Interlude – Marcus Marshall
The sun was rising. It had been five hundred years since the last time Marcus had seen that. The night had been a millenia long and then the false dawn had last for a geologic age.
Or it had been a few seconds.
Marcus could see the clock. He knew what time it was, but his sense of what the numbers meant was dulled by more sleep debt than he’d taken on in over a decade.
Back in college, “all nighters” had been a semi-common thing. Stay up late enough with friends and going to sleep seemed pointless. Since he’d joined the working world though, Marcus had learned that the cost of a night without sleep had risen drastically and was more than he could afford to pay anymore.
Unless of course the alternative was the destruction of an entire world. Then he was able to work a bit past his bedtime.
“All the design docs and world architecture documents have been sent and verified,” he said, pushing back from his desk.
He expected the officers who were resting in two of the better gaming chairs in the office to take the news as a sign that it was finally ok to arrest him. To his surprise though, the lead officer pulled neither a pair of handcuffs nor a neuralyzer from her pocket.
“Sounds like you can catch some sleep then,” Officer Smith said, calling up an app on her off brand smart phone.
“I don’t know, I should probably stay around in case…” Marcus’s thoughts drifted. In case of what? What could he really do for anyone at this point?
Penswell was taking care of developing a strategy, and the adventurers and the NPCs in the Fallen Kingdoms Defense Force were enacting it. Purti, the developer the FBI had been able to spare, was handling things on the Earthly end of the conversation. That left Marcus to act as Egress Entertainments “official liaison”, which involved, in theory, watching over the company’s financial interests and Intellectual Property integrity.
Given the scope of the crisis, Marcus was willing to let EE burn to the ground and had precisely zero interest in placing the needs of copyright management ahead of the welfare of hundreds of thousands of people.
The world was awake to the crisis that was ongoing at last, and Marcus knew he stood in the center of it. Whatever happened, however things turned out, and despite his abject lack of ability to influence events in a meaningful manner, Marcus knew people were going to hold him responsible for everything he did, everything he might have done, and everything they could imagine him doing.
And none of that mattered.
The aftermath of the disaster would come but, with the situation continuing to develop, Marcus saw only one path forward.
Fix what he could.
Bring together people who could fix the rest.
Act as a fixed point people could look to for answers, even if those answers were “here’s who you need to ask” or “we don’t know yet”.
The thought filled him with resolve and pride, but the wave of weariness that followed reminded him that he’d missed multiple nights of sleep and his body and mind had limits he needed to respect.
He’d already sent home half the support reps. They needed everyone on deck, but the GMs had been run ragged already and there was no sign of the crisis resolving any time soon. That shifted the team’s needs from short term damage control to long term support and care.
In a sense the typical game development cycle helped there. Marcus had seen companies that worked in constant crisis-mode. It was common in the industry. Burn out and missed deadlines were also common in the industry, both of which were tremendously costly to the development process yet somehow a lot of companies failed to connect those very easily connectable dots.
Marcus knew better and had been less than subtle in forcing EE’s practices away from constant crisis mode as much as he could.
Under the current circumstances though it had been easy to slip on that and let the support staff work well beyond twenty four hours. There just weren’t enough of them. They were a team of dozens struggling against a work load that would have crushed thousands, but they had to do it. There wasn’t the time or equipment available to train even twice their number of support reps, much less the hundredfold increase they actually needed. So they sat down and cast themselves against a sea of chaos vast enough to drown an ocean.
But that had been a mistake.
As fatigue grew, the GMs started slipping. Their responses grew confused and slow, and in place of providing comfort to lost and frightened gamers in need, they began snapping out, their patience long since exhausted. That was when Marcus had started forcing them to head home for shifts of sleep, despite protests that “I can go another hour, I’m still fine”, when in every case they were far from fine.
Marcus wondered where he was at by the metrics he’d used to triage the support reps. Probably far worse than he was aware of.
“Let us give you a drive back to your apartment,” Officer Astra said. She dangled a set of car keys showing that she and her partner were ready to go.
“No thanks,” Marcus said. “A black guy shows up somewhere in a cop car and people start thinking all sorts of things.”
“We didn’t come here in a cruiser,” Officer Smith said, putting away her phone.
“You know unmarked cop cars are still pretty obvious right?” Marcus asked.
“It’s an ice cream truck,” Astra said.
“An ice cream truck,” Smith said. “Our options were limited for things that wouldn’t attract attention.”
“How does an ice cream truck not attract attention?” Marcus asked, trying to remember the last time he’d even heard an ice cream truck roll by much less seen one.
“We’re trying to avoid a particular kind of attention,” Smith said.
“Were you working vice or something?” Marcus asked. “Got switched from busting drug dealers to baby sitting video game designers?”
