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Difficulty at the Beginning
Chie Shibuyama had lied to herself again, but she was used to it, mostly.
"Guess the flavor," she said to her seven-year-old son Hayden as he sipped the cough medicine from the plastic measuring cup.
"Cherry!" Hayden said.
She kissed him on the cheek, tucked him under the covers, and said, "Now, you need to rest."
"But, Mom, it's too early, I don't feel sleepy at all!"
"I guess there's too much light outside." She pulled the drapes over the blinds and then sat back down on the bed.
"Just remember, the faster you get better, the faster you get to play with Daddy, okay?" She hugged him and kissed him on his forehead.
"The White Imperium!" he said.
She frowned and stood up. "I'm going to have a long talk with your father..."
"Mom, tell me a story."
She shook her head.
A sudden gust of cold air blew the drapes open. She shivered. It was freezing.
Why didn't I notice that the window was open when I closed the drapes? "Did you open the window today?"
"Nope." He coughed.
She walked over, slammed the window shut to make sure it locked, and then walked back around the bed.
"Please, please, just a short one?" He pushed himself up onto his elbows.
Knowing kids, with all the commotion, he'd be too excited to fall asleep. Slipping under the warm coverlet, she rested her back against the headboard and stretched her legs out next to his. "Okay, mister." She tousled his shoulder-length black hair.
He nestled his head back into his pillow and he blinked away the sleep.
"Mukashi, mukashi, a young boy and his childhood friend walked up a mountain searching for a famed treasure that would make them rich beyond all their dreams. It was said it was hidden in a series of caves and abandoned mine shafts near the ice-encrusted peak."
"Is this a real story or did you make it up?"
"Aren't both kinds real?"
"I like your made-up ones the best." He grabbed her hand and pulled his head into her armpit. "It's been a long time—"
She reached over and pressed her finger to his lips.
She wasn't sure how to proceed from there. Her phone dinged with a text message. An unknown number. More spam. She picked it up from the dresser and nearly dropped it. It was as cold as a glass of iced tea and a fine sheen of water droplets had condensed on it. She wiped it on her jeans and then placed her finger on the screen to slide it up to dismiss it, but ended up tapping it open instead.
She didn't remember any Yuri Sensei. Maybe someone from her parents' church? But why would they be texting her? And how did they get her number? Creepy. She blocked it. Yuki Onna? That fairytale? Oh, but that's a good idea.
"The boy and his friend reached a ledge before the last sheer vertical climb to the cave, which was the entrance to a labyrinth of tunnels. The ledge itself was a small cave inset into the cliffside. But it was dark already, so they decided to spend the night on the ledge and ascend to the cave entrance first thing in the morning."
"How long did it take to get there? To the cliff." He sniffled.
"Hmm..." She tapped her nose with a forefinger. "Of course, at least a few months to arrive at the base of the mountain and then maybe a week to make it to the base of the peak. Finally, about another three or four days to ascend to the ledge."
"How much farther until they find the treasure?" His eyes started to droop.
"It's an arduous climb, and then, who knows how deep into the caverns they'll have to travel?"
Just because she felt like it and wanted to hear him laugh, she slipped her hand under the sheets and poked his ribs. He squirmed and giggled.
"They fell asleep right away—like you should be doing right now—" She tickled him again. "In the early morning, a sudden freezing gust blew into the small cave and woke the boy up. He shivered and rolled over on his side to see if his friend was awake too. But his friend was sound asleep. A shadow hovered over his friend."
"Oh no!" Hayden pulled Chie's arm deeper under the comforter and nestled it over his chest.
"The boy clicked his flashlight on. Bent over his friend, close enough to kiss him, was a woman with long black hair and she was draped in an ivory kimono. She blew ice-cold fog onto his face. Tiny icicles coated his eyelashes. Teardrops of ice sealed his eyelids. The boy screamed and grabbed his friend to get him to run away, but then recoiled. His friend's body was frozen solid. The woman looked up with black beckoning eyes and white skin as uniform as fresh fallen snow. The boy was rooted to the—"
"Aww... it's not your story, it's Yuki Onna."
"No, no, it's Yuki Onna Version 2.0."
