Her name was Sina.
Black with a white collar, with deep and sensuous eyes. She'd been with me since I was 8, since before I was different enough to notice. The first few weeks she was distant, cold. She had experienced years of abuse before I rescued her. I spent every moment I had, all my love and effort on her, and she warmed up. As much as cats ever do. And she became my best friend, just when I needed one. More than anything.
It felt so random. One day, everyone took a step to the side, leaving me behind, alone. When they noticed that I was an outsider, they picked on me. Little things at first. I had a temper back then. It didn't make things easier. As we grew older, the bullying escalated.. Alternating between name calling, pranks, lockouts, even violence. Grownups put on a token reaction, and the others withdrew long enough for the heat to die. I always knew they'd be back.
Sina was always there for me. She'd purr and cuddle, accept hugs that were too rough and tears that made her fur wet. Her comfort helped me for 9 years. She died today.
The vet had shaken her head. There were no more options. My parents enthusiastically agreed. The only reason they even brought her back home was the extra cost of disposal if we left her there. When I came home, I found her in a box on the stairs. Her fur scraggly, bony from age, the same magnificent creature that had been my only comfort for so long. I felt the world break apart. I said goodbye to her in the yard, the hole I dug in the hardened dirt looming in front of me. When I packed the earth on top of her, I could see her glowing eyes in my mind. Lost in the memories I had left of her, the world came rushing at me, all at once, and my consciousness faded. I had just turned 17. I was by her grave for hours before they came out to look for me, I'm told. I came to myself in a hospital bed, alone.
The psych, Dr. Peters, looks at me. He's just explained about panic attacks and the dangers of being overworked. I'm not paying that much attention to what he's saying. I want to get out of here. He's a middle-aged man, heavy set with drooping cheeks and terrible, dreadful taste in sweaters.
"As there isn't any reason for us to keep you here, I believe it'll be best for you to get back home to a safe place as soon as possible."
I bet. And it'll be cheaper for your hospital.
"But, your particular set of circumstances qualifies you for an experiment, if you're interested in an upgrade to Basic 2."
Is he soliciting me for an experiment? Is that why he'd let me go so quickly? My years of social awkwardness win out, and I don’t call him on it. Instead, I force myself to meet his eyes. His glasses reminds me of adults who are way too into Harry Potter for far too long.
"Here, I've activated this data tab for you. Just scan it when you get home, and the website will tell you more about the arrangement. If you're interested, you can enlist."
He hands me the tab, a piece of flexible touchscreen with a short animation, a web link and a QR code. I excuse myself and get out of there promptly.
I had a closer look at the card in the autocar home. There were three animated spheres, Red, Blue and Green, orbiting a larger, white one. There was energy between each of the spheres and sometimes lightning flashed from the energy ribbons into the central orb. The words 'Make your own legend come true, Above as Below' superimposed themselves on the image in the whiteout from the flash. A video game? The website will give me more information.
His offer of an upgrade to Basic 2 intrigued me. A few years ago, the government surrendered and experimented with universal basic income for the population. Anyone over the age of 16 received a set sum of money for whatever purpose they saw fit. In exchange, social security payments ended. The trial was such a success it was rolled out nationwide. People were still unhappy with what they got, of course. And it wouldn't let you go anywhere exotic or buy anything expensive. But it did let you get subsidised rent, food and drink, and it let you not worry about where your next paycheck came from. There were several levels of basic, depending on your usefulness to the public. If you signed up for daily work for the community, you'd get boosted to basic 1, giving you more money. The offer I had in front of me was going to boost me to basic 2, a level normally kept for public servants or single parents with connections. With that kind of money I could move out, find my own flat.
The autocar arrived at my home. My parents were out somewhere. They were on basic 1 since they were 'supporting' me but they were being phased to 0 as soon as I’m eligible for my own payments. They were never good parents, but with this kind of change looming, they became much meaner. I went inside our unit and hid in my room. I have an old laptop I bought online years ago. It runs an OS several generations old, and is prone to bluescreens, but it works for my purposes. I boot it up, get a mug of tea and check out the website over the steaming mint.
"Attention! This website is designed for 2nd generation AR viewing, and may not behave as expected on 2d display units!"
Every website has this warning these days. AR took off in a big way after the late 20's push from the big corporations. The first generation was awkward and expensive, but when the neural interaction hardware fully integrated, and the prices dropped, everyone had to have them. I still can't afford even a pair of VR glasses, and my laptop couldn't run them anyhow. Sighing, I turn to the awkward website layout. Too many mindlinks, not enough clickables, but I find a page that offers QR scanning. I have to route it through my smartphone, but it accepts the code after a few tries.
