A young, adolescent woman, seated at a table, ate fries. The fork came down, again and again, spearing them. And she tasted nothing. Her senses were not dull. She was distracted.
The clock on the stove, across the kitchen, displayed 11:13pm. It caught the young woman's eye, and she quickly rendered the remaining fries with a quick gnashing of teeth.
Upon the table, the news-tab had been projecting a hologram. Normally, it was a gray slab of plastic. The display flipped between random clips of news, and celebrity gossip.
Petty, and pettier, she thought. Wireless communications with the girl's implant node proved useless at filtering the display to only show what was relevant to her interests. Its failure angered her. The real world does not concern me.
The machine shut off with a flick of the girl's thoughts. The news tab lay silent and unshining, upon the table. And then, an orange light blinked on as it began to download an update.
And she went to bed. Upstairs, in the bathroom, she tended to her insignificant appearance. And, alone, she walked to her bedroom and fell asleep. And as she fell asleep, her mind logged in to Vagary.
The relaxing lights swirled around her sight. The calming sounds, brought her away to another place in another world, with a time-line of its own.The illusion materialized before her senses. And he materialized to her senses. She was he, and he was she.
He sat, on horseback, at the edge of an open plain. He was below a cliff's edge, clad in armour and crowned with an obsidian circlet. He was immobile. The army before him was immobile. The clouds in the sky were immobile. And the world did not move.
My troops, exactly as I left them. she thought, And my steed, as dependable as ever.
The comforting feel of the leather saddle became too familiar, as the world remained at pause. And finally, words displayed in the air before her.
Welcome, Kali. Session 483 of the Vagary Role Playing Game, on Server Nexus 031-A, is about to commence in 4 minutes and 32 seconds, as it is 11:25pm (Central Time, GMT - 6:00). Please be patient, as the world will be in motion soon. While you wait, please feel free to chat with other users in this dreamworld nexus.
Kali would have smiled, however her character was frozen. She tried, and got mild feedback from her implant. Damn you, Prince Klyneh!
Incoming message from your step-father, Kali, the implant told her. She glanced at the welcome text, and read the time again: '...commence in 3 minutes and 46 seconds, as it is 11:26pm (Central...'
"Kali, are you there?" A calm baritone, with flawless English.
"I'm here, Papa." She recognized her father's voice, however Kali's own voice seemed off to her, and only her. There was something subtly imprecise, to her own brain, about the synthetic reproduction of her voice. Perhaps because she wasn't hearing it through her own skull.
"Are you going to tell me who your character is?" A playful tone, and a question asked regularly.
"Last time, I told Uncle Rameen who I was, and his archer assassinated me, Papa. I had to make a new character. Who idly kills off a court jester?"
Synthetic laughter, from his implant. Finally, "Our Rameen?"
"Yes, Uncle Rameen!"
"My brother-in-law, Rameen?"
"Yes, Papa. Uncle Rameen!"
She read, '2 minutes and 11 seconds'. Then, Kali's thoughts spoke to her system, "Player Count"
"No, Papa, I was talking to the system."
"And what is it at?"
"Sixty out of sixty-three signed in. One missing in action. Two characters left to be run by Artificial Intelligence. As of just now."
"How was your schoolwork tonight?"
"Oh, fine," Kali replied. And my classmates are gonna get a whuppin' tonight! Her voice betrayed her emotional distance, "And work, Father?"
"Bewildering. Lots of paperwork, and a droid broke down. However, we made a good sale today. And I hired a new accountant intelbot from Microdroid Industries. We got it up and running on lunch break, and it put out with some very impressive features."
More than I wanted to know. Kali had the welcome text fixed in front of Prince Klyneh's unmoving eyes, watching the timer with impatience. "That's nice to hear, Papa. And how's Mom? I didn't get to speak with her today --"
Prince Klyneh's horse trotted around to the base of a ramp, and climbed the cliffside. With a graceful whinny, it faced the army of eighty soldiers. The ostentatious armour shone in the dawn's rising sunlight. A horn sounded, and every soldier's face turned to face the Prince.
His voice boomed over the windless plain, "This fine day, men, we march against my brother's land!"
The men cheered, and the Prince's brown horse leaned up, on its hind hooves, and neighed with as much enthusiasm. As its front fell back to the ground, the Prince let go of his grip around the horse's neck and grinned smugly.
