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In my nearly four decades of life, there’d been lots of ups and downs. Recently, there’d been a rediscovery of beer. Fresh out of the tap beer that couldn’t be reached because I “had a problem” with responsible drinking. So, I did what any sane person with a bit of money and modern technology might do.

I pouted for a few weeks, attended court ordered meetings with grace, and eventually a coworker convinced me that virtual reality dives were as good—if not better—than the real thing. So I got a refurbished ARC device, alternate reality capsule, and logged in.

It was great. Online beer didn’t result in hangovers. No awkward morning walk of shame after a date. No accidentally driving my car into immovable objects. Just log in, guzzle, punch some people, and forget.

The problem with playing online virtual reality games is that the machines ruling it only gave us one character at a time. Our former overlords at Trillium, who were now fired, retired, or hiding from the news, had once insisted that a single character forced us to take our online lives seriously. They were right, and I hated them for it.

This wasn’t one character all across the virtual reality worlds. Not exactly. We got one character for the fantasy land of Continue Online. One for the space enthusiasts of Advance Online. And so on. There were five versions of the same concept and they only let you play one character for each. It got weirder once players realized events and characters between games were connected, if they asked for it.

Which is what happened shortly after the Soulless World event. All the digital world inhabitants had become lifeless, dull people. They’d come back, and some worlds started crossing genres. The whole thing was a mess and a publicity stunt by Trillium. They were sued. Everyone was sued. Eventually the worlds separated, for the most part.

Anyway, sharing characters between games turned out be useless as it didn’t give a huge advantage. The “online” games rewarded people for trying new stuff constantly and figuring out what they were good at.

That was the best thing about the five games. If a player got tired as shit of being a healer, mechanic, restomancer, or whatever, they could simply learn to play something else. It got leveled up and even cool cross classes unlocked.

But I didn’t care because most of my schemes involved getting beer money. Other virtual reality games exist but the only ones that could get a person drunk came with bar tabs that followed a player around.

I’d tried going to space to get a drink but they’d asked for credits instead of gold. I’d gone to hero land but they’d wanted dollars. So, I stared at the fantasy bar wondering how to get my latest fix and wash the memories of a day sitting in the back of an ambulance out of my mind. Thursdays were officially the shittiest weekday in the universe.

“Kenny,” a whiner pestered me. “Kenny. Kenny. Kenny.”

I ignored the man and continued eyeballing the bar’s entrance. This town only had one bar. There were other locations in other towns, but they also wanted me to pay my tab. Even player run bar owners knew I owed gold.

Why gold? Because this was fantasy land. I liked the fantasy game because the waitresses wore well-filled and loose blouses. Sure, I could find a blue-skinned woman to blow my mind, but it wasn’t anything compared to a lusty maid. I also enjoyed the surly gruffness to the bartender who couldn’t be matched by the madness that came with capes and cowls land. It was like being in the middle ages, with toilets and fireballs.

“Kenny. Kenny, I need you, man. Tell me that’s you.” The person wouldn’t let up. “We need a healer tonight to beat the other teams. Come on. One hundred gold is riding on this.”

I perked up and finally gave him a glance. John, Johnny, or DapperSeed as he went by in-game, was a part-time drunk with a gambling problem. He bet anyone on anything. It sounded like he’d bet on beating other groups in some monster mash event.

Gold would clear a bar tab. “It’s me. What’s that about money?”

“I knew it!” he shouted and hopped. Johnny’s character was short, like four feet something. It didn’t matter. He wore open toed sandals and his feet grew too much hair. Someone called him a hobbit, which made him scream his brains out, fight the player in town, and promptly killed by a player guardsman.

Frequent deaths and impulse control problems explained why DapperSeed’s character Rank was so low. Ranks are a fancy way of saying levels. I understood all the rules but my goals in fantasy virtual reality were focused solely on wine, women, and combinations of the two. Anyway, back to Johnny’s excited hopping.

“We’ve got three people and need a fourth. You’re a healer, right?”

“Not right now.” I hadn’t rolled anything worthwhile with this character. He cast lightning bolts, because I’d gotten drunk and decided to climb to the top of the starter town’s tower during a storm. Nature magic had rules too but most of them were about doing stupid stuff in unique places until something broke.

