Chapter 1 – Chris
Experience Level: 0
“Chris? Where the hell are we?” Jess asked, her voice lowered to an awed whisper.
Chris stood in front of an irregularly shaped tree. An impossibly shaped tree. It was square. Square from the bottom of the trunk to the very top branches that stretched into the sky. It didn’t taper at all. Square. What the…?
He turned in a slow circle, surveying his surrounds. The last thing he knew he’d slumped down on the overstuffed sofa at home about to settle into a day-long session on Minecraft with Jess and Luke. Luke had finally agreed to play with them. They were going to show him the ropes. But now…here.
Square trees. All of them.
“Chris?” Jess questioned again. She turned in rapid circles, panic making her blue eyes shine.
The square trees flooded his vision to the left. An oak forest, with the odd birch dotted among. Behind him towered icy mountains. Great, soaring gravel mountains dotted with snow and supporting jagged ice spikes. To his right stretched a flat plain with patches of wild grass and dandelions. And straight on he could just make out sand. Maybe a beach. Maybe a lake. Hard to tell.
“Chris?” Jess shook his arm. “Where are we?” She wore a backpack he hadn’t seen before. Beige canvas with brown, leather straps and a symbol of a Minecraft chest on the body. Then he realised he wore an identical one.
“I think we’re in the game,” Chris replied.
“In the game? What game?”
“Minecraft. We’re in Minecraft.”
“But that’s impossible!” Jess turned in rapid circles.
“Well, we have to get out of the game.” She dropped to her knees and searched the ground as if she might find Alice’s hole or a magic portal. “And where’s Luke?”
Chris performed another slow, surveying circle and saw Luke a little way into the forest, standing stock still. “Luke?” he called. Chris took a hesitant step forward. It was shady in there. If they truly were in a game of Minecraft, mobs could be hiding out in there, and he had no weapon to defend himself. What if he got too close to a wandering spider?
“Luke?” he called again, cupping his hands over his mouth.
“What’s the matter with him?” Jess asked, standing again and hovering at his shoulder. She began inspecting her fingernails, which were now encrusted with dirt.
“Not sure,” Chris replied.
“What’s he staring at?”
“Again, not sure,” Chris snapped.
“Alright, alright,” Jess backed away and dropped to the ground again, digging up dirt blocks which popped into her backpack, like they really were in some game. Impossible. Wasn’t it? “Maybe if we just stay here we’ll pop out of the game again and get back home.”
“And what happens at night?” Chris checked the sky, trying to determine the time of day. “When the mobs come out?”
Jess shrugged and kept digging. But the backpack never got any bigger. It was a magical backpack. Probably much like a chest to keep inventory.
Chris took another step into the forest. He waited, held his breath, and listened. He couldn’t hear any spider hisses or zombie growls. It seemed safe for now. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that something from within the dark shadows was watching him. He blew out his breath and then took ten more quick steps and reached Luke, who still hadn’t moved.
“Luke?” he questioned and nudged him gently with his shoulder. Luke stumbled forward and then resumed his statue-still pose, staring at the bark of a square oak tree.
Chris licked a finger and stuck it under Luke’s nose. He wasn’t breathing. And his skin was glowing, like he’d been covered in the shimmer powder his mum used when she made cupcakes. He was still in his tracksuit bottoms and Jurassic World t-shirt. His brown hair was stuck up on one side of his head. He always refused to brush it during half-term. And he also wore one of the magical backpacks.
“Luke?” he tried one more time.
“What’s the matter with him?” Jess asked, joining them. Her ripped, skinny jeans were covered in mud from thigh to shin.
“I don’t think he’s really here. I don’t think he came in the game with us. I think it’s his avatar,” Chris said, poking Luke’s shoulder again. He nose-butted the tree trunk.
Jess shot out a laugh. “He’ll be pissed if he sees you doing that.”
Chris cracked a smile and did it again. Luke’s nose headbutted the trunk and he rebounded a step farther away. “That’ll teach him to choose chess over Minecraft.”
“If he’s not really here, do you think he can get us out?” Jess asked.
“Maybe,” Chris replied. “If we can figure out how we got in. First, we need to attract his attention. Luke!” He called, and then louder. “LUKE!
The both started shouting his name, right in his ear. He’d obviously wandered off somewhere, at home, back in the real world. Maybe for a leak. More likely to prepare for his chess championship. But his avatar was still here, still in the game, which meant he hadn’t logged off and his tablet screen was still active.
“LUKE!” He yelled again.
“It’s no use,” Jess said. “We’re just going to have to wait until he comes back.” She sat down on the ground and started picking clumps of grass.
A low hiss swept through the trees. Chris glanced overhead. Square clouds travelled across the sky. But it was turning pink. A sure sign that night would follow close behind. And then the mobs.
“What level did we decide on?” Chris asked Jess.
“Normal, I think,” Jess replied, her hands cupping her mouth in alarm. “And now I wish we’d opted for peaceful.”
Chris nodded. “We need to make a shelter and hole up for the night. And quickly.”
“What about Luke?” Jess asked.
