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Massively Multiplayer
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-751-X
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 357 Pages
Published: May 2010

From inside the flap

When Andrew Hunter logs in to his favorite online game, he’s escaping the pressure of school and family. In the world of Crucible, Andrew doesn’t have to worry about what major to pursue, or whether he should get a summer job. All he has to worry about is whether or not he’ll get eaten.

For programmer Wolfgang Wallace, though, Crucible isn’t just a game; it’s his job. So when a mysterious hacker begins using the game servers to transfer huge amounts of encrypted data, Wolfgang needs to act fast, before the FCC, the FBI, or the Better Business Bureau shut down his company for good. Unfortunately, the hacker seems to know all that, and has taken pains to lock Wolfgang out of his own system.

What Wolfgang needs is a player on the inside of the game. What Andrew needs is a reason to play…or to stop playing. What the hacker needs is anyone’s guess, but it’s his game, and until they figure out the rules, they’re going to have to play for their lives.

Massively Multiplayer (Excerpt)

Chapter One: Blind Man’s Bluff

In every game, there are winners and there are losers. In most cases, it is easy to recognize the likely winner well before the game’s conclusion: most systems reward aggressive play, long-term strategy coupled with short-term, tactical flexibility. The player with the most devotion to understanding and manipulating this system, the one who maximizes his gains and minimizes his risks, the most ruthlessly savvy, is the one most likely to win.

This is the first law of gaming, and most people learn it as children, whether by playing tag in a back yard in Ohio, or Cheng Li-Min after school in Beijing, or scratching a tic-tac-toe grid in the dirt of a street in Bangladesh. Learn the rules, and play to win.

The second law is this: randomness happens. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and even the most painstakingly exact strategy is subject to the roll of the dice. Sometimes long-shots come in. Sometimes double-sixes spell the unexpected end of a flawless round. Sometimes a crow eats your golf ball. And sometimes the fool who goes all-in on an inside straight pulls out that sweet, sweet missing card and wins the jackpot.

The second law trumps the first law every single time.

Crucible v.3.8

Druin the Reaver--thief, sell-sword, shadow-walker, and scourge of the night--was contemplating the second law as he cowered in the darkness, waiting to die. No more than ten feet away, a troll-kin slaver, a seven-foot nightmare of gaunt muscle and leathery blue skin, sniffed the air hungrily. When it finally caught his scent underneath the mustiness of the cave and the stench of the slaves, it would be on him.

Part of him wondered why he wasn’t dead already.

He didn’t know it yet, wouldn’t know it for some weeks, but someone else, someone watching him, was wondering the same thing.

The deeper, primal portion of Druin’s mind was fiercely devoted to the problem of how he might escape being beaten to death. Death was no fun. It had been weeks since he’d last died, and he wasn’t looking forward to the grueling post-mortem recovery process. But he knew from painful experience that his subconscious mind was better suited to figuring out matters of survival without his interference. Druin therefore devoted the greater part of his thoughts to the sequence of events which had brought him here.

At what precise moment had their careful plan gone so violently wrong? What decision had twisted a fairly simple bit of robbery and murder towards this likely fatal crisis?

Where, in short, had they blown it?

Perhaps it was when Uriah and Wisefellow had first approached him at the Bitter Edge town fountain. Maybe he should have resisted temptation. There were always rumors about troll slavers up and down the coast, but the reports had seemed legitimate this time. Uriah had bribed a merchant captain and discovered that a sizeable colony had been spotted lurking amongst the rocks at low tide, just south of the city. Additional bribes had procured a map of the town sewers, including their crucial intersections with the natural sea caves.

Uriah saw to the repair of their armor and weaponry. Wisefellow haggled for talismans and charms with the powerful Binders’ Guild. It fell to Druin to procure rope, tools, provisions, and other mundane supplies. With a generous advance he was even able to quietly acquire a few needs of his own: a fine new set of lock-picks, a precious supply of venom with which to coat his knives, and a charm tattooed with some kind of berry juice onto both legs by a seedy looking street vendor, "guaranteed" to silence his footsteps for a full week.

