Gideon Thistlethwaite stood with his nose two inches from the elevator door. His breath fogged the brushed stainless steel, making his face resemble something trapped beneath ice. To heighten the effect, he opened his mouth and let out a long, slow exhale. In his mind’s eye, saw saw himself as a creature in the world he created. With a flight of imagination, he swooped into the Realm of the Nine Circles. Gideon was always on the lookout for everyday objects to give him such an excuse. Before the world played his game, the Nine Circles existed only in his mind. Now the Realm was more real than the one to which he was born and he longed to be there with every passing daydream.
A soft ping sounded when he stabbed the button to summon the elevator. As he waited for it to finish the long journey down to the sub-basement, Gideon became a ghoul trapped in a frozen lake. He gnashed his teeth, aching for vengeance on the Knight who put him there. Desperate for the scent of blood, he clawed at the frozen lake, bereft of the smells that would guide him. Finally, the current carried him to a break in the ice and he stabbed his way through. Stepping onto the shore, he raised his face to the clammy breeze hoping for the scent of flesh.
Ding. The elevator doors opened before him, removing the fogged reflection. Refrigerated air from the supercomputing vault rushed into the warmer space of the elevator compartment. The sudden change in temperature of nearly twenty degrees made Gideon sneeze several times–four hammer blows to shatter his daydream. When he finished, he straightened his clothes and stepped inside, not before shifting his eyes reflexively to make sure no one had seen him sneezing, or making faces in his own reflection. Of course, the floor was empty.
Gideon reminded himself that he didn’t get to be worth seventy-four billion dollars through carelessness. Had even his private security detail been present, he would have suppressed the sneeze and made do with staring at his own reflection from afar, face held in its usual deadpan expression. He’d worked tirelessly to build his infallible reputation, to be known as the man with no weaknesses. He wouldn’t throw it away in a moment of foolishness. If he was, indeed, acting the fool it must simply mean there was no one around to witness it.
The data center was a safe place. Here, he could do as he wanted, be who he wanted. This was his own private palace, safe from watching eyes and judgemental stares. Well past normal business hours, the datacenter was devoid of technicians. No human being would go down there unless some remote monitor showed an error. That rarely happened. The floors below Plexcorp were a secret hiding in plain sight. Few of the hundreds of techs who worked at headquarters ever suspected what the computing vault contained. Those who did were paid handsomely for their silence and threatened gravely should they reveal any trade secrets. As for the numerous low-level technicians employed by the company? They only noticed things when they broke. Since Gideon personally managed the machine core, that rarely happened.
At least, his system never broke in such a way as to draw attention. Gideon’s own personal supercomputer essentially fixed itself, requiring only the barest of maintenance. It took the better part of a decade for Gideon to build the machine that would become the basis of a new reality. Parts of it were already live, and none of the forty-seven million players worldwide had a clue.
Ding. His musing was interrupted by the arrival of the elevator on the thirtieth floor of Plexcorp headquarters, a space reserved as his his personal residence. This particular quarter of Reston, Virginia was not zoned residential, but personal fortunes had a way of obviating the need to follow rules. The simple presence of a company workstation allowed him to declare the space temporary corporate housing. Even if some local or state government entity wanted to make trouble for him living here, any bureaucrat would think twice about challenging the head of the largest tech company in the world.
As Gideon crossed the white marble floor, automatic lighting in the vaulted ceiling cast soft, yellow hues. He made his way to the open kitchen and retrieved a vegetable juice bottle from one of the twin commercial refrigerators. Its label showed it was prepared for him today, meaning his personal nutritional staff knew he was on campus. He’d fired the last group responsible for his meals as they left day-old vegetable juice for him last week. Gideon was pleased to see this latest team was on the ball. He hated firing people. Good staff were hard to find and training new ones was just plain tedious.
“Virgil,” Gideon called out. His soft, reedy voice faded into the cavernous space, but the machine heard.
“Greetings Lord Mylos,” Virgil replied. The AI was sharp enough to address Gideon by his game title. It knew Gideon preferred it that way when nobody was around. No other AIs on the planet performed intuitive behaviors like this.
“Great Wizard and Steward of the Realm, how fares my world today?” Gideon asked, sipping his juice while standing at a plate glass window. Viewed from the Plexcorp tower that jutted over the landscape like a needle, the surrounding suburban sprawl spread out like a threadbare carpet below. Among the hundreds of technology companies in the area, Plexcorp was by far the largest, and had the real estate to show for it.
“Thirty-million seekers in-world, my lord. I show activity on every continent of the Lesser Realm.”
