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“I… do not… have time… for this!” Ravindra shouted. He hacked his way through several privates and back along the deck towards his lovely wife, the immeasurable jewel of the Pradthala family, Rashmi. The privates were busy chortling over the silk-wearing, bangle-encrusted, prize to capture.
The disembodied voice came through his tablet. “I understand, sir, but we’re working through it.”
He Skirmished his way through the not-pirates with spectacular roll after spectacular roll. He would have enjoyed the challenge on any other day, alongside his intrepid niece, but this had gotten well out of hand. He poked these ones with his rapier, kicked this other one into his buddy, and both of them tumbled overboard. They went screaming with that hideous, overused scream from all the movies. These were supposed to be cyberpunk pirates, but they kept reskinning. At one point they morphed into parrots, human-sized parrots with peg legs and eye patches and everything. These fought against him for a while, before they reskinned into primates. He slashed through several chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans before they changed into privates. Now he felt bad for kicking the butts of several low-ranking World War II foot soldiers, off the deck of his rapidly morphing ship. But kick he did.
“Get, this, handled,” he grunted, and threw Private Bryan over the side of the ship.
“We have dungeonworlders involved in hand to hand combat with the security personnel, sir. It’s not–”
“Ravi, is this supposed to be happening?” Rashmi, for her part, simply stood there in rapt, horrified fascination.
“We’re supposed to be having a satisfying adventure where we stop evil pirates from overrunning a section of the cyberpunk internet, my dove. And Shanaya was supposed to be with us the entire time. Instead… oh lord.”
A gaggle of leering perverts now surrounded them, licking their lips and making lewd gestures.
“Tyriah!” he shouted.
“You got it, boss.”
They were replaced by a bunch of humanoids with floppy feet, fins sticking out every which way, with the heads of piranhas chomping on their wicked looking teeth.
“And cut down on the number of brutes for the brute squads, shall we?”
He swung a rope with a belaying pin into several of them, smiling as his combat dice came up sevens, then grappled them up around the waist, and swung these idiots into two of their buddies. Now, thankfully, when the four of them went tumbling off the side of his ship, they weren’t immediately replaced by double the number from before. A few more rolls (he always had four dice and recovered one Stress every time he rolled) later, they were free of troublesome things that began with the letter P.
He took Rashmi by the hand. “Dearest piece of my heart, I’m afraid I have some work to get to.”
She appeared more than ready, for just a moment, to begin getting all up in his business, but then seemed to grasp that this wasn’t the typical Prestige gaming experience. Also, even just a glimpse of the perverts seemed to have gotten through to her. Those computerized representations of men grabbing their crotches appeared to have done what years of hard-fought marriage had not. She nodded, but he already had the tablet up and was in full rage monster mode. He threw all the various workstation cams up in front of him to get a good look at all these doomed souls.
This was a part of his wife’s personality that he saved up for special occasions. After so many years of marriage, it’s inevitable that you take on some of your spouse’s personality quirks, but Ravindra Pradthala had masterful self control. Until now.
“I am seconds away from hearing stellar news, or else the sorts of punishments I have in mind,” he hissed, “would make ancient barbarian hordes blush, turn green, and vomit all over their rows of heads on bloody pikes. Am I understood?”
“We’re sealing off the ducts against the possibility of any more dungeonworlders getting out,” Tyriah began.
“This is not the best news available… it can’t be.”
“Sir, it’s time to face facts. We’re experiencing a catastrophic set of spikes here. That self-awareness we saw out in Swords & Sorcerers NPCs a few days ago, that sort of spiking is occurring elsewhere.”
“Have you checked in on Project Grimdark?”
Tyriah stared at him. “Sir? I’m unfamiliar with Project Grimdark.”
“Nevermind. It’s well off the reservation, no chance it’ll even enter into this equation. More, tell me more.”
“Security is trying to push dungeonworlders back out of admin levels, but we think we’ve got at least a half dozen up in the gamepark itself.”
“We can just flag–”
“They gave themselves credentials somehow. Or the, uh, admin lookup module is malfunctioning.” The ANAL.
Ravindra’s temple twitched, and he pulled a flintlock that wasn’t supposed to be a flintlock from the holster at his hip, and blew away a stray piranha pirate. The system informed him that he’d rolled a critical success. Right now he was feeling a bit critical of his success.