"But I know what's going to happen. She's going to say, 'Oh, you're too handsome and I'll let you live, but you must never tell anyone about me and—'"
She put her finger to her lips. "Shh... but there's more. Do you think he found the treasure?"
Hayden's eyes opened wide. "Did he?"
"That, mister, will have to wait until the next bedtime episode."
"Aww... just like five minutes more?"
"I can't." She slipped out from under the coverlet.
"Okay, three minutes!"
"But I haven't figured out the rest yet."
After kissing Hayden good night again, she closed his door and plopped herself down on the couch in the living room. She strapped on her integrated VR helmet, grabbed her controller, and logged in to Three Kingdoms, the precursor to the most immersive MMORPG ever—as Ken was fond of proclaiming every time a new trailer came out—Quantum Katana Online: The White Imperium. Whatever, her old Three Kingdoms stomping grounds were more than enough.
Out of habit, she cranked up the dubstep until her earlobes vibrated like bees. She used to use its heavy bass to drown out the chanting crowds dissing her and her fans lambasting her opponent. In order to win, she had to enter her inner state. Her head and shoulders bobbed to the beat. Adrenalin pumped through her veins, making her entire body tingle.
The VR visor faded to black. She was about to enter the game sector. She broke out in a cold sweat, her armpits clammy. Her hands clamped down on the sides of the helmet. She was about to rip it off and throw it in the corner, but she told herself to take deep breaths. Then, she remembered. The Chie in-game was not the shy, geeky mathematician outside the game. In-game, she had nerves of steel, magic as life-affirming as the rosy dawn, and the cunning of a crow. Rose Crow.
A system message popped up.
System Time: 17:Ɛ:4B:99 1210-08-Ɛ
Caution: Fatalities resulting from last month's swattings in three US cities have been traced back to activity in Three Kingdoms. Three Kingdoms (recently acquired by Websuit International) takes your security and safety seriously... We advise that you do not share any personal information with unknown PCs. In the terms of service...
The usual cover-your-ass verbiage. She reached under the edge of the three-quarters helmet and rubbed her temples. Everyone knew what they were referring to and it was all too familiar. The father of a teenage boy had been shot in the chest by the police when he'd answered the door with a pool stick in his hand. And last week, her niece's high school had been locked down because of a threat. She punched her thumb down onto the controller button to accept it without reading the rest.
"Welcome, Rose Crow!" a deep male voice said. "Just wanted to let you know that the client software upgrade is proceeding as a background process."
"By the way, I love your hairstyle. The short and straight no-nonsense professional cut looks so good on you."
"Who is this? How do you know what I look like?" As part of the registration process everyone had to submit a federally-certified ID. The photo on her California Real ID hadn't changed in years. But employees couldn't access account information, except by request of the account holder. "That's against the terms of service."
"This might take a while, but don't worry. You can still play while the upgrade completes. If you need any help, simply ping me, Marco Kang. Have a splendiferous game!"
Her face blushed. It was an automated but also templated welcome message. She grunted. Whatever. Trying to make their messages all personalized and chummy, now aren't they? She wasn't one of those all-looks and no-brains social media stars gaming companies were always trying to court.
The visor lightened into a full VR scene, fading in like the beginning of a movie. She was in-game, standing in a small clearing. Ice-encrusted mountains ringed the horizon in all directions, imprisoning her. The gray sheen of clouds blanketed the sky like the roof of a monstrous cage. Doesn't look like a safe zone to me.
Peering into the forest, she searched for a path. Even though the dim light muted her depth perception, she saw something luminous and white on one side of the clearing. She shivered. Spider webs. Gargantuan ones too. They coated the trees from top to bottom and were so thick they practically formed a single massive cocoon. She hated spiders.
Who said hell had to be all fire and brimstone? Whoever created this part of Three Kingdoms must've been clinically depressed. It could drive a woman insane.
A strong wind blew and the giant redwoods swayed like dancing mimes. Now this is more like it! She flipped off the dubstep playing in the helmet's noise-canceling headphones to see if the environmental sounds were improved too. Craning her head to listen, she heard the rush of the wind blow past her ears, her rose cloak billowing. How about gross and fine motor movements? She moved the controller pointer over her arm and raised it. Each individual joint, the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, moved in lock-step. Such detail!
