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Excerpt for The World Jumper: A LitRPG Adventure by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Digidream Chronicles / book 1

THE WORLD JUMPER

a LitRPG adventure

CHIP MUNSTER

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

© 2018 Chip Munster
Smashwords Edition
Ediciones Irkalla, 2018

All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locations is purely coincidental. The characters are all productions of the authors’ imagination. The persons depicted in the photo are artistic representations and not depictions of real people.

Please note that this work is intended only for adults over the age of 18 and all characters represented as 18 or over.

Cover image by kellepics

Irkalla logo by Grace Chen

 

 

 

may the game be long and fun

and may we all acquire some Wisdom



CONTENTS

Contents

PROLOGUE

LAST DAY

MISSING

LOGGED IN

UNCHARTED

THE PLAYER

MAGIC IN THE AIR

NERFED

THE WAVE

THE WAY TO THE CASTLE

GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE

OF FIRE AND GOLD

THE KNIGHT

THE BOOK

THE SWARM

HARDWARE

THE WAR INSIDE

STUCK

THE BIG-EYED GIRL

THE TOWERS

THE BLACK BEASTS

A LEAP OF FAITH

THE VOID

FSCK THE POLICE

THE MAGE

A CUP OF TEA

MODERN WARFARE

THE HORSE

THE SKY PALACE

ENDGAME

LOGGED OFF

BOSS FIGHT

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

EPILOGUE

About Chip Munster

PROLOGUE

The girl had fallen from the sky, striking like thunder in the snow. The whole ice sheet seemed to rumble and shake when she landed, but after the initial shock, she was no more than that: just a girl, carrying a useless weapon and wearing clothes that were way too revealing and completely impractical in this frozen world. And now she was slipping down, slowly but surely drifting to her death.

Because there was death down there.

John watched. He wasn’t sure about what to do except watch.

The girl was standing in the middle of the slope, a few dozen yards below the top and a few dozen yards above a row of sharp promontories marking the end of the peak. She was desperately trying to avoid going down that way and being crushed against the spikes and edges. She tried to stick her sword to the ground, but the ice sheet was smooth and hard, and it proved useless. She kept slipping.

Up there, the creatures were looking at her.

Unlike her, they were actually wearing reasonable clothes for this world: heavy boots with spiky bottoms, thick furry coats, and dark glasses to protect them against the everpresent white glow. The girl had to be freezing, John thought, with that tiny top and loincloth that barely covered anything. It was an utterly inadequate attire for a frozen realm, and it was doing her no good. The cold would be biting at her, hard and ruthless.

Olivia took John’s hand as they both stared at the girl. The creatures standing at the top of the peak seemed to be amused at her plight.

John and Olivia were crouching behind a big rock, out of the creatures’ view. They were just deciding whether they should attack them when the girl fell from the sky. Both of them had rifles, and the creatures had more primitive weapons: simple spears and harpoons, and a couple of slingshots they used to shoot iceballs. They were also small and weak, their stats capped at about 120 Health Points and with very low Strength and Agility. They were nothing to write home about, really; but the landscape played in their favor.

John and Olivia had a good chance of winning; the girl, on the other hand, was completely disadvantaged. Her weight kept pulling her down towards the deadly barrier, a bit faster with each passing second.

“We have to help her,” Olivia said.

“How?”

“I don’t know.”

The girl kept slipping down. She had come from the sky, but she couldn’t fly. She was as tied to the ground as everybody else, and where she was, the ground was death.

“OK, get ready,” John said. Olivia checked her rifle and waited.

“Hey!” he called.

The girl looked up and saw him immediately. She was only a few yards away, but there was no way she could reach them, nothing she could hold on to. She had nowhere to go except down.

The creatures standing at the top of the peak looked at him too. And they attacked.

The first iceball hit the rock and shattered to nothingness. The second one grazed his nose before he could take cover behind the rock. Those motherfucking things had excellent aim.

Olivia shot her rifle. She didn’t hit anything.

“No!” the girl shouted as she kept slipping down the icy slope. “You fools!”

“What?” Olivia screamed.

“You should have stayed hidden!” the girl replied. She kept drifting down, hitting the ice with her sword in a useless attempt to anchor herself.

A losing strategy.

“You are the one who—” John started, but he had to roll aside and cover himself again when a spear went flying between him and Olivia and drove itself deep into the snow.

“Don’t worry,” the slipping girl said. “I will save you!”

She kept going down, faster and faster.

The iceballs were raining on them now. A harpoon hit the rock and bounced with a weird clannnng, spreading frozen powder over their heads. There was no way they could peek out, point their rifles, and try to take down at least one of those fucking things.

“I am Sajya,” the girl yelled as she kept sliding down the slope. Once more, she tried to nail her sword into the ice and failed. But this time she lost her grip, the sword went away flying, and she fell forward. She started going down faster now that she wasn’t standing anymore but lying face down on the ice. “You need to hold on until I come back!” she added. “It will only be a minute.”

Oh my, she’s completely crazy, John thought, as Olivia held on tight, kissed him, and went back to watching this girl Sajya.

The creatures had now pretty much forgotten about them, and were amusing themselves throwing iceballs down the slope trying to hit Sajya. One or two of them fired their harpoons, but they missed, and pulled them back with the ropes.

Sajya was already going down quite fast when she slammed the ice with her feet, keeping her legs stiff and straight like planks. This didn’t stop her descent but destabilized it, separating her from the ground. She rolled back, faster, faster, dangerously approaching the sharp, deadly promontories below. She kept falling, bouncing like a ragdoll, and then she jumped.

“They have a dragon!” she yelled as a warning as she ascended like a bullet in a straight line to the sky.

