“Secret alpha tester No. 78. Time elapsed: 71 hours. Delirium, leading to mental collapse. As per procedure, subject will be forced to log out and moved to the collection room.”
Here, at the 7th research center of a certain conglomerate, 100 so-called “secret alpha tester” human subjects were undergoing an experiment within the MMORPG, “World of Yggdrasia”. Over 50 staff members were monitoring them 24/7, with ten persons each shift.
After the staff member’s announcement, the collecting process began in another facility. Subject No. 78 was thawed and released from the VR capsule. The medical staff carried the kid away in indifference.
Brian, the deputy director of this particular research center, watched the process through a monitor. He sighed and clicked a few buttons.
“So how many does this make?”
“Including No. 78, we have had 8 people logging out due to mental collapse. Another 2 died from their minds weakening.” His secretary, a gorgeous woman nearing her thirties, answered stoically.
The mental strain of using a different VR avatar from one’s real body first became a problem several years ago, and it had only gotten worse with the advance in VR technology. Increasing realism went hand-in-hand with an increasing number of reported mental instability.
As present, there were only three solutions.
First, was to simply lower the sensitivity of the VR system. This was not practical due to how indispensable VR had made itself in so many aspects of society, not to speak of the users’ ever-increasing demand for realism.
Second, to get used to the experience with the help of drugs and medical supervision. However, the user still needed to train for a long period of time, and success was not guaranteed. This solution also caused several other problems such as possible drug addiction and difficulty in returning to society, and thus was also impractical to implement.
Third, to minimize the differences between the user and their avatar. This was the simplest, problem-free solution, and so became the standard choice.
The 7th center’s focus was on exploring the effect of non-human avatar use on the human mind. For this purpose, the center had acquired orphans within the age of 10 to 15 for their still-flexible minds, and the fact that they had no relatives. These kids had had their records ‘legally’ deleted from the system. Upon the conclusion of this experiment, they would have their livelihood guaranteed for ten years and new identities made.
Monster avatars, with their unnatural powers and movement, took quite some time to make, which delayed the project. In the end, the secret alpha testers began their experiment at the same time the official beta testers joined the game. Depending on the results, this experiment could be a large step forward for the medical field.
“So, ten percent dropped out after just 70 hours.”
“Sir, I believe the cause might be the lack of sleep. At maximum, VR sensitivity even surpassed real life, which put so much stress on their minds that they couldn’t rest. Should we lower it?”
“That’d be putting the cart before the horse. If sensitivity is low, we might as well be using remote-controlled drones or AI tanks. As weapons, they’d be useless.”
Brian snorted. He looked at the large monitor showing the mental states of the 100 test subjects, updated in real-time.
Dead – 2 subjects.
Logged out due to mental collapse – 8 subjects.
Delirious – 12 subjects.
Gone berserk due to loss of rationality – 11 subjects.
Mentally unstable – 37 subjects.
Light mental instability – 30 subjects.
“Sir, I’ve just received a report. A berserk alpha tester had made contact with a few beta testers, then defeated after a fight broke out.”
“Excuse me. It was the alpha tester who started as a goblin and advanced into a hobgoblin. The beta testers who defeated them was a party of four, but they also suffered one casualty.”
“I see. As foreseen, the closer to human the avatar, the faster their evolution. So how many subjects have reached evolution?”
“Twenty-seven. Among them, one had died and four more have had a mental collapse, so currently twenty-two are still logged-in. However, over half of them are extremely unstable. Some of them are delirious, or have gone berserk.”
“Yes, increased stress due to a sudden change of form. Worst case scenario, we may need to look into injecting a few of them…”
“Six subjects have achieved evolution with only light mental instability. Furthermore, subject No. 13 have unlocked evolution while relatively stable.”
“No. 13, huh…” Brian muttered.
Answering him, the screen showed the sight of a snow-white girl, her red pupils shooting daggers at the camera. Brian remembered her. Understanding dawned on his face, and he nodded.
“Ahh, right. The ‘Demon Child’…”
* * *
[NO NAME] [Infant Demon] 47/99 ・A nameless infant demon. A spiritual life-form. Extremely fragile. [Magic Points: 17/55] 15↑ [Total Combat Power: 25/60] 15↑ [Unique Skill: Reroll] [Evolution Available]
…evolution available? Right, the explanation did include this.
