Chapter 4 - Measured


November 23, 2074: 678 days until the release of Awaken Online.


“Hello.”  Claire still seemed camera shy and kept adjusting her glasses self-consciously.

“The participants have just begun to play AO, but we have conducted a round of preliminary interviews to get an impression of their first week in game.  Note that each participant is currently limited to ten hours of real world playtime each week, so the participants' progress and feedback is likely unrepresentative of the future player base.”

She smiled at the camera.  “However, the response from the participants has been overwhelmingly positive.  Many were astounded at the realism in the game.  A few have actually tried to bribe me for more game time!”  She looked a bit flustered at this last comment.

“Many have also told me that AO is quite simply the best game that they have ever played.”


*          *          *


Jason could see faint clouds in the sky and sunlight streamed down upon the mountaintop.  Something crunched under foot and he looked down to see that snow covered the ground.  Below him, he could see the land spread out for thousands of miles, all hills and valleys, and flowing rivers.

This must be the game world.  I feel like the developers are just trying to brag by using this as a starting point for the game.

Not that he could really blame them.  For a moment he forgot his anger as he took in the years of hard work and cutting edge gaming technology that was being displayed before him.

A prompt appeared in the air before him, glowing a translucent blue.

Welcome to Awaken Online!

You are the 1,167,989th user to enter this world.

Please note that you must read several important disclaimers before you will be allowed to create your character:

  • All players will experience pain while in AO.  The setting for your pain tolerance can be changed in the menu, but this feature cannot be removed.

  • Time will pass at an accelerated rate in AO.  We estimate that time will pass roughly three to four times faster in AO than in the real world.  System warnings will be provided at regular intervals to ensure that you eat and use the restroom regularly.  Failure to respond to these warnings could result in damage to your health.

  • Since the system has recognized that you are over 18 years old, the parental filter has been lifted.  If you would like to remove or subdue the level of violence or gore in the game, you may change these settings in the menu.[br][/br]

  • You may only have one active character at a time while playing AO.  Your character must be deleted before you can restart the game with a new character.   A restart is available only once every thirty days, so please choose carefully.[br][/br]

  • Finally, there is no “right” way to play AO.  Choose your own path and think carefully about your choices.  They will impact both your character and the world around you.

Jason was familiar with the pain tolerance issue from listening to the interview and he had heard rumors that AO used a form of time compression.  This was part of what had held up the development of the game and the approval of the commercial release.  A major study had been undertaken to examine the effects of extended time compression on a human mind and to establish that there were no harmful side effects.

Cerillion Entertainment had deemed the time compression feature to be important enough to delay the release of the game for years.  Jason tended to agree that this technology was essential to promoting realism within the game.  There needed to be day and night cycles and certain activities should take a reasonable amount of time.  On the other hand, who wanted to spend days in real life traveling between towns in a videogame?

However, the last part of the prompt was strange.

“My actions will affect the world around me?  What the hell does that mean?”  Jason said aloud.

“That will become apparent in time,” a graveled voice sounded behind him.

Jason turned and was greeted with the sight of an old man sitting on a large stone.  He was dressed in a black robe and his head and body were shrouded by a dark, hooded cloak.  Jason could make out deep-set wrinkles around his mouth, but could not see his eyes.  In his hand, he held a gnarled wooden staff.  Jason could have sworn for a moment that he saw light reflect off the top of the staff, but, when he blinked, the reflection was gone and he was staring at plain, aged wood.

What was most strange about the old man was that he seemed to be sitting in shadow, but, as Jason glanced around the mountaintop, there was nothing to cast the shadow.  Even the ground around the old man appeared well lit.

“Who are you?” Jason inquired bluntly.  He was still riding high on a wave of anger.

“I am your guide in this world, at least for the moment,” the old man replied.  “Whether it stays that way will be up to you.”

Jason was confused and was reeling from the events of the day.  As a result, he wasn't in the mood for evasive word games.  “That wasn’t exactly a clear explanation. What exactly does being my guide entail?”  he snapped.

“I am here to help you create yourself anew and then send you on your way,” the man responded, unperturbed by Jason's rudeness.

“Ahh, so you’re here to help me create my character.”  Suddenly, the old man's purpose fit Jason's expectations for a typical MMO.  “What do I need to do?”

“A simple question and then a test of sorts.  There are currently no race selections available other than human.  You may alter your physical body now.  Changes are limited and your body's appearance will evolve naturally as you gain in strength.  Do you wish to make any changes?”

It is interesting that he said that there are “currently” no other races available.  Will that change later?  Maybe an expansion?

Jason replied, “No changes.  I-I'm fine with who I am.”

Am I really?

“Very well.  Next I will administer a short test.  We will begin now.”  The man waved his free hand and the world disappeared again.

Jason waited for the world around him to resolve back into color, but after several moments he was still surrounded by darkness.  After waiting for another few minutes without any change, Jason impatiently reached out and felt his hand scrape against something that felt like stone.  Listening closely, he could barely make out an occasional faint dripping sound coming from his left.

I must be in some sort of cave and facing a wallCount on some creepy old man to “test” me by dropping me into a cave in the dark!