A moment later, she had disappeared.

“What the—” Olivia said, but John covered her mouth with this hand. The creatures had stopped attacking now, as they were all looking up in confusion.

“We need to hold on,” he whispered. “She said she would be back.”

“I took a look at her stats,” Olivia said, in a whisper too.

“So?”

“She’s not very powerful.”

“She just shot up into the sky.”

“I know,” Olivia insisted, “but she’s just like us. A normal player.”

“But where did she come from?”

How would I know?” Olivia asked, irritated. “I don’t even know where I came from. And you don’t know either.”

They stayed there, parapeted against the rock, waiting for Sajya to come back.

A minute later, she came back.

She fell from the sky, again, but this time she stayed in the air.

“Hello, motherfuckers.”

She was standing on some kind of glider that left her whole body exposed but seemed to have an extremely high maneuverability in compensation. In her right hand she held a futuristic-looking pistol; there was another device in her left hand whose exact shape or purpose John couldn’t make out.

The creatures threw their spears at her, their harpoons, they shot iceballs at her. Sajya moved up and down with a clumsy grace, avoiding nearly all projectiles, except a couple of iceballs that almost knocked her down. She answered the attack firing her pistol. It was a laser pistol, and the green beams coming from it filled the air with a whoosh. She took out one creature after another. They stopped attacking and started running; it was pointless. A few seconds later, they were all dead.

“There are three health packs and two Mana crates on that side of the peak,” Sajya explained, in a calm voice. “A dragon is literally sitting on top of them. I will grab them now, if you don’t mind.”

She let the glider take her across the top of the peak, and soon she was out of sight.

A moment later, a tremendous roar seemed to shake the whole world. John and Olivia were so startled that they lost their balance and rolled a few feet down in the snow, but they managed to stand back up and return to the rock.

From the other side of the mountain came a different sound now, as distinct as a human voice. The sound of a dragon blowing fire. They could see the flames rising up the sky, illuminating the top of the peak, giving the snow an orange tint, and partially melting it. Then another roar, then a new burst of fire.

And then, a different sound, a different glow.

The sound was the sound of energy. It was how you imagine a planet-destroying beam would sound like. The sound of neutrons and photons and electrons going mad, enjoying their freedom in a sudden, concentrated burst.

The whole landscape turned green for a moment. Something heavy fell and rolled down the peak, tumbling and bouncing with its dead weight. Then there was only silence.

“A normal player, you say?” John asked.

“A normal player,” Olivia echoed, “with some cool toys.”

LAST DAY

No... there must be more.
And you and I, son, we will find it.

Peter Weyland, Alien: Covenant

The day Sarah’s boss had his second stroke was the day she quit.

Her job at Digidream was not bad; much to the contrary, it was awesome. She had been incredibly lucky to be selected for the position while being only twenty years old. She was in charge of testing different features of a highly experimental game that had been in the making for years and that was supposed to revolutionize the industry. It was so cutting edge that on occasion, even she didn’t have a clue about what it was exactly she was testing.

“Not the industry. We will revolutionize the whole society,” the owner and head of the company, Victor Anderen, was fond of saying. And he was so energetic and contagious that you would find yourself agreeing with him despite yourself. He was over sixty already, but he radiated the energy of youth, as if he and Sarah were of one age.

The first stroke had hit just a few months earlier, but Mr. Anderen came back to the job barely two days after that, giving orders and pushing ideas among the developers. It was like nothing had happened to him, like he had just taken a couple days off. If anything, he seemed to be even more enthusiastic and energetic than before, walking through the corridors at a brisk pace, checking on everyone’s work, lifting the spirits. “Great job, Sarah,” he said one day, putting his hand on her shoulder and flashing a wide smile. “You’re so valuable for the company. I’m happy to have you around.”

The second stroke hit the day Sarah was testing the new suspension system, designed to maximize the player’s immersion. It had cost a small fortune (... well, maybe not so small) in research and development, but it was finally here: an individual levitation tank with a reticule of sensors that allowed it to register the exact position of your body, inch by inch, in order to gently push the air around you as necessary to keep you floating in place, without touching the walls or floor of the tank. This way you could let your body abstract itself from the sensory and positional feedback from the real world and get fully immersed in the game. Body and mind working together, or body and soul, as Mr. Anderen liked to say.

It was already late, and Mike would be waiting for her to go out with him, but Victor had insisted on doing the test for the suspension device, and he was so enthusiastic that she got enthusiastic too, and said yes. So she had climbed into the tank when the sky was already going dark outside. Working for a genius like him was such a privilege that she felt it was worth it. Mike would understand. Also, she would just be a little late, not miss their date altogether. Heck, he’s probably eating all I have in the fridge, she had chuckled to herself as she undressed and put on the full body suit for the simulation.

Mr. Anderen, this is great,” Sarah said, impressed, as she explored the gameworld. She could barely feel the touch of the paper-thin VR band (VR standing for “virtual reality”) in front of her eyes, and the sound coming from inside the tank eliminated the need of earphones so there was no VR helmet or any other heavy devices weighing on her. The skintight suit she was wearing communicated her motion and other data, like body temperature and humidity, to the computer. Floating in the air, with barely anything attached to her body, she abandoned herself to the sensations provided by the game.

“I wish we had finished the scenario so that you’d have more to see and hear,” the company’s owner said, “but we’ll have to make do with this rough draft.” His voice came to Sarah as if he was speaking from somewhere in the back of her head. It was weirdly intimate.

Mr. Anderen’s words were a false apology: beneath the apparent complaint about the unfinished scenario, his voice betrayed his pride and satisfaction. And he had every right to feel satisfied. The place Sarah was exploring was amazingly rich and detailed, full of sound and vivid color, almost comparable to real life.

