The skin between my left thumb and pointer finger cracked, letting a small amount of blood join the caked dirt and salt. I pushed a stray hair away from my eyes. The small leather tie that tried to keep hair out of my face while I planted hemp failed constantly, letting my grey-blond tresses out of its clutches. I could have shortened my hair at character creation I, but why? My blue eyes, sharp facial features and lean body were good enough for me in real life, why wouldn’t they be good enough here?
Several of my villagers and I walked through narrow channels of dirt. As we walked, we dipped our hands into the rough woven sacks draped over our shoulders and grabbed handfuls of hemp seeds. We cast them evenly on the dirt below us and directly to each side.
Carl Carderson, my head farmer, had given us a tutorial the day before, making sure we understood that too many or too few seeds in any given area of the field would result in fewer hemp plants. Either from crowding each other and cannibalizing resources so no plant grew enough, or by only growing one plant in a large area that could have supported two or three.
Carl walked to my left and his oldest son, Carl Jr., was on my right. Carl Sr. hummed a ditty to himself, something about a fair-haired maiden and milk. There was innuendo in there somewhere but over the last four game weeks, I had learned not to speculate on Carl Sr.’s songs. You would either end up with red cheeks or in a thirty-minute long story, delivered by Carl Sr, about the song.
Finishing the planting on this three-acre field was the capstone to a hard game month’s work. The farm had three fields plowed, all three acres a piece, two completed and this one in progress. I wanted to know what exotic forms of plants the development team invented, but if they did, they didn’t include any seeds in my starter bank. I had what you might expect: hemp, potato, corn, wheat, cotton and other staples. On Carl’s suggestions, I chose hemp for rope and clothing fiber. I then picked potato and wheat primarily for winter food stores.
I hadn’t slept much, spending evenings working in the fields or forests, or just lying on my solitary hill in the middle of town. There was always something to do, some project to attend to. I’m exhausted -- I know it -- but I prefered exhaustion over sliding back into the pit of grief that still waited below me. I caught my villagers smirking sometimes -- understandably given my ineptitude -- but those smirks faded when I worked harder than all of them. Even the game AI recognized my labors. I was rewarded me with a new skill:
Congratulations! You have discovered a new skill: Lead by Example (Level 1)
Working with your people at their respective jobs increases your people’s morale and regard for you as a leader, as well as inspiring them to work even harder.
I was pleased to receive the skill but a little disappointed that I was not the inventor. That means another homesteader out there in the world had a slight edge on me in loyalty and productivity. I despised competitive advantages if they were not my own.
My original research into Incrementum, as well as my strategy for excelling, included setting up an agricultural and technological base that could out produce any hostile settlements. I hadn’t realized how much labor and problem solving that would entail. I learned that plowing and sowing the fields was the simplest task facing my town. We had two donkeys, a plow, and with Carl, a man with the know how to get it done.
Setting up our Smithy had not gone as smoothly. My starter package had an anvil, but an anvil is rather useless if you can’t heat metal before shaping metal on the anvil. If you can’t heat metal, you can’t bend it. The part of a smithy that heated metal was a forge and my starting package did not contain a ready built forge. Norman Blackson, the town’s blacksmith, snorted when I suggested just using a campfire for our initial needs. He politely asked me, “And should we use a spoon to dig the latrines?”
I would have been upset by his sarcasm if he wasn’t correct. There was nothing wrong with listening to your people, a lifetime in business taught me that. I spoke with him more and authorized the several people he needed to assist him for a week. They used clay from the river’s edge, heated by common fires to build a crude clay oven, capable of reaching temperatures hot enough to work with our raw iron reserves. Once that was achieved, Norman could craft iron plates more suitable for a Smith’s forge. The finished forge had a massive leather airbag sandwiched between two paddles connected to one side. They told me it was called a ‘bellows’. The more someone pushed on the paddles of the bellows, collapsing the leather airbag and forcing the air into the forge, the hotter the fire would become.
I didn’t let Norman off easy for his spoon joke. I wasn’t upset, but I did believe in tit-for-tat. I got my revenge by pulling his wife aside and strongly suggesting she get her husband to swim in the river with a bar of soap by whatever means necessary. Norman’s grumpy demeanor the next several days proved my victory.
