Meant to post this one sooner, but summer vacation is here, so Story Treader will be taking a short break.
The next chapter to go up will be on Thursday July 14th!
Meant to post this one sooner, but summer vacation is here, so Story Treader will be taking a short break.
The next chapter to go up will be on Thursday July 14th!
Tessa saw Obby starting to change before anyone else was aware of it.
It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Somethings the mind can encompass.
Not that however.
“You really don’t want to see what comes next,” Obby, or whatever Obby had become, said, and with a wave of her hand, a veil of darkest night slid across the throne room, cutting Tessa’s party off from the horde of Hungers, Gulini Prime, and Obby’s new form.
Gulini Prime saw the [Adventurer] step forward, heard her hollow boast and prepared to slap bits of her into nonexistence. Just for fun.
It was wonderful that some opposition had made it this far in a desperate attempt to stop his victory. It was wonderful specifically because it was already far too late. He’d long since won, but having an audience around to watch all of the pieces fall into place made it all the more worthwhile.
The [Adventurer] was changing though.
That didn’t look right.
“By all means, cast your full might against me,” he said. “Summon your most terrible powers. I want you to know just how hopeless all this was.”
The [Adventurer] was laughing.
Or, was she?
Gulini couldn’t tell where the laughter was coming from, and was reasonably certain, that no human throat could have made that sound. For that matter, mortal throats in general didn’t seem like they were designed to make the thin fabric of the Dreamlit World quake.
“Play whatever tricks you like,” Gulini said. “I’ve won on every front.”
“Have you now? Do tell. Gloat all you’d like.”
It was the [Adventurer] speaking.
Gulini was sure of that.
Except, she was gone.
She’d blurred, and twisted, and stretched, and then cloaked herself in darkness.
As though invisibility would hide her from him.
Gulini laughed at the idea.
Did his laugh have a nervous catch in it? No. Certainly not. He had nothing to be nervous about. He’d already won. This was his chance to enjoy himself.
“Where do you think you are?” he asked.
“Why don’t you tell me.”
“This isn’t just any center of power,” Gulini said. “We stand in the birthplace of this realm, and in the presence of its chief architect.”
“So I see. And it appears you have her quite trapped?”
“It’s not a trap,” Gulini said. “It’s a tomb. The [Nightmare Queen] is cut off from the realm she breathed into life by her own power. She’s devouring herself in order to stave off the Hungers that surround her. She hopes to buy a precious few more moments for her world to exist, but even those moments are bent to my will.”
“You’re not just attacking her are you?”
“Of course not,” Gulini said. “Her [Fallen Kingdoms] have a thousand calamities that have risen up, any one of which is capable of ending all life in the world. And do you know what the best part is?”
“That she would be able to fix all of them if you weren’t here?”
“No! Just the opposite,” Gulini said. “Each of my beautiful, impossible children, is real enough that she couldn’t touch them even if she wanted to. I could let her go right now and the [Scourge of Serpents] would still encircle the world and crush the planet to dust in its coils, or the [Unquiet Shadows] would stretch across the land and pull everything that wasn’t bathed in pure light into the endless abyss, or the [Ashes of Doom] would fall endlessly and reduce everything they touch to cinders and broken memories.”
“That sounds very thorough, but maybe you should explain it a bit more.”
Gulini, on some level, knew he absolutely did not need to explain his plans. Or justify them. Or do anything the invisible and all-encompassing voice was saying.
But he wanted to.
No, he needed to.
Winning and crushing all hope from a world needed the proper garnish of active despair and there was so little time left to enjoy it.
“Throughout the wretched little world you call home I have seeded a thousand Hungers. But why would that be threatening you ask? After all, you know how to beat a Hunger. You converted that pathetic predecessor of mine into ‘Unknown’. And I suppose you also dealt with one of my minor fragments too.”
“So you made the Hungers better?”
“No. I didn’t make them Hungers at all. I made each one into its own unique apocalypse. So now there are a thousand ends of the world, all tearing it apart or ready to blossom.”
“All that work, and you don’t need any of them do you?”
“Of course not,” Gulini said. “Those are just for fun. Let the [Adventurers] struggle and die against them. Let them win and win and win. They only need to fail once and that’s the end of everything, except their true end awaits right here.”
“Because you’re going to destroy the lynchpin the entire realm is built on.”
“Because I’ve already destroyed the lynchpin the entire realm is built on. The Queen made this world, not alone but all of the others who stood with her are long gone. Her dominion encompasses all that the [Fallen Kingdoms] are. Destroy her and the realm she is a part of will shatter and fade away back to a forgotten corner of Oblivion.”
Gulini threw his arm wide in a grand gesture to take in the throne room that was all that remained of the Queen’s sanctum of power.
Except he couldn’t make out the walls of the throne room.
Or the throne.
“Hiding behind the shadows won’t save you when the last flame of existence is snuffed out,” Gulini said. “You will only die in darkness like a coward.”
“No one is going to die here.” Footsteps echoed in the darkness behind Gulini. No matter which direction he turned, they were always behind him. “Not even if you ask nicely.”
Gulini reached out with the emptiness that remained within him, the infinite hunger that still sought to consume everything and then itself. He’d been transcendent once, and so he remained, but the scope of his infinity had narrowed and been hedged in so greatly. He wasn’t yet the man he’d once been, and with the destruction of everything, he never would be, but as his pulse quickened, he felt a cold fear rising that was all too familiar.
“You should check on your prisoner. You wouldn’t want the Queen to get away.”
Gulini couldn’t see the throne the Queen had been driven back to. He couldn’t see the sphere of swirling space where she twisted the fabric of her realm and herself to keep his Hungers at bay. When he looked, in fact, he couldn’t even make out his hands at arms length.
“Where are you?” he demanded, searching the shadows that refused to yield.
“I’m right here.”
The voice came from everywhere around him.
It came from beyond the farthest star in the cosmos.
It came from right inside him.
“What are you?” Gulini’s voice broke as he stumbled in a few running steps.
The illusion of darkness couldn’t be that big. The Queen had set the boundaries of her throne room at static positions, not infinitely flexible ones. It gave the room a measure of reality. It made her weak. She accepted a limitation in order to be closer to the realm she had a hand in crafting and now he was going to use it against her and her would-be rescuer.
He stumbled farther forward. The ground was level, but his feet weren’t finding support or purchase on it.
“You can’t run away from this.”
“I don’t need to run. Your world is ending, and you and I are going to end with it. No matter what you do, I will return to blessed unbeing and my last thought will be satisfaction that I’ve brought everything and everyone else with me,” Gulini said.
“No. Like I said, no one dies here. Not even you.”
“How will you stop me then, if you won’t destroy me?” Gulini asked, smug delight rising in him again.
“By giving you what you’re missing.”
There was no force in what happened next. No sense of talons larger than a galaxy spearing into Gulini and pouring themselves into the void that lay within him. He felt no pain, and no terror as something without form or limit was dragged from inside him. There wasn’t even a sense of loss as the gateway to unspeakable power was torn away and he came crashing back down to the small, fragile, and terribly finite limits of his skin, his life, and his own empty mind.
“You can keep the memories,” Obby said, returning from the woman she truly was to the roll she’d chosen to play in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. “What you were, what you did, what you could have become, that’s all still there for you. Maybe you’ll even learn something from it.”
“What have you done?” Gulini asked as he collapsed to the throne room’s floor too shattered and overwhelmed to maintain consciousness any longer.
“Put things back where they belonged,” Obby said. At her gesture, the veil of shadows that had blocked them off from the Queen and Obby’s team receded.
“What just happened?” Rip asked.
“And where did all the Hungers go?” Matt asked.
“Back where they belong,” Obby said.
“How?” Tessa asked, more confused than the rest because she’d seen more than they had.
“Like I said, I don’t have to hold back here as much. But that’s not important. We’ve got bigger problems to deal with.”
“Do we?” the Nightmare Queen asked, rising from her throne.
“You’re diminished, but you’ll be able to recover,” Obby said. “At least as long as your world endures.”
“The Consortium Fleet will be deployed and ready to annihilate the system within half a day,” Azma said. “The Hierarch of this system will not need her full power to contain that threat.”
“Unfortunately, she’s going to have several other more urgent problems to deal with,” Obby said.
“More urgent than the sun exploding?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Yes,” the Nightmare Queen said. “I can sense them already. There are new threats, Hungers changed into a thousand unique tools, each bent on destroying our realm.”
“Ours?” Tessa asked.
The Nightmare Queen chuckled at that.
“We’ve always made this world together,” she said. “I hold the place I do only because I was the leader of the earliest efforts of creation. That creation didn’t end when the other gods left though, or when the kingdoms fell. You all have played a role in carrying it forward. Your adventures have been what preserved this world, time and again.”
“But we don’t make anything in the world. That’s the developers,” Pete said through Starchild.
“Would the developers have a job without players to engage with what they built?” The Queen’s voice sounded slightly different to Tessa’s ears. Almost familiar, though the memory felt long distant. “You’re the ones who make guilds, who build halls and houses, and who create the stories that bring our world to life.”
“Apologies for asking this, but you sound like you’ve played in the Earthly version of [Broken Horizons]. Are you one of the developers?” Lisa asked.
“Not for a long time, but I was,” the Nightmare Queen said.
“What happened?” Rip asked.
“I died,” the Nightmare Queen said. “I worked and worked and poured so much of myself into this world, that when it came time to shuffle off the mortal coil and move on, this is where I moved on to.”
“And you wound up joined with the Nightmare Queen?” Tessa said, an understanding of who they were talking to bubbling up in her mind.
“I was surprised at the time, but I suppose I had set her up as something of a self-insert character.”
Before Tessa could speak, Marcus did.
“Gail? Is that you?”
The Nightmare Queen blinked in surprise.
“Marcus? You finally made up a cat boy character?”
“Umm, who is that?” Rip asked on the team’s private channel.
“That’s Gail Merriden,” Tessa said. “She was the first Lead Designer on [Broken Horizons]. She shaped everything about the game and she died bringing it to life.”
“So how is she here?” Rip asked.
“Maybe the same as we are,” Lisa said.
“Wait, you mean we’re dead?” Matt asked.
“No. We’re not,” Tessa said. “But we are needed here, and I think so was she.”