It was a version of the Enchanted Forest. The team had been working on it for months, artists and developers collaborating closely to get it just right, but they still had work to do. You wouldn’t be able to say it from being there, though. Sarah took a step and the grass and leaves emitted the appropriate sounds under the weight of her foot. She closed her eyes and listened. There were birds singing far away, and a gentle breeze played the foliage of the trees like a flute. She opened her eyes again. Light came to her in a burst, just like when you open your eyes in the real world. She let the breeze caress her scantily clad body. The game had equipped her with delicate, almost ethereal clothes, like those of a fairy. She was barefoot, and her loose hair danced around her in the playful air.

“Can you see this, Mr. Anderen?” she asked, as a butterfly came to rest on her naked shoulder. She felt it tingling as the tiny legs touched her skin. She became aware of her own changed body too: the butterfly waved its wings against her ear, and the ear was big and pointy. She touched it with her hand. The tip of the ear felt just like it would feel if it were real. Her back had changed too: there were two zones where she could feel the weight and touch of parts that were attached to them where nothing had been before. Her wings. Her fairy wings.

“I can,” Victor Anderen said, his voice surging from somewhere in her own head. “And it’s beautiful. Why don’t you try flying?”

Sarah frowned. She had never thought of that, but of course this would be the litmus test for the new suspension system: flying had to feel different if she was actually floating in thin air instead of just standing on the floor wearing a VR headset.

Let’s see. How can I fly? If I try to move my wings...

She tried to concentrate on the areas of her back where the wings were attached now. There were muscles there, and she would naturally be able to move them. It was like raising an arm or a leg.

After a few tries, she managed to do it. Her wings trembled slightly, then agitated with more decision. A few seconds later, they were in full motion. But she was still on the ground.

Oh, that’s it. I have to jump. Then the wings will keep me in the air.

She jumped up. She didn’t make a great effort, maybe expecting to fail, but she found herself propelled upward by the force of her wings, and then hanging in the air from her back, like some clothes left out to dry.

It was amazing. And beautiful.

She arced her back and managed to get in a vertical position. She was a couple feet above the ground now, and it really felt like flying. She had to make a conscious effort to remind herself that she was not actually a fairy, but a human girl who was not in the Enchanted Forest but in a levitation tank inside a high-tech building.

She pushed forward with her torso. Her body responded instantly. Now, she was flying.

She felt the dampness in her face as tears of joy ran down her skin. She hoped Mr. Anderen wouldn’t notice. She pushed forward, and felt the acceleration.

Suddenly, something happened.

It was like a very faint tickling, embracing her whole body at once. It lasted for a fraction of a second. It was accompanied by a subdued, almost imperceptible buzzing sound, and a legend appearing right in front of her. It was written in greenish blue letters, slightly glowing, partially transparent.

Skill acquired: Flight

A notification from the game.

“Oh, they changed this,” she muttered, as she kept flying.

“We did. It’s more organic now, and less invasive. Do you like it?”

Yes, it’s way better,” she replied, descending on a new area of the forest, where the vegetation was thicker and the sunlight had more trouble to pass through the foliage. The sounds had changed accordingly. Now she heard fewer birds singing and more creatures crawling and climbing the trees. Insects, of course, but maybe serpents as well, perhaps some monkey. It was more jungle than forest in this place. They must have made a compressed map for this test. If I keep going, there will be a beach and then a castle and then some snowy mountains and after that, maybe a modern city.

She took a walk, stopped, turned around, and concentrated on the sensations. She gave a small jump and she was floating again.

“It’s... it’s awesome, Mr. Anderen,” she said. She couldn’t find any better words. “I’m here. It’s like I’m really here. Floating in the air, and I have wings. I can really fly. And I feel the breeze and the sounds. It’s a completely different experience. If this passes all the tests—”

“It has.”

“It has?”

“It has passed your test. This is all I needed. Sarah, I trust you completely.”

Sarah felt flattered. She couldn’t help it. She had been working so hard for this, and now the game was really taking shape, partly thanks to her. It was a beautiful thing what they were building, so beautiful she had cried.

“Is it changing?”

“What?” Victor Anderen asked.

“The forest. It’s changing, right? These vines weren’t here a moment ago.”

“Are you sure?”

Yes. I looked all around and they weren’t — hey!

The vines had taken hold of one of her feet. She jumped up and took flight, but she was pulled down again. Now she was beginning to despair. Well, this is certainly immersive, she thought as she struggled to get free. But the vines kept crawling around her leg, then the other. I forgot that this is just a simulation. I should be ashamed. The vines kept encircling her. They went around her knees, then her thighs, sliding over and under her tiny fairy dress. Sarah started panicking again. Even though none of this was actually happening, the sensations were all too real. She felt the pressure and the harsh, muddy touch of the vines running all over her skin, trapping her in a deadly embrace, threatening to rip her clothes off and crush her delicate wings. They were already closing around her throat when she mustered the energy to scream.

“NO!!!”

And then it was all gone.

She was floating inside the levitation tank, staring at a huge, dark, almost empty room. Victor Anderen was there, eyeing her with a worried expression.

“I’m sorry, Sarah. Must have been a glitch,” he said, with forced casualness.

She opened the tank and climbed out. She was still shuddering from the experience.

“Oh, it’s no problem,” she said. “I guess it’s good, actually. It was incredibly realistic. I totally though I was about to die for a second. I know it was a glitch, but it felt so real. It’s the most immersive experience I’ve ever had, even since I started working here.”

“And you had a big part in that.”

