"The subliminal message that is put on your screen every time you play," Skazz said. "It's very subtle, and I've never been quite sure what it's for, or even who put it there. But it can't be good." He pointed to the source code on the screen. "That's my answer to it. A virus that will block the signal. But I've got to get you out of here - if they're chasing you, it's only a matter of time before they get here and stop me."
"Very good!" Dave heard Agent Gedry say from behind him. Dave turned around just in time to see the agent point his gun at Skazz and pull the trigger. Skazz fell back, a stun dart slamming into his chest. He gasped, unable to move. Gedry trained the gun on Heather. Dave swallowed.
"But it's two signals, actually," Gedry said. "The first makes you happy, content, and a good citizen that will do as he's told. The second makes you want to keep playing. We found that combining both messages into one signal diluted them."
"You can't do this to people," Dave said, glancing around for something that he could use to fight back. Heather stepped forward and Gedry shot her. She fell back into his arms, gasping as the stun dart took effect.
"We can do this the easy way or the hard way," Gedry said. "I have the equipment to plug all of you back online right here."
"This can't be legal!"
Gedry laughed. "It's perfectly legal. The entire nation had a vote on it twenty years ago! There was a time when people were worried about videogames making children more violent. It wasn't long before somebody realized that if children could be made more aggressive by the games they play, then they could be made more passive too. And it worked. There are no more gang wars, almost no violent crime - everybody is safe and happy."
Gedry snapped his fingers. An agent came down with a bag, and pulled out three headsets, the expensive type that let you do everything with eye movement. "You've had your fun, but it's time to become a good citizen again. The easy way or the hard way."
Dave looked at Heather in his arms, and then Skazz. He glared at Gedry.
"Go to hell."
Gedry shrugged. "Your choice."
The agent pulled the trigger. As Dave gasped, paralyzed, the headset came down over his eyes, and the brilliant green fields of Aldamar stretched out before him.
It had been two weeks since the intervention. Dave would spend some time killing monsters every night, and then he and Heather would retire to their own virtual apartment and explore each other. They'd even started talking about moving in together after high school so that they could play in the same room while they raised a family.
Dave pulled out his longsword and stared at the fortress before him. It would be a tough one, but they could clear it out. Especially now that Skazz had joined them as a cleric.
Dave glanced around and grinned. Heather was at his side, Skazz was there and so was Steve. It was wonderful. He stood with his friends in the digital green fields of Aldamar, and all was right with the world.
Robert B. Marks is an author, editor, publisher, and civilian MA student in the war studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada. You can view a full list of his published works here.