Dante flexed his fingers, trying to ignore the less-than-satisfying sensation of playing with a keyboard and mouse now that he had been inside the game. His rig had two high-end graphics cards, water cooled and working in tandem. Although the game visuals were photorealistic on his 24” monitor, the experience was flat and unsatisfying. Dr. Boussaid was right, the immersion system was a different reality. Dante slipped on his headphones, adjusted the microphone and entered the personalized cathedral chamber that acted as the game lobby.
Virgil, the retired wizard and Innkeep, greeted him as always. The computer-generated character appeared to every every player, everywhere. He was at once a guide, game interface and story element. In the real world, he was a complex set of artificial intelligence programs designed to unify the massive gaming world. Realm of the Nine Circles could not exist without him. Nor could Plexcorp.
The underlying technology that made Virgil seem almost intuitive consisted of the same secret algorithms that Plexcorp patented, packaged and sold. Thousands of customer service voice bots, shipping logistics monitors and human/machine voice interfaces had Virgil as their core software.
His name derived from the torturous official title “Virtual Interface Replicating Game Intelligence Liaison.” Legend had it that one of the earliest game developers had a thing for Greek literature and came up with the program title just to arrive at “Virgil.” Dante promised himself to find out if that legend was true. It did sound typical of the early Plexcorp developers.
“Hello, Virgil,” Dante said.
Virgil moved through one of the stone arches of the game lobby. His long white robe displayed hyper-realistic folds and wrinkles, and the torch in his hand threatened to ignite the grizzled white beard that reached his knees. The character often came with a comedic element. Virgil did not reply to the greeting, which was odd.
“What’s my inventory, Virgil?” Dante asked. Virgil paused, letting the torch singe his beard. The computer character patted out the smoldering hair with none of the typical alarm. He did it slowly while seeming to make eye contact. Dante gave a guttural, impatient sigh at the lag. Plexcorp’s game servers must be under heavy strain. Usually, the voice recognition was flawless. The equivalent of several city blocks worth of data center server units saw to that from their home beneath the Plexcorp Tower.
Even though Dante worked for the company, he could only guess at the problem. Departments within Plexcorp were notoriously insular. The teams that worked on game development had very little direct contact with those who ran infrastructure. A layer of managers handled communication between departments, which Dante always found weird and frustrating.
Virgil finally replied by reaching into his robe and retrieving a scroll, which he unrolled and held forward. The display zoomed to focus on Dante’s inventory list.
A quick look at the map told him his loot stashes were still secure. Even better, three of the shops he invested in showed a profit. He had rented out several shops to some rookie players and they were making good on their enterprises. The Circle Coin was rolling in.
Dante was in luck. It looked like the system had saved his game at the edge of the Blood Forest, not at the point where the slime mold attacked. The bad news was that, in the real time gaming world, the slime mold could be anywhere. He would have to search the dangerous wilderness starting from scratch… again.
“Thank you, Virgil,” Dante said, heaving a sigh.
“I serve the players,” Virgil responded.
“Oh, now you lose the lag.”
“I did not understand that request,” Virgil said.
“Nevermind,” Dante replied, and disabled voice command while he checked various lobbies and hangouts for Thuglife666.
Just when he thought his friend must be offline, an SMS text icon popped up at the corner of his secondary monitor. The number came up as unknown and Dante briefly considered ignoring it. His responsible nature won out.
“Yo. @ my girl hse. U online? -Corey-”
Dante was pleasantly surprised. He and his gamer buddy had known each other long enough to exchange first names, but they never got around to last names.Corey, of course, was Thuglife666. During the course of many marathon gaming sessions, they learned quite a bit about each other.
“How’s Baltimore?” Dante typed back.
“Shit hole,” came the immediate reply.
“I’ll ask again: why not leave?” Dante typed.
“Kuz I am PLAYA!” Corey fired back.
Dante shook his head and replied, “Then let’s play. Can you talk?”
“Hold up,” came the text reply.
Dante busied himself organizing the loot in his extensive inventory. Most of it still showed up in his various safe houses and burial sites. If he survived his quest with the slime mold, he planned to wander the Realms for a while selling items. He had at least fifteen quick-travel credits saved up, and more than enough circs to hire transportation to all the Nine Circles.
Hiring transport was always iffy. Many players acted as highway robbers who loved nothing more than to murder other characters on their way to their destinations. With Corey along on a commerce quest, that would be less likely. Dante set aside several items Corey might like in order to make such a quest more attractive. If he survived this quest and got The Sorceress Keerna off his back, he could make Corey an offer then.