Victor Anderen was smiling now. He let his hand rest on Sarah’s shoulder. He was a tall man, handsome for his years; the impeccable suit fit his air of authority.

“Well...” Sarah said. She felt almost naked with the skintight suit, and wanted to change her clothes and leave. She was supposed to meet Mike at ten, and it was already a quarter past that. With luck, she would make it home in twenty minutes, but she would need to get ready immediately.

I can’t stress enough how important you’ve been for this project,” Mr. Anderen said. “You gave me valuable data at every step so I could envision the gameworld and mechanics.” He looked straight in her eye, and his tone became passionate as his grip on her shoulder became stronger. “Sarah, we made this together.

OK, now things are taking a turn for the weird, Sarah thought as she shook his hand off her.

She had become aware of the strangeness of the situation. Most certainly, no other developers or testers remained on the building; only Victor Anderen, Sarah, and security personnel. This test had taken place unusually late. Now Anderen was getting personal and maybe too physical.

What did he really want to test?

She felt a deep uneasiness growing inside her. All this time, she had thought her talent on the job was being appreciated... she felt flattered that this genius, the head of a revolutionary company, was so fond of her work. And yet...

“I—I’m sorry, but I have to go now. I have a date with my boyfriend,” she said.

The fact that it was true was completely irrelevant. Suddenly, Sarah wanted to be out of there as soon as possible.

Oh, come on,” Mr. Anderen said, his voice dripping disappointment. “We are making history here. What could your boyfriend possibly be doing that’s more important than this? What is his legacy? Sarah, you don’t understand — you and me together can build wonders. Together.” A glint of fierce intelligence crossed his eyes.

“I don’t care,” Sarah said, and gave him a shove. “I quit.”

It was not a violent shove; it was caused more by fear than by anger. Mr. Anderen looked surprised.

“Don’t you understand? You’re so special,” he said. As she started to pass him by, he grabbed her by the waist.

“Hey,” Sarah said, her voice now faltering. “What are you—?”

But Victor Anderen’s face was now so very close to hers, that she couldn’t finish the question. His lips were open now, trying to reach hers. He smelled good, but Sarah was retching.

“No!” she shouted for a second time. She kicked him in the groin and gave him a new shove, this time with all her strength. She went up the low leaning ramp connecting the simulation area to the main hall of the building, sprinted through the empty, silent corridor, and ran through the hall. A few seconds later, she was outside.

Well, that was easy.

At about a hundred feet from the building she turned around. She had heard Mr. Anderen shouting faintly, or so she thought; but what did she care? She needed to keep running, get as far away as possible as fast as possible. And yet, she turned around. Maybe looking for something to convince her that this was a simulation too, that it wasn’t really happening.

As she looked inside the glass building she saw the man running feebly, his suit still impeccable, raising one arm, surely calling for her. All of a sudden, he stopped dead in his tracks and collapsed on the floor. He was clawing at his chest, as if he wanted to rip his own heart out.

That was Victor Anderen’s second stroke.

Oh, fuck.

Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.

What should I do?

Even if she wanted to call 911, Sarah had no cellphone; she had left it inside the building in her escape. She was only wearing the minimal suit and the ethereal VR band. She could start yelling for someone to come and help the guy. On the other hand...

Oh, fuck.

The Digidream building was tall and imposing; its body of glass and steel glistened in the night, quietly. There was no one around that she could see. There were several parking lots, a couple of dimly lit pubs in the distance, a skating and parkour circuit (closed, of course, at this time), and a few scattered houses with the lights off. Nobody would come to his aid. And why should they?

She took a step, then another. Then she was sprinting.

What am I doing? Am I going to help him? And how?

If she could get to her cellphone... a call to the emergency number. Yes, that’s it. I can call 911 while I run home. It will be quick.

But then she saw the men in white rushing to Victor Anderen’s aid: security guards who maybe had seen it all happen through the cameras. They crouched beside him, spoke to him for what she could see. She stopped dead and decided that this was the help he needed. She had nothing else to offer. So she turned around again and ran home.

There are security cameras everywhere. They will see what happened. But what will they see? Which part will interest them more? Me kicking the boss and running away, making him collapse. Oh gods, I need help. Mike will know what to do.

But when she finally arrived, exhausted, sweaty, and completely out of breath, Mike was nowhere to be found.

What she found, stuck to the inside of her window and handwritten in big red letters, was a note.

It consisted of just two words.

“Come outside.”

MISSING

At first, Sarah didn’t know whether the stranger was a boy or a girl. From her kitchen, she could see the figure standing at the other side of the street, wearing a hooded jumpsuit that appeared to be white but looked gray in the darkness of the night. After a few seconds she could make out the delicate features of the face framed by the hood. The girl was Asian, she was not tall, and appeared to be pretty thin. She was standing motionless, staring at her through the window, waiting.

What kind of sick joke is this? I’ve had enough emotions for one day, Sarah though, not knowing if she should open the door and go out to meet the stranger. Then she recognized her.

A girl who also worked at Digidream. Her name was Sumiko, if Sarah was not mistaken, and she was an artist. Her job involved drawing and designing all kinds of stuff for the gameworld, mainly plants and animals and the odd artificial object. She was just one in an army of artists working on the game, some of them working on the NPCs (non-playing characters), others designing weapons and different kinds of armor, others dedicating their hours to drawing beasts and robotic foes. But Sumiko (if that was truly her name) had caught Sarah’s attention a few days ago because she interrupted a meeting to call Victor Anderen’s attention to some arcane detail on a screen. When she entered the meeting room, Sarah took a good look at her and thought she was a very pretty girl, with a small mouth will full lips, big vivacious eyes, and pitch black hair with a hint of purple. But more than that, what struck her as notable was how similar she looked to an anime character. It was as if Sumiko was herself the work of an artist working for a virtual game.