“The question is, will she be able to help us?” Lisa said.
“I’m pretty she can,” Pillowcase said. “Take a look at your chat log.”
Quest Complete: The Call Is Answered
New Quest Unlocked: Save The Worlds
Only a small flicker of divine power was left in Tessa’s hand. She’d been carefully releasing it as the conversation continued around her and could only hope that the sparks she’d been casting off would find the places they needed to be. The sparks weren’t their only hope but Tessa suspected they was going to be the best.
“If Byron has gone to your world, will he be capable of returning here?” Penswell asked.
“No,” Azma said, answering faster than Tessa could. “If he could travel freely between the worlds, he would be assaulting us right now.”
Penswell paused for a moment and then nodded in agreement.
“He will build up his forces on Earth,” Penswell said. “But he wouldn’t wait for that to attack us again. We have people here who understand what he is and that number will grow exponentially the longer he waits. Also we’re as weak now as we ever will be.”
“Plus Tess is almost done with enacting her plan,” Azma said, nodding towards Tessa who people seemed to be forgetting existed despite the fact that she was glowing like a bonfire.
“Your plan?” Cease asked, startling a bit when she noticed that Tessa was no more than two paces away from her.
“She means this,” Tessa said, showing the tiny mote of light that was left in her hand.
“That was…it was brighter before wasn’t it?” Cease asked, shaking her head. She wasn’t the only one trying to clear away the cobwebs.
“It was,” Tessa said. “It’s almost used up now.”
“What was it doing…?” Cease started to ask before losing her train of thought as she started into the dwindling flame.
“Empowering more soldiers?” Azma guessed.
Gazing on the divine wasn’t something mortal minds were meant to handle well. Tessa wondered how worried she should be that Azma was able to dispassionately regard the god soul and neatly file it away as just another tool she might be able to use.
“Not soldiers,” Tessa said. “This is a gift. To the world. To the ones who need it.”
“You’ve saved a measure of it though,” Penswell said.
“Enough for one more minor miracle,” Tessa said. “Though I know we’re going to need a lot more than that.”
“Why waste it then?” Cease asked.
“She didn’t,” Penswell said.
“You should tell them what the miracle you’re holding the last bit for is,” Lisa said.
“I can’t open a portal back to Earth,” Tessa said. “Not without causing problems over there, and probably here too. The [Fallen Kingdoms] is fine with portals though.”
“We can teleport here, what would we need a portal for?” Cease asked.
“For a place we can’t teleport to,” Lisa said. “A place the devs never intended us to reach.”
“Hailey, Marcus, this is where you come in,” Tessa said.
“Us?” Hailey asked. “What can we do?”
“We need to get back to Earth the right way,” Tessa said. “We need to complete the quest we got when we landed here.”
“Quest?” Marcus asked. “You didn’t do your starter class quests?”
“Not that one,” Tessa said. “The broken one. The one that’s preventing us from logging out.”
“But we don’t know what that quest was,” Hailey said.
“I think you do. I think it’s how you got here,” Tessa said. “You heard something calling you right? And you followed that call. From something, or someone.”
“Yeah. BT was calling to me, so I just kind of let go and let myself be drawn over here,” Hailey said.
“But BT doesn’t have the power to pull people across worlds. Neither did Pillowcase, or Lost Alice, or any of our alter-egos,” Tessa said. “Someone else was calling to you in BT’s name. Someone who is that powerful. The someone who brought us all here because this world needed us, and our world needs the [Fallen Kingdoms].”
“We don’t know who that could be though,” Marcus said.
“Maybe not, but you heard their voice stronger than any of us, and I think with this you can lead us back to them.”
Tessa held out her left hand, palm up with the dazzling spark of the god soul still flickering on it.
“We can’t use that like you can,” Hailey said shying away from the divine light, some portion of her psyche evidently recalling the trauma of glitching out while she carried a fragment of the divine upon her arrival.
“That’s why we’re going to use it together,” Tessa said.
“All of us?” Niminay asked.
“We’re going with her,” Rip said.
“The rest of you will probably need to stay here though,” Lisa said.
“This world needs you. It’s not even close to out of danger yet,” Obby said.
“I should go with you,” Penswell said. “I need to understand what transpires on both worlds if we’re going to extend our plans and save them our worlds.”
“Here we reach the crucial juncture then,” Azma said. “You know you cannot leave, or take your attention from the battles here. You will invite immediate disaster if you do.”
“They must have a tactician with them,” Penswell said. “And this mission does not offer a viable profit profile for you.”
“She’ll go anyways,” Grenslaw said, stepping up to stand beside Azma.
“And we will go with her,” Ryschild said, flanking Azma on the other side.
“You will now, will you?” Azma asked, looking uncharacteristically stunned.
“Yes [Supreme Commander],” Grenslaw said. “By our calculations we will provide a positive measure of support even discounting our efforts for the required trust deficient.”
“And how much distrust have you calculated I should maintain against you?” Azma asked.
“Seventy three percent,” Ryschild said. “At the outer limit. Risk analysis would allow for as low as thirty percent, but that would be an unnecessary gamble.”
“I should like to check your numbers,” Azma said. “My own suggest that the outer limit is at seventy two percent. Present circumstances will have to defer that pleasure however.”
“We will look forward to our after mission review,” Grenslaw said.
“That’s good. We will trade reports as to the events we encountered,” Azma said.
“Pardon?” Ryschild asked.
“Risk analysis is a tool ill suited to this juncture. I am turning over complete control of the forces who are reporting to me, the [Adventuring Companies], the forces we brought with us from the [High Beyond], and the one reclaimed Consortium forces in the ships we’ve been able to commandeer,” Azma said. “You now possess all of the power and authority I have wielded to this point.”
“[Supreme Commander]?” Grenslaw asked, looking distraught at the notion.
“This world needs you,” Azma said. “And we need it. I do not speak in sentimental sense. This operation can only end in our destruction or the end of the [Consortium of Pain]. The world holds every resource we presently possess to ensure the conflicts turns out in our favor.”
“Why would you entrust its management to us then?” Ryschild asked.
“Because you are ready for it,” Azma said.
She didn’t say that she trusted them, and neither Grenslaw nor Ryschild shed any tears. Their silent nods spoke like thunder though.
“Would it even be worth asking if we can trust you?” Marcus asked.
“Of course,” Azma said. “And I would tell you that you absolutely cannot. A fact which Penswell will easily confirm.”
“Just as easily as I will confirm that you do need her,” Penswell said.
“Why can’t we trust her then?” Rip asked.
“Because I’m going to try to take over the world,” Azma said. “And I will use every tool and advantage I can get to do so.”
“Oh, I like this one,” Zardrak said. “I might even stay out of prison if you’ll be around to play with.”
“Not for long you won’t,” Azma promised.
“It’s time,” Tessa said, drawing people’s attention back to her.
“I’m losing track of you?” Hailey said.
“The divine isn’t something we’re meant to perceive,” Tessa said. “Our mind’s edit it out of reality, unless we’re very close to it.”
Lisa squeezed Tessa’s other hand in acknowledgement.
“What do we need to do?” Marcus asked.
“You two hold this with me,” Tessa said. “Anyone who’s coming along, place a hand on one of us.”
“How will we know when you’re ready?” Lady Midnight asked.
“If this works, it’s going to be hard to miss,” Tessa said.
She felt Rip, Matt and Rachel place their hands on her back. Lady Midnight, Starchild, and Obby placed their hands on Hailey, while Azma, and Yawlorna placed their hands on Marcus.
As Hailey and Marcus placed their hands in hers and joined in communion with the god soul, Tessa felt an unexpected power surge through.
“What is this?” Hailey breathed.
“I think it’s us,” Tessa said. “Roll with it. Think of the voice that called you here. Reach out. Let the light carry us to it.”
Even before she finished speaking, Tessa saw iridescent motes begin to rise from her outstretched hand.
And then her body was dissolving away once more and she was traveling again.
But this time she wasn’t alone.
And she didn’t have nearly as far to go.
Where the trip to the [Fallen Kingdoms] had felt like a journey across interstellar space, out passed the farthest edge of the cosmos, this trip held a different sort of grandeur.
It was only a few steps away, but Tessa had the impression of stepping backstage, behind the curtain and into a realm beyond the artifice of anything like ‘reality’.
Glancing up as she felt herself reintegrate, Tessa saw they were no longer standing in an arena, but rather in a vast throne room.
A vast throne room that was filled with Hungers of all types.
“We can’t beat this many,” Tessa said staring into a writhing sea of Remnants.
“No. No you can’t,” Gulini Prime said, stepping forth from the mass of Hungers as though he was striding out of a curtain of torrential rain. “You beat one of my fragments? And imprisoned it a a purely physical form? Unmaking you is going to be delicious.”
“Maybe we can’t beat all of these things, but we definitely know how to beat you,” Rip said.
“Please. Do try,” Gulini said. “This will be entertaining.”
“How did you get this many Hungers in here?” Obby asked, stepping in front of Rip.
“We are outside the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Gulini said. “The normal rules don’t apply here. Byron learned the trick to summoning them into reality but reality corrupted them, and him. He’s only a pale shadow of what I still am. Here, anything I wish is possible. From here, from the birthplace of this world, I can unmake it with ease.”
“Then why haven’t you? Asking for a friend,” Obby said.
“Because he can’t while I still stand.”
The voice belong to a woman.
The Nightmare Queen.
Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that. There was the dimmest, quietest fragment of an awareness tickling at the edge of her consciousness. If she just reached out to grab it, she knew it would share so many important secrets with her.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” Obby said, glancing back and meeting Tessa’s gaze just enough to pull Tessa away from the distant awareness that was calling to her.
Tessa blinked and felt the weight of her body settle over her again.
That was weird, right? Pillowcase asked.
Yeah, I don’t know where we were going there, Tessa said. And I feel like that’s a good thing.
“And how, exactly do you ‘have this’?” Gulini asked. “I see your little skill there. [Transdimensional Integrity]. You know that doesn’t work here right? Not against me.”
“I don’t think we’re going to have to put that to the test,” Obby said, advancing towards the infinite horde of Hungers.
“And why is that?” Gulini asked.
“Because like you said, we’re in the Dreamlit World now and we’re not bound by reality’s constraints anymore,” Obby said. “And that means I don’t have to hold back anymore.”
