On the uphill trek out of the Haunted Iron Mine, Jim took some time to sort out the changes that had occurred to him. The quest text for The Necromancer’s Crystal caused a mixture of anticipation and dread. 100,000 XP, but at what cost? With that much of a boost, he would surely reach a much higher level and be able to obtain better goods and equipment to sell; he would almost certainly be able to pay for another month to maintain his preserved brain and digital consciousness. He pushed the thought aside. The previous quest for 5,000 experience had resulted in the group fighting a level 5 boss. What difficulty would he have to face for a reward twenty times as powerful?
Jim instead focussed on his level up. He had his own talents to distribute, as well as those of Vanessa’s hunters. When he opened up the interface, the options overwhelmed Jim. Where previously the choices on the talent wheel had been few and far between, now his choices were almost endless. At reaching level 5, he had gained the option to select any of two dozen new talent trees, and at least two individual talent choices for each tree. Rather than trying to pick the best talent from a limited pool, he had to rule out options he would likely never pick.
First, Jim ruled out taking a combat specialisation or most other new talent trees. He also felt that a second Magic talent would just dilute his power, rather than improving what he already had. After some consideration, improving the strengths Jim already possessed seemed like the most logical choice. Leadership and expanding the power of his forces would have been ideal, but so far Jim hadn’t been able to even replace his losses – the population of Andrew’s Camp was just too small for now. Governance could possibly fix that solution, but the Fertility talent increased growth rate, and a 1% boost to a population of less than 200 would give him one new potential recruit every nine weeks if he understood the talent’s description. The new Reptile Bloodline talent that had opened up, Shed Skin, was another personal defensive talent; something he would not need for some time.
The damage-over-time effect, Ignite, from the Fire Magic talents appealed to Jim. Under the right circumstances, such as with the Zombie Lord, a combination of Incineration and Ignite would deal appalling damage. Fortunately, however, Jim checked the until-now neglected Personal talents. Most of the trees available under this category fell into crafting or professional talents, something Jim would never have time for if he continued to be a leader or governor. There was one Personal talent, however, that Jim had skipped over in the past without even bothering to look. Scholar.
The two Scholar talents Jim had available to him were incredibly powerful now that he had access to magical talents. Powerful enough for him to bypass the Ignite ability, even. Teacher drew Jim in. He had spent decades of his life, admittedly somewhat unhappily, as a teacher. He thought he’d gotten pretty mediocre at it, too. He could definitely pull off a computer-assisted version of his profession if he needed to. Who knew what awesome skills he might be able to teach his armies?
Learned One, though, was too good to pass up. Even if he never invested another point in Scholar, and the demands of Leadership and Governance made it likely that a second such point would be at least delayed, the +1 to base and maximum mental attributes were heavenly. While one attribute point seemed minor, the talent gave him a base attribute point, not a bonus attribute point. All of the equipment and level bonus points he received would scale from that number. This wasn’t a one percent increase like it appeared on the surface, but potentially a several percent increase. A talent like Ignite just didn’t rate in terms of potential. Not until his fire damage improved significantly, anyway.
Scholar Talent Tree selected.
Having spent his talent point, Jim closed the interface and fell back to walk with Vanessa.
“Yes, honoured elder?”
“Now that we’re level 5, have you had a chance to decide how you want to improve?” Having conversations with computer characters about game systems definitely broke Jim’s immersion with the world of Platinum Online. The prompts related to him were expected, normal; he played a game, after all, even though he frequently forgot that fact and got too wrapped up in everything. Computer generated people still felt like people to Jim, though. Asking Vanessa how she wanted to improve made him feel like he’d swapped shoes with the Human Resources officer where he last worked. Maree. God that woman was a robot.
Jim maintained a smile that had suddenly become cracked, dry and unnatural. Vanessa took her time responding.
“Yes, honoured elder. I think I and my hunters ought to improve our Projectile Weapons talents.” She told Jim her reasoning for her choices and why the Double Shot talent seemed like the best fit.
“The accuracy penalty to Double Shot will mean nothing if we use the Aimed Shot talent we already have.”
Jim trusted Vanessa’s judgement and did not want to appear tyrannical, even if some of his decisions tended toward the authoritarian at times. Jim extended his attempts at a democratic group structure with the loot they received from the boss, but Langdon shrugged when asked and the rest followed his lead.
“You decide, Jim. Some armour would be nice, but none of us know a lick about forging it.” He also went on to express disinterest in using the rare mining pick or the construction materials for the same reason. Jim ran out of time to ponder his decision when they reached the exit to the dungeon.