"Welcome <patient name>. Thank you for considering our experiment in Augmented Alternate reality immersion. As <Dr. Peters> should have explained, this offer is aimed at individuals with high levels of anxiety and poor skills at managing themselves in a social scene."
What the hell? Has he not even filled in my name? Is he that lazy? And why does he keep on about anxiety.. My pet died, I had a breakdown is all…
Thinking of Sina made my eyes water. I pushed it back down and continued reading.
"By accepting this offer we will supply you with a Mk3 immersion helmet, a processing unit and a hardlink to make sure there are acceptable levels of transmission."
Whoa... that's serious stuff... What are they going to test here?
"The experiments will focus on the subjects ability to adapt to a new environment, through their disability or illness. The experiment will be for an initial one month period, with a clause for extensions if suitability is high enough. Please show your agreement by inserting your ident in your computers reader."
This isn't too bad... all this for playing a game, signing a simple NDA. I insert my ident, and a chill ripples through my body.
A week later, the doorbell rang. I'm in the middle of an amazing sandwich. Crunchy artisan bread, real cheese, crisp lettuce, peppers and sliced ham, and a strong mustard. The perfect non-fried sandwich. I hesitated, looking longingly at my snack before I put it down to open the door.
"Delivery for a Miss Reisen, please sign here".
"Thank you very much miss."
The driver turned around and whistled at two guys in overalls, who fiddled with the street level connection point. They're here to put in the hardlink. A huge improvement on our current softlink, comparable to early noughties broadband. Useless for any realistic volume of 3d data. He hands me a brown paper box, smiles at me, and walks to his van. The box feels heavier than I'd expect, at about three times the size of my head. I head off to my room, accompanied by butterflies. Inside the box, I find two smaller boxes and copious amounts of packing peanuts. You'd think someone would have invented a better way of transporting parcels by now. One box held a processing unit, the other held the headset, my portal into this new and exciting world.
The full immersion game has existed as a concept for ages, but the technology was never there before now. VR didn't materialise as the answer in the mid 80's I'm told. Now however, the only barrier is the lack of appropriate games to play. Even the high end MMO's of 10 years ago were inadequate, like living in an 8 bit world. I turn the headset around in my hands. Gorgeous, sleek shiny plastic with an artificial depth to it. It fit over my head, straps under my chins and two small probes peeking out over my eyes. The thing worked by putting the user into a shallow sleep, using technology to hijack the brainwaves and allow the user to coalesce them in the game world. At least that's what the accompanying booklet told me. Little else. Plug it in, connect it to the hardlink, wear helmet, follow on-HUD instructions. Fair enough. I check on the workmen, inspect the padlock to my door, hydrate and wait for the work to finish.
After a short wait that goes on forever, I can lie on my bed and initiate the warm up sequence on the processing unit. The moment I put on the helmet, I'm overwhelmed by the overbearing nothingness that happens. It seems like an anticlimax, but all there is, everywhere, is darkness. I take longer than I want to admit to realise that all the sounds from outside vanished. No birds, no cars, no construction sounds. The eeriness of the silence is second only to the absolute darkness around me. I thought the process was meant to be more.. dynamic. Has something gone wrong? I'd love to say my heart beat faster now, but my heartbeat was missing, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't do anything. It seemed like hours, but must have been seconds, when a small green dot appears in front of me, far away. As it comes closer, the world around me sharpens into focus. I seem to be in a mechanical city. Brass streets stretched into the distance, while copper buildings lined the sidewalks, bifurcated by cogwheels and levers moving on their own. Steam valves blasting off around me, a strong scent of what I can only guess is lubricant suffuses the air. Before I can orient myself, the green light expands from a point to a plane, displaying text.
Calibrating world view to new user. Confusion detected. World complexity reduced to level 2
The world blurs again and the yellow-brown brass and copper disappears from view, black emptiness taking its place. Then a cascade of light and colour, fireworks and oil spills everywhere. I'm looking at a galaxy from the wrong angle. A bout of vertigo washes over me as I realise that I'm not standing on anything. And that I have no feet.
"Attunement level 1 achieved. Voice communication enabled. Confusion increased. Preference database updated for user. Complexity reduced to level 1."
The calming voice came from all around me. Fair enough, my mind couldn't handle anything more complicated than.. What? As the darkness blurs away, it’s replaced by a verdant green. A forest surrounds me, leaves everywhere except right in front of me. I'm sitting on sand, an azure pond in front of me. Everything exudes peace and relaxation, and my heartbeat is calming down. I also realise my heartbeat has returned, a pleasant bonus. My little green friend hovers near me. How a flat green panel can express eagerness will forever be beyond me.
