Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 1

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

Some days seem like they’re never going to end, and Hailey was beginning to doubt if this one possibly could.

“Do we have anything yet on the team that went into Elberth’s Crypts?” Marcus called out over the din of the support center. The answer was ‘no’ but Hailey wasn’t going to be the one to say it. Not when she had fifty two other groups that she was responsible for monitoring.

When she’d taken the job on the Broken Horizon’s support team, Hailey had thought she was carving an “in” for herself to her dream career. After years of playing the game, being part of the team behind the scenes had seemed like it would be heavenly. Those dreams had been smashed pretty thoroughly by the reality of being in customer service though, and from the glimpses she got of the working conditions the development team labored under.

None of that however had prepared her for how much worse being on the front lines of a disaster management team the likes of which no one had ever foreseen, much less planned for, would be.

“We’re still getting heavy pings on the help queue,” Elizabeth Banner, Hailey’s workstation mate, said. 

The support team – or “Game Masters” as they were referred to by the players – were situated in a large ‘open office’ plan, where workstations were clustered together in pods of three stations per large cube. In theory it was to allow them to work together better, bouncing questions off each other in they ran into unusual problems or troublesome players. In practice it meant a complete lack of privacy and more unfiltered noise than was at all necessary. The only bright side to it was that most GM-to-player interactions were done through the in-game chat system or via email so there wasn’t a constant stream of chatter or crosstalk. 

“New players or repeats?” Marcus asked. Even with the request turned off, the system was still monitoring who tried to access the request for help function, and Marcus was trying to use the numbers to work out how many people were in true distress.

“Half and half,” Elizabeth said, as she typed an answer frantically back to one of the team’s she was assigned to manage. Meaning at least half the people trying to call for help knew there was no one listening but were desperate enough to try anyways. 

Hailey could parse that data with no problem. 

They were doomed.

Typically the vast majority, 99% or better, of players had no interaction with the support team, and even when support was requested the interactions were usually brief. Egress Entertainment had developed their staffing plan around that reality, employing just enough low paid support reps to make sure that the workload wouldn’t yield too many customers lost to dissatisfaction. It wasn’t a practice peculiar to the Broken Horizons team, paying for support staff was something few businesses enjoyed doing, and to EE’s credit, they did keep enough people online around the clock every day of the year that support request from players were answered in no more than a couple of minutes typically. 

Unfortunately, that level of capacity was orders of magnitude below what was required when every player who was logged into the game needed detailed and elaborate help at once.

Not that Hailey, Marcus, or anyone else was really able to help them.

If Hailey hadn’t seen her coworker Asad vanish right in front of her, believing that the same thing was happening to tens of thousands of people around the world might have been impossible.

Or it might not have been. Weird calls could always be part of some prank, but weird calls from everyone in the game? If it was a prank, it was one with enough player cooperation that even real magic would have a hard time pulling off.

More than that though, there was Glimmerglass. Or Tessa. Hailey didn’t think of herself as “Burnt Toast” primarily, but it was hard not to think of her online friends as their main characters, even when she knew their real names.

Assuming Tessa still considers me a friend, Hailey thought. They’d drifted apart after their guild split up, and Tessa had dropped out entirely a little while after that, but Hailey still remembered her fondly. Glimmerglass had always been so damn positive. More often than not, Glimmerglass had been the one patch things up when an encounter went pear shaped, taking each party wipe in stride, offering ideas on what they could try next, or even just sharing encouragement or groans at the unfairness of what was before them. Whatever it took to keep people going, Glimmerglass was usually the one you could count on to see it get done.

In any other circumstance, Hailey would have been so glad to see Glimmerglass log in, even if she hadn’t been able to reach out to her. Just to know that Tessa was doing ok, would have given Hailey a warm little glow in her heart.

Instead, she’d been praying that her manually hacked together search query for her old guildmates would turn up empty and, of course, it hadn’t.

The one day Glimmerglass could have chosen to come back and it had to be the one when the world turned into the Twilight Zone. Hailey wanted to blame her for it all, but after talking with her, Hailey could see it had come as too much of a surprise to all of them for that to be true.

Not that that made it any easier. The conversation they’d had still tugged at Hailey’s heart. She’d promised to be there for Tessa, to keep her in the loop but against the tide of calls the support team had to handle, there just wasn’t time.

Hailey’s desk was proof of that. She had ten screens open, with chat clients in each so that she could communicate to the players who were “Most in Danger” based on their levels and location. She’d managed to talk a dozen of her fifty-two assignments back to safe locations already but everyone had so many questions before they were willing to comply with direct and simple instructions that Hailey was tempted to let them suffer the fates they were so aggressively courting.

Except that wasn’t fair and she knew it. No one could reasonably expect a game like Broken Horizons to suddenly become a matter of life and death, and spending a little time talking each group through what they knew was a small price if it meant some of them could be saved. 

And Hailey had to save them. It was the only way to make up for not thinking of Tessa when there was still time to warn her. 

Well, almost the only way.

Hailey’s finger hovered over her mouse button as her cursor waited on the Broken Horizons icon on her desktop. 

She’d taken “*GM Burnt Toast*” as her handle when she joined the support staff in part so that old friends might recognize her, but that didn’t mean she’d given up her original account.

Waiting just a click away was her other self. As a Game Master, she was limited in what she could do within Broken Horizons, especially with her admin privileges locked out, but if she logged in as the original “Burnt Toast”? What might she accomplish then?

