“What kind of company makes you show up in person for an interview?” St3alth said, continuing our conversation as we teleported into the arena.
A quick scan of the arena told me this was a medium size, square shaped room, with a stone pathway around the perimeter. Dirt paths led down from the elevated perimeter to cross in the middle of the room, with a large open area and a dirt floor.
“Something about tests that can’t be done virtually. It’s not like our personal AI keep records of our DNA or anything.” Chewme said, oozing sarcasm. “Lucius. When are you up?”
“I’m interviewing for Codename: Freedom this morning. In the vehicle now. Will be gaming with you guys until Destiny gets close enough to drop me off.” I answered, standing there decked out in epic items: a green leather jacket, with a mythalloy chain shirt underneath and my demon spine rapier on my belt. Everything I wore looked rather bland in comparison to most max level items. It was by design. Why advertise strength? I still wore a flashy green mythalloy Crescent Helm that collected my sweat-soaked brown hair like a magnet. What can I say? The stats were worth it. Our guild symbol, three diamonds interwoven with each other, currently embroidered the chest of my jacket.
The comfortable breeze that always greeted new participants to the arena never got old. Such a small detail had become a treat that I had been experiencing daily for just over two years now. I would miss the rush that accompanied it if I was selected for Codename: Freedom.
All three of us stood at the top of a path leading down. Sticking to the manmade walkways would be best. Heavy overgrown foliage made it impossible to see from one path to the other once you left the stone perimeter. I didn’t even want to try wading through it.
“St3alth. Stick high and we will go low?” I asked.
He had already gone invisible. An ethereal shadow-cloak rippled behind him as it flapped in the non-existent wind. There was very little air flow in this arena, but items like his cloak were self-animated for the sake of style. He didn’t share my philosophy on style.
The rest of him was just as transparent, only visible to Chewme and me because we were in his group. His mask was pitch leather, fully covering his face except for his mouth. Midnight’s Kiss, a knife formed from obsidian ice, was held flat against his cheek as he pretended to ponder my question.
“Really, Lucius? Like you will wait for me? You are too focused on gaining fans. Didn’t your AI teach you how to share?”
“Must I teach you a lesson about complaining?” Destiny, my AI, replied, projecting her voice into the group chat channel that was translated into text. She was currently running my gaming system, as well as directing my car. She had no physical body, but was in my head, literally. Or more accurately, my MR (mixed reality) gear, or headset.
A boisterous chuckle came from the large man to my left.
“Jealous?” Chewme asked.
Flashing towards St3alth’s head, a claymore stopped an inch from his skull.
Crossing his arms, St3alth dared Chewme to proceed.
Although he only stood about my height, I’d be lucky if my thigh was as thick as Chewme’s arm. With chopped blond hair and a strong jaw, he was our smiley melee brute. Donning a fur cloak over Mythsidian Mail, a glassy black steel chain-linked armor, he was constantly sparring with the assassin.
With a shift from his shoulder, the claymore tapped the assassin on the head twice. “Just be ready. It’s not our fault if you’re slow.”
St3alth lunged forward, knife aimed at his throat.
Chewme’s eyes went wide.
The knife stopped before it reached the skin.
Eyes still wide, Chewme pulled the sword in and tapped St3alth on the head once again.
I choked down a laugh.
“You see him,” Destiny confirmed.
Spotting movement of a player moving down the opposite path to the arena floor, I took the initiative and left them to their foolishness. “By the way, would you two kindly back me up? I’m moving in.”
There was no longer any sign of the players that had been at the other end of the arena. That could mean many things, but there was a precaution that had to be taken.
“Possible assassin. Stay back. I’ll be the bait.” I group messaged them so I wouldn’t be audible to others.
Glancing quickly across the bottom of my peripheral vision was an ethereal status bar that kept me updated on our current stats.
15,019 Total Viewers
9,475 Guild Viewers
5,544 Group Viewers
2,433 Lucius’s Followers Viewing
Rank 674 of 263,653,741 Players
Sadly Gravel didn’t show us how many viewers were watching our opponents. Their popularity might give away how good they were.
“Focus, Lucius.” Destiny chided.