Perhaps he should have purchased the talisman which would have rendered him invisible, too. If the troll spotted him now, he would pay for his frugality with his life.

He could at least take pride in the flawless execution of his part of the work. In the dead of night, Druin and Uriah had pried open the grating of the town’s northernmost sewage drain, while Wisefellow kept an eye out for the night watch. A brief trek through the sewer tunnels had brought them to a barricade of scrap metal, bolted together to form a rough gate. Druin’s nimble fingers made short work of the lock, as well as the spring-loaded catch which would have showered a less cautious intruder with needles. Close examination revealed these had been prized from sea urchins and coated with sea-snake venom. Nasty stuff.

The three fortune-hunters had made their way carefully through the stonework tunnels of the sewer system, then the naturally smooth tubes of the sea-caves, trying their best not to splash noisily in the ankle-deep water. Druin’s tattooed charm had either washed off or proven a poor bargain--he made as much noise as his companions. Their progress had been surprisingly swift, and Uriah had had to silence only two troll-kin guardsmen, not even true sea-trolls but half-breeds which gave him little trouble. They paused only long enough for Druin to expertly loot the corpses of any valuables.

Before long, the trio had found themselves in an ovular grotto filled with booty taken from the sea-trolls’ slaves: fine clothing, weapons, jewelry and other possessions stuffed haphazardly into shark-leather chests, made water-tight with kelp sap. The companions had wisely decided that such easy pickings were a good return on investment, and had quickly stuffed the best of the loot into their packs. Selling these goods back in town would provide them with the gold necessary to outfit an assault on the trolls’ actual treasury, which must be deeper in the caves.

Their escape route had led them past the slave-pens.

And that, Druin, realized, had been their mistake: the point from which all the subsequent disaster had predictably issued. It was an unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of psychology and opportunity. Given his nature, the situation, the timing, all of it, there was no other way events could have transpired. Choosing that route had led, inevitably, to his hiding behind a rock, waiting for a troll slaver to bash in his brains, or eat off his face, or something equally unpleasant.

Following Uriah and Wisefellow past yet another branching corridor, Druin had happened to glance to his right, just in time to see a sea-troll beating a chained group of new slaves into their prison. The brute was a colossal example of its kind, fully nine feet of lank muscle, incongruously beautiful sapphire skin stretched over taut sinew, bony joints, and a wide mouth, stretched even wider in a ferocious grin which revealed a forest of barbed teeth. The object of the troll’s attention had been a girl, no more than twelve. The troll was kicking her very thoroughly.

Even now, crouched behind his boulder, Druin gave himself credit for pausing long enough for one woeful glance at Wisefellow’s back, retreating into the darkness. Uriah was the pragmatic type, but Wisefellow was as sympathetic as the next man. More practical than Druin, but then, so were most people. Even Druin, when he was thinking dispassionately, would have known that his impulsive thought, seeing the troll abuse the girl, was a bad idea. If he had thought too much about it, Druin would have managed to talk himself out of his resolve. And so, naturally, he had acted as swiftly as possible. Quickly, but with exquisite care, he’d loaded his blowgun, and an eighth of a second later a three inch needle sprouted from the troll’s tonsils.

The shriek of the guardsman was soon echoed by the querying howls of its comrades, and then the angry peal of an alarm bell. The slaves themselves simply stared in mute terror as their warden clutched, gurgling, at its throat, and then collapsed at their feet as the poison took hold. It had been a very good blend of venoms, Druin noted to himself, even as he raced into the chamber and knelt by the nearest slave, lockpicks already scrabbling at the clasps which bound her to her companions.

A splash from behind caused him to whirl on his knees, his longest knife already out and held at the ready, but it was Uriah, skidding to a halt on the scummy stones of the central holding area. The stocky warrior had his axe out, and had pushed back the visor on his helmet to reveal a homely face twisted in fury.

"What are you doing?!?" he hissed, somehow managing to convey that he would like to have roared the question, but that he still hoped they might escape detection.