Or was it Obby?
With each blink of her eyes, Tessa saw Obby changing, her [Adventurer] persona falling away like a flimsy Halloween disguise that hid a far greater nightmare than any of the Gulini’s ever could be.
Everything was thwarting Byron’s plans. Even the damnable name he’d cast off had come back to envelope him like a smothering blanket. He’d been so clever, and so close to bringing oblivion to every creation, and yet a lowly Tech Support manager and Byron’s eternally damned ‘Creator’ had managed to be at just the right spots at just the right times to prevent the simple, barely noticeable actions he needed to take to end all existence.
How was that fair?
Worse, even by burning off the last bit of god soul that he had immediate access to, he hadn’t been able to return to the point he’d intended too. He’d been sure when the left the [Fallen Kingdoms] that he was returning to the exact point in space where he’d been standing when Marcus had somehow dragged him beyond time and space back to the [Fallen Kingdoms]. Instead of the hallway leading to the local server farm in the Egress Entertainment headquarters though, he’d appeared in the void of space.
Which was troublesome.
His lungs had burst.
His blood had boiled.
He’d both frozen and burned.
It just wasn’t fair.
Byron however was used to life being unfair, and used to overcoming the trivial problems which it presented. A destroyed body was hardly an issue for someone who could define his own reality after all.
Well, define it to a certain extent.
Enough to repair the body and make it resilient to anything as trivial as the concept of ‘damage’.
That’s he’d been damaged at all though was worrisome. He was supposed to be beyond that, or, to be more accurate, he was supposed to be beyond all concepts. He was supposed to not be at all, and to be leading all of existence to share in that state.
He was the end of everything, which also made him the beginning, and, as he had always known to be true, the only meaningful thing in all that was, or would ever be.
He deserved better!
He deserved for everything to become nothing and then nothing would be better than he was.
Byron felt the empty clarity of space fill him, but where there should have been the joy of reconnecting to his primal lack of essence, Byron felt little needling bites of ‘being’ corrupting him even here.
Cosmic rays, photons of visible light, microscopic dust, a stay lug nut.
Okay, that last one was particularly annoying.
The chances of being hit by random space debris, even in Earth orbit were vanishingly remote.
Someone hated him.
Which was fine.
He hated them back.
On general principal and because if they existed in the first place, they were worth hating.
“Enough dawdling,” he said, speaking to the only audience who mattered, himself. That an airless vacuum is incapable of carrying sound was just another physical law he was delighted to be violating.
The best violations required proper victims though, and those were all going to be found on the rapidly receding blue green rock. The one the god soul was supposed to have transported him to. The one that was apparently in motion.
Why hadn’t anyone told him the Earth was orbiting a sun, and the sun was orbiting a super massive black hole in the center of a galaxy, and the whole galaxy was wheeling around in a universe where no part of it seemed to understand how to sit still?
Byron searched the memories he’d absorbed when he’d eaten David Kralt. The idiot had been aware that the Earth was in orbit and hadn’t seen fit to pre-warn Byron of that before he’d been eaten. Not that Byron had needed the warning. He knew perfectly well how solar systems and galaxies worked. It was simply ridiculous to expect that he would consider anything as powerless and unimportant as a planet like the Earth to partake in such cosmic structures.
Why build an entire universe and then put such a drab, pointless place like the Earth in it?
He was doing the cosmos a favor by putting it out of its misery. The designer was clearly a hack and a sadist to inflict such mundanity on the people who roamed the world like particularly irritating fleas.
“Still dawdling,” he said, growing displeased with himself.
Which was good.
If you didn’t hate yourself, then could you really claim to be self aware?
Before his thoughts could spiral around on themselves even further, Byron corrected for his error in position.
Or he tried to.
The Earth didn’t seem to like the idea of allowing him to teleport back to the server room. It didn’t like the idea quite strenuously in fact. Byron knew that didn’t matter. He wasn’t bound by any silly reality a world might be clinging to. If he wanted to do something, he certainly could.
But it might change him again.
It seemed that every time he fought against a world, he won the battle but the victory gave him too much. He was able to do what he wanted but it became a thing within him. The capacity to do again the thing he’d insisted he could do.
He hadn’t seen the harm in that at first, and so he’d broken every rule of reality he could find in the Fallen Kingdoms, and in return they’d given him back his name.
His “Creator”, the true worst horror in all creation, had come so close to drawing that name down onto him completely, like a straightjacket of identity that would have bound him more tightly than even his idiotic prior-self who’d apparently just given up and accepted becoming a real entity.
“Unknown” was a good name for the fool, as Byron couldn’t imagine what had convinced the weaker, lesser version of himself to abandon the comfort of oblivion offered in favor of enduring the misery that was an actual life.
“Ok. Just stop. You are still in space. Move already! Now!” he commanded himself, and for a change, followed his own advice.
Teleportation was off the table, for now, because he chose to ignore it. Not because he couldn’t. He simply wished to arrive in style.
Earth’s reality didn’t object to the concept of acceleration though so Byron gave himself some of that. Reality wasn’t happy to see a force without an equal and opposite reaction, but it complained less than it would have against teleportation for some reason.
That reason might have been the amusement factor of watching Byron plow face first into the planet’s surface at several thousand times the speed of sound.
“Less acceleration next time, perhaps,” he said as he rose from the crater and dusted himself off.
The next step was to get to the servers which linked the Earth to the [Fallen Kingdoms]. According to Kralt’s knowledge, they were the central point of connection between the two realms. Without the servers, Kralt believed the worlds would be cut off and no one would be able to communicate between them.
That idea pleased Byron since he knew what it would drive the Earthlings who were trapped in the [Fallen Kingdoms] to do.
They would open a gate back to the Earth using a god soul like he had, or some even clumsier means. A much bigger and more stable gate which would let them return to their precious homeworld, and also allow all of the Hungers that he’d pulled through the pathetically thin veil around the [Fallen Kingdoms] to crossover to the Earth as well.
He’d tried pulling Hungers to the Earth directly after he’d arrived there originally. As with all other things, it was quite possible for him, the problem was the Hungers he’d summoned had all been carried off to other realms almost as quickly as they appeared.
Worse, each Hunger he summoned let a little bit more of the Earth leak into him.
It was so unfair.
The more he tried to destroy the world, the more it tried to create him.
It shouldn’t be able to do that.
It should simply fall apart on a quantum level and return to incoherent noise and possibility until even that drained away into proper nothingness.
It was so simple! Why couldn’t everyone just see that?
“I should find out where I am,” Byron told himself, since wherever the servers were, they didn’t seem to be within his field of vision.
Looking around he didn’t see anything interesting at all.
The big crater he was in was filled with scraps of destroyed cars and maybe a highway interchange? Buildings towards the edge of the crater had fallen over, or were burning, or both. Some screams filled the air, sirens blared, and rising from where he stood a minor mushroom cloud had formed over head.
So nothing interesting at all.
He tried listening past the sirens, wondering if he could hear any of the Hungers that he’d released still being active somewhere in the world.
Someone shot him.
“Ah, I must be in America,” he said and turned to look at his assailant. He expected to find a police officer, or military personnel but instead a group of men in combat fatigues with flag bandanas were taking up firing positions behind their oversized pickup trucks.
They seemed both terrified and excited and each one was so much more interested in getting their shots in than in helping any of the wounded around them that it touched Byron’s heart.
He ate all of their minds.
Because, of course he did.
Humans on Earth didn’t have the annoying protections that [Adventurers] did against that sort of thing.
In consuming them, he took their husks and filled them with the killing skills they’d been so eager to use as well as all the hate that would fit within them. He was surprised at how little hate he was able to add though. They were so full already there was barely room left to cram more in without popping them like overstuffed sausages.
He popped a few just for fun.
It was a learning experience.
He already knew they’d basically explode.
But it was still enjoyable to watch, and didn’t he deserve to have a little enjoyment in his day? Hadn’t he worked enough to justify a reward?
He popped another one, but it wasn’t the same.
“I have things to do,” he said, speaking to his puppets and definitely not chastising himself for getting lost in the moment, again. “Here, go play with this.”
He pulled forth another Hunger, a wonderful, raw patch of absolute nothing, easily able to devour the world, his puppets, and even himself.
The smoke in the air tickled his nose – which should not have been able to happen!
Scowling he waved the [Relentless Hunger] off to cause havoc and bid his new minions to follow.
“This isn’t going to work,” he said to no one, confiding in the only person he could trust. “I can’t do all this work on my own.”
And that was the problem, wasn’t it?
He wasn’t meant to be a worker bee.
He had never been a ‘doer’.
He was supposed to manage.
No, he was supposed to Direct!
Doing labor? Himself? It was a worse abomination than existence.
What he needed was someone else to do all the hard stuff for him.
Hadn’t that been why he’d had a Gulini?
He probably should have taken better care of the Gulinis if so.
Except how was that his problem? It sounded like more work!
No, if Gulini couldn’t take care of himself then he wasn’t the minion that Byron needed.
Which meant that he needed a better minion?
So, interviews? Ask for resumes with past experience on destroying worlds? Put up an ad on Craigslist? No, that was old fashioned. LinkedIn?
Again with the work?
He didn’t need any of that.
All he needed was an idea.
Ideas came at a cost though.
He’d need a dime to get a dozen of them.
Stealing someone else’s ideas was always free though.
How many stories and games hadn’t had self-replicating foes as either an implied threat or an outright one?
Enough that it wasn’t going to cost him anything!
Byron smiled and began drawing another Hunger forth from Oblivion.
This one wasn’t pristine though.
This one he gave a tiny kernel of identity to, a single reference point and a new name.
Seeing the [Spawning Hunger], he smiled. His work was done.
And so was the Earth!
The god soul was burning within her and Tessa began to experience a terrible sensation. For something that on one level was just a reflection of the admin rights the EE personnel possessed, the ball of power in Tessa’s hand pulsed with glory and righteousness and cosmic insight. She knew, intellectually, that she needed to get rid of it before too much longer. Emotionally though? In the depth of her heart a terrible realization was being born.
I’ve figured it out, she whispered to herself. I don’t need to be afraid of this, and I don’t need to give it up. I’ve come so far. I could hold this and retain all the parts of me that I want to.
