Pet Shop Campaign was getting to be a little long in the tooth. The video game was more than five years old at this point, and most augmented-reality-massively-multiplayer games died off in the first two. There was always something new to try that siphoned the public’s adrenaline drops.
Pet Shop Campaign had staying power though. It let you create a character out of any domestic animal you wanted. Then you could enter the game world and pretend to be the Portuguese water dog or British short-hair cat of your dreams, or even that red-eared slider turtle if you didn’t mind the speed debuff. From there a player had tons of story options as the cartoonish animals warred over cages and toys within a massive pet store after closing.
Augmented reality hadn’t worked out exactly as people had planned. Gone were the bulky headsets and room-scale affairs. Now it was just your cell phone and the tiny immersion ear piece that fed your brain game feedback. You could even play while wandering around the real world, though you risked tripping on things and walking into traffic.
Huxley was twenty-two, fresh out of college, and fresh out of job prospects. Pet Shop Campaign offered him a purpose for a while. He played it as an African grey parrot, which put him in the minority. Pretty much everybody else was cats and dogs, but it meant he didn’t have to share the high ceiling in the game world with many other fliers. He was on his way to a dog park to meet up with another player.
His immersion piece was in and he had his phone held out in front of him. He had to really concentrate to avoid flapping his arms like wings. In the game he soared over the reptile section, eyeing turtle shells and snake patterns like bins of beads and chains in a jewelry store. He wasn’t sure if he was walking into a date.
She was very nice to him on his first day in the game, gifting him a cuttlebone +5: one of the most powerful items for flying attribute characters. She always invited him to raids as well, and then split the victory treats, even the ones Huxley didn’t like. His parrot character still munched on them because he wanted the approval of her Akita dog character. He could actually taste them too thanks to the immersion piece, dry bits of bacon-flavored grain in the holes left by his wisdom teeth.
They were meeting in real life just for fun after the game, convinced by the time they’d played together, shared their locations with each other. They were quite close. They both trusted Pet Shop Campaign enough to let its algorithms handle some of their social life. He knew her when he saw her, because her facial expression was the same whether it was on the dog or a person.
“Hey, I’m Rose-violet,” she said, hopping up off the bench and holding out her hand aggressively. Huxley shook it with the hand not holding the phone. They were about the same age. She had an impish grin and a cute nose that seemed to blush instead of her cheeks. Her short blonde hair bobbed everywhere, cut somewhat unevenly.
“Huxley,” he reciprocated. “So.. yeah… thanks for everything in the game.” She looked at him strangely. “What?”
“Oh nothing, sorry. I just,” she laughed a little too loud, “I thought you were going to squawk. Not a bird heh… totally a human.”
“Yup. Fingers and everyting.” He wiggled them around in the air. He’d forgotten to take his immersion piece out, so he really did feel air in his feathers when he did so. He went to take it out, but then transformed the motion into a simple ear lobe tug when he noticed she had hers in as well. Her phone was tucked into her sweater’s front pocket, but he could see its glow through the fabric.
“You’re going to have to thank me some more,” she said, her voice getting ridiculously high, “because I’m buying us some ice cream. Let’s go.” She waved her hand to make him follow. Rose-violet seemed a little strange, her gait even bounced a bit like her character’s, but Huxley liked free ice cream as much as the next guy.
Neither of them unplugged the entire time, but the conversation was pleasant enough to distract them from the background actions of their characters. She was unflinchingly nice, but he already knew she wasn’t that way with everybody. In the game she barked at most strangers, yet she’d spared the time to help him get started. Why?
There was something else about her too; her immersion seemed a little too deep. When she was listening to him, licking her ice cream, her tongue was a tad… loose. She lapped at the ice cream like a literal hound would, and only caught herself nearly a minute later. A quick touch with the napkin and a giggle later she seemed to forget all about it.
“I just love the game,” she said as they finished up their cones. “I don’t see myself ever stopping. I know it’s virtual, but the emotions aren’t. I almost feel like I was born there, because I can do anything. It was the first place where I saw… like… possibilities as a horizon. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah no, I get you,” Huxley agreed. “It’s certainly more rewarding than school was.”
“I didn’t go to college,” she said without a hint of regret or shame.
“That’s cool. And uhh… hey… As far as the virtual stuff goes, that’s not virtual drool.” He pointed to the side of her cheek, where a stream of spittle was slowly moving down her face. He saw it clearly; she suppressed the urge to simply shake her head back and forth and grabbed a napkin.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked, letting the napkin linger around her face.
“Sure. Don’t be embarrassed by the way. I play the game too. I know what it’s like to just want to give up on this human stuff and stay in that sky all the time.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m a dog. Mostly. I tinker with immersion pieces. Mine’s pretty different from the normal. I mix the Akita personality profile with my own and I sort of… shuffle them back and forth. Most of the human me is fully in the game right now. You’re kind of talking to a dog. I have a rubber ball in my purse. Serious.”
“Oh?” Huxley did not know what to say that. He had thought himself one of the furthest extremes in the nerd realm. “Can I… talk to the person?”
“Sure.” Rose-violet fiddled with her immersion piece. Her face changed slightly; she looked less like she was about to start panting. “Hey Huxley. I was listening mostly. You seem as great as your bird.”
“Aaaand what’s your name?” he asked. Perhaps he needed a psychology degree for this conversation.
“I’m still Rose-violet,” she said. “Just with more hang-ups. You should try it. I’m serious. I can make it so you and that bird are one and the same. You can go back and forth, take turns with yourself. It’s beautiful, and deep, and you only occasionally have to worry about someone seeing you chew on a squeak toy.”
Huxley didn’t understand why he took her up on the offer, not for years. At first he thought it was simply because he found her attractive. The truth was a little quirkier. He already had a little bit of his spirit invested in that bird. That part said yes.
If that first meeting wasn’t a date, the second one sure was. And the third. The same two people never met. Each time it was a different mix of human and character. Sometimes they made fools of themselves in public, but they always laughed it off. Every version was in love with the other.
Every part of them knew it to be true on a rather interesting morning four years into their relationship. They were mostly human when they yawned themselves awake. They yawned some more. They hadn’t gotten the sleep they thought they had. There were flowers strewn across the bed as well as take-out wrappers and weird random souvenirs from various gift shops. They wore rings. Apparently, while they thought they slept, the animals had come out to play, taken the bodies, and gotten them hitched.
They couldn’t believe Pet Shop Campaign was actually free to play!
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by Darelege during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!