A thunderstorm raged over the metropolis.
The thin strip of electrostatic car wipers was struggling under the torrents of rain pelting the windshield.
My ancient Rover held the road well. The squat outlines of deserted neighborhoods whizzed past. The disabled autopilot flashed an anxious red light on the dashboard.
I loved it. The road softly flew past. It was already dark. Flashes of lightning illuminated the urbanscape. Earlier that day, the city had been melting in its own heat, making the expected evening weather change all the more welcome.
Gradually, the tension began to release me. The stuffy office, the bullying boss, even the realization of the fact that my own life was flashing uselessly past didn't feel as oppressive any longer. Another couple of miles, and everything would be different.
I touched the communicator to activate it and sent a voice message,
"Hi Christa, I'll be online in about twenty minutes. Don't be late. We have an instance to do, remember?"
A bolt of lightning raked at the unfinished power substation building, digging into its latticework pylons and exploding in cascades of sparks. It looked both beautiful and spooky.
Network connection temporarily unavailable
Only a year ago, this used to be the asshole of the world. Now the whole area was already consumed by the advancing metropolis. The little town I'd grown up in was already in line for demolition, deep foundation pits gaping along both sides of the road.
I'd been offered several relocation choices. I hadn't decided on any of them yet. I was playing for time. Tonight I might know. Once we completed the quest, I'd have a serious conversation with Christa. We'd been together for almost six months. We'd been a party, I mean, doing a complex non-linear plot line which was impossible to complete solo. We had twenty-four hours to do one final dungeon. And then what? Would we just disband? Was it the time to go our own ways?
As I pondered over all of this, I hadn't even noticed the last mile flying past. A dilapidated nine-story building filled my headlights, its façade darkened with time. They weren't going to tear it down quite yet. Normally, big developers have little patience for stubborn tenants like myself — and I'd been trying their patience for a good ten days already. All because of Christa and the quest which had a strict deadline. Moving house really didn't fit into my immediate plans.
Well, look for yourself. I had a nine till five job in the office. I couldn't very easily quit, either, considering I'd just taken out a loan to upgrade some equipment I used. Plus my bank refused to accept Middle Earth in-game currency! They'd told me, in as many words, that this legendary virtual world was rapidly becoming defunct, losing users by the minute. So they'd offered me an ultimatum: either I joined Crystal Sphere — the Infosystem Corporation's latest baby — or I'd have to use my real-world wage as security.
I parked up by my front door. They'd already disconnected the elevator. Never mind! I could use some exercise.
The steel door of my apartment creaked, as old as everything else was here. My parents' furniture and choice of design didn't look like much, that's for sure. Still, these modest quarters housed some of the latest cutting-edge gaming equipment.
A U-shaped console occupied the room's center.
"Activation," I said, heading for the kitchen.
The fridge was empty but I wasn't that interested in food at the moment. I grabbed an energy drink and used it to neck an upper.
Tomorrow I might have a proper meal. Why not? I could invite Christina to a café. A restaurant I couldn't afford, but still we needed to meet up, have a chat and celebrate. She lived somewhere nearby: we'd mentioned our respective providers once, discovering we used the same company which meant we were almost neighbors.
I didn't give a damn about unwritten real-life meeting etiquette. Both Christina and I were responsible adults. It was probably true what they said these days about the latest technologies steering humanity toward extinction. Meaning, all relationships were to become virtual. I disagree entirely. My own parents had met online, and that was a fact.
A familiar beep awoke me from my musings. The system had booted up. I finished off my drink, stripped down and changed into an elastic suit studded with emulators — a real beauty.
Welcome to my world where a run-of-the-mill office rat was about to transform into a level-124 warrior!
Three interlinked curved monitor screens with a built-in holographic 3D function glowed invitingly at the center of the room.
I slumped into the seat and connected my suit's optic cables to the console.
Reality faded into the background of my mind.
* * *
Middle Earth. Login
At first, the virtual world appeared on the screens as a 2D picture. Then it expanded, acquiring depth, and enveloped me, surrounding me with high-density holograms.
For a few more seconds I still could make out the outlines of my apartment; then they too disappeared. Tactile emulators kicked in. My hand got caught on a bramble, a thorn piercing my skin. The quiet rustle of the apartment's environment generator was drowned out by the whisper of leaves. Earthly forest smells wafted in my face. A beetle buzzed past, the sound quickly dying away in the thick shadows.