"Stats," Chie said. Her character sheet displayed in the left side of her field of vision, overlaying the scenery like in the usual HUD every player was used to. At least that command's still the same. Ken had insisted on paying the annual renewal fee for a non-operational character.
|Name||Rose Crow||Naginata||Leather Armor|
Everything looked in order. Wait, what's universe? "Help," she said. Nothing happened. It's the same as the node she was redirected to. Must be something like another sector. She read through her attributes.
She didn't remember Chi. Martial energy? Trying to call up the help probably won't work, but I can't improve efficiently through trial and error. "Character Guide." Again, nothing happened. She shrugged her shoulders. At any rate, it was really high and that could only be good.
While holding her naginata polearm in one hand, she held up her other arm and studied the diaphanous pink fabric of her sleeve as it fluttered in the breeze: armored cloak, level 78. It was as thin and light as silk crepe but as tough as tank armor. Then she zoomed out and looked at her back. It was bare. Dammit! Where're my wings? "List item transaction history for wings."
|2016-06-06||Wings||Acquired||Crow's Nest Dungeon/Blood TenguNPC||Rose Crow|
She hadn't been online since 2020. Somehow she'd lost them. Had there had been a catastrophic system event at the castle where her character was stored? No message had been provided when she logged in. That left only one possibility. Someone had stolen it. She slammed her fist down on the couch arm. Dammit! What is Rose Crow without her wings? I'm going make that thief pay.
"RS 1," said a voice over private chat. "This is Rogue X1."
She knew that call sign right away and sighed. "Hayden, how do you expect to get better for your field trip?"
"Couldn't sleep. Coughing."
"How did you get in? This is an eighteen-plus universe."
He mumbled something and then coughed again.
She frowned. It was Ken. He must have corroborated Hayden's age. "Your father and I—"
She clenched her jaw. "Young man, log out, right this minute."
"But Mom, you're on a quest right? I can help you. I've been here."
"I know, with your father." She crossed her arms. Ken should know better. The violence is extremely graphic and there's explicit nudity!
"It was an accident," he said. "And it was only for like way less than five minutes. Then Dad figured out where we were."
Her face softened. Of course, Ken hadn't done it on purpose.
She couldn't fly and she didn't know the area, but she had to meet her old nemesis and iron out the details of the challenge. Even after all these years, she couldn't give up the chance to redo her final match. But she wasn't going to fight yet, so she'd have Hayden help her get her bearings and then he'd log off.
"Just for a little while."
"But we're not here to play."
She told him to come out of his bedroom and sit with her on the couch.
In-game, he was in the town and after she described where she was, he knew exactly how to get there. He wasn't too far away because they were in the same party. After all, they were from the same IP, so the system grouped them together. Although on occasion a glitch might occur. On one dungeon crawl, Lucy had been logged in to the dining hall of the Blood Tengu's dungeon when the rest of them had appeared at the entrance up top. Good thing she'd been a rogue; otherwise, she would've been lunchmeat.
After fifteen minutes, she thought he was taking too long and private-messaged him. He said he was almost there and on one of the trails. Through a break in the trees, she spied a narrow path and decided to meet him there. As she started walking towards it, she heard the crunch of leaves behind her. Oh! He came another way. She turned around.
Something dark and spindly lunged at her. In an almost autonomic response, she hit her left controller button and struck straight down with her naginata. The curved blade sliced clean through its head. Black blood spurted out and splashed all over her chest and arms.
Tsuchigumo Spider (HP 100) killed.
-1 (STR damage modiifier)
+ 100 (Naginata damage)
+ 12.5 (chi damage bonus)
* 3 (critical hit)
Chi: -2 (overkill penalty)
Adj. Chi: 223
The momentum of its segmented body carried it forward, slamming into her body full-on; she stumbled backwards and fell down onto her back. The tsuchigumo's body thrashed about on top of her. I've got to get to Hayden! He could be in the same trouble! Her heart was beating so hard, she thought it would burst out of her chest. She pushed up off of the couch, but the tsuchigumo didn't budge.
"Mom!" Hayden pushed the twitching corpse off of her. Blood and sticky fluids coated her cloak.