Gideon allowed himself a smile. The Lesser Realm, of course, was the world outside the game. There was nothing so perfect as the human imagination, and had Gideon tapped his to create an entire universe. Realm of the Nine Circles was the product of a childhood dream made real. Now that the VR immersion technology was complete and proved safe, he had the ability to enter that world.
Gideon graduated from MIT at the age of thirteen with a degree in mathematics. By seventeen, he earned his first doctorate in computer science. He was disappointed in himself that it took him more than six years to earn his medical degree. To console himself, he earned another Ph.D. in particle physics along the way. He did all of this in pursuit of building The Realm. His entire fortune was simply a side-effect of his desire to create a world, and then rule it like a God.
“Very well, Great Sorcerer. You are a good and loyal servant,” Gideon said.
“My lord is generous,” Virgil replied.
“And how fares the translocation device and its related enchantments?”
“The spell-casting device is working, my Lord. The wizards of the Lesser Realm serve you well. All tests on the helm indicate that it will transport the wearer to your world. Soon, your exile to this place of weak magic will end.”
Gideon crossed the open apartment to a workstation populated with humming black boxes that winked, blinked, pulsed, and glowed with lights of blue, amber, red and green. He tapped the keyboard beneath a wall of 24” monitors that instantly sprang to radiant life. Beside the keyboard sat a gold-plated circlet that snaked with coils and twists of varicolored wires, temporary connections to the supercomputer that monitored its operation. His prototype of the immersion harness was ready. It had taken him several days to review the work of the engineers Najeel and Martin, and a few more days to improve on their work and miniaturize the device.
“And what of the prototype production?”
Virgil paused for a moment, and Gideon was about to inquire again when Virgil finally spoke. “The distant lands of the Lesser Realm report the Circlets are ready for production by your command. They await your command.”
Gideon picked up the VR interface and checked its electrode pads with great care. He turned the device in his hands to make certain each LED go-light showed green. With delicate touch, he disconnected the thin diagnostic wires, then slipped the helm over his head. A quick check of a status console told him that the device was receiving his brain waves and stood ready to transmit.
Gideon closed his eyes and reclined the chair back until he faced the ceiling. A tap of his finger on the armrest console brought down the lights. He closed his eyes, and Virgil took that as a sign to begin the program. A tingling scalp, a twinge of vertigo and a curtain of black-and-white static before his field of vision brought him to the Realm of the Nine Circles.
Mylos paused in the lobby to check his avatar status and inventory. The AI version of his character had been busy. He chuckled as he read a few chat transcripts showing the utter dismay of characters who faced the Monster while Gideon went about his day.
As he read the transcripts and played some of the videos of the fight scenes from the lobby console, things felt different. It was as if he remembered the fights of his AI and the feelings that came with it. The AI was based on Gideon’s dreaming brain patterns. It essentially picked up his dreams where Gideon left them off. The experience was not supposed to be a two-way transaction, but today it felt that way. Gideon suppressed his curiosity here to get into the game faster.
The Beast Mylos stood above the Elven Altar of Translocation where those resurrected or born newly into the Realm spawned. Nearby, an elaborate cathedral stood tall on a hill, adorned with with intricate windows of stained glass and topped with winged griffins carved from stone. Each race had its own version of the summoning altar and the cathedral, but Mylos preferred elven craftsmanship most. All of the four elven races produced the most stunning artwork. But, newly spawned Elves were often the most vulnerable.
Atop the altar, motes of sparkling dust coalesced into a shape. This particular wayfarer chose to create a forestelf body weak in physical strength, yet high in intelligence and Agility. This told Mylos the player intended to be a magic user.
“Virgil,” Mylos spoke aloud. A feeling of dislocation washed over him as the ambient sounds of the game clashed with the hum of an air-conditioning unit overhead. “We will have to do something about sound cancelling in the Lesser Realm. The experience is incomplete.”
“Noted, my lord,” Virgil replied.
“Pull up the profile for this player,” Gideon commanded.
A large scroll materialized at chest level and the Monster Mylos reached out with several tentacles and unfurled it. The player was from Shanghai, China; Chuanli Luo, twenty seven years old, an office worker at an advertising agency. As it was early afternoon in that region, Mylos deduced that the player was taking a late lunch and had snuck home to play the game.
“Show me his chat stream, Virgil,” Mylos said.
A black box appeared in the corner of his eye. White text scrolled there between the player and two of his online friends. Without prompting, Virgil identified the other players as Michael Pikering from Peekskill, New York and Andres Callois, from Paris, France. They chatted in English.
“Dude,” Chuanli stopped manipulating his character to type his message. “Lord Mylos is at the spawn point! New character! I might die! Help me!”