The immersion levels were unbelievable. This was as far as the latest gaming technologies could possibly take you. Science just couldn't improve on this no matter how hard they tried.
I was alone. Christa was late. Highly untypical.
I looked around me, taking in the small forest glade. The entrance to the dungeon was still sealed with shimmering magic symbols. A scared rabbit scampered past. The ferns next to a mossy cliff swayed.
Well, what do you think?
A Werewolf, level 105, the system informed me.
My peripheral eyesight blurred, framed with a smudged crimson line as combat mode kicked in. The Fury points counter quivered, gaining momentum. Fury points could only be generated in combat in order to perform various combos. They could also be used by certain unique creative abilities that were only available in combat.
The werewolf howled and leaped out of the shadows into the moonlight. This was a strong and sinewy veteran. His gray hair bristled, his eyes glowed, his jaws emitted a long low growl.
He wasn't much for me level-wise. He didn't offer much XP but could do a nasty job on my armor. He had this ability called Fire Claw.
But still... better that than nothing at all. I took cover behind my battered full-length shield which received the first hits. It worked! My Fury bar soared to half way up! The shield's Durability plummeted, but the mob's Energy had its limits too. He leaped back, his flanks heaving. Now was the time to counter attack.
I let go of the shield which thumped onto the rocks as I whipped out my two single-handed swords, stripping the werewolf of half his Life, and rolled back to the safety of the mossy cliff, picking up the shield on my way — it could still take another couple of hits.
I parried again, building up my Fury count. I could use every point of it later tonight. We were looking at a long, hard session.
With a ripping sound, the mob broke through my defenses. His fiery claws dug deep into the rock, stripping the moss away and leaving deep scores in the stone. I recoiled just in time, diving aside, then moved swiftly behind him.
By then, his Life bar was barely glowing. I'd had a Bleed debuff cast over both my swords. After another whack from me, he convulsed on the ground, wheezing.
Now I had to act double quick! I had a dozen seconds at the most.
I always kept a special sharp-edged crystal in a quick access slot. Ripping off the glove, I laid it in my hand, then activated my unique ability, available only to players of my class and then only from level 100.
My Fury bar plummeted as the energy I'd accumulated during the fight was now being channeled into the transparent crystal. Bright red lights flickered, casting their glow over my face. The tips of my fingers prickled.
You've received an item: Crystal of Fury
Phew! I'd done it! All that practice had finally brought some results. The ability had a two-hour cooldown.
The precious stone I'd just created could be used in two different ways. I could either install it into my weapon slot or use it in combat when the going got really tough to retrieve its energy, maxing out my Fury count.
Weapons with dedicated slots were in fact quite rare. You needed an experienced bladesmith to make one: if you tried to build it yourself, the result could be what you least expected — useless or even harmful — courtesy of Lady Luck.
With this one, I had five Crystals of Fury — and still I had a gut feeling I might need each and every one of them tonight. The quest chain that Christa and I had been completing over the last six months was obliged to culminate in the mother of all battles. With whom, I didn't yet know. Those who'd done this dungeon before us had been remarkably secretive about it.
In the meantime, the werewolf stopped convulsing. The combat mode switched off automatically. I cast a look around, searching for any more mobs, and decided to check the monster for any loot. One never knew, he might drop something worth my while.
A familiar popping sound filled the air.
"Hi, Christa. You're late," I picked up the werewolf's heart — a rare ingredient used in alchemy — and turned round only to see a new system message,
Christa, a level 128 Sorceress, has left your group!
You no longer belong to any players association.
I froze in dumb surprise, watching as interference distorted her face. Her name tag modified, then disappeared.
I was facing a strange woman. This new avatar had nothing to do with Christa even though lots of little details of her clothing and gear were screaming her name. Like the runic bangle on her wrist. This was a relic item you could neither lose, sell, nor give away. These kinds of items never parted from the player. She'd gotten the bangle off the last dungeon boss we'd smoked. I could still remember her eyes shining with pleasure as she'd read its stats.
I pulled myself together. "What's going on?"
"Just finalizing a few things," she replied coldly.