With few options open to him, he began to inch forward toward the dripping sound, his hand on the wall.  He immediately tripped over something and fell.  As he was lying on the ground for the third time that day, he wanted to scream in frustration.

However, he stopped himself and took a deep breath.  Jason felt around on the ground for the object that had tripped him and felt a large stone about twice the size of his hand.  He decided to hold onto the stone.  He didn't have a weapon, and he didn't know what might be living in the cave.

Jason stood slowly and continued forward.  He would occasionally trip or stumble in the darkness, cursing under his breath, as he walked.  It was unclear whether anything lived in the cave, leaving Jason wary of making too much noise.  The old man hadn't explained what this test involved and he didn't want to try out the new pain feedback system by attracting whatever might be living in this cave.  He also didn't think that trying to bludgeon something to death in the dark with a big rock would be very effective.

It felt like he had walked for hours.  Between the events earlier in the day and the old man’s nonsensical test, he was ready to snap.  The only thing that kept him going was that the dripping sound seemed to be growing louder.  That might also have just been his imagination.

As he continued forward, he began to notice that it was becoming easier to see.  Soon he could make out the faint outline of the walls around him.  It was clear that he was walking through some sort of underground tunnel and his sight eventually became good enough that he no longer needed to run his hand along the wall to make his way forward.  Consequently, he began to stumble less and made faster time through the tunnel.

The system made a pinging sound as a prompt emerged before his eyes:

New Passive Skill: Night Vision

For those that live in darkness, this is an essential tool. When this skill reaches higher levels of proficiency, it will allow a player to see clearly in otherwise impenetrable darkness.[br][/br]Skill Level: Beginner Level 1
Effect: 10% increased vision in darkness or near darkness.

I need to make certain that these prompts will not pop up while in combat.

He could just imagine being gored to death because his vision was obscured by a pop-up for some inane skill.

Jason looked ahead and could make out a faint glow in front of him.  The dripping sound was definitely becoming more distinct.

As he approached the glow, the tunnel gradually opened into an enormous cave.  Through a large hole in the ceiling he could make out a full moon.  Between his new skill and the moonlight, he could see clearly for the first time in what felt like hours.  If he had stumbled into the cave before acquiring the Night Vision skill, he knew that he would have been nearly blind.

He saw a figure standing in front of him near the center of the cave, its back to Jason.  The figure was thin and willowy.  He assumed it was a woman from its stance.  From this distance, the colors were washed out and he couldn't make out the detail of the woman's clothes.

Beside the woman was a small pond surrounded by stones of varying sizes.  Water dripped continuously from the edge of the hole in the ceiling into the pool.  He supposed that the pond must have been formed by rainwater and runoff from the area above the cave.

He approached the figure cautiously.  As he grew closer, loose gravel and sand crunched under his foot.  The woman turned quickly and he could now make out her features and clothing.  The woman wore an eerily familiar vomit green sweater.

A sense of dread hit Jason as he realized Ms. Abrams was standing in front of him.

Why the hell is she playing AO?!

Jason's mind scrambled madly for an explanation, but none seemed to come to him.

How is she here?  What does she want?

When she caught sight of Jason, Ms. Abrams’ lips pinched together in displeasure. “Oh.  It's you,” she said disdainfully.

Almost immediately, Jason's familiar, beaten demeanor returned and he cast his eyes down to his hands.  He was at a loss for words and the edge of his anger from the events earlier in the day had been blunted by the long walk through the tunnel.

“What?  You can't even respond?  I should have expected such rudeness from a welfare case.  How did you even afford a copy of this game?”

Jason eyes flared with anger at her words and his hands trembled.

What am I doing?  I won't take this abuse from anyone.  Not again.  Not here.

Games had been his sanctuary and his way to escape from the constant torment of attending that school.  When he played, he could forget that his parents were always gone and that he was reminded on a daily basis that he wasn't good enough.

I won't let her take this from me.  She has taken everything else.

From his peripheral vision he could see Ms. Abrams approaching him.  He held still as she made her way closer at a casual walk.  Five feet.  Four feet.  Three…

You really did not deserve to attend our school.  To think someone like you could sully its halls,” she continued her tirade as she approached.

He looked at the rock in his hand and the anger that boiled in his veins turned frigid.  Suddenly his hands stopped trembling and a terrible calm overcame him.  That's right.  This was a game.  He could do anything he wanted here and no one could stop him.  He didn't have to bow to the abuse here.

“When you first applied for the scholarship program, I told the admissions board they were making a mistake.  Some low class people simply cannot be helped.”

The cavern's shadows and the moonlight played across Ms. Abrams’ body in an unusual way; she appeared to take on a demonic form.  Her arms looked emaciated and seemed to glow a sickly green in the moonlight.  As they reached for him, her hands looked like hooked claws.

When she was within arms' reach of Jason, she reached out and pushed him roughly.  Her hands left jagged rips in his shirt and he could feel a dull pain in his shoulder.

“I begged the former principal to get rid of you.  I tried desperately to show him that you were unworthy to attend Richmond.  At least Mr. Edwards was able to see you for what you are.”