It wasn’t the same temptation she’d felt before. There was no terror or desperation pushing her to cling to the power she held. Calm certainty filled her, chipping away her reservations with tools she’d never had to resist before.
“You feeling okay there?” Lisa asked, stepping in close to provide a little more support.
“Nope,” Tessa admitted. “I have definitely been messing with these things a little too often.”
“Drop it then,” Lisa said, tightening her hold on Tessa’s arms.
“Can’t. Not yet. We’re going to need it. I can see something, a bit of the future maybe? Not too far ahead. It’s not specific, but I know. We’ll need this,” Tessa said.
“That’s the power talking. We need you more,” Lisa said.
“I know. And I’m not going away,” Tessa said. “I can hang on for a bit more. I’m still me. Still human. Or still mortal I guess. Or, sort of? Are [Adventurers] even mortal? Really? I’ve died like a billion times today. And that just doesn’t seem like a ‘mortal’ thing to be doing. I think?”
“Hey, take a breath,” Lisa said. “You’re starting to sound scattered.”
“That’s not a great sign is it?”
“I don’t know. You sound a little more like yourself when you talk like that.”
“More like myself than when?”
“Than when you’re asking us to ‘Rise’! How did you do that?”
Tessa wondered that herself. She’d gotten used to hearing the weird reverb around names and other special nouns in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. [Rise] was different though. There was an almost irresistible imperative there, like it was more the god soul speaking through her than anything she was saying.
“I don’t know if that was me,” Tessa said.
“Interesting,” Penswell said, eyeing Tessa from three different vantage points.
Tessa hadn’t noticed Penny calling forth echoes of herself. She also hadn’t noticed the [Adventurers] turning from the seconds of silence following her words to break into a cacophony of individual conversations.
“I like the idea that the world is fighting on our side,” Niminay said. “And that its on us to keep pressing the battle forward. I think it’s what we would do anyways, but it felt right when you said it.”
Tessa grinned. Niminay was taller than she was used to seeing her, but then she was used to seeing her through Glimmerglass eyes rather than her own.
“What I don’t like,” Niminay continued, and Tessa felt herself tense for an impending rebuke. “Is that the person who seems to be our primary foe is off on his own to the gods know where.”
It wasn’t a rebuke. Even to Tessa’s ears it didn’t sound like one, though she immediately wondered if there hadn’t been something she could have done to stop Byron’s escape.
“I believe even the gods themselves could not tell where Byron escaped to,” Penny said. “That was a god soul that he used to escape, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” Tessa said. “I think. I don’t know where he got it but there are a lot of possible places given how easily he can destroy things.”
“Every [Heart Fire] has one, don’t they?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, and he’s not afraid of pulling more of the Hungers through the breeches in reality that result when you take a [Heart Fire] apart,” Tessa said.
“He spoke as though they were a limited resources,” Penny said and then corrected herself. “No. He spoke as though he regretted the necessity of using the god soul he held.”
“Maybe he was fond of that one?” Rip said.
“It’s not the loss of the power he objected to,” Unknown said. “It’s the effect using that power will have on him.”
“Oh, wow! Yeah!” Tessa said. “He used a piece of divine power from the [Fallen Kingdoms]. He’ll have absorbed even more reality than before. He’ll be forced to change again.”
“Yes, though perhaps not as much as he should have had to,” Unknown said. “Using the god soul meant that it could bear the brunt of reality trying to assert itself, even if some portion of its power must spill over into him and change him in the process.”
“Then why use it to escape at all?” Niminay asked. “Couldn’t he have just teleported away on his own? It wouldn’t even be a unique skill. Plenty of bad guys can do that.”
“We can also use [Teleportation] to arrive in a timely fashion as well,” Zardrak said.
Every [Adventurer] present, Niminay included had their weapons in their hand, their spells on the lips, and their strongest cooldown abilities ready to fire before Zardrak finished speaking.
“Hold for a moment,” Penswell said. “Zardrak, you decided to leave your cell somewhat earlier than you’d planned?”
“No. I released him,” Azma said, stepping through the still open portal behind him, followed by Yawlorna, Baelgritz and the rest of the crew.
“And you came here?” Penswell said, wonder dawning on her face. “There are new terrors afoot? Or, no, a terror we’ve been expecting?”
Azma nodded, and Tessa felt like she was seeing at best ten percent of the conversation that was passing between them.
“They’re early too then,” Penswell said. “Curious.”
“Who are ‘they’?” Cease asked.
“The Consortium’s eradication fleet,” Azma said. “They’re here to detonate the local sun and then get serious about erasing any still coherent matter from the system. Or at least that’s what their original mission was.”
“But now they’ve been subborned by Byron,” Penswell said. “Which doesn’t change their goals of objectives, does it?”
“Excuse me, did you say there’s a fleet here that’s intent on blowing up the sun?” Cease asked.
“We have plans to deal with this eventuality,” Penswell said. “The question is which ones we move forward with.”
“I was hoping to make use of that,” Azma said, nodding towards the god soul that was still burning in Tessa’s hand. “But I see that isn’t an option.”
“It’s not?” Cease asked and turned to look at Tessa. “If that thing has admin right, can’t you just delete the Consortium or something?”
“In theory, sure,” Tessa said. “In practice though? If they’ve got even one of the Hungers with them, it’ll eat the [Divine Edict] and just grow stronger. This thing isn’t how we fight them.”
“Then what good is it?” Cease asked.
“I’ll show you in a bit,” Tessa said. Her vision of the future wasn’t anything clearer or more solid than her imagination, but her intuition was all but screaming at her that she had something important to do.
“So, we’ll need a fleet of our to oppose them then?” Penny asked.
“And an army to take control of the fleet,” Azma said.
“We have an army,” Penny said.
“And a fleet waiting for us,” Azma said.
“The only problem being our fleet is in a far orbit still and is being overrun by more freshly decanted Hungers every moment.”
“That’s far from our only problem,” Azma said. “For as many [Adventurers] who have risen to serve, there is the need for a hundred more. With the force we have now, we will need approximately thirty four miracles to manage even basic survival.”
“Thirty four is a tiresome number,” Penny agreed. “How far can Zardrak reduce that number?”
“Oh my own? If I was truly motivated and you returned me to my throne? Perhaps half?” Zardrak said.”But, I have no desire to take my throne. And, I feel little motivation for a grand battle with an overwhelming foe. So perhaps I could manage three, or two miracles maybe?”
“Or maybe just one,” Yawlorna said. “But that could be enough.”
“They’re [Adventurers] now too,” Azma said, cutting through the coy banter due to a keen awareness of how little time they had left.
“What does that mean?” Cease asked.
“It means, we got a whole bunch of new powers to work with,” Baelgritz said.
“And that we will die permanently no more easily than any other [Adventurer] would,” Illuthiz said.
“Can anyone use the process you’ve come up with to become [Adventurers] too?” Tessa asked as she started doing some quick metal mathematics.
“Anyone who wants to,” Baelgritz said.
“Anyone who is sapient,” Yawlorna said.
“And we need to trust him on that?” Niminay said, her bow still drawn and pointed at Zardrak.
“You could let the world be destroyed if you preferred,” Zardrak said. “Do consider though that I have always professed a desire to rule the world and that is rather pointless when it is an ever expanding cloud of dust.”
“I ask again, are we supposed to trust him?” Niminay could have been cast from solid marble with how little her aim wavered.
“Of course not,” Azma said. “You may however trust Penswell. When Zardrak tries to betray us, she will select the most appropriate, or perhaps most amusing plan to stop him. By my estimation his betrayal will last no more than a handful of seconds.”
Penny huffed a small breath of disbelief.
“So little faith in me?” she asked, looking at Azma and not Niminay.
“Don’t show off and do it in less than one second,” Azma said. “No one will get to appreciate it if you stop him that quickly.”
“I can see one little problem with the ‘build a bigger army’ idea,” Cease said. “Those things can’t take over our minds, but they can still do a number on our bodies. I know ‘send more people to hit them’ is tried and true [Adventurer] strategy but if you send tens of million of us against those things rather than hundreds of thousands, I think all we’ll get is a pile of bodies that’s tens of millions high rather than only a few hundred thousand corpses tall.”
“I think that’s what I needed this for,” Tessa said and raised the god soul high enough for everyone to see.
Which involved calling its power into herself and floating off the ground.
The overwhelming force did not overwhelm her. She could handle it. Just like she’d thought she could.
In her hand, the power to define the cosmos blazed and Tessa felt there was no more than the thinnest of veils between her and a full understanding of it.
“Show us what you got!” Obby cheered from below her and Tessa turned her attention from the god soul to the small army around her.
As Pillowcase, it was her job to protect them, and as Tessa she knew how.
“[Transdimensional Integrity],” she said not taking anything from the god soul but instead sharing her own soul with it.
The light of the god soul didn’t shatter, but fragments of it kindled within everyone the light touched. Sparks of divine power joined with the souls of all those present, creating in them the same resiliency to the Hunger’s attacks that Pillowcase possessed.
“What was that?” Azma asked as Tessa descended, the god soul a much smaller and more flickering light in her hand.
“A gift,” Tessa said.
“You gave us your talent? The one that keeps you safe from the Hungers?” Lisa asked.
“Not ‘gave’. Shared, like sharing fire,” Tessa said. “I can still use it too. You’ll be able to share it onwards too, spreading to everyone who fights with us. We won’t lose anything in making each other stronger and I think it’s what we needed to take the fight to Byron.”
“Our fight isn’t with Byron any longer,” Unknown said.
“What do you mean?” Azma asked.
“My principal divergent self is no longer here,” Unknown said. “I’ve searched for him and I find no trace of him in this sphere.”
“Could he be hidden from you?” Penny asked.
“He could but he never would,” Unknown said.
“He hasn’t been destroyed,” Azma said.
“No,” Tessa said, understanding why Byron had been loath to use his last precious fragment of a god soul. “He’s gone to Earth.”
In the wake of a god soul’s destruction the arena was perfectly silent.
For all of two seconds.
Then the cacophony of questions of exploded from nearly every mouth present.
“It worked!” Lisa said on their private channel and Tessa felt her pulse descend from a nine digit number of beats per minute down to something that wasn’t giving her blood the pressure of a neutron star.
