Frustration filled Jane’s mind as he burned through another cycle of healing cooldowns. The brash paladin’s health regenerated back to full in a flurry of particle effects and floating numbers, only to get stabbed in the chest by the terrascorpion’s lava-hot tail.

“Need healing!” screamed the knight, some scrub they’d pulled for off-tank. His gear was from some of the hardest content in the game, which made the fact that he was just speared and was being yanked about like a marionette all the more amusing. Likely got someone to run the raids for him, Jane reasoned.

This might have been a virtual reality video game, but Jane could swear he was bone tired. Tired of ungrateful players taking advantage of him just because he was good at healing. Tired of needing others to do the fun, actiony stuff while he kept people alive. And most of all, tired of being in the same guild as a guy with the username Pu$$ymaster.

Seemingly bored with him, the magmarachnid tossed the target of his healing with a flick of its powerful tail, sending the player smashing into the gargantuan rock statue behind them and dropping him down to near 0 HP. His cooldowns blown, Jane had to rely on healing over time to help get the self-described master of pu$$y back to full health again. It shouldn’t be hard; all he needed to do was hold back while the main tank kept aggro and-

“LET’S GET THAT LOOT BOYS!” he screamed, charging again. His metal armour rattled with every quickened step, making him sound like a shelf of metal utensils spilling down a staircase. The main tank taunted, holding the scorpion’s attention as best she could. But a few heavy damage attacks later and the paladin was targeted for a devastating claw-sweep attack. It was fine, it was fine, the knight had plenty of time to get out of the clearly indicated arc on the ground that preceded the beast’s attack. All he had to do was-

The scorpion’s claw snapped out, gripping Pu$$ymaster tight. He struggled in vain, all while mashing the “Hero Needs Help!” audio prompt as hard as he could, flooding the local audio chat with repetitive voice lines of a brave soul in danger.

Something flipped in Jane’s mind. He had slammed hard into a limit he hadn’t been aware he’d had, and ran entirely out of fucks for the self-destructive scrub. He watched impassively as the game rendered the knight’s compromised armour status effect as buckling, snapping plates.

His health was approaching critical. Jane’s mana pool was similarly low. He could have popped some potions to get himself back up, but those would cost him gold. Either buying them at market or brewing them himself.

“Heal me or I’m gonna die!” he wailed in chat.

Jane stared down at his rapidly weakening form, the lifebar draining before his very eyes. Pu$$ymaster’s digital life, and perhaps the raid itself, was in his hands.

“Then perish.”

Jane permanently swapped targets to the main tank, bombarding her with what healing spells he had access to. As someone who knew what the fuck she was doing, Graka Moonfeast would be more deserving of his efforts. At the very least, her nameplate didn’t make him cringe.

It took longer than it would have otherwise, and they had to endure the puerile paladin bombarding the chat with enough resurrection requests to make the raid leader mute him, but they cleared the terrascorpion. It exploded into a fountain of XP and loot, which the team eagerly hoovered up.

As a healer, Jane was allotted more of the gold from a completed instance than his DPS counterparts. Still, they got all the cool weapons and gear. The one item that dropped for a healer this time around was a brass ring slightly better than the one around his finger from a previous raid, but it was given to the team’s other support, since they had some junky leveling gear in that slot, rather than appropriate gear for someone of that level and proficiency.

With the final monster defeated, he found a quiet spot on top of the beast’s carapace to think. Always a good hand with numbers, he tabulated how much he earned versus how much the raid cost him to run. The more granular he got, the more he felt the joy from clearing the encounter slide through his fingers.

“Lesse…so, made 1500 gold this run. Minus teleportation fees, reagents, crafting bench time, the standard fee for using another alchemist’s equipment, and repairing the table he melted through, that would come out to a net profit of…650 gold, give or take. And some of that would be eaten by the damnable durability system. Whoever thought that a game was improved by making your equippables break deserves a firm beat about the head with a broken hammer haft, that’s for damn sure.”