Here’s the box I’d gotten during the storm. It was new and slightly worth storing the notice in my hall of shame.

Event!

Successfully Taunted Lightning

High atop the tower of Butt Cheese you stood. You hurled obscenities at the raging storm, calling it all sorts of clever insults like a “bed wetting fog cloud who couldn’t even blow hard enough to make a newborn puppy whimper” and “Fred.” The lightning cloud took offense and spent the better part of the night zapping you, or the lightning rod nearby. No one is quite sure.

Nature Magic Learned [Tiny Lightning Bolt]

Affinity Gained [Electric]

[Basic Nature Magic] trait unlocked

5 [Reputation] Gained

The boxes could show more information as my character unlocked. Events were useful like that. I’d seen a lot because traveling while drunk and re-rolling characters constantly gave me all sorts of insight. However, talking about my other characters out loud would get me in trouble.

So, Johnny was still hopping. I’d been ignoring him because healing was not a skill I had on my newest character. I’d have to go pick up some basics before any dungeons or monster mashing if they wanted me to heal. Or, I could talk about one of the prior Fridays, who had been a healer.

“Right, you deleted the other Friday,” Johnny said. “I liked him. He had pointy ears.”

“No, he didn’t. Everything looks pointy from down there,” I answered.

Friday was my character’s name. I’d deleted the prior Fridays when the world’s story got too sour. There were lots of reasons to restart an account but most of my decisions were based on dumb plot choices. Continue Online insisted on making me deal with my issues prior to finding a tavern wench for a tumble. To which I said, “Kindly fucketh thyself” in my best Robin Hood imitation and started anew.

This, was Friday the 13th. It sounded worse than it had been.

“Plus, I’m a new character. I’m stuck in town for the rest of this week,” I said.

“Please. That’s bullshit. You know those two weeks are for immersion only. To get the mind”—he whined the words—“ready for time compression. You could get out of town if you wanted. You could walk right out the door. Right? You did it with Friday the 7th.”

I did. He didn’t need to hear confirmation. Telling Johnny anything good would launch the short man into a long-winded rant about how he’d been right all along and we should use this in [Insert Get-Rich Scheme Here].

“Nope. I’ve got to find my stash”—from Friday the 11th, he’d been in this town prior to deletion—“and sell off the items. Then I can enjoy my weekend properly.”

“Your stash is gone,” Johnny said quickly.

I paused and really eyeballed the tiny fellow. His clothes were a sopping mess, bruises were on his arms and face. He had weapons, but they might be held together by fantasy duct tape. Fantasy super glue would work, or Johnny’s deluded hope that looking like an utter scrub might get him some sympathy coins.

“What?” I asked.

“Yep. Pile Driver found them last night while you were logged off.”

“What?” I’d hidden them in a damned abandoned well in a water proof bag that reduced durability damage. That’s the secret to re-rolling characters and still having a leg up with the new one. Take everything, shove it into a secret hiding spot that no one goes to, and get back to it on the new character. Works great if you can get the same starting region.

“Yeah. Pile Driver. I watched him loot it all,” Johnny said. His toes wiggled and eyes glanced side to side.

“You saw him?”

“Yeah. The whole thing. He stole it all. Which means you have to help me and be our healer. Because otherwise”—he waved a finger at me—“you have no money to get drinks. No drinks, Friday is unhappy.”

The logic gap was obvious. “How did you know where my stuff was?”

“I don’t know where your stuff is,” Johnny answered.

“Then how did you watch him loot it all?”

“I didn’t,” Johnny said. He put tiny hands up and warded me off. I wasn’t tall for a human, but to a totally-not-a-hobbit, I might have been a giant. It kind of made me hate Johnny because he reminded me of a kid. Me and kids didn’t get alone.

Johnny didn’t answer. Telling me everything I needed to know. Either he was lying to get my help, or he’d seen me hide everything and probably led Pile Driver, whoever the hell he was, to my belongings. I’d had a nice staff from Friday the 7th that gave a plus to spell Ranks. It was worth a few hundred gold according to the auction house.

“So, you’ll help, right? I’ll talk to Pile Driver, he can give you the staff back. Right? It was in the bag. We win the dungeon run tonight and you’ll get twenty-five gold. Then I take ten and double it for you. That’ll be the thirty you need.” Johnny’s math didn’t add up. It never did. “To get the staff that I didn’t see him take but can totally help you get back.”

