An ice cream truck wasn’t the first place Marcus would have chosen to catch up his beauty sleep, but since Officer’s Astra and Smith had so kindly setup a cot for him in place of one of the ice cream freezers, he’d been incapable of saying no. Mostly because he’d been falling asleep as he got into the truck and hadn’t even made it to the cot before a deep, dreamless slumber claimed him.
Coming out that slumber was a bit harder than sliding into it had been. The sounds of the road seeped into his awareness first, followed by the typical rhythms of traffic.
The thought that he was in a moving vehicle entered his mind without arousing any particular awareness. At least not until it had sat there for what felt like several minutes.
“Wait? Why are we in traffic?” he asked, blinking his eyes against the daylight, and trying to sit up.
“Sorry,” Officer Astra said. “I didn’t expect the Strip to be this busy today.”
“The Strip?” Marcus asked, sitting up in time to see a box truck with an ad for a Penn and Teller show go by on their right.
That didn’t compute either. Penn and Teller didn’t have an act in California, they were in…
“The Strip? As in Las Vegas?” Marcus asked, rousing to full wakefulness at last.
“Yeah, we sort of kidnapped you,” Officer Smith said. She didn’t sound all that serious and she didn’t look particularly guilty but Marcus felt a growing alarm that he could only take what she’d said as being quite literal.
Except, now that he took a better look at her, Marcus wasn’t sure how Smith had managed to pass for an Officer. She was too young. Probably high school aged? Maybe early college at the outside? In theory that was old enough to be a police officer, but people didn’t join up and make detective immediately? Did they?
“Why? Where are you taking me?” Marcus asked, aware that if they’d driven him a few hundred miles across state lines he was potentially in a very bad situation despite the lack of bad vibes he was receiving from either of the “Officers”.
“There are some people who need your help,” Astra said.
“And you’re not really kidnapped,” Smith said. “Here’s your phone and your laptop. You should be able to get a good connection here. If you want to call anyone or check back in with the EE offices, go right ahead.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening here, but this is a really bad time for it,” Marcus said. “There are people, literally thousands of people who need me back there.”
“I know,” Smith said. “That’s why I made sure to grab your stuff before we left. Seriously go ahead and call in. It’s only been about five hours now since we left, and things had hit a quiet spot then, but that’s probably not going to last.”
“And what am I supposed to tell my team?” Marcus asked. “Sorry but I’ve been abducted by two women posing as police officers?”
“The truth is sometimes a good choice,” Astra said. “I’d say it’s 50/50 whether this case is one of them though.”
“We will get you back there,” Smith said.
“If I do something for you, right?” Marcus asked, anger kindling at the thought of being pulled away from a crisis that he could not afford to ignore.
“No,” Smith said. “This isn’t for us. This is something you need to see to have a better chance at helping them people you’ve been working so hard for.”
“How does that…? Wait, do you know something about what’s going on with all this?” Marcus asked. “Do you know what’s happening to our players?”
“We do,” Astra said. “We’re not responsible for any of it, but we are trying to help. The same as you.”
“Clearly not the same as me, because no one I know has a clue what’s going on here,” Marcus said. He checked his phone and found that he had five bars of signal. The laptop was fully charged up too. He could dial in or get connected whenever he wanted to it seemed.
“I’m sorry,” Smith said. “I wish we could tell you everything you want to know, but there’s a lot we don’t know too. And a lot that’s just not known at all at this point.”
“Do you know what happened to the players? Do you know what’s really going on here?” Marcus asked.
“What happened to the players is just what you think happened,” Astra said. “They’ve been transported to another world.”
“Okay, then how? How did this happen?” Marcus asked.
“That we don’t know,” Beth said. “Normally that sort of thing is a very specific sort of ‘impossible’. At least in worlds like this one.”
“Worlds like this one? So there are other worlds out there? And you’ve been to them?” Marcus asked.
“A few,” Smith said. “This world is different though. It’s basically the same as mine. My original one. No fantastical elements, no monsters, and no magic. This sort of place isn’t supposed to ever experience an event like this one.”
“If you said that three days ago, I would have completely agreed,” Marcus said. “But whatever it is, it’s happening now, so do you have any idea how to stop it?”
“We’re not even sure if it should be stopped yet,” Astra said.
“What, you want more of these kids to get yanked over there?” Marcus asked.
“Possibly,” Astra said. “I’m guessing it’s going to depend on what we find here.”
Marcus looked up to see them pulling into a parking lot of an office complex. The sign at the entrance listed a few law firms, a fast food franchise, and a software development company.
Not just any software development company though.
K2 Squared. Also known as one of the main competitors with Egress Entertainment in the MMO industry, or, as Marcus thought of them, ‘the poor saps who get the people who can’t handle playing our game’.
He’d had lunch with the folks from K2 a few times during industry conferences, usually in Las Vegas as he recalled. They faced so many of the same challenges that he and his team did in terms of supporting a worldwide user base that their get togethers tended to be more about crying on sympathetic shoulders than intra-company rivalry, especially since it was always possible that any one of them would wind up working for the other’s company if a round of layoffs hit.