“OK,” Corey said. His voice came through on Plexcorp’s dedicated R9C communication channel. “I just got my rig set up at my Girl’s house.”
“You hiding out there?”
“Naw,” Corey laughed into his microphone. “You know better than that, dog. Just chillin’.”
“Sure,” Dante replied. He didn’t believe it. Corey always had real life adventures with real life stakes. Usually, when his friend took the time to uproot his powerful gaming system, he was motivated by some legal issue, or potentially life-threatening situation. Dante’s fingers hovered over his keyboard for a moment, then dropped away. No, he’d reminded Corey of his very marketable computer skills before. Too many times before, in fact. Instead, he said, “Let’s get to questing then.”
“I’m down!” came Corey’s enthusiastic reply.
Virgil turned away and motioned Kalmond toward an open archway through which the dwarf saw the treeline of the Blood Forest several miles distant. A quick mental calculation eased a little of Dante’s worry. He still had enough resurrection credits to bring Kalmond back at least three more times. If he leveled up on this quest, he stood to earn one more resurrection credit. His character was far away from its lifetime resurrection limit. Kalmond’s future looked bright. This was, of course, if he could complete this quest.
“Damn,” Dante said into his headset. “Where are you, Corey.”
His friend announced himself through the sounds of crunching footsteps that carried over Dante’s surround sound speaker system.
“Right here,” Corey said.
When Dante turned to look at his approaching friend, he almost fell off his chair in shock. A tall, slender elf with deep brown skin approached wearing emerald green spiven crystal armor.
“What the hell?” Dante exclaimed. “You got the new desert elf character! That is badass. Let me check it out.” Kalmond walked around his companion for a better look. “This model is amazing. Look at the detail. Did you go random features on the face?”
“I did,” Corey replied. “And it turned out great, so I kept it. It’s not just a brown version of the pale-skinned northern elf. They designed his features to look elven, but unique. The new procedural character generator is da’ straight-up bomb!”
“This mesh is incredible,” Dante said. “I can see muscle fibers under the skin that move.”
“Yeah. Make sure to tell the coders they done good.”
“I keep telling you; it’s a big company. I only know the guys in my own department and whoever my department has to deal with, and it ain’t the graphics guys.”
“Yeah, but you keep saying you want to track them dudes down, pick they brains.”
“True. No time though. My ‘alleged’ bosses keep me busy. It’s on my list, though.” Dante turned away from his friend and headed toward the Forest. “Speaking of time, we’re wasting it. Let’s go kill that slime mold.”
“I’m down,” Corey replied as his character fell in behind.
“What’s this character’s name, anyway?” Dante asked.
Dante snorted laughter into his headset. The name was a running joke between the two. During a marathon weekend gaming session years ago, Corey put forth a hypothesis. He claimed that any word can become a fantasy genre name by adding the suffix “lar.” They riffed off the joke for a while, coming up with “Doglar,” “Catlar” and “Sinklar,” until they started to realize the joke had some truth to it. Names with “lar” at the end did work well in the game world. So much so, in fact, that other players adopted the naming convention.
Dante and Corey weren’t going to stand for that. They tended to attack other characters with the “lar” name wherever they found them. The name became something of a trademark with Corey. Most other hardcore gamers knew not to use that naming variant. Those that didn’t know any better faced attack or ridicule until they changed the name.
“So very ‘gangster’,” Dante said.
“Spoken like a true white boy,” Corey replied, then repeated Dante’s full pronunciation of the word in a mocking, nasal tone.
Dante laughed and shot Corey in the leg with a level two stun spell, then ran ahead to a safe distance. “Yeah, well, your people stole the title from us. I’m the original gangster,” he said, taking time to pronounce the word, “R” and all.
“You the original dickhead! You only half Italian anyway,” Corey fired back. Dante knew his friend well enough to know that the anger in his voice was all play. “How I’m supposed to fight now you tore my leg all up?”
“Relax, you have spiven armor,” Dante replied.
“Yeah, but this character is only level twenty. You took 6% HP.”
Dante stopped in his tracks. “What? You brought a low-level character on this quest? Trying to ride off my EXP, damn it!”
“Gotta level this guy up somehow,” Corey replied. “Besides, when I get to the next level, I got some powerful weapons to use. I just need the next level.”
“Yeah, so you say. How close are you?”
“If we kill a couple Screechers, we should be OK.”