"Christa, this is the final instance! If you've decided to go solo or join a clan, be my guest, I'm not staying in your way! But we need to close this quest!"
"I'm not Christa. I'm not interested in her commitments," she quipped, apparently about to log out.
"Wait! Can't you explain?"
The sorceress turned round and looked me over. With a sigh, she acquiesced. "I've just bought this account."
"Why?" I asked mechanically. That wasn't what I was thinking about. Christa had been successfully leveling up for the last two years, point by grueling point. Why would she want to sell her account? I knew how precious she was about her online identity. Oh no: I could smell a rat from where I stood.
"You're not a newsy person, are you?" she asked indifferently. "There's an action about to be launched in Crystal Sphere. The game developers have made it possible to transfer other fantasy game accounts there. Unfortunately, they cut your levels down but you do get to keep all your gear, skills and abilities. As you level up, they become available to you again. Clear enough?"
She must have misunderstood my hesitation as she added, "Look it up. I'm off now. Too many things to do."
With another popping sound, she disappeared.
* * *
For a while, I sat by the cliff looking up into the starry sky as I tried to digest what had just happened.
So the final dungeon wasn't meant to be. Six months of gaming down the drain. Apart from the levels gained, that is.
Christa! Why, or why would you do such a thing? You should have told me! Why would you sell your own account, of all things?
I just couldn't wrap my head around it. Only last night we'd been busy making plans for the future. Whatever could have happened in the last twelve hours?
I had no idea what to do, anger and desperation marring my judgment.
Couldn't she have waited another twenty-four hours? We'd invested so much time, effort and money into doing this particular plot line! We'd had high hopes about this final dungeon — and what for? No, no, no. I shouldn't be thinking like that. Something must have happened to her. Christa couldn't have done this to me.
Then again, why not? What did I really know about her?
Still, why would she sell out?
The most logical answer would be: she needed money really badly. A lot of it, too.
I stood up and looked around me. Pointlessly I touched the slab of rock barring the entrance to the dungeon and ran my fingers over the familiar sequence of magic symbols that opened it.
You can't enter a dungeon on your own, the system reported.
* * *
The residual pine scent from the environment generator still lingered in my room. The holographic screens having switched off. Instead, the single search result filled the monitors:
Crystal Sphere opens doors to all fantasy game characters!
We've created a unique boundless game world which has a place for everyone.
Are you reluctant to part with your old online identity? We're prepared to accommodate you! Our abilities allow us to support any race or class as well as any relevant development branches. Hurry! The Crystal Sphere knows no clans or clan wars. You just might become the first legend of this brave new world!
Warning: account transfers will entail a 5:1 drop in levels. But not to worry: all your skills will be safe, waiting to be unblocked as you level up your character.
Now it was starting to make sense. That's why my bank had refused me a loan secured by Middle Earth currency: they must have gotten wind about the upcoming merge. It looked like this Crystal Sphere might assimilate all pre-existing game projects. At the same time, in this clanless new world of unclaimed resources and territories, nobody needed a steady flow of high-level players: therefore the level nip.
The offer was almost too hard to resist. You couldn't argue with that. Lots of folks out there would love to join a new world while preserving their old avatars. Others, however, wouldn't have minded changing their char without having to level a new one up from scratch. For that reason, the prices on leveled-up accounts must have soared.
This explained a lot. Still, I had this anxious itch. Over these last six months, I thought I'd known Christa well. I'd had the idea that we had more in common than just team play. Now she was gone. She could be in trouble and still I couldn't help! How was I supposed to find her in a city where every neighborhood had a population of over a million?
Wait a sec... there was one other option. And I just might try it while the scent was still fresh!
In my time, I too had sold a few chars that I'd leveled in other worlds. So I knew exactly the right person to turn to. The middleman in every such deal was obliged to record the vendor's IP-address. I could still find her!
Afraid of losing heart, I quickly scrolled through my nanocomp contact list until I found the right one and texted him.
After five minutes, I received a reply,
I might help. 1000 credits, by bank transfer.
For me, that was a lot of money. I still had to move house.
That's right! How could I have forgotten! Once I moved, I'd lose all trace of Christa. Then I'd never find out whatever had happened to her.
Agreed. Give me the bank account number.
