As Ken entered the sphere, it tilted to one side and he slipped on the foam. He toppled forward and fell onto his hands and knees. His bokken fell out of his belt. After getting back up, he told the CVRG sphere system to boot up. It ran through the startup sequence. He logged in, but this time it went through two-factor authentication. Maybe because of liability issues with the sphere? He remotely nabbed his private and public keys from his rooted phone sitting on the kitchen table.
"We need to calibrate the websuit," a female voice said.
Is that Aika?
"Spin around," the voice said. "Jump up and down, and do a few practice kicks and punches for me. Let me see you break a sweat."
Now this is a proper procedure. Why didn't they have Chie do this? I knew it, it was a glitch with companions.
He kicked the wall and fell over.
"Are you a noob? Try not to get a hernia," the female voice said, now with a hard edge to it.
This isn't Aika's sexy voice. Is she trying to make fun of me like on a reality show? Am I on a live video feed? "I didn't give my permission to be streamed."
"Pardon me? You're not, but just for the record, you did agree to any likenesses of you being used in advertisements and that includes video."
"Are you a bot or a real person? Am I on a group call or something?"
"I'm you're trainer."
"What are you talking about? I don't need training. I've been practicing all week in the—"
"You call jumping into walls and playing footsie with your friends training?" the voice said. "Just because you were level one hundred with your special Immovable Rock spell in Three Kingdoms, you think you're hot stuff in The White Imperium."
"We were practicing tactics and teamwork!" His neck muscles tightened up and he felt his veins pop out. "And how do you know about my secret spell?" He only used it in dire emergencies and Chie was the only one who had ever seen it. This voice wasn't the usual login bot. Could it be one of the rumored AI NPCs? No, it must be a real person. An admin? "Who are you? Show yourself!"
"Calibration complete, prepare for full immersion," said a deep male voice.
"No time, Hot Stuff," said the female voice. "We're diving."
Everything went dark.
His HUD lightened. Reflections of the flames of the fire in front of him danced on the surrounding rock walls. A thin spiral of smoke rose up and then drifted out of the entrance behind him. He wasn't in the sphere anymore; he was in a cave. The fire crackled and he felt the heat on his face. He stretched his hand out towards the flames. It was hotter. Curious, he thrust his palm into the raging fire and held it there. He yelled and jerked his hand back. It was red. That sure hurt like hell! It's definitely more than fifty percent of real sensory input. The pain in the training was dialed down to one percent and a sword piercing your gut hurt no worse than stepping on a tack. He recalled the welcome message in the websuit and CVRG sphere instruction manual.
Welcome, Player—to hell. Or, more precisely, to one of the infinite number of narakas or hells, where—through your custom-built websuit—you will experience the excruciatingly real physical pain of your most despondent defeat and the pleasure of your ultimate victory.
Oh my God, this is it, isn't it? I can't believe it. His face broke into a huge smile. Full immersion. Exactly like he and Mas had talked about. Even now, those nano-electrodes were stimulating his nociceptors. Having roasted his hand in the virtual fire had given him a taste of the kind of intense pain this digital world could deliver and it wasn't merely the cold wind of a blizzard. He was starting to have a few minor doubts.
"Mr. Shibuyama, you're to sign this document," the same female voice said.
He jerked his head around, this way and that. Then he saw her. In the glint of the fire, a woman's pale white face shone like the full moon. He was entranced by her. Her glossy black eyes shimmered in the flames. Pointed ears poked out from between her silky black hair tied back in a ponytail with a maroon ribbon. They twitched, breaking his trance.
"Are you a kitsune?" he asked.
"I am from the Shiromoriku Confederacy," she said. As she strode around the cave, the sleeves of her white haori jacket and maroon hakama trousers swished like blades slicing through air. Her matching swords, a katana and wakizashi, swayed from her left hip.
"Are you an admin?"
She held up a hand. "One moment."
