Porter’s face gained a cold seriousness under his swooping bands. He sucked in a long breath before speaking. “Ok, the weak, teenaged, last-string goblin archer of the Haetheron Army gets past your defensive roll of ONE— can I just point out, of one, with his blunt but fiery arrow and you are now dead. But I, I’m a very judicious and fair Dungeon Master…”
“Lies from the Tar Pits of Mullwrath!” said Ram. “I see only injustices served by the DM on this eve!”
“Maulwroth,” said Maggie, enunciating the vowels in just the way she hoped would get under Ram’s skin, at least a little bit.
“In my native tongue we do not pronounce ‘oth’ sounds— ’tis a disgraceful thing, like how you smack your mouth when eating the Cheetos,” Ram said.
Maggie slowly pulled a single Cheeto out of the bag, unsheathing it like a new, magical sword, and chomped on it. She reveled in her banter with the others, especially Ram. It was great they kept the game going for her, especially considering she’d ended up at a different college campus, a forty minute drive away and was often late.
Porter carefully put his bangs into place. “Goddammit. Let me finish. Like I was saying I’m truly a fair Dungeon Master, and I recognize the strength of the friendships you have forged,” he said. He was leaning into the light that hung over the kitchen table, finger smudges on his glasses clearly visible.
“Not I! I roam freely across the countryside! I have no need for friends and no use for—” said Manny, gesticulating wildly.
“Shutup Ram! I mean, Manny. It’s still my turn!” Maggie said.
“And now you come upon—” Porter said.
“Hell yes I come upon,” said Manny, twirling a pencil between his fingers and nodding his head.
“AHAHAH shutup. Everyone. God. Ok, so at the last second, before you are stricken with the goblin’s flaming arrow, you come upon a Time Ring, and it’s only good for one use. It sits before you in the dirt. It glistens and you realize that this is just what you need. It’s a Dwarven-type magic ring, the kind you heard about in the old bard’s song back at Red’s Tavern from so long ago. The ring that slows time for half a moment, allowing you to think quickly while the arrow hangs in the air.”
“How the hell am I supposed to put the ring on or catch the arrow. My fingers were blown off by that asshole grenade marauder. We’re all still gonna die because I’m the cleric and the only one keeping people alive,” said Maggie.
“Shit, I forgot. It’s a toe ring, then. You realize you have but one choice— to catch the arrow with your bare Elfin teeth. Only then may you save Ram and together live to fight another day,” said Porter, back in control of the game.
“We all shoulda leveled up in the hidden forest path like I said a week ago. You wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Manny, really not helping, this time.
“Come on, this was like a seven month campaign. I’m practically maxed out as it is,” she said and crossed her arms.
“For these reasons, the Dungeon Master has decided a trial is most appropriate,” said Porter, an evil smile on his face.
“Dude, no. Dude. No. I puked so much last time you guys made me drink all the ‘potions’,” said Maggie.
“We’ll keep it super simple. I’m going to toss, underhanded, the D20. Just catch it in your mouth. That’s it,” said Porter.
“She’s gonna choke,” said Ram.
“I’m not gonna choke,” said Maggie.
Manny used two Cheetos to start a drum roll on the guidebook.
“Fine, whatever. Just throw it and get this over with,” said Maggie, rolling her eyes and plotting about how she would not be a cleric again in the next game. Maybe she’d be a paladin for once.
Porter said, “Ready? Seven months of gaming on the line here.”
“I slip the magic Dwarf ring on my pinky toe and prepare to stop the fiery arrow with my sparkling elf teeth,” she said and shot a fake smile.
He lobbed the die in her direction. Maggie opened her mouth. The glittery D20 rotated along its arc, then struck the edge of her top teeth, ricocheted inside her mouth, and lodged in her throat. She grabbed at her neck, eyes wide as moons.
“So… I guess that’s a lose,” said Manny.
She shook her head, no, no, no.
“Oh, come on. Stop playing, Maggie. Out with it,” said Porter.
She banged on the table with her hands, so hard that their miniatures toppled.
“Shit!” Porter leapt out of his chair, knocking it to the ground, and wrapped his arms around her.
“Should we call…?” asked Ram.
Porter tried compressing her her lungs in a bear hug, to no help.
“It’s been like over a minute already. You die after a minute without air!” Manny started to get up out of his chair.
“Just call. Just fucking call an ambulance, now! She’s not joking around!”
“It’s freezing,” Maggie managed through chattering teeth. She was laying under a thin blanket on soft pad that seemed to warm slowly. The room seemed too bright.
“Fetch her some warm socks,” said a woman in a white lab coat to an orderly, without moving her gaze from Maggie’s face. “Do you remember your name?” she asked.
“Our records say Margaret, but that is good enough for a first try,” she smiled with warmth. “Please don’t try to sit up yet, the process will take a few more minutes. You’re being resuscitated from cryosleep.”
“What in the actual…” said Maggie, her mouth impossibly dry.
“I’m required by law to tell the absolute truth, so be assured you can trust me when I explain things. You were put into cryosleep shortly after the time of your biological death. We imagine this was facilitated by people who had your best interest in mind, in the hopes that you might wake up at a time in the future when others could revive the damage done to your brain. The downside is that the freezing technology back then wasn’t so developed. Consequently, you’re only going to be able to sustain yourself for the next five or six minutes,” she said.
The orderly brought in a thicker blanket and helped Maggie into a sitting position. “Out of socks— not my fault,” he whispered to his boss in one quick breath.
“Excuse me, doctor? If I’m gonna die again in the next few minutes, I’m confused— you brought me back from the dead just so I could die again?” Maggie coughed and reached for her throat slowly.
