By: Anmol Paudel

Sapana unpacked the box that had just been dropped off by a delivery guy. It had a lot of foam, quite a lot of padding. The bubble wrap went prap-prap in her hands, like minuscule fireworks. She unfolded the wrap and methodically started bursting every single one. She had all the time in the world, right?

When she had seen depictions of plagues in classical paintings, she had never imagined living through one. It had always seemed such a romantic thing to do, live through adversity, that is. A plague was supposed to be like a medieval war, or alien invasion, or something. People would have to band together and fight off the evil, then they got to go home after it was all over. Instead, what had happened was … practically nothing. It was just waiting, a whole lot of waiting for events to catch up.

She had been locked in her rooms for the past five weeks. Many of her friends had returned home, but her parents were stranded abroad, so she had nowhere to go. The video calls after the first week had gotten tedious, the same old conversations. She had always been an aloof person, but keeping up with other people seemed especially draining at the present. Now, she had practically no human interaction, except the delivery people that arrived wearing visors and masks. She liked to fancy being employed in that way, avoiding lunatics in the streets and getting your job done in a dangerous climate. That would be so much eventful than the sitting and staring.

Bubble wrap fully popped, she moved on to taking out the device. It was an experimental product — a fully immersive VR thing. The headset was present, as usual, but there was also this platform — it reminded her of the foot detox machine her landlady had bought. She ambled around her room for a bit, finishing off the sandwich left in the fridge. Then with a sigh, she put on the headset and turned the thing on.

The game, AltU, booted up and she marveled at the level of immersion. She had only played it on her laptop before, and it had seemed so real even then. Now, she could hear the smallest sounds her avatar made while interacting within the game universe, and even distant springs burbling. Her character spawned at the nexus, where a lot of folks were milling around. She caught glints of tiny watches and the rust starting to form in someone's armor. Wow, this attention-to-detail was unheard of.

Sapana moved around the nexus, hopping along platforms to see if she could locate some of her previous acquaintances. No luck. A lot of the conversation going on was about the outside world. She shook her head at that. People came here to escape to a different universe, albeit temporarily, right? Why talk about the news or whatever. Whichever corner of the nexus she went, the same conversations were taking place. She quickly grew tired of it, and took a portal to her own planet.

Her planet was located in one of the more peaceful zones of the game. No warships or robot armies here. She had designed its parameters by drawing upon a memory of a trip she had when she was young. Her parents had taken her to an idyllic village up north, where teatime was valued above all else. The distant waterfalls, itchy shrubbery and leaping lambs had formed a deep impression in her urban imagination. Now her planet reflected a lot of that environment, with shy animals and lazy trees spiraling out of the ground.

But one section of her planet was changing, owing to the recent fascination with both neoclassical and expressionist movements of art, simultaneously. This section housed grand chapels that were nevertheless painted over in all permutations of color. It made for a strange sight, but she loved it. Sapana moved to a clearing of grass, that had a huge block of what looked like granite. It looked out of place.

One of the creators had made a strange mod for the game, which very few of the star systems had installed. It caused sound to travel in vacuum. Sapana didn't understand it fully, but had wanted to try it out. This block of material was her newest project. The substance reflected and amplified the sound around it, like glass reflects light. Pre-VR, she could only notice the low droning of the sun during in-game daytime. But now she could pick up the rhythms and the melodies the sun was belting out. She picked up a chisel and got to work.

As evening approached, the pitch from the sun steadily increased, reaching tones of an opera singer. She had scraped away a great amount of material, but the work was just beginning. She picked a finer chisel from her inventory, and put on special goggles. A sliver here, a sliver there. Small subtractions and contours made significant differences in the sound her sculpture was making. Of course, the sound from the sun was changing all this while, but she'd have to work around that limitation.

Night fell, and the three moons rose one after another, completing a mellow harmony. Then sunrise came again, a high-pitched overture for the day. Her planet kept on spinning, and Sapana kept on working. She took small breaks, where she was vaguely aware of unconscious motion in the real world. But she was so engrossed in the sculpture that nothing would break her flow. Time stopped having coherence. The figure in the marble had a definite shape now, although its voice was still developing.