“Dipshit,” Dante said, “If we scare up some screechers in the Blood Forest, the Bone Bark Trees will wake up and pin us both to the ground. I might survive, but you definitely will not.”
“Lucky I have my friend here then,” Corey replied and moved toward the forest again. “It’s night, so screechers probably won’t be around anyway. I can gank a few giant voles, then. I saved my old weapons from my ogre mage.”
“I bet you’re glad not to use that guy anymore. What were you thinking? Ogres have the least magic ability.”
“Yeah, well, I used my smurf account to kill him off, then raided his holdings for this character.”
“That was pretty slick. Dishonest as hell and against the TOS, but good for you.”
“Come on,” Corey said with a chuckle. “We’re thieves after all.”
“Yeah, but we’re white hat thieves, pledged to take only from the unjust and evil.”
“Keep telling yourself that, boy,” Corey replied. “Or save it for our good paladin friends.”
The Blood forest loomed, and the players grew silent. Using voice communication contributed to their general noise levels in the game, as did chat. It was one of the many things that made the game more challenging. The Realm of the Nine Circles was designed in many ways to blend the real word and the game world. Dante’s team’s work in immersion VR was to be the ultimate evolution of the game. As an engineer and developer, Dante had a deep respect for such far-reaching and forward-thinking design. As a gamer, he just loved to play.
As he crossed into the forest, he drifted further into the game. Even playing in two dimensions, the realism on the screen made his heart beat faster. The disconnect he’d felt earlier, after playing the much more immersive rig at work, had worn off, and now every ounce of his attention was on the screen in front of him.
Kalmond the dwarf readied his two-handed axe and slowly crept toward the treeline. The footsteps of his elf companion followed over his left shoulder. This time, there were no signs of the slime mold. The monster might have gone anywhere in the hours since it had killed him.
Dante let out a hiss of frustration. “We have to track it again,” he said, then paused when the soft elven footsteps behind him halted. A light blossomed, illuminating the trees and stretching the dwarf’s shadow in front of him so that he looked like a giant. Thuglar cast a level three detection spell and aimed it at the trees ahead.
It was a risky move. The bone bark trees might respond to the magic. They were lucky this time. The trees remained in their slumber, heedless of the intruders in their midst. Kalmond started forward again when the spell traced a glowing blue path between the trunks. There was no way to tell if it was the trail of the slime mold, or some other some magical creature.
They entered the Blood Forest side-by-side, unspeaking and even breathing carefully enough not to engage the sound-sensitive plants. They stopped every few paces to look and listen for signs, unwilling to break the uneasy silence–a silence suddenly shattered by galloping hooves.
Kalmond hit a quick key combination and donned his boar oak shield just in time. The shield sprouted an arrow with a loud “thock.” The HUD declared he’d successfully blocked a stun arrow, not that he’d even been aware of it flying towards him. Without the shield, it surely would have earned the attacker a critical.
Thuglar wisely positioned himself behind the dwarf and took the time to drink two agility potions to increase his hitpoints and attack damage.
They still couldn’t see the attacker, but the sound of hooves and an arrow attack were definite signs of a centaur. The only question now was whether the creature was an NPC or a human player. The game AI made it harder to tell with every update.
“Here it comes!” Thuglar shouted into his headset. There was no use being silent now.
The centaur burst forth from the brush, a flaming arrow notched and ready. The shot went wide. Kalmond executed a two-handed power lunge with his axe. The blade glanced off the centaur’s right horse shoulder with a spray of blood. The Furious Lunge yielded 13% damage.
The creature wheeled around with a human shriek of rage and pain, exchanging its bow for what appeared to be a two handed sword. Thuglar didn’t wait to find out if the sword was enchanted. He hit the centaur with a dual-wielded fireball. The centaur shrieked again and veered away from his attack on Kalmond.
“It’s a human!” Kalmond shouted.
“Gotta be,” Thuglar replied with cool determination. The centaur hacked at the dormant Bone Bark trees with its sword as he headed out of the woods. “And you clipped him good!”
“The asshole is trying to wake up the trees!” Kalmond shouted.
“Ain’t tryin’, he’s doin’!” Thuglar replied. He was right.
The forest began to rumble and groan like a wooden ship in a rolling sea. The first branch came down between the two friends, throwing them to the ground.
“Did you catch his name?” Kalmond asked.
“No, but I’m damn sure checking the logs for him later,” Thuglar replied.