The next project, the Tannery, started well. Valeria and Raul Huntson built the initial drying racks and a small wooden structure in order to dry treated leather skins and work out of the elements. It only cost me two units of lumber and their time, one of the cheaper projects. With the treated leather we would be able to make saddles, leather armor, footwear and more.
When Valeria, Raul, and the other hunters roamed into the forest to the north hunting for animals my map interface became more detailed. I now had three new markings on the map. The first looked like a rather angry wolf’s head. Focusing on it revealed the text, “Wolve’s Den.” The second marker looked like the mouth of a cave. Its label read, “Large Cave.” The third just had a picture of a man and was labeled “Forest Settlement.”
Once the three week grace period the developers gave me ended, whoever lived in that settlement could attack us, as well as any players, let alone wolves from the Wolve’s Den. I promised my homesteaders a defense force recruited by my right hand, Dan. I had faith in Dan’s loyalty and competency. I wouldn’t have invested all that money in helping his family if I didn’t.
But something wasn’t right. My stomach felt like I had a small school of fish swimming in tight circles, rubbing their tiny metallics scales against the lining. I was anxious. I hadn’t been anxious in so long, I hadn’t had reason to. Why was I anxious?
What’s the worst case? Dan isn’t able to recruit a large enough, or skilled enough group to defend Athens? So what? I could just start again, pay another 100,000 bitcoin. That logic didn’t comfort me. Was it the villagers? Why would that bother me, they were bytes in a storage medium somewhere, not real people. Did that matter? I was working alongside them for over a week now in game time. Giving orders and making decisions, but laughing and smiling too. I thought seeing Norman’s face the day after his wife made him swim in the river caused what might have been the first laugh after James was gone. Just because a computer program made me laugh doesn’t mean I’ve grown attached to it. No, that wasn’t it.
I certainly would lose the time advantage. The world of Incrementum started two weeks ago and it would grow over time, there would be no other chance to start my empire at this point in time before others had a chance to grow their characters and settlements. That must be it. I was not used to losing or failing to meet my goals. That hadn’t happened in business for some thirty odd years and I was not about to start the practice in a video game. Yes, that was probably the source of my unease.
“My lady, a moment?” Mitchell says.
He stood several meters behind me in the field, his hands clasped in front of him.
“What is it Mitchell?”
“It is a delicate subject if you wouldn’t mind walking with me?”
I placed my satchel down on the dirt -- it would be easy to spot and recover later with no plants growing in the field -- and walked with Mitchell south towards the edge of the field.
Mitchell rubs his chin. “I feel that I must bring this up, although I’m sure you are aware of it and are doing what is best. Several of the townspeople have come to me recently with concerns. Everyone here supports you completely, so please do not be upset. You have already given us a much we did not have before, when we feared the gods above all else. But they are scared. They are scared that this A-Team, which we have never seen will come to naught. What happens when the first wandering band of visitors, or pack of animals, or warlike tribe, or god’s minion comes upon us? We will be destroyed. We found safety in isolation before, not doing anything to attract notice or be worth a bandit or god’s time. You have changed that, and we are grateful, do not mistake me, but we are also fearful. Our children sleep here at night. Our relatives, who we wish to see again, will not join us while the question of safety remains unanswered.”
I looked down, ashamed. I never wanted my people to be scared and they were right to question me. I questioned my strategy too, so far I had no recruits to join my elite team. That was likely due to Dan’s need to level his own character up, but still disconcerting.
I stared Mitchell in the eyes, noting he flinched slightly from my gaze.
“Thank you for bringing this to me Mitchell. You are right to be scared. Any number of disasters could befall us. It is the reason we must work hard and fast to build Athens and make it secure against marauders. Have faith in me, have faith in Dan, know that we will assemble warriors even the gods will fear in time.”
Mitchell’s eyes widen and he bows to me, his back parallel to the ground. I see a notification:
Congratulations! You Leveled Up skill Speak to Them (Level 2)
Improves the desired effect of speeches to groups of people.
