The previous chapter can be found here
Rashmi screamed. Then she pointed. Dropping past their ship through the air were Shanaya and some dirty kid, giggling like school children. Ravindra couldn’t help but join their giggles. They were perfectly safe in Prestige Gaming. And the whole point of all of this downtime was to let people relax and have some fun.
“My dear, you do realize that they’re not at all in danger, don’t you? This, all of this, is safer than they’d be at some dingy school playground, or even hooked up to VR!”
Rashmi shook her head. “Oh, it is plenty dangerous, Ravindra. Her running about like some common sudra is liable to find her face at the end of a well-deserved slap.”
Ravindra sighed and turned away. He had more important business to attend to. It didn’t really matter that Shanaya was setting out on her own. Hell it might even be an opportunity. He pulled out a pad and keyed up nanite surveillance to follow her and her new friend about. It might give him something good for advertising promos.
As he completed his task a message icon flashed onto his screen, priority, an exclamation mark stuck inside a red jagged circle. Ravindra frowned and almost ignored it, but this was a very important day and nothing should be overlooked on a day like this. He toggled the icon and let it flash into his HUB, taking over the entirety of his vision.
PRESTIGE GAMING– EXECUTIVE WARNING
THE CONTENTS OF THIS MESSAGE ARE ONLY AUTHORISED FOR RAVINDRA PRADTHALA, CEO. THE RECEPTION AND SUBSEQUENT READING OF THIS MESSAGE BY ANY OTHER INDIVIDUAL WILL CONSTITUTE AN INVASION OF PRIVACY, A CHARGE OF INTELLECTUAL THEFT, AND IMMEDIATE PROSECUTION. PRESS THUMBPRINT AND SUBMIT TO RETINAL SCAN TO ACCEPT.
Ravindra rolled his eyes even as he pressed his thumb thoroughly into the pad. It looked into his eye afterwards. The security measure was a good one and for sure the warning would spook the unknowing and the unsuspecting, but most of it was fluff. He doubted anyone able to crack the security to read the message would get anything more than a minor fine.
His HUD flashed and a status report filled the screen. The numbers were rocking themselves out of system nominal, he saw. But that wasn’t the worst thing. The nano pop count was through the roof! There was no way this had just happened. This message indicated there’d probably been a nanite spike two days ago because of that Brian Morecock fellow. Ravindra hadn’t given an okay to flood the system with additional nanites… but it was a blessing in disguise. In fact he’d welcomed the spike in nanobots considering what happened in the Battle of the Five Armies when they’d run out of enough of them to generate the hellish outer dimension in which they all fought and to keep up with battle effects. No no no, there had to be something wrong here.
Ravindra rolled through his HUD options quickly, his agile mind bounding across loads of Prestige Gaming options and commands that just were not important right now. At last the scrolling ended and he tabbed into the Admin section. 5318008, he sniggered, moving past the password prompt and remembering the days of calculators.
“Computer,” he said, “get me Meredith Johnston.”
Meredith Johnston is unavailable.
Ravindra’s face began to darken. Nobody was unavailable to him. Not on a day like this.
“Open Prestige Gaming People Finder.”
Welcome to ANAL: Access Network Administrative Lookup – Type in name, Customer ID, or Government ID and Country of Citizenship here.
ANAL – That had been Meredith’s idea. She was always on about using dirty acronyms and she had the sort of personality that you just didn’t say no to. Especially since she was a genius with just about everything to do with nanites, programming, and story plotting. It was hard to tell where the company would be without her. And now she was gone.
“Find first name Meredith, last name Johnston, employee ID I8URballs.”
All text disappeared from his HUD, replaced by a rotating circle that let him know that it was digging and questing through a lot of servers and monitoring data to give him the best results possible. Meredith had designed the system, he remembered, and he didn’t doubt that if it couldn’t find her then no program on the planet could.
The HUD stopped loading and opened to a plain white screen with bold black lettering.
Employee first name Meredith last name Johnston not found. Employee ID I8URballs not found. Should I access in-game conversation audio for crosspoint referencing? Y/N
“No, scratch that. The numbers are going crazy enough as is without me banging about looking for more trouble. Computer, get me Tyriah Rodriguez. We’re going to have to have a long talk about future Public Relations. And send an alert. I want every available programmer, engineer and nanotechnologist in this place to figure out what is going on, what is going to happen, and how to make it right again!”