It spoke to Mr. Anderen’s lack of humility that the codename for the game was Anderverse, but it might be changed down the line. For now, the splash screens, menus and other parts of the interface used the codename as a placeholder. Someone had suggested that the game were renamed to “Placeholder” instead, but the suggestion went nowhere. (It was an ingenious idea, though, at least as far as Sarah was concerned, since “Ander” means “other” and a placeholder is something that stands for some other thing. In the game, a virtual representation stands for the player, or maybe the other way around.)

What is she doing here? And where the fuck is Mike?

For the eleventh time, she tried to contact Mike, but he didn’t answer any calls or messages.

This can’t be a coincidence. Mr. Anderen’s stroke, Mike’s disappearance, and now Sumiko waiting outside my apartment. It all has to be related.

It looked like she had no choice but to go out and meet Sumiko, so she pressed her finger on the lock and went outside. She was wearing normal clothes now instead of the nearly nonexistent gamesuit, and yet, now that the adrenaline wasn’t pumping so frantically inside her veins, she felt cold when she found herself on the street. Sumiko was dressed much more appropriately, with jogging pants and the jumpsuit that showed a cartoon of a fat dude making a funny irate face and the legend, “TRUMP 2028”. (A joke, of course. That would be an utter impossibility after the gruesome and ridiculous incident in 2020.)

“I know you,” Sarah said after a few moments of indecision.

“I know where Mike is,” Sumiko replied.

 

* * *

 

So there it was, again, the Digidream building glistening quietly in the darkness.

The place Sarah had just sworn to herself she’d never set foot on again, just an hour ago.

The place from where she had ran away, vulnerable, almost naked, just an hour ago.

The place where she had left her cellphone, her clothes, her purse, her ID, in her rush to escape the man who was a genius, the man who had a second stroke, the man who, according to Sumiko, was holding her boyfriend captive in a suspension tank.

“Are you sure we can do this?”

What? Enter the building? Of course we can,” Sumiko replied. And she added scornfully, “They haven’t cancelled my clearance. I’m not the one who kicked the boss and ran away.”

Sarah opened her mouth to give her a harsh reply but she was at a loss. Sumiko was factually right, of course, and Sarah was still too shocked to think of a good comeback. If Sumiko wanted to be a bitch, she was welcome, as long as she led her to Mike.

“Why can’t we just disconnect him?”

“He’s in the game,” Sumiko said as she let her thumb rest on the reader at the door. There were no security guards to be seen; maybe they were still taking care of Mr. Anderen. Was he still alive? But the cameras were still there, so Sarah tried to keep her face covered as they walked through the main hall. Sumiko had given her the Trump jumpsuit so she could conceal her face from the video surveillance.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Sumiko whispered as they walked through a corridor and then towards one of the elevators. “It’s too risky. We could do everything remotely.”

“I need to see.”

If Sumiko was to be believed, Mike had been kidnapped, put into a tank, unconscious, and put inside the game. Why, the Asian artist had no idea; but she had definitely noticed how much interest the company’s owner had shown in a certain young female employee who worked as a tester for the gameworld. Some kind of revenge wasn’t out of the question. So Mike was now stuck inside the Anderverse and there was no way to get him out without entering the game.

“But the game is not finished,” Sarah had objected. “It will be at least a year before it can launch.”

“It’s complicated,” Sumiko had replied. “The game is running. Not for everyone. But he’s one of them. Trapped inside.”

“But why?” Sarah had asked. “I have tested the gameworld and walked away fine. He could leave whenever he wants. It’s a game after all.”

“Oh, sweet summer child,” Sumiko had replied, taking a sip from the tea Sarah had made. “He’s drugged. He will sleep for as long as they want. And there’s the bit about time dilation. His mind is working at six to twelve times the normal speed. Even if we could wake him up, the shock would probably kill him, or turn him into a vegetable. Maybe the boss knows of a way out, but he might be in a coma by now; let’s hope he’s not straight up dead. No, you can’t rescue him from here. You need to get in too.”

“But... but how?”

“I don’t know,” Sumiko had said. “You need to find out what the rules are once you’re inside. Whoever did this didn’t want to just kill Mike or make him disappear. They wanted you to go search for him in the game. So if there’s a way, you need to find it in the gameworld.”

“This is a sick joke.”

Now that she was about to see what she had come to see, Sarah tried to calm down and review her options. Calling the police was out of the question. The first thing they would do was try to disconnect Mike, damaging him beyond repair. The second thing they would do was side with the company and its multibillion dollar resources, helping them cover up whatever was happening. The third thing they would do was arrest Sarah for assaulting the boss, maybe killing him unintentionally, and trespassing.

“Now you’ll see what I’ve seen,” Sumiko said as the exit the elevator on the eleventh floor and walked across a dark corridor. “I’m not supposed to be here; my clearance definitely doesn’t let me open this door. But I can anyway. A bit of hacking.”

She pressed on the reader and the door opened with a hiss.

And then Sarah saw the tanks.

There were more than one; maybe a dozen. All of them were working, with people suspended inside. But the air inside the tanks was not perfectly clear. It had a very faint greenish hue. The drugs. They keep pumping these drugs into the tanks to keep them asleep. Or worse.

She surveyed the contents of the tanks. She couldn’t identify the people she saw. There was an old woman, then a middle aged, somewhat chubby man, and a skinny, ugly girl, and then there was—

“Oh, Mike...!”

