Foreword from Dysphemism: I'm gonna step back in time about six and a half hours for a few scenes. I found it necessary, for setting the offline-based plot in motion. Enjoy!
The following writing may contain mature subject matter that some readers may find unsettling: graphic violence, gore, drugs, sexuality, vulgarity, nudity and other mature themes.
This writing is fiction. Names, characters, settings and events are either used fictitiously or are products of the writers' imaginations. Any resemblance to real events, settings or people, dead or alive, is coincidental unless stated otherwise.
"Power tends to corrupt, and great power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
-- Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, 1887.
"You're a bad man, Ian McKay!" exclaimed a woman, seated at a table across from a man. They were both Caucasian. And they both wore matching wedding rings. Between them, were two disposable bowls of French-Canadian poutine: fries smothered in gravy and cheese.
At 6:15pm on a weekday, The Harvey's fast food restaurant in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, was bustling with activity.
"Sticking my fork in your bowl makes me a bad man, darling? Are you sure this is even the best thing for the baby?" He had a smooth voice, in a calming tenor.
A high heel dug into Ian's thigh, and he grinned smugly, before stuffing another forkful of her poutine into his mouth. And as another plastic fork, from his bowl, rose to her mouth, he asked, "How was the meeting after work, Virginia?"
She swallowed what she had been chewing, and sipped her drink. "It went like this, Ian. Principal Gleimhurst was at the front, ranting about..."
"Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it."
-- William Pitt the Younger, 1770.
"Vagary!" The large man in a suit had boomed "Vagary this, Vagary that! When will it end?"
The man had been standing at the front of a classroom. However, the people before him had not been young students. In fact, they had been adults. One of them had raised a hand, his darker skin making him stand out against the mostly Caucasian group.
"What is it, Mr. Darsha?" He had boomed, impatient to continue ranting.
"Please, Principal Gleimhurst, you may call me Rameen."
"Darsha... you're our new head of the English department?"
Rameen Darsha had nodded, "I teach two classes of Grade Twelve English at the pre-university level, and two classes of Writer's Craft."
"Tell me, Mr. Darsha, what have you learned from what students have handed in about this... this... g-game?"
"I play it, sir."
"Err... a-ah.. err... very well, then. Please tell us, now, how much does it get mentioned in your assignments? Would you say that the students are obsessed?"
"Well, as you know, it's only the senior Grade Twelve students that are old enough to play it. The exception being the fans that purchase special dispensation to play as young as sixteen. And even then, I would not go so far as to call it an obsession!"
"Oh, please, Mr. Darsha! Don't try to put me off with your bias. We've had a death threat in the school!" It was then that the principal had paused for emphasis, "Answer the question, Darsha."
"When the game came out last year, my predecessor, Miss Williams who is on maternity leave, disallowed Vagary content to be a topic in all English classes, including her own--"
"Sir, I am willing to grade papers with mature content. Some teachers of the course are not." Rameen Darsha had paused, then, to examine the curious grimace on Principal Gleimhurst's face. "In the first two months of school we've had thus far, it has been referenced in seventy-two essays spanning... umm... about a hundred and twenty potential players. And in my writing course, it is referenced in at least a third of the weekly assignments. Some content is autobiographical, and some is fictitious."
"Clearly, I need to ask someone with a more professional opinion." Gleimhurst had announced to the room, as all eyes fell upon Dr. Virginia McKay, the psychologist of the school's counseling team.
She had stood, beside him, her white blouse and long skirt clashing with his drab, gray suit. Then, she had smiled, awkwardly, and had begun, "Sir, my husband works for Vagary Incorporated. And I play it, sir."
Principal Gleimhurst grew red in the face, much to the amusement of Mr. Darsha and many of the other staff. And when the partially stifled laughter died down, "I trust that you will remain impartial, Doctor? And what of Kali Darsha?"
Heads had then turned unexpectedly back to Rameen Darsha.
"My niece," he whispered. Murmurs quickly spread the detail down the rows of teachers, as they all began to behave ironically like students.
"Silence!" Mr. Gleimhurst had boomed. And everyone had stopped, and stared at him. And then, when they had realized he had nothing of importance to say, eyes turned to the petite woman beside him.
"First of all, Principal Gleimhurst," Doctor McKay began, "I would like to point out that you are taking the death letter out of context. You underestimate these youth. They can separate reality from fiction quite easily. That death threat to young Kali is not a true death threat. It clearly references an unnamed fictitious character as the target. It's like threatening to 'beat' someone at a match of tennis, except because it involves virtual death, you plan to b--"
"She spends a third of her day as that fictitious character!"
