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DarkWorld

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The bell on the door jangled as a petite redheaded woman entered Lil’ Beanz, bringing a waft of near frozen air in her wake. Dean looked up in surprise, mainly because the door hadn’t opened at all for several hours, and he paused the game playing on his phone on the assumption he was actually going to do some work for a change.

Yay.

“So, hey,” his co-worker Ash said brightly, stepping out from behind the counter to greet the woman with an effusive hug. Finally extracting himself, he slung a friendly arm around her shoulder and turned her to face the cashier’s station. “This is my friend, Charlie. We were at MIT together. Charlie, this is Dean.”

“Hi Dean,” she said, with a wide, disarming smile.

Dean’s eyes narrowed with vague recognition and he frowned. It took him a moment to place her face, then he drawled, “Well, slumming it a bit, aren’t you, your Majesty?” He gestured around the tired surrounds of the coffee shop. Ever since the Starbucks had opened in town, the independent coffee house had been struggling too much to even bother with appearances. It definitely didn’t require a Barista AND a cashier anymore. Dean was pretty certain the owner was just keeping him employed part-time at the till out of a misguided sense of pity. Pity wasn’t something Dean liked or appreciated… but his rent needed to be paid so he didn’t have the luxury of protesting.

Charlie giggled and looked at Ash triumphantly, “Told you he’d recognise me immediately. Can’t say the same of him,” she added pointedly, looking to where Dean was sitting and giving him a swift once over.

Dean flushed hotly. “Yeah, well, fuck you too,” he snarled. “At least I’m not a fuckin’ Dev.”

Charlie clasped her hands to her mouth, her eyes widening and filling with tears. On anyone else the exaggerated gestures would have looked fake. Somehow, in her case, her horror seemed genuine. “I…I… just meant… meant… you’re a goblin in the game, Dean… Your avatar is butt ugly… but, damn, I’m gay not blind. You’re seriously hot.”

Dean sneered at her. Somehow, his expression didn’t make him any less attractive but clearly expressed his disgust at the idea a pretty face made him ‘hot’. Except for Lisa, no one had ever bothered trying to deal with the rest of his baggage and even she had finally decided he wasn’t worth it.

“I don’t mean to be indelicate,” Charlie said cautiously, “but under the circumstances I would have expected you to have chosen a … um… more… imposing physical avatar for the game.”

Dean raised an eyebrow challengingly, “You mean I should have spent the points on a bigger dick?”

“One as big as you’re being now?” Ash interrupted. “Give her a break, Dean. It’s an honest question.” He turned to Charlie and decided to answer the question himself. “Dean can’t play a taller character without suffering vertigo. He’s only got a third-hand gen one RVR face-hood. Plays hell with spatial awareness. Besides, it’s easier to grind the levels up starting from a basic goblin account if you’re not a pay-to-player.”

“Or a dev,” Dean added bitterly. “Must be nice having access to infinite resources as well as a bespoke avatar.” Then he frowned suspiciously. “Hang on, how the hell do you know my game identity anyway?”

Charlie flushed a little but offered him a genuine smile. “I asked Ash to introduce us when I realised you were RL friends as well as Guildmates. I thought it would be better than just turning up on your doorstep as an anonymous Game Rep. I thought the company offer would sound more genuine if you received it from someone Ash already knows because, trust me, it sounds too good to be true.”

“What offer?” Dean asked suspiciously.

Charlie bounced with palpable excitement. “It’s seriously great, Dean. Roman Enterprises are launching a Beta Test for a new phase of Moondoor and your account has been picked by C.H.U.C.K. to take part in the testing. If you agree to take part, RRE will pay you a small salary, supply you with the very latest VR rig, a bespoke avatar and a sizeable RSS credit account and, best of all, the rig will be yours to keep at the end of the Beta. It’s win, win.”

Ash whistled loudly. “Are you talking one of those new Gen Nine full sensory immersion tanks?”

“Oh, yeah,” Charlie agreed. “Even I only have a Gen Seven and I’m one of RRE’s top devs. The kind of rig they are offering will retail at over 80k after the Beta.”

Dean frowned suspiciously. “You’re right,” he announced gruffly, “It does sound too good to be true. I ain’t buying it.” He raised a finger to shush her when she opened her mouth to interrupt. “Why the hell would Roman Enterprises pick me for this? I’ve invested a grand total of $49 in Moondoor since my account opened. There are guys in my guild who regularly spend four or five hundred dollars a week.”