* * *
What made me do it, might you ask? There's no clear-cut answer to that. It's just that I sensed this void in my heart that was filled with anxiety for want of a better feeling. That's exactly what happens when you don't know what to do — you just don't seem to be able to think of any positive scenarios, brooding over all sorts of horror stories instead.
It was already two in the morning when I stopped by the doors of a capsule apartment located on Floor 207 of a supertower. That's exactly the kind of automated dwelling I'd be looking at myself very soon.
No idea what I'd been thinking of. I'd bought a pizza on my way and pulled my Dad's old baseball cap over my eyes, deciding to pretend I was a delivery guy who'd got the wrong door. This was the best thing I could come up with. You could call me a small-town guy, I suppose.
Only when I touched the front door sensor, did I remember that all supertower deliveries were done by pneumatic capsules.
"Who's there?" a quiet voice asked, quivering. Was she crying?!
"Pizza delivery," I managed. "Did you order?"
"No, I didn't," the intercom sobbed. "Go away."
"I've got your address in the book."
"Okay, then," the door slid soundlessly aside.
I stepped into a small room typical of those new transformable dwellings of today.
My heart clenched. She sat in a deep soft chair at a console identical to mine. Her tear-streaked face was pale and drawn. The bank of monitors still showed the familiar clearing next to the dungeon entrance, complete with the dead werewolf.
"Just leave it there on the table-" she halted. "Alex? Why are you here? I've done everything to avoid exactly this! Aren't you mad at me?"
"Why did you sell your account?" I demanded.
"I didn't want us to meet in real life," she wiped her tears. "I could see it coming. I didn't want to explain. So now, please, forgive me and just go! Can't you see you're hurting me?"
"What the hell's going on?"
"I've got ANM," tears poured down her cheeks. "So please just leave me. Do you want me to call the police?"
"I don't think so," I laid the wretched pizza onto the table and stepped toward her. "We need to talk. You really think I'm gonna leave you?"
* * *
I left the police station about half past three in the morning.
I stopped on the sidewalk, my breathing deep and uneven.
The ANM. The virus which had infested every city five years ago. None had been able to explain the nature of its genetic mutation. There was no proven cure.
How long a sufferer would live depended on lots of things. Many had managed to get back to their feet and even lead a normal life. Christa's body, however, had proven not as strong. She was fading away — and she knew it, too. For her, virtual reality had become her last refuge, the only way to escape the horror of her life.
I walked to the car I'd left nearby. Why hadn't she told me anything? That way I wouldn't have insisted on meeting her in real life. We could have switched to the Crystal Sphere together.
Too late. Christa had second-guessed my intentions and done everything to antagonize me, unwilling to hurt either of us. She must have thought I'd be angry enough with her to simply forget her once and for all after this dungeon incident. She probably thought I'd be so mad I'd never want to see her again.
I got in the car. I wasn't in the best of moods. The storm had long ended. The traffic was non-existent at this early hour.
I had to go home and give it a good think. I didn't give a shit about my having been cautioned by the police. I wasn’t going to leave Christa alone — even though I had very little idea how I could possibly help her. We might not even be able to play like we used to before. She wouldn't be able to. She'd know that I knew.
I put my foot down, trying to release the pressure, the gray ribbon of the tarmac passing beneath the wheels. The disabled auto pilot kept flashing its little red light.
Finally, the intersection. I took the first right turn into a spiraling slipway, then straight on again, this time heading for my own home.
Tufts of mist drifted over the highway. The terrain to its both sides was free from its usual concrete shell, the earth of the freshly-dug foundation pits oozing moisture.
I would think of something. I knew I would.
The piercing warning of the proximity gauge made me jump. A giant construction robot was slowly emerging onto the highway. Mechanically I wrenched on the steering wheel. The Rover's bumper exploded in a cascade of plastic fragments as it rammed a flimsy construction site barrier.
The gray misty dawn span before my eyes as earth and sky swapped places. My chest and stomach went cold. Finally, the airbags kicked in. A crushing blow and the screeching of the car's crumpling bodywork... then darkness.
* * *
They were taking me somewhere on a gurney.
Through the pain and haze of the heavy medication I could hear voices; I even managed to understand what they were saying.
"He's one lucky motherfucker."