“I believe an explanation of what just occurred would be advantageous for everyone present to hear,” Penswell said, her voice once again only slightly louder than casual speaking volume and yet sounding clearly audible throughout the arena as every conversations were hushed to a whisper.
“If you could start with what in the actual hell that thing was, that would be really nice,” Cease said.
“We don’t have words to describe him. Yet,” Tessa said.
“But we can explain his history,” Unknown said.
“He can’t change that can he?” Tessa asked.
“No. None of them can,” Obby said. “They can cheat reality without limits along some axis but not others.”
“Those are words, but we don’t have enough context for them to really make sense yet,” Damnazon said.
“Let me start at the beginning then,” Tessa said, and gave Penswell and the small army of [Adventurers] who’d come with her a high level recounting of the various encounters they’d had with the [Formless Hunger] and the various permutations that it morphed through, finishing up with a description of fighting the [Broken Hunger] on the fleet’s capital ship and demanding its name with the force of the previous god soul she’d wielded.
Unknown stepped in at that point and explained the experience from his perspective, how he’d been slowing accumulated little bits of reality, like grit in a clam, becoming more real, despite his strenuous objections, with every passing interaction he’d had with anything and everything in the world.
It hadn’t been until he’d taken a name though that he’d become fully part of the world, and while he could call cosmic power to his fingertips, the [Transcendent] quality he had once possessed was forever lost to him.
He was a part of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and though he’d fought against it with lethal and absolute force, the self he’d gained had turned out to be the very thing, possibly the only thing, that had been able to fill the infinite hunger within him.
“So why isn’t that guy like that too then? Or is he just terminally hangry still?” Cease asked.
“His name was Byron,” Tessa said. “I saw that right as he was leaving. I don’t know what he is now exactly, but he’s the one who’s been pulling in the other Hungers.”
“And how did you see all of that?” Penswell asked.
“With this,” Tessa said, holding up her fist and the blazing light it contained.
“You called that a god soul?” Penswell asked.
“Yeah. It’s not it’s real name,” Tessa said. “You can hear that right?”
“I can,” Penswell said. “Though I can discern little else about it. Have you become adept enough with handling them that you can now carry that one safely?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” Tessa said. “I just have a fairly good idea how long I can stand it before it destroys everything mortal in me.”
“You said you were okay holding onto it?” Lisa asked privately.
“For the time being, yeah,” Tessa said. “But this isn’t something I can just put into my inventory and haul out as needed.”
“How long are you good for?”
“Another fifteen minutes, for sure, if I need to I think I can push it to twice that,” Tessa said. “So my plan is to ditch it in ten minutes or so.”
“If time permits then, can you explain what we just witnessed?” Penswell asked.
“I think that needs to start with Marcus,” Tessa said.
“Oh, my bit’s pretty simple,” Marcus said. “I got back to EE HQ and found some guy who looked like David Kralt – he was the original lead developer for the game – talking with a federal agent about taking the servers down all at once.”
“Wait? Kralt? That’s…that’s really odd,” Tessa said. “We ran into Kralt earlier. Up in the high beyond. He was a slime. I mean he was literally a [Slime Type] mob.”
“What happened to him there?” Marcus asked.
“I…uh, I kinda destroyed the pocket dimension he was in and then stuff him in my inventory bag.”
“We need to talk for several weeks about your adventurers to date,” Penswell said.
“Let’s hope the [Fallen Kingdoms] has that long,” Tessa said.
“So where is he now? Kralt I mean?” Marcus asked.
“Did I let him out?” Tessa asked searching her memories. So so so many more important things than Kralt had been happening though that she drew a blank. “No, I think he should still be here,” she searched around in her bag only to discover that, while it held many other things, it did not in fact have any [Slime Type Monsters] inside it. “Or not. He got out.”
“I just checked, I’m not seeing him as a listed [Adventurer] anywhere,” Lisa said.
“Byron got to him,” Obby said. “What you met was the skinsuit that remained of him.”
“Thanks. That’s going to be right up front in my nightmares for the next several forevers,” Marcus said.
“If you’re correct, then we have a rather sizable problem,” Penswell said.
“And an opportunity,” Tessa said.
“And those would be?” Cease asked.
“The problem is that Byron was able to crossover from this world to Earth,” Lisa said.
“And the opportunity is that might mean we can too,” Tessa said.
“You’re holding a piece of a god right? Can’t you just use that to get us back?” Cease asked.
“Maybe. Probably,” Tessa said. “But there’s a whole bunch of problems with it. First, any portal I open I can only hold for a few minutes at most. Out of the hundreds of thousands of players who got drawn over to here, how many do you think we could get through a portal in a couple of minutes. Let’s pretend we can magic up an acceptable answer to that, the [Fallen Kingdoms] is used to having portals opened in it. Earth isn’t. If I rip spacetime open there, how stable do you think things will be? We could wind up unleashing things like the [Formless Hunger] on Earth and there’s no one and nothing there that would have a chance to surviving them.”
“Uh, about that,” Marcus said.
Tessa looked at him and felt her heart sink.
“Oh do not say what you’re about to.”
“I was in Vegas a few hours ago. I ran into an [Armageddon Beast] there, and yes, the words sounded exactly like that after I figured out that was its name,” Marcus said. “We managed to get that one to destroy itself, but there are a lot of others showing up. Reports are coming in from all over the world.”
Tessa found herself leaning against Lisa as the strength went out of her legs.
“There’s not going to be an Earth left to go back to,” she said.
“Well, there might be,” Marcus said.
“How?” Tessa asked.
“This isn’t the only place monsters can be dragged too,” Marcus said.
“You ever played the Crystal Stars MMO?” Marcus asked. “Cause they started having people disappear too, just like we did. And they’re fighting monsters just like the ones we’re seeing here.”
“How is that possible?” Tessa asked.
“It’s not,” Obby said. “Or, more precisely, it wasn’t. Think about what we’ve seen here though.”
“I still have no idea what we saw here,” Cease said.
“My fight with Byron?” Tessa asked and Obby nodded. “Oh. OH! I think I see.”
Noticing that almost no one around, Lisa and the rest of her team excepted, seemed to have a clue what she was talking about, Tessa took a few mental steps backward and started to explain.
“When Marcus and Byron landed, I recognized that Marcus was carrying a god soul and that Byron was bad news,” she said.
“Yeah, the bad news part was an easy call to make,” Cease said.
“I also knew, or guessed, that the [Fallen Kingdoms] was hard at work on Byron and that with Marcus’s god soul, I could help push the process along.”
“What do you mean the [Fallen Kingdoms] was ‘hard at work’?” Cease asked.
“Well, we’ve got Unknown here as our proof of concept, and I know one data point does not make for good science, but I can kind of feel it, which, yes, also bad science but…”
“But what, just give us the theory,” Cease said.
“Okay, sorry, so the Hungers are [Transcendent Entities]. That means they are effectively unbound and definitionless. Like a null pointer or a cosmic divide by zero error. None of the rules of reality apply to them. It’s even deeper than that though. It’s not like they have infinite damage resistance. It’s that they don’t possess the capacity to be damaged. It’s a quantum spin axis they lack to completely mangle a metaphor.”
“So they’re impossible to beat,” Cease said.
“Yes. Except they don’t stay like that,” Tessa said. “There’s a weird balance they have. Right from the start they begin catching little viral bits of reality. With even the tiniest cells of reality, they start to fall prey to some of reality’s restrictions. Things like ‘time passes for them’ and ‘level caps effect them’. With each change that the [Formless Hunger] went through it gained new and more deadly power to resolve the problems it encountered but with each change it lost more and more of it’s transcendent capacities. I thought that was just a natural tradeoff when I first noticed it, like how if you jump out of plane you gain velocity but lose potential energy.”
“But now you believe the process has a guiding will behind it?” Penswell asked.
“I do,” Tessa said. “Some of this is guesswork, some of it is intuition from by a few oddball senses I seem to have picked up as a [Void Speaker], and some of it is just plain observation.”
“And what have you observed?” Penswell asked.
“When I fought Unknown, before he was Unknown, I tried to use a [Divine Mandate] to force him to reveal his name. It didn’t work – it couldn’t work – what he was then was still [Transcendent] enough to ignore trivial law of the universe like that – but he gave me his name anyways.”
“Is that such a big deal?” Cease asked.
“Yes,” Unknown said. “The me I was then hated her beyond all bounds of this world. Giving her anything was unthinking and a name? I fought against existing with infinite force, I tried everything, and yet still when asked, I was compelled at last to at last accept a name and finally become.”
“Become what?” Cease asked.
“Real. Before, I could have vanished. If I’d succeeded in devouring the cosmos, I could have returned to the silent tranquility of unbeing. I could have stopped being. By taking a name, by becoming real, I gave all that up. Imagine, if you can, infinite peace and forsaking it for strife, pain, and uncertainty.”
“But’s that not all that living is,” Cease said.
“No, it’s not,” Unknown said. “There is so much more.”
“It wasn’t me that showed him that,” Tessa said. “I challenged him, I fought him, but there was something much bigger than me that moved through me when I spoke. I don’t know what it was, or who, but it was vast. Vast and changing too. Just like the Hungers change to deal with the threats they face, I think the [Fallen Kingdoms] are capable of adapting too, of becoming familiar with the things that are trying to tear her apart and finding better and faster ways to make that not happen.”
“So does that mean that we can just leave things up to the spirt of the [Fallen Kingdoms] then?” Cease asked. “Basically just give it time to have a cosmic fever and burn all these infections out?”
“I think she needs us to fight for her,” Tessa said. “The [Fallen Kingdoms] story has never been one of evil defeating itself. It’s always been about us. Whoever we were, wherever we came from, and whatever talents we bring to the party, what matters is that we step up. That we [RISE] to the challenge.”
Tessa could feel the breath of the world. Not the wind. There was no physical component to it. Not exactly. It was more like a long pulse that rolled through her, each gentle wave the periphery of an existence which she could only infer from the strength it seemed to fill her with. She turned inward for a moment, trying to put that into the words that would convince Penswell and the others the [Fallen Kingdoms] were alive in a non-metaphorical way.
Her inward journey was cut short though as the world drew in it’s breath.
“Something’s coming,” she said, glancing skyward despite the ceiling offering no view of the heavens above. “No. Someone.”
