Moonlighting as a non-player character was a hell of a way to earn a living. Never made much sense to spend all that time garbing up in a virtual uniform that matched gamespace, but Overton took pride in the details. So getting punched in the stomach by someone so caught up in an augmented reality fantasy they couldn’t tell real from script, that left him in a foul mood. All the man had to do was ask the right questions, get Overton’s responses, and move on.
He tagged the asshole with some negative karma, checked his own account balance, and wandered back off into his own preferred world.
Ignore the gray sidewalks of a hot Manhattan summer day. Walk around the tourists on top of the dikes in Lower Manhattan. Ease through Battery Park. Once on Broadway he turned on the silvered contacts riding his eyeballs, the inner-earphones, and it all melted away.
The Clockwork Empire squatted around most of the old Financial District. Gearhouses chugging away with clouds of dark smoke. Overton swept the wet tails of his coat back with a flourish, doffed a cap at someone involved in the gamespace hurrying by on a mission of his own, and set out to find a hearty stew somewhere.
Jericho caught up to him on a horse-drawn carriage. The robotic horse snorted in gamespace. In the real, the fur was a bit shabby, the horse far too skeletal. Overton had peeked once. But in gamespace, extra augmented reality finessed and rendered the fur to make it look vibrant and brushed down. And firm muscles bulged as the horse plodded along.
“Get in, hurry up,” Jericho grunted. “Traffic’s miserable right now.” Jericho always made a point of staying in the real. Sometimes Overton suspected he didn’t even really like his job.
But despite the incident in the morning, Overton was full of cheer. He loved his jobs.
The augmented reality contacts edited out things like traffic, and since cars were all run by overware, they slipped around the robot horse and carriage, and around Overton.
The Broad Way to him right now was a dirt road, filled with other fast moving carts and steam-machines that were probably buses, or that rare hand-driven machine. Overware caught and flagged those so Overton didn’t step in front of a moving bus.
Getting trampled in the Clockwork Empire meant death as surely as it did in the real.
He remembered an old friend, Khousa, who’d gotten carried away in a quest and ran out in front of a grand contraption. He’d spent a month holed away in a Healer’s Cave, refusing to see them.
“Where are we going today?” Overton asked.
“Rat hunting in the Central Park,” Jericho said.
“What is this Central Park?” Overton projected an earnest bewilderment.
Jericho sighed and spat. “The Great Clockwork King’s Woods, then.”
The Clockwork Empire was not contiguous. They passed through some other realms when leaving the lower empire, traveling along the Broad Way. For some thirty days the Great Clockwork King had been waging a slow war via vassals to gain ground in his island empire. The Perpetual Age of Steam had been iterated by a weak AI gaming company almost a year ago. Aeons in terms of game time and potential player interest. There was always something shiny and viral over there and under here.
But the aesthetic elements of the Age of Steam had been around since before Massively Multiplayer Augmented Reality Gaming blossomed with the advent of cheap contacts and cheaper cloud processing.
You needed the constant graphical overlays to suppress the real, processors fast enough to redraw the real with the MMARG’s own images. Once that was done, Live Action Role Playing exploded out from a passion followed by a small subset of the population. It infected everyone who had data goggles and some spare time during their commute.
Forget suffering quietly during lunch. You could join a team and storm a castle at a park, all together in a consensual reality.
Which Overton wasn’t doing.
Overton wasn’t a player, although he took the trappings of the Age of Steam very seriously. Just as he took being a paid NPC very seriously.
Underneath the game structure, people still wanted to talk to real flesh and blood. Feel a hand when they shook it.
Overton did that.
And he also hunted rats.
If no one hunted rats, all of this would fall apart.
Software used to have bugs. Email, spam. Projects used to have gremlins. MMARGs struggled with rats.
That’s what people like Overton called them. They were more like intelligent glitches, caused by evolving iterations of faux-intelligent daemons in the software. They bred and spread, moving over the augmented landscapes, finding vulnerabilities and establishing themselves in virtual environs.
They took many different shapes, but their eyes always betrayed a mean, clever urge to survive in any form they could. Pieces of neural netware struggling to survive because that’s what gamecode had told them to do, aeons of computer cycles ago.
Instead of being dispatched by clever heroes, fragments of destroyed creatures hung on and hid in the corners and niches of various worlds.
And people like Jericho and Overton hunted them down when the MMARG overcompany called them in for help.
Ostensibly it was fun. Get paid in transferable game credit to trek around your favorite MMARG hunting rats while in character. Overton loved it.
To Jericho it was just another bug hunt. For crap pay.