Some clouds obscured sunlight, but Sapana took the opportunity to tune certain areas so that overcast conditions would still produce a melodious tone. She contemplated adding in variations for every form of weather. Then she did, and that took a while, but she had all the time in the world right now. The piece took a life of its own now, it was begging to be cut out from the material, nearly out of the birth canal, just needing the last bit of help before gaining an essence of its own.

And then, she was done. It was far from perfect, but any modifications she could perform would make the thing worse off. Sapana had to let it be now.

She sat down on the grass, hearing the breeze rustle her avatar's dress. The sun was starting to orange out, and her statue was singing out short, rhythmic verses. An urge crept from inside her, and stayed firmly on her mind. She wanted to show it to someone, anyone.

AltU had numerous players, but it was also a vast game in sheer size. The nearest inhabitants might be some planets away. That would be a problem, since she had no space-faring vessels in-game. The nexus, yes, she could return there. But the last time, she had been frustrated with everyone talking about the outside world. Maybe that had settled by now and some new trend was going on. How much time had passed, anyway? She glanced at the in-game clock and found that it had glitched. Huh.

Making her mind up, she opened the portal to the nexus, after taking a snapshot of the statue. When she passed the doorway, there was no one there. This was creepy. There were always players hanging out at the nexus, without fail. What was happening? She feared the game server might have crashed. Would her creation survive such data loss?

Sapana wandered around the platform, and tried all forms of communication to see if someone else was present in-game. If they were, she could find no signs. Maybe all of them had retreated to their planets, like she had? She left a message scrawled in the nexus, just in case. Had every player become a planet in themselves, trapped by the same gravity that held them together?

It felt wrong to do so, but Sapana reached for the power button. She turned off the headset and stretched. Her joints felt stiff and weary. She was suddenly hungry, her stomach droning out a low wail. Sapana reached her fridge, which was devoid of any food at all. That was frightening. Was she in a dream of some sort?

None of her devices had any charge left to them. She was panicking by the second. Unable to hold it in, she ran to her front door and threw it open.

The morning sun pushed down upon her, as she shielded her eyes. The air seemed expectant and no sign of movement was seen on the street. Had everyone just disappeared, like some Stephen King novel, and she was the only person left in the world now? She ran out and looked at both sides of the street. No sign of humans.

A grating brrr sound steadily rose in volume. From the left end of the street, a shaky scooter approached, the rider decked in green. The person stopped just before her, and looked at her, titling their head.

"Hello, ma'am. Are you fine?"

"Ye-yeah. What, what's happening?"

Her throat was parched and the sound came out with a squeak. Why had the guy called her ma'am, she was only twenty! The man himself was nearing thirty, she guessed. She felt out of breath and weary, and sat down on the edge of the pavement.

Sapana looked at her hands, and they were not her youthful hands anymore. She grabbed at herself, at her face, and they seemed …old. She ran in front of the scooter, to look at herself in the side mirror. An older face looked back at her, hair starting to gray and a hint of some wrinkles.

"No, no, no!" She screamed out. The man looked at her, perplexed.

After the delivery guy had taken her inside, and gotten her to calm down, he relayed what had happened in the world. The pandemic had raged for some months, then settled into a plateau. It had never really gone away, the virus, but humanity had encompassed it. Now it was yet another fact of life, yet another boogey to stay away from.

He actually knew someone playing the exact game she had been playing. The company had gone out of business within half a decade, he said. The guy still kept glancing at her when he thought she wasn't looking. Twenty-five years were a lot to have passed away without noticing.

Sapana slowly began to fathom what had happened, and how the world was now. The old cities had mostly been abandoned for oceanic colonies. Those were much more efficient, cheaper to live in, and had all the jobs and schools now. Only some holdouts and romantics still lived in the old cities. The delivery guy was stationed here as a part of his business history internship. Her devices probably were obsolete now, but he allowed Sapana to check the internet from his square phone.

As Sapana greedily swiped through the social networks, she found most of her friends were quite vocal there, and thank god, her parents were still alive and posting photos of their dog. It was at once such a relief, and a paralyzing moment. She handed the phone back and took a deep breath.

She'd reach out. To all of them. She might have lost twenty-five years, but no more. No person had to be a planet in an empty universe. There were other blinking lights around.

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