“If we don’t get this handled,” he began slowly, “what sort of consequences are you foreseeing, Miss Rodriguez?”
Tyriah tried to gulp, failed, took a sip of tea, and hacked at some tea for several horrible seconds. There it was, his temple, it was pulsing out of control again.
“We have a more, uh, immediate problem,” she said, in between hacking coughs. She explained all about how they were actually standing hundreds of feet in the air, that Shanaya and her little boyfriend had already come close to flattening themselves on the New Mexico hardpan. She brought up a schematic of the insane skyscraper structure the game blocks had automatically built up, along with Shanaya’s current position just thirty feet from the ground, but rising. She was presently murdering cyber pirates (not perverts or parrots or even pirate pralines) and yelling about not being racist. On the schematic, game blocks were being shipped in by the hundreds and thousands to get them even more altitude.
Tyriah opened her mouth to speak once more, but he held up a hand for silence. Several dozen coder eyes turned on him while he stood there. It was the type of moment people would be gossiping over for weeks, which would become a sort of cautionary tale to scare the fresh hires and interns.
“Nothing matters as much as Shanaya. We’re heading back to plain old Swashbuckling Isles the moment I get her back. I don’t want her suddenly in the ocean, or stuck under the earth when we make the shift. As soon as she’s on my ship, I want us back on solid ground.”
BEEP – BEEP – BEEP – BEEP Gavin and Danielle sprung up from their slumber on the filthy rock floor. About them the sparse bulbs flashed red. Dungeonworlders sprang up from whatever tasks they were about and filed close to one of the barred gates.
ALERT. ALERT. BROADCAST FOR GROUP ALPHA SIERRA SIERRA HOTEL OSCAR LIMA ECHO SIERRA IS ABOUT TO COMMENCE. FIVE MINUTES TO PROGRAM START.
Oh god, Gavin thought, watching Danielle roll her eyes as no doubt the same thought passed through her head. It was a strange thing to watch, all of these criminals lining up to queue. It seemed silly since nobody was here with cattle prods, shoving them into place. Why were they bothering to play the game if it didn’t really help them to do so?
“Do you think the buzzing and blaring will stop after they leave?” Danielle asked him. Before he could answer, the Dungeonworld intro began.
“ROT IN JAIL YOU SAY?” a sassy female voice yelled. Her words boomed and echoed through the cavern, impossible to block out. “TO THE THITHERS WITH YOU. YOU ASK ME IF I’M READY TO FIGHT FOR MY FREEDOM? HELL YEAH I’M READY– GIVE ME A HAPTIC SUIT AND LET ME LOOSE CUZ I’M ABOUT TO GET NASTAY!”
Theme music boomed– “I LIKE TO PLAY IT PLAY IT I ROLL DICE BOOM PASS I LIKE TO PLAY IT PLAY IT I LIKE TO . . . . PLAY IT!”
Gavin closed his eyes. The song used to signal the start of an awesome watch party. Some brews and buds, maybe some weekend slut on his arm, while they watched the death scenes from last month’s games to the techno-country twang of Lil Jeckle BigStalk, totally nude while his hologram rode a stripper pole in the corner. Apparently there was a PG-13 version of BigStalk as well for the kids in the viewing audience, but he couldn’t imagine it. The idea that it even existed just seemed wrong.
But now, listening to it from the other side, it seemed dark. He never really thought about the words. Singing gleefully about face-fucking the skulls of criminals didn’t seem right. Nor did the hot poker to the eyes bit. And then there was that bit about the only way to leave is in a body bad. That seemed at odds with the whole commute the sentence blurb the criminals were told when they were signed up.
His eyes flashed open and he saw Danielle staring absently.
BEE-DO BEE-DO a new alarm sounded. The gate began to rumble.
READY TO KNOCK OFF SOME TIME FROM YOUR SENTENCE? READY TO PLAY THE WORLD’S PREMIERE GAMING SYSTEM– FOR FREE? READY TO GET SOME REVENGE ON YOUR FELLOW LOWLIFE? TODAY’S TRIAL BY FIRE IS (a drumroll sounded) NAMAH OM SHIVAYA– DEATH BY HEART-TAKING SHAMAN FOLK!
A couple of the dungeonworlders looked at each other and groaned. But most stayed silent, their faces pale and scared in the red light of the flashing bulbs.
A black woman at the rear of the pack stared openly at Gavin and Danielle, then shook her head, mumbling something.