"What does it look like? I’m setting these slaves free."

A wet scrabbling from behind Uriah meant that Wisefellow had joined them. "What is happening?"

"This fool says he’s freeing the slaves!"

Druin winced as his second pick snapped in the heavy lock.

"What?" Wisefellow gave Druin a strained grin through his ginger beard. "Druin, come along, quickly! We will free the slaves, at a later time, but I thought we had agreed that today was for reconnaissance...and the trolls are coming!"

"I know, I know! But this will just take another second..."

Uriah gripped his shoulder hard. "Come on! You’re going to get us all killed!" He gave the assembled slaves a sour once over. "Even if you got the lock open, we’ll never get this bunch past the guards!"

"Maybe they’re just stunned," Druin muttered.

"Fool!" Uriah repeated, throwing his arms up in disgust, his armor clanking. "You know, I’d heard you pulled these kinds of stunts, but I thought they were making it up. And you!" he jabbed a gauntleted finger into Wisefellow’s sternum. "You told me he was good at this! I trusted you!"

Druin hefted the lock and glared at it. "It’s just one lock. You could divert the guards, draw them the other way while Wise leads the prisoners to the exit."

Wisefellow shook his head wearily and sighed. "Druin...why do you do this to me? No, do not answer that...there is no time." He pointed to the cave’s entrance, where gaunt, humanoid shadows were beginning to flicker in the light of approaching torches.

"You stay if you want, I’m out of here!" Uriah declared, hefting his axe once more and turning towards the passage. But even as he did so, the lock in Druin’s hand finally snapped open with a decisive click.

Druin was up off his knees in an instant, unthreading the chains from the prisoners’ manacles. "Uriah, the guards!" He adopted his most pleading expression.

Uriah glared back fiercely, then clapped down the visor on his helmet with a final, derisive snort. He marched towards the passageway, calling back over his shoulder, "Don’t ever say I’ve never done anything for you! And if this goes wrong, Druin, it’s coming out of your share!" As he reached the passage, he was briefly illuminated in orange light of the advancing torches. "Hey, frog-face!" he bellowed, "come and get it!" The trolls gave a furious howl as he sped away into the darkness, closely pursued by the gangling figures.

"He’s not going to make it," Druin predicted glumly.

"Oh, I don’t know about that," Wisefellow replied, plucking a tiny, clear gemstone from his bag. "He can move very quickly when he is properly motivated." He twisted the crystal between his fingers and tossed it into the air over his head. There was a brief flare of actinic white light and when Druin had stopped blinking, Wisefellow was only perceptible as a pale outline, as insubstantial as the milling group of slaves he had already enchanted. They were still audible, the clank of chains and the rustle of their ragged clothing a counterpoint to the far-off din of Uriah’s pursuers. Visually, however, they were almost undetectable, and Druin prayed the trolls would be too deafened by the clangor of their own alarms to hear them as they made their escape.

Wisefellow waved cheerily--or at least Druin thought that particular vague shadow was Wisefellow’s. "In any case, that is no longer our problem. The problem is that I have just enough clearstone to blind the guards I will encounter guiding these prisoners through the maze. I cannot hide you from prying eyes as well. You must manage on your own, while I lead these slaves to the sewer entrance. If I release them there, that should qualify as a rescue." The fitful light made seeing the line of slaves even harder, but the receding voice told Druin that Wisefellow was already herding them out through the side exit. "I will return shortly, and we will try to discover another way out of here."

The approaching torchlight from the main entry made any admonishment to hurry redundant. There was barely time for Druin to pull himself into the shadows before two more of the hulking slavers loped into the room. From his hiding place, Druin could see them much more clearly than before. Uriah had made a valid point with his departing cry: they did indeed have frog-faces: toothy ones.

For a while, Druin was able to entertain the notion that when their initial search turned up nothing, the two slavers might join the hunt for Uriah. After a hurried consultation, one of them did stalk away, though whether to join the search or to return with reinforcements was uncertain. But the other stayed, taking up a position near the entryway.

