Interlude – Penswell
Penswell was trying to be in twelves places at once, and was succeeding for the most part. Her problem was that she really needed to be in a hundred places and her limits didn’t stretch quite that far.
“I’ve got news from [Crystal Bower],” General Aurelite said. “Got time to hear the details or do you just want the summary?”
Aurelite was, in theory, in charge of the combined troops of the [Fallen Kingdoms Defense Force]. In practice though that amounted to little more than “Chief Cat Wrangler”. The regular forces were a challenge on their own. Add to that trying to integrate troops which had fought wars against each as recently as a few weeks ago, and then toss the impossibility of controlling the [Adventuring Guilds] into the mix.
The urge to join the Consortium wasn’t overwhelming, but Aurelite could see the appeal of it.
“Summary first, followed by the details please,” Penny said, allowing one of her projections to freeze in place so she could reclaim the brainpower needed to process Aurelite’s words.
“Ok, in short, we’re holding [Crystal Bower]. The [Library of Light] saw heavy fighting – well beyond our projections – but the team there held out. The [Garden of Silence] escaped relatively unscathed and saw comparatively less fighting. The two other offensive fronts went according to plan. The upshot is we’ve got control of the teleport fields within the city and have reenabled the interdiction wards with the new protocols.”
“That was exactly the good news I needed to hear,” Penswell said. “Give me a breakdown on where our forces are at.”
“The regular troops are moving in and fortifying the key locations,” General Aurelite said. “We’ve got a team from one of the [Crafting Guilds] dispatched with them to create new defensive structures. That should raise their effective level if they have to repulse another invasion.”
“Do they have an special units with them?” Penswell asked. “We were going to move a contingent of [Beast Handlers] and the [Fire Drakes] into the city too, but they’re still pinned down in [Wagon Town].”
“I can order the handlers and the drakes redeployed,” Aurelite said. “They have a path open to exit the battlefield.”
“If they leave, [Wagon Town] falls,” Penswell said.
“It’s not exactly a tactically critical location,” Aurelite said. “The troops in [Crystal Bower] would have a much better chance of holding the city if they had drakes to counter the Consortiums [Clockwork] soldiers with.”
Penny ground her teeth. The argument for “let the goblins die already” had been raised in at least thirty different varieties, from straight out racist calls to “end the vermin while we can”, to more veiled suggestions as to the relative value of different targets the Consortium had attacked, to attempts to couch allow the goblins to be exterminated as ‘tactically necessary’.
The moment you accepted the goblins as people though, it became impossible to take any of those arguments seriously.
“[Wagon Town] has the highest concentration of [Alchemists] and [Tinker Mages] in the entire world,” Penny said. “It is also the bastion which guards the principal gateway into the [Goblin Deeps]. It’s shielding more people than [Crystal Bower], [Thaldinforge], and [Corsair’s Bay] out together.”
Penny was pretty certain that Aurelite mumbled something like “if you can consider them people”, but since the General didn’t seem inclined to overtly pursue the matter, she let it drop, wondering if that was a mistake.
“I’ll take it that no replacements for the [Fire Drakes] have been found yet?” she asked instead. [Crystal Bower] was still an important focus point in the overall campaign, and the elves there deserved protection as much as the goblins did.
“We’re in negotiations at present, but those may take some time,” Aurelite said.
“Negotiations with who?” Penny asked. She was trying to stay abreast of the diplomatic war being wages in addition to the physical one, but she’d fallen behind on monitoring the political maneuvering of the various factions as the fighting had intensified and consumed all her attention.
“We have opened communication with the [Tyrant of Flames],” Aurelite said.
“What! When was this! Who authorized it?”
“You did,” Aurelite said. “You specifically instructed the diplomats to ‘make any alliance, with any force that is willing to fight against the Consortium’. Those were your exact words.”
Penny pinched the bridge of her nose, her jaw and neck muscles going rigid.
“I didn’t think I needed to add ‘who isn’t actively trying to eradicate all life in the [Fallen Kingdoms]’. Perhaps I was foolish but that seemed too obvious to mention.”
“And yet here we are,” Aurelite said.
“We need to call those negotiations off,” Penny said. “The [Tyrant of Flames] is an existential threat to this world. We can’t fight one apocalypse with another. That doesn’t leave us with a world, it leaves us with a [Flame Tyrant] who’s now got extra-dimensional [Murder Barges] at his command!”
“I am well aware of that. But the negotiations have to continue.”
Penny paused for a moment, stunned at the stupidity of that line of thought, but then paused. General Aurelite was many things but she wasn’t stupid, which meant there was some compelling reason why she would risk such a catastrophe. Penny searched her imagination for what that reason could be. She called to mind the worst possible situation and knew that must be it.
“The Consortium’s already negotiating with the [Flame Tyrant]?” She knew that had to be it, even though she really hoped to be wrong.
“They got there before we did,” General Aurelite said. “We’re not out of the running though. Our diplomats are still alive and are reporting back, second hand admittedly, what the Consortium is offering for the [Flame Tyrant’s] cooperation.”
Penny’s concentration wavered as her breath turned white hot. Holding onto a dozen projections at once became impossible. Three were indispensable but the rest she released until she could get her rage back under control.
“What makes any of them thing the [Flame Tyrant] will cooperate with either the Consortium or us,” Penny asked. “And what can we possibly be offering a monster like that?”