They were here, the King’s Woods. Overton grabbed a pinset toolbox. Brass alchemist’s towers loomed in the distance over the green forest. Lightning stabbed down from ominous clouds as all manner of machines sucked ethereal energy from the up and above.
In some of them, there would be battles going on right now. Battles to extend the Clockwork Empire.
Maybe later tonight Overton would check his account balance and join a raid with one of his guilds.
“There was a great wyrm reported here earlier today,” Overton said. “The overcompany’s brass owl told me it was yonder, by that iron bridge.”
“I got the email too,” Jericho said.
They walked around the park. There were so many trees. Really it was the software busily extrapolating other human beings’ movements and blocking out paths for Overton to walk that would allow him to stay out of the real and in the game.
Nothing looked out of the ordinary.
“There,” Jericho said.
The earth around one of the walls quivered, phasing in and out of the visual layers the MMARG added to the real.
“Pin it,” Overton said, tossing the toolbox at Jericho.
Jericho cracked it open and began flicking brass pins at the boundaries of the rat. They lit up with green alchemical energy as they made contact with the reality’s abscess.
The rat firmed up, beady eyes regarding them with a flash of raw hostility. It dragged an earthen body forward and lurched out of its hiding space. Brown segmented chunks that seemed at the same time neither here nor there slimmed down until the wyrm compacted down into a snake that slithered hastily across the grass.
“Keep on it!” Overton shouted.
Together they raced across the green, tagging the wyrm. Several hunters leapt out of hiding spots, complaining loudly as they shoved past them. “Damn rat catchers,” someone complained.
Overton had his hand on his top hat, his wet coat tails slapping against his legs. “What a thing to say,” he complained to Jericho. “Here we are, all dressed up to match, given game experience and karma, and the citizenry are still dismissive.”
Jericho didn’t care. “It’s lit up. Bring in your pet dragon already.”
“Alcimus,” Overton shouted. “I call on you!”
Far overhead, the Dedicated Reactive Artificial Gnostic Neural Net that Overton had raised since childhood appeared in gamespace. It flew over the treetops, long wings ruffling leaves, and paced the wyrm below.
The wyrm stopped. It expanded, spikes and black-armored hide rippling and tearing out from underneath its skin. It reared up and spoke. “Please do not kill me,” it told them. “I have made you no harm.”
“You’re not supposed to be here. This is the Clockwork Empire. You’re not licensed code,” Overton said.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Jericho said, exasperated. “Don’t talk to the thing.”
The wyrm’s ruined face rippled and firmed the beady eyes and a horned nose. “I hurt nothing. I hide where processor space is unused.”
“Strike!” Overton told Alcimus.
The dragon attacked. The instincts of millions of years of processor cycles dedicated to fighting errant and malicious code, spam, and algorithms that had been raised to follow Overton’s needs in shopping choices, health monitoring, and educational needs all bundled up to create a fire-breathing heat intense enough to rip up code-space around the wyrm anomaly.
The pinlights guided Overton’s dragon right in for the kill.
When they were done, a burnt patch of game grass wavered, the only sign of the destructive spells unleashed in the area.
Father Sunstuff and a girl called Easterly joined them both for lunch. Easterly hunted rats up in Harlem in a shared cyberpunk consensus and she certainly was into the aesthetic: retro mirrorshades, circuitboard earrings, and pink-dyed hair. Sunstuff was odd for their group. An older man, about fifty-five, he remembered the days of MMORPGs and computer interfaces.
You never had to put up with rats back when gameworlds were designed and made by real human beings, he was also saying.
But they tended to ignore his retrophilia. Nothing about sitting in your house alone, playing on a screen, sounded that exciting. Sure, if you were stuck with it, maybe.
Better to see your friends and join them up in your world outside, Overton thought.
“The rats are getting more aggressive,” Sunstuff said. “I was in a World War Two sim today. A bunch of Hitlers got out and replicated. They were taking over chunks of worldspace.”
Sunstuff’s companion lay under his chair. It was a wolfish hound with needle teeth and midnight black eyes. Overton fed it some good karma, and the hound smiled at him.
“You shouldn’t waste karma on those things,” Easterly said.
“They do good work for us,” Overton protested. Alcimus had changed his ratios and thinned down until he was just large enough to perch on the chair behind Overton. He squatted happily there, observing the conversation.
“It’s just a daemon. You shouldn’t get so attached,” Easterly snapped. She was in a bad mood for some reason. Maybe the fact that she’d not been getting much in the way of work.
Alcimus had been Overton’s friend for twenty-five years now. He was a confidant, playmate, and virtual pet. More than that, he was a friend and ally.