So, option B, him lying to get me to help, went out the window. Johnny had dropped knowledge about the bag and that my staff had been in there. There’d also been about two hundred gold worth of game crafting ingredients. Alchemy mostly, because I’d been trying to figure out how to brew an everlasting tankard. Thus far, no dice.

I glared. “My staff. The staff he shouldn’t even have. Should he, Johnny?”

I wanted to tackle him but my [Brawn], a fancy word for strength, was at a measly seven. That’s not even average for a new player. Ten’s benchmark. One hundred is seasoned. Three hundred and above is on par with dragons and godlings or whatever monsters represent them. There were a whole mess of stats but I hadn’t looked at them. The game bent me over the barrel a bit harder with each new character. I’d have to do a week’s worth of pushups to get anywhere useful, which was one of the big reasons behind the newbie in town timeframe.

“He totally has it. With the green jewel on the top right? Made from some cat’s eye,” Johnny said.

My eyes fluttered. “Sure. A cat’s eye.” It wasn’t from a damn cat. Cats were as bad as kids.

“You be our ringer, because we need a low-level healer who can handle quick pulls, and I’ll get you your staff.”

“I don’t even have the stats for being a healer,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter. You’ll get back to average quicker by doing stuff. You know. I know. The game wants you to do stuff. More stuff than sit in a bar all weekend crying to the bartender about how there’s no good women in the—”

I grabbed him, clamped a hand over his mouth and prayed he wouldn’t use his much higher strength to stop me.

Johnny’s stupid face twisted in an obvious grin I felt under my fingers. After a moment, I let him go and vowed to tackle him to the ground if he talked about my milksop attitude again.

“You in? First pull starts in four hours, game time. East dungeon, Widow’s Children. All undead and shit. Perfect for a priest if you’re feeling up to reclaiming Friday the 7th’s legacy.”

I checked my stats again briefly. There might be ways to do it without letting the game link my characters together. That’s what would happen the minute I admitted to being Friday the 7th. I’d get a percentage of the character’s skills, Ranks, and character points. I’d also get all the backstory baggage with it.

“Give me a half hour. I’ll see what I can do.”

Johnny, also known as DapperSeed, nodded his tiny ragged head and turned to escape. I frowned as the short man left. His clothes were an utter mess and even the pants he wore were clearly held together by bad patchwork. His skills as a tailor were utter crap.

“Oh, hey, Johnny!”

A good twenty feet away, Johnny hunched and turned slow. “What is it, Friday?”

“I’m going to need you to tie yourself up and go into autopilot. For skills, you understand?”

A frown cut across his face from ear to ear. I smiled in response. “I need a test dummy to practice on. You still have those crappy rope skills right?”

He didn’t nod. His eyes shifted back and forth as if debating the value of escaping now versus staying for whatever I planned next. While his eyes looked away, I stood on my tip toes and slowly crept toward him. Moving like this wouldn’t get me stealth skills in a single hour, but it’d start the process. There were too many ways to develop a character.

“Maybe I shouldn’t—” he started as I grabbed him. Johnny’s character could have escaped. By the same token I could have done all sorts of things to unlock a mile long list of skills and abilities. It’d be worth self-destructing a character simply to ensure Johnny never thought about stealing from me again.

I thought about Friday the 3rd and 4th. Maybe revisiting those characters wouldn’t be so great after all, but Johnny didn’t need to know.

“Come on, pal. It’s so we can win this bet. You don’t want me to have zero ranks before we start the dungeon, do you?”

He remained still in my hands like a kitten being grabbed by the scruff of their neck. Then his character logged off before anything more could happen.

Four hours in-game would be one hour in real life. It got really confusing because I kept my system time displayed and the game world ended up being distorted. It would be night time in an hour of game time, but only seven in the evening outside. Technology was wonderful.

Explaining what I was doing and the rules for the world were nearly pointless. Most long term players already knew. However there was one trick not everyone was aware of. Talking aloud while practicing a skill would help the skill grow faster, up to a point. Medical knowledge helped. Science helped. Admitting I still vaguely knew how to reload a gun and clean my equipment, from a four-year stint in the service, gave gunsmith and medic skills.