“And yet you still are placed within the top 100 players in the realm. That’s not shoddy playing for a practically free account. You managed to grind your way into the top rankings with nothing but persistence and skill and some luck.”

“A lot of luck,” Dean corrected honestly. Moondoor had a lot of easter-eggs hidden inside its framework and Dean had stumbled over far more than his fair share of them. It made him immensely unpopular with some of the highest spending players because he consistently seemed to win items that they themselves had spent real money on.

Charlie shrugged. “What can I say? C.H.U.C.K. seems to like you.” She shrugged disarmingly. “Seriously, though, the required parameters for the Beta were fed into the system and it churned you out as one of its ten picks. There are nine other players in the Beta, and you all are getting the same offer. But you’ll have to sign a NDA for the actual details of the test.” She turned to Ash and grinned widely. “I brought an NDA for you to sign too, Ash, so we can all talk about it together. It is going to be soooo cool.”

“Gimme,” Ash said, reaching to snatch the paper out of her hand and signing it with a flourish.

“You didn’t even read it,” Dean pointed out.

“It’s a non-disclosure agreement, not a crossroads deal,” Ash scoffed.

Since Ash was usually paranoid enough for the both of them, Dean shrugged and signed his own copy when Charlie passed it over.

“Right, Bitches, this is the good stuff,” Charlie grinned. “Moondoor is getting a system-wide upgrade. All the realms are going to be invaded by a Dark Queen who will imprison my character and then launch ‘The Darkness’ and, effectively, everyone’s player account will be reset to zero because none of the weapons or skill points from the current game will be relevant in Dark Moondoor. Sure, we’ll lose some top level players because they’ll get pissed at being zeroed but the game is addictive enough that most players will get over the initial shock, then spend even more money to get back to the top in the Darkworld. The best bit, the part where you come in, Dean, is that the Darkness is going to introduce the idea of Boss Players. As you know, at the moment Bosses are all NPC’s, computer generated V.I.’s and players attack Bosses for points and prizes but defeating a Boss doesn’t give you the ability to become one.

“In Dark Moondoor, a player will be able to become a Boss. In fact, the top ten player levels will be reserved for Boss ranked players only. To make that possible, C.H.U.C.K. will create ten Dark Bosses, known as the Knights Of Hell. The Knights will all bear a sigil called the ‘Mark of Cain’ but otherwise will be visually indistinguishable from any other player so they will be able to move within Moondoor incognito. Unlike NPC Bosses, Player Bosses won’t register on player interfaces as Bosses. Players will all fight to become Knights of Hell themselves, but there can only be a maximum of ten so the only way to become one is to identify a character as a Knight, then defeat them and steal the Knight sigil for themselves.”

“What happens to a defeated Knight?” Dean asked.

“After the Beta, a defeated Knight character will be permanently deleted from the game. No do-overs. No spare lives. No resurrections. A Knight Boss is not only going to be the most powerful in the game but also the most vulnerable. A player killed as a Knight will have to create a new character and start right from level one all over again. During the Beta stage, the initially seeded Dark Knights will get ten lives so they need to be defeated ten times before the first ‘real’ player becomes a Boss.”

Ash whistled. “That’s seriously weird. I see why the Devs are doing it. Only a really high spending player is ever likely to become a Knight, and that kind of person is likely to spend the same amount again to get back to Boss level if they are kicked out of the game. But only if being a Boss is worth the spending in the first place. What game play does a Knight actually get, other than being consistently attacked by lower level players?”

Charlie shrugged. “That’s still in development, to be honest. Bosses can usually only advance levels by defeating other bosses and the Knights will be able to fight NPC Bosses to level their characters but I heard a rumour that the Knights will be given Quests to destroy each other until eventually only one Level 10 Knight remains, which suggests that they advance a Boss level only by killing another Knight.”

“So what’s the endgame?” Dean asked.

“A level ten Knight will be strong enough to fight the Queen of the Darkness. Defeating her will restore Moondoor to its current state and I will become Queen of Moondoor once more. I don’t think the company believe it’s possible though, because I’ve already been asked to leave the Moondoor team and move over to the Oz development team as soon as The Darkness launches so I think my current game character is effectively dead. I don’t mind though, because this is cool for Moondoor and the Oz game looks like it will be fun anyway.”

“You’re right, Charlie. This is mega cool. Epic,” Ash gushed.