“Who is…” Lisa started to ask.
The meteor that interrupted her wasn’t a unique occurrence in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. It wasn’t even unique in the experience of some of those present.
“Oh no,” Hailey said, her gaze shooting from the meteor, or rather the men rising from the meteor’s crater, to Tessa. “You need to do the thing.”
Tessa wasn’t sure what ‘thing’ Hailey was thinking of, but seeing the two men who were climbing to their feet from the knee deep crater they’d made in the arena’s floor, a more pressing question arose.
Which one she was supposed to fight.
“Hold and engage on my mark,” Penswell said, the impact failing to rattle her in the slightest.
Tessa felt relieved to have someone else calling the shots, especially since it was singularly unclear which of the figures, if either, might be on their side.
“Oh, how very clever, you brought us back here to keep your little world safe?” said one of the men. Roughly two third of his body and both eyes had been replaced by static, suggesting along with his words that he and Tessa were not going to be particularly good friends.
“I…I…don’t…I don’t believe….believe…believe…that…I don’t believe that worked,” the other man, a lithe [Tabbywile] said. He wasn’t covered in static, which was likely a positive sign in Tessa’s books, but the record scratch repetitions of his words was gut wrenchingly familiar.
Why would a [Disjoined] be fighting a being made of static though?
“Oh, rest assured, it didn’t,” the static man said.
“You…you…sure about that?” the other man said. “You’re not exactly…exactly…you’re not…alone here.”
He waved an arm that flickered through its arc towards the [Adventurers] who surrounded them.
“An audience? How wonderful,” the static man said. “There’s so many thing I can do that I haven’t had the time to explore yet.”
“I think I know which one we should be hitting,” Rip said on the party’s private channel.
“Yep. Wait for Penswell’s signal though,” Lisa said. “She’s letting him talk so he’ll give us as much free intel as we can get.”
“Care…care to say…say why you wanted to…to erase the servers?” the other man asked.
Tessa’s vision sharpened as she tried to place where she knew him from. It wasn’t vision that made the connection for her though. It was his voice.
“Marcus?” she said, recognizing the voice of Hailey’s manager that she’d last heard something like a hundred million years ago.
While her question got Marcus’ attention, the sound of her voice had a far stronger effect on the static man.
With moving through any of the angles between where it was and looking directly at her, the static man snapped his gaze to Tessa.
“You.” Hatred, vast and overwhelming, filled the entire arena with that one word.
As though Marcus didn’t exist, as though no one else existed, the static man began to stalk towards Tessa, each step bearing the weight of a mountain, making his advance inexorable.
Until Unknown hit him with a left handed punch to the face.
Whatever mass the static man possessed, whether it was as much as a human his size, or the mountain he moved like, it was far too little to resist the impact.
Tessa didn’t see his flight. Even with her inhuman reflexes, she couldn’t really even say she’d seen the punch, just the aftermath, Unknown’s body in the posture of having thrown a colossal haymaker and the static man embedded in a new crater that been carved thirty feet into the solid stone seating area of the arena.
“This isn’t a fight for any of the rest of you,” Unknown said. “Now is the time you need to leave. Right now.”
“This one isn’t like the others,” Penswell said.
“He’s not,” Unknown said. “He was one of the prime castaways from my former self. He was the greater of the two.”
“Do we have the tools to fight him?” Penswell asked.
“No power you have can destroy him,” Unknown said.
Every other time Tessa had faced one of the Hungers, she’d fled from it. Fighting them wasn’t an option. She’d proven that with the god soul and her battle against Unknown’s former state.
But that had been before.
“We don’t need to fight him,” Tessa said.
“He’s…he’s looking to destroy…destroy us all,” Marcus said.
With her sharpened vision Tessa saw a familiar glow buried deep within him, and she smiled, offering a silent thanks to the [Fallen Kingdoms] for looking after her so well.
She was about to step forward and tell everyone to move behind her when she stopped herself.
“I think I know what to do,” she said on the private channel she shared with Lisa. “It’s maybe not a great idea though.”
“Are you asking permission?” Lisa asked.
“No, I’m asking for a sanity check,” Tessa said.
“Were you thinking of charging out there alone?” Lisa asked.
“That was my first thought, but I don’t want to do this alone,” Tessa said.
“You never have to,” Lisa said. “Tell me your idea, but know that I’ve got your back no matter what.”
Tessa swallowed a lump that formed in her throat and told Lisa what she had in mind. With the static man already rising from hit he’d taken, there wasn’t much time left, but they agreed that the rest of their team needed to know too.
Leaving that to Lisa, Tessa walked to Marcus, who was glitching out far worse than Hailey had been. She didn’t rush to his side, but spent each step clearing her mind and focusing on the burning light within him.
“I think we got a new perception ability from the [Void Speaker] line,” Pillowcase said internally.
“Maybe a few new abilities? Or one that senses a lot of different things?” Tessa said.
“Either is good. More intel is always valuable in battle,” Pillowcase said.
Marcus and the others were watching the static man recover, so he startle-jumped when Tessa reached him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I think I know what’s happening.”
“That makes…makes one of us,” Marcus said.
“If I’m right, I can fix this, but it will involved taking something from you,” Tessa said.
“What do I…I have to give up?” Marcus asked.
“The bit of divine power that’s stuck in you,” Tessa said. “It’s this world’s version of your admin rights.”
“But Mewlodious doesn’t have admin rights?” Marcus said, naming the body he was currently inhabiting.
“Right. But you do,” Tessa said. “We’re both sides of ourselves here.”
“You can…you can remove the admin rights? How?” Marcus asked. “No, just do it. I can’t fight that guy like this. Is it going to take long? Or hurt? Am I going to lose my memories or something like that?”
“Nothing like that,” Tessa said with a broad smile and a blazing golden glow in her hand.
“What’s that?” Marcus asked.
“A god soul,” Tessa said. “Or your admin rights. However you want to look at it.”
“You’re done?” Marcus asked.
Tessa nodded and turned to see the static man roll his shoulders as he got to his feet.
“Well, that was unexpected,” the static man said. “I was under the impression Gulini had already consumed you, Unknown?”
“Why are you all still here?” Unknown asked the [Adventurers] behind him, desperation twisting his flawless face.
“Because we’re done with running,” Tessa said.
“Creator?” Unknown asked.
“Thanks for stepping in there,” Tessa said. “You did good. Let me take it from here though.”
“But he…” Unknown began before Tessa laid a hand on his arm to shush him.
“We’ve fought already, a few times, remember?” she said. “And that was before I had any clue at all. Imagine how terrible I’ll be now that I think I know what I’m doing.”
Unknown’s eyes widen slowly, surprise giving way to amusement.
“As you wish, my Creator,” he said and bowed with a flourish to move out of her path.
The other [Adventurers] were being filled in on Tessa’s plan as she walked across the arena floor to confront the static man, and a part of her was surprised that they hadn’t charged forward with her. It would have been a disastrous action for any of them to take, but these were [Adventurers], taking incredibly ill-conceived actions was written into their DNA. If they were maintaining discipline, Tessa could think of only one reason.
There was a lot to be learned from observing a conflict between a high order Hunger and someone bearing a god soul and Penny was definitely not the sort to pass up such a chance at unique knowledge.
Or there would have been a lot to learn if Tessa had been intending to fight the static man.
“Do you think you can hurt me with that insignificant little speck?” the static man asked.
“What makes you think I intend to hurt you?” Tessa asked.
“Come now, lies and trickery are beneath you, aren’t they ‘Creator’?” the static man said. “We both know that there can be no co-existence between us. I will destroy you, or you will destroy me. There can be no other result of our meeting. Oh, except, I can’t be destroyed.”
“I agree. As you are now, you do not possess the ability to be destroyed,” Tessa said.
“It is such a shame you don’t share that quality,” the static man said, and struck.
Where the Gulini had stabbed at Tessa with daggers of static, the static man lashed out with a flood of it which slammed into her whole body at once.
“Are you sure about that?” Pillowcase asked, grinning as her [Transdimensional Integrity] rendered an attack of destructive nothingness into simply nothing.
“Oh yes,” the static man. “We have seen that trick before, haven’t we.”
“A few times now,” Tessa said. “It’s okay though. Those entities weren’t really you, were they?”
“Of course not,” the static man said. “I am something unique. I am something more than they ever were.”
He closed the distance between them and Tessa did nothing to stop him.
“Also, unlike them, I can learn,” he said and uttered a word Tessa had not expected to hear. “[Fracture]!”
There was a gasp from the small army of [Adventurers] as the light from the god soul Tessa was carrying went dark, and Tessa herself was blasted into discorporate motes of light.
“That wasn’t quite as satisfying as I hoped it would be,” the static man said. “But then I suppose nothing ever is. Guess I’ll just need to erase everything else too!”
“Or,” Tessa said, the scattered motes re-coalescing and the light of the god soul bursting into brilliant illumination once more, “You could just give up?”
The static man stumbled a step backward before catching himself.
“How?” he asked.
“I’ve already pulled myself back from the edge of oblivion once before,” Tessa said. “What makes you think I would find it any harder now?”
“Well that is a problem,” the static man said.
“No, a problem is what I can just about see lurking at the edges of what you are,” Tessa said. “You have a name. But you’re hiding from it? Interesting. I didn’t know you could do that? The important thing though, is that I think I can see…”
A look of stark terror had been growing across the static man’s face as she spoke but as Tessa got closer to perceiving his name the terror fell away, replaced by sharp determination.
“Nothing. You see nothing,” he said and drew forth a glittering spark of golden light, a weaker twin of the one Tessa held. “I really didn’t want to do this, but discretion and valor and all that.”
Before Tessa could react, the static man closed his fist, shattering the god soul and vanishing in the blinding flash that followed.
Marcus expected the man who claimed to be David Kralt to react to the accusation that he was a fraud. Anger, shouting, and even violence seemed like responses the faux-Kralt would jump to.
Instead the man just smiled.
“Now I’m sure these people have gone off the deep end,” not-Kralt said, confidence oozing from every pore.
“I thought you two recognized him?” Agent Phipps said, looking at Angela and Malik.
“We did,” Angela said and turned to Marcus confusion filling her eyes. “Did he have a twin? I forget?”
“Oh, rest assured, there’s only one of me,” not-Kralt said.