"Greetings, Empress, I am at your service," she said and bowed, her head almost touching the ground.
The Empress! Ken looked behind him and around, but no one else was in the cave with them. Private chat. He focused on their conversation.
"Yes, he's almost ready to proceed on the quest. Only mere legalities remain." With her face focused in utmost concentration, she nodded her head several times.
They're talking about me, but nothing he didn't already know. He decided to check his stats, but none of the usual commands worked.
"By your quantum consciousness, it is become reality." She bowed again.
Ken chuckled. Wow, they really love their role-play, don't they?
Turning her attention back to him, she said, "now, the document."
"But I couldn't get my stats to come up," Ken said.
"Do you have wax in your ears? Legal documents have to be taken care of before access is provided to the system." She private-messaged a document to him.
You are to disclaim and render blameless, in any court of law in any of the multitide of universes in the multiverse, Websuit International for any injuries, mental, physical, or otherwise resulting from your use of the Websuit (henceforth called the "Suit").
"Sign it with your public key."
Even though it was standard legalese, it did make him wonder what could happen if the websuit malfunctioned. "Could I die from my nerves being stimulated too much?"
The sleeves of her robe rustled as she waved her hand in dismissal. "It's been fully tested. Nothing will happen, unless the maximum pain threshold is disabled, which will also never happen."
"But what if the pain level goes beyond the max?" he said.
"There's an emergency shutoff switch."
"Nobody ever reads the instructions, do they?" She sighed.
"I hadn't gotten to that part," he said.
She rolled her eyes. "In between your shoulder blades."
He twisted his arm behind his back, but didn't feel anything. "How can you possibly expect anyone to be able to reach back there?" Then he remembered how Chie had been knocked unconscious. How could he forget? Something must be seriously wrong with him if only now he was starting to have second thoughts. What if he really did die or was incapacitated? Now that he'd been fired, all of his options and benefits were gone. Hayden might not be able to get the education that could give him a leg up in the world. If he signed away his right to recover damages in this waiver of liability... But they offered him a job on the team. I don't have to sign any stinking waiver. "I'm not going to sign it."
"Are you really going to throw away all of your chances of winning the quest?"
"You're not going to kick me out of the game, are you? They know me." His hands clenched.
"Who knows you?" she said.
"Jake, Jake Robertson, he's the founder of Quantum Katana Online. Just talk to him and he'll clear..."
Her black eyes bored into his. "Whoever he is, he has no jurisdiction in the portal between the real and the virtual—only The Empress rules here and this is her law."
She was reporting to the Empress earlier. He could talk directly to the Empress if he buttered up this kitsune. He smiled. He could role-play her game, even better than she could. "Is the Empress part of Websuit International? Is she your employer?"
With her thumb and five fingers, she gripped the hilt of her wakizashi. "How dare you insult us!"
He quickly bowed. "Sorry, sorry!" The last thing he wanted to do was to get into a duel over honor with a gatekeeper before he even entered the game.
Her hand dropped from the hilt to her side. "We are not lowly employees. For over a hundred and twenty-one centuries, the entire Shiromiroku Confederacy has served the Empress and we miko have been honored in our role as her personal guard."
Miko? He should've known. He bowed low again. "You serve the Empress well."
She straightened up and stood taller.
He clasped his hands together in front of him. "Do you think just maybe I could talk to her now about the legal documents?"
She narrowed her eyes. "Such insolence! Do you think the Empress has time to waste on the likes of you?" With a flourish she waved her hand in the air and a timer popped up. "You have thirty seconds to decide."
Shit, maybe I should log out and contact Robertson myself, but I'm here right now and I can't let myself get kicked out of the game. Then I'd have to go through a lot of bureaucratic nonsense to get back in.
