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Chapter 1

Old Friends.

 

A shrill alarm sounded from Kurt’s wrist, causing him to glance at it in mild confusion.  He turned his wrist towards his face and swiped across the alarm with his other hand, using the interface to reach the reminder notification and discover what exactly the alarm was for.  Phone implants were as common as government issued identification cards, aside from being a pill sized power pack connected to a sensor array nestled between the major tendons on the inside of one’s wrist in a surgical procedure.  As the alarm sound stopped, a plain text note hovered in the air above his wrist.  “Life of Crime with Jimmy.”

“Oops.”  Kurt stood in the middle of the walkway outside the college office he had just left.  He had forgotten about this entirely.  It was an absentee friend promise, to play the premier plug in game with his childhood buddy.  They had been close once, bonding as teenagers over a shared love of classic film and adventures in an immersive fantasy plug in game.  As happens with friends sometimes, they drifted apart when Kurt moved a few hours away for college.  Now only two years later, he was holding his expulsion papers and thinking about home.

It was no surprise.  His grades had slipped well past the point of saving, even in classes he grasped easily.  Capable of remembering scenes from his favorite films by heart, he somehow struggled to focus on or care about his education.  Kurt’s parents were not thrilled, but understood.  Higher education, while required for most tasks not occupied by the mechanized workforce, was not exactly for everyone.

Maybe he would work with dogs or something.  Lost in his musings, he almost didn’t notice the text appear in the air above his wrist from Jimmy.  The phone implant didn’t project a holographic image in the air above one’s wrist, but to the user that was exactly what it looked like.  The entire process was in the user’s mind, the result of a couple standard brain augmentation implants.  Technology and mankind had formed a bit of a blend over the centuries, and people of this era in human history thought no more of implanting their tech than previous eras did of carrying it in a pocket.

“You’re late.”  Glancing at his clock, Kurt scowled to note it was exactly one minute past their agreed upon meeting time.

Jimmy had a rare form of degenerative muscle disease, and was rarely seen out of his house.  He wore a series of light braces all through childhood, and had a good deal of mobility and autonomy because of them.  A level of social stigma still existed around such things, and Jimmy had trouble making friends.  He and Kurt had grown up together, and their friendship was clearly an important part of Jimmy’s life.  Kurt was more than a little ashamed to admit he felt burdened by it on occasion.  Sighing to himself, he swiped to the call feature, deciding it was better not to put things off.  Jimmy answered immediately.

“Where you AT my man?!”  His exuberance made Kurt smile, as always.  It was hard to be irritated with Jimmy for very long.  He was unable to keep the crestfallen feeling in his chest out of his voice when he responded though.

“Hey Jimmy.  I’m sorry.”  He held his silence on the phone for a moment, trying to think of what to say.  As usual, Jimmy beat him to it.

“Aw dang.  You gotta bail again?  I was looking forward to popping your cherry man, had some fun gangster activities all lined up.”  He managed to sound disappointed and enthusiastic at the same time, and Kurt felt a swell of guilt wash over him.  In that moment, he changed his mind and went with what felt right.

“Naw, I’m just gonna be late as hell.  I was busy getting kicked out of school, so I gotta make the drive home before I can play.  You down with a later session?”  Kurt tried to sound jovial about things, but the stress in his voice was apparent.

“…You got kicked out of school?”  Jimmy was cautious, but a glimmer of amusement couldn’t be mistaken in his voice.  “There’s easier ways to get out gaming with me dude.”

Kurt couldn’t help but laugh.  He was reminded that there was a solid foundation between the two of them.  “Haha! Yeah, not my best scheme, I have to admit.”  He paused for a moment.  “It’s just grades; I’m too stupid for higher education I guess.”

“Yeah man, grades are arguably the least important part of school anyway.  Well you know what they say about dropouts.  Supposed to be much more likely to fall into a Life of Crime!”  He spoke with a lively movie trailer announcer voice for the last part, clearly referencing the game.