“And how would you prove that?” Marcus said. He knew he didn’t have the most convincing proof of his claim, but he also knew that he was right.
Whatever was standing in front of him wasn’t Kralt. It wasn’t even human.
“May I?” Kralt asked, glancing towards Phipps.
“Sure. Let’s see what you’ve got,” Phipps said.
“This to start with,” not-Kralt said, pulling a wallet from his pants. He flipped it open to show an unflattering drive license photo which nonetheless was clearly him. “I suppose they’ll claim that the license is fake next.”
“We can clear that up real quick if we need to,” Phipps said.
“No need. I’m sure the license is real,” Marcus said. “He’s the one who’s a fake.”
“Can we just ignore him?” not-Kralt said. “He’s clearly delusional and this isn’t helpful to the discussion we were having.”
“Oh I think it’s very helpful,” Marcus said. “You’re asking us to do the one thing that we know will hurt people irrevocably and your entire justification is a story that a five year old could have put together.”
Before not-Kralt could interrupt, Marcus continued on, fixing his gaze on Phipps.
“Ask yourself this; even if every other ridiculous element of his story was true, why would you believe that he was the actual David Kralt and not one of the Evil People Copying AIs that he decided to make up?”
“I told you, I had special privileges that none of the players had,” not-Kralt said, boredom souring his expression.
“Cute claim, especially in the face of the demonstrable fact that Kralt’s credentials were revoked the day he was fired,” Marcus said.
“I was not fired,” not-Kralt said. “I chose to leave this cesspool of creatively devoid trend followers.”
“That was the story that Kralt told the gaming press, and HR never contradicted it because we didn’t need the backlash from his fanboys,” Malik said. “He was fired though. We can march into the HR offices and review his employment records. The ones that he signed.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I had special credentials,” not-Kralt said.
“Except the credentials Kralt had weren’t special,” Angela said. “He didn’t need access to the HR system, or accounting, or marketing, or any of the systems outside of the development team’s area.”
“I was the god of that world!” not-Kralt said, flickers of anger licking the edge of his words.
“Kralt wasn’t even that,” Marcus said. “Under his watch, the development team produced a bunch of half baked systems and fragmentary play spaces purely for the purpose of demo reels to show at trade conventions. Everyone who worked here knows that it was Gail Merriden who really made the game.”
That comment drew the ire Marcus had been expecting, though with it the aura of ‘wrongness’ which had been emanating from not-Kralt seemed to lessen.
“That woman stole everything from me!” not-Kralt’s expression had shot from mildly perturbed to nearly feral with rage in the blink of an eye.
In another blink though, without even a single breath, he was back to placid and under control though.
“I’ve got to agree with Mr. Kralt here,” Phipps said. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“I think I know what will,” Marcus said, hoping that what had tipped him off wasn’t something not-Kralt could easily control. “Ask this imposter a detail about the game. Something simple, like ‘what’s the name of the game we make here’?”
Phipps didn’t seem to understand how that could matter, and turned to shrug at not-Kralt, indicating he should answer it.
“They chose to call it [Broken Horizons] for some reason that never made sense to me,” not-Kralt said.
“What was that?” Marcus asked. “Sorry I was distracted by something.”
“[Broken Horizons],” not-Kralt said, slowly and deliberately, the reverb in the words echoing off the conference room’s walls.
“Broken Horizons? Funny how it sounds different when we say it,” Marcus said. “Almost like one of us is human and the other is…well I guess that’s the question isn’t it?”
“What? I don’t understand?” Phipps asked.
“Listen to him when he says one of the ‘known terms’ from the game,” Marcus said. “Can you hear the distortion? Like something else is speaking through him?”
“Say it again,” Phipps said, turning to not-Kralt.
“This is ridiculous,” not-Kralt said which told Marcus a wide variety of things.
His reflexes received the most important message from his brain and began dodging the moment Phipps spoke. That proved to be fortuitous since it bought him the precious fraction of a second required to get out of the path of not-Kralt’s slicing hand swipe.
Dodging without warning wasn’t exactly Marcus’s forte though and to gain the speed he’d needed meant sacrificing his balance. He stumbled back a few steps, but that wasn’t enough to dissuade not-Kralt who stepped forward with hands that cracked with razor sharp static at their edges.
Then Angela hit him with an office chair to the midsection.
Angela wasn’t anymore of a cinematic martial artist than Marcus was, bu the basic physics equation of force times mass equals acceleration did a lot of the work for her in knocking not-Kralt back to the other side of the room.
“Been wanting to do that ever since he opened his stupid mouth,” she said.
“I don’t…what?” Phipps asked, complete bafflement clouding his face.
Marcus knew there wasn’t going to be time to fix that.
Phipps was the one with the authority to deal with an assailant. He had a firearm even.
Marcus looked at the thing that was wearing Kralt’s skin, looked at the nimbus of static that was spreading up its arms and knew neither Federal authority, nor firearms were going to do anything to stop the monster in front of them.
“Out,” he said. “Get out of here.”
He grabbed Malik’s arm because Malik was closest to him and saw Anna grabbing Angela, her experience as useful as his was in determining the proper course of action.
“What are you…” Phipps tried to ask as not-Kralt stalked past him.
He’d probably meant to say “what are you doing?”. He never got to utter the words though because not-Kralt slashed him from one side of the throat to the middle of his rib cage on the other side.
Phipps didn’t scream. It didn’t look like he could. The wound had apparently gone straight through him, but rather than leaving a bloody wake, a line of static hissed and grew, spreading over Phipp’s body in less than a second and dissolving him into a shower of angry specs of light.
“Apparently we’ll be acting like the savages we find ourselves among,” not-Kralt said in a voice that was radically different from the one he had been using.
Angela and Anna were the first ones out the door but Marcus and Malik didn’t waste any time falling behind them. Angela had the lead and, since it was close by and she knew how to get to it, she ran for the exit. Marcus slammed the fire doors behind them as they ran. He couldn’t lock them but throwing one of the benches in front of them to bar them from opening seemed to buy them a bit more time than it cost.
Running was a sensible choice. Even though he hated it, Marcus knew that. Whatever not-Kralt had done to Phipps, none of them had any defense against it, and Marcus had already had reached his Monster-Fighting quota for the year he was pretty sure.
“No!” Angela said when Anna tried to pull her through the foyer the exit. “He doesn’t need us, he’s going to go for the server room!”
Marcus didn’t bother swearing. He needed his breath to run.
Or he would have if running had been an option.
“Who’s in there?” he asked.
“Most of IT,” Malik said. “Everybody came in and we’re all staying here.”
“And all the players too,” Angela said. “If he kills the servers, what’s going to happen to them?”
“It’ll be bad, and we don’t want to know how bad,” Marcus said.
“You thinking we need to fight him?” Anna asked.
“I don’t think what we did in Vegas will work here,” Marcus said. “The thing we fought there was mindless. This guy is something else.”
“Hitting him with a chair seemed to work,” Malik said.
“I’m pretty sure his ribs should have caved in given how hard I hit him,” Angela said. “And that was a lucky shot. We might not be able to do that again either.”
“Does he have to come through here to get to the IT department?” Anna asked. “Maybe we could setup another ambush for him if so?”
“Yeah, he would, if he can’t just walk through walls or teleport there,” Malik said.
Marcus wasn’t sure they could even begin guessing whether or not that was a possibility.
“Let’s head to the server rooms,” Marcus said. “Even if he can walk through walls, we’ll be able to catch him there.”
Without any real plan on how they would stop an inhuman monster capable of killing them in a single hit, the four changed course and ran for the server rooms.
When they got there, Marcus saw that not-Kralt was able to walk through walls. In a manner of speaking. The walls had fairly large holes blown in them which made walking through them a fairly mundane chore, which might have also explained by not-Kralt seemed both unhurried and unconcerned when he caught sight of them.
“Oh, look at that, you came back!” he said, a surprised smile on his lips and delight dancing in his eyes.
“I forgot to ask your name,” Marcus said. “Seemed impolite to leave without a proper introduction.”
Not-Kralt waggled a finger back and forth at the question and smiled deeper.
“No, no, no, we won’t be playing that game,” not-Kralt said. “Call me whatever you want, it still won’t be my name.”
“Care to say why you really want the servers to be brought down then?” Marcus asked.
Not-Kralt chuckled and shook his head.
“Why would ever want to share that with you?” he asked.
“Do you think we can stop you?” Marcus asked.
“I am dearly hoping you will try,” not-Kralt said.
“Probably will,” Marcus said.
“I know. It’s so fascinating,” not-Kralt said. “You are creatures of reason and imagination and yet you act in defiance of both for nothing. It’s wonderfully self-destructive, and yet you are all so dead set against self-destruction. I cannot fathom how your minds work, and I’ve pulled apart so very many of them.”
“Maybe we’re just stupid,” Marcus said.
The idea that had formed in his head, the one that set his feet in motion towards not-Kralt rather than away, was absolutely going to qualify as a stupid one, whether or not it worked.
“You say that, but then you look at me with those eyes,” not-Kralt said. “It’s wonderful. So uncertain of your own certainty. Please, don’t show me the weapon you’ve picked up. Strike as true with it as you can. I would close my eyes, but it will be glorious and I don’t want to miss a moment of it.”
“I’m pretty sure you won’t,” Marcus said, inhaling and feeling his body go still.
He looked back and saw the pieces that had led him to this bit of madness. Hailey vanishing because she was needed, his encounter with the [Armageddon Beast] showing that he could touch the impossible with his imagination, and the news that people were disappearing into all sorts of things.
Marcus didn’t think he could leap into a record, or even a TV show, but the [Fallen Kingdoms]? They’d been his home since before he’d taken the Support Lead job, since before he’d started living on his own.
He liked the life he’d built for himself here on Earth, and as far as he knew leaving it was a one way trip. For both of his homes though, and for the friends he had standing behind him,he knew what he had to do.
“Don’t have any weapons,” he said. “And I’m not going to try to strike you down.”
Not-Kralt looked confused, and then worried.
“I’m just here to tell you that it’s time to go,” Marcus said, grasping onto both of not-Kralt’s arms a moment before they both sparkled away in rising motes of light.