Sarah threw herself at one of the tanks. Her boyfriend was there, floating in the air, completely unconscious, with a peaceful expression that reminded Sarah of all the times she had caressed his face while he was sleeping beside her in her bed. Tears were already running down her face. She clutched at the tank, in a futile, pathetic version of a hug. She kept at it, her face pressed against the glass, wet with tears, trying to prolong the moment as if that could change the way things were.

Sumiko put a hand on her shoulder.

“We need to go,” she said. “We can’t do anything here. Let’s go to my place.”

Sarah looked at her through the veil of tears.

“Wh-who are the others?”

“I don’t know,” Sumiko said. “It doesn’t matter. Come on, we need to go.”

 

* * *

 

Sumiko lived alone in an apartment in a high floor of a high-rise building. The building looked ominous and sad from the outside, but the inside of the apartment was sharp and neat, with soft neon lights lending it a subdued glow. Everything was tidy and clean, and there was a retro vibe to it all, like a cyberpunk dream.

“Ramen?” Sumiko offered.

“I— I don’t think I can eat anything right now,” Sarah said. “I’m sorry. Can you show me the tank?”

“Of course,” the designer said. “Come here. I got it with my first game, four years ago. Of course I hacked the hell out of it. I still have the original drug pack, you know? To keep you asleep and fed? I never used that one. I prefer stronger stuff. A friend sells it for a living. Now, if you want...”

Her voice lingered, and Sarah didn’t understand at first. Then she got it.

“I’ll be using the original thing, thanks,” she said. “I’m having enough of a nightmare right now.”

“I thought so,” Sumiko said. “You can go in now. Don’t worry, I know how to operate this. You’ll be safe.” Then she appeared to consider it a bit better and added, “At least regarding the tank and the drugs. The game itself... I can’t say.”

This can’t be happening, Sarah thought as she climbed into the tank. It was not like the new model she had been testing earlier; it was one of the old ones, a horizontal pod where she had to lay down and put on a VR headset. But since she had the new-style VR band she was wearing when she ran out of the Digidream building, she could do without the heavy helmet.

Why am I trusting her?

Oh, yes. She showed me what they did to Mike.

Oh, Mike.

Remember to look for me once you’re inside the game,” Sumiko said, leaning over the tank. “I will try to help you from outside, but I don’t know how I will appear to you exactly. You will be in time dilation, so whatever the case, we won’t be able to talk in real time. I’ll be awake so I’ll be functioning much slower. I think you’ll find me in the landscape or as written messages. But who knows? I didn’t work on that part of the game. I don’t know how it will represent the external hook I will be using. Just keep an eye open for anything that could look like it doesn’t belong in the game, and that could be construed as a message from someone. That will be me.”

“But you will definitely help me, right? I won’t be all alone in there.”

“Yes, I will help you as much as I can. In fact, whatever I can tell you will be the only help you’ll get in the game. You won’t have any special abilities beyond those of any other player. You’ll have to level up from the start like anyone else, if you want to accomplish anything.”

“O-OK,” Sarah said. She was nervous. “Is it necessary for me to be drugged too?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Sumiko replied. “But we’ll do it anyway. It might be the only way to find Mike inside the gameworld. To be in the same state he’s in.”

“Can I die? I mean for real. If I die in the game, will I die for real?”

“I guess so,” Sumiko replied. And without any additional remarks, she shut the glass door.

Sarah tried not to panic as the sounds from outside the tank ceased to reach her. She could see Sumiko through the glass, but not hear what she was saying now, only read her lips.

“I will be there... sometimes,” she was assuring her. “And sometimes I’ll be sleeping or eating or... you know. But I’ll keep checking up on you.”

Sarah checked that her VR band was perfectly adjusted, closed her eyes, opened them again, and tried to relax. A very soft hissing sound filled the tank. The drugs were now spreading in the air inside, taking her to another world.

The last thing she saw before logging in was Sumiko’s smile. It was pretty, a heroine’s smile, like in an anime.

LOGGED IN

Everything was going too fast.

Sarah tried to adjust her eyes to focus on something. Anything. But it was all a blur. Smudges of color danced frantically in her field of vision. Nothing was clear, nothing was quiet. For a second, she felt nauseous. Then things started to slow down.

It’s kicking in, Sarah told herself.

She knew what this was, even when she hadn’t experienced it during her job as a tester. It was time dilation — in the game, things happened much faster than in the real world, but her mind couldn’t adapt to it instantly: it had to be eased into it.

Clearly, this is unfinished. There should be a splash screen here, some simple animation that I would have to watch as time dilation happens, Sarah thought. Players shouldn’t be forced to enter the gameworld directly.

What else was still rough and unpolished? So many testers worked at Digidream that any of them could only check out a small part of it. Sarah had been working on most scenarios, but only as an ambient tester — she knew nothing about main menus, character selection screens, weapons, armor, or the intricate details of leveling up.

She found herself in a small cornerless room with an ornate window through which part of the Enchanted Forest could be seen. The soft pink of the walls contrasted with the green foliage of the trees. The room was standing high, near the top of the trees; maybe it was floating in the air, Sarah thought. Beneath her bare feet there was a fluffy carpet. It was shaped like a curved triangle; the same shape as the room, she realized as she looked around.

The only thing in the room besides her and the small carpet was the window. For a moment, nothing happened. Then a voice came out of nowhere. It was a female voice, robotic, but kind of sweet.

“Hello, Sajya. Welcome to Anderverse. You can create your character now.”

Sajya? What was that? She had never been assigned a name. When testing the different scenarios in her day to day job, she had just been a placeholder, a nameless character. Now she was suddenly someone, and had a name that seemed to be Spanish, Thai, Japanese, Arab and Celtic at the same time.

“But I don’t want that name,” she objected. “I want to be Sarah.”