“Me too. Sombitch needs a good killing,”
Thuglar just laughed in reply as he rose again. He blocked the next deadly branch swipe. Kalmond hacked off the attacking limb with one swipe from his axe. Bonus points against plantlife was precisely the reason he’d brought the weapon.
“Let’s get out of here,” Corey said.
“You’re getting some XP, now, buddy,” Kalmond laughed as he ran ahead.
Dante sprinted from the woods without looking back. With the Bone Bark trees active, it was every mythical creature for himself. By his silence, Kalmond figured his quest companion was busy fending off attacks.
The dwarf forgot about his friend when he caught sight of the centaur ahead. Kalmond paused to down a strength potion, followed by an elixir of the endurance to up his stamina. He wanted to finish the horse-man for good.
Kalmond was not expecting the light bomb trap. The wiley centaur had wanted to be spotted. He lingered at the edge of the forest to gloat as Kalmond impatiently waited a moment to be free of the stun, then plunged after his foe.
The second ambush was a good one. It was a move Kalmond himself might have made, which somehow made it chafe even more. He hated being the victim of his own tactics, even though he taught other players moves like this quite often.
“Damn!” Kalmond exclaimed as the screen turned bright white for an instant. The drips of blood in his field of view and the thudding heartbeat sound announced that he was almost dead. The centaur had high-level magic skills, indeed. Combining a stun effect with area damage took talent. Setting two traps in a row, so close together meant a disturbing mana regen rate.
The centaur took his time circling back to its prey. This was a fatal mistake. The desert elf burst forth from the trees in a full power lunge. Twin spiven crystal daggers plunged into the centaur’s chest. Kalmond recovered and finished the creature with a final mighty blow from his axe.
“Take that, you dumb horse. That’ll teach you to mess with us!” Corey did a quick victory dance, then turned to Kalmond and fist pumped the air. “I leveled up fighting off those bone bark trees. Rare daggers have the final word.”
“Damn!” came an unfamiliar voice in the chat channel. “You guys killed my favorite character.”
“Live and learn, dude,” Kalmond replied.
The centaur player laughed, “Yeah, I guess so. Almost had you guys.”
“You did!” Corey replied. “Nice ambush and great move with waking up the trees. Backfired, but smart move.”
“Thanks, guys!” the player said. Now that he was in voice chat, his name pinged on their screen: Thornbark90.
“So, are you going to resurrect that character or what?” Kalmond asked.
“I might. He’s a level 31. I see your dwarf is a level 37,” Thornbark90 observed. “I shoulda hit you and run to check your level.”
“Yeah, a lot of players do that,” Corey replied. “I think that’s always a stupid move. There are lots of ways to guess a level without attacking.”
“Dude, attacking is literally the only way to know another player’s level the first time you meet them,” Thornbark90 said.
“I said ‘guess,’ not ‘tell,’ Corey replied. From the angle of the desert elf’s head, Kalmond could tell Corey was focused directly on the centaur’s corpse.
“Oh. I’m listening,” Thornbark90 said. He dropped the snarky tone.
“Well, I won’t tell you all my secrets. You gotta pay to play.”
“Yeah, right,” Thornbark90 moaned.
“Naw, I’m serious,” Thuglar said. “You show up at my boy’s shop sometime and I’ll teach you a thing or two.”
“For a price, of course,” Thornbark90 said.
“Yeah. Of course, but maybe the price is you help us with a quest,” Thuglar replied.
Thornbark90 paused. Dante guessed the player was either trying not to sound too eager or attempting to figure Thuglar’s angle.
“You like this guy?” Dante asked, toggling a private voice channel to Corey.
“Yeah. Good fighter,” Corey typed back.
“I don’t like centaur players. This guy has a centaur clan name. Those types tend to be weird horse lovers.”
Corey laughed on the open channel, then replied on private voice. “Don’t be a bigot. He can help us as slime mold bait at least.”
“What, you’re giving up on the quest tonight?”
“Yeah. I think we’ve done enough. The Blood Forest needs a bigger party.”
“Dude, there’s a time limit on this quest. I’ve got two game days left to loot that colony heart, or Keerna and her cronies will hunt me down. I’m good, but I probably won’t survive that. I can’t afford to pay our crew to defend me for my stupidity.”
“More reason to build a bigger party,” Corey said. Then, on the open channel, he announced, “I’m heading to my shop in the Third Circle. Here are the coordinates.”
Corey sent the landmark to Thornbark, then spent a precious teleport credit to go there. Dante followed.