I guess I was getting better at giving speeches, and the game AI counts a speech to one person. As I considered the implication of this progression, I felt a stream of ice water run from the top of my head, down my back and forking to run on the inside of each of my legs. I touched the top and back of my head but there was no moisture on my hands. I heard a voice as my vision blurred and changed color; as if I’m seeing Mitchell’s face distorted through a tank of stagnant pea green swamp water.
A deep voice said into my ear, “I FEAR NOTHING AND NEVER WILL.”
My vision cleared and I couldn’t feel the ice water any longer. I put my hands up to my ears ad hunched over slightly. Mitchell’s lips moved but I couldn’t hear what he said, the overpowering voice left a sonic vacuum around my head; no other sounds could reach me. Was that a God? I read up on the deity system in the game but there was no mention of Gods breaking your eardrums if you upset them. I straightened, caught my breath and waited for my heart beat to go down. After nearly a minute the creaking from Mitchell’s leather pants and a *tap* *tap* *tap* from an animal trying to break the bark on a tree pierced the silence around me.
I decided not to bring up the incident with Mitchell, it would just fuel his fears in addition to my own. Did I just anger a god? What will that mean for my Athens? I did not plan for that. Armed conflict with players, yes. Exploring and conquering, yes. Fighting a god, how is that even possible? I made a note not to speak about the gods any more than is necessary. They were listening.
I shaded my eyes and looked across the plowed field to the west, spying what I think is a dust plume. As I watched it, I could make out a shape at the base of the plume, a cart with an ox plodding slowly towards me. Once it was a hundred meters from the field, I noticed there were three men on the cart, one of them was nearly bouncing on the front bench. I knew those bounces. I smiled. Dan had made it to Brighthollow, and hopefully, those were his first two recruits.
I walked over to the makeshift path Carl and his family had cut through the native grasses to reach the farm easier. Paths. I added updating paths to my mental queue of town improvements.
As Dan’s cart approached, I could make out more detail. This was my first look at Dan’s avatar. Unsurprisingly, he was much the same. He had always been quite happy with his appearance and generally let everyone know about it when appropriate, and sometimes when not appropriate. His slight frame always seemed too small to contain his inner energy to me but the golden, perfectly brushed and oiled hair seemed more than appropriate to reflect his sunny disposition.
He jumped off the cart and ran towards me with a big goofy smile on his face. He stopped before he got all the way to me and stuck out his hand. I could tell he wanted to hug me but I had a strict handshake policy. As I shook his hand I almost laughed. The rascal.
“Golden eyes Dan?”
“I’ve always felt my eyes should match my hair and Incrementum has proven me right.”
Not wanting to encourage Dan’s preening, I shifted my gaze to the two figures climbing down from the cart. I felt like I should step backward so I could look them both in the eye. I suspected both of them would have chosen a different race if Incrementum allowed it.
The one that approached to my left was only a meter and some change tall, with broad shoulders, thin limbs and straight brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. The leather vest he was wearing let me see that he had strength in his short limbs, but his flat mouth and raised shoulders were a bit off-putting. I guessed that he was not going to be the tank archetype character I had instructed Dan to find. That left some form of damage dealer, perhaps a rogue, ranger or mage archetype. I couldn’t tell if he was appraising his surrounding or just a deliberate person, but he was moving quite slowly and hung back a bit behind Dan and the other man.
The man on the right, was at least two and a half meters tall, bordering on unbelievable for a human. I was rather sure I could fit inside of his stomach if I curled into a ball; maybe I could fit Dan in there too. He also wore a leather vest, but it must have been made of an animal three to four times as big as his companion’s. The giant man strode forward at a rapid pace and stuck out his hand to greet me. I shake his hand and make eye contact and wait for him to introduce himself.
“Doc Weatherby, at your service. Couldn’t be more excited to meet you after hearing about this here opportunity from your man Dan. My good friend Leonard,” Doc paused and looked down.
“Say hello to the lady Leonard.” the small man, almost entirely obscured by Doc’s massive presence, may have said hi but it sounded like a grunt to me as Doc shrugged and continued on.