"Welcome to the Below user. How may I address you?"
The same calming voice. Hmm.
Is it asking for my username, or my real name..
"I just need a name to refer to you for now, user. It is impolite of me to refer to you as User at all times."
What the hell, it can hear my thoughts?
"You are not thinking as quietly as you think, user. I will explain later, but for now, assume that we are of one mind. You can choose to express yourself by speaking out loud, or by forming the words in your mind. I will hear you."
This was too freaky.
"Please, call me Shae.. And you are?"
"This fragment is known as Ephraim. I am very pleased to meet you Shae. I can tell by your tether that you are here with a special mandate. I hope you can forgive me, but it is very insistent that I read it."
It must be talking about the experiment. How odd…
"Oh yes, none of the other fragments in my cluster have ever talked about something like this. I am excited. Let me see... This says that a mighty doctor in your world has sent you on a special quest into this world. If you choose to honor the request, I will be attached to your tether, and tasked to report on your progress in the world below. If you decline, you will be compelled to ripcord and loose any boon you have gained in your own world. How do you respond?"
Expressing myself like that, out loud, makes me feel sheepish, but that’s one of the reasons I’m here I guess.
"Fantastic! Let us start immediately. Your mandate does not allow for an accelerated start, but I can pull some strings. First, tell me about your preferred path through the world below."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I am told the world below is much like the world above, where you come from, except that the rules are simultaneously more clear, better obfuscated, and often much stricter here. So when in your world you would be a fighter of fire, or a teacher of young or a healer of infections transmitted en flagrante, in this world, you can pick a path of a warrior, a scholar or a doctor. This does not prevent you from any other path, but it will help me guide you towards the skills that interest you."
Hmm. It's too early to pick anything yet. I wonder if there's some middle ground or something
"Of course there is!"
Shit, why do I keep forgetting it can hear my thoughts!
"Please, do not worry. After the embodiment, you'll find it much easier to hide your thoughts. The ability to sense others thoughts is a very complicated skill, and few possess it."
"Wait, are you saying I can be a psychic in this game? Read other players minds?"
"Read them, control them, destroy them. The only limit is your dedication to the craft. I must warn you, however, that while a high skill in mindwalking means you'll be exposed to the descended realms. The denizens of the hell-realms are not to be trifled with and many mindwalkers before you have met their end screaming in fire."
I guess psychic is out.
"But you can follow the path of the Jack if you want. There are no special skills available for this path, but you can access almost every other skill freely. And changing your path focus is much simpler in any case."
"Okay Ephraim, you've convinced me. Jack it is."
"Marvellous! Now, onto your avatar. While your tether is powerful, it is unable to interact with the world below. You will need to create an avatar to fill with your essence. Please consider the following racial templates for the greatest attunement."
There was the attunement thing again. I really need to ask about that.
"Ah, attunement. It refers to the level to which your mind has attuned to the world below. The highest level available is five, where you can exist in this world at a compressed rate. To meet that level, you need to pass through the trials of new tetherlings. We will get there. Picking a race with a negative attunement will mean that even when you reach max Attunement, you will find the progress in the world slower than others, until you've fully acclimated to the new body. I am told this goes the other way as well, and that if you come back to the world above after playing as a Narach spider, you feel phantom limbs moving around you when you try to get mammal lactate from your preservatories."
Wow... Exposition much?
"You asked... Here are the primary choices. Please know that the visual references to the avatars are only the generic versions, and that the final version will be partially formed by your tether, meaning the avatar you use in the world above."
A woman appears before me, startling me. She's pretty, with dusky skin and long dark hair, her features reminiscent of the middle east, her green eyes wondering at the world. What sort of fantasy was this again?
She seems offended by my snub, and exits, stage left, as an elfin character shows up. The Attunement meter shows 90%, and the elfa seems to be many men's wet dream. Innocent doe eyes, slender girlish figure. Who is this game for anyway? Boys who just entered puberty? The elfa shrugs and heads off after the human girl, probably to find some dark knight to shack up with. A procession of barely hidden sexual innuendo stalks my vision. Halfling jailbait. Giantess who seems to have grown out of her clothes. Sexy troll headhuntress? Even the amazons seem to be designed by Doctor Frank N. Furter. Sigh.