If the remaining guard were to look away for just a moment, Druin figured he might be able to scuttle to the exit unnoticed. But just as he bunched his legs tightly in preparation for his escape, the sea-troll sniffed loudly. Its broad features contorted as it gulped in air, and its bulbous eyes opened even wider. It bared shiny teeth in an expression halfway between a grimace and a snarl, and readied its iron club, snorting again.

Apparently the trolls’ sense of smell was as acute as their eyesight was poor. Unfair, Druin thought petulantly. No one had ever told him that. Of course that might have been because no one knew, a thought at which he brightened. Information was always valuable--granting that he escaped from this situation at all, a likelihood remote enough to return him to despair. Maybe nobody knew because nobody had survived long enough to tell anyone. Holding his breath, he tried to will himself into the rock at his back.

It was farcical, really, though not quite comical. Certainly not comical--not with the hulking mass of a sea-troll mere yards away, shifting in the dim light as it searched for him. Druin huddled tighter into his crevice, willing himself invisible, inaudible, utterly undetectable.

He was going to get caught, and there was no way he could take on an alert troll all by himself. He was going to die. Probably messily. And it would take weeks to recover from that.

His fatalistic musings were interrupted by a rustle emanating from the region of the chamber’s entrance. The monster swung its head in that direction and Druin had just enough presence of mind to shut his eyes tightly when Wisefellow yelled "duck!"

Even through closed lids, the flash was blinding. The troll gave a howl of outrage, but Druin was already past it, pausing only long enough to sweep one of his blades low across the backs of the thing’s knees. It wasn’t an honorable blow, but Druin wasn’t in an honorable mood.

"I thought you were out of clearstone," Druin huffed as they charged down a corridor.

"Found a shortcut," Wisefellow remarked over his shoulder, hitching his robe up above his knees to make better time. "This way."

The next few minutes were a blur of dark tunnels and near-empty caverns, splashing down one corridor only to spin around and race the other way at the sight of approaching torches. The sea-trolls’ lair was still abuzz with activity, but Wisefellow had taken the opportunity afforded by his near-invisibility to plot out a path which hopefully avoided the larger search parties. Twice they had to cram into side passages in order to escape roving slavers, and once Druin created a diversion by throwing small stones in order to distract the guards who blocked their further passage.

Eventually they found themselves in a cave whose floor was partially covered in sand, a tiny beach lapped by the salt-water waves which would take them out into daylight. Wisefellow tied his robes up into a thick belt which he knotted about his waist. Then he followed Druin into the water and they waded out into the late afternoon sunlight, where they knew the sea-trolls would not follow.

Another fifteen minutes found them marching up the coastal road, back towards the port of Bitter Edge, dripping wet but otherwise surprisingly unscathed.

"That," Druin announced as he checked for the fifth time to make certain that water had not seeped into his knife sheaths, "was the stupidest thing that I have ever done."

"Do not underestimate yourself," Wisefellow replied, wringing out the hem of his robes. "I’ve seen you stupider. What about the time you interrupted Mim’s duel with Micah?"

"Micah was cheating."

"Yes, I know. That’s what made it so stupid. Reckless enough to use an exploit against Mim, you should have guessed he’d retaliate. Although that wasn’t even as bad as the time in the swamp. Nothing beats the swamp. I thought that Gil was going to leave you there for the crows."

Druin grinned ruefully. "Nobody got killed that time."

"No," Wisefellow admitted as the gates of the city rose into view, "but Gil was bitten rather severely. And we lost our horses."

They marched on for a while. Realizing they would soon be among the city crowds, Druin broke the silence with the question which had really been on his mind. "Why didn’t you leave with Uriah?" he asked, slightly embarrassed. "Or side with Gil when he wanted to keep my part of the swamp loot?"