RUNNERS GET READY, the intercom blared.
Next to her a bearded white man in his maybe mid-thirties had followed her gaze and yelled something. But over the intercom, the buzzing, the beeping, the cacophony of Dungeonworld, Gavin and Danielle could hear nothing.
ON YOUR MARKS.
The man elbowed the woman and she looked at the two of them. Her face was taut and afraid, and she shook her head no. The man said something else, and her face hardened into determination. The two of them turned away from the queue and began sprinting to Gavin and Danielle. Danielle grabbed a hold of Gavin, frightened. He clenched his fists, and yelled.
“Get away from us! We’re not part of this!”
The gate began to lift and simultaneously popping sounds echoed loudly from every nook and cranny of the cavern. This was followed by a sinister hissing. Gavin sprang to his feet, pulling Danielle up with him. One of the sounds was coming from right behind them!
“Gavin, I– I can’t–” Danielle started, breaking into a coughing fit and almost falling to the floor. He strong-armed her to her feet, then swept her legs into his arms, carrying her in front of him like cordwood. The black woman reached him and he could see that she was holding her breath. Then it hit him. He could feel his throat begin to burn, his lungs refuse to take in more oxygen. As his eyes widened so did hers. She grabbed his wrist and pointed at the opening gate. The white man arrived a second later and grabbed Danielle from him, hoisting her onto his back in a fireman’s carry. Then all three of them made a break for the gate.
RUN, the intercom blared. Popping open the rest of the way in an instant. Dungeonworlders bolted forward at a sprint into a daylit world full of topiary maze.
Gavin, Danielle, the man and the woman all toppled into the greenery and collapsed on the ground, gasping. The gate closed behind them.
“Why– what– how?” Gavin gasped with each of his preliminary breaths.
Danielle shuddered, took in a loud rattling breath, and began to wail, tears flooding her cheeks.
The man spoke first, taking his time to get a more coherent voice.
“Cyclon gas. Very fatal very fast. It keeps us from taking a sick day.”
The woman gave a snort and then a sharp laugh. “I can’t even imagine.”
Gavin nodded, sucking in air. It tasted so good and fresh.
The man and woman both stood up and reached their hands down. Gavin grabbed him and was pulled to his feet. But Danielle rolled over and cried into the dirt.
“Hey. Hey!” the woman yelled at Danielle, shaking her outstretched hand. “If you don’t get up soon and start moving, some AI droid is going to pop out of the ground and tear your heart out through your ass. Trust me, my name’s Nino and I’ve been here a while.”
Danielle turned over, saw the seriousness carved into Nino’s face, and seized her outstretched palm, getting yanked to her feet.
“I’m Niemad and that’s not old English, that’s just my name,” the bearded man smiled. “I thought you were both full of shit when you said you were guests, but that, back there, with the gas, I’m inclined to believe you might be telling the truth.”
“You’ve never been on a run, have you?” Nino asked the both of them. They looked at her in fear and confusion.
“It don’t matter none,” Niemad added. “You two stick close– this is a two star promo course. Only noobs die on this run.” He paused. “Usually.”
The distant ship angled downward and this time there were no glitches. It made a smooth swoop and then leveled itself out, turned to present a broadside full of strange, wide gaping ass-shaped cannons.
“Well this should be entertaining,” Marioli quipped, dropping himself flat to the back of the dying bloobie. Shanaya followed his lead, scowling at whichever programmer had seen it fit to make such a tasteless enemy.
“Yar,” a strong voice called out. “We be the Pirates of da Booty and if’n you don’t hand over all yer booty right now we’ll be forced to blast you out of the sky.”
“Okay,” Marioli called back. Then he giggled. Haha – now I get the cannons. Man I kinda want to work here.”
Shanaya sighed, but she smirked as well. She wasn’t sure what he looked like under all of that nanotech, but he was cute. Maybe it didn’t matter. Bah, who was she kidding. It absolutely mattered. “Marioli,” she whispered, “Let’s lay here until they come to, uh, take our booty, and then leap up and attack. I get the feeling that if we do anything else they’ll just serve us up some bad dad jokes and blow us up. Which, yeah, not so bad since that’ll get us into the afterlife room with pretty much whatever chill thing we want, but I’m kinda enjoying this. Let’s see how long we can survive.
The pirates of da booty turned again and pulled their ship alongside that of the falling bloobie. After a few commands, bearded men with weird robot legs, mechanical parrots, and assless chaps came leaping over the sides to board the dying animal.
