South of Cuba, 2038 December
The young man's first steps on Castor Colony were unsteady, since he expected the ground to move like the ship that took him there. The floating, artificial island did sway and vibrate, but due less to the Caribbean Sea beneath it than to the thousands of people walking, working, and playing where nature had said there was nowhere to live. Stan hefted the backpack containing nearly all he owned and crossed the dock to get started.
The colony was a sort of jungle gym or raft made from an oil rig, a retired cargo ship, a set of purpose-built "seastead" platforms offering a flat surface well above the waves, and a flotilla of boats that rearranged and jostled constantly. He smelled something baking until the wind shifted and brought him a scent of seaweed instead. Under his feet the ground was concrete reflecting the warmth of an early winter day. Stan left the dockside view behind as he got in line beneath a canopy, which led him to the entry gate.
Minutes later he faced an automated kiosk where a bland digital face appeared on the screen, asking, "Papers? Reason for visiting?"
Stan let it scan his US passport and eyes. He'd been coached on this moment, as on many other things over the last year. He took a deep breath and said, "Immigration."
The face smiled. "Your record shows that you have provisional citizenship in the American Free States, and an employer. Welcome to Castor, newcomer. Respect the laws and earn your way." A gate clicked open for him and an ID card dropped into a slot.
He'd expected to be quizzed in detail, even taken aside to talk with a human, but aside from the one dour guard ignoring everyone from a central booth, it seemed there wasn't enough manpower to interrogate everyone who wanted in. Stan officially entered Castor's territory with no fanfare, no oath or signature.
Now, how was he going to live here?
Beyond the entry chokepoint was the district called Libertalia. What he could see of it was one big platform, a crowded public square lined with shops. Stan tried to find a place where he could slink into a corner and just observe, but everywhere he moved there was a current of people eager to get somewhere. He let himself pinball around the square for a few minutes just to take it all in. Booths selling drinks competed with one that sold illegal drugs -- illegal almost anywhere else. A brothel labeled "Congress" faced off against a beleaguered little church. A souvenir shop advertised knives, synthetic diamonds, and pornography whose very titles made his eyes bug out. Stan walked past that one feeling shaken. This ongoing low-level riot was completely different than the Community he'd called home just a week ago, where everything was wholesome and quiet and neatly regimented.
A trio of self-proclaimed guides tried to talk the new arrivals into hiring them, and a few others were already wandering off with clients. One of those was a naked woman, he belatedly realized. "Sure, why not?" he muttered.
One of the remaining guides was dressed in spandex like a superhero violating at least two US copyrights. "Greetings! Do you need assistance, good sir?"
"Ah, no. I'm heading to my job." Stan left before the sales pitch could continue.
At one end of the main Libertalia platform stood a building decorated like a castle, with cannons and pennants. The flags included not just the AFS banner and the Cuba state flag, but the one that made him proud: wings of red, green and blue on a silver field. The mark of the new boss, the master of the game.
Stan walked into a small lobby with an elevator and stairwell. A human clerk there was intent on a screen behind his podium. Stan grinned; the man was busy gaming. Stan said, "Do you play while you're waiting for people?"
He startled and looked up, mouth twitching faintly. "Sometimes. Hi. Says here that you're a new employee?"
"That's right. I'm here to work on the VR rigs."
"Good. Nothing's broken right now, but they all need a checkup. Excuse me." A mother with a gaggle of kids had arrived. The clerk hopped off of his stool, surprising Stan with how short he was, and left for a moment to bring them to a table. He returned and said, "My name's Dahl. Looks like you're not on duty until tomorrow."
Stan was a little rattled from seeing the customers walking in along the same way he'd come, but had the sense not to make fun of Dahl's name. "This place is a stone's throw from all the drugs and gambling and nudity, and it's family-friendly?"
The clerk gave a wan smile. "When you live this close you can't afford to throw stones, considering that what we offer in the basement is controversial too. If you want, have a look around before work. You might ask for VR pod time."