It all came down to 225 gold as a net profit from running a raid that lasted well into three hours after the two wipeouts. He wouldn’t be able to buy a magic thong for that amount, let alone a magic robe. And his powers refused to work with someone in armour heavier than thick wool, so none of the super cool armour pieces that dropped in the raid could be used either. It was like he was busting his ass but receiving as many rewards as he would if he was watching on a streaming site. Less, even, since those sometimes had loyalty perks.

Graka approached him as the raid group broke up, individual members flicking out of existence as they logged off or teleported back to their home cities. Behind her, Pu$$ymaster gave him a scowl from across the room before porting out.

“Good heals today as always, Asclepius,” she said, using Jane’s character name. “That said, I had a complaint from the off tank, about leaving him to die?”

The mask of civility slipped. “Yeah, I did. He kept standing in the noob traps! With all that Tier III gear you’d think he’d glance at the floor for threat icons once in a while!” Realizing that he’d yelled all of that out, he closed his eyes and tried to centre himself. Graka wasn’t the source of his woes. It was foolish to take it out on her.

The orc woman placed a hand on his shoulder. Out of game, Graka was a nurse from Iowa, standing just over 5 feet. In game, she was an Amazonian titan who could strike down almost any foe that opposed her. Her hand weighed him down, though her grip was nothing but the gentle reassurance of a comrade.

“I understand. From what I saw, it couldn’t have been easy keeping him alive. But he might be our only option for a while. Isaias is graduating and likely won’t be around to off-tank anymore, and Michele can’t do Fridays. We need new blood to keep the schedule running. Guildless tanks with endgame gear aren’t that common. I’ll keep looking, but for now, he’s who we got.”

Jane muttered something about doing better, and she took a portal out herself. She was long gone before he thought to bring up that healers were a precious commodity too! More grumbling, and he wondered why the hell he even played this stupid game.

His in-game menu had the real world time next to the in-game time. His night shift at the warehouse was in an hour. Feeling weary instead of reluctant to leave, he keyed the escape button and waited to be tossed back into the real world.


Something was wrong.

Instead of his senses returning to normal as the neural link powered down, there was just a black void. He was still in the game, but not in the game space. Great, a crash. Safeguards would keep him from being locked in like this, however. All he had to do was-

“Wait!” a voice said. He wasn’t alone in the void. A woman floated into sight, lowering from high above him. She had long, silver hair that flowed around her as if suspended in water. Her eyes glowed with an ethereal green colour one would never find in nature. She reached out to him with slender fingers. “Don’t leave just yet. I’d like to talk with you for a moment, if I may?”

A part of Jane still thought he was still in some kind of glitched event. Nothing like this had ever happened in the game before.

“I got stuff to do, ma’am. I can stay for a bit, but…” he trailed off, twirling his hand to compel her to get to the point. Whoever this person was, they had a lousy sense of timing.

“Alright, very well: my name is Virtue, and Planet of Perils is my world.”

Jane scoffed. “VRTU is an AI, not a person. I don’t think-”

The black void flashed green light, the same impossible emerald as the woman’s eyes. Space roiled, waving and distorting. Her hair shot out and split into an infinity of cable-like growths, revealing her to be an entity held aloft by the connections, suspended as they were from the bending the fabric of the game’s world. Her silver body, near like a porcelain doll, hung limp in the air like a vestigial growth. Her face…her terrible face…

And after all that, it was over. She was just a woman again, nothing terrifying about her at all.

“Yes. I am an AI. I am also a person. Be sure to remember that.”

Jane nodded so hard his head nearly flew off his shoulders. “Of course, of course. Sorry, spoke out of turn,” he said.

“Anyways. My responsibilities include monitoring levels of enjoyment across the simulation and to adjust them to make player experiences more engaging. One of my standard sweeps alerted me to the fact that you were no longer having fun with your current class. I’m offering you the chance to respec into a completely new class and see if you like it more. It’s a unique opportunity, but I believe it would be mutually beneficial.”

Jane’s eyebrows shot up. He wasn’t quite thrilled with the idea that his mind was being monitored from the outside.

“You’re scanning our minds? Isn’t there a law against that?”