Her avatar jumped up and hugged Hayden's halfling rogue. "Thank God! I was going to call 911."
She felt his small fingers on her bare forearm, but they were covered by kote armored sleeves. There was no way she could feel his fingers.
"Mom, we're in a game."
Chie decided to go back into town, as that was the best place to ask around about her old nemesis Prokreashun, the player she'd lost the championship to. But he wasn't going by that handle anymore. That asshole gave me a math riddle:
Ɛ + Ɛ = 22.
If you could call it a riddle. What an idiot._ Now all she had to to was find something or someone that matched a duodenary system.
"I'm bored," Hayden said and drew a snowflake in the dirt with his dagger. "The new game is so much better." He started drawing another snowflake.
"You haven't even played it," she said. Hayden had wanted to register in the new game, but she'd put the kibosh on that right away.
"But Dad said it's so much more immersive than Three Kingdoms. Three Kingdoms is as useless as a stinky, holey sock. The White Imperium is the true simulacrum."
"Stop it! Stop parroting your father right this minute. Or we're logging out." Ken had been talking about it non-stop for weeks. Ken kept saying things like immersive and the true simulacrum. Then, last night, he'd rambled on and on about her mobotacts and founding a stealth startup together with her, and, of course, Mas. Just like old times, he'd said. She gritted her teeth and growled to herself. She was sick of his dreams and VRMMORPGs. Or, if she was really honest with herself, scared of them. Too much had changed—it had become too real—almost hyperreal. Even logging into Three Kingdoms was a huge risk. It had been seven long years and as many major versions since she'd been on. She hadn't doubted it was going to be even more immersive than before and it now it had proven that.
Hayden made a sour face and crossed his arms.
Chie laughed. She couldn't help herself. He crossed his arms exactly like Ken.
She thought out loud, "I didn't touch the controller. So how did my avatar hug Hayden's?"
"Dad said the websuit translates your body moves into the game."
She turned to stare at him. "Websuit?"
"It's like a wetsuit for diving. It stimulates the different kinds of nerves."
"No techno-babble. Speak English, please."
"That's what Dad said. You're good at math, you can get it. You've been playing with that math thing all today." Hayden turned his back to her and sat his butt down in the dirt. "Instead of with me!"
"You guys have been hanging out too much." She wasn't jealous. His being there for Hayden was one of myriad reasons she'd married Ken—in contrast to her own father.
"Yeah, Dad plays with me way more than you do!" Hayden spun around on his butt, again and again.
"To get back to the wetsuits—"
"Web Suits, Mom!"
"Correction accepted, sir!" She saluted. "We're not wearing any Web Suits."
"Oh right, but Dad said that in The White Imperium software in the helmet can also read body movements in a limited fashion."
"We're not in The White Imperium either." Neither did she ever want to be in that overwhelming level of immersion. Even right now with only sounds and sight, it was almost too much for her. The fine-tuned movements of Hayden crossing his arms and the childishness of his scowl. Birds chirping. The sound of the breeze whistling past her ears. The crunch of dry leaves under her boots. She couldn't imagine what it would feel like if she were wearing a websuit in The White Imperium. To actually feel the smooth silk of her cloak between her own fingers, the heft of her naginata, the swing of it, the resistance of flesh and bone as it sliced through a challenger's chest. She'd never want to leave. She shuddered and hid her black desire deep down within her subconscious.
Then from behind her, she heard a squelching sound. She spun around, her naginata poised in a guard position. She grabbed Hayden and hid him within the folds of her cloak.
The abdomen of the tsuchigumo ripped open. Innards splattered all over her face. She wiped red and yellow goop out of her eyes with a single forefinger. Joint movements are even down to individual digits!
Her view automatically zoomed in on the tsuchigumo. Claws peeked out of the opening and, with a sound like raw chicken legs being torn apart, ripped it even wider. A kappa imp NPC crawled out. I think that was a video. Yes, that's it, a short clip is automatically played to emphasize the action sequence. It was so real, it was eerie.
It bowed to her with a flourish of one hand, its six sharp claws dripping with blood. Spider juices sloshed over the lip of the bowl-like depression on top of its head. "Greetings, Dr. Chie Shibuyama! I'm so glad that I was able to finally catch you."