"Thanks." Stan sat down on one of the benches for a moment and studied the place. There was a logo for Thousand Tales, the game that was this place's whole reason for existing. The tables were more crowded than he'd seen at the franchise in Mexico, and the decor was more nautical, but the restaurant and gaming center was another Fun Zone just the same. Already he felt out of place on Castor because of the constant chaotic bustle, but this place was a tourist attraction. It was meant for bewildered newcomers. Stan took a seat at a bench with only three seats free, and watched the games and stories playing out on the many wall-mounted screens. Dragon battles, a party of fantasy explorers, a starship bridge. Some customers were passively watching these while they ate, but most were more intent on steering the action using handheld tablets.
He watched them for a minute while he tried to relax. There was little point in putting things off longer, though; the boss was waiting. He pulled out his own personal gaming pad, a Talisman Mk. II with a sturdy blue case, and turned it on to say, "Hello, Ludo; I've arrived."
A man appeared on the screen, with wind-blown blue hair and a dark cape that glittered with stars. He gave Stan a wide grin and said, "You came all this way here and you still want to play, huh?"
"Of course, sir. I'm here because of you."
Stan had been living at Youth Community Center #6 in Imperial Valley, California, doing his two years of required national service after high school. He'd been coasting. He began playing Thousand Tales and talking with Ludo, the Artificial Intelligence who ran it. Now he was thousands of miles away with a new job ahead and several burned bridges behind.
Ludo said, "You're the one that earned your way here. It looks like the boat arrived just minutes ago, so you came straight here instead of seeing your new home first. If you're so eager, do you want to head for the VR pods? Gives you an excuse to see the hardware you'll be working on, and you're entitled to a certain amount of free time in them as part of your pay. Though, try not to say the word 'entitled' around here; it's not very popular."
The Fun Zone was a three-level building. Stan walked around to get a feel for the place. There was the big main room that was basically a restaurant, with one giant screen occupying the back wall like a theater. The entryway, he'd assumed was just for customers to wait in, but on second view his eyes went wide. There were cleverly hidden, segmented panels worked into the walls and ceiling, as though there were hidden cameras besides the obvious one, and as though steel doors could drop into place and hidden weapons emerge on a second's notice. At first Stan laughed the idea off as paranoia, but... that was probably exactly what the room was for. That and helping the air conditioning.
Above the main room's low ceiling was the VR floor. Stan took the stairs next to the elevator, and arrived in another entryway room with more screens on the carpeted walls. A list showed info on the pods' current occupants, mostly with nicknames; someone going by AtomSmasher was listed as "Assaulting a starship" for instance. Another screen showed elaborate VR tutorial instructions. He was neither drunk nor pregnant, so he should be good to go, but he paid close attention anyway to what the customers were being told. Basic safety, how to attach the various straps, how to move without hurting himself. What he didn't see was a human clerk here to help him. "I guess that's my job?" he said aloud.
A light blinked for pod #3. A man walked out of one of the alcoves lining the hall ahead and made for the exit.
"Cool outfit," Stan said. The guy had a sort of hybrid of medieval tunic and dive skin, down to the knee. Stan had seen similar things on people here, especially the ones who seemed to know what they were doing. In contrast, Stan still had the standard-issue shirt and pants that marked him as a Community kid.
"Thanks." The player left Stan to take over the VR pod he'd been using.
Stan reached room #3 and brushed its curtain aside. The hardware filled most of the soundproofed space with a set of rods and motors and a tube that could swivel around to any angle. He climbed in, a little weirded out that there was no attendant, and hit a button.
Instead of a world selection menu, he appeared on the deck of a fantasy airship that soared above a forest. A woman with a pair of bat wings on her back removed her tricorner hat and bowed. "Good morning, mister Cooper. It's nice to meet the new crewmember."
"You're... miss Cassini, I think? Ludo gave me some basic info, but I was a little busy in the days leading up to my coming here."
Wait a minute, Stan thought. He raised one hand in a gestured that told the game world to scan her for information. Text appeared in his vision, saying:
Faction Flag: Brightmoon Privateers
Note: Wanderer of Two Or Three Seas!]