“Not if we can work fast,” the doctor said as she fit what looked like a swimmer’s cap onto Maggie’s head. “I’m going to ask you some basic questions about yourself, to recharge your neural network. Every time you use your brain we’ll get a stronger read on the device about who you are, and then we can start with the transfer. Before your body withers permanently, I mean.”
“Yes, to our eternal servers. All your thought processes will be translated and sent into our extremely high-security, long-lasting simulation, allowing you to live in a virtual world essentially forever,” she said.
The orderly handed the scientist an electronic notebook.
“Oh! Please sign here,” she said.
“Ok. Wow, wow, wow. Ok!” Maggie signed the screen with a shaky, nervous fingertip, each movement painful.
“Not trying to be pushy. We really don’t have much time to lose,” said the doctor.
“I understand,” said Maggie. “I mean, as much as I can be expected to understand.”
“So it says here you died at 11:53 the morning of Sunday, May 12 in the year two zero two zero?”
“Uhm… yes. Yes, that is probably right, now that I think about it,” said Maggie.
“We can start probing your memories there. Can you remember what you doing when you passed?”
“Let’s see,” Maggie’s pupils tried to naturally shoot up and to the left, what they always did when she was remembering anything, but her eye muscles were too sore. “Well, I had a few of my friends over. We were playing a game.”
“A sports game? Did you drown while swimming? Your brain has some of the hallmarks of oxygen deprivation, is why I ask.”
“No, no. Just a tabletop game— Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, you wouldn’t know it because my body is pretty atrophied but yeah, I was NOT a workout type of gal. Am not.” She chuckled a little and then coughed hard.
The scientist leaned back. “Oh, I see. Important details. This is a very useful memory. I see on my screen your neurosignal is strengthening.”
“Yes, we actually had a tradition going for over two years, by then.” Maggie smiled wistfully and felt the skin of her lips crack.
“I see, most of the people we get back from your time period are usually in church at that time on Sundays.”
“Oh, not me. Definitely not a Christian. My parents were. At least I wasn’t ever since I got through high school. My buddy Ram, the elf bard, in the game, he was Muslim. Went to a service with him once. Is that what they’re called— services? But that wasn’t my thing either. Just not a spiritual person, I guess. Shit. They must’ve all died by now, huh? Will I get to see them again?” And she realized how much she missed Ram. And Porter. Even Manny.
“Well, for sure Ram. We don’t have the records right here on hand about who your other friends were…”
“Oh, man, I remember the food at his mosque that one time. Please tell me that’s in your forever-computer thing!”
“This is all great information you’re giving us. The neural map is lighting up strongly and well ahead of time. Please take this sedative and lay back down and we’ll commence the transfer.”
Maggie swallowed a small white pill and finally was beginning to feel really warm again.
The orderly sat in front of the biotranslator and stuck his hands inside the machine. His fingers hovered over the edges of a fine dial.
“She seemed nice. I can see why her friends all pitched in and bought the cryosleep for her. Can’t be that bad of a person if so many are willing to chip in to keep you alive. Shame. Setting it to 999 years,” he said through his thick moustache.
“No, not 999 years— infinity. I feel like I have to go over this every week with you. Do you think Satan didn’t seem like a friend to that woman, Eve?”
“I know, but— ” he managed.
“Must I remind you that you are not God and therefore not in charge of those decisions? And also do you remember what the punishment is for attempting to change doctrine?”
“No. No, ma’am. Final judgement, coming right up. One more eternity in Hell,” he said.
He clicked the dial to the maximum setting and held in the urge to release a defeated sigh.
On the table, Maggie’s breathing stopped and her body went cold once again.
Maggie awoke to the blistering heat of Hell. The landscape before her was gnarled and twisted, with burnt organic forms beaten down near the ground, offering a bleak line of sight into a dark red haze. She was naked.
Her skin burned deeply, and it took her a moment to realize that she was crying, because the tears were evaporating so quickly. She should have died of heat exhaustion by now, but she hadn’t. It was virtual reality just like that doctor had explained. She had expected to get dropped into some utopia or even a simulation of her old life. But these assholes had put her in Hell. Unbelievable! She was better off dead!
“Hello?! Somebody get me the fuck out of here, now!” She cupped her hands around her mouth to make a microphone and shouted straight up. “Uh… escape? Quit program! Undo? Hello?! Fuck you, Bill Gates! Ah!”
In the distance, a creature, all on its legs, shifted in the shadows, seeking cover behind a boulder and then a crumbling wall, decorated with barbed wire. Maggie instantly regretted speaking at all.
It picked up its pace, heading straight for her and before she could make a move, it unfurled to a standing position.
“Ram!?” Maggie squealed.
“What the fuck? Is it really you? I must be dreaming!” She gave him a painful sunburn hug.
“Holy shit, Maggie! Not a dream, no sirree. Dude, you’re totally naked! Must’ve just arrived, huh? Happens to everyone. Clothes burn off and shit. Don’t worry, though, you get used to the heat. Took you long enough to get here!”
“Yeah, I guess I’m a little late to the party. Where are… what in the blazes— are those horns on your head?” She gently pushed on the left one with her finger in disbelief.
“Hey. Hey. Look at me. Look at me. There’s no time to talk, we need to catch up with the others, just past that giant dragon skull— see it in the distance?” He pointed back in the direction he came from. “We’ve got a goblin commander on the run. I just spotted a discarded flame shield near a big rock that’s on the way over there that you can pick up. You can have my extra dagger I found inside the belly of a winged troll carcass. Low attack points but it’s quite durable. Team Mullwrath! Let’s GO!”