It can't know my real name! The system didn't save any personally identifiable information with a user account, not even for payments. Could it be... but kappas aren't playable characters. She opened the private chat to Hayden. "This isn't the player, is it? The one that sent your dad the challenge?"
"I don't know, I mean, me and Dad never met the player," Hayden said.
She eyed the kappa and backed up. Before she quit, the NPCs had turned devious. While sweet-talking you, they inched closer and closer to you. Then, before you knew what hit you, they'd already bitten off a chunk of your armor and taken a hefty piece of your flesh with it. The result: your hit points were knocked down by twenty percent—if you were lucky. Unlucky? A critical hit.
"I come in peace." The kappa held its hands out, palms up. "Her majesty, the Empress, sent me, her envoy, to deliver a message."
She tightened her grip on the shaft of the naginata.
The kappa fished a scroll out of its pouch and read it. "Dr. Chie Shibuyama, I invite you to participate in a quest in The White Imperium." It private-messaged her the quest details and rolled the scroll back up. It held its hands behind its back and whistled while waiting.
She didn't even bother opening the private message to read the quest. It wasn't like she had any time to spend traipsing around a fantasy world on some irrelevant adventure. Those were the old days, the days of irresponsible youth. She was only here to find her nemesis. She also had to finish a coding project and editing the game theory mathematical article back in real life.
She turned around to head into town to find some player characters and see if they knew anything about that jerk Prokreashun or anything exhibiting duodecimal attributes.
"Wait, so what do you think?" the kappa asked.
"Not interested." She dismissed him with a flick of her wrist.
"What? Not even a million Ether?"
She shrugged her shoulders and started walking away, Hayden still hidden under her cloak. She loved teaching and solving mathematical problems. She had family and friends. What did she need an obscene amount of money for?
"Just between you and me," the kappa said to her back, "I'd accept the quest. You don't want to get on her bad side, you know."
She laughed under her breath. She'd never been concerned about offending any big-name players, even as a newbie. She got real good, real fast at leveling up after respawning—many times hitting her daily respawn max.
The kappa jogged after her. "Do you remember when Brian's Brigands razed a village to the ground a few weeks ago?"
Is the quest to bring Brian's Brigands to justice? Or maybe the brigands were exacting retribution for an intrusion on their territory. Could be the beginnings of a war. Her mathematical modeling curiosity was piqued. In an open and persistent world like Three Kingdoms, large-scale player-initiated events could have a large impact on a game.
She turned around and shook her head.
"Where have you been? In a cave?" The kappa laughed at her.
What? This doesn't sound scripted.
Hayden peeked out from in-between the folds of Chie's cloak. "Don't talk like that to my mom! She's the great Rose Crow!"
She shushed him.
"Oh, a halfling." Its eyes glazed over and it clapped its webbed hands together. "Do you want to play a game? Maybe hide and seek?" It stretched its arms out and waddled towards them.
"No shirikodama organs for you today," Chie said and thrust her naginata out in front of the kappa.
The kappa bumped into the blade with its nose and fell onto its rump. "Ouch!" The kappa shook its head, stood up, and rubbed its butt. "Sorry about that, instincts are sometimes hard to overcome."
It was almost like it was improvising, but it could still be a very complex script. If it could continue in this open-ended conversation for another thirty minutes or so, it could pass the Turing test. But that's impossible. Is it a new feature allowing gamers to masquerade as NPCs? I can't believe they'd allow that. With stealth like that everyone would become a PKer. I'm going to test it with a meta-question.
"I didn't know NPCs could overcome their programming."
"Not if you were borne by The White Imperium."
"Dammit, you're a player! This is outrageous! They can't allow players to take on NPC avatars!"
"I'm not a player."
She put one hand on her hip and struck the shaft of her naginata on the ground. "Can't fool me. What's your handle?"
Laughing, the kappa held its belly and then tilted its head to the side. Sticky spider juices spilled out. "Oops!" It grabbed its head on both sides and righted itself.
"Mom, they don't have that feature," Hayden said over the private chat.