“As I was saying, we are just tickled pink that Dan here thought we might be right to join your A-Team. Now, we aren’t much on the healing, or the tanking, or really the crafting come to think of it, but if you need a critter dead we two can get it dead. Show the boss lady Leonard.”
Leonard’s cheeks drew back in a smile, revealing teeth that might as well have been sharpened he looked so vicious. Next thing I knew, Leonard had a dagger in each hand -- probably from below his vest but I couldn’t tell he moved so quickly -- before hurling each dagger into the side of the cart behind him. “See Leonard here slices em’ up, I fire up the barbeque.” Doc extended his hand between us and a globe of fire appeared above his hand. The blue core and hissing and popping led me to believe that fire was not a regular fire.
“A pleasure to meet you, Doc and your compatriot Leonard. Thank you for traveling all the way out here from wherever Dan discovered you. Would you like some refreshments? We have clean water and some deer jerky back at the main village.”
“That would be mighty fine ma’am, thank you kindly,” Doc said, dipping his head. He clapped Leonard on the back, knocking him forward a whole foot. Leonard looked back at Doc with squinted eyes and waved his arms at Doc’s gigantic form.
“Sorry, Leonard, but you chose that tiny little body, I couldn’t have done that back home. Stop your whining and let’s go; it never helps to keep the boss waiting.” Doc said. He continued talking as we walk towards the center of town.
“We were in a Homestead roughly a hundred miles towards the southwest when we met your man Dan here. He was playing with some tincan, what was his name Dan?”
Dan sighed, “GoreFiend.”
Doc laughed. “Right, GoreFiend. So Dan was trying to grind out a few levels fighting Giant River Crocodiles with GoreFiend when we walked by in the morning. I noticed he was level ten; on the walk back that evening, I saw they were still the same level and Dan had this look on his face. It’s hard to describe, my momma would have said he had his underwear in a bunch.”
Dan said, “That man was the most incompetent player I’ve ever been unlucky enough to group with. He pulled two crocodiles at least four times, nearly getting us killed, and I’m rather certain I did more damage than he did. I was better off just playing by myself but I was too nice to just tell him to go away.”
Dan glanced my way, I imagined he knew I wouldn’t be pleased with him wasting time because he wasn’t willing to hurt someone’s feelings. He was right.
“Where was I? Right, so we saw Dan sitting there on the side of the river with his panties in a twist and decided to see what was the matter. After he told us about taking five minutes just to dispatch one crocodile we invited him along to our stomping grounds a the Lion Caves. Now, Leonard and I might be wet paper bags when it comes to taking a blow but we can make something dead faster than any other two men on Incrementum. The God’s could do better of course.” Doc looked up at the sky and then winked at me. It looks like Doc figured out it wasn’t a good idea to take the God’s names in vain, maybe I can get the story on that later.
“After he saw us slice and ‘cue up a few Lions Dan started talking about you and this place and well, here we are.”
Dan turned around and stared at the Ox and cart for a moment. I noticed I could see the fields through the wooden sides of the cart as it faded from my vision. Dan opened his mouth to talk and I raised my hand slightly indicating that he should hold his tongue for now. We had developed a set of non-verbal gestures over the years and he understands that I had my reasons for not wanting him to speak right now.
As the four of us walked back to town center I started to lay the groundwork for my negotiations with Doc. I imagined that Leonard wasn’t going to be taking part in the discussion.
“So why are you interested in joining my team Doc? And why do you think you and Leonard are the right men for the job? As you can see, I’m quite busy here and I can’t waste my time.”
Doc nodded his head beside me, “Well you don’t mince words do you. Fair questions, and I’ll answer them if you’ll do me the kindness of answering mine in turn. Dan told us you are building an empire here. Now as you might guess, Leonard and I are from Texas, and we are what you might call Wild West Enthusiasts. There’s nothing we want more than to be back in the early days of the United States, eating cans of beans, riding horses, shooting buffalo and drinking whiskey over cards. No one has made a game that lets us do that, but we reckon we can get pretty close in Incrementum. We don’t have pistols or a rifle here, but we got knives and fire.” They both smile at the mention of knives and fire.
