2 days before the start of the contest, Thursday.
I sit in the May sun along the side of a set of clean stairs out a seldom-used exit of my school. I call out the name “Kodama” over and over, waving chicken I stole from the cafeteria for the dirty little white-and-black stray cat who I have taken to. This is a short period each day I can take for myself. In this spot I get away from everything and let myself just scratch a cat’s chin and listen to the little rumblings of a purr. A purr is a simple pleasure for a ward like me who has never had a pet. Kodama runs up from the bushes with a cute chirp-meow I understand is excitement and dives into the contraband food like it could be his last meal. I stroke his back, looking at the spots which form a Kodama-ghost’s face and why I gave him the name I did.
Catching sight of myself in the reflection on the glass door, I am smaller than I remember, and skinnier. I am wearing our school uniform: a plaid skirt and button-up white shirt with my name, Esme Edgeworth, embroidered on it. The uniform also includes a scarf, socks, black leather shoes, and long black hair in the approved ponytail. I don’t see my reflection often, since I took the mirror out of my dorm room. I moved into that room as soon as I could on my twelfth birthday when I got a room of my own and didn’t have to share anymore. Turning away out of irritation, I focus on Kodama; this is my time with my little friend, and I need not judge myself—I am judged enough by others.
Kodama is a lot like me: he has no family and no real home, he lives here at this school and has to depend on others to feed him. This place is our home, though unlike Kodama I am a ward of the Hillhurst School for the Gifted. I have no family and nothing outside of these walls. Little Kodama here showed up six months ago in the fall, and unlike me can roam free, he can choose his fate and leave, he is my friend.
He hears a noise coming, and scurries away with the last piece of chicken. There’s only a rustling in the bushes to betray a creature moving, and then the door opens.
“Esme, what are you doing? We need to get to the auditorium! Today is the big day,” says Briar, my blonde-haired friend. His wrinkled uniform, as always, looks as if he slept in it. We have been friends since he first stood up for me after I was being bullied by a girl named Josie here at the school. That was two years ago. I don’t get bullied when I am with Briar, but I am still tortured by Josie in places he cannot protect me. She finds me in the bathroom and changing rooms and when I am between course lecture rooms.
“I know, I know,” I say, rubbing a sore spot on my head from when Josie pulled my hair the day before. “This is the big announcement of the founder of the school, a guy we have never met—”
“He is one of the most brilliant minds in the world,” Briar beams. “He invented the SAINT program we use here; it is revolutionizing the world.” He emphasizes the term SAINT, a speed-learning system where we use a special virtual-reality headset that compresses weeks of learning into thirty minutes. It’s a new learning system and has to be used sparingly or it causes psychosis and even brain damage. The courses we take with it here, in this pilot school, are always followed up with refresher classes so it sticks—otherwise we can lose the knowledge gained.
“Sometimes I think you have been doing too many SAINT classes and fuzzed your brain,” I say, laughing, and then I hear the door open.
“Ginga, you two, we gotta go,” says our friend Kian coming out of the door. Kian has his dark black hair hanging in his eyes and he squints in the sunlight while putting a hand up.
“I was telling her they will announce Unlimited Worlds and that we would do the 1800s London Monster Hunters game. Or maybe we could do the space ship exploration, or perhaps the MOBA one—”
“Briar you know there is only one world for us, the fantasy one,” Kian says.
I look over my shoulder and see Kodama stalking along a fence, far off, and I walk back into the school with my friends.
Standing at attention, the student body of our school cheers as three of the modern sages of technology enter the auditorium. We are here to learn about the new virtual worlds these men have created. They create top-of-the-line games, which—when you are inside—are the most lifelike and most immersive in history. At least, the screen behind the Benefactor of our school says that.
I notice Josie Hederman, my school bully, is two rows down from us. She glances back at me with a smirk. I know she will try to find me later; I lean a little closer to Briar.
One man named Dr. Lloyd Friend is standing and holding his new device in his hands. The device looks like a rounded pair of safety goggles. it’s clear as glass, but he promises it is the most advanced civilian technology on the planet. This short and grey-haired man is the primary benefactor of our school. He is why I have a place to sleep and eat. He has a kindly voice, and age has clearly not dulled his wits. He speaks clear and strong.
Mr. Friend shows how it fits on his head and goes through some history of the devices used in massively multiplayer games, or MMOs. He explains MMOs don’t trap people in the game worlds anymore, which apparently used to be a problem. He seems especially pleased with the size of the headset he is showing, mentioning it often.
It sounded cool. but—like all the other similar tech I never get to try out—it will cost a ton of money. Few students here have any money, because this is a boarding school with strict rules. The only students who do have money work online. The ones that work online, my friends, only work so they can play games online.
“Esme, I know you don’t play games and think it’s all ginga, but Dr. Friend is a genius.” Keeping his voice low, Kian says, “He created half of the early massively multiplayer online games. He made the ones which influenced everything after them. He may be old, but he knows how to build these worlds.”