Chris shrugged. “It’s his avatar. He’ll be fine.” He scanned the green forest, looking for the first sign of a threat. Something was out there. He could feel it. Something was definitely watching them.
“Ok, you get some wood, I’ll gather some dirt. We can hide away and craft weapons during the night,” Jess said.
They scurried out of the forest, away from the low hisses that were becoming more frequent. Jess attacked the ground again and gathered several more dirt blocks. Chris stood in front of the original oak tree and started grabbing at it. It came apart easier than he’d expected. Just with a couple minutes’ effort of pulling and pushing. He placed each block in his backpack, marvelling that it never felt any heavier. As soon as he had enough he made a wooden crafting table and placed it on the spot they had arrived.
“That should mark our spawn site,” he said.
“Good idea,” Jess replied. She began placing dirt blocks a little distance away.
The pink faded from the sky. Which would have been beautiful on any other occasion, if Chris had been into that sort of thing. But the clouds were square and meant they were as far from normal as you can get, and the fading pink symbolised something far more pretentious than the mere passing of another day. Darkness was coming. The darkness of every child’s worst nightmare. Darkness with substance, with monsters and boogiemen. Chris thought he could see red eyes in the forest. Spiders. Big, black spiders. The thing that terrified him most in the world.
He went to the crafting table, which seemed alive with waves of fluid writing. On closer inspection, he could see the words were instructions for items he could make with his available materials. The top of the table had nine square slots. He placed the logs he’d chopped in the centre and was rewarded with four times the amount of wooden planks. Putting one of the planks in the centre slot and another in the slot below, produced four sticks. A new instruction popped up for tools and weapons on the left side of the block, undulating gently, but stopping when he touched it to read. Putting three planks and two sticks in the relevant spots yielded him a wooden axe. He returned to the forest and chopped down ten oak trees in quick succession, trying not to think about what would be emerging from the forest any moment now.
“Chris!” Jess called from within the mud house. “Get in here!”
He didn’t bother looking behind him. He could sense the threat and he could hear the hissing. In his panic, he dropped the axe, but he made it to the mud house and Jess placed two blocks behind him, sealing the entrance.
Darkness engulfed them. Total darkness. A darkness so complete he couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. A dizzy spell threatened to rip out his feet from under him, so he slipped to the ground and sat on the mud floor. Aloud explosion erupted in the background followed by a flash of intense light.
“Creeper,” Jess muttered.
“Do you think Luke is ok?” Chris asked.
There was a strained silence. “Maybe we should go back for him. Carry him in here,” Chris suggested.
“That’s suicide. We have no armour and limited weapons. It was just Luke’s avatar, I’m sure he’ll be fine. He’ll be back.”
“I can’t see anything,” he complained.
“Close your eyes, it’ll feel better,” Jess said.
Chris closed his eyes. But it was no different.
“Where are you?” He asked, reaching out with his hands.
“Here.” After a moment, their hands found each other. Jess settled down beside him. They sat cross legged, knees touching. “I need to wash my hands.”
“We don’t have any water,” Chris said.
“They’re filthy, from the digging.”
Chris heard the familiar sound of Jess rubbing her hands up and down her thighs, like she did whenever she felt anxious. “You’ll have to wait until morning.”
“I don’t know if I can,” Jess said, a note of panic creeping into her voice.
“It’s pitch black in here, you can’t even see the dirt. Just forget about it.”
He sensed Jess frowning at him.
“I can feel it,” she hissed. “I can feel a coating of dirt all over my skin. Wriggling. And you don’t have OCD. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“We can’t go outside, Jess,” Chris said. “You know that.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
Chris reached for her hand. He rubbed at the dirt which rolled off into miniscule spheres of nothingness. “There’s nothing you can do. Consider it extreme exposure therapy. And Jess? The fact that you actually went digging in the dirt, says a lot.”
She didn’t say anything, but he felt a gentle squeeze on his hand.
“Keep rubbing my hands, please,” she said.
Chris kept rubbing at the dirt he couldn’t see, until he heard her breathing deepen and knew she was calmer.
“This is darker than any of those nights we went camping,” Chris said.
Chris nodded, then realised Jess wouldn’t be able to see it. “Yeah.”
“That was a long time ago now,” she said.
“Yeah,” Chris said, not wanting to get into it.
“We had the stars then. Dad would let us sleep outside when it was warm enough. There was loads of light.”
They sat in silence for a while, listening to the low hisses and louder growls of the mobs crawling all over their mud house. Chris felt his chin drop to his chest. He was tired. And there was nothing else to do. Might as well sleep.
“Chris?” Jess asked tentatively. “How did we get in the game?”
“I have no idea,” he replied, yawning widely.
“Do you know how to get out?” Jess asked. Her voice trembled.
We’ll find a way,” he said. But in truth, he had no idea. Not one. His best hope was that they might be able to find a village nearby. Maybe the villagers would help.
“Jess! Chris! Jess! Chris!”
“It’s Luke!” Jess said, jumping to her feet. “Do you think he’s here? Really here?”