Interlude – Azma

Azma sensed the shift by noting the clarity in her thoughts. The world had changed and that wasn’t often a good sign. Worse, it appeared she’d changed with it.

“Well, isn’t this tiresome,” she sighed. The wine she was swirling in her glass held an aroma which spoke of the clear, bright fields where it had been grown, harvested, and subsequently stolen from. 

A moment earlier, it had simply been wine. No expressive bouquet, no noteworthy history, just a glass of red to go with an otherwise unremarkable meal. Between one tick of the clock and the next though, her meal had become a dinner of fine cuisine.

She didn’t mind the dinner, good food was always a delight, but its presence did suggest certain alterations which were typically problematic.

“Sir!” Ensign Three-Three came to attention as he entered her room. Exactly according to protocol. Just as he was configured to act.

“Go on,” Azma said. She could have made him wait till she was done eating. As a [Commander] in the [Consortium of Pain]’s primary acquisition wing, Azma was given a fairly wide latitude in how she carried out the objectives assigned to her, and how she managed to resources which had been placed under her.

Waiting for bad news rarely made it better though, and while many [Commanders] would have been inclined to take out any irritation at having their repast interrupted on the poor messenger assigned to do so, Azma saw little value in that. 

There were so many better methods of relieving irritation than penalizing one’s own crew. Better to save the punishments for when they were deserved so as to retain their value in training and indoctrination.

“We have crossed into an uncharted Arcanosphere around the planet,” Ensign Three Three said. “Navigation wanted you informed that it appears to stretch half a local astronomical unit around the planet, and that readings indicate a second, richer Arcanosphere lies ahead at 0.005 AUs from the planet.”

Arcanosphere’s were a typical problem the Consortium faced when opening new worlds. It was why worlds such as her objective, “The Fallen Kingdoms”, were considered so valuable. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy was a prize. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy and no inherent defenses for those reserves was a prize to be claimed with the greatest of urgency.

Which was why the Consortium had sent Azma. 

The initial effort to open the world had been botched by that idiot Gernal, proving once again that nepotism could raise any fool to a position they didn’t deserve. 

Azma would make no claim that nepotism hadn’t raised her to a position she didn’t deserve, her only correction to any such claim would be that in her case nepotism had placed her in a position far beneath her true talents. More than one would-be-contender for her position had perished trying to prove that assertion incorrect, which was quite a bother. If any of the fools could manage to show they were worthy of the role she held, her superiors might finally be willing to elevate her to a more appropriate rank.

They wouldn’t of course. If she ever rose in rank again, she would devour the next person above her, and then continue rising. Everyone involved knew it, but it was still polite to adhere to the fiction that she had simply more time in service to log before being worthy of a promotion.

“Take a command to the Communications team,” Azma said. “Go through Gernal’s sealed communiques. I suspect this is something new, but if it’s not even a simpleton like Gernal should have been able to notice two Arcanosphere’s which weren’t supposed to be here.”

“Yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said and turned to leave.

“One moment,” Azma said. “Did the navigation team say which sort of Arcanosphere’s we’re looking at?”

The [Mystic Barriers] world’s erected where like additional laws of physics which prevailed within their spheres of influence. Each one was unique in theory, but in practice there was a great deal of similarity to be found.

“Oh, yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said. “The Arcanosphere we’re in now is an Incarnation sphere and the one closer to the planet is a Twinned sphere.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Azma said, and frowned.

“Is that bad sir?” Ensign Three Three asked, breaking protocol in the process.

“I’m no expert on Arcanosphere dynamics,” Azma said, which was technically true. Experts were official trained, or constructed with their knowledge. Azma had picked hers up on her own. She preferred learning from the unredacted sources the Consortium didn’t typically allow people to see. Those tended to be more accurate, especially when one occasionally needed to do things one’s superiors might disagree with. “The Incarnation sphere is fairly common. Many planets with mystical potential will raise a sphere in that family. It makes their laws more ‘real’ for lack of a better term.”

“Will that be a problem?” Ensign Three Three asked. He should have left to deliver the message already but Azma found thinking aloud helpful and so she didn’t shoe him away.

“Not particularly,” she said. “It means the defenders of these ‘Fallen Kingdoms’ will be able to fight us on the fields they know, and we’ll have to adapt to the limitations of their reality. For a disappointment like Gernal, that would present a serious hurdle to overcome but any decent Consortium [Commander] should be adaptable enough to adjust to the demands of a foreign battlefield.”

To his credit Ensign Three Three didn’t ask Azma if she fell into the latter category. If anything, she guessed he was curious how far beyond ‘decent’ she was. She had no interest in demonstrating her full capabilities but she knew a small taste via an easy victory or two should bolster the crew’s already solid morale and loyalty.

“What about the Twinned sphere?” Ensign Three Three asked instead.

“That’s a fascinating one,” Azma said. “Very rare. It says that our target is linked to another world, and they’re sharing resources.”

“So we might have to beat two world rather than one?” Ensign Three Three asked.

“Open. The term we use is open. It means the same thing as conquer, except conquered worlds have at least a theoretical chance to revolt, and the Consortium simply does not allow that,” Azma said. “As for having to fight two worlds? That might be the best news we’ve had all day. Two worlds to fight, means two worlds to defeat, and two worlds we can sell for a very tidy profit once we’re done with them.”

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