I could feel Destiny’s eyes roll as opposed to seeing them. Normally having her appear in a small window at the edge of my vision let me better communicate with her, but now was not the time for that. We had a job to do.
St3alth wasn’t wrong about my concern for gaining fans. To be a pro you had to do more than play it smart. To be great you had to put on a show. As ridiculous as we acted, all three of us knew what had to be done. Our audience awaited us.
To the assassin, I would look like a delightfully easy target. My rapier was strapped at my waist, fastened over a loose-fitting jacket. I fit somewhere between a mage or a monk with a sword. My cool-green sleeves were rolled up, showing abnormally large forearms for a magic user. There was no visible armor or magic shield. Yet I walked toward the known threat with assured defiance.
Reaching the bottom of the path I stopped when I reached the center and let him come to me. Closing my eyes, there was only one sense that would help me now.
This group that we faced wouldn’t be here if they didn’t qualify as better than good. We were in the legendary class, the highest tier in the arena with only the top 10,000 ranked guilds. There was no chance this assassin would be a pushover or have any less than max level gear. My rarely used Spell-Sword profession gave me an advantage. He would underestimate me. They always did—the first time.
Chewme and St3althL0rd were sitting tight, waiting on the assassin to make his move. We all understood our places in this fight from thousands of similar encounters.
There was only one direction where the sound came unnaturally. The subtle brushing of a boot against dirt, an odd leaf softly crunched underfoot, and only the smallest of twigs snapping. The sound slowly shifted around me in a wide 20-meter perimeter.
Opening my eyes, they didn’t shift but remained forward. Sound was all that existed. It could be said that my approach was a gamble. That it was possible to hear someone approaching, but it was insane to depend upon it when your life was on the line.
The feeling of fear and nervousness had long ago been trained out of me with only anticipation remaining as the invisible assassin stalked me. No assassin would attack me from the front. The flank and rear were too tempting.
To the left came a soft step as he began to close in.
I didn’t flinch from the realization.
He was not just good, but exceptional. By this time even the best assassins would either have rushed in because they thought I was easy prey or have fled because I was acting odd. He stalked me with patience, not succumbing to his own nerves.
Fifteen feet. His pace slowed.
Destiny and I had practiced this same situation a thousand times. It was up to me. She insisted I had ears. Not to use them was idiotic.
Ten. He stopped and awaited any reaction I might have.
At this distance, there were a number of skills that could help him close in quickly. If he activated any of them I would only have a split second to react. After a long number of seconds, he stepped forward.
Five. I was now in danger of not being able to react quickly enough to his assassin specialty skills. The danger was there, but I had faced this situation before. I knew it intimately.
My anticipation grew. I felt he was a step away from driving his deadly knife into my ribs.
Appearing out of stealth, he was behind me, slightly to my left.
The whole time I had been gathering mana in my gut. With a simple exhalation of breath, all of the pressure that had built up let loose. I didn’t direct it. Like a bomb the mana converted into pure force as it left my body, creating a wave of magic erupting in all directions.
His knife shot forward. The assassin was swept hard by the force. Flying back, he cleared over 10 feet of ground.
Throwing out my hand, I cast a grand-master level force field just before he landed. His body accordioned in midair as his skull collided against the invisible wall. His neck snapped.
Bowing my head, I honored him, as well as played to the viewers.
I withdrew the force field. It was a huge mana sink, but when mastered the use for force fields went far beyond defense.
“You left your force field active two-tenths of a second longer than necessary wasting 40 mana,” Destiny stated.
A blur of motion shot toward me. My rapier was out and flicking the arrow aside before it found my chest.
“One archer,” I called.
“One mage,” Chewme added, storming down the path, joining me at the center of the arena.
Crimson fire hurled our way before I saw the player who had cast it.
Turning his shoulder, the bolt easily missed my friend.
Using the foliage to our advantage, we split up, standing to either side of the path they would have to take to join us on the arena floor. Even with their advantage in elevation, they couldn’t see through the greenery. The mage might decide to burn us out, but it would take a while to get a fire started and cost him a lot of mana.
An arrow landed close to where I stood, hinting that the archer had moved down the path to get a better angle.