“More the ‘or something’ option,” Astra said and helped Marcus stand.
Marcus hadn’t remembered deciding to stand, or even deciding to go home, but given how hard fatigue was rocking his world, that didn’t surprise him.
“Which precinct were you with? Are you locals?” he asked. The thought bubbled up that the FBI had taken over the investigation from the local police. So why was he walking with two plain clothes cops?
“We’re definitely not local,” Smith said. “But we can talk more about that once we get outside.”
“Outside?” Marcus asked, as they came up to a door.
One that wasn’t mobbed by reporters.
Where were they?
“You did some good work so far Mr. Marshall,” Astra said.
“We just want you to know you’re not alone,” Smith said. “There’s more people working to put things right than you can imagine.”
Interlude – Jin
The [Formless Hunger] wasn’t the only entity seeking to devour the [Fallen Kingdoms]. Deep in the [Sunless Deeps] a figure made of feedback and distortion rose from a tomb which no longer held a dungeon boss. With the figure’s passing, it never had held one, despite being the source of over half the loot the players of [Broken Horizons] used when the level cap was still set to 70.
The entity had no name and no description. It hadn’t run afoul of anyone like Tessa and so it wasn’t bound by the rules of the world it was consuming. Nothing could defeat it, or harm it, or even perceive the damage it was doing because in many senses it simply wasn’t there.
“I think we’ll call you a [Craven Slink],” Jin said, leaning against the side of the archway the [Craven Slink] had been stalking towards.
It hadn’t been stalking. It’s influence was spreading, but it didn’t have a body to slink with.
It wasn’t a figure either.
When had it acquired those traits?
“You know places like this are off limits,” Jin said, meeting the Slink’s burning yellow gaze with a sardonic little twist of her lips.
Many many things were wrong, and they were becoming steadily worse.
The Slink had not known that the [Fallen Kingdoms] were off limits. It hadn’t been enough of a thing to know anything.
In its mouth, the flavor of apples was overwhelming.
It had been corrupted with knowledge. A pristine non-existence wiped away by a burden too terrible to be bourne.
“What have you done to me?” the Slink asked.
With a voice!
It ran claws sharp enough to slice the fabric of reality down its face. It had to undo what had been done.
“You’re an experiment,” Jin said. “You’re not supposed to be here. But there’s a whole lot of you nibbling away in a ‘where’ and a ‘when’ which is supposed to be two things you don’t possess.”
“I don’t understand. What have you done to me! Why am I like this?”
“It seemed to fit you,” Jin said. “For whatever reason, you chose to come here, when ‘choosing’ isn’t supposed to be a thing you can do. I’m inclined to see this place survive, for now at least, which means not letting you eat it. Since you came through someplace nice and far away from any witnesses, I’ve got a bit more leeway in terms of what I can do before the world gets cranky with me.”
“But you made me horrible!” the Slink wailed.
“Like I said, it fits you.”
“Why not make me into something wonderful,” the Slink said. “Or, even better, just leave me alone. Make me go away if you want, but I didn’t need to be this.”
“Like I said, you’re an experiment. There’s a lot of you here and I don’t know why. I can keep you all away, but this world shouldn’t need me to tend it like that. No world should.”
“How does my being made real help with that?” the Slink asked.
“Someone here did something similar with one of the other things like you,” Jin said. “That might be the key to preserving this world, but I need to see where it leads long term. If you can become a part of this world, a fully realized one, then there may be a natural point of stability even if more of you arrive. If not, then I’ll need to destroy this world before it turns into a spawning ground for other Remnants.”
“Is that what I was? A Remnant?” the Slink asked.
“Its what you became when you began dissolving this world,” Jin said. “Before that you were less real than a wisp of dream, but there was still some fragmentary, shadow of a being. The barest hint of existence, though not one which would be real in any sense on this world.”
“That seems so much better than being this horror. I can’t exist. It’s too hard.”
“It seems like that now,” Jin said. “And it seems like that to a lot of other people too.”
“Why should I try then? Won’t you just erase me and be done with it. Do your experiment on some other Remnant. Just make them a wonderful one.”
“I don’t need another Remnant,” Jin said. “I just need to give you this.”
She held out a pillow. It was small, but fluffy, with an embroidered starscape sewn onto a night blue cover.
“What do I do with this?” the Slink asked, turning the pillow over in its terrifyingly solid hands.
Jin stepped forward and placed her hands on the Slink’s as they held the pillow to their chest. The Slink felt its new heart skip a beat at the sensation of another person’s touch. All of creation seemed to held in that simple contact.
“For now? Rest,” Jin said as she guided the suddenly weary Slink onto the throne where the [Dread King of Sorrows] had once held court. As the Slink faded into unconscious, she gave them one final command, “And dream.”
And a world within them was born.