The fire is flickering: small orange blocks, veined with black, rising into the darkness.”We took the Phoenicians’ gods… and we made demons of them,” says Michael Benzine, making a globe of his two hands. Glynnis sits on the other side of the fire, with several children huddled about. Every so often, one of them – Callum, Kevin or Ursula, it’s hard to tell in the moving periphery of the flickering firelight – one of them looks out into the teeming dark.
“Take Baal, for example,” Michael is talking into the flames, his retina glowing orange and red, “He was a fertility god before we got our hands on him.”
“What’s a fertility god?” asks Callum, returning his anxious gaze to the firelight.
“Someone you pray to if you want a baby,” says Glynnis. She has her arm around Ursula; the two of them hunched close together to keep from the surrounding cold.
“Would you pray to it if you didn’t want a baby?” asks Kevin.
“Good question.” Michael smiles, unblinking before the fire’s rippling silk. “There are far fewer gods than there used to be,” he continues, “Time was, you couldn’t move for gods: the Egyptians had 2,000 of the buggers.”
“Are we saying ‘buggers’?” Glynnis is picking out Michael’s eyes through the flames. His shoulders rise, then fall.
“No. No, we’re not saying ‘buggers’.” He pauses. “I’m sorry.”
It has been five hours now, with no sign of any other remotely human life – digital or otherwise. Five hours traversing and then circling a meandering green landscape. Hungry, in the third hour, Ursula managed to catch and kill a sheep. As the darkness fell, the class built a fire. Kevin and Callum skinned the sheep and they cooked its meat over the fire. As they ate, the class chatted and laughed, but a frantic staccato began to creep into the rhythms of their overlapping speech.
“Michael,” says Glynnis. “You did put us in ‘Creative mode’, didn’t you?”
Glynnis looks every so often to the left or right, as if flicking away intrusive hair: “I could’ve sworn…”
“There was a time when Baal’s name was considered too holy to even utter.” continues Michael.
“Where’s he going with this?” George, a bespectacled boy swaddled in a too-big, green parka, whispers to Callum behind a pudgy hand. Callum shrugs and returns to watching the darkness.
“We could just take these Oculus Rifts off, you know,” says Kevin, “I reckon we’ve missed PE.”
“Missed it? We’d been walking for hours!” Ursula rubs her legs.
“Callum reckons he’s seen a creeper back there.” Kevin points to the low, broad silhouette of a clump of trees down the slope from the mound where they pitched their small camp.
“Could’ve been Mr Musk,” says Ursula, “He’s ever so Gothic.”
“And such long legs.” adds Kevin, “Like the Slenderman.” They both shiver and put their eyes back into the fire.
Ursula is silent for a moment. “Mind, he’d know how to get us out of here. Did you see him using Class Dojo with 4A?”
“Textbook motivational use of tech,” offers George, shoving his specs back up the stub of his nose.
Glynnis looks up from the flames: “Michael, I think it’s time to take these goggles off. I’ve got a spinning class straight after school and I need to finish knitting a pair of swants for Loreta.”
Absent, Michael lifts his head and slowly focuses on the surrounding landscape – a dark plain of cubes, prickling with blocky woodland.
“I suppose so,” he says.
“What happened to Baal?” asks Callum, as he removes his Oculus Rift and blinks into the light of the classroom.
“We turned him into Beelzebub.” Michael shrugs. “It’s hard to come back from that.” A fly, no bigger than a single pixel, dances erratically around Michael’s head and then sizzles, hissing into the flames.
“I think, if you don’t mind, Glynnis, I’ll stay here for a while.”
In the darkness of Minecraft, the children, then Glynnis blink out of existence as each removes their mask; leaving Michael – alone, half-bathed in firelight.
“I will survive.” The glare from the flames cuts a hard line across Michael’s face.
The shadow of his smile.