Tyriah saw the message come in at the same moment all the monitors went haywire. For the first minute or so, when it all snowballed from slowly going out of control to full-on panic time, she saw various systems go from green to yellow, to blinking warnings, then to red. All the code bits she didn’t know and hadn’t had time to learn, the server problems, the map of the park with the current guest count and locations of the gameworlds they were currently in, creeping across the New Mexican countryside like huge geometric slugs. Each one of them had various readouts attached: current water resources, medical resources, food resources attached to the Drone Interpark Luncheon Delivery Operation System (or DILDOS), with guest preferences, the catering facilities moving about on huge mobile kitchens surrounded by delivery drones, and a thousand other factors. These bleeped in and out of existence, or suddenly went yellow, blinked several times, perhaps slid back to green for a moment, then settled into warning yellow.
This overwhelming spectacle caused her knees to tremble. She had to steady herself on the chair back beside her, before the commands started to come. She tried swallowing, but only got a dry click.
“Where’s that pinpoint?” she called. “We need it right now! We’ve got systems in the red.”
Everyone stopped the press junket celebration and turned confused faces toward her. Some people stopped mid-make out session.
“We have spikes… everywhere!”
And like her, they stared stupidly for a few precious seconds. Then the place became a madhouse for a few minutes, with people calling out stats like she knew what the hell they were talking about. Others echoed these calls: check and clear out the server cache lines, run code checks on quests, dump excess cookies, stabilize this or that thing she didn’t understand.
It dawned on her.
“What about Dungeonworld?” she asked.
“What about it?” one of them asked.
“We’ve got enough to worry about without doing other people’s work for them,” another said, furiously tapping.
“Collins, get me status on the Dungeonworld systems. Just one screen.”
It took a bit of doing, because admin for Dungeonworld was a few floors closer to the belly of the beast itself, and the whole thing was, in general, carefully partitioned off from Randomized Prestige Gaming (RPG).
What came back was not encouraging.
“Where is it? Where’s Dungeonworld?”
“You’re seeing what’s there… nothing, apparently.”
“What do you mean, nothing? We have at least five thousand criminals, sorry, ‘contestants’ to account for.” She made the air quotes.
“The admin for Dungeonworld has all that under control. We can’t be responsible–“
She cut him off. “They’re either down there in their cells, they’re under an avalanche of game blocks dead, or they’re on their way up here, and I guarantee they don’t give one flying shit whether you’re responsible for putting them through digital hell and nearly killing them day in day out, or Tammy from accounting.”
Collins gestured to the screen. “Well I wish I could give you some good news, but it’s not there. It’s just… not… there. Like somebody hit it with a bomb or something.”
“I want three coding teams to work on rebooting Dungeonworld,” she called out.
This was met with cricket-filled silence, before somebody weakly asked, “What?”
“You heard me!” She shouted. “Jack Sparrow, you and Cybros stay on the boss. John Wayne, you and Zeus get Dungeonworld working again. Either get coms back on line or reboot them. Hitler Channel, I need you guys to contact security and get them to stop up the elevators and stairwells down to Dungeonworld, understand?”
The Saddles & Six-Shooters team looked over to the Stone, Bronze & Iron peeps and shrugged, then began scooting their workstations together.
One of the Beachheads & Dogfights coders piped up now. “Security? We don’t even know if there’s a prob–”
“Are any of you idiots going to get it through your skulls? Your lives are in danger.”
“What is it?” she screamed.
“We’ve got jumpers.”
She whirled back to the screens showing the CEO’s family, and noted the cell count driving up. She’d thought it was just another warning signal, but no. Shanaya Pradthala and some other kid were in free fall, meaning the game was clearing out space for them to fall, driving Ravindra up into the air without allowing them to feel it. Before, during the Galaxies Unknown exhibition, the game had hoisted them up higher in the air, but the moment the teenager had chosen flying pirates, the game had started stacking up a massive amount of blocks beneath them, giving them clearance to fly and fall if need be, and now need be had come. The game environment looked like a skyscraper at the moment, stretching up over six hundred feet.
Except the game was losing it’s ever-loving mind, and with the warning lights going all Christmas tree, there was no telling whether the game had its safety protocols in order or not.
“Do I have to do all your thinking for you, you fucking morons? Get them down safe!” she shrieked.
Shanaya tried to keep herself from freaking out. They couldn’t possibly be that far in the air. Maybe the game was just blowing wind past them and they were still ten or twenty feet from the ground.
“You’re starting to make me paranoid,” Marioli said as they soared through the clouds. “Why do you keep looking at me?”
Shanaya turned her head away, embarrassed. “Sorry, I just keep trying to figure out how nanites turned a 5 foot six inch man into a 4 foot boy. Did it hurt?”