“Where be da booty?” one with a cybernetic eye and captain’s hat asked. The skull on his black tricorn hat had a cybernetic eye as well.
Shanaya leapt to her feet and Marioli followed.
“Hey punk ass, this dying whale ain’t yours to kill and…” Shanaya trailed off. If it were going to die anyway, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if someone got some blubber and meat and whatever out of the deal. Plus, it was only a game. Doubleplus, the bloobie was heading into a nosedive… and while she’d probably survive, maybe she could commandeer this vessel and callously murder its captain.
Gaming really was the best.
Then the whale changed. It shifted for a moment out of its massive, rubbery dark tones to a cascade of shifting white blocks covered in what looked like white sand. In that moment, she saw that they were actually up in the air, actually hundreds of feet up, and that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that in that stretch of maybe a second, she saw not only the bounds of this gaming environment, a huge rectangle stretching down into forever, and part of it was in the process of falling away.
When the skin reappeared in her HUD, it wasn’t cyber pirates; they were standing on a flaming zeppelin and facing off against a number of Nazi Air Force members, all clinging to the rigging for dear life. Everything zigged and zagged out of existence, and when the nazis reappeared, they were all anthropomorphic cats in German WWII uniforms. Marioli was now a mouse in a concentration camp uniform with a Star of David on one arm. In between these transformations she noted the New Mexico landscape through a hole in the game environment wall. They had to be at least a thousand feet in the air.
Her stomach flopped into her underwear and refused to budge.
“Did you see that?” She screamed.
Instead, she felt rather than heard a gunshot zip by her ear. She shot back with something that was no longer a FISTER cannon, and blasted one of the cats off the zeppelin with a roll of 6 and 3.
The scene shifted again, almost lightning fast this time, to deep space, and her clinging to a disintegrating space station or ship. A clock appeared in her HUD, blood red and reading: It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop. At first it had ten segments, with one filled in, then it had eight, with three filled in. The clock too glitched out to green, and read something else for the briefest of moments, before it was back to being red, with four segments, with three filled in.
She was hoping to look over at Marioli and scream something important or funny, like ‘at least I killed a Nazi before I died,’ but instead she opened her mouth and a full-throated scream came out. She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn’t have to see the ever-shifting game announce her death.
When the jerk came, she screamed again, but a moment of pain followed and shocked her out of the certainty she was doomed. She twisted her hanging body to find her uncle staring down at her, holding a rope now looped about her ankle.
“I have you, my bhanjee. You are safe now.”
The rope began to slip.
“You are being too gentle and cautious, Ravi. Pull her up now!” Aunt Rashmi scolded, then shouted orders to fire the starboard guns, bring her about, and give them some air, goddamnit. It was a woman Shanaya had never seen before.
Shanaya watched it all as if from a dream. She saw the clouds in the sky falling into blocks and raining down past her. Marioli was running toward her, was hopping over a Meow-Nazi, was just out of reach. Uncle Ravindra’s ship traded fire with the pirate ship. She shuddered along with the ship. Her fingertips brushed Marioli’s, but they couldn’t… quite… grasp and hold on. She looked down even as she was suddenly yanked up, and saw the cat Nazis yowling and mewing as the bloobie whale shifted in and out of white block existence. Marioli was there, well out of reach now, and she tore off her goggles to see him, the real him, before he crashed to his doom. She saw he had taken his goggles off as well. He was cute, sandy haired with gorgeous hazel eyes and a thin but limber body. Somehow, seeing him for real made her fully realize that he was doomed. He saluted, his eyes acknowledging the fact with a sad gleam even as he beheld her for the last time.
“I hated school and had no friends,” Marioli yelled. “This last hour and a half with you has been the best fun I have had in awhile.”
“I’m so sorry!” Shanaya shouted back. Tears washed down her face.
“Don’t be,” Marioli smiled. “We’ll meet again in that great Augmented Reality Park in the sky.”
As Shanaya was pulled up and into her embattled uncle’s ship, the bloobie gave up its ghost and scattered into white blocks. And Marioli disappeared into the clouds.
“No!” Shanaya screamed. Ravindra and Rashmi grabbed her physically and dragged her to their ship’s cabin. She could vaguely hear the two of them giving orders to the ship’s NPCs to disengage and fly them to the nearest ground based port of safety.
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