Jared remembered when the war started. Not that they had known it would turn into a war when it had all begun. He had been sixteen, with one younger brother and an older sister. His mom was a secretary at the pediatrician’s office, but it was his father whom the war had impacted the most. He, a reserve Army colonel, was called back into service, but not in the way he had served before. It was all very sketchy, very hush-hush.
One day, a fleet of black cars pulled up to the curb in front of Jared’s unassuming suburban house. When they pulled away an hour later, Col. Henderson was with them, leaving his family with only short memories of his fleeting goodbye.
And that was when things turned bad. For everyone. At first, it seemed as if the fighting was far away. Overseas, in India and Asia, the violence did nothing but escalate, but to a small town in eastern Dakota, it was almost too far removed. Of course it was all the news wanted to talk about, but Jared’s family managed to remain separate. Safe.
It all changed with the draft. World War Three had started, and the army needed soldiers. Expendables.
That was the final straw for Jared’s mother. When she realized that Jared, now eighteen, fell within drafting range, she had wailed and screamed, cried and sobbed. She had called up her husband, begging him to get them to make an exception, to not allow Jared to be eligible for the draft. Jared’s father didn’t even take the calls.
One night it got so bad that Jared sent his younger brother Timothy to a friend’s house for the night as their mom fell apart.
“Mom,” Jared pleaded, trying to get through to her. “Mom, they haven’t even drawn names yet. I might not be drafted, you don’t know. I have just as good of a chance of not being drafted. Don’t worry about it.”
“J-Jared,” she sobbed. “I… I can’t bear…”
His mom turned to him with wild eyes. “Jared, I’m not going to let you go,” she said, her voice regaining strength as she found something to hold on to. A promise onto which she could cling if it took everything she had. “I promise. I’m going to protect you. I promise. It’s bad enough that your father…” Her control broke and fresh tears welled into her eyes. “Not you,” she muttered. “I’ll protect you.”
Jared wanted to argue that he didn’t need her protection, and that, in a state like hers, what could she really do for him anyway? But he didn’t. He couldn’t bear to speak the words. Instead, he simply put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close as she cried.
Still, Jared couldn’t help but think about her promise to protect him. He looked down at the fragile, tattered form of his mother. He knew then that it was a promise she couldn’t keep. Jared just wondered if she knew it as well.
╼ ╽ ╾╼ ╽ ╾╼ ╽ ╾╼ ╽ ╾
“Jaaran? Yo, Jaaran, you with us?” Gailik asked, jarring Jared out of his memories.
“Yeah, I’m with you,” he replied unenthusiastically.
“Right, well, this is the new plan that I drew up. We’ll enter through this door here, since that’s where the least amount…” Jared tuned Gailik’s voice out. He simply stared at his screen, at the landscape of QuestMaster Pro.
QuestMaster had been a godsend. Mary had given it to Jared as a surprise gift one day. “You look like you need a good escape once in a while, little brother,” she had said. “Come on,” she had enticed, “it’s an American exclusive.”
At first, Jared was less than thrilled. Video games had long since ceased to interest him; there were only so many times you could guide the little yellow Pacman to eat the dots. Of course there were more complicated games that he had played, but he’d always gotten bored with the story line.
Maybe that was why he had grown to love QuestMaster so much. There was hardly a storyline at all. You just picked a Quest and accomplished it however you could. No rules, no guidelines. There were no places you couldn’t go, no one you couldn’t kill if you wanted to. And the best part was that it was online - a live interface where he could play with real people virtually.
It was exactly what Jared needed.
With the draft date approaching, Jared lost himself in the game. He played deep into the night, raising his skills, acquiring new items. And then he met the others. Koromosa, Gailik and Noir, three players looking for a small company to join. Jared had always wanted to be a group leader; now he was. It was a tiny group, true, but they were close. They had become such good friends that sometimes he forgot that he didn’t know them in real life.
QuestMaster became everything. It became life. It was the first thing Jared did in the mornings, the last before sleeping. It was addicting, invigorating. In the game, he was a warrior named Jaaran - a strong, agile, confident leader. His face was chiseled, the type which seemed to demand a certain level of respect without his even trying. He didn’t have to hide, he didn’t have to run from anyone like he wanted to run from the draft. He had friends. He was everything in the game that he couldn’t be in real life.
There was no way he could give that up.
“Jaaran, I swear you’re not listening to me,” Gailik complained.
Jared blinked to focus. “When do I ever ignore you, Gailik?”
“Hey, you’re the one who wants to storm this dungeon so bad. Now can you just focus for two minutes?”
“Yeah, I’m focused.”
“And you’ve got the plan down?” Gailik asked.
“Got it,” Jaaran lied. Gailik had a tendency to reiterate. He’d catch it next time. “Now we just have to wait for nightfall,” he said. He checked the in-game time. “In about twenty minutes.”
Their avatars were all seated around a wooden table in the Mead Hall, a fire crackling behind them. Koromosa’s elven figure was bedecked in steel armor, the best that money could buy in the game. Her hair was long and dark, glinting in the digital light of the fire. She looked threatening, warrior like, but Jared knew it was all a front - her avatar’s personality, but not her own.“Here, Jaaran. Have some virtual beer. I hear it’s delicious.”
Jaaran snorted, but accepted the item transfer of beer. His player consumed it, making the screen blur slightly around the edges for thirty seconds or so. Time ticked down slowly.
“Listen,” Noir started in a voice that generally warned of a following awkward question or bit of bad news, “I know we agreed not to talk about real life in the game, but… Are you guys eligible for the draft?” His avatar shifted mechanically in his mage robes, glimmering with a aura of magic.
There was a tense moment of quiet. “Yes,” Gailik answered first. “Are you?”
“Nah,” Noir said with a sigh. “Two years too young, thank god. Jaaran?”
“I am,” Jared admitted.
“Me too,” Koromosa spoke up.
They all swiveled their viewpoints to look at her. “What?” Gailik demanded. “I thought girls were exempt.”
Koromosa met his gaze. “Unless you put your name in the hat.”
“Why would you do that?” Jared demanded. “Why would you want to be shipped off to war?”
“None of your business,” she snapped, effectively closing herself off from further questioning.
After a beat, Noir said, “Well… uh… good luck tomorrow, then. I really hope you guys don’t get drafted. I’d miss you.”
“What, you don’t think they let you play video games in the Army?” Gailik snorted, fingers flying over the keys to type a command which made his huge, muscular, red-skinned avatar contort in laughter.
The others joined in, a brief release. Jaaran glanced at the time. It moved faster in the game than it did in real life. “Come on, guys. It’s showtime.”
For the next few hours, Jared didn’t have to worry about the draft tomorrow. He didn’t have to feel the dread, the stifling blanket of worry pressing its weight upon his soul. For just a short time, he could lose himself in this reality.
He could be free.