"Sure. Did you see the height of that pit? It's a miracle he survived at all."
"I saw his car. It was on the news. A ball of steel. It took the rescue team an hour to cut him free."
I couldn't feel my body — neither my legs nor my arms. I must be in a really bad way. The pain in my chest kept coming back despite all the medication they kept pumping into me.
A blinding light assaulted my eyes. The air smelled of antiseptics.
"Right, let's move him. On the count of three. One... two..."
Darkness came back.
This time it didn't hurt, as if they'd separated my mind from my body.
Voices resonated in the background. A man and a woman. I couldn't help trying to work out what they were saying.
"You think you could bring him round for a short while?"
"Why?" the woman's voice rang with contempt.
"I'd like to speak to him."
"You can't. It's too dangerous. He's too weak after all the surgery. And he needs to survive a lot more of them."
"Who's paying for his treatment?"
"What do you mean, who? The insurance."
"They have a certain limit, don't they?"
"They do," she admitted reluctantly. "They pay for the intensive care and minimal aftercare. His bank has already contacted us. It's complicated."
"You call this humane? You drag this guy back from the dead, pump him full of drugs and patch him up — all this just to throw him back out onto the street?"
"Well, I'm sorry! In case you didn't notice, we're still fighting for his life. The rest, at the moment, is academic."
"It's not. We all know what's gonna happen. He'll leave your charitable institution a cripple, only to spend a few more years in his own personal hell!"
"What are you implying? Speak up! I agreed to speak to you but I'm afraid both my time and my patience are limited."
"I'd like you to bring him round. I need him to be able to make conscious decisions."
"Absolutely not. In any case, what do you care? You're just some corporation making computer games!"
"That's exactly what I need to talk about. Not with you — with him."
* * *
Life had lost its meaning.
Darkness kept swallowing me, time after time. I'd resurface only to taste pain and return, submerging deep into my black stupor. So it lasted until the blinding light came on again.
"Good. There are reflexes. The medication is working. He's coming round."
"How much time do I have?"
"Ten minutes. Possibly, more. It depends."
"Thanks. Could you please leave us alone for a bit?"
"Please. I insist. Don't make me pull any more strings."
"I hope not. That's the only thing you seem to know how to do!"
The door slammed.
I heard the sound of steel chair legs being dragged across the tiled floor. Someone set it by my bed, then slumped into it.
Whoever he was, his aftershave left a lot to be desired. Gradually, his outline loomed through the blur surrounding me. I could only make out a lab coat draped over the man's casual clothes.
* * *
"Nice to meet you, Alex. I'm Sergei Borisov. I'm here representing Infosystem Corporation. As your doctor has told me, we don't have much time. I suggest we move directly to business. Do you remember what happened to you? The accident?"
"Why?" I croaked. "Is it so bad?"
"Not at all!" he said cheerfully. For some reason, his faked optimism made my pain subside. I prepared to hear him out. I could use a ray of hope.
"We could pick up your medical bills."
"What's the catch? Spit it out."
"If you wish. Would you like to know the real state of your affairs?" he avoided the direct answer, apparently wanting to pump up the gloom first. "You have multiple spinal damage, not to mention all the other fractures and injuries you suffered."
I began drifting away again. A machine at the head of the intensive care capsule beeped an anxious warning.
I waited, but no medical staff came running. Apparently, the man's string-pulling techniques were strong enough to make sure no one disrupted our conversation.
The machine beeped again. My head began to clear, a new bumper dose of medication preventing me from fainting.
"Alex, you shouldn't worry so. It's in your own interests to stay lucid until this conversation is over."
"What's the catch?" I repeated, barely moving my lips.
"We possess a whole bunch of unique new technologies. We might use them to help you."
"Sorry... I don't see what games have got to do with medicine... even cutting-edge ones..."
Ignoring my skepticism, he reached into his breast pocket, producing a tiny microchip sealed in plastic.
"What... is it?"
"This is the future of gaming. The neuroimplant. It's comprised of artificial neuronets. Once you're plugged into it, you won't need all those holographic screens, scent generators, tactile sensors... This tiny little thing processes all game events, uploading the result directly into the player's brain. Can't you see? This device provides full immersion into cyberspace. It would allow us to live there just as we do here, experiencing the whole range of sensations — even those unknown to human beings!"