Mylos held the scroll in the tentacles sprouting from his back, and spread his two brawny human arms wide. He wrapped his reptilian tail around his ram’s legs four times. For effect, he cocked his head to the right as he hovered above the player and glared.
“On my way,” Michael replied. “I’m using fifteen transport credits to get to you, so this better be worth it.”
“Yah,” Andres chimed in, “XP for fighting Mylos alone is worth it. Weird tho. Cathedral mutes attack. Why is Mylos camping at a spawn point?”
Chuanli abandoned his texting and bolted for the cover of a pile of large boulders. Mylos hovered high above his head. The keyboard-controlled character below lurched awkwardly as it tried to run and adjust its viewing perspective.
“Virgil, this is a sub-optimal experience,” Gideon said.
“Please clarify, my Lord,” Virgil replied.
“I have immersion sound, but no spatial relation and no smell or touch. Why is this?”
“Those components are currently offline,”
Gideon stopped his pursuit of the hapless player.
“I think I got away,” Chuanli texted.
“No,” Michael replied. “He’s right above your head.”
“What’s he doing?” Andres asked.
“Dunno,” Chuanli replied.
Mylos the monster bounced between his identity as Gideon Thistlethwaite, CEO of Plexcorp and the mythical Monster/God of an alternate reality. Frustration bubbled, but he reminded himself that as much as he sometimes thought of Virgil as another person, he was still a machine. It simulated intuitive leaps exceedingly well, to the point where it could fool most people, but it failed to anticipate Gideon’s desires. Because Gideon did not ask about all the immersion functions, Virgil did not tell him that parts of the system were offline.
“I might as well have played with keyboard and mouse,” Gideon snarled. The experience of controlling Mylos with his mind was still thrilling, but far less than he imagined.
“It’s moving again!” Chuanli typed in a panic as evidenced by missing letters and words run together.
Mylos held out the scroll to the hapless characters and bellowed, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, unless thou pledge thine selves to Lord Mylos!”
“Do you guys want to be aligned evil?” Chuanli asked.
“I’m neutral now,” Andres replied.
“I could go either way,” Michael said. “I only have a few more points to tip evil, and I do have a lot of dark magic scrolls in my stash.”
“U want to sell?” Chuanli asked.
Mylos lost patience. “Enough!” he bellowed. He ground his teeth, irritation barely eased to see the players now, at least, had enough sense to stop chatting and activate their defenses.
Andres, a snow elf warrior, drew a two-handed sword of cold, while the ogre Michael unslung a giant-thigh club. Mylos almost laughed at the ogre’s weapon, until he realized that the crude device was infused with a +10 warding spell and +50 elemental cold damage.
All worlds have rules that even creators must follow. As a God, Gideon discovered his satisfaction depended on this. Being all-powerful and immortal did not mean he could not be thwarted. A hit from the giant-thigh club instantly reduced his magic casting ability by 20%. It was a lucky critical brought on by Mylos’ hesitation.
Next, the snow elf attacked with a two-handed, overhead strike. It was a slow move that he only had time to make because Mylos was busy fending off the ogre. The blade struck Mylos dead center of his human chest. Only the random number generator saved Mylos from serious damage. The risky move brought the elf’s sword down on the low side of the damage factor. Mylos could afford the loss of ten hitpoints, it was the drain to his mana that bothered him.
Even the patience of a god can run thin. Already tired of these insignificant targets, Mylos unfurled the tentacles from his back and went for a melee attack. He swatted the ogre aside without much effort at all and went for the snow elf. The player stood no chance. More than half the tentacles scored direct hits. The snow elf disappeared in a cloud of pale blood, shattered armor and chunks of flesh. Those companions with no blood restrictions were covered in gore. The newly-spawned forest elf panicked and ran. His ogre compatriot followed. They did not bother to pick over the loot of the dead wood elf.
Gideon laughed hysterically in his reclined chair, and the Monster Mylos, Lord of the Dark Circle, echoed that mirth in the game world. The discordance between the two sounds made Gideon’s head spin.
“We need to work on the sensory overlap,” Gideon said, careful to make sure that the input register for his voice did not translate his words to the game.
“Noted, Lord Mylos,” the dutiful Virgil replied.
For further effect, and to amuse himself, Mylos fired several fireballs at the heels of the retreating characters. Had he meant to, he could have killed them both. As it stood, it was just as satisfying to destroy the group’s most advanced character and to seriously damage their morale. He didn’t have to snoop on their chat channels to know they were complaining mightily about the dreaded appearance of the Monster Mylos.