Medic was the one I needed if they wanted me to be a healer. It would take me another two hours, in-game, to demonstrate I knew how to channel a spell.

“Come on. We need to discuss our plan to win all this money,” I said to Johnny’s autopilot. While being out in the real world, an autopilot acted in accordance with the owner’s personality traits. Mine, if I ever let it work, went for a bar and made snide comments to everyone. It also, according to the system text, acted as if it knew more than everyone else. I mean, I did. It didn’t.

Johnny’s autopilot was worse than the human who operated it. The small man had a vacant look and would do anything someone told it, as long as there was money at the end. It would be tied up, dangled over fantasy crocodile pits, run distractions on guards for rich houses, fight someone, bite their kneecaps, whatever.

Butt Cheese, a town with maybe forty buildings, most of them being player homes, was a suburb of King’s Ground. We found a quiet spot between empty houses and I made Johnny’s character strip.

“How much is this worth?”

“Your share of the bet. It’s worth exactly that much.”

His autopilot frowned, and I started labeling parts.

“All right. Arm. Leg. Feet. Nose. Eyes. All basic. There are major veins running through here, here, and here.” I poked the autopilot. It held perfectly still and said nothing about the awkwardness of our situation. Honestly, I hardly noticed and continued spouting random facts that came to mind.

There were blood veins everywhere which meant my statements didn’t earn me a lot. It would have been better if I remembered the scientific names for everything but I’d forgotten most of that information. I recited a basic time frame for how long it would take him to bleed out. What kind of damage would be hardest to triage. I shared drug dosages I’d learned while working in as an emergency medical technician. I spouted more knowledge from when I’d been in the service. Facts from college courses.

I talked until my voice hurt.

“What are you doing?” a female voice asked me from the home’s corner.

“Building my skills with a volunteer,” I answered then said the average bone counts for a human male, female, and any other facts I thought of.

She, whomever she was, waited until I petered off before saying, “It sounds like you’re talking nonsense.”

“It’s nonsense with a purpose. You should try it instead of bothering me.”

She wasn’t rude, really the girl had been confused about my actions. It had more to do with the fact that she seemed to be twelve at most. Maybe she was twenty, I couldn’t tell anymore. Girls looked like brainless kids at that age. I preferred a woman who’d seen some shit and knew what she wanted from life.

Though if a woman was my age, and still didn’t know what she wanted, I tried to stay away. Relationships were a nightmare, it’s why I was currently single.

“Why is he naked?”

“Because he’s short and I have trouble finding out where all his parts are.”

She giggled. I smirked briefly and narrowed my eyes at Johnny’s chest. His character had a number of nasty scars crisscrossing his body. The guy had let himself, or his autopilot, be abused until it was a wreck. I couldn’t figure out how another person would even play a game like this.

“Does that really build skills?”

“Kind of. All of Trillium’s main games operate the same way. Demonstrate knowledge, apply, repeat until you improve. The game wants to reinforce learning that can be applied in-game and out.”

Event!

Bareback Alley Beginners

You and a friend found a small alley. You got your friend naked and proceeded to touch him, without getting consent. Then you called his body lots of long complicated sounding names. Some medically accurate. Some gibberish—clearly made up to feel self-important. But hey, at least someone enjoyed the show.

[Mentor] skill Rank 1 Earned

[Basic Medic] skill Rank 2 Earned

[Pervert] trait demonstrated

+ 3 [Knowledge] for demonstrating skills & traits

I sighed. That sort of went where I’d intended. Medic skills would help with any healing performed. It was different from [Healing] magic in that [Medic] skills required tools and time but didn’t use mana. They also fixed aliments like broken bones way better. For some players, this didn’t matter because they’d gain passive healing over time. [Knowledge] would help me with in-game guides and walkthroughs on spells, but if I could do them without resorting to the help system that [Knowledge] essentially was, I’d get more.

It was the [Pervert] trait that bothered me the most. Traits impacted everything the Locals looked at as well as autopilot actions. It seemed unfair. Johnny hardly counted as human to me, plus I’d seen so many naked bodies over the years I’d hardly noticed. In-game wouldn’t know that until I said something.

“Can you turn around and pretend you’re not watching me touch a naked man?” I asked her.

“Maybe if you put some clothes on him and stop playing doctor.”