If she'd been a mere Non-Player Character he would've gotten a report on what level of AI she had -- it was a perk he'd earned -- but he'd been hoping to somehow confirm his suspicion about the new boss. "Are you an uploader?"
"That's right. It's not a problem for you, is it? And call me Sonia."
"It's not. I've made some friends among the native AIs. So, I'm Stan. I was expecting somebody who could walk around the building she's managing. You use robots, then?"
"I've got access to some. Now, your first few weeks you can expect to be useless, but try to learn. Something you'll have to understand is that I've got sensors everywhere, but I'm only really available sporadically. You and the other employees have to be seen so that the shop doesn't get mistaken for being abandoned. Or vulnerable."
Being an uploader meant digital immortality -- getting your brain converted to a digital format and being stored in the game world -- but it had drawbacks. Besides not having a physical presence in reality unless she piloted a robot, Stan had learned, she probably only experienced eight or so hours in a day. The processors just didn't run human minds as efficiently as actual meat brains did. He looked around the airship, which was crewed by some generic-looking pirates in brown and gold. "This is your office, then? Which part of Talespace are we in?"
"Midgard, the main fantasy world. I should let you get on with playing. So, show up tomorrow to start work. Any burning questions that can't wait for e-mail?"
Stan laughed. The first time he'd met one of these rich immortals, he'd jumped at the chance to curry favor with the guy. Now, Stan actually had things to do besides wish for an easy life. Not that he'd turn down uploading, if he got the chance. He tried to think in diplomatic terms. "I want to ask a career question about uploaders, but I don't want to offend you."
The skyboat captain said, "I don't offend easily; shoot."
He said, "If regular humans like me are just here because customers can't yet grasp the idea of an all-machine business, then how long will it be before I'm obsolete?"
"Between you and me? A couple years at this place. Both for money reasons and, like you're already thinking, because of what our guests think and assume about what it means to run a business. But if what Ludo tells me about your ability to learn and adapt is true, then you'll never run out of ways to be useful."
"Where the heck was I?" Stan asked to the void that replaced the airship world. He'd been playing Thousand Tales a little just this morning, on the way to the seastead. "Back to the Endless Isles, please."
The darkness gradually lifted to show a world of sea and sky. He now stood on the shore of Island West-3 South-10, a volcanic crag with a beach of black sand. Behind him, the Work In Progress lay at anchor. His simple one-masted boat had enough space on deck and in the tiny cabin for the three passengers he'd given a ride, plus a treasure chest he'd also made for himself. Now that he was in VR he waded closer, feeling water lap around his knees, to put one hand against the sun-warmed wooden hull. He smiled. This thing he'd made was real, within Ludo's world, and it was his.
Stan took out a flag from his inventory, a simple blue square on a stick, and stuck it into the ground. The interface announced, [You have discovered this island and can now save here!] If he found a suitable save crystal, that was. There was always a feeling of accomplishment to "discovering" a new island, even ones that'd been seen by thousands of other players. If all of their flags were visible to him he'd see the entire shore littered with them. Yet seeing his own standard fluttering on the beach by itself was true in its own way, because he really had marked out another square on his map, another place where he had a little more control over the rules.
He did the scanning gesture again, this time on himself. He'd earned some basic powers so far without actually killing a lot of monsters:
Account type: Standard
Body: Element-Touched (Earth)
Main Skills: Smithing, Woodworking, Inspect, Merchant, Hammer
Talents: Pack Man, Gadget Inspector
Shamanic Magic 1: Growth, Metal, Create. 2: Tailwind.
Save Point: Tourney Isle
Note: Wielder of hammer and drones.
His talents so far let him carry extra stuff and make minor upgrades to items, both useful for trading and building. Many other players favored powers that let them hit harder or run faster; they were missing out on the interesting ones.
Time to go seek some adventure. As usual he didn't have much armor, and the sparkling blue cloth he'd made into pants and a sail did nothing for his defense. What he needed today was a low-pressure trip. He called out to a party of wanderers who were just coming onshore. "Hey there! Need a pack mule while you're exploring the volcano?"