Wisefellow smiled back at him, not embarrassed at all. "You are my friend. I admire [DELETE it-USE you] when you do foolish, ambitious things. If you were not so enterprising, who would bring me along on these little adventures, eh? I get a great deal of business when people are planning excursions...everyone wants a map, or a rune, or directions to a healer, or to know how to kill a swamp-thing so that it stays dead. But when it comes time to travel, everyone desires the company of a mage who knows how to blow things up. I get far too little practical fun out of my work without your invitations. I was only too happy to return the favor this time."

"Practical fun," Druin mused. "You just make that up?"

But Wisefellow had returned his gaze to the city walls which now stretched to either side before them. "More importantly," he said softly, "Gil is a deceitful devil himself. If he could have, he would have made off with the whole hoard, and left the rest of us to the bloodsuckers. I see too many like him in my shop, greedy and careless. I prefer the... humane quality of your ambition."

The city guardsmen gazed at them incuriously as they marched through the plain iron gates of Bitter Edge.

They remained silent as they made their way through the cobblestone streets, past the crowds of natives in their muted browns and grays and the gleaming figures of richly-clad adventurers like themselves. A juggler tossed what looked like small lizards from hand to hand. An acquaintance waved cheerily from a balcony. A native woman tried to sell them a horse.

They doggedly pressed through the crowds, making their way past the town well, where the rumor-mongers hawked tales of lost treasure, past the constant streams of traffic surrounding the armory and down a side-street to the Grinning Pumpkin.

"Truly, Druin, you must move to more luxurious quarters some day," Wisefellow muttered. "At least somewhere cleaner."

"I hear Gil actually bought an even larger house last week, up on the hill," Druin commented absently as they elbowed their way inside the noisy tavern. "I kind of like the Pumpkin, though. It feels... I don’t know. Appropriately seedy, I guess."

"The term you are searching for is ’squalid’," Wisefellow grunted as they shoved their way to the stairs at the back of the room. But he knew it was useless to broach the matter of moving somewhere more upscale--his friend was too attached to this, his first home in Bitter Edge.

"Druin my friend, you are too ambitious for a thief, and you won’t take a scout’s commission in the army..."

"Served my time," Druin said shortly. "And you know how I feel about politics."

"Did I mention assassination?" Wisefellow asked with a wounded expression. "Regardless, you are now relatively wealthy. At least until you go shopping again. So, shall we meet tomorrow? I think we could even afford a brief trip to Scryers’ Street. I see no reason to immediately reenter the troll-kin’s nest, now that they know we are coming."

Druin glanced once more into his sack and mentally calculated the value of its contents: silks, earrings, an embroidered purse full of coins, a pair of armguards with elegantly scalloped edges that might be real silver. "Yeah, I think we might. Six o’clock, Pacific time? I have to help my sister finish homework from summer school, and I promised my dad I’d mow the lawn."

Wisefellow covered his face with his hands. "Druin, I despair of you. You must learn to stay in character! It may be the only way one so eccentric as you can ever prosper in this world." He sighed. "Very well. I shall be here early. Perhaps I can convince Uriah not to cut you into tiny pieces."

"If he’s not dead," Druin countered.

"Yes, if he is not dead. If he is dead of course... well, then should I think that he is going to be very angry with you. I would avoid him until he gets over it."

Druin marched up the stairs and entered a long hallway lined with doors, each one marked with a name. The third on the left was his, and the door opened to his touch. Once inside, he glanced briefly about to take inventory. Unlike some of the Adventurers’ quarters he had seen, Druin’s room was spartan, and most of his possessions strictly practical. An extra jerkin hung on the back of the chair, and there was an arrangement of knives on the small dressing table. Not much, but home.

He dropped the sack with the trolls’ booty casually into the chair and lay on the bed, still wearing all of his clothes. He stared at the ceiling and regulated his breathing. It was always less disorienting if you lay down first.

"Logout," he declared authoritatively, and the room faded away.