She seemed to hiss out this last part, her face contorted with hate and disgust.  For a moment, Jason thought he saw dark horns appear on her head.

He continued to stand there mutely, the blood in his veins a frozen river.

Ms. Abrams approached him again.  The image of her face was burned into his mind.  Her eyes were wild with hate and curved horns seemed to protrude from her forehead.  As she opened her mouth, her tongue appeared serpentine and flicked between sharp teeth.

“You are nothing but a welfare case...

Ms. Abrams' sentence was cut off as Jason launched forward.  He swung his arm carrying the rock with vicious force, putting his rage behind the blow.  He felt the force of the contact ripple back through his arm as the stone in his hand connected violently with the side of Ms. Abrams’ face.

As though in slow motion, he watched her body collapse limply to the ground.

He stood there, breathing calmly.

Ms. Abrams lay on the ground, her neck strained at an odd angle.  Blood pooled around an unnatural indentation in her forehead and her eyes stared listlessly ahead.  There were no signs of either horns or claws, but his shirt was still torn.  He fingered the cuts in the fabric in confusion.

He looked at the blood covered rock that he was still holding, as his free hand reached idly for his face and felt the droplets of blood that clung to his cheeks.  Although Jason was unaware of the change, his character's eyes were entirely black.

It was strange.  He didn't feel any remorse for hitting her - for killing her.

She isn't real.  She is only the product of digital signals in my brain.  I didn't really kill anyone.

He hesitated.

Even if this isn't real, shouldn't I feel guilty for beating a woman to death with a rock?  Shouldn't I feel... something?

“Well, that was certainly interesting,” a voice sounded behind his back.

He knew before turning that it was the old man.  His suspicions were confirmed a moment later when he caught sight of the hunched, black figure.  He was standing behind Jason at the mouth of the entrance to the cavern, staff in hand.  In the moonlight, Jason again saw the momentary reflection at the top of the staff.  However, this time the reflection lasted a second longer.  For a moment, Jason thought he saw the outline of a blade.  Then it was gone again.

“You did well, child.  Not many have the will to bear the tunnel or the strength to face their fears.  However, you went a step further didn't you?”  His hooded head motioned in the direction of Ms. Abrams' body.

“You had many choices regarding how to proceed and yet, you did not hesitate to destroy that which you seemed to fear most.  I believe you may be worthy of my path.”

“And what's your path?”  Jason inquired in an even tone.

“The path of darkness.  Does it not seem appropriate?” the old man asked this last part while gesturing about the cave.

“I sense in you a yearning for more -  a hunger for control.  You desire power.  Those that walk my path will certainly find it.”

The old man continued, “My followers are often treated as villains, with no moral code or compass.  However, like everything else, the darkness is not inherently evil.  The creators merely choose to paint their creations in varying shades of grey.  You will come to realize this as well.”

“The vague explanations are getting old.  Did you create this test?  How did you know what this woman looked like?  How is she even here?”  Jason's mind was spinning.

How could the game know that he hated this woman?  Was she actually playing the game?

“You are standing here, a traveler from another world.  Can you not feel the rock in your hand?  Do you not see the moonlight?  Can you not taste the specks of her blood on your lips?  Yet you question how I would know your memories or your fears?”

Jason's mind reeled with this explanation.  Was this old man saying that the game was accessing his memories and his thoughts?  He supposed it was possible.  If the headset could send and receive signals from his brain, then that wouldn't be limited to sensory information.  Still, many people would be uncomfortable with this invasion into their mind.  Actually, “uncomfortable” was putting it mildly.

He couldn't believe that his initiation test had ended with him killing a woman, even if some part of him felt that she deserved this.  How would other players have reacted to this situation?

The old man had stood there patiently as Jason processed what had happened.

“Do many pass these tests?”  he finally asked.

“Test may not be an appropriate word.”  The old man's wrinkled mouth twisted in a grin.  “Think of it more as an evaluation. There is no one “right” way to approach the trial.  Each test is different.  It depends on the traveler and on the guide.”

A prompt appeared in Jason’s vision.

Quest Completed: Initiation

You have shown admirable will in the face of adversity and intelligence and foresight in navigating the cave and equipping yourself.  You have also faced and conquered your fear.  The cruelty and speed with which you have acted and your lack of remorse have been noted by the test administrator.  He approves.[br][/br]
You have been awarded +100 Infamy

You have been awarded +3 to Willpower

You have been awarded +2 to Intelligence

You have been awarded +1 to Endurance

You have been awarded +1 to Strength

You have been awarded +1 to Dexterity

Path of the Dark Unlocked

Attention of the Dark One

Interesting. I've already been awarded stat points. I guess it's too soon to evaluate how big of a windfall this may be.

He couldn't help but wonder though.  What would have happened had he continued to accept Ms. Abrams’ abuse?  Had there been other solutions to this quest that he hadn't noticed?

He shook his head.  There was no use second guessing himself after-the-fact.

“What happens now?”  he asked, turning to the old man.

“Now you begin your journey.  I will be watching closely.”  With a smile and a thump of the old man's staff, he faded from view and then the cave disappeared.

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