"Five silvers to the woman or man who brings me my brother alive. And seven to the one who brings me his beloved wench!"
Excellent! A deafening cheer rose from the crowd. Kali thought she made a fine orator as Prince Klyneh. A response from her father came, and she pushed it to the side of her mind, choosing instead to focus on the game. I have been playing up to this critical week for months!
Kali had been playing Vagary since she turned sixteen, over a year ago. It was a medieval fantasy in a virtual world. And every night, her mind came to it between 11:30pm and 7:00am. Several people in her community used the same server nexus. Thus, it was a community of thought and imagination that reflected a geographical locale.
After six months, her uncle had killed her first character. Kali had been a royal jester adept at court life. Playing that fool had taken every ounce of charisma and wit that Kali possessed. And rather than create another character again from scratch, the system had given her a random offer of taking over the role of a Non-Player Character, which most users called NPCs for short. The NPC in question was the Crown Prince's younger brother, Prince Kwyneh. And Kali liked his sly, subtle antagonization of the courtesans. His envious ambitions were alluring to her, and had been the butt of many jokes. Also, she had reckoned it would be nice to play as a man for once.
The steady march towards the capital was wearing down on the Prince's mind. The grassy plains were uneasy on the eyes in the harsh sunlight of the morning. And because few of the men had horses, the trip was slow. Three had horses: Prince Klyneh, his tactician, and a scout.
The scout was before the men, following the road as it wound through countryside. Occasionally, they met patches of farmland. More and more rows of crops, roaming animals and modest houses appeared as they came nearer to the capital city.
In the distance, walls loomed unguarded. The scout observed nothing. And reported nothing. The horn, tied around his neck, was dry. However, if danger was sighted, his artificial intelligence was set to blow the horn and ride away in an attempt to mislead the enemy. However, none seemed to yet suspect Prince Klyneh of treason.
Clip-clop, clip-clop. Slud-slid, slud-slid. The steady rhythm of hooves and metal boots against hard, wet dirt wore down against the Prince's mind. He continued to brood. Kali felt all his envy, all his longing. She truly felt in touch with her character. A stray thought congealed, My tactician is not a user, is he?
The wind stirred, for the first time that morning, and dulled the monotonous beat of the marching soldiers.
Kali's speculation continued to dominate the Prince's mind, as they both ascended into paranoia. Players and significant NPCs are able to use magic. My tactician is not of royal blood. And I have not seen him use magic. However, something is off about him. Perhaps the Intel for that character is simply flawless.
The prince's warhorse whinnied, by instinct. The scent of ogres was on the wind. Prince Klyneh's nose was oblivious. However, he could make an educated guess about why the horse whinnied. And he knew, before the --
The scout blew a deep, sonorous tone from the curled horn, as a crossbow bolt shattered the crude instrument into several pieces. With a ping, it made a small dent in the scout's chestplate.
The Prince's tanned hand rose from the reins of his horse, and moved lochs of curly black hair away from his eyes. He scanned the northern horizon, looking over the men around him.
Birds took off, across many fields in the northwest. However, in the northeast they continued to scrounge at the wet ground for worms. And that told the Prince where the scout was.
"March through that field on our left, with a northwest heading!" Prince Klyneh ordered. Then he explained his reasoning, as some among his rogue army were mercenaries, "Soldiers, that was an abrupt blow which means that the scout has hostiles in his sight, though he is safe. If they attack him before we reach his location, he will let out another short honk."
There's a slim chance that at least one of these mercenaries is a user. However, I cannot rule it out. Kali reasoned, Due to my unforeshadowed, rogue actions and any abberations in the Prince's original personality, I've made it clear that the Prince is not an NPC anymore. Perhaps I should have planned this more carefully.
The clock, in Kali's head, let her known that it was 11:41pm in the real world. Time was perceived faster, in the game. Kali thought she had been marching for an hour. However, it had been a mere ten minutes. Thus, her conquest might end in the passing of a single night. She reckoned the siege might take a month of Vagary, at best. That would only be five or six days. However, she hoped it would take a mere week. This one, single night. So she could walk into university tomorrow with her head held high, and reveal her true identity. Kali cherished her rivalries.