Dean huffed rudely. “It’s bullshit,” he scoffed. “If all the other players are going to be effectively zeroed at the start of the ‘Darkness’, what’s going to stop the ten Knights simply destroying the lot of them immediately? Best way to prevent anyone ever defeating them is to work together to stop anyone ever getting big enough to be a challenge.”

“See,” Charlie grinned. “You ARE smarter than you look,” she said, with a friendly wink. “There’s a couple of ways the Devs will prevent that scenario. Firstly, the Beta testers, like you, have been chosen specifically to ensure their personalities clash big time. Trust me, some of the guys C.H.U.C.K. has chosen don’t even know what co-operation means. One of them has reached the top ten simply by inviting people into his guild, waiting until they trust him, then killing them for their inventories.”

“Crowley,” Dean said, knowingly, and Ash nodded his agreement. Both had watched in growing disbelief as that particular player had repeated the same treachery over and over. Their surprise hadn’t been that he kept repeating the game play but that other players were stupid enough to keep falling for Crowley’s tricks. Suckers.

“His RL name is Fergus McCloud,” Charlie laughed, “but his Avatar name is definitely more fitting. He’s a real back-stabbing devil, for sure. Another ‘collector’ character is Magnus, you’ve probably seen him in the game? His game play is similar. Instead of fighting battles, he sets snares, traps players, kills them and steals their RSS and Gear for himself. I won’t bore you with a list, but basically all the Knights, other than you, are known for their complete lack of empathy for other players. It’s the only reason your presence in the Beta Test was questioned, to be honest. No one could work out why C.H.U.C.K. chose nine complete assholes to be bosses, but then picked a player like you to be the tenth. Your playing record is completely different, Dean. You help your guildmates, are generous with your resources and often help the newbies to learn the ropes. You’ve never turned on anyone in the game and, unlike a lot of players, you never start fights. In your entire playing history, the only players you have zeroed are ones who have attacked you or your guildmates first. In the end, my team decided that C.H.U.C.K. just wanted some balance by adding a Righteous Boss into the mix.”

Dean rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed by the praise, “You said a couple of ways,” he reminded her, to change the subject from himself.

“With the release of the Darkness, C.H.U.C.K has released new races of NPC’s into the game. Angels and Demons. They aren’t Bosses, but they have varied Boss-level powers. Normal, lower-level players can ‘pray’ for Angelic assistance and these new NPC’s will fly to their aid in a battle scenario. Of course, they can only ‘pray’ if they have built up sufficient Faith Points, and there will be a lot of events and quests for players to do to build up FP. Or players can do crossroads deals with Demons for demonic assistance, but they will have to sacrifice Soul Points for their help. Players will start with a base of SP but further SP will have to be won or earned. Soul Points are going to be a pretty dangerous currency though, as they will be tied into HP. If a player loses all their HP while they have zero SP, their characters will get trapped in ‘Hell’ and then have to win a long sub-game to escape. If they can’t escape, they’ll have to respawn as lev one characters again to get back to Moondoor.”

“Why would anyone do a demon-deal instead of sticking with the Angels?” Ash asked, shrugging in bemusement.

“Because the Angels are going to be mega-dicks,” Charlie laughed. “Forget fluffy cherubs. These are going to be C.H.U.C.K.’s warriors and are going to have the same dispassionate attitude towards players as ‘He’ does. They will be intelligent V.I’s, of course, programmed to have little or no ‘free-will’ but they will still have personalities and not necessarily pleasant ones. They will interact with players but be capricious in their help to prevent any players gaining an unfair advantage. So, for instance, if a player is about to be zeroed, summons an Angel and that Angel needs 100 FP to stop the attacker but the player only has 99 FP to offer, the Angel will either give 99 FP’s worth of help, leaving the player to deal with the balance themselves OR the Angel might stick to the letter of the law, say ‘you don’t have 100 FP so I’m going to just stand here, refuse to help at all and just watch you die’. Like I said, Dicks.”

“So can Knights do demon-deals or summon Angels?” Dean asked.

Charlie blinked at him slowly. “Well, the Demons and Angels have been created to aid players against the Knights… but, now you mention it, there’s nothing in C.H.U.C.K.’s rules that says a Knight can’t use them to their advantage too. The way the game has been written, Demons and Angels are available to all players and Knights ARE players. Interesting idea, though. Not sure how it would work in a game scenario.”

“Maybe a Knight could summon an Angel or Demon to help them take out another Knight?” Ash suggested.