There's a few minutes until the next freak show entrant. But this time the controller seems to have keyed into my displeasure towards the other hopefuls. Nothing is visible of this character. A heavy green robe, a slow but steady gait, sidling until she's in the middle of what I've come to think of as the stage. She turns to me and I know it's the right choice at once. Her eyes are dead, her hair is falling out in chunks, and her mouth is closed, pale and utterly dead like the rest of her. Her attunement is 75%, but in my excitement I ignore the potential penalty. As I select her, she smiles, her darkened and broken teeth creeping me out in just the right way.
"You've decided then!" my green companion exclaims.
"Yeah, undead seems like a good option for me. I especially like the ..." I quickly read part of the description. "... stench of the grave?"
"Ah, yes. The undead racial defence trait. Don't worry, it's an at will ability.. Well, you will it, and then you need to wash up afterwards... it's great for hiding in graveyards... and abattoirs... But be aware that the natural world tends to be unhappy about the aberrant creatures of the world."
"That's okay. Let's finish those trials you mentioned. I'd like to get this show on the road!"
"Your enthusiasm is noted. The first trial was adjusting your mind to the existence of this world, and to allow the basic sensory input to register with your mental state. The next stage is to inhabit your new body, and to practice movement. Expected time frame is 1 hour, modified by the undead attunement factor to 1 hour 45 minutes."
There's a brief bright flash and the feeling of falling, then I'm standing where I was looking, looking towards where I was standing. Up until now the experience was mostly mental, but now, I couldn't believe how real this all felt. I put my arms out and look at my hands. My skin is pale with a green tint. I can almost hear my tendons move. This body probably needs some upkeep. I wonder who I was when I was alive…
Hidden quest found: Who were you?
How did you die? Most undead accept fate with a solemn demeanour, but you will not go gently into that dark night. Maybe there was foul play, maybe you offed yourself. If you can discover any information about this, it could be a defining trait for you.
A block of text hovers in front of me. There's a happy yes button, and a sad no button. This game seems to like to ensoul things that shouldn't really have emotions.
So that's how quests work then. It's a nice touch I guess. I'll take it
The game takes that as a yes, and the quest is accepted.
Quest gained: Who are you?
Ability Discovered: Curiosity
Ability Discovered: Focus
And I get stat gains by accepting quests? Nice.
Are you paying attention to me at all?
It makes me smile. On my acknowledging the window, it vanishes.
Good. Now please go through the following routine for me..
I take three hours to finish the first trial. The game makes me jump in place for long minutes. Spinning in place. Touch your nose. Regular field sobriety test. It culminates in a thrilling 20 meter shamble, where I realise how difficult it is to move a body that I wasn't born in, that I didn't grow up in. After a few faceplants, my Attunement meter increases to 30%
Trial 2 completed. Your Guide will inform you of the requirements for Trial 3
Ephraim floats towards me, and with a shock I realise he's no longer a green square, he's a 2d sprite of a cherub.
"Well done Shae! You completed your trials in... time..."
A sideways glance makes me think the time isn't exactly great. Fine, it took me some time to finish. Sue me!
"Now, the next step is normally to either begin combat training or crafting training, depending on the path you selected. Since you selected the path of Jack, you'll be able to select which one gets priority. First, you need to go back above. Please use the ripcord functionality of your UI to go back out. You will be disoriented when you wake up, with a mild headache. This function exists so a user is able to flee from any dire situation, but we have to make sure you know what it is and how it works. When you get up, you will need to wait 24 hours before you come back inside. While you are out there, please read the documentation sent to your email address. It will help in the last trial. Thank you for coming here. I am happy to be able to serve you, Above as Below."
I give him an awkward smile, a half hearted wave, and notice a glowing handle icon in my UI. It probably only shows up when I look for it. I focus on it and pull it with my mind. There is a whoosh, a sucking feeling and a weird light-show, then everything goes dark once more. The sheer sensation of panic doesn't come back. Sounds of the world come back. Wind, cars, children. I remove the helmet, wincing a little from the stiffness, and stare at the ceiling.
That was awesome...
- Stranger in a strange land
Software developer by trade. Games developer by uni course. Shopkeeper in a previous life.. don't ask.
I took a look at my life recently, and realised I read too much. I watch too much tv. I play too many games. I consume too much. It was time for me to create instead, improve the balance of things. So I wrote, and I wrote, and I managed to finish a first draft. Then I went back to the beginning and started rewriting it, while working on the sequel.
If you like my work, or are a fan of litRPG/Gamelit, please check out https://greatlitrpg.com
You'll find my book there, and a bunch of other authors worth your time. Vote for what you like, and help make it a definitive collection of unbiased reviews.