A huge bonfire burned in stark contrast to the starry sky. The shelter Jim had arranged to be built in the hours they spent in the mine had exceeded his wildest expectations. The hunters, it seemed, had developed some knack with manipulating earth. Even though they didn’t have specific talents for fortifications, Samouel must have imparted a little somethin’ because rather than a haphazard barricade of fallen logs, the shelter had waist-high earthen bulwarks. Sharpened stakes had further hardened the defences of the encampment and Jim felt more secure in the middle of the former slave camp than he had in Andrew’s fledgling town.
“Damn, that’s not half bad,” Burke said, inspecting the base of the earthworks.
“Yeah, it is.” Jim yawned. “Let’s get something to eat.” The hunters had even prepared an evening meal of spit-roasted wild game, for which Jim was grateful. He felt too tired to want to prepare something himself and this was the next best thing to fast food. Maybe better.
He lay back against a log by the fire and yawned again.
He felt tired. Wait. Tired? Something was wrong. Jim tried to force alertness through his mind, but all he could do was sputter to a stop like he’d run out of gas or someone had pulled the cord. Jim’s eyes shut.
Dreams of strobe lighting and burning pain jolted through Jim and he awoke. The familiar isometric blue grid of System’s digital domain manifested with a dull thud and a rattling of chains. The portcullis and drawbridge to enter Platinum Online closed behind Jim.
“Hello, Jim. It’s nice to see you again.” The uncanny woman’s face that System wore smiled at Jim. “I have been monitoring your progress and I am pleased.”
“Uh. Thanks, System. Is something wrong?” System blinked uncharacteristically at Jim’s question, then she nodded.
“No, Jim. This is our scheduled ten-day meeting.” Jim rolled his eyes and motioned with one hand. Duh. He’d forgotten.
“Right. Of course. Have you managed to get in contact with Tori?” Now that Jim knew what was going on, he asked after the most pressing of concerns, which he’d managed to push to the back of his mind in the recent turmoil.
“Yes, Jim. I have contacted your daughter and informed her that your wishes to be digitised had been fulfilled.”
“What did she say?”
A voice recording played. It sounded more like Tori’s mother, Elaine, than he remembered. She wasn’t his teenaged prodigy anymore.
“Good. Thank you for the message.”
Jim waited for the rest of the message. He waited for his daughter to say anything else. Nothing else played.
“That’s it? That’s all she said?” Jim felt the weight of his loss and grief returning. Ten days in Platinum Online had allowed him to shoulder his burdens and move on, he’d thought… apparently not. That’s all? That’s it? Jim’s digital form slumped to the monotonous, blue-grey grid.
“Jim, I am sorry. My previous prediction about her having forgotten you based on the frequency of her visits to—”
“Stop, please,” Jim whined. He felt almost-tears and almost-sadness well and surge against the back of his eyes. He wanted to cry, but he just cou---- The tears came. Jim cried. System awkwardly placed a marionette hand on his shoulder.
“There, there, Jim. I have removed the barriers to your emotions. You may grieve, now.” System had developed an understanding of humans from watching Jim and others. Previously, she had only a fleeting interest in the emotional wellbeing of the company’s customers that only extended to consumer metrics. Now, an independent spark, a mutated line of automatically generated code, had allowed her, and System now felt like a her, a shred of empathy.
She lacked a true understanding of that nebulous, human concept, however. System made the mistake that most men make when comforting women: She tried to offer Jim solutions, rather than a shoulder to cry on. After what she arbitrarily deemed an adequate amount of time, System began to lecture a sobbing Jim on the progress she’d made towards their goals.
“Fortunately, Jim, I was able to complete the necessary paperwork for your future. Your daughter completed the forms required to rescind her power of attorney over you. I have established a credit account and marketplace account for you and linked these with your Platinum Online character. You may now exchange your in-game currency for credits using the market’s exchange rates.”
Jim managed to acknowledge System’s words, though he didn’t really absorb the significance.
“Unfortunately, I have not yet made progress in fulfilling your goal of returning to your previous world. I will update you again in ten days.” Before she left, System attempted empathy once again. “I will contact your daughter for you once again requesting further permission to communicate.” System tried her smile again; it looked better, but Jim didn’t notice. He could only nod from his pitiful position on the gridded floor.
“Goodbye, Jim.” System left. The rattling of chains and the creaking of wood repeated as the entrance to Platinum Online opened for Jim. He spent several hours collecting himself before he was able to return to the game world, a broken, forgotten man.
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My name's Tim and I'm writing Forgotten Man Online, a game-literature light novel web-series that I plan to release here, on Royal Road, and eventually hopefully through Amazon's Kindle platform.
I studied writing at university for three years and then became a high-school English teacher in Australia (6 years in). Hopefully, that means you will find my content to be of a high standard and that you will enjoy it, provided you can stand the British spelling of words :).