Once a monster player raised their levels enough, they can evolve into another type of monster within the same evolution tree.
Anyway, I needed more details. I focused my thoughts on the Evolution Available part, and more text appeared.
Available Evolutions from [Infant Demon] 46/99 Displaying current choices. [Imp] [Shadow] [Gremlin] [Ghast]
There were quite a few choices… I’d have to check them out one by one. My Crystal only had half its uses left, yet I still hadn’t learned the skill. Worrying was just futile, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.
[Imp] 45/99 ・A tiny, hideous demon. Lives in people’s houses, and loves to play pranks.
That explanation was much too short! It didn’t even say anything about the next evolutions. So useless.
…whatever. Might as well finish off the rest.
[Shadow] 44/99 ・A demon of shadows. Takes over the place of a living being’s shadow. Disturbs the mind of the possessed.
[Gremlin] 43/99 ・A type of evil fairy. Possesses inventions of man, and interferes with operation.
[Ghast] 42/99 ・A gaseous demon. Formed from a collection of black dust and soot. Can transform into many different shapes.
Hmmm… I guess if I wanted a typical demon, I should go the Imp path? But it’s ugly… I didn’t know how powerful they could get, but the size didn’t assure me.
I was slightly partial to the Shadow. If they could possess human shadows, then they might be able to enter human villages. Ah, but what if I turned white again after my evolution?
Gremlins also seemed to be a straightforward choice, but what exactly are ‘inventions’? Could I possess an airship and drop it? This had the potential for mass murder, but would I have to attack humans?
Ghasts were the most mysterious one. What do I do with the ability to change shapes?
All of them had their pros and cons. None of them seemed to be useful in a straight fight. What should I do?
Anyway, it looked like I couldn’t evolve if my magic wasn’t full so for the time being, it was time to rest. I decided to laze about in the clearing to calm myself down – all this time, this sense of disconnect had been putting my mind off-balance. Maybe I could watch the flowers.
You could say I was just escaping from reality, but, well, I’m a very experienced escapist. Really, I wish those corporation people would just lower the sensitivity already…
My mind wandered, until it landed on the caterpillar corpses. They were seriously cramping my style, here. Could I use them for something?
They did have those fangs that no bugs should ever have. Maybe I could rip them out and sell them in a town, somewhere? A monster selling monster materials. I’d be turning a lot of heads. Well, I had some free time, might as well try.
I approached the dark-red. Up close, the huge corpse looked a lot more grotesque than I thought.
I wasn’t really in the mood to carefully dismantle it, so I just stretched out a gooey tentacle to start pounding. It wasn’t so much dismantling as pulverizing. Which still worked – I got one out of the pair of fangs. It looked quite sturdy. Also, the other fang broke.
I didn’t want to look at this aftermath of a splatter movie, but I couldn’t close my eyes. Which might have been for the better, since otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed the twinkling object inside the corpse.
What was this thing? A gem? It was the size of a bean and colored black, which made it look more like a really nice piece of coal rather than a gem. I tried poking it, and suddenly it disappeared inside my body. Eh? What happened? Where did it go?
I searched everywhere in my body but found nothing. Instead, I noticed my depleted magic power recovering at a far faster rate.
What was that? A magic-emitting rock? Well, if it could recover my magic, then all the more convenient. I looked for stones inside the other three red caterpillar corpses too, but smashing them open revealed nothing.
Questions after questions. Did these stones only form inside strong monsters? Perhaps that was the ‘magic stone’ I was told about. Well, no matter. Thanks to the stone, I only took an hour to recover all my magic power.
Hey, dark-red. I’m not going to say I was grateful for the fight, but… it wasn’t meaningless.
[NO NAME] [Infant Demon] 41/99 ・A nameless infant demon. A spiritual life-form. Extremely fragile. [Magic Points: 55/55] [Total Combat Power: 60/60] [Unique Skill: Reroll] [Evolution Available]
Indeed. It wasn’t meaningless at all. Thus, I made my decision.
Likely as not, there’d be more difficulties ahead of me no matter which path I choose. My worn-out soul might just be in tatters by the end, yet still, I didn’t want everything I had done to be meaningless.
And so, I gave form to my desire in my mind and made a wish with all my heart.
Author’s Note: Adults are scary.