“I don’t know,” Chris replied. “But he’s going to attract all the mobs if he doesn’t stop yelling like that.” He got to his feet and tried to remember which way he’d come in, where he could take a block away to peer out from.
“Jess! Chris! Where are you?”
Chris still didn’t know where the make-shift doorway was, so he just got his hands around the nearest block and pulled it away. Starlight filled the small room and finally he could see. He stuck his head through the opening. There were spiders everywhere, their red eyes glowing with menace and hatred. Chris felt his throat narrow. A skeleton stood in the tree line, looking for something to attack. Zombies crawled over the grassy mounds.
“Luke!” He hissed, trying to get his brother’s attention. “Here!”
Luke came into view, his skin still shiny, a sure sign that he was playing with his avatar. He wasn’t really here.
“Quick!” Jess said.
Two zombies at Luke’s back were pursuing him. He turned, and with a wooden sword, stuck them both dead. He sucked up the little green orbs of experience that you get when you complete certain actions as he dashed towards Chris.
Jess removed another block and allowed Luke entry into the shelter. They replaced just one of the blocks, so they could have some light. Nothing could get through a one-block hole.
“Where have you guys been?” Luke exclaimed. “I went to the toilet and came back, ready to start this game you’d been nagging at me to do, and you’d both disappeared. Tablets on the couch, tangy-zangy Haribou, or whatever those disgusting sweets you like are called Jess, all over the couch, but no brother and sister. I lost three hearts out there trying to find you.”
“We’re in the game,” Chris said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, somehow, we travelled inside the game.”
“That’s impossible,” Luke snorted.
“Apparently not. We spawned over there,” Chris pointed through the hole to the first oak tree he’d cut down, its upper branches and square leaves suspended in mid-air. He’d cut down countless numbers of trees in Minecraft before, but this time, the sight of the disembodied leaves looked absurd. “And now we’re here.”
“But I’m not here, I’m sitting in my room. Why didn’t I go too?”
“I don’t know,” Chris replied. “We’re trying to figure it all out. But I think it would be a good idea if you went and put our tablets on to charge. Who knows what will happen if they run out of battery power.”
Luke’s avatar went slack again. Jess took a moment of great pleasure in nudging him into the corner, so he was facing the dirt wall.
“He’ll hit you with a sword if you keep doing that, and you have a lot more to lose this time,” Chris reminded her. “You die here, I don’t know what will happen.”
Jess didn’t reply. A few minutes later Chris heard her snivelling.
“Don’t be like that.”
“I’m stuck in a stupid game world, what am I supposed to be like?”
Chris slipped his arm around her shoulder. “We’re going to find a way out. It’s what Dad would do.”
“Dad’s not here anymore!” Jess half yelled.
“Shhh,” Chris warned, checking the opening over his shoulder. He was rewarded with an arrow landing on the next block. The thwack sound of the impact reverberated in his head, reminding him that this really was life or death, not just a game.
“He ran away and left us,” Jess said.
“He didn’t run away.”
“Where is he then?” Jess said, wiping the tears on her cheeks with her muddy fingers. “It’s been five years.”
“Something must have happened to him,” Chris said. “He went to Thailand on business and he never came back. Something happened to him out there.”
“And what’s Mum going to say when we don’t come back? When she realises we’re stuck in the game? It’ll just be her and Luke. We’re going to die here Chris.”
“Luke knows we’re here. We won’t disappear without a trace. We’re going to find a way out…”
“You keep saying that, but I haven’t heard any ideas yet.”
“I’m working on it,” he replied. “You need to stay calm. We can’t afford to get all emotional.”
He was rewarded with an elbow to his ribs.
Christ stood up and felt his way to the nearest corner. He placed a new crafting table on the ground. He gathered the wood he had chopped down from his backpack. He made three wooden axes, three wooden swords, and three wooden pick-axes. It was the best he could do, for now.
“You really are in the game!” Luke’s avatar came to life and made Chris jump halfway across the shelter, giving himself a few splinters from the wooden axe he was holding. “I’ve looked around the whole house and you’re not there.”
“I did tell you that,” Chris said. “And Luke? This is serious. I know you’ve never played before. But we’re going to need your help.”
“Are you kidding me? This shit just got interesting!”
“Luke!” Chris and Jess admonished in unison.
“Just because I’m twelve doesn’t mean I can’t swear.”
“That’s exactly what it means,” Jess said.
“Want my help or not?” Luke frowned. Out of his backpack he pulled five apples and three uncooked steaks.
“Your help,” Jess said grudgingly, taking one of the apples and biting into it.
Chris took the second apple and rubbed it on the sleeve of his shirt to bring a shine to the skin before biting into it. The shelter filled with the sound of the three of them biting into the juicy, red apples.
“We’ll need more food. And better tools. We’ll need to find somewhere to harvest seeds. Build a proper shelter,” Chris said. The reflexive stages of the game were coming back to him. “And armour. We really need armour. Leather at the very least.”
“We’re not playing the game, Chris,” Jess said. “We need to find a way out.”
“I realise that Jess,” Chris replied. “And until we can find a way out, we need to survive.”