“Where was I, ah, to answer your second question, you won’t find anyone more dedicated to their weapons. We mean to be the finest knife fighter, ” he points to Leonard “,and Pyro, “ tapping his own chest “this game will ever see. We also don’t have much in the way of real life commitments. We’ll log out of the game here and there for necessities like sleep, food, and bingo, but besides that we’ll be here.”
“To answer your first question, if we could have been part of the United State’s Manifest Destiny in the 19th century we would have been. We reckon you have your own version of Manifest Destiny. We want to be on the front lines, discovering new territory, fighting natives and playing poker for gold nuggets the size of our fists.” He looks down at his balled fist, nearly the size of a football. “Maybe just the size of Leonard’s fist.”
I remained silent for a few moments, letting Doc’s information sink in. It appeared as if Dan had done exactly what I asked. I outlined for him a week before (or four game weeks) what we would need in a group of elite players.
The four players in our elite six-player group need to do damage to enemies. Some specializing in a single enemy at a time and others in doing damage to a whole group of enemies at once. My research indicated that overwhelming damage was the solution to most problems in these games. I also specified that I wanted players who were committed to the game, and had plenty of spare time. I’m sure there would be more casual players joining us in the future but they would never be part of the elite, sheerly because they didn’t put in the time to be stronger than our enemies.
I didn’t doubt Leonard or Doc’s skill, or their temperament. I trusted Dan to do that basic vetting, as he had done for me in the past with James and my company. I felt my face fall slightly, remembering James was no longer here but pushed past it.
“Thank you, Doc. I agree with your assessment that my empire, Athenia, is and will continue to be an exciting place with new lands to explore. What questions did you have for me?”
“Well, Dan told me quite a bit about why you are here and the circumstances that led you to start Athenia. I hope this is not too forward, but please accept my condolences. I hear your James was quite the man.”
I don’t trust myself to speak and just nod.
“Dan also told me what you were willing to offer to your A-team for tying their fate to yours. But I’d like to hear it from the horse’s mouth if you don’t mind, not to say you are a horse...Well, there I go again with my foot in my mouth. Go ahead and give me a little stab next time Leonard.” Leonard grinned and a dagger appeared in his left hand briefly before disappearing again somewhere on his person.
“I am willing to offer each member of my original A-Team the following perks. One, 1% of quarterly empire profits, paid in gold, once the empire has profits and gold. Two, all goods and services from empire towns at cost. Three, unrestricted access to all lands controlled by the empire. Four, a one-time land grant of up to one thousand acres in the bounds of the empire, subject to my approval. Five, one week per game month free from any orders from me or my representatives. For the fifth point, there may be exceptions that require me to interrupt the game week off, but my intent is not to control your time in Incrementum, but to direct your efforts to the empire and in turn your own, benefit. I will sign a contract to this effect, in and/or out of the game, whatever makes you comfortable. You should also know, that I am planning to offer the second perk to any player who signs a Writ of Allegiance with the empire, so that is not unique to my Elite. This Writ will bind the player to the Laws of the Empire, as well as tax any gains they make within the bounds of the empire. They may eat, drink and travel for free but their gains will be taxed.”
Doc makes an mmm sound before asking, “What are these Laws we will be bound by?”
“They do not exist yet, but we can add a clause where you may opt out of your contract if any of the Laws do not meet your satisfaction. My thoughts so far mostly run along the lines of no murder, no stealing etc...The basic rules for a peaceful society.”
Doc laughs, “As long as no drinking doesn’t make your list I don’t think we will have a problem.”
I decided it was time to throw in my trump card and bring negotiations to an end. “Doc, time is wasting. My final offer is as follows, all the perks I mentioned before, as well as the raw materials to construct your own tavern and whiskey still. I can spare no manpower but the resources are yours.”
I realized I was walking by myself a few seconds after ending my final offer and turned around. Doc looked shocked, and Leonard had both daggers out, pointed at the sky in what I guessed was some sort of victory stance?
After a few more seconds Doc said, “Where do we sign?”