It started very simply. It was just one of those things, something you did without any awareness of how monumental it was. It was just another Saturday in a long summer. I rode my bike to my best friend Mike’s house and then we rode down to Main Street to the old game store, Hobby Empire.
It was a sort of creepy place, full of dust and shadows. It smelled like old books. There was only one guy who owned and ran it. Old Larry, gray-bearded and grumpy. He sat behind the counter and read fantasy novels and didn’t look up unless you were handing him money.
The place sold all kinds of things, board games, collectibles, chess boards, weird science fiction magazines, and role-playing games. We were there to find something new to play, something different.
Dungeons and Dragons, various vampire games, science fiction adventures, horror stuff. All things that we owned or had borrowed. We went through the back shelves dejectedly until Mike picked something from the very bottom shelf, near the floor.
It looked ancient, like something from the 70s, like when D&D started. The pages looked photocopied and the drawings were crude, like something you would find in some kid’s notebook. Still, something about it radiated mystery.
“THE SEVENTEEN SPHERES,” read the title. It seemed like such a random number. Thirteen or even or three, those were magical numbers. Seventeen just rang out as unusual. It was a thick book, the paper being thin like old typewriter paper, but there were almost 300 pages. The cover was the only part in color. Lurid swirls of purple and blue with stars and symbols that looked both magical and mathematical.
Paging through, we found it was a very rough outline for a game that could take place in various different worlds and time periods. The type was tiny and full of types of missing letters. It was so old, and only put together with some staples, that it was falling apart in our hands.
Mike closed it and looked at me. “I don’t know what this is, but I want it,” he said, echoing what was in my mind.
Seeing that there was no price, we went up to Larry, the owner. He looked at us, then the book, and nodded, letting out a long cryptic sigh. “You found that in the back?” He asked, in a tone more serious than either of us had ever heard. We nodded.
He nodded and swallowed, mopping his forehead with an old rag. “Yeah, that’s an old one. Let’s say $10.”
Most of the games cost three or four times that, so I happily laid down the cash. We got some new dice too and made off with our treasure.
That afternoon we went over to our friend Paul’s house. His sister was there too and everyone begrudgingly let her hang out with us. Since the book was falling apart, I split it into four parts and we all started reading, then passing the parts to the next person. Looking around I saw everyone’s eyebrows knitted in concentration. The text was dense and strangely worded.
We didn’t play the game that day, we just spent the whole afternoon reading and trying to process the weird rules and concepts in the book.
I remember that day well. I remember the laughter and comfort of sitting in Paul’s basement. I remember the Kool Aid his mom brought down for us and the salty chips and the M&Ms. I remember teasing Mike about his bad haircut and stealing glances at Lisa, Paul’s sister, who was just a year younger and somehow over the summer had transformed from a mousy annoyance to an actual girl, smart and sarcastic and beautiful.
I remember the basement, with its wood-paneled walls and old TV and big beat-up table we had played so many games at. I remembered it all because it was the last time I ever saw it.
That night I felt sick. Too many snacks or too much laughing or maybe worry about school starting in a few weeks kept me up. When I finally did, I had a vivid dream. Dreams of purple and blue swirls. Stars and strange symbols.
What happened next? We’ve spent years trying to figure that out. All I can tell you is something unbelievable. That morning I woke up on a vast field of bright green grass, covered in dew. I stood and dizzily realized I was somehow taller, older, different. My hands were large and callused. My clothes were tattered robes of strange fabric.
Looking around I saw Paul, only he was changed. He was thinner and shorter and somehow his proportions were all wrong. His ears were pointed and he wore some kind of chain armor. He held a bow. Lisa was there too, only she was… well… more grown-up. She wore a tight sort of corset and a blue dress and held a glowing staff. Finally, there was another woman with us, a sort of amazon warrior-looking person with bulging muscles and a spear. We would come to realize that she was Mike. Which was a whole different story.
We were transported into a new world. A world of magic and dragons and gods and monsters. A world of adventure. We lived whole lives there. We fought and learned and loved and grew old. We never figured out exactly what happened, but we knew the game did something.
Decades later, when the last of us died (Paul who had become a king,) we all woke up in a vast technological world. A planet that was one giant living computer. We lived strange and brief lives there. Then there was the wild colorful cartoonish world, full of unicorns and candy. Then there was the world that was like the old west with cowboys and shootouts. And so on and so on.
But that day, that book was the beginning. I’ve thought about it for decades, for centuries. I’ve tried to write out as much of the book as I could remember. I’ve painted dozens of versions of the cover from memory. I’ve spoken about it to wise men and medicine women and vast computers and even gods, but I’ve never figured out what it was or how it did what it did to us.
The search goes on. Here, at the twenty-eighth life, the twenty-eighth world. Perhaps these giant insects will know what strange mystical force we have been trapped in or will have some other knowledge to share with us. Long ago I decided that as much as I will try and figure out the mystery, my main goal was to enjoy the worlds and lives I have.