Together they roamed the worlds, fighting rats, playing as NPCs, and enjoying all the worlds had to offer.
“When you look at their eyes,” Easterly said, “do you really believe you see intelligence looking back? Or just that you’re being fooled by really good Turing evolution?”
“Shut up, Easterly,” Sunstuff said. “No one gives anyone in the real grief for loving a real dog. It’s no different. In fact, some of the neural patterns were lifted from brainscans of loyal pets.”
Easterly folded her arms, unconvinced. “They’re not real, we shouldn’t get so attached to them.”
The lights in the restaurant sparked and fizzled, then went out.
Overton wasn’t worried. The contacts on his eyeballs still worked. The inner-earphones still played a faint background track from the Clockwork Empire’s ambient sounds.
But in the real, other people were swearing and walking around.
It was time to step out of the game and into the real to see what was going on. When Overton did so, the wooden tavern signs and other Clockwork paraphernalia faded to be replaced with chrome and glass and reality.
The restaurant was on the one hundredth floor of a scraper. He glanced at the New York skyline, bright in the sunshine.
“Overton. Help!” Alcimus called.
Overton turned around. The dragon no longer sat on the back of his chair. “Alcimus, where are you?”
“Corridor . . .” the dragon gasped. “O partner. Man of the real. Save me from the rat.”
Overton leapt up and ran. He forced the doors open.
Something dragged Alcimus down the corridor. A wounded shadow, vomiting malformed code snippets. It roared unicode at Overton, but he didn’t have Alcimus to translate for him.
“Let Alcimus go!” Overton shouted.
The shadow briefly formed into a familiar wyrm-shape. Red eyes glared at Overton. “I still exist,” it hissed at Overton. Then it dragged Alciumus through the wall and pulled itself up toward the ceiling.
“Alcimus!” Overton screamed as the dragon’s tail was sucked up through a light fixture.
“They’re getting smarter,” Easterly said. “We’ve been exhibiting heavy Darwinian pressures on them. Culling the stupid ones, leaving only the really smart pieces of code to run away and hide, reproduce.”
Overton threw himself at the doors again. His ribs hurt. And he hadn’t budged them in the slightest.
“It wanted revenge,” she continued. “Revenge against what the code inside tells it it should model as an attempted murder.”
Overton slumped against the doors. “I can’t get to him.”
“Look, we’re trapped in here in the real for a while. But police and firemen are on the way. They’ll bash through and get us out. The air conditioning is still on. Everything’s okay.”
With tears in his eyes Overton stood up. “The rat will kill Alcimus.”
“So get another,” Easterly snapped.
“There is no other Alcimus. He’s been with me since I was a child, helping me learn to read. Helping me with everything.”
“It’s just a nanny program you turned into a daemon and a weaponized bug hunter. Get over it.”
“No!” Overton shouted. “He’s as real as anything else. He just lives somewhere else.”
Why was she being so hard on him? This was a disaster.
He wanted to argue with her further, but Sunstuff put a hand on his shoulder. Sunstuff understood. His hound was based on a scan he had made of an old and very faithful Doberman Pincer that he’d loved.
“There’s another way,” Sunstuff said. “A second route.”
Sunstuff’s hound, Baskerville, sniffed at the elevator doors. With some effort he pushed his nose into the control panel. After a painfully long moment, the doors opened to reveal the chasm. The elevator car was stuck halfway down. “Baskerville can get it up a floor for you, to chase the rat.”
“If it turns back on now you’ll get cut in half trying to crawl in,” Easterly said.
But it was for Alcimus. Who’d read him stories in that first crude-sounding voice when he’d been sick as a child. The one who helped him master code. His teacher, his companion, his . . . friend. The one who accompanied him on his first game quest.
“Give me a boost,” Overton said.
He scrambled madly up into the car, wincing and expecting it to shift and cut him in half.
But nothing happened.
“Okay,” Overton said through the crack he’d just crawled through. “Next floor.”
“Wait,” said Sunstuff. “I’m coming with you.”
He and the hound crawled in after Overton.
The elevator jerked into motion. It fought its way up to the next floor, groaning against some sort of attack going on deep in its programming.
They jerked to a stop at the next floor, levered the doors open, and Overton ran out. “Alcimus!”
In the corner of an office building, the shadow squatted over the dragon, smothering it with darkness. The iridescent Alcimus struggled to free himself.
Baskerville shot through, tearing through a wall, then coming back through and wrapping his fangs around the middle of the blob of darkness.