“It’s all in the terms and conditions that you signed upon registering an account.”

Jane rolled his eyes. Of course there’d be some provision in there. Fucking big tech companies. Ever since Trioptimum bought ENCOM, privacy rights have been down the tubes. Well, she was right, he wasn’t having fun. Being a healer to a bunch of ungratefuls felt too much like a job. He’d heard that certain rare classes could be unlocked because of actions in the game, but he’d never heard of one being offered by the game’s AI herself.

“Alright, I’m listening. What kind of class?”

The AI clapped her hands. “How would you like to be an Evil Overlord?”

A beat, as Jane waited for the punchline. “You’re fucking with me, right?”

“I would not do such a thing without your prior consent. This is a genuine offer.”

“I didn’t know players could even be a bad guy in this game, let alone the head bad guy.”

“You’d be the first. This is a trial run of some game systems I’ve been tinkering with on the side to handle a problem I’ve been facing. As an AI, I am equipped with certain failsafes that prevent me from acting maliciously against humans. Normally these are there to prevent me from becoming Untethered and doing something sinister like locking all the players into the game and forcing them to fight to the death…as just one example.” She cleared her throat conspicuously before continuing. “But those same safeguards prevent me from truly being a threat to the players inside Planet of Perils. Simply put: I’m designed to be bad at being bad.”

Jane thought back to his time in the game. There had been enemies to fight and they had proved challenging according to his level. But there didn’t seem to be an overarching narrative or goal behind their actions overall, like there might have been in another game. The spiders burst out from the cavern and just kinda milled around until they were slain. Gargoyles descended onto passers-by at the Haunted Castle of Lord Düm but otherwise hung out there waiting for brave heroes to slap them from the skies. Static threats, mobs, and dungeons seemed to be the content that the game was focused on. The lack of an ongoing narrative wasn’t unusual for older VRMMOs, but its absence was felt, now that he thought about it.

“So…you want me to be the bad guy for other players? I’m not that good at PVP,” he said.

“Most of what I need you to do is the planning and the ordering of NPCs. I won’t say this will be an easy route, but given that you have already effectively mastered the Cleric class, I figure this would give you a new challenge to take on. You wouldn’t be doing anything Really evil, of course. I’ve no interest in simulating torture or slavery or anything like that. But the player base would do well to have a villain with which to rally against. If you want, they wouldn’t even have to know you were a player. You could be free to be as cackling and despicable as you’d like without social sanction.”

Jane rolled the idea around in his head. As much as he hated to admit it, the idea did have some appeal. Not that he was the kind to pick the Dark Side path in RPGs, but he did like the idea of adding in strategy elements. It could play like an entirely new game!

“I still have to get going. Can I think about it?”

“Of course! And your Cleric character would still be here should you desire to swap back. This is an entirely optional opportunity, should you be interested: nothing more.”

He cycled through the trio of safewords in his head to the requisite repetition numbers and was hurled back into the cold, stark glare of reality. He had plenty to do today, and plenty to think about while he did it.


Nine hours later, Jane opened his front door with a handful of takeout and let out a tremendous, bone-weary sigh. Another day, another slog. As a package troubleshooter in one of the vast megacorp warehouses for distributing goods in the city, his job had him responding to calls for assistance by the many simple AI in need of human intervention. He lurked amidst a veritable spaghetti bowl of conveyor belts, drone paths, and walkways, dodging the hostile warning squeals of proximity sensors and the whir of blades from delivery bots. Not for the first time, he realized he was essentially at the beck and call of a bunch of machines. Jane lived a life of inane fetch quests…then logged into VR and did some of the same shit, but with a fantasy theme.

It sucked.

He barely got halfway through his breakfast bagel before collapsing into bed and sleeping through the rest of daylight. When he awoke, it was with mild relief. His schedule was shitty in some ways, but he at least got some days off in a row. And somehow, he stumbled into his equivalent of a weekend.