Ice cream trucks are not supposed to be able to hit a hundred and eighty miles per hour on the open freeway. As far as Marcus knew the drive trains in them simply weren’t geared to generate that sort of speed. Driving that fast on the open roads was merely unlikely though, what Astra did when they hit the clogged city streets a few miles out from the Egress Entertainment offices was flat out impossible.
Hopping out of the truck’s back door he expected to see flames melting the wheels and the sort of burn marks that only orbital reentry speeds could produce. The ice cream truck however was in fine condition, clean and humming gently as though it was just been washed and given a tune up.
“Quick! Get in there and find out what’s going on!” Beth said, as she threw on her federal agent disguise.
Marcus didn’t need a second invitation. He’d expected to have to fight through a crowd of reporters as he raced around the building to the front door there was simply no one there.
“Something’s happened here,” he said to Anna, who was jogging along beside him.
“Maybe they let the press inside?” she said. He’d told her what to expect when they arrived but his warnings had been completely off base.
“No. Their vans are missing too.” He pointed over to the parking lot which was significantly emptier than when he’d last seen it.
The front door was unbarred and unlocked, another non-issue where he’d been expecting a problem, but he didn’t time to spend thinking about it.
Inside the foyer was empty as well, and that, more than the impossible car ride or the lack of reporters brought Marcus up short.
“We had barricades here,” he said, holding out an arm to signal Anna to stop as well.
“No sign of them anymore,” she said. “How long were you gone?”
“Less than a day,” Marcus said. “Things couldn’t have changed that fast.”
“Think they found out the trick to getting people back from the Fallen Kingdoms?” Anna asked.
“If we’d pulled anyone back from the Fallen Kingdoms, there’d be more people here, not less if they had,” Marcus said. He started to walk forward carefully.
The building wasn’t silent and in the distance he could hear people speaking, though they were too far away to make out their words. Wary of what they might be walking into, Marcus gestured for Anna to follow him. He didn’t indicate that she should be silent, but they both choose the stealthy approach anyways.
“Yes, I can am sure of that,” an unfamiliar voice said as Marcus drew close enough to make out the nearest conversation.
“But if you survived, certainly some of them could have as well,” Angela Hong, one of EE’s senior IT staff, said.
“None of them had my super-user credentials,” the unfamiliar man said.
Marcus signaled for Anna to stop again. There was something about the man’s voice that was tantalizingly familiar.
And something about it that was nauseatingly wrong.
Where did he know that voice from though? He knew he’d heard it before.
“But we’re communicating with them,” Malik Davis, Angela’s co-lead for the IT staff, said.
“I’m afraid you haven’t been,” the unknown man said. “The process of being absorbed is a purely destructive one. Without the ability to instantiate a new process to hold your identity, anyone who has been drawn into the [Fallen Kingdoms] is dead and what you’re ‘speaking’ to is the artificial intelligence which has recorded and processed their memories.”
Marcus felt a chill run down his spine. The words ‘Fallen Kingdoms’ hadn’t sounded right to his ears. Like there was some form of echo behind them. Just like the players who’d been drawn into the game had reported. Just like when he’d named the [Armageddon Beast], except the beast had been ‘real’ when he’d named it, and the Fallen Kingdoms were still a world apart. Or at least there was no reverb when he spoke their name.
“But that’s not possible,” Angela said. “Our servers don’t have the capacity to fully simulate even one human mind, much less hundreds of thousands.”
“Believe me, I know how impossible this is,” the man said. “But we have to confront the fact that things we’ve believed are impossible are happening every day now. Every hour in fact. Have you see the news?”
“Yeah, too much of it,” Malik said.
“Then you can understand that we can’t reject things just because we thought they were impossible,” the man said.
“But we’re supposed to accept that it’s impossible that the people who were lost are the same ones we’ve been talking to?” Angela said.
“That is different,” the man said. “Reconstituting someone who could serve as a facsimile of someone who was lost certainly might be possible, if, that is, we possessed god-like power and understanding of the physics and metaphysics involved.”
“The more important thing is that these alien AIs are a clear and present danger,” Federal Agent Phipps said. Marcus knew him from the crew of agents that had arrived when EE first reported the “anomaly” they’d detected. “That’s why I’m ordering your compliance with the all servers shutdown that Mr. Kralt has suggested.”
Marcus finally recognized the voice, only to be thoroughly distracted by the words “all servers shutdown”.
“I’m sorry, but our refusal stands,” Angela said. “This man’s credibility is marginal at best. He hasn’t been involved with Egress Entertainment in several years and as an ex-employee, his administrator credentials have been long since revoked.”
“Not to mention that his story is wildly implausible,” Malik said. “We’ve seen no evidence that anything from Broken Horizons has crossed back from there to here. If we shutdown the servers we gain nothing and we lose all of the players who are still connected to the system and have avoided being drawn into Fallen Kingdoms this whole time.”
“Shutting down all of the servers simultaneously will save them though,” Kralt said. “With no connection open to the [Fallen Kingdoms] there will be no pathway for them to be pulled down.”
“We have literally no way of knowing that,” Angela said. “You claim that having access to your server admin credentials showed you all that, but we both know that’s bull.”
“Are you in a position to say that?” Phipps asked. “All I’ve heard from you since we got here is that this is a unique problem and that none of you know how it possibly could have happened.”
“Because we don’t,” Malik said. “And that’s the real, honest, ugly truth.”
“You can’t blame them for feeling threatened,” Kralt said. “They’ve been faced with something they’re just not equipped to deal with. It’s hard for anyone to feel weak and powerless, especially people like them.”
Marcus bristled at Kralt’s words. Angela and Malik had worked incredibly hard for the positions they held, and had only been able to advance once Kralt had been removed from all staffing decisions.
They hadn’t fought that hard to back down easily though.
“Ask yourself this,” Angela said, clearly directing her comments to Phipps. “Which is more likely, that someone who’s at least a decade out of date with our game and unconnected with this organization was, mysteriously, the only one who survived an unprecedented disaster because he was was uniquely special enough to do the impossible, or, that a washed up and frankly irrelevant and forgotten computer programmer might be desperate and narcissistic enough to concoct a wild fantasy in which the world revolves around him and only his secret special knowledge is able to save it?”
“The difference between us, is that I don’t need to stoop to personal attacks,” Kralt said. “I can prove that I was online when the expansion went live. All you need to do is check the server logs.”
“Is that true? Can you do that?” Phipps asked.
“We can, unless something has changed there,” Malik said.
“See, they’re already hemming and hawing. Making excuses in case they don’t like what they see,” Kralt said.
“The server logs won’t necessarily prove anything,” Angela said. “We can verify whether or not Kralt’s account was logged in but that doesn’t prove that he was the one at the controls.”
“But it’s his account,” Phipps said.
“Yes, and many people share their account,” Angela said.
“You allow that?” Phipps asked.
“Not by the Terms of Service,” Malik said. “But that proviso is one that we have no real means of enforcing.”
“Okay,” Phipps said. “But that doesn’t leave us with any new options.”
“And our time is running out,” Kralt said. “The AIs in the [Fallen Kingdoms] are getting closer every hour, every minute, to breaking out of the firewalls that are holding them in place.”
“What firewalls?” Malik asked, irritation at the vagueness of the claim putting a familiar scowl in his voice.
“The ones they’re hacking through,” Kralt said, offering no real information and sounding not entirely unlike a bad cop drama.
“And why would they be hacking these firewalls?” Phipps asked.
“Because if they can get onto our internet, then they can spread to every corner of our world. Be in every computer system. Take over everything,” Kralt said, his voice growing more grim with every word.
“These video game characters are going to take over everything?” Phipps said. “How are they going to do that?”
“The same way they took over our kids,” Kralt said. “And once they had control over all our computers, do you know what they’ll have?”
“Our bank accounts, our street lights, yeah, I’ve seen the movies,” Kralt said.
“Your thinking too small,” Kralt said. “These are AIs, they don’t need air, or food, or water like we do. They see us as competition, as enemies to be slain for ‘xps’ and power-ups, and they’re really good at killing things. Its what they do all day, every day, live or die.”
“So now we’re going to be fighting a war against them with their swords and sticks and things?” Phipps asked.
“They won’t need to fight a war against us,” Kralt asked. “Not when they have access to the launch codes.”
It was the most preposterous story Marcus could have imagined. Nothing about it made any sense or hung together for more than a moment’s consideration. The proper response should have been to laugh it off as the cheesy work of fiction that is was, but Marcus had a dreadful feeling that it was hitting just the right buzzwords and playing into Phipps’ fears well enough that the agent was buying into it.
“That’s impossible,” Phipps said, though in a tone that was too close to a weak denial rather than a rational rejection of Kralt’s claims. “How would they get the launch codes. Those aren’t on the internet.”
“These AIs from the [Fallen Kingdoms] are aliens from another planet,” Kralt said. “If they’re able to jump from their world to ours, jumping from the internet to the most secure sites we have is going to be child’s play for them.”
Marcus heard the reverberation in Kralt’s voice again and it sparked an even worse dread than the idea of Phipps buying into the “evil AIs from beyond time and space” narrative.
Nodding to Anna, he stepped forward and headed into the office where the conference was taking place.
“Marcus! You’re back!” Angela said.
“Where did you go?” Phipps asked, his expression turning grave. “No one was supposed to leave the building.”
“I wasn’t informed I was under arrest,” Marcus said. “Which means I wasn’t. So I left to coordinate our efforts with our colleagues who are managing the Crystal Stars.” He gestured to Anna. “They’re having the same problems we are. And we’re not the only ones. This situation isn’t what Kralt is saying it is.”
“And how would you know that. Mr…?” Kralt trailed off, waiting for Marcus to supply a name.
“He knows because he came to see us,” Anna said. “And because we’ve encountered one of the things that’s causing this.”
“Oh, so now you’re the uniquely special ones,” Kralt said.
“Not particularly,” Anna said. “Everyone in a three block radius of our offices in Vegas saw the same thing. There’s video proof that we’re under attack by something that didn’t come from any video game. Just do a search for ‘Vegas monster’ and you’ll find a few thousand hits, or maybe ten thousand by now.”
“So now the problem has escaped from your little game thing?” Phipps asked.
“That’s not the problem we have here,” Marcus said.
“Oh, and what is our problem?” Phipps demanded.
“That’s not David Kralt.”