"Well, half an hour short of that, yes. However, it gives these youth some more struct--"
"And," he had interrupted, "Have you finished the personality test?"
"Sir, please, Kali just took it this afternoon. I need time to mark it, sir. And she has no leads on who the perpetrator might be."
A man had stood up, in the back row, "Sir, we aren't getting anything from this meeting. We didn't need this impromptu staff meeting, we had one yesterday! I have a daughter to pick up from baby-sitting soon. And frankly, I think the government gives you too much power, if you intend to ban Vagary's use by students!"
Teachers had then chattered frantically, no voice discernible.
"Silence!" he had boomed, again. Once again, his large bulbous face had grown red, like a tropical frog whose back could be licked if a person wanted to hallucinate.
"Power attracts the corruptible."
-- Frank Herbert, expressed in Chapterhouse: Dune, 1984.
"And then, reluctantly, the bastard dismissed us." Virginia finished the story, between bites of poutine.
"That'll be," Ian replied, "quite a story to tell my co-workers."
"And how was work today, tiger?"
Sighing, he finished his root beer, "Well, in the morning, Alice was going over how to direct the NPC scripts to compensate for the potential outcomes of some current player actions. She briefed the whole team on it during our meeting at lunch, where I showed off what I'd been working on. That big bastion I showed you. Gotta finish mapping that tonight."
"Current player actions?"
"I wasn't paying attention to the specifics. Honestly, dear, I had the bastion's designs stuck in my head for most of the meeting."
Virginia grinned, "I'm pretending to be an NPC, as Prince Klyneh's tactician. He's got an army preparing to raid the capital, and kill the Crown Prince."
"Why are you pretending to be an NPC?" Ian's brow furrowed as he tried to remember more from his own meeting. "I mean, who are you trying to fool, another NPC?"
"Prince Klyneh hasn't been an NPC for the last six months. Don't you keep track of subtleties, dear? Hell, I'm not even sure if the Crown Prince himself is an NPC anymore. It seems your friend Alice has been putting NPCs up for grabs to dead, or new, players."
"I've been busy." Ian was defensive.
"Work, work..." Virginia mused, "Always work with you."
"At least I'm not as obsessed as that Kali girl."
"Perhaps. I wouldn't mind if you joined me though. It's awfully lonely having to raid dungeons with Prince Klyneh. At least he knows how to treat a woman."
Ian pretended to scowl, as he pushed off one shoe and dug a hairy, socked foot up her skirt.
"Hey, we're in a Harvey's for Christ's sake!"
Ian grinned, "That won't stop me." However, he withdrew his foot and slipped it back into his show with considerable effort.
"But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth."
-- Matthew 6:3, The Bible (King James Version)
Ian groaned, as ejaculate spewed forth, onto Virginia's chest. He let go of it with his right hand, as his body convulsed in pleasure, and a smile met his unshaven face, brown hair in a veritable mess. He was on his knees, over her, his left hand had been brushing her hair out of her face.
"You're not supposed to do that before the actual act!" she exclaimed, reaching for tissues at her bedside table.
Ian stared blankly at the clock. It displayed 11:39pm. He was late for work, and both of them had left their characters to automatically be picked up by AI, not that the AI would takeover his world-building responsibilities. Almost an hour in game time.
"That's all you can focus on, isn't it?" she asked, as the got up from the bed with a thick wad of tissues in one hand.
He continued to stare at the clock, blankly, as the clock turned to 11:40pm.
She called from the bathroom, "Are you gonna say anything?"
"I'm sorry, I was just... eager."
"After dinner was fun, Ian, but I guess I'll have to initiate our late-evening-attempts sooner. We're not gonna get pregnant by playing Vagary."
She nestled under the covers, beside him. She slept on the left-hand side of the bed. He slept on the right-hand side of the bed. On her bedside table, a half-marked personality-test lay with a pencil beside it. The entry for name read 'Kali Darsha'. And on his bedside table, were architectural sketches and blueprints he had been looking over, and had scanned into the system for recall.
Together, they fell asleep and logged into the system, late. The header came up briefly, and faded. And the Newsfeed reported to them both, sixty-two out of sixty three characters logged in. One missing in action.
"The die has been cast."