I look up at the stage and the three men who are the three richest people in the world.
“They formed Wutani Corporation to create Unlimited Worlds which will change everything," Kian says.
“It’s all ginga!” I say, “I’ll never play this.”
“Yeah it’s ginga how you pout. I just want to see the game,” Briar says, peering around bored, his leg bouncing with energy.
“Shhhh, I heard they will make some big announcement,” Kian says to Briar.
A teacher scans over the students with dark eyes and a slight scowl. I return my attention to the three people on the stage; another guy named Reed Roth is speaking about how exited they were to test this new tech. They trade memorized lines back and forth with Gus Brodie, the youngest of the trio—though still probably fifty years old.
“And now for the big reveal,” Gus Brodie says and waves to Dr. Friend.
Dr. Friend takes the microphone and with steady words says, “Each of you will get free headsets and student subscriptions to Unlimited Worlds and the fantasy world Imagine Online.” The auditorium explodes with excitement and a buzz of talking. “Additionally—” He stops to let the teachers get everybody under control for a minute.
As I look around, everyone seems excited. My face looks odd, I am sure, and my jaw is down in shock. I expected that everyone would get to try them on or something, but not free headsets.
“Okay, yes, that is correct, and we are giving them out today.” He waves behind him and the curtains in back of the stage open. The auditorium quiets; there is a huge pile of boxes each with the letters UW on them in large print. “You will each receive a free headset, and a game card with some gear and things to get you started.”
The principal of our school, Mr. Tenreal, climbs to the stage. A small man with a beak nose and glasses, always with stiff shirts and perfect collars, he does the hands down gesture, saying, “Calm down, calm down. Dr. Friend is the primary benefactor of our school and wants to see what our gifted students can do in an open world.”
“We have a little bet,” Dr. Reed Roth jumps in, his shirt showing sweat stains. “We will be announcing this officially tomorrow, but we wanted to give you a compelling reason to play.” He hands the mic to Dr. Gus Brodie.
“Each of us has founded a school for gifted students and we have been trying to gauge which of our educational systems works best for the pupils. Our institutions follow a curriculum we each developed individually.” He waves to the other men on stage. “We also have set up rewards for a successful game strategy. The rewards are on a per-region basis for the first month. Then on a per-sector basis for the second month, and finally the third month is the last part of the competition.” He looks around the audience before continuing, “A student, or a group of students who win from one of the schools, can win up to five hundred million credits.” The auditorium inhales as one. “From each,” he looks at his friends, “of the founders of the other two schools.” He pauses. “And additionally, the school of the winners will get up to three hundred million—”
The realization hits and the auditorium explodes with the kids, overachievers aged nine to fourteen, all ready to climb the stage and take their goggles right now.
I can hear Dr. Roth say, “Just like the other two schools.”
I look at Kian and Briar; their mouths are open and they both have goofy grins on their faces. It’s hard to gauge what the other students are thinking. We all have been raised with advanced VR tutoring, developed by the trio on this stage. And we have all—except, apparently my two friends—taken the social skills SAINT courses to learn emotional control techniques. I see the wolves circling and plotting already in the audience—glances, little gestures and whispers. At this school gifted is another word for ruthless.
Dr. Friend takes the microphone. “As you are my school, I expect you will do nicely and not cost me money.” He looks over his crowd of pawns with kind, fatherly eyes. He lifts a hand to silence the students. “You have three months to conquer our world, Imagine Online. In the package with your headset is a game card with beginner gear to give you a boost. Everyone gets the same level starting bonus. In each box is also a list of the rules of the contest; school administrators have a separate but equally important set of rules.” He glances at the principal, who smiles and shrugs comically.
Dr. Roth steps forward, microphone in hand. “Regular civilian players also are playing to win, we will announce all of this tonight world-wide. The game winnings for non-school players is fifty-million credits. Each school will still get twenty-five million credits for participation.” He pauses for a second, admiring the power words like these can have. “You can join up with ordinary members as long as the party and clan leadership are from the same school.”
Dr. Brodie jumps in, “And one important rule: any school that does not have a clan that makes the top five worldwide clan list will be closed.” He smiles and I see the blood drain from our principal’s face.
Lining up to get our headsets is surreal. I get mine and say thank you to the bearded tech-guy who handed it to me as Dr. Friend nods. Walking away, I keep thinking our studies will suffer—we have schedules to maintain for the virtual reality tutors.
I am walking down the back hall to avoid people, to where I will meet up with Kian and Briar. Mostly I take this route to avoid Josie when I hear rapid movement behind me.
I am on my face and my chin feels like it exploded. My body falls into my headset package with the crunch of the plastic breaking. I hear the familiar voice of Josie behind me say, “Where do you think you are going, charity case?” I can almost feel her sneer pressing into my back.