Druin the Thief. Circle: 6. Wealth: 1,455. You have been logged in for 213 minutes. Thank you for playing Crucible v3.8

Andrew Hunter pulled the goggles off and tossed them towards the bed, which was impossible to see from his position, semi-reclining on the virtualounge. He rubbed eyes bleary from almost four hours of strain, and he had to consciously focus on the room around him. From his position, almost flat on his back, he mostly saw the lemon-yellow plaster of the ceiling. Ugh. Luckily it was invisible to him most of the time he spent he spent in this room. His bookcase and desk, both occupied by neatly arranged books, occupied the corner opposite the virlo. Clothing hung out from the half-opened drawers of his dresser.

Andrew tapped a button on the console beneath his right hand. The virlo ceased its persistent humming as the vinyl ribs which crisscrossed the metal frame stopped vibrating. Pressure and gravity returned. His back felt stiff from being nearly immobile for so long. The virlo wasn’t a very recent model, or in particularly good repair, and he if he didn’t replace it soon, he thought, rubbing his back, he ran the risk of serious spinal damage.

He held his finger over another button and the virlo’s seat slowly rotated into an upright position, until he could step out onto the floor. As usual after an extended session, he felt dizzy and top-heavy, as though the floor were a great distance away, and his legs entirely too spindly to support the rest of his body.

A long trip, but worth it, Andrew mused. Over fourteen-hundred gold? Plus, if the armguards turn out to be real silver after all, he might get a good amount more from a blacksmith. He and Wise would have no difficulty paying for the services of a top-notch Seer to help them with their next trip.

He moved the goggles aside, sat down heavily on the unmade bed, and began stripping the data-gloves from his hands. He tossed them onto the goggles and pulled up his legs to remove the thick latex bands from his ankles, and then added those to the pile. Unlike his third generation chair, his computer equipment itself was the best he could afford. The gloves and anklets were black and seamless, with only tiny red dots indicating the sensory implants. The goggles were Blaupunkt ultra-lights with bone conduction speakers -- much better than the heavier unit he’d owned previously, which had given him neck-aches if used for more than an hour at a time.

Andrew stretched and rolled his shoulders. Gregor -- Wisefellow in the world of Crucible -- should be offline by now. What time would it be in Greece, anyway? Gregor must work some sort of night shift there. Andrew remembered him once mentioning that he was some sort of student. Linguistics or something. Anthropology? It was odd, how little he knew about someone he’d met more than two years ago. But of course, he didn’t really know "Gregor" at all. He had never actually met him. He knew Wisefellow, which was a different matter altogether.

But for the moment he should see what he’d missed around the house while he’d been in the game. Maybe Sara was still up. After the encounter with the trolls, and the slave who had so resembled his sister, he had an irrational urge to check on her.

Yawning, he ambled down the hall, shuffling slightly on legs that were still sore from his virlo-time. It would take all the money from any summer job he was likely to land at this point to repair the strapping, but the expense would be worth it if he wouldn’t hurt so much.

Not that his parents would think so, he thought as he cautiously tiptoed past the door to their room. To them, any expense which didn’t relate directly to his college prospects was unwarranted self-indulgence. But he was twenty years old, he had gotten into a state college only a few miles away, and as long as he maintained his standing, there was little they could do about the way he spent his money, other than to nag him ineffectually. That was the deal, a truce negotiated as painstakingly as any international treaty, and on the same principle: mutually assured destruction.

The door to Sara’s room was open a crack, and he peered in. His sister lay on her own virlo, his parents’ ancient castoff, so old that it relied upon cushions, rather than micro-vibration, to protect the user from stiffness and provide the sense of bodily dislocation so essential to virtual experience. Sunk deep into the pink pillows, her dark brown hair haloed her face, she looked even younger than her fifteen years. Her arms and legs were composed at her sides twitching occasionally as she moved about in whatever program she was currently running. She mumbled indistinctly, her words caught by the microphone pressed to her throat, and then laughed out loud at something she [DELETE had] heard in reply. She was chatting, no doubt with friends, probably in one of the infinite series of virtual fan-clubs devoted to her favorite bands.

Andrew began closing the door, but was surprised when Sara sat up, pulling at her goggles. The deep brown eyes which he had last seen in the face of a simulated slave girl emerged from behind black rubber lens cuffs.