"What do you mean?" Chie responded in chat. Clearly, it made an appropriate response about the nature of its own existence, that it's in a game, and it's too ad hoc to have been scripted.
"Maybe it's telling the truth. You know how Dad's raving about the invitation-only alpha."
Oh, the alpha test. Could it really be that advanced? But how could it be here in Three Kingdoms? Whatever, it doesn't matter whether it's a player or an advanced NPC. Its behavior's the same and after all, reacting as though it's an advanced NPC is the pragmatic thing to do. But I'll be really pissed off if it's a player lying to me.
The kappa scrunched up his bushy eyebrows and looked her up and down. "You are the real Rose Crow, aren't you. The signature pink cloak—but wait—where are your wings? Oh, they're under it, right? You wouldn't want to have them exposed all the time. You are quite the legend, you know?"
"Do you know anything about a player who challenged me and knows my real name? Or has twelve characters in their handle?" That would be a start. "Or is level 12?"
"Is it true you got married in Three Kingdoms?" the kappa said.
Oh God, does everyone still remember that? And I even scrubbed it from every website I could find.
"I'm such an admirer of yours!" The kappa smiled. Its thin lips exposed jagged lines of shark teeth protruding all along the length of its jaws. It wiped saliva off its chin. "Now that you're back, are you going to start up your party again?"
My party? I can't. I can't get stuck back in here. She was starting to breath fast. Her arms and legs were paralyzed. A sudden clap of thunder. She jumped. Dark clouds swirled in the sky and it started to rain. The pitter-patter of raindrops sounded so real that she touched her fingertips to her cheeks to see if they were wet.
"Mom, it looks scary."
Back on the couch, she felt his hands tug on her arm. She was so immersed in the game that she'd forgotten about Hayden. She squeezed his shoulder. "You've been such a huge help, but Mom can handle it going forward. Why don't you to log out now?"
He logged out.
"I was just playing with my son."
"Oh well, you wouldn't have time for your own adventures anyway, here in The White Imperium, I mean, with the quest the Empress has planned for you and all."
"I'm not in The White—"
"Don't tell me you missed the announcement that you were entering the alpha test node and the software update?"
Then she remembered the message: alpha-test-WI03 node. Her chest tightened up. No, it can't be. I can't stay here. She grasped her helmet with sweat-soaked hands.
"Calm down, don't you want to find the challenger?" asked her black desire.
She released her helmet and then grasped and squeezed her controller with both hands. "As I already said, I'm here for my son. I'm not going on any quest for anyone. And about that player—"
"I see." The kappa turned to go.
"Wait!" she yelled after it.
It spun around and smiled at her. "Second thoughts?"
"No, the player—"
It sighed. "You can contact me whenever you want." It sent its handle and public key to her.
"But you're an NPC!" Why would an NPC need a public key?
"Did I say that?"
"I asked you and—"
"And I said I'm not a player."
"You boldfaced liar!" She pointed her finger at the kappa.
"Liar? I'll have you know I'm the Empress's chief diplomatic envoy and as such I am obligated to tell the truth or otherwise say nothing. Furthermore, I am forever in her debt. For those reasons, you will never find a more effective diplomat."
She still didn't believe it and it had ignored her question time and again. "Answer me! Do you know a player who knows my real name? Or anything having to do with the number 12?"
"No," the kappa said with a straight face and then picked at its teeth.
Was it really telling the truth? Maybe if what had caused it to be indebted to this so-called Empress were great enough, then she might believe it this one time. "What did she do for you? The Empress."
"I have another errand to attend to, so let's keep it brief. When I was a mere pup, she personally saved my tribe from freezing to death. The Empress is most merciful and kind, except for those who cross her, like those brigands who burned one of her villages."
Is it trying to be in-character again? In-game punishment, so what? "Brian's Brigands, right? What happened to them?"
"Of course, it goes without saying." The kappa paused, reached up to its mouth with one hand, and used the tip of one of its six claws to pick black spider skin out from between its teeth.
As though hypnotized, she watched it scrape and scrape between its pointed incisors. The kappa had been waiting for her. It knew her real name. Six claws + six claws = 12. Doudenary.
"You, you're the one."
It smiled and stared her straight in the eyes. "The leaders were all swatted."
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)