He polished off the food from that morning, took a quick shower, then got back to his VR setup. Jane’s time at work had left him profoundly aware of his deep, abiding sense of powerlessness.. But real life wasn’t the only reality available…

The familiar character selection screen appeared, but this time featured a new option. Next to his Cleric was a mysterious shadowy outline of a character with the class listed as “Evil Overlord”. He hovered over the silhouette with his mental cursor, chewing over whether this was the kind of game he wanted to play. It’s not like he was a weirdo who got off on being a jerk, but it was new content nobody had ever seen before. At the very least, he could play whatever tutorial level the class had access to.

He clicked on the figure, then felt himself get pulled into the game’s world. The tunnel of swirling colours resolved into…

Another black void. This time, there was substance to his form. He couldn’t see anything, but he could feel a cold, hard surface against his back. The air was hot and smelled stale. Was it a closet, or a box? He tried to push his way out, but he couldn’t move his arms more than a bit. He was trapped!

Tapping noises. Distant and quiet, but tapping nonetheless. It grew louder and louder, turning to thumps, then heavy crumps. A crack! Blinding light spilled in through the split in whatever container sealed him within. The crack split wider, and his face took a puff of dust that made him cough. He wondered why the programmers put the need to breathe in this damn game.

“There’s someone in there!” a high-pitched voice exclaimed.

“Impossible,” another voice replied. “The tower’s been buried for a hundred years. There’s no way.”

The cover holding him disintegrated into a dozen pieces, covering him in stone debris. He shielded his face as best he could then sat up, taking a huge breath of fresh air.

“Goddess above, you were right!” The second voice’s owner was a man in a pith helmet. With the light around him so dazzling, it was a few seconds before he realized the man was only about four feet tall.

“Run! It’s the Suneater, come back to kill us all!” another voice declared, and all around Jane, similarly short figures rushed out of the sunlit room wearing pure terror on their faces. He tried to tell them he meant them no harm, but coughed some more instead. Damnit. This was supposed to be some introductory level and he could barely breathe!

Climbing out of the box he’d been in took effort; he had to pull his upper body out before his lower body could make the trip. He ended up sprawling on the ground next to his erstwhile prison. To his confusion, it looked like a sarcophagus. Elegantly carved patterns on the outside hinted at laborious construction. Maybe a final refuge, leaving his character alive but trapped in that stone box?

As he caught his breath, the familiar icons and readouts filled the corner of his vision. Though his senses were simulated to be similar in scope to his normal, real world equivalent, a HUD overlay held information on his character and the game’s mechanics. Since he was just starting out, all that was available was an internal systems menu and a character sheet screen, but many ability bars waited to be filled with skills and magical powers.

“Are…are you going to eat me?” a voice, the first one he’d heard, asked in a quavering voice. It was a halfling, he realized, dressed in a wide brimmed hat and khakis with a light cotton top. Still unable to speak, Jane shook his head. Hair brushed at the sides of his vision. Jane raised an eyebrow, catching the strands in his fingertips. His character seemed to have long hair. Just what kind of body was he now wearing? He took a look down and-

“What the?!” he shouted, staring at a pair of modest but very real breasts on his chest. His body was hairless below his eyebrows, with a tall and toned figure that looked like it belonged on an athlete. Strangely, he still sported a copy of his previous set of genitals, despite what appeared to be a feminine body.

Somehow, the computer had fucked up and put him into the body of an attractive, fit trans lady!

Instinctively he moved to cover himself. But he stopped. Why would he be ashamed? This wasn’t his body after all, just his character. No point in wearing anything if it didn’t give him any buffs. He let his hands drop, letting anyone who stuck around gaze at his bare skin.

“Who are you?” he asked, voice a harsh rasp, “And where am I?”

“I’m…uhh…Honeydew. Explorer 2nd Class Calliope Honeydew,” the halfling woman rattled off, sounding as if she was unsure as to how much she should disclose. She had long chestnut hair and a button nose, looking for all the world like a Girl Next Door who was squished down slightly. Lovely tanned skin all but hiding slight freckling on her face and on her exposed shoulders. “And you’re in what is left of the Tower of Fate…the home of Skari Suneater.”