“I am a doctor,” I said.

“Really?”

“Sort of. It doesn’t matter.” A robot had taken my job. Robots had taken lots of jobs and relegated humans to comfort tools. Me and puppies were almost the same, except puppies were a hell of a lot more successful with the ladies. “Turn around please.”

“Mmmhm. No. I think I’ll go get a guard and tell them. It’ll level up my reputation and respect.”

I rolled my eyes. Based on her clothing, it was a bluff. She’d more likely fit a rogue path. It didn’t matter. I’d gotten about as much out of Johnny as possible and debated sending his autopilot after the girl like a rabid monkey. The idea went out the window because being cornered by guards would mean death or jail time. Both would make us miss the window for the dungeon. Johnny had also suffered through enough [Redemption] point runs over the year, of real time, I’d known him.

“Fine. Johnny, clothes on.”

I turned and finally looked at the girl for more than a second. She wasn’t twelve at all. Tall, thin, kind of tanned and wearing newbie gear. She had a black dagger tucked into her belt and wore thick shin guards forming wicked spikes at the knees. I figured her to be a melee fighter who had barely figured out how [Brawling] skills worked. Brown, was my overall impression. Brown hair, brown eyes, brown clothes. Her young sounding voice was the only real trait to stand out.

“That’s not Johnny. That’s DapperSeed.” She pointed above his head.

“Johnny’s his real name. DapperSeed is the autopilot, or whatever. I mean, my name’s not Friday. But it is. You get it, right?” I pointed above my head where the name box should be.

She mocked my attempt at explaining in-game avatar names by lifting an eyebrow and biting her lower lip. “You know him in real life?”

“Some days.” Johnny had gotten me started on this game almost a year ago. That had been Friday the 1st. Friday the long deleted with all his backstory and drama buried in a deep hole. I’d made sure to throw myself in before confirming the character’s destruction.

“What does that mean?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I answered. “We’re working together on a project and I needed his autopilot to brush up on some skills. I got what I needed, his clothes are on, so can you please go away? Calling the guard would slow me down.”

“He seems harmless enough for an autopilot, but you should probably be hauled off.”

I glanced at her, back to him, and sighed heavily. I’d gotten too old to put up with any of this nonsense.

“Fine. Johnny, go about your day.”

“What about the money?” the autopilot asked with the same whiney tone Johnny used.

“We’ll be doing the dungeon later, like you said, remember?” I widened my eyes and nodded a lot. Autopilots weren’t stupid, they were simply dull. There’s a world of difference between a well-trained robotic version of a player and the actual player. I’d say it was the soul, but I wasn’t sure such a thing existed. Whatever it was, the lack of spark could be seen by anyone. That and the giant icon of an airplane pilot floating next to their character name.

“Dungeon. Right, I have a bet with Pile Driver and his group that we can clear Widow’s Children before he does. There were two other groups as well. The pot’s two hundred,” Johnny’s autopilot said slowly.

“Two hundred? You told me one,” I said.

“Told me fifty,” the girl said.

“It probably won’t matter. There’ll be gold but his autopilot lies easier than the actual player. That’s one of his traits, liar, Rank Four or Five.” Even his autopilot was untrustworthy.

“Right, one hundred and fifty. Fifty from each team. And I always tell the truth.”

“Not even when you’re beaten,” I said.

He shrugged.

I didn’t ask who’d paid our portion of the pot. It sounded like joint gambling where each team wagered something on the outcome. A fun way to pass a boring task. Clearing dungeons may have been exciting to some people, but I could barely keep myself awake. The early stuff had no challenge and I normally restarted before getting to the higher end fights.

Plus, I didn’t have good ways to clear my bar tab tonight without winning this bet. Even if the amount was fifty, one fifteen, or whatever.

“Friday is our healer. He’ll be able to do it, no problem. He could probably clear the dungeon faster than the other two teams combined if he really wanted. If we have enough time for him to get ready,” DapperSeed said.

“We’ve only got three hours left, in-game. That’s even less in the real world. I’ve got to feed my son,” the young girl said and stared at me. “You’re the healer? What’s he mean by you could clear it all? You’re barely Rank One in anything, much less a healing Path.”

I studied her and put the situation together fairly quick. She was either in our party, or one of the others. She had probably been searching for Johnny. She had all the markings of a new character and none of the guile I’d expected from an experienced rogue.