Julius Caesar, uttered while crossing the Rubicon.
A young student lay naked in his room. He was going to die, inevitably. He was bleeding, profusely, from cuts to his wrists. And, innocently, he lay on his bed with his arms folded across his body. Blood flowed from his wrists, across his chest, and soaked his bedsheets.
Above his bed, there was a hand-drawn banner, 'Crown Prince Julnareh'. Its ends were tipped with crude imitations of the Vagary Incorporated logo.
"Curse you, Klyneh," he wept. "You cast a war, and I die."
And as the young man died, he logged into the system. He was the sixty-third player. The player that would never be able to log out. Because he was dead.
"The strength of a chain, according to an old observation, was the strength of the weakest link."
-- William Windham, 1812.
Tiles materialized out of thin air, and fell the the floor, fitting perfectly amongst each other. And brick by brick, the walls of the corridor extended, linked together, until they hit the edge of the cliff, and the dungeon's corridor extended into daylight.
"Demondung!" A high, shrill voice cursed. She stood in the corridor, floating in the air. Her body was a smooth alabaster, and was runed with queer symbols, framing her naked body, circling her bodice. Translucent wings fluttered steadily at her back. I overshot the corridor fifteen feet, I've hit the edge of the cliff!
And before her, where the filthy corridor of gray brick ended abruptly, as a clear view of the valley. The Vagrant's Valley. It stretched out for miles upon miles, and was covered in rich farmland, forest glades and monsters. However, at this moment, she noticed a chain of glinting metal shining between the strawberry fields.
I mapped those farms a year and a half ago, before the game was released. I clearly did not put shining metal there. And the local farmers that Alice put together don't have much iron equipment. What is shining?
Behind the nymph, something moved in the shadows of the corridor.
She turned, distracted once again, and saw the sunlight between her own shadow glint off the helmet of an archer who stood before her, arrow drawn back. The ambient theme music of the dungeon was broken by the invasive combat themes. It was a mix of both users' settings, a melody improvised by the system. Her user pushed a thought towards where the system, Admin Eyes on!
The information danced overhead of every player in her sight, as she turned from Bweenda the Assassin, to look out upon the valley. The glinting metal in the strawberry patch was now accompanied by a list of names. Players and NPCs, lying stealthily in wait, blocking off all passage through the valley, in a long chain.
An arrow pierced her chest, and she oozed an obsidian gel.
"What manner of beast are you?" The assassin said aloud.
The nymph turned, and her eyes flitted across the far end of the valley, where she saw more NPCs, players and a troop of ogres. An army approached, and she had a spectacular view. Or, she would -- if someone was not trying to kill her.
Player-Killing List of Bweenda. Another administration command, by the nymph's user. And then, she spoke, "I would not shoot another arrow through my chest, Rameen Dursha."
Shit, he realized, This is not an NPC! What the heck kind of user looks like that?
"I will not be as easy to kill as the five bandits, the court-jester, the two royal maidens or the ten vagrants." Admin eyes off! The list, and the IDs, disappeared.
"You're an admin, aren't you?"
The fairy had turned around, to face the valley, "I'm an admin, yes. I'm one of the Cartographfairies. That's my official title. Mostly, I'm a mapper."
"A mapper?" Rameen's character asked, as he let loose another arrow, pushing the floating silhouette closer towards the edge of the corridor, where she was likely to fall several stories to an untimely death.
"I am part of the development team. I help design the layout of the game's areas. There are others, like me, but this world is so vast you probably won't see them. In fact, if you leave this kingdom's borders, you'll run into other networks of other players. However, they all run in the same timezone. Most of the neighbouring kingdoms are all Winnipeg-based."
"Good to know. They don't tell us much." He fired another arrow, which sent Ian McKay's character plummeting to its death.
On the valley floor, the white nymph screamed in agony, as an explosion of white and blue smoke and flames ascended from the wounds in her chest. And then she imploded, vanishing, sending a shock-wave across the valley which toppled every strawberry plant, soldier, farmer, horse, farm animal, barn and farmhouse within miles around.
And, where she had been, the translucent silhouette of Ian McKay stood over her body, screaming profanities. And all the riches in his character's inventory were splayed out, as the combat music ended.
Looking down from the eccentrically-mapped corridor, which opened out of the cliff side like an open air vent, Bweenda also cursed, "Cripes! How am I gonna get down to that loot, you stupid creature?"