“Cheese.  Pure, stinky cheese.  I’ll be home at my folk’s place in like four hours, wanna hop on around nine tonight instead?”  Kurt had done the math quickly.  Traveling from northern Oregon to Seattle, Washington wouldn’t take long.  Traffic should be light still, and he would be able to talk with his parents and grab a shower before he was set to meet up with Jimmy in the game.

“Pft, I’m always down, you know that.  Just make sure you pick the Downtown Cluster spawn point.  Catch you tonight scrub!”  Jimmy ended the call with typical cheery abruptness.

Kurt thought of the game with a grimace.  Life of Crime was a popular online plug in game that focused on a romanticized view of organized crime in all fashions.  It had taken the world by surprise upon its release a few years back, and had eventually settled into a comfortable niche in gaming subculture.  Crime had all but vanished in modern civilization; the inevitable advancement of technology making even the most basic of crimes impossible to escape.  Governmental accountability had risen at the same time, and something akin to a truly democratic police state had emerged.  People just stopped criminal behavior, over the span of approximately a century.  Crimes of passion were almost all the police had left to investigate, and all those cases were closed quickly.  So, a Virtual Reality plug in that was all about crime had been a controversial release.

The game was split into two parts, with an immersive side and a competitive side.  The immersive side boasted an impressive amount of freedom.  Sexual activity and torture were flagged as inappropriate in-game behavior and resulted in bans.  Otherwise, the large virtual cities/servers of the game were almost entirely player run.

The competitive side of the plug in offered themed games, usually centered on the typical violence of the various criminal eras in history.  Arenas were available at any time for live ammunition death-matches, high risk races, or even aerial combat with historically accurate military vehicles.  That side of the game quickly rose in fame, becoming the world’s premier E-Sport, as a decent sized advertisement and endorsement economy grew around it.  Champions in any of the various Arenas quickly rose to celebrity status and landed lucrative contracts with various companies.

Kurt had never cared to try it.  Toward the end of their last year of high school, Jimmy had become engrossed by the game, and bothered Kurt to join him several times over the years since.  He had always promised ‘someday’ to his friend, not wanting to hurt his feelings while never intending to join him.  As he drove home, he considered his recent turn in life, and decided maybe it would be a good distraction while he figured out what to do next.  They had played the companies previous game, a fantasy rpg, an absurd amount while going through high school, forming some good memories together.

The discussion with his parents was brief, as they had been kept aware of his problems with school while they developed.  He felt bad for letting them down, but was also keenly aware that he had been unhappy in the structured environment that higher learning had offered.  Instead of thinking about that or his future, he pondered his possible character in the game.

Life of Crime offered a purely passive skill system, ensuring that what you chose to do as a player was what guided your experience.  There were no levels or statistics for the players themselves, just their skills and reputation gains with various factions.  Unlocking any of the various classes was considered an achievement, and came with impressive skill boosts.  The forums were alight with rumors of high end specialist classes, but none were reported as acquired in the three years since the game had been released.  The games developers were notoriously tight lipped, and issued few statements to the public.

BlackLight Industries had started out humbly enough, a popular plug in software designer.  Plugging into the internet via head jack allowed the user complete immersion in whatever experience they chose to engage in.  BlackLight Ind had their first breakout hit in a seemingly innocent online casino program.  By forbidding real world money to interact with their program, and allowing a very loose ratio of success in their casino, they instantly shot up in popularity.  For a modest monthly fee, one could gamble as often as they desired, with no real-world repercussions (or benefits).

Gambling in almost all forms was illegal, and the game had to undergo a huge degree of government scrutiny before release.  After its release, popular demand among voters caused structural changes to the laws surrounding gambling.  Legal conflicts arose around their second major release; a fantasy role playing game that offered an unheard-of level of realistic violence.  The game was actually shut down in production at one point, before the voting base forced a change of the laws in place.  Its release was the most successful software sale of all time.

Controversy was in place well before the release of their third and most talked about title.  A plug in that not only allowed violent, anti-social behavior, but perpetuated it against virtual police was something of much discussion.  Once more, the voting public stepped in and made a demand of the governing body, causing laws to be altered and allowing more freedom in the virtual space of the internet.