“I have been known to stitch a body or two together,” I responded. “What are you doing? Damage?”

“Sure am. Johnny is on traps and treasure. I’ll be dealing damage. There’s a fourth but Johnny didn’t tell me who anyone else was. That’s why I came to find him.”

“And the thing about the guards?”

“You’re not the only one who needs skills before the dungeon starts,” she said with a shrug. “Johnny, I need an advance on our earnings tonight. I’ll pay you back.”

I snorted, she was trying to hit up an autopilot of one of the poorest and saddest players I’d ever run across, for money. Hopefully she’d be better fighting then her street smarts indicated. Young people were sad sometimes. Based on her items, the woman might be going after a rogue play style which did nothing to undead. They didn’t have vitals or necks to stab.

“You won’t get any from him.”

“If you give me a few coins I’ll go make some trades. I can get you double your investment, easy,” the autopilot of DapperSeed said.

“Really?” She lifted an eyebrow. “Can he do that?”

“No,” I said while fighting a chuckle. “He does nothing but leak gold. In-game, out of game. Can’t keep a dime in his pocket. With that and his compulsive lying, I’m not even sure how he has the internet. Maybe he steals it from a roommate or something.”

Johnny’s autopilot tilted its head while staring at the mystery woman. “Five gold would be enough. I’ll get you ten. I swear.”

My lips curled with a smirk. Johnny’s [Conniving] skills might have been high enough if he hadn’t died so many times. He’d run this type of scam on nearly everyone. Most people gave in once, figuring five gold wouldn’t hurt. He’d done it to me, come back with proof that his five gold to ten plot worked, but he lost it trying to turn ten into thirty. He followed up with a demand for five more gold so he could get us the ten back and break even.

“I don’t have five gold,” she said.

“I can smell it. You have at least”—Johnny’s autopilot sniffed and bounced happily—“thirty-two gold. Fifteen silver. A sword worth—”

“What?” she squeaked in outrage.

I folded my arms and considered other ways to build skills. I knew a little bit about the town but most skills required training from a Local, who gave the Traveler some task they’d have repeat over and over for hours. Local is a fancy way of saying a person who thinks this game is the real world. Outside the virtual reality world, we called them AIs, artificial intelligences.

Travelers were people who visited the game worlds. In other games it would have been PCs, player characters, and NPCs, non-player characters. The distinction didn’t matter a ton. Everyone felt real enough because even the bar wenches would hold a grudge and stab a PC in their sleep if something bad happened.

I could go outside town and find a river and try to breathe underwater. I could channel lightning bolts into it for a quick [Knowledge] point and some skill ups with the Path of a [Natural Mage]. Might get a few fish for a meal, but without a cooking Path I’d be unable to turn fish into bonuses. Though lightning wouldn’t help with healing. Maybe I could use plants and try a druid class. They balanced between both healing and offense, which would help me in bar fights.

I’d never deliberately followed such a Path. My other characters had been different archetypes. Barbarian, Rogue, Mage, Drunk, Philanderer, and once I’d had an [Escape Artist] to Rank 10.

The woman’s words cut across, “Maybe I should let you two go back to poking each other.”

“I’ll let you poke me if you want. Two gold,” DapperSeed said. “Or twenty gold and I’ll find you a rare item. I take no responsibility for usability. Or prettiness. Or color. Color is extra. Thirty gold.”

I figured it was about time to let the poor girl off the hook.

“No. On second thought, Johnny, or DapperSeed, it doesn’t matter what she wants. You should stay with me. Maybe I can use you to get a healing skill and fix a scar or two before we do the dungeon. God knows those have to be hurting your constitution.” [Constitution] linked with health, endurance, pain feedback from immersion, everything. Excessive pummeling would damage stats. There was something like twelve main stats in the game with a million sub stats for number junkies.

She put up her hands to make me pause. “You can heal scars?”

“Not until later Ranks, I think, but trying might give me a few points.” It would too, everything did at first. The Ranks increased fast enough until about Five on any Path. After that it slowed progressively. Sometimes, I think the game slowed us down to force us to try new stuff or learn another class. “You’re free to join us. It’ll keep me talking which helps.”