I turn over, off the box, and there she is with her stupid blonde hair and sharp face. She’s not pretty—cute, maybe. The kind of cute that once she turns her eyes on you you forget she’s cute and realize she will bleed you for fun. I’m dizzy and holding my chin, time is in slow motion. I am confused what is going on as she raises a foot, her skirt flying like a pinwheel as she brings her heel down with a heartrending crunch on my headset.
“Nooooo!” I say, though I had had no attachment to the goggles. It was still a shock she would be so violent.
She smiles at me, content with her handiwork. Laughing, she walks off back to her group of friends where one of her minions had been holding Josie’s untouched headset box. They giggle a nervous laugh and I can hear them chatter away down the hall as I lay in humiliation, feeling blood and tears drip down my chin.
“Well well, what have we here?” a familiar voice says.
I don’t want to be seen like this. I get up, my hair in my face as I try to pick up the destroyed headset, but it is wrecked, not worth saving. A wail leaves my lips and I double over.
“I’m not weak,” slips out. Then with a sob, I say, “I’m not.”
“Come, come,” I am lifted up and moved around the hall, then sat on some steps to the second floor. I wipe my eyes and see that it is Dr. Friend and one of his security guards.
He calls over an associate of his, a worker, who picks up my box and then runs off. Dr. Friend takes a handkerchief and checks my chin. He wipes some blood away and says, “This is going to bruise bad, you will want to ice this.”
After some time, his associate returns with a new headset box setting it next to me. Another worker comes in with some ice in a plastic bag from the nearby school cafeteria. Accepting the ice, I carefully press it into my chin. The doctor looks at me like he is inspecting a bug.
“How would you love to get vengeance on that girl who attacked you? How would you like to make her feel what she just did to you, but more, much more?” he asks.
“I think I would enjoy that,” I say.
“If you desire that, then you can kill her in the game.” His mouth is pursed, and brow knitted. “Or if you want real vengeance, then find her weakness. Once you do, exploit it and be cruel, but don’t let her learn it was you.”
“Take care of this one,” he adds, pointing to the box as he turns to go. He stops mid-turn. “You know, I think I can help you.” He pulls out a deck of stiff cards from his right jacket pocket. Flipping through them, he carefully selects a golden card and smiles at it turning it over, then places it in my hands. “Use this game card with your headset before you log in, and remember, subversive action in the shadows is how you get ahead. When the chips are down, attack from the shadows.
“Also, I want you to report to SAINT training tomorrow, I am going to give you some free elective SAINT courses that will help you.” He smiles. “Don’t forget to show up.” His assistant is waving his hands in the air working a VR interface, presumably setting up my accelerated-learning SAINT courses.
He turns on his heel and starts off; his assistants, prowling in his wake like attentive dogs, scurry after him as he walks away. Without looking back, the doctor proclaims, “You are stronger than you think Esme.”
Later, back in my dorm I feel better. It had shocked Kian and Briar that I met Dr. Friend. After telling them what he said, they decide we will play stealth characters. They believe he gave me secret information, which is funny and ridiculous.
I open the box and I pull out a card that has the words “The Rules” at the top. The rules are a simple numbered list.
- Each player is given starting gear and one player-bound knife of reconciliation. This knife can only be used once per week by players over level 15 during fortress conquest. Conquest is each weekend 8pm Friday to 11pm Sunday. The ability of the knife is to drain one level from a player character within your clan, automatic hit, range 30 yards. Note: each use will be a region notification event.
- To claim any prize(s) a Hillhurst student must be clan leader of the claiming clan. Alliances split all prizes evenly before any bonus or other allocation.
- The Hillhurst student clan leader will be allowed an extra portion of their choosing, as a special clan-leader bonus, within a range of 10%-60%. The remainder after the clan leader bonus will be split between all Hillhurst students in the clan. Non-student players with student players will split 1% of total monetary prize before any other disbursement.
- First dungeon region prize: in-game bonuses of starting fortress and items goes to the first student clan to complete the starter dungeon, per starting region. Additional prizes rewarded for first completion in the game world.
- Contest 30 - Prize 200M: The starting region must be conquered within thirty days of the start of the contest. This includes three fortresses and all battlements and outposts.
- Contest 60 - Prize 300M: The starting sector must be conquered within sixty days. A sector includes three adjacent regions, each similar to the students’ starting region.
- Contest 90 - Prize 500M: The game world must be conquered within ninety days of game launch.
- All prizes are distributed as the in-game currency “gold” and treated the same as any other in-game rewards. Rewards are subject to clan tax rate and region tax rate.
- Students from competing schools’ split prizes normally. School and faculty prizes go to the clan leaders’ school.
- During the length of the contest all students are required to attend school only one partial day per week, Friday.
- Incomplete contest prizes will be removed from escrow and not paid.
NOTE: Faculty prizes and rules provided separately to faculty.