He laughed. “Nah – without those goggles I’m my regular old size, just surfaced in tiny nanite blocks that broadcast visual and sensory data to that cute little face of yours. Is that really you?” he asked.
She looked back at him and gave him a broad smile. “Mostly. I feel like there’s something not very fair about you getting to hide yourself away inside of the body of a ten year old while I get to be regular old me.”
Whatever he looked like, this Marioli was quite the charmer. Shanaya blushed and peered downwards, looking for somewhere to land. God, wouldn’t it be crazy if the ground was just rushing up towards her face and the game portrayed some far-off vista that wasn’t even real? She shuddered with a mixture of terror and exhilaration at the concept. She would have no idea she was dead.
“I don’t think this is how we’re supposed to play the game,” Marioli snickered. “I bet I just got lucky the first time out. Now we’re both going to go splat down on the ground–”
“And wake up in a white room full of good food and Kinsley soda,” she finished for him. “It’s really not a big deal. The same nanites making us look different will keep us from actually physically getting hurt, slowing us down all the while so that we don’t actually go splat, and even encasing us and transporting us to the afterlife room when we run out of, I dunno what they are here, hit points? Anyways, I see something down there in the clouds.”
Marioli ogled her pirate bangled arm and then followed it through past her pointing finger and into the white murky depths of the cloud cover. How far up were they? It didn’t matter, he supposed, since there was indeed a dark shape pulling up and out of the cover. He held his breath a few seconds and then watched as it surfaced, blasting a toot of air out of its blowhole.
“A flying whale. Huh. Neat,” Shanaya said. Dice pounded through her HUD even as she seized Marioli’s hand with her own. A 1 and a 4 surfaced in her display.
“Shit!” she exclaimed as she realized she was going to miss landing on the behemoth.
Marioli looked at her and grinned. “Don’t worry. I got straight tens,” he told her. He grabbed her around her waist and steered them into a fleshy plop atop the giant flying blue whale. It grunted in surprise but kept on course, going to someplace unknown.
“Ha. Ha ha. Hahahahaha!” Shanaya chortled uncontrollably.
“What is it?” Marioli asked.
“I just pictured what my aunt must be doing right now and how Uncle Ravindra is probably in a lot of trouble. She’s such a stick in the mud. I mean how can anyone come to a free session of Prestige Gaming and not try to be someone else?”
“Yeah, I hear ya. So what do you think? Is the whale going to lead us to adventure? What is a whale doing all the way up here anyways?”
A loudspeaker blared and echoed in answer. Another dark shape was exiting from the cloud cover. “CEASE AND DESIST. THIS ANIMAL HAS BEEN RIGHTFULLY TAGGED FOR WHITEY WHALING CORPORATION. ANY CLAIM YOU HAVE DECIDED TO MAKE UPON THIS ANIMAL IS NEITHER LEGAL NOR BINDING AND YOU WILL BE FOUND GUILTY OF POACHING A LAWFULLY REGISTERED PRIZE.”
“I, uh, I get the feeling that the whale is the adventure!” Shanaya said, her eyes gleaming. “And I have a strange intuition that Shanaya the Busty Buccaneer of the Bovian Badlands isn’t one to let such wonderful animals fall prey to the horrors of sky whaling.”
“So what do we do now?”
“We figure out how to steer this thing and we go fight the bad guys, of course!”
Ravindra had gotten his hopes up. He saw the mistake now. He foolishly thought Rashmi would break away from her gossip circles and VR chat groups that discussed Indian or American politics, or the rich families, and she’d get out of reality for once, get into character, and they’d just live a story for once.
Honestly, he couldn’t quite place what the point was of insisting Shanaya went to the best boarding school in the entire country, or putting the twins in head start programs halfway across the country. He’d gotten his hopes up, which was clearly a mistake.
Ravindra was getting nagged. He didn’t like getting nagged. Too often he didn’t understand the who what or why of it and more often than that he didn’t remember most of what Rashmi told him. It became a sort of chant or song after a while. Blah blah blah– yes dear. Blah blah blah– yes dear. So repetitive. So boring.
He hadn’t founded the company, bribed senators, and successfully lobbied down nano-restrictions to sit inside the best game system ever and get treated like an overgrown child. And it was making him angry.
“Rashmi– no, Rashmi, you listen to me. This is my day. This is Shanaya’s day. This is everyone’s day, or it is supposed to be. You can nag me when we get back home. You can tell me how horrible I am, how I don’t always land my underwear in the hamper or how I like to fart while I watch the holotube, I don’t care. But you are not going to wrest this game from me.”