Chewme noticed as well. “Rush?”
“Give them a moment. I want to get an idea how brave or stupid they are.”
When no more arrows or mage bolts came, I peeked around the corner. The archer unleashed an arrow that I easily pulled back from.
“Three left.” Destiny informed us. “They have a battle ax wielder in full platemail. Be ready.”
“I got him,” Chewme replied.
“I’m behind them at the top of the path. Ready when you are!” St3alth said.
Daring another look, I saw their armored tank bounding our way. Both the mage and archer were a good ten feet behind, ready to attack as soon as either of us engaged. It was a good basic strategy.
Looking to my friend, a nod set him off.
We both rushed forward. I lunged at their tank, my sword doing little against his polished breastplate.
Chewme took full advantage of the split second I had bought him. His sword tore the wind from below, knocking the warrior back two paces. I had already rushed past, leaving the tank to him.
An arrow engulfed in blue light and a fire bolt launched toward me at the same time from a distance that was impossible to dodge. With my empty hand stretched forward, my force field appeared momentarily deflecting the projectiles.
“Better. A tenth of a second too long,” Destiny said.
The mage retreated, but the archer managed to unsheathe a short sword to engage me.
Jabbing at the archer’s head, I cast an ice bolt of my own, impacting the archer’s foot. It was a low-level spell. Most of the spells of a spell-sword were about the same low rank, but it was enough to stagger him to his knees.
The mage was about to leave my short range, so I cast force field once again. He ran face first into a small wall of energy about the size of a dining plate.
My neck tensed at just the thought of how it felt. A tank would have just shrugged it off, but casters were fun to mess with.
St3alth decided to join us. Becoming visible behind the magic user, he slashed him across the neck, then stabbed him in the back in one fluid motion. For all St3alth’s complaining, it was rare that he wasn’t exactly where he needed to be.
Too bad they didn’t save the assassin for later. It may have been a closer fight.
The archer began to regain his footing. His eyes were locked on me. Without his bow, his class skills would be limited.
I bowed slightly, with a flourish from my sword, urging him to stand.
St3alth just stood back and watched as Chewme and I handled the remaining two players.
With his short sword in one hand and bow in the other, he stabbed at my waist, holding his bow up for extra cover. He was well practiced.
I stepped back, his sword just missing, and another ice bolt flew from my hand at his face. He twisted wildly, placing his bow between him and the bolt. Impressive agility.
Thrusting down, my blade pierced between the string and shaft of his bow, jabbing his thigh. Jumping back, I severed the bowstring with a flick.
Who could help but smile? I could almost feel new subscribers joining my gaming channel. If I entertained them enough, many benefits would follow. More followers meant more sponsors. Those not watching now would watch today’s highlights later. Some followers would even donate money. Enough followers and I could attract one of the big sponsors and get a full ride to game for a living. That was the goal and my high school career was almost over.
“Focus, Lucius,” Destiny reminded.
As cruel as it might seem, I wouldn’t finish this guy off quickly. That would waste an opportunity. Nor would I make the fight look even. He was likely a semipro himself, so defeating him was just another opportunity for him to learn. I had been there before.
Casting an ice bolt at his feet, I slashed down from overhead. He was too slow to dodge them both. Choosing to take the bolt to the leg, I caught him on the same foot as before. This time he kept himself from falling to his knees. I took the opportunity to leave him a deep puncture wound to the shoulder.
Spell-swords were popular with new players but rarely played well. Unlike most professions that had very obvious strengths, we had a larger variety of options due to the ability to cast spells and fight with weapons. Most serious gamers dismissed us entirely. The spell-sword’s spells and sword skills were at the best average, except for one spell that you could max. When used in unison with the right build and strategy, the spell-sword was unbeatable.
He attacked next, realizing there was little chance to win. I shifted slightly, letting his thrust pierce my shoulder. The stinging sensation was nothing to laugh about because Gravel allowed the legal maximum of 40% pain. I literally felt 40% of the calculated pain for a maximum of five seconds.
Another thrust came, this one wilder than the first.
It was all a part of the show.
Parrying his thrust, I sidestepped as he passed, smacking him on the rear with the blunt of my sword.