The trio hauled a raft onto the sand. The wood splintered and cracked, making Stan wince. All three looked like newbies, equipped with little more than wooden spears and bits of palm-bark armor that even Stan hadn't tried making. All were human but for one who'd earned the first stage of a birdman transformation, growing a fringe of gold feathers along his arms and hair.
The one girl in the party said, "Who are you, hanging around on a random island? Say, are you an uploader?"
Stan laughed. "Not yet. There aren't many of those. I just showed up to give people a ride in my new boat here and then I had to sign out."
"Sorry. It's just that you're way out away from the starting area too, and you obviously played enough to get that partial transformation."
Oh yeah, that. Stan glanced backward and saw the fuzzy, ringed tail he had in this world. In VR it felt like something twitching at the base of his spine, matching some faint flicking that hinted at the raccoon-like ears atop his head, but there was only so much that the gaming rig could do to simulate a different body shape. He was basically still human anyway despite being "element-touched" like the birdman, and wasn't sure he wanted to go any farther with those changes.
He said, "Fair enough, though your friend there obviously did the element thing himself. Speaking of giving rides, hang on a sec." He used a private message window to contact the group that he'd ferried here. [Sorry to strand you; I was offline. How are you doing?]
Their reply popped up as text: [We're on the northwest beach building a raft to get back to Tourney. Want to help?]
Stan relayed that to the newbies and added, "What brings you so far away from Central Island so soon? Most players get better equipped first. No offense."
The feathered one said, "We're sequence-breaking!" The girl explained for him, "Jumping ahead to get a cool ship early. And for that we need an Anchor Stone, which I guess you know, and for that we had to go far off."
The third guy said, "But yeah, let's find the other group."
Stan led the way. "This is a chance to learn, especially if you plan to build your own boat after this trip. I take it you're following a specific quest that said this island could give you that Anchor Stone you need?"
They talked for a bit. A new window popped up in Stan's vision in the distinctive shimmery blue of his sail and pants, like sunlight on water. [Are you seriously going to spend your VR time doing woodworking, again?]
Stan grinned. "Ocean, is that you?"
"Huh?" asked one of the adventurers.
"Sorry; I meant to say that privately. Ocean is the main supervisor AI of the Endless Isles. She's taunting me, so... Weapons ready!"
He'd called it: a pair of monsters bubbled up from the sea, conjured just because Ocean thought it appropriate. Not the shark-men he'd seen before, but black-and-white trollish creatures with long fluked tails and holding knives of colorful glass.
"Orcan!" said one of the experienced folk. "Get a tooth sample!"
How was Stan supposed to... oh. He grinned and took out his bronze hammer he'd built, then looked at the monsters' toothy snouts.
The battle began. The newbie explorers with their spears tried to fend the monsters off, but one orcan swung a segmented blade like a stained glass window that shattered the simple wood. The beast's own weapon shattered and it fell back, holding its webbed hands together in a magical pose that began to summon another knife.
While it was doing that, Stan leaped into the fray and swung underhand, connecting with the creature's jaw so hard that a tooth flew out. "There's your sample!"
The other orcan slashed at Stan, forcing him to parry twice with his hammer and dodge the third blow. Even so, it gashed him against his left arm. A red [Major wound!] icon flashed. The impact felt to Stan like getting hit in the arm and having it heat up, but it was a real enough sensation to make him stagger back and yelp.
The more experienced travelers closed in with their swords and a dart of magically flung gravel. The two orcan growled, emitting puffs of vapor from their blowholes. Each time they swung they usually inflicted a wound with their razor-sharp glass or damaged somebody's weapons or armor, but their own weapons broke each time. Soon the pair didn't have enough chances to re-summon more, so they resorted to punching with their meaty fists. Stan darted in and out of the fray to deal hammer blows or try to cover for the new guys.
At last both monsters dropped to the beach and died, squeaking pathetically. Stan was breathing hard from the effort. "Is everyone still alive? Good."