Shrugging off the politics and deciding to allow a natural progression, Kurt stepped out of the shower and toweled off.  He dressed in comfortable loungewear and sat down in his personal jack couch.  Shaped like a loveseat, it sported a hypoallergenic sterile storage compartment for the plug that would penetrate part way into Kurt’s brain.  A complex series of sensors and transmitters were laid out in the brains many blood vessels and arteries, both sending and receiving data from the user’s mind, and all were connected to the external port and cortex processor.  With a sigh, Kurt brushed aside his hair and inserted the prong of the cable into his port, located behind his ear.  Swiping at the control to jack in on his wrist, he entered the internet.

His senses of sight and hearing shut off in a brief instant of panic inducing darkness and silence.  It lasted less than a second, just long enough for his implants to take over for him, feeding him the visuals and sounds of the internet instead of the world around him.  His homepage floated in the air in front of eyes, filled with bookmarks that he used regularly.

Using the digital representation of his wrist control, he quickly found the home page for Life of Crime and paid for an entrance key.  Within a few seconds, he swiped the button to enter the immersion side of the game, and the world of screens around him faded out to black.  A simple prompt appeared in front of him, asking for a street name.  Staring at the blinking cursor for a moment, he mentally shrugged and entered his first name.  It was rejected, and the suggestion of ‘Mr. Kurtis’ filled itself into the blank.  He agreed, moving onto the next question from the program.

<Would you like to alter your physical appearance for use in the game?  Normal standards will apply to this choice.> He mimed pressing the no button and the world around him began to load in.

Kurt was seated in a pitch-black room, but he could hear the sounds of a vibrant city nearby, old world cars rumbling past and people shouting or laughing.  Footsteps sounded on a stone floor, the clicking of high heels.

A light above Kurt went on with an irritating buzz, pouring mildly nauseating light into the room and giving him the chance to look around.  He sat on a simple wood and metal chair in a beat down warehouse, peeling paint on white walls apparent in the weak flickering light.  He was wearing only a set of clean underwear and undershirt, both white.  Around him were several mannequins, each sporting a distinct set of clothing.  A woman wearing a skin tight red dress walked through the mannequins towards him, hands at her sides.  She approached with a smile that set Kurt on edge.

The woman simply walked around his chair, sliding a gloved hand across his shoulders as she went.  He stood, turning to see her approaching a steel door with artificial light pooling at its base.  She crossed her arms as she turned around, facing him.

“Well go on.  Pick an outfit.”  She pointed towards the various mannequins with a dismissive nod.  Frowning, Kurt turned back to the outfits and took a closer look.  One mannequin sported a simple navy blue suit with pin-stripes down the legs and sleeves, with a matching fedora hat and scarf.  Another wore garish lime green sports attire, with pants that sagged around its posterior and bright white sneakers.  Yet another was dressed in purely tactical gear, fitted black pants with pads built into the knees and a matching long sleeved shirt.

Kurt was distracted by a ping from his wrist.  Instinctually, he looked to his phone, and was pleasantly surprised to see it in its usual place at the inside of his wrist.  The holographic display expanded to show a text from Jimmy.  It read simply: “Where you at boi?!”  Kurt sighed.

Tapping a response, he kept browsing the various outfits.  “Picking an outfit, be out soon.  You nearby?”  He looked up with a start, seeing a mannequin wearing only a set of soiled white underwear and a scraped-up hockey mask.  Moving aside with a frown, he was drawn to a simpler outfit nearby.  A plain black hooded sweatshirt accompanied black jean style pants, with a pair of black running shoes for the feet.  As he dressed, his wrist pinged again.  “Outfits don’t matter to start, just get out here.  This place isn’t exactly safe my man.  I’m doing laps around the building you spawn in.”

As he hurried to dress, the woman walked over again, standing in front of him.  She carried a briefcase, and raised it in front of her, clicking open the lid.  Inside the case were two handguns, sitting on a wide cushion of red velvet.  Neither gun looked very nice, both being covered in scratches from years of hard use.  Kurt felt like he vaguely recognized them from movies and television, but nothing specific came to mind when he looked.  The woman sighed, an exasperated expression on her face.  “You have to pick one, honey.”