“The character naming option is not implemented yet,” the voice said. “You are Sajya. It’s a noble name. Please select your traits. Choose wisely.”

As the selection menu materialized on the window’s surface, which got just a tad darker to let her read comfortably, Sarah thought this was bad news. How will I find Mike if I don’t know what his name is in the game? I thought maybe he would have chosen to keep his own name, but now I guess he’s been assigned some fantasy name that I don’t know.

And what is your name anyway?” she asked out loud.

“I’m Alteria,” the voice replied.

“Nice to meet you, Alteria. Please, tell me something. Is it possible to know the character name of another player?”

“What do you mean?” Sarah could almost hear the voice frowning.

“I mean, if I know someone’s real name, is it possible to determine which name they are using in the game?”

“I’m afraid not,” Alteria replied, but there was no trace of emotion in her robotic voice. “I’m not a guide anyway. I’m just here to welcome you and let you choose your traits. Choose wisely.”

Sarah frowned. “But how can I choose wisely if I don’t know what kind of scenarios I will be put in?”

Alteria’s answer was immediate.

“Oh, but you do know. You are familiar with most of them.”

A chill ran down Sarah’s spine, both ingame and in her real body lying inside the tank. They know me. They know who I am and they know that I’ve just logged in.

But who were “They” anyway? Victor Anderen was lying in a coma or perhaps dead already. Who else was running the simulation and why would they want her to play?

“I-I don’t think this is fair,” she protested. “I should be able to conceal my identitiy from the game. How can I be stealth if—”

“Choose wisely,” Alteria repeated, and fell silent.

Sarah focused on the window/screen. The legend was pretty simple.

TRAIT SELECTION

Available points: 0100

STRENGTH     : 000
AGILITY      : 000
ENDURANCE    : 000
INTELLIGENCE : 000
PERCEPTION   : 000
CHARISMA     : 000

There were three kinds of points she would be able to collect while playing the game. Character Points (CP) were the points she would be able to apply to each one of her six traits; Skill Points (SP) were assigned to the abilities she could acquire during gameplay; and Experience Points (XP) were gained through quests, kills, and general progress.

Of these three kinds of points, XP were the ones that determined her level. As a tester for Digidream, she had become aware of the levelling marks, which were every 500 XP at first, and then every 1000, 2000, etc. as the levels increased. Experience Points were also the ones she could trade for currency or Mana, and possibly other stuff. In contrast, Skill Points were automatically assigned as she improved her abilities, but she couldn’t use them in any other way; and Character Points could only be freely distributed at this stage, when creating her character. Once she was playing the game proper, she wouldn’t be able to distribute these points, and she would get them assigned to specific traits whenever she completed a task related to those traits.

Sarah pondered for a while. She decided to be conservative.

“Ten to each,” she instructed.

The screen changed in an instant:

TRAIT SELECTION

Available points: 0040

STRENGTH     : 010
AGILITY      : 010
ENDURANCE    : 010
INTELLIGENCE : 010
PERCEPTION   : 010
CHARISMA     : 010

“OK, now...” Now what? The pink room was in the Enchanted Forest, so the quest would begin here, among talking animals, fairies, monsters, and the occasional reclusive witch. Which traits would be most useful in such a place?

She would need to be sneaky.

“Ten to Agility.”

And able to make her way through a thick forest for who knows how long.

“Ten to Endurance.”

But the biggest threat and the biggest opportunity were the magical beings. They would be able to help her or kill her in this magical forest. Be it to procure the first thing or to avoid the second, she would need to find those beings, to see and hear them. That could be hard. So:

“Twenty to Perception.”

Her final score was now showing on the screen. The letters glowed faintly against the slightly darkened trees beyond the window.

TRAIT SELECTION

Available points: 0000

STRENGTH     : 010
AGILITY      : 020
ENDURANCE    : 020
INTELLIGENCE : 010
PERCEPTION   : 030
CHARISMA     : 010

“That’s it,” Sarah said to confirm her choices.

“Thank you,” Alteria said, springing up to life again. “Please choose your appearance.”

The legend on the window disappeared and in its place Sarah could now see herself like in a mirror. Only she was changed: her face was a result of the game design and didn’t resemble her real face. There were also small arrows at each side of her head, torso, and legs for her to change her attire and accessories, and two big arrows to rotate between whole characters. The default appearance was the fairy, with the tiny dress and the pointy ears and the wings behind her back. On the top of the display there was a name: “SAJYA”. On the bottom, below her reflection, a legend said:

Bonus to: Flight, Healing, Charm, 3 others

“Alteria,” she said, “I want to look like myself. Is it possible?”

“That feature is unimplemented at the moment,” Alteria replied.

Fuck.

“Where do I select the pain levels? I’m just starting, I wouldn’t want to have set them to a realistic level for now.”

“Sorry, that feature is unimplemented too,” Alteria replied, because of course. Sarah would have to be careful when walking around. The pain levels would surely be set to lifelike, so every punch, kick, stab, or fall would feel just like it would in real life. And death, if it came, would almost feel like actually dying.

Sarah used the big arrows and her reflection kept changing as she did so. She experimented with variations on a warrior girl (which apparently had to be scantily clad whatever was the combination), which came with a bonus to the basic traits of Strength and Endurance, but almost no benefit to acquired skills beyond Melee Attack and Melee Defense. There was also a sorceress with bonuses to Charm, Healing, and the Perception trait.

“Alteria, can I be a man?”

“Of course you can,” was the reply. “Just keep scrolling. The game put the female characters first for you because you identify as a cisgendered woman, but you can choose any personality you wish.”