“Why are we here?” Marcus asked, his mind jumping to the possibility that the K2 team might be able to pitch in and help his people out. Some of the K2’ers played Broken Horizons, so they wouldn’t need much of a ramp up, and there were so many tasks that just needed a warm body to handle them.
Smith’s words put a stop to all those happy thoughts though.
“They need you,” she said. “Some of their players have started disappearing too.”
Hailey was invisible. And inaudible. And partially incorporeal. It wasn’t her favorite method traveling.
“We should be able to get to the inn pretty soon,” Mellisandra said. She spoke audibly for anyone to hear, and didn’t add anything telepathically on their party channel.
“I could definitely use a few hours of sleep,” Damnazon said.
Mellisandra was speaking in code. The ‘inn’ was their codeword for the [High Command’s] base. Damnazon was not speaking in code. They were all ready to rest.
Which seemed odd to Hailey.
They’d been trekking overland to reach the [High Command’s] base all night, but that wasn’t unusual for an [Adventurer]. Thanks to the accelerated time rate in the game, when Hailey played BT, usually a week or more passed in the [Fallen Kingdoms] and BT was active that entire time. No rest, sometimes no food, and often wall-to-wall combat.
So why did walking for one night leave her feeling like crawling in a warm, comfy bed would be the nicest thing in the world?
Maybe it was the stress? The whole trip was driven by the knowledge that Hailey couldn’t be allowed to fall into enemy hands. No at any cost. The thought that being murdered would be both a good outcome is trouble arose, and something that wouldn’t hold her back in the long run, was somehow not as encouraging as Hailey had hoped it would be.
“We’ve got company on the other side of the ridge,” Cambrell said on their party channel. The [Goblin] [Assassin] didn’t look worried, but Hailey couldn’t tell if that was due to professional calm or an evaluation of the ‘company’ in question.
“Are they heading in our direction?” Mellisandra asked, also on the private channel.
“They’re paralleling us,” Cambrell said. “Probably making for the gap the [High Road] passes through.”
“They’ll reach it at the same time we do I take it?” Hailey said.
“We could slow down,” Cambrell said.
“I don’t like letting them get in between us and the base,” Damnazon said.
“If we hurry up, they’ll know we’re not the traveling villagers we’re disguised as,” Mellisandra said.
In order to travel in something approaching safety, the three visible members of the party were disguised as farmers like the thousands of others who were fleeing the fall of [Doom Crag] far to the east. The Consortium’s forces had advanced westward from [Doom Crag] at all, but the smaller villages could see the peril they lay in even without an overt sign of aggression from the invaders.
“I wish they’d been able to leave the teleportation network active around the base,” Damnazon said.
“I can’t blame them from imposing an absolute interdiction on dimension travel,” Mellisandra said. “We know the Consortium is using drop ships that deploy their troops via short range warps. The last thing [High Command] needs is a platoon of [Artifax] appearing out of nowhere in the middle of their strategy sessions.”
“Yeah, but it’s damn inconvenient for us,” Damnazon said.
“That’s how all clients work,” Cambrell said. “They never want things done the easy way. It’s always gotta be one headache or another.”
“I’m sorry to put you folks through this,” Hailey said.
“Hey, without you, we’d still have no idea about half the stuff the Consortium can do. Not to mention where they all are,” Mellisandra said.
“Yes. Keeping you safe is a fair transaction given what you’ve done for us,” Cambrell said.
“I’m hoping that’s still true,” Hailey said. “The more time that passes, the less reliable the data I gave you will become.”
“Penswell will be aware of that too,” Mellisandra said. “The last report we got was that the defense forces were moving on the intel you gave them immediately.”
“I wish we could find out how that went,” Hailey said. “I know it doesn’t solve the bigger problem of what’s happening with the Earthlings all being drawn here, but if we could get the Consortium assault sorted out, it’d be much easier to focus on the real problems we have to deal with.”
“Real problems?” Mellisandra asked.
“Yeah, I don’t think we’re experiencing this [World Shift] because of the Consortium attack,” Hailey said. “That was an event which the devs worked on for a long time, so it’s a big deal but it’s not an existential crisis for the [Fallen Kingdoms]. I mean the [Adventurers] here have fought gods, and demons, and the living embodiment of time gone wrong. An evil extra-dimensional mega-corporation is bad, but the plan was never for the Consortium to win. They’re just supposed to be there to put up a good enough fight to last until the next expansion is ready. Heck there was even talk about the [Fallen Kingdoms] eventually allying with a faction from the Consortium against the Big Bad they had in mind for the 20th Anniversary expansion they had in mind for 2024.”
“What was that supposed to be? The Big Bad I mean?” Damnazon asked.
“The joke around the office was ‘unrecoverable disk errors’, since that’s the nightmare scenario the IT folks are always warning the devs about in terms of making backups of the work on their local drives. With what’s happening now though? I’m not really sure if that’s a joke anymore.”