I mean, really, what could happen? I'm healthy, more or less, now that I got the cast off. What if I did feel the max pain? Of course, that wouldn't happen. This suit has gone through rigorous testing by Quantum Katana Online. And Robertson sure knows his stuff. Before Quantum Katana, he was the CEO of the Three Kingdoms, which has been raking in the bucks for almost a decade now. They wouldn't let something defective out. I wouldn't die, but it would kick my ass. I cut my finger before. I've even been struck in the throat guard with a shinai. And hey, I was even crushed by a concrete wall. I'm sure I could handle a little pain, right?
He signed with his public key.
"Now you are to proceed on your quest," she said.
"Let me at least check my stats! Stats!"
Nothing happened. What's the command? "Character attributes."
"My apologies, time is up." She pointed to the cave entrance. "We wish you success."
"Wait! Can't you tell me how to access my stats?"
"So," she said and arched one eyebrow. "You mean you want to be trained?"
He was hypnotized by her solid black eyes again. He was going to accept her offer, but then she smiled, displaying her rows of sharp incisors glistening with saliva.
"Well, not exactly, just technical assistance," he said. He sensed her indistinct yet palpable hunger.
"We only offer the complete package deal, but I could give you a sample, if you'd like?" Her grin widened to expose even more of her teeth. "As far as the commands are concerned, they're basically the same as in the Three Kingdoms with a few minor nuances."
He really did need to know the basics as well as the so-called minor nuances, and what could the training be? "O—okay, sure."
"The nuances, you'll soon discover for yourself, but there're more important components of your training," she said. Her body tensed.
Oh shit, we're going to spar.
She was shorter than him by three or four inches. Still, he had to be prepared for the outlier. She moved well and even under her loose sleeves, he could tell her arms were well-muscled. He had to be careful not to let her get in close and grapple with him. He'd seen it many a time in a jujutsu tournament, when Chie had taken down a hulking bear of a man.
All these assessments had gone through his mind at the moment he'd first seen her and in the milliseconds after he'd anticipated her attack. It was his in-game mind.
She released the hilt of her wakizashi from its scabbard with a sharp click.
"Real weapons?" he said. The hand he'd tested in the fire shook a little.
"You can't die."
He reached for the wakizashi on his belt but all he grabbed was empty air. Shit! He searched all around the cave. Then, he caught a glimpse of it in the corner. The glint of the fire reflected off of the ji of the blade.
"Unarmed combat for now." She snapped her wakizashi back into its scabbard. "But I hope you can get to it so we can have a full training session."
And then in a split second she was on him. She grabbed one of his arms and was going to get under him for the flip. He got lower than her and aimed a kick at her kneecap, hitting her thigh instead. She flinched enough to let him slip out of her grip, but she was solid and didn't budge. He whirled around to kick her again, but she slid in low and tackled his legs. It was exactly what he had feared. She pinned him to the ground with her legs around his neck and cut off his circulation with a leg armbar.
He was starting to lose consciousness. If he didn't slip out of her lock soon, that would be it. Somehow he twisted his head around and his neck hyperextended. It hurt like hell, but he kept stretching his chin forward. Crack! He winced but bit down on her thigh as hard as he could.
She yelped and loosened her hold a little, just enough for him to slip his head out. He rolled away, and, scrambling on all fours, ran for his wakizashi, and then dove for it.
Clambering up into a kneel, he whipped his wakizashi into a guard position above his head.
The sharp sound of metal on metal resounded throughout the cave.
His left shoulder flared up in pain and he stumbled backwards to put distance between them.
Her wakizashi sliced through the air in front of his face and he flipped backwards, barely landing on his feet, but he lost his balance and fell down on his butt.
She taunted him. "It'll take more than fancy acrobatics to survive out there."
With the tip of her blade pointing down, his blood dripped down from it onto the dirt floor.
It's insulting. She doesn't even bother keeping her guard up. Blood soaked through his long-sleeve shirt at the shoulder seam and a few of the disks in his neck had popped out. It was now or never.
"Don't you want to know your sensei's name so you can address her properly?"