The game did wh— oh, fine, Sarah thought to herself. There was no point in arguing. Evidently, everything was stacked against her: the game knew everything there was to know about her, and she didn’t even know what Mike would be called ingame or what he would look like.

She was unsure about what to choose. The fairy had an advantage to Flight but more importantly, to Heal, which she would surely need a lot of at the early stages of the game. But the warrior would give her more Strength and Endurance in exchange for not having the Heal ability. The sorceress was a good option too, with increased Perception and the ability to Heal as well, but it was pretty much useless for the basic fights that would surely take place in this early phase.

She kept reviewing her options. Every time she scrolled to change the character, she felt a tickling all over her body, and something like a breeze pushing her from the side; her reflection gave her back her changed image, with new attire and a new face. Using the small arrows to change her headwear, boots, main clothes, or any accessories generated a localized tickling and a low buzz.

She ended up choosing the warrior. In time I will get some armor and I’ll no longer look like a swimsuit model from Narnia, she told herself. For now, though, it was weird to feel her chest dramatically increasing in size and her clothes getting as tiny as possible. She was pleasantly surprised by her limbs, though. Her arms and legs looked bigger and more ripped without losing their feminine, harmonic quality, but more importantly, she could feel the strength and resistance in herself. She felt strong, stronger than ever before. Was that just a psychological effect caused by the uberrealistic looks of the game, or was this Anderverse actually giving her the sensory feedback of someone who is actually strong and ripped?

“This is it,” Sarah said, to confirm.

The screen briefly displayed her list of traits to show the benefits to Strength and Endurance, both of which had accrued 25 additional points, going from 10 to 35 and from 20 to 45 respectively. Also, her Health was now at 100, but her Mana was still at 0.

Then, the screen changed again. Now the title at the top was “SELECT YOUR WEAPON”. There were three options: a small, cheap looking sword; a small, cheap looking axe; and a small, cheap looking flail with a spiked ball.

She raised her right arm, pointing at the sword. She was surprised at the energy with which the arm moved. I will have to get used to being this strong. The sword rose from the screen and floated in a straight line toward her hand. She grabbed the handle. It felt awesome.

“This is it,” she said out loud, but mainly to herself. She swung the sword a couple of times. It was small and it looked cheap, but it was a sword.

“OK,” she said in a resolute tone, and realized her voice had changed too. “Alteria, what’s next?”

“Next,” Alteria said as the room started to move down suddenly, freefalling for a few seconds until it hit the ground in the middle of the Enchanted Forest and the walls dissolved in a fine mist of a pinkish hue, “you enter the game.”

UNCHARTED

Walker, there is no road;
the road is made by walking.

— Antonio Machado, Walker

The forest looked exactly like it did a few hours ago when she tested the new suspension system. The breeze felt different on her skin, though, now that her body was big, hard and powerful. Sarah wouldn’t have been able to find the words to describe this difference exactly, but it was there, as evident as the green in the leaves of the trees in this virtual world.

She turned around to assess the situation and found no traces of the pink room, no debris, no shattered glass, no hole in the ground where it had crashed. The impact had felt weird, more like a change of phase than a real crash. She was now on her own, and she thought it would be a great thing if she had some kind of map in order to orientate herself. She immediately regretted not choosing the fairy or any other character with the ability of Flight. But Strength and Endurance would get her further if slower, she concluded.

She tried to visualize a map or guide. This was the canonical method to invoke menus and options ingame: “calling” them with your mind. Other stuff would appear on its own with various kinds of corporal feedback, like the buzzing sound and tickling sensation when she received a notification of a level up, a skill increase, or a new quest. But nothing materialized in front of her.

“Map,” she tried. She spoke it aloud just in case. It would be the equivalent of just thinking of the word, making it a request for the game. But saying it had a different psychological effect. It felt more solid and effective.

Nothing happened, though.

“Guide.”

Only the breeze and the sounds of birds, frogs and squirrels answered her command.

“Chart.”

No dice.

She wondered if Sumiko would be anywhere near at this moment. It might be too soon for her to have established a link... maybe only a minute had passed in the real world while Sarah was playing the game, because of the time dilation effect. And even if Sumiko was connected and talking to her already, this time difference would mean that anything she had to say would appear with a big delay or spread out across a certain period of time.

No, I’m alone until further notice, she thought.

She started exploring the forest, letting the breeze bring her all the scents and sounds of nature... and some of possible supernatural origin, too. She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and opened them again.

She had heard a faint, almost hidden sound of water. A tiny creek that crossed the forest, probably. She looked in the direction where it would be.

Let’s walk that way, she told herself. In the absence of a map, it’s as good as any other.

She started walking. There was no proper path to speak of, but she found a trail, and then another. Animals or other creatures had found the best ways to get from one place inside the forest to the other, just like in nature or even in big cities, where “desire paths” get collectively drawn by thousands of feet, often ignoring the lanes and sidewalks provided by the city itself.

She was not surprised when, after a while of following a trail toward the course of water, she was greeted with a notification.

Skill acquired: Exploration

It came with the same physical feedback she had felt when testing the scenario: a tickling sensation, a subdued buzzing sound, and the legend written in faintly glowing characters.

A few seconds later, she heard distinct sounds of some creature approaching her. There was also a definitive smell identifying this creature as some kind of mammal, maybe human. It had to be something pretty big to make that sound, not just a squirrel or a gnome.

In fact it was something else that first alerted her of the presence of the creature. Her Perception points were already working in her favor. She had become aware of that presence an instant before the sounds or the smell hit her senses. More points to that skill would improve that and let her actively search for otherwise well hidden beings.

She turned around and identified the creature immediately. It was coming through the thicket on her left, glancing at her with an air of superiority.

It was a faun.


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