I liked talking. I liked sharing what I knew with other people. Real world medical knowledge meant so little in my daily job that I’d forgotten nearly everything. My time with Johnny and the pop-up boxes had implied basically the same thing. I could barely remember the technical names I’d spent semesters memorizing in night classes.

I wasn’t sure if that had to do with my new job or how shitty I’d been at medical work in the first place.

“Where are you headed?” she asked.

“I’m going to the woods south of town. I need nuts,” I said and while getting ready to head out. “Johnny can find a ton even on autopilot, but if you spend an hour searching, you should get a skill. Treasure Hunting or Foraging or something. Probably foraging, which helps with wilderness survival.”

She nodded. I took that as a cue to get going.

“And nuts help you heal?”

“If I plant enough of them. Even more if they grow, I guess, but—” my lips tightened to stop spouting prior character knowledge. “It doesn’t matter. That’s long term. If I can plant enough I think that’ll work. It worked for a Celestial Druid I knew. He drank me under the table while telling me all about how he got his weird character. Course he planted the seeds under the stars and constellations. Said he did the Big Dipper fifteen times.”

“Planting gives you a skill? That’s so neat,” she said.

“Yeah. Do that enough, inspect Johnny’s scars and focus on fixing them. If I had some crystals I could run them along the scar lines to get a better skill but that’d take all night. I’ve only seen real crystal caves in the old starting towns. Players mined them all out, so they barely work anymore. I think most were put into bombs.”

Players ruined a lot of stuff in their search for materials. I remember when I’d been young, there was this game all about digging through stuff and building bases to survive the night. There’d been a few public servers where people could work together, but most of the time they devolved into sabotage parties as players stole from each other and broke houses in sneaky ways, so monsters could get inside. It proved that video game people were generally assholes to each other.

“You really think you can do all this in a few hours?”

“It’s possible to pick up Paths quicker. Apply real world skills to the game world. People who practiced Hapkido outside and bring it in to try against warrior trainers get Rank One almost right away. Of course, the Locals don’t like being put in joint locks so players also get their rears handed to them because of stat differences.”

Our travel went through the player town. Houses widely varied in both design and decoration. Players were compulsive about putting attention grabbing items all around the outside, and nasty traps on the inside. Some of the houses didn’t having anything of value and were more like deadly obstacle courses. I’d checked on a prior character.

Since the girl hadn’t objected to my rambling information, I kept going. “There’s this mage I heard about, took all of her science courses from the real world, used them in-game, became a Fusion Mage or something insane.”

There was a pause as she thought about whatever young women thought about. “And you’re a doctor,” she said again. Her tone suggested I might be a homeless person who’d found virtual reality gear.

“Yeah. If I can show it, I can use it. You could try it too. What are you good at?”

“I don’t know. I used to sing…” She paused, and her footsteps halted. I kept going a bit before turning to see if she’d decided not to join the autopilot and me in our woodland adventure.

“You all right?”

She stared at me, chewed her lip for a moment and shrugged. “I’ll be fine.”

There were only a few more blocks before we reached the edge of town and got to one of the gates that blocked us from the dangerous monster spawning world outside. The gates were well coded, with clever markers like “N” or “E” for which way the exit went. My target, a relatively quiet forest called [East Woods] was used by newbie lumberjacks, herb pickers, trappers and everything else under the sun. Most people left it as soon as possible because skill gains were low in weaker areas.

“You coming?”

The young woman swallowed. I tilted my head and smiled. The kid had a lot of questions, about me, about the game, and that didn’t bother me at all. I liked talking. It’d gotten me through the service. It’d gotten me through medical school and my internship. I enjoyed talking to the patients who were less critical while working on the ambulance. Talking is how real people shared and learned information.

“All right. We’ll get you wherever for this scheme, then I need to take an hour out before our dungeon. You okay with that?” she asked.

I nodded. Of course, real life came first. Being able to play in virtual reality didn’t cure us of the need to take a bathroom break or move around. Especially as I got older, I need to take breaks and stretch. “Real life makes it hard. That’s why I named myself Friday since I only get to play on weekends. Kind of keeps my happy place separate from the real world, you know?”

Her eyebrows tightened, and lips curved in a brief frown. Seconds later she’d managed to bottle up whatever was bothering her and we stepped through the eastern gate into the woods.

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