Shaking his head slowly, Kurt shrugged.  “I don’t know anything about guns; I’ve never even seen one in person before.”

Her eyes rolled and she gave him the same exasperated expression as before.  “Use your phone.  And by the way, that’s the last hint you get.  I’m sure you didn’t pick the least forgiving game on the market to have your hand held.”

With a scowl, Kurt raised his wrist and swiped at the empty air in front of it.  ‘Skills/Reputation’, ‘Equipment’, ‘Options’, and ‘Contacts’ were nestled in a compass points design, four options at the edges with the word ‘Scan’ in the center.  He thumbed scan and a holographic display sprang into life, showing a rotating version of the gun, a name and brief history, as well as several statistics in a bar format.  He toggled a swipe option at the top labeled ‘simplified’ and was pleased to see it switch to ‘realistic.’  The bar form statistics switched to script, giving details about the firearm in compressed form.

He had scanned over the black metal handgun first, and it identified as a Beretta M951.  He swung to the side and scanned in the other choice.  It was a revolver with a plastic handle painted to look like wood and a skinny looking barrel, and identified as a Colt Pocket Positive.  He toggled the ‘simplified’ and ‘realistic’ options a couple of times to see what was different.  The bars gave him a vague idea of damage, range, capacity, and rate of fire, while the realistic version simply identified the weapon.  The damage stat bar showed the Colt was slightly higher than the Beretta, but it also carried two fewer rounds and had a much slower potential reload speed.

With a shrug, he lifted the Beretta out of the case and hefted it, acting as if he were holding a living serpent.  Once he got past the initial mistrust of holding a weapon, he realized it was quite easy to carry and wield.  The screen on his phone changed, projecting a three-dimensional holographic rotating display of the firearm with a loot page hovering beneath it.

Beretta M951

Pistol.  Sidearm.  Weapon drops upon death only if equipped in the Primary/Secondary slot.

          Caliber: 9MM

Rate of Fire: Semi-Automatic

Capacity: 8 Round Magazine

 

“Heavier than I expected…”  He aimed with one eye squinted shut at a nearby mannequin and turned to speak over his shoulder.  “So, what now?”

“Everyone says that.”  The woman clicked the case closed and sat down in the chair he had recently vacated.  She smoothed a wrinkle at the knee of her dress and looked him in the eye.  “Now you go out in the world and make it whatever you want it to be.  Intentional torture of other players is strictly forbidden, of course, but most other forms of violence are accepted.  Sexual activity is also not permitted…there’s other games for that.  You the players control this world; I just clean up after you and provide a playground.”  She opened her arms and shrugged.  “I just need one thing from you.”

Kurt scowled, still holding the handgun on the mannequin.  “What?”

She picked at a fingernail briefly, before standing up to face him directly.  “Informed consent.  I am required by law to inform you that this portion of the game is being recorded.  The world you are about to enter is violent and frequently disturbing.  It is built around a theme of the early twenty first century.  Crime was rampant, and police intervention has been scaled to be a part of the games mechanic.  It will not properly represent law enforcement of this or any era, and you may not turn to them for help.  If at any point you need to log out, you are allowed to do so, but large penalties will apply to all reputations if you do so to avoid conflict or violence.  This is a game, and should never be mistaken for real life.  Do you understand all that I have told you?”

With a clumsy motion, Kurt attempted to spin his handgun.  It fumbled weakly around his finger and got stuck.  “Uh, sure.”  He started to move past her, and was surprised when she stepped to block him.

“You need to make me believe you.”  Her eyes were hard, boring into him.

He looked at her hard for a moment, his brow furrowed slightly.  Her arms were crossed over her chest, and her legs were spread wider than her previous stance.  She clearly meant to intimidate him.

A swell of anger rose in his chest at the thought.  “No.  I don’t.”

With that, he tucked the handgun into a holster that formed at the small of his back.  He moved past the woman, bumping into her shoulder as he did.  Once he reached the door, he stopped with a hand on the bar and looked back.  She still had her arms crossed, but now wore a predatory smile.  He snorted in derision and opened the door.  “Ais…”

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Gorilladin

Bio: Champion of the Light, defender of the innocent, bane of plantains.

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