff.
He turned around and began to walk out of his office. As he left the room, he realized he could still hear a soft tapping coming from inside his computer monitor.
Jeff ran downstairs and got in his car. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he knew – just knew – that something bad was about to happen to his good friend and guild leader. He had to get to Edgar’s house and try to figure out how to stop it.
Jeff peeled out of his parking space and sped over to Edgar’s house.
He realized then that he had forgotten his cell phone, so he couldn’t even call Edgar and warn him. But warn him of what? He hadn’t the faintest clue about what was happening – he just had a hunch, a dread, a horrible feeling that Edgar was going to die tonight.
He turned on the radio. This car had never had a good antenna, but tonight the reception was especially bad. FM began to sound like AM, with high pitched wavering distortions. He was in range of the NPR station he liked to listen to, but he couldn’t quite get it. He turned the tuning knob and tried to fix the signal.
At that moment, the signal cleared. A young female voice, a cold, empty, hollow, voice, a voice wrapped in shadows, was repeating, softly, insistently, words that drove an ice pick of fear into Jeff’s brain.
“So hungry…so hungry…”
The tapping was louder. A faint green glow pulsed in the corner of the screen, in rhythm with the tapping. The glow got bigger, fading in and out with the tapping. Soon the glow covered the entire screen. The overhead light in the office blew out, shrouding the room in green.
Edgar stood there, silent, unsure.
The AM radio sound started up again, the wavering static of a signal that isn’t quite in range.
The green glow faded, dimmed, the monitor emitted a harsh buzz, and suddenly turned itself on.
There was a face there. It was a face Edgar recognized.
Erika. The girl with whom Edgar had shared a brief online romance, who had run raids with Edgar’s guild, who had been beautiful, and smart, and funny, and had taken Edgar’s mind off of his wife, dead for one year. They’d exchanged photos, e-mails, had chatted via messenger, had even called each other on the phone, long distance, which hadn’t been cheap for either of them.
And then she’d disappeared.
Her face was gaunt, pale, drawn, her eyes were shadows, her lips were drawn up over her teeth, her beautiful blond hair tangled and knotted over one side of her face.
“Erika?” He whispered.
The face on the monitor opened its mouth, the shadows inside rushed forth, broke through the monitor, and reached for him with long, spindly, fingers.
Jeff screeched to a halt in front of Edgar’s house, threw the car into park, jumped out, and ran to the front door, bruising his knuckles as he knocked.
An electronic squeal shot forth from inside the house. Jeff tried the doorknob, found the house open, and ran inside. He reached Edgar’s office.
The computer screen was smashed on the floor. Edgar was standing over it.
“It was Erika.” Edgar could barely get the words out. He slumped down in his office chair.
“No, she’s here.” Edgar’s voice had changed. It was cold, electric, but clear, like a perfect digital approximation of a voice. Edgar’s eyes darkened, shrouded, the whites flickering, then cleared again.
“I’m here.” Edgar stood up, his body jerking. Jeff backed away.
“So hungry…” Edgar lurched toward Jeff. Jeff tripped over something on the floor and nearly lost his balance, but recovered.
Edgar’s features were distorting, his whole body began to flicker and shimmer, as he shuffled forward, slowly, toward Jeff.
Edgar opened his mouth, a black hole, endless, impenetrable, drawing Jeff toward it, a keening digital wail emanating from it. The shadows exhaled from the blackness of that mouth and reached for Jeff. The shadows became perfect human fingers pale, withered, dead, with long fingernails. Jeff stumbled backwards, and this time he did fall. Hard. His head slammed against the hardwood floor, and he struggled to remain conscious. Dark splotches threatened to consume his vision, his head swam, but he willed himself not to black out. He sat up.
The shadow fingers were right on top of him. They yearned to consume him, to draw out all of his strength and leave his desiccated corpse lying there on the hallway floor.
He screamed, putting his hands over his face, trying to block out those dark, seeking, fingers.
The fingers touched him, and grew into a large, twisting, shadow that wrapped itself around him, and he felt himself being drained. His consciousness receded, slowly, dark walls closing, a wave of panic rushing in.
A rumor developed that if someone saw a shadow covering your character, then something bad would happen to you in real life.
Nobody was really quite certain what might happen, but there were stories of a psychotic hacker who put a virus into the game to terrorize people online and then went and killed his chosen targets in real life.
Police who were called to investigate the incidents invariably found someone who had clearly been a game addict, and who had starved to death rather than stop playing.
No glitch was found in the game to account for the shadows.