His wife looked shocked. She had every right to be so– he rarely minded or cared when she offloaded on him like a dump truck at a landfill site. But there had to be borders. And sometimes you just had to build that wall.
“Ravindra! I never–”
“Shut up,” he finished for her, then caught his breath. He stared at her face, his eyes wide in horror. Then she started to laugh.
“Oh my god, man, you have the balls of a king,” she said between giggles and snorts. “My word– this really is that important to you then?”
“Important enough that I stole the balls of a king to stand up to you,” he smirked, his fear fading fast. It was times like this that made him remember why he’d married her. She was uptight, naggy, prim and proper– but when she could be convinced to put all of that down and not be who she was trained by society to be, when she could just be herself, she was magical. He’d been hoping to bring back this side of her ever since they found out she wasn’t able to give him a child. Those ten years felt like forever.
“I’m sorry Ravi– you’re right. This is a vacation and it should be fun. I’m being an absolute horror. So how do we play this game? What do we do?”
“Well, my dear, you already heard all of the rules so I’m going to skip that. We’re in a mashup world of cyberpunk and pirates. Various steampunk and metallic vessels fly through the air. The people on the ground live in slums, the affluent live in that huge dome on the horizon just there, and we are here to help them all trade pokes and jabs with each other I suppose.”
Rashmi nodded. “Well then, use that game pad of yours and make me into a robot. One that boops and squeaks whenever she has some unpleasant nagging on her lips. Ooh, and one with a laser. And shocking hands to make her husband listen if something is important!”
Ravindra took out the pad, smiling. It had almost been a big fight and he detested those. But she’d come through and this vacation was going to be incredible!
It opened slowly, though, and began buzzing with a priority call. He swiped answer at once. Tyriah popped onto the screen. Behind her people were scurrying back and forth as if on the deck of an embattled intergalactic exploration vessel Lenterprize.
“Hey bossman, enjoying your vacation? Everything has gone to shit here. The nanites are acting bonkers, the system is unstable and we were just able to activate some whaling adventure to catch your daughter and her friend because, honestly, I don’t know if the nanite failsafes are in place anymore or not. Oh, and Dungeonworld isn’t there anymore.”
It was a lot to take in at once. Ravindra blinked, opened his mouth to speak, shut it, then opened it again.
“She’d best be safe,” he commanded quietly. Rashmi was right beside him.
“She plopped down on a Level 3 Flying Bloobie. She’s safe, as long as she doesn’t try jumping to her death again. Even having fun from the looks of things.”
“And the dungeonworlders– what happened?”
“We’re still trying to get a fix on that. Everything is going glitchy and I don’t know why. But we’ll get it fixed. I think it might be time to evacuate the park–”
“Don’t say another word,” he said. “We’ll do no such thing. We haven’t had a catastrophic system failure since we opened. This isn’t Mesozoic bloody Theme Park.”
“You’ll do your best. Locate Meredith Johnston if you can. She appears to have deleted herself off the AN– the administrative lookup network. She had a guest, if I recall correctly.”
Tyriah, to her credit, grasped what he was talking about at once, and didn’t say the word ANAL. She nodded grimly.
“Everyone’s on this. Sound a general alarm. HR people and payroll and financing, everyone. I’ll send out a general mail. ”
“Yes, sir.” The resignation in her voice told him all he needed to know. Tyriah had made several transfer requests, to get out of her Dungeonworld assignments, and he’d denied them each and every time. She was too good at her job to lose. In addition, nobody lasted very long when it came to Dungeonworld. Tyriah was stubbornly determined to stay with Prestige, and not go back to the shithole she’d come from.
Gavin was straight loving this situation: watching as Danielle Longstreet (THE Danielle Longstreet who’d done that photo series for DELUXXX magazine) tried on various outfits here in Stone, Bronze and Iron. He would have goggled at the Ancient Greek columns and architecture, or the way the weather had gone from hot overcast New Mexico to balmy, breezy Mediterranean with a sky so pure blue he wondered if he’d ever approve of a sunny day again. Instead his eyes were glued to Danielle’s derrière, covered in a filmy toga cinched at the waist with a thin leather cord. It was trimmed in gold, and her hair was an updo, curling and spilling out from a bun at the back of her head. She also had on strappy sandals that reached all the way up her strong legs to her knees. And this toga, it should be said, went only halfway down her thighs.
He popped another grape into his mouth and told himself not to rush these things. She was checking herself out in a polished steel dish near a cliff’s edge, with vines and creepers hanging over a breezy portico, while fishing boats hovered ant-like below on the crystal ocean.