One of the new crew said, "We're disarmed, though. Except it looks like they dropped backup knives." The birdman had already begun searching the bodies and discovered that they'd left behind a knife each as treasure.
Stan said, "Cool, but those obviously won't last long. If you give me one to study, I'll make you some quick replacement weapons."
One of the elder group scooped up some of the black sand into a vial. "It'll be tough for you to do the volcano quest if you've got that minimal equipment."
"We know, we know. How are we supposed to do the quest now that the game's AI just wrecked what equipment we had?"
Stan grabbed a few likely-looking bits of driftwood and fallen branches from nearby palm trees. With a simple knife he began shaping them into clubs and a spear.
[Crafting result: Crude Wooden Spear. "Best point: it's pointy."]
Stan shrugged at the AI's criticism. "That's all I can do without a proper crafting station."
"Thanks," said the birdman, "but have we got any real chance?"
"They might get an easy version of the volcano dungeon," said the wizard who'd done that gravel-flinging spell and sampled the sand. "But if they're given the version that has a worthwhile treasure in it, then I wouldn't bet on them winning. I'd offer to help but that'd just scale up the difficulty."
The newcomers said, "That's not fair. We should be able to do this dungeon at any level."
Stan handed over the junky improvised weapons and took a glass knife. He said, "You shouldn't expect the Endless Isles to be fair. Random stuff happens all the time that could be good or bad. Instead, you need to be in control of how equipped and ready you are, so that you can get past something like this fight without getting worn down."
The wizard said, "Come on; let's all go back to Tourney and get you set up to try again with better odds. Stan, can you carry us all?"
"Sorry, no, max of four including me." There was only so much detail to the physics, and some limits were arbitrary.
"Blah. Can you help us do a quick raft, then?"
Stan nodded and they all got to work to make one. Stan did a lot of the work of laying out the fresh logs and connecting them with improvised rope, giving the whole thing a quality bonus due to his success in a little puzzle that was half abstract, half a real judgment of wood quality and balance. Then, reluctantly, he left the higher-level group behind in his wake to ferry the new guys east.
Besides using his limited knowledge of sailing to cross the sea -- mostly by pointing in the direction he wanted to go and adjusting the square sail until it Just Worked -- he had some magic. He struck a pose on the deck of the Work In Progress and called up the spell system with a gesture. A loose and rippling 3D grid of colorful points appeared around him. He opened one hand and conjured a rune that resembled a swirl of golden wind, then guided it along a spiral pattern through ghostly walls and spikes. His movements made him turn and dance in place to steer the mark to where he needed it, and then to guide another symbol for the word Create, and to target the combined energies. At last the magic field faded out and a gentle breeze began to blow from behind him, filling the sail more strongly than before. He smiled; he was getting better at this.
Stan's boat was faster than these disposable "noob rafts" that low-powered characters used to get around. He didn't need to chop down trees and lash them together every time he wanted to cross between islands, then have his creation sink. Instead, some durability meters on the thing slowly declined. And since he'd proven his commitment to the boat by installing a hard-win Anchor Stone, the little vessel was nearly impossible to destroy completely. Despite its speed as it crashed through the waves, it still took a long time to travel between West-3 South-10 and the town at Tourney Isle, just South-10.
Stan didn't mind. Here in VR he could feel the wind on his face and the way the creaking deck shifted beneath his feet with every wave. Seagulls circled overhead and the sun slipped slowly behind him.
"Wait. How long have I been in here?"
[Two hours, six minutes.]
His eyes widened and he addressed Ocean directly. [Where was the hourly timer warning?]
[At your real-world location, no automatic nag is legally required. You can turn one on using the options menu.]
That was weird. And now he had a problem. He saw Island West-1 South-10 ahead and to his right as he passed by, and there was a faint shimmer in the air close behind him that marked the boundary between map grids. In other words he still had a ways to go yet before reaching Tourney Isle.
He stretched, feeling faint stiffness to his left arm that marked the lingering major wound. He checked on the boat's cabin and found his passengers "sleeping", which meant they'd logged out and trusted him to get them to shore. So, he had a responsibility inside the game. He sailed on.