Holy shit. And I used to consider my home system the latest technological breakthrough!
"They're yet to be tested on human beings," he added.
"Sorry... this is revolutionary.... the mind boggles... but I can't see what it's got to do with-"
He must have come prepared. My question didn't throw him.
"When offered the opportunity of full immersion into cyberspace, a lot of people might want to stay there," he explained matter-of-factly. "Which brings us to the question: what about life support? No, I don't need you to reply to that one. Just listen to me. The neuroimplant is only a fraction of the entire body of our new technologies. You can't advance the gaming industry by only employing one particular branch of human knowledge. Our work calls for all sorts of cross-disciplinary projects. As an example, we also work with Space Forces who supply us with life support systems.
I already knew what he was driving at. Still, I couldn't help asking, "Why me? Millions of gamers will be lining up by your offices as soon as they get wind of this device," my gaze alighted on the microchip.
"They're not right for us, I'm afraid."
"The risks are too great. As I've already told you, the neuroimplant processes every in-game experience whether it's a whiff of a breeze or a mortal wound. The device is yet to be standardized, and to do that, we need feedback from subjects. Apart from all sorts of risky scenarios, games are full of intricate details which at the moment are a complete mystery to us. Do you have any idea what a wizard feels when controlling the elements?"
"Neither do we. Will he experience a tickle in his belly or will he drop dead on the spot? You can see I'm not holding anything back from you. We can't enroll regular game users in our tests. Not even if they volunteer. A volunteer's death or his suffering serious mental damage are bound to become public knowledge. You, however, are perfect volunteer material. Sorry about being so blunt."
"Why perfect? Is it because I'm about to die without next of kin?"
"So what would I have to do?"
"Playing is brainwork. What about the rest of me?"
"I can't go into details quite yet but let me assure you we'll provide you with the best treatment available. It's actually based on the technologies developed for deep space travel."
He nodded. "Our researchers estimate your body's full recovery period at two years. I'll have to warn you though that some of your organs and even body parts might need to be replaced with biocybernetic prosthetics."
"So what's gonna happen if I survive all that?"
"You'll be able to enjoy life again."
"What, as a cyborg?"
"You shouldn't worry about that. Only a very limited number of people will know about your modifications. There're lots of people around who have a heart implant or a hearing aid — but no one calls them cyborgs! Also, all the surgery will be performed in the so-called background mode. You won't feel a thing, simply because your neuroimplant will be streaming totally different experiences into your brain. Please, don't say no! In your situation this is a very suitable and generous proposition."
"I understand that. I have a request though."
He raised an eyebrow and leaned slightly forward, apparently surprised by my brazenness. "Speak up."
"How many vacancies do you have?"
He paused. "Twenty."
"I know a person that might suit your requirements," I said, then clued him in on Christa's situation.
"You understand, don't you," he said, "that these kinds of decisions are outside my remit. The main selection criterion is the candidate's willingness to volunteer. He or she should understand the risks involved and accept any potential consequences."
"I know. She has nothing to lose."
"We're talking about your life now."
"I'd like you to talk to her," I repeated doggedly. "You'll find her address in my nanocomp."
"Don't be so childish!"
"I'm not. Try her. She's a perfect candidate."
No good deed goes unpunished. I didn't yet know how true — albeit cruel — this adage was. But I was about to learn very quickly.
"Are you sure? Aren’t you afraid of losing your opportunity?" he glanced at the door as if knowing there was someone patiently hovering behind it, waiting for us to finish this conversation. He leaned over me and mouthed under his breath, "The mere mention of the neuroimplant might put the life of an innocent person in danger. What if she refuses to cooperate? You understand, don't you?"
I weakly shrugged. The medication was wearing off. My lips felt cold. The pain was flooding back. In my situation, it was way too easy to start clutching at straws. Vulnerable is gullible. The whole thing just had to be much more serious and dangerous than the rosy picture he'd just presented me with. It had to be — otherwise the Corporation wouldn't have sent its agents out to scour through every Casualty unit in the city.
Did I even have a choice, anyway?
"Where's the dotted line?"
He promptly shoved a tablet into my hands.As I plunged back into the quagmire of agony, I pressed my finger to the biometric scanner window, confirming my decision.
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