"You're not my—"
In a flash, she whipped around to his side, flipped her wakizashi around, and slammed the hilt into his stomach.
He doubled over and fell to his knees. Gasping for air, he coughed up vomit and it dribbled down his chin. He glanced at his health bar. It had dropped twenty-five percent. He tried to stand up, but couldn't move. To the right of the health bar, a status message blinked.
Stunned: 30 seconds
The formerly bright green health bar was now covered over by a faded yellow bar that crept to the left every second to reveal the bright green.
"Only one knee is required." She turned her back to him and swaggered back to her former location. "Nevertheless, I wish all my students were as polite as you."
She motioned with her hand for him to rise. "Now, let's start from the beginning, shall we?"
The faded yellow bar had disappeared. He wiped the vomit off of his lips and stood up, but he could only manage a crouch.
"Bow and repeat after me, 'I, Kenji Shibuyama..."
He didn't need this kind of training. What kind of sadistic player would abuse another one like this? She's worse than a PKer. At least, they get it over with fast because all they want is the loot or the XP. "I don't see the point. I mean why so harsh?"
"Frankly, I'm disappointed. Clearly, you lack the drive to win."
"What're you talking about? In Three Kingdoms—"
She harrumphed. "The White Imperium has revolutionized gaming. Didn't you feel the difference?" She held her wakizashi up to him. His blood had dried in marroon globs in a few places on the hasaki. She scrunched up her face and pulled out a small rectangular box and a flask from inside her haori jacket. After slipping a piece of ivory paper out of the box, she dampened the paper with water from the flask, wiped down the blade, and sheathed it.
"Don't you want to toughen up as fast as you can? The other players aren't anything to sneeze at, you know?"
"Other players?" He hadn't really thought about the competition.
"Yes, like Sally the Steamroller and Killer Kumar the Tsar."
His eyes bugged out. Holy shit! If they're in here... He wasn't even a seven-dan, but he was still highly respected in his dojo. He felt degraded having to bow to someone cruel like this crazy miko. But, in a pragmatic sense, he had no choice. "I, Kenji Shibuyama..."
She smiled. "Promise to honor and obey..."
"Promise to honor and obey..."
"Yuri Sensei." He repeated.
"Now, give me the passcode to your phone—and your wife's too," she said, "if you know it, but no need to bother with her number."
"But that's private!" Ken said.
"Remember your pledge."
"But that's only for in-game."
She laughed and slapped her thigh. "There were no qualifications, but don't you want to win the one-hundred million Ether? Now is that a mere in-game result?"
"What kind of twisted logic is that? I'm not giving my password to another player."
"I'm not a player."
He frowned. What did she take him for? Even if she was an alleged AI NPC, he'd still be giving his personal data to a corporation. And, hell, for an AI on her level, they'd still need a quantum computer to train the neural network and the biggest was the 100-cubit IBM Feynman. Good luck getting a slice of processing time much less dedicated time for a fucking game. "Ha ha, neither am I."
She sighed. "You should be honored that the Empress would deign to have you perform this duty for her. She only has your best interests at heart."
She held up her hand and then bowed.
Another private chat with the Empress?
"The Empress's Quantum Katana?" Her eyes opened wide. "No, no, my Empress, I was merely caught unawares, after all, this is only the third—" She nodded her head vigorously. "Of course, my body, my mind, the sole purpose of my entire existence is to serve you." She bowed low. "By your quantum consciousness, it is become reality!"
Yuri Sensei turned to him. "Stay right here! Don't log out. Chie and Hayden and your best friend Mas are at your apartment and—"
"How did you know?" Did she hack my connection. Could she be seeing the apartment through the sphere's cameras? And how does she know their names?
She closed her eyes, pressed the tips of the thumb and middle finger of each hand together, and stood stock still. A few seconds later, she spoke from her trance. "Via the Empress's consciousness, the hacking procedure of yours and your wife's phone has completed. If you do not follow my instructions, they could die."
- 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)