“At this point? Existence,” Aurelite said. “The [Flame Tyrant] isn’t stupid. Despite what the Consortium is offering, it’s obvious that from their perspective, foreign powers like the Tyrant will never be respected or allowed to continue existing in a world they conquer.”
“Of course not,” Penny said. “If they let the [Flame Tyrant] live, they’ll all be burned to ash within a week.”
“That’s where we have an advantage,” Aurelite said. “We have a history with the [Flame Tyrant]. There’s at least the possibility of an mutually satisfactory relationship there.”
“Well, we could give the [Flame Tyrant] one of the Consortiums other worlds after we beat them,” Aurelite said.
Penny pictured it. One world cast from slavery into the fires of utter destruction in order to preserve the world she knew and loved. The temptation was clear and the numbers added up, provided she assigned based on what was the most convenient for herself. Otherwise it was the problem with the goblins writ on a planetary scale.
“Has that been suggested yet?” she asked.
“Not explicitly,” Aurelite said. “The negotiators reported that they’re still working through the social amenities required to properly address the Tyrant.”
“They’re wasting time. Good. Have them continue with that and report if there’s any sign of the Tyrant accepting either offer,” Penswell said.
“Do you think that’s likely?” Aurelite asked.
“No. In this case it’s much better to string both of us along until its clear who the victor will be and then threaten to join the other side if their demands aren’t met.”
“That’s when we’ll recruit them?” Aurelite asked.
“That’s when we’ll destroy them,” Penny said. With a deep, calming breath, she forced her muscles to unclench. The [Flame Tyrant] had caused too much pain already but allowing herself to get distracted by that wasn’t going to do any good for the people she still could save.
Interlude – Marcus Marshall
Seeing Hailey disappear in front of his eyes shouldn’t have come as a surprise to Marshall. He’d already seen one of his other support reps suffer the same fate and there were reports from around the world talked about the same thing happening to players by the tens of thousands.
But Hailey hadn’t been at her desk. She hadn’t even been playing Broken Horizons.
Marcus rushed back to the call center room and Hailey’s cubicle. His administrator password was enough to get him in her machine. His stomach sank when he saw two instances of the game’s client running.
One was clearly the official “GM” level account which most of her work was done through. They’d always required the support reps to have an normal user version of the code installed as well though. Sometimes problems could be tracked down in the less restrictive “GM code” but more often the reps needed to be in the same version of the game that players were seeing to encounter the bugs they were reporting.
Marcus didn’t have to pull up the other instance of Broken Horizons to know that Hailey had been logged in on her account as well. He could see the character name in the title bar. Pulling it up he expected to see the same blank screen which had been on Ashad’s screen when he’d been disintegrated or pulled into the game or whatever happened to GMs who tried to use their god-like powers.
Hailey’s client wasn’t fried though.
Marcus could see her – or her character, “Burnt Toast”, really.
And he could see the message that appeared in her chat log.
>> Hey Marcus! Sorry to cut out on you like that.
>> I’ve got some important stuff to do here though.
>> Could you try to make sure no one turns off my computer.
>> And maybe cover for me? If anyone asks, tell ‘em I went home early or something.
Marcus stumbled back.
This was not possible. Even for the last day, this wasn’t possible. People were only supposed to be absorbed, or whatever was happening to them, when their characters died, or when they tried to log off. Hailey had been standing right beside him. She couldn’t have tried to log off.
Maybe she’d left her character somewhere dangerous and been killed when she was away?
But she seemed to know exactly when it would happen.
No. She seemed to chose when it would happen.
>> One more thing…thing…thing….thing…
>> I seem to be having a bit…bit of trouble
>> This might not have been the best…worst…best…worst…best idea ever.
>> Maybe have Jane and Miguel check the server logs for
>> for this character? What’s happening to me might shed some light on
Marcus waited for another message to appear but after a minute none more showed up.
On the screen, Hailey’s character appeared to be kneeling down, head pressed to the floor and meditating. It was an interesting emote, especially since Marcus knew for a fact that there wasn’t any emote like that in the game.
“Can I help get you out of there?” he asked as he typed the message into the chat window.
It should have gone to the local channel and been said so that the other characters around “Burnt Toast” could hear it too. Instead a reply immediately appeared in the chat log, with Marcus’s text simply being swallowed up.
>> I don’t want to get out of here.
>> We have too much to do still. There’s too many people here who need our help.
Marcus wasn’t even sure he believed the “people” in the game were real people anymore. One part of him acknowledged that they seemed to respond and behave like real people, but another part was still valiantly clinging to denial as a means to retain at least a few shreds of his sanity.
He hadn’t slept in a long while, and he’d been under so much stress leading up to the launch of the World Shift expansion. Hallucinations didn’t seem that far out of the question. Even a full psychotic break probably wouldn’t have been unwarranted, and would certainly have been better than what he was facing.
Except he knew it couldn’t be that easy.
Rolling up his sleeves, he went over to his own machine and unlocked it. Waiting for him was his own game client – this one running his “GM” character. GM powers were strictly off limits, but talking? Talking didn’t seem to cause any problems.
He was wrong about that, but also very right in what he did.
>> Ok, no getting you out then.
>> Tell me what I can do to help.