When he turned, I was already casting a bolt, which hit him in the chest.
Still unwilling to give up, he threw his bow at my head and slashed at my knee. It would have worked too, but he collided with a quickly cast force field as he lunged forward.
You fought well.
My sword pierced him high in the chest, easily exiting his back.
He met my eyes as his health drained from his body. Knowing what it was to lose countless defeats, I bowed my head to acknowledge him as he disintegrated into pixels.
Chewme mocked me for honoring the enemy, but I saw no reason to rub a person’s defeat in their face.
“There he goes again.” St3alth joined me after my opponent had fallen.
Hearing the clang of steel, I knew what he was referring to before I even looked.
Despite what you might have seen in virtual movies or games, swords aren’t very useful against full platemail. This VR game, Gravel, had a real world physics engine, so despite magic and special skills, everything else was dependent on natural laws. Few people had the real life strength to pierce steel even with the sharpest blade. Chewme was an exception. Since our game characters were based on our real life bodies, Chewme was as massive here as he was in the real world. The game had no choice but to throw this into its physics calculations.
The man he faced barely held onto his two-handed ax. It drooped to his side, held by his only good arm. What had once been well-polished armor was now dented in from every angle. One arm showed divotted steel just below the shoulder. Blood flowed from the cracks at his elbow. If that was the only damage, then the guy would have been able to continue. His platemail at the thigh and knee was also crushed. Blood seeped out at the knee and boot.
Chewme spun. His claymore gained maximum velocity. The man braced with his good leg, taking the blow on his good arm. The ax fell from his grip. His armor was damaged near the wrist. Already blood was pooling into a drop at the tip of his hanging gauntlet.
Allowing the man to forfeit at that point would have been the sane thing to do. The open-mouthed smile on Chewme’s face showed he was too far gone to stop now.
“Stop, Chewme!” Destiny messaged. Group chat wasn’t the same as yelling where someone could actually hear you though.
Even with a weaponless opponent, Chewme spun again, this time elevating his sword and bringing it down from over his shoulder. The vicious blow crippled the man’s remaining good leg. He fell hard to his side, landing with his arm unnaturally underneath him.
It had gone on long enough.
“Chew!” I yelled.
He tilted his head to the side like a questioning canine. Placing his foot on the man’s shoulder, he leaned on him as he might a footstool.
“Oh. You guys are already finished?” he asked, smirking with mock innocence.
Before he could act, confetti fell from the sky like a colorful snowfall.
“Winner Guild Nexus!” declared the announcer.
Chewme’s footstool dissolved; the player had either died from his wounds or forfeited. It also meant that the bloodlust-loving bear of a man stumbled forward and almost fell over.
An annoyingly loud cackle came from St3alth.
Humorous or not, we both looked at him like he was mad.
Now that the fight was over we had the option to fight again, leave for the spectator’s lounge or return to our guild base.
The first thing I did was check our viewer stats. Another three hundred people were watching us live. More importantly, twelve more people had followed my channel. It was a nice bump for a few minutes’ work.
“How much time you have left, Lucius?” Chewme asked.
With a thought, the real world time appeared at the top right of my vision. About 8:15 am.
“I still have half an hour before I arrive.”
“A few more matches then?” St3alth asked.
“Absolutely. As many as possible. I’ll be going through testing for the rest of the day.”
“Nothing to worry about. The hardest part is not getting bored.”
“Be sure to let us know how it goes,” Chewme said. “My testing is next Saturday.”
“I thought they have banned all galactic space walruses from trying out,” St3alth replied.
“They did until they saw you. What did they say? Anything would be better than giving a ninja cockroach one of the 100,000 spots!”
Rolling his eyes, St3alth turned back to me. “You think you’re ready for the interview?”
“More than ready,” I replied. “Destiny and I have practiced interview questions for more hours than I care to remember.”
“Can I go on a date with her?” St3alth asked, again.
“No for the thousandth time! She’s an AI… And way too classy for you.”
“What Lucius said,” Destiny replied.
“Fine. Then let’s continue. Let’s head to the lounge and try 3 vs 5. If there are any girl players, I call first go!”
“To kill them, or flirt with them?” Chewme asked.