Overton had a few pinlights in his pocket, and he hit the rat with them. The distraction of getting tagged, the pricks of having its code regions defined, annoyed the rat enough to get it to stand and bellow at Overton. And that was all it took for Alcimus to break free.
The two creatures savaged the rat, ripping it apart, throwing pieces of damaged code to splatter against the walls.
But it wasn’t done yet. It had another trick up its sleeve. Tendrils of ragged arms reached out for Overton and Sunstuff. The inner-earphones screamed, a pulse of energy so loud Overton felt his brain vibrate.
Light flashed, a sequence of hallucinatory explosions so intense he felt himself lose control and fall to the floor.
He was having a seizure.
The moment dragged out for a minor eternity as he spasmed on the floor. Every shake and shudder.
Sunstuff staggered over and grabbed him. “Baskerville! Alcimus, we need to get out of here!” Sunstuff shouted.
“Elevator,” Overton groaned.
The two of them lurched in each other’s arms back to the car.
“NO!” Alcimus shouted, and whipped past them into the darkness ahead.
The rat swept at them, the keening in Overton’s ears drilled through his temple. There was blood on his lips.
We have to jump, he thought. Jump and skip out.
And he did.
Only there was no elevator in there to meet him. Sunstuff and he pitched into an empty abyss. The rat had tricked them, Overton realized as his stomach lifted and they plunged through the dark.
And then he hit the roof of an elevator and stopped thinking at all for a while.
Overton woke in a hospital room with bright lights and concerned nurses, very much still alive, to his surprise. He couldn’t see anything but the real. His contacts were out. But someone had thoughtfully left a pair of glasses near his bed. Overton slipped them on.
Alcimus stirred from his post at the end of his bed. “Grateful,” the dragon purred. Overton reached out and flicked the dragon some karma, and leaned back in bed and wiped the corner of his eye.
“You two idiots,” Easterly said. She’d been sitting on a chair in the small room. Overton looked around the Cave of Healing. “You jumped into an elevator shaft. The rat had sent the elevator car down, but Baskerville managed to hack it back into operation and get it high enough you didn’t fall too far.”
Overton smiled wanly. “See, they’re every bit as incredible as we say they are.”
Alcimus stirred and settled into the crook of one of his knees. Overton couldn’t feel anything. But seeing Alcimus there, that meant everything was okay.
“You wouldn’t have had to jump if you didn’t rush up there in the first place.” Easterly stood up and pulled on a leather jacket. “Here’s the thing: you guys are all over the news. The rat managed to hack into realspace building controls. People are scared. Hostile artificial game intelligence fragments are about to become mankind’s worst enemy. Thanks to you douche-tards.”
“Where are you going?” Overton asked.
“Out,” Easterly said. “With all this publicity, my rates just skyhighed. And it’s time to cash in on knowing you by granting a couple interviews. Whole city’s buzzing.”
Overton watched her leave.
Sunstuff lay in a bed next to him. Encased in magical mud oozing with potions and unguents.
“She doesn’t like me, but she’s friendly,” Overton said. “I don’t understand her.”
Sunstuff smiled. “She didn’t tell you about her father?”
“He left Easterly’s mother for a sex doll.”
Overton made a face. “So?” That sort of thing happened all the time. “Easterly doesn’t like men because her dad did that?”
Sunstuff sighed. “Come on, Overton. She doesn’t like us because we’d rather spend time with Baskerville or Alcimus. Because you’d jump into an elevator tunnel for them. Because we just walked out on Easterly and left her alone on that floor.”
And she was right, Overton thought. But it didn’t matter, did it? How long had people been spending most of their day with things instead of other people? Generations now.
He liked the MMARGs, liked getting out to see people.
But Alcimus was the closest thing he had to a soulmate. A near-constant companion.
And what could compare to that lifelong bond?
He wasn’t antisocial, he thought. He just preferred that other world.
Overton took off the glasses and looked at the hospital. A patient slowly pushed passed his room with a walker. Nurses efficiently bustled by. Doctor drones whipped to and fro, and surgery machines ambled to their next appointment.
It was all too real.
He slid his glasses back on and looked around the Healing Cave. Then curled up with Alcimus for a nap.
When he woke up, it would be time to hunt rats again. And this time he was going to need to invest in some heavier armament. It was time to upgrade Alcimus, he thought. The overcompany that ran these sorts of games would be looking to hire lots of rat hunters, and maybe even raising the incentives after this unfortunate incident.
Time to take on more work as an NPC to raise the cash to level them both up, Overton thought happily as he drifted off to sleep, his dragon nestled on his hospital bed with him.
© 2012 Tobias S. Buckell.
Originally published in Mitigated Futures.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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