“Stone, Bronze & Iron,” he said. “Excellent choice.”
Her mouth twitched into a half smile. “With a hint of superpowers. Girl needs to be able to have super beauty powers.”
“Need?” he asked. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say you need super beauty.”
“They warned me about you,” she said.
“Is that so?”
“Handsome, built like an Adonis, agreeable, smooth, and those teeth. Did you know there’s a group on social media who just gushes over closeups of your dimples and teeth?”
He did know that, but feigned ignorance. “Oh, really?”
“So we have a couple of options… we could just stick around this Level Zero place, it’s totally safe. There’s a VIP guide we can order, who will come and help us out with storyline quests. Also physically perfect, all of them.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Order up a hunk of man?”
She turned a full-on grin at him, and wandered closer while swinging those hips. “Mm-hmm, I tried to get a guy named Sergio, but he hasn’t shown up yet.” Here she leaned in and with a conspiratorial expression, whispered, “I was kind of hoping to make a Danielle sandwich.”
“Do I get to be the ham to your cheese?” he whispered back, his eyes shining with the promise of sandwiches.
“Hmm,” she moaned breathlessly. “I’m lactose intolerant but keep going. I like pain.”
Gavin paused. The ground had begun a slight tremor. Bits of soil cracked and fell from the cliff’s edge, pixelating to white as they did so.
What the hell?
A small boulder rolled down fast and popped Danielle hard in the knee.
“Oh yeah,” she moaned. Gavin shook his head then grabbed her up and started sprinting. Danielle began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he asked as he sprinted up a low slope. In the far distance NPC sailors screamed in terror.
“This is just a game, silly. There’s no need to be all macho man, women and children first.”
A rumble sounded from behind them. The cliff they had been relaxing upon split and crumbled into nothingness.
“Then what am I standing on? Danielle, the nanites made this. It is all real. The goggles are just to protect our eyes and to let us see beautifully rendered graphic skins and backgrounds. This,” he stomped his foot, “is–”
Gavin’s foot broke through the nanite crust as if it were ice. Then nano-blocks swarmed around the hole and sealed it back up, with his leg firmly stuck inside. He dropped Danielle, whose eyes went wide seeing his predicament. She ran up and grabbed at his bare leg, pulling as hard as she could to get him out of the ground. He strained as well.
“What is happening?” she wailed. “Is this part of the game?”
Gavin reached up and pulled off his AR helmet. Looking around he saw white blocks of all different sizes rippling and buckling, seeming to resist against whatever was overcoming them. But they were failing. Above him a white bricked roof, his Mediterranean sky, crumbled and collapsed. The tiny white blocks pitter-pattered like rain about him. Where they fell, the white blocks dispersed and soon he was free. All about him the blocks retreated and broke apart. What the hell was going on around here?
He put his goggles on. Nothing but Danielle changed, the blue-gray of her haptic suit and the goggles over her eyes changing back into the scantily clad sex-pot of Grecian times. All around them was the stiff dirt and hard tack sand of the New Mexican desert. The game, it seemed, had abandoned them for Rodriguezr pastures.
“That was one hell of a party,” Gavin grimly grinned, sitting on his ass and massaging his freed foot. Danielle sat down as well.
“So now what do we do?” she asked.
The ground began to shake again.
“What the hell? This here can’t be happening. This is real dirt, real land!” Again he pulled off his helmet and scanned the terrain. It was real and the ground was cracking and breaking. Danielle flung her arms around him. Without his goggles on she looked like a blue-gray cat woman, or maybe some sort of extra-terrestrial. It brought his lower half to life in a hurry.
“Stop that,” she protested a moment later, pulling away and slapping him in the dick.
You have taken a Level 1 Harm. Would you like to avoid this complication?
“Yes! Sorry,” he squeaked. It had been a hell of a hit. “Listen, I don’t think the nanites are gone. And I think we might be in real danger here. We need to get up and boogie out of here.” He slipped his helmet back on. “And we need to keep the goggles and suits on in case the game mechanics kick back in and we can use our character abilities again. Because, the way all of this stuff is working right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if being able to interact in the game on the game’s terms will be important to our survival.”
A loud crunchy crack blasted across the desert, and a wide swathe of ground simply broke and fell, revealing a deep trench. The pair of them jogged to it and then peeked over the edge. Dull grey corrugated ducts and tubes interlaced through the gap, stuck through the ground at a myriad of angles.
“What are those?” Danielle asked. She clung to his back side now as they peered within.
“I think,” he said, “I think those are a way to safety!”
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