“Yeah, but I can’t think of how a Knight would build the necessary FP or SP to use them,” Charlie said thoughtfully. “I definitely know the team haven’t written any quests or events for the Knights that would provide them as rewards. Still, Moondoor is a complex game. C.H.U.C.K. is such an advanced AI that it sometimes feels like ‘He’ is writing the game ‘himself’. There definitely seem to be a lot of parameters within Moondoor that the Devs haven’t physically coded in so the AI must be creating them. So it’s possible there are any number of scenarios which would enable SP or FP collection, I just can’t think of any specifically.”

“You said there would be a small salary,” Dean interrupted. “How small?”

“A thousand a week,” Charlie replied.

“That’s small?” Dean gasped and, whatever anyone said, that wasn’t a squeak in his voice.

Charlie shrugged, “It’s less than a Dev’s salary,” she clarified, “but it’s meant to represent an average US salary, in the hope that Betas such as yourself can dedicate most or all their normal working hours to the game.” She kindly didn’t point out the obvious, that Dean clearly was lucky to earn even half that amount currently.

“And how long is the Beta test?” Ash demanded.

“Dependent on how other players react to Dark Moondoor, the Beta is expected to run at least one year,” Charlie replied. “Simulations have indicated the possibility that a really determined player, investing sufficient cash into the game, MIGHT gain the ability to defeat a Knight in as little as three months but that is highly unlikely and the Beta Knights can respawn nine times, so realistically I imagine most of the Beta Knights are committing to two or three years of gameplay. Roman Enterprises is guaranteeing a minimum salary though, so even if you were unlucky enough to be taken out early you can bank on one year’s full pay.

“All RRE is asking for is a minimum commitment of 8 hours game play, five days a week and 3 hours a day at the weekends. The company will also ‘freeze’ your account for a maximum of two weekly periods over the year so that you can take a holiday without your character being at risk.”

Ash frowned at her. “You know players like Dean, freed of the need to earn a living, will probably voluntarily spend almost every waking hour in the game. Particularly playing characters as high as these Knights. What’s the long-term health issues with using the full immersion tanks to that extent?”

“None,” Charlie replied automatically, then her smile slipped a bit. “Actually, no-one actually knows for sure. Theoretically none, but that’s what I was TOLD to say, ‘they are 100% safe’. Gotta be honest, though; I often spend ten or twelve hours a day in my Gen 7 tank, and after a while I definitely get a bit of muscle wastage and end up having to hit the gym for a week to compensate.” She looked at Dean with concern, “It might be more of a problem for you, Dean. I don’t think anyone has tested the tanks long-term with your particular… issues. This is supposed to be a great opportunity for you, not a risk to your health. Maybe you should get some medical advice before deciding.”

Dean frowned at her, torn between being pissed off or touched by her seemingly genuine concern. Pissed won the day. As always, the suggestion he couldn’t do something made him even more determined to actually do it. Until that moment, he had still been undecided whether to accept the offer. The high (in his experience) salary and the free rig still felt too good to be true and his gut was twisting with a niggling doubt but the suggestion the only reason he would turn the deal down was his disability removed his ability to say no. Pride no longer allowed refusal.

“You said the offer included a bespoke avatar,” he said, instead.

“Yes,” Charlie agreed. “You can choose any humanoid race, sex or appearance. Or you can have one that looks exactly like yourself, like my avatar.”

“You’ve definitely got bigger tits in Moondoor,” he pointed out bluntly.

Charlie shrugged, unoffended. “Okay, exactly like yourself but better,” she agreed. “The game chicks dig my tits.”

“So my avatar will be able to walk?”

“Of course,” she said, her voice softer. “And the immersion tank will fully compensate for that. You will be able to experience walking, and everything else, perfectly.”

“Then let’s do this,” Dean said, his voice determined. “I accept the offer.”

It was Ash who looked uncomfortable then, his face twisting with uncertainty. “Are you sure, man?” he asked cautiously. “It might really screw with your head, being ‘you’ in the game then returning back to RL and, well…” he gestured awkwardly at Dean’s chair.

For just a second, Dean hesitated. A tendril of fear shot through him, winding with the still nagging ache of his twisting guts, like a premonition of disaster. This gift horse had some potentially sharp teeth. Yet he chose, in that moment, to take the opportunity offered and worry about the consequences later.

A deal with the devil, indeed.

He wondered whether he had just surrendered a whole pile of SP.

But he still reached for the contract that Charlie offered him.

Art by Aidokime