“To fight them first. Then after they are impressed…”
“I don’t think girls find guys that kill them attractive,” I said.
“I’m looking for a special kind of girl. Don’t step all over my dreams.”
“Some dreams can get you prison time,” Destiny teased.
I teleported to the lounge, ending the conversation.
There was little time before I entered Codename: Freedom. Chewme was the only other person I knew that had been selected to participate in the experiment. It didn’t surprise me with his freakish size and athletic ability.
We started training. I already ran daily. To be a professional gamer meant you knew the benefits of keeping one’s body in shape. I followed their example. In many ways we were similar to endurance athletes, just not as extreme. I upped the number of miles I ran and added body weight training. Destiny was quick to set up a daily routine for me.
When the day came, my body hummed in excitement. I was alone, except for the kind curly brunette in a white coat guiding me down an elevator leading deep underground.
When the sterile metallic doors opened, my mouth dropped. I felt a tingling sensation in my knees. An underground expanse at least half a mile wide extended further than I could calculate. There was a polished steel walkway before me that seemed insignificant to the underground world I had just discovered.
Humor-filled eyes met mine. The female doctor must have grown to expect this kind of reaction. She placed her hand on my shoulder and motioned me forward.
The walkway reached out twenty meters before we met a yellow railing stopping us from falling to a painful death below. I didn’t hesitate to approach it and grabbed ahold of it tightly. Looking down, I saw them for the first time.
Hundreds of house sized, black cube structures lined either side of the bunker running off into the expanse of the room.
My guide led me to a second elevator to our left that was little more than a steel cage. Entering, the creek of steel followed us down.
The cage opened to the ground level. Following the doctor’s lead, we approached the first structure. As I neared, I saw it was at least two stories tall, with numerous cords, metal arms and pipes coming out the top and the side facing the wall. It was too high to see the top of it, but there was movement.
Were these really what I thought they were?
I was suddenly thankful we had taken the advice to get in shape seriously. After centuries of virtual reality, neuro-linking was “the way” virtual reality worked. If you wanted to fight an orc, join a battle, siege a castle, blast some aliens, fly a spaceship, or explore new worlds there was no doubt that current technology would let you do just that. Could this machine do better?
She directed me to sit on an aluminum bench staring up at one of the house-sized machines. Looking around, there were other benches in front of each structure with players waiting.
“Impressive huh?” The lady said. She was looking at the house-sized machine-room before us. “We call it the Cube.”
Her eyes closed as she smiled to herself.
In all seriousness, I suspected that I could throw everything I thought I knew about virtual reality hardware out the window.
After a long while sitting, the time finally came. My doctor friend directed me through a doorway to one side of the Cube. She had me stand in the middle of the room as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light.
I soon dangled six feet in the air with countless industrial arms of all sizes hanging from the ceiling and reaching out to me from the walls. They came in all shapes and sizes. I stood on a platform that was compiled of dozens of smaller arms and platforms coming together under my feet.
To my embarrassment, I had no clothing on, but I had been left alone.
There was a sickly, green light running along the wall just above head level that gave the room a haunting feel. Only the silhouettes of the massive mechanical arms were visible. I was surrounded.
A man’s voice sounded from a speaker in the wall. “We will now begin. First, you will feel a slight chill, and then a loud sound will start the countdown. This is nothing to worry about. We are in the final stages of preparation.”
He wasn’t kidding about the chill. I tried to cling closer to myself for warmth, but it was a losing battle.
The promised loud siren started to go off like a dying whale. I realized in that moment that I would be spending a year without ever leaving this crazy machine. I held my breath.
The siren started to sound at a quicker tempo.
Something was coming.
It came quicker.
Then suddenly the remaining light ceased.
I screamed through gritted teeth like a startled animal.
There was no logical threat, but I found myself posturing defensively.
Light slowly started to brighten all around. There was no light source. It came from every direction at once. Soon I stood in an empty white room with no walls, ceiling, or floor. The texture of the floor had even changed. It felt like I was standing on well-hydrated earth. It was soft and smooth like a finely woven sheet.
“Welcome, Lucius Edwards, to Codename: Freedom,” came a kind woman’s voice from somewhere in the distance. No one was in the direction the voice had come from.