He wondered what it'd be like to have this digital world as his permanent home. The first time that he'd met an uploader, Stan had assumed that their lives were a rollercoaster of adventure and ultimate luxury. Afterward he'd kind of pitied them, since rich as they'd been, they were now trapped in their inner world and only able to set foot "outside" in reality by using robots. The truth lay in between; the uploaders and native AIs were often busier than they seemed.
The boat hit a tall wave, then another. Stan checked his sail and thought back to what little practice he'd had with it. Maybe a storm was coming? No, the sky all around shined clear. Instead he caught sight of rippling water ahead, and his eyes went wide. He pointed forward and commanded, [Inspect!]
That was one of his best skills. In response, a flash of sunlight highlighted a set of rocks dead ahead.
He cursed and hauled at one of the sail's confusing array of ropes. It folded like a Venetian blind and killed his acceleration. Unfortunately he was still heading toward the rocks, and now he couldn't do much to steer! Stan grabbed the backup paddle and tried to shove forward against the oncoming obstacle, but he had too much momentum. The boat crunched forward directly over the jagged boulders, shaking Stan hard enough to knock him down. Warning icons flashed as though he were the one taking damage.
Mercifully, the hull splashed down in safer water on the other side. He dashed into the hold and saw his passengers sleeping like nothing had happened, despite the obvious noisy leak beneath their sleeping spots on the floor. He was not going to have his time with this ship start with getting his passengers killed, on a clear day in the middle of the open sea!
Stan cursed and brought up the magic menu again. He'd never gotten the Wood element, so the best he could do was try Growth on the shredded hull. The symbols moved around at his fingertips, but fixing lumber this way was only good for adding a few points of durability to a noob raft, not patching a long ragged hole. Water burbled up past his spell attempts, soaking the sleeping passengers.
And of course he didn't have a whole set of repair tools or spare lumber. Stan looked wildly around, then seized on his treasure chest, a copper-bound wooden box in a classic style. He whipped out his hammer and knocked out the pins holding the lid on, then slapped the top down over the worst damage.
Casting another spell was hard, mostly due to having to stay in place and kneel on the box lid while waving his hands around. This time he could work with the Metal element along with Growth, giving the rule system a more specific reason to let him repair the wood. To help it understand what he was trying to do, he said, "I try to make the metal seal off the damage. Sacrifice the lid's quality." Wrecking one item to fix another was worth a bonus if it made sense.
His first casting attempt fizzled but he second took, melding the box's metal parts and some of the wood into the damaged hull. A feedback message said, [Partial repairs have made the boat's major wound minor. Leak rate reduced by 75%. You can bail out using the same chest.]
Good. Stan stood up, feeling sweat on his forehead. "But I'm not bailing out now!" He looked at the lidless box and at the water slowly filling the cabin. "Oh, that's what that means." He began scooping the water out. Once that was under control he raised sail again and used a wind that had stirred just now by natural weather in a roughly eastward direction. Soon he was moving, and every so often removing more water, and the now-familiar Tourney Island emerged on the horizon. The sun was already falling.
Stan relaxed as he maneuvered toward the short dock. The wind shifted so that he had to zigzag or "tack", and eventually gave up to glide onto a beach instead. He barely remembered in time to swing up the bottom fin, the daggerboard, or whatever was left of it. "Is this going to sink while I'm offline?" he asked, watching the western sky blaze with sunset.
[A protected vessel takes no damage while the owner is offline.]
He started the thirty-second logout ritual, then remembered his passengers. "Obviously they have permission to exit...?"
The world swirled away into a pale sky that faded to a Thousand Tales title screen. His version -- it varied by player -- showed a silhouette of a man sailing under a logo made of wood. "Whew, I need a break. Thank you, Ludo."
The AI didn't answer him, so he shut down the VR pod and opened it using a latch on the inside. It hissed open. He expected someone to help him get out without hurting himself, but since it was unattended he had to trust his own muscles. "I'm off to move in. See you tomorrow."