“Today you will be joining approximately 100,000 men and women in the largest virtual experiment in the history of the world.”
“To you, Freedom will be a new world; to the viewers of the Metaverse, it will become the next big thing in reality entertainment. You will have no direct contact with anyone outside of Freedom, and all fan comments and messages will be scanned for information that might give you an unfair advantage. Once inside, there are many small starting cities and the total player population will be split between them randomly. Your starting city will be Willingham. I will now appear before you.”
A translucent, colorless face with the consistency of water appeared. She had a long elegant face but was no doubt an artificial intelligence like Destiny.
“You can leave Freedom at any time, but if you do leave you cannot return. To do so, go to the city hall of any starting city. Please consider seriously what the consequences of leaving will mean. How will such an act affect your current followers and public image? There are thousands of people in line to take your place if you decide to leave. Lucius, your chances of becoming a professional gamer will be greatly hindered. But if you stay and fight…”
There was no surprise that the game’s AI knew about me. All they had to do was scan my social media.
“It is time for you to choose.” She smiled reassuringly.
“What will be your player name?”
“Lucius Edwards,” I answered.
“Very well. Lucius Edwards accepted. Your body size, weight, and facial features have been uploaded. Because of the nature of the experiment, you will not have an option to change them. If you want to get stronger, then you must work hard.”
Behind the AI, three large wooden displays with five shelves apiece shot up from the floor. It had been impossible to see the floor because everything was white with literally no horizon or objects to give it context.
“You currently have 10 silver coins to spend on the items before you. Just look at them for longer than a second and the price will appear. Money works as follows. 100 copper coins equal 1 silver. 20 silver equal 1 gold. 20 gold is equal to 1 silver talon. 20 silver talons are equal to 1 gold talon. You may now proceed.”
Looking down, I wore silver boxer briefs and a sleeveless undershirt. No socks? Immediately I felt the fabric of my shirt and at my waist. The shirt was more finely woven than the boxers, so the only difference I felt was the texture. How was that possible? Literally moments ago I had been without clothing. When had I been dressed? How had it happened? It seemed the Cube I was inside was also my personal assistant.
Stepping forward, I was immediately fearful I would fall off the platform. I stood 6 feet off the ground. My senses swore I was in a virtual world, but I knew my consciousness had not been placed into the normal dream state that allowed deep dives. Logic told me the Cube had already been activated and I was safe. I reached out one foot at a time and tested the environment. After I had gone ten feet, twice as far as I needed to go to fall off the platform, I started to relax.
With a deep sigh, I walked the rest of the way. Somehow the Cube was simulating my real world steps into this world. There was no treadmill and every step felt as solid as walking on real ground. My toes clenched at the ground and felt a rubbery surface.
At least I wasn’t as cold as before. My newly acquired boxers and shirt blocked the appropriate amount of air and radiated my body heat back at me.
I hadn’t felt this uncertain about technology or a virtual world in a long time. I was a newbie. There was also a vividness to this place that wasn’t a visual thing. I couldn’t place it.
My heart thundered in my chest. My pulse quickened.
Standing before the three displays, I found myself unsure how to proceed. The left display held clothing and armor. If I spent all of my coins I could get a thin leather vest and leggings. It was the best armor on display, but I didn’t believe it was worth the cost. The sand colored, cotton tunic and pants were only 2 silver and seemed fairly durable. A pair of leather boots came with the set.
The next stand held a number of purses and bags, sleeping bags, and hats… Why hats? On a single shelf sat canteens and pouches of a variety of dried fruits, seeds, and nuts.
Finally, there were weapons. Even though they were all rather worn, the bronze swords, spears and axes stole my attention.
I grabbed a Low-Quality bronze short sword and examined how it felt in my hand. The texture, weight, and balance were pretty good. A single swing was all it took to feel the difference in feedback my muscles gave in comparison to normal virtual reality. Normally deep diving bypassed the nervous system and spoke to your brain directly. When you swing a sword in deep dive, the motion is always perfectly smooth. Almost too fluid to be real. The variables increase significantly when your own arm is involved.
“Every item is graded and placed in one of the categories: Low Quality, Average, Fine, and Superior. Even within these categories, not all items are created equal. Upgrades will become available to you later that will improve your ability to examine equipment.”
Grabbing the heavy cotton Average quality clothing I got dressed. The sword had cost me 4 silver and the outfit 2. With 4 silver left I grabbed a well-fitted hemp backpack that went over each shoulder and tied across the chest, filling it with a pouch of mixed nuts and raisins on top of my new sleeping bag and a canteen of water. After that, I was left with a single silver.
Since I had no idea what Freedom would throw at me, I thought being prepared for anything would be better than just being ready for a fight. All this talk about survival, and looking at the items offered, made it seem insane to pass up this opportunity.
Not seeing anything else I just had to have, I kept the final silver as a trade item in case I had not chosen well.
“Your total is 9 silver. You will find your silver coin in the coin purse on your belt.”
With my backpack on my shoulder and sword at my side, I turned to face the AI. Though the pack really wasn’t too heavy, I didn’t expect to feel it at all, which set me off balance. I easily caught myself, but my moment of clumsiness clarified for me what the vividness of this world really was. Not only was I experiencing this game with my waking consciousness, but my real world coordination came with it. It was not something a deep dive could measure or simulate. I was really in the game.
Looking down, a small leather pouch was now fastened to the side of my belt.
“That finalizes your purchases. Now it is time to reveal to you a few things that have been hidden until now.
“First, there is a leveling system in Freedom just as in the role playing games, but that is where the similarity ends. In Freedom, the system is based on military grade mixed reality. Similar technology is used by you every day in the real world. Mixed reality warns you with information about your surroundings that can save your life in an emergency. This has revolutionized the battlefield by giving individual soldiers the ability to see things that they normally couldn’t and hear things impossible for the human ear. This information makes them super human.
“Imagine seeing the threat before it presents itself and being able to spot any ambush before it happens. This is what Freedom’s Leveling System is based on. You will have the most advanced military tech become available to you as you level. It will be implemented like a normal gaming system and keep true to Freedom’s fantasy setting. Choose wisely.
“Side note. All of this tech is available in the real world under a different name. Master these systems and you will have a set of skills to add to your resume.
“Here. I am unlocking your two starting systems, the Personnel Condition Monitor and Metaverse Access Hub. There are a few hidden systems we will not speak about to encourage you to explore the MR menu.”
As she was saying it, the Personnel Condition Monitor popped up to the left in my peripheral vision. It was ethereal and only lost that status when I looked directly at it.
No surprise, it was basically a red health bar with a large round circle above it that shone green. There was no advanced training needed to interpret it. Green meant I was healthy. To its left, there was an outline of a person. This should indicate what part of my body was injured if I took damage in the future. Clicking on the person brought up a very basic Character Status screen. It resembled parchment in color and texture but was really just a digital display.
It read as follows.
Player Name: Lucius
Health Points: 221
Endurance Points: 330
Combat Level: Unknown?
Abilities Unlocked: Personnel Condition Monitor (Basic), Metaverse Access Hub.
What was with the question marks and combat level unknown? The stats themselves were also fairly high for level 1, weren’t they? It sounded like my stats and level really wouldn’t have any direct relationship, so these must be a numerical estimate of my strength, dexterity, and endurance that my real body was capable of. So my stats would grow as I got in better shape. Hmmm.
Where were the stats like Constitution and Agility? Or any mind-centered stats like Intelligence?
“As you see, this menu is basic just as its rank suggests. Your height and weight are not used in the calculation. A tall person with the same stats as a shorter person may have less powerful movements because it takes more strength to move longer limbs. Although the tall person may be faster than the short person with the same stats because they have longer legs.”
“What about stats like agility?”
“As you level you will unlock higher levels of detail and numerous tools to help you plan your training. The calculation for things like agility and speed are a mix of your current stats. They are hidden from you. As an example though, for your top speed, both Strength and Dexterity would be a part of the equation. For quickness, Dexterity would be the main stat, but Strength would also affect it, and Endurance may have a negative effect on it because of the differences in the type of muscle fiber used.
“Your HP, or Health Points, represent your body’s health status. Having full points indicates perfect health. How points are lost is more complicated. Depending on the part of the body injured, points will be lost. This is not like most games you are used to. Someone can’t hit you in the arm over and over until you lose all of your HP. After all, you can lose a limb or two and still survive in the real world. Bleeding to death after losing a limb is a very real concern though.
“Your EP, or Endurance Points, work in a similar way to your HP. Your body is constantly working to provide itself energy when it does work. Whether by taking in oxygen when running long distance, or using chemical reactions during short, intense bursts of exercise, your points represent your real life ability to sustain and regain energy.
“Both HP and EP cannot rise as your stats rise. How good of shape you are in, and how well your body recovers or heals will determine how points are lost and gained. Also, there are other factors that can improve your ability to take damage and lessen the points you lose. As an example, as you gain muscle, your mass works as a natural armor, allowing you to take a harder hit and lose less damage. Having a good endurance will affect it by increasing your recovery time.”
Closing out of the Character Status screen, I removed my focus from the Personnel Condition Monitor (health bar), and looked back to my AI guide.
“Very good. You can access the Metaverse Access Hub in two ways. The first is with a verbal command. Say ‘activate Metaverse Access Hub’, or Hub for short.”
I did just that.
A Game Menu popped up in the same parchment style window the Character Status screen had. There was a list of different options.
Metaverse Access Hub
Personnel Condition Monitor
Everything was grayed out currently except for Personnel Condition Monitor and Metaverse. The rest must be things that I would unlock as I progressed. Clicking on Metaverse, a very familiar list of options jumped up from the scroll as a holographic user interface. It was a grid system where I simply had to touch the option I wanted and it would allow access to that part of the Metaverse.
Find a Mentor
It was pretty straightforward, and we were locked out of the majority of the Metaverse as expected. They took no chances with us cheating
Find a Mentor was as it sounded. It was currently grayed out, but there would be mentors available to teach different skills and martial arts.
This aspect of the game had been highly publicized. Hundreds of famous names and faces had been advertised. Every form of martial arts and fighting system would be available.
Freedom News was a link with a number of well-known gaming news celebs who had talk shows and internet channels. They didn’t completely cut us off from the outside world.
Player Channel gave me a portal to read comments by my fans. There was no way to respond to them, sadly. I currently had 260,447 followers. The number had only grown since it became public knowledge I would be a participant in Freedom.
Already there were 72,581 people watching me live! It was no surprise since it was the first day of Freedom. But still, it was a personal record and all I had to do was show up! I knew opening day for Freedom was going to be a big event, but this was beyond all expectations.
Unsheathing my sword, I stood in an open stance, my arms open to fully display what I now wore. After a few moments, the camera angle was exactly where I wanted it and a new 3D selfie was created.
Immediately after my image was posted as my main profile pic, over 2,000 new viewers started watching. A countless number of people were scurrying around online trying to find out all the information they could about Freedom. I had to take advantage of every photo op. It wasn’t exactly communicating with my fans, but it was close.
“The other way of accessing your Access Hub is through hand gestures.”
Bringing her hands together in her lap, like an open book, the AI brought them to her face. This gesture also brought up the hub as she said.
“That is it, Lucius. We are finished except for one final thing. If you get injured while playing you will feel pain. Injury simulation is also at 100% realism with no time limit. If you die in the game, you will feel 100% of the pain associated with that death. There is little doubt you will survive the experience, but there is no guarantee that it won’t harm you psychologically. The study of such trauma, and how people rise above it, is one of the focuses of the Codename: Freedom experiment. You will also drop all of the equipment and money you were carrying and then respawn at the inn in your city of residence. Thank you for participating.”
Wait, what? 100% pain from injuries? Pain simulation wasn’t a new thing, but the most any system could simulate legally was up to 40% for 5 seconds.
My gut tightened like a fist. I wracked my brain to search for any information related to this.
Nothing. They had hidden this aspect on purpose. What was I getting myself into? What other surprises did they have waiting?
I dangled six feet in the air with dozens of mechanical arms surrounding me. Such machinery could tear my body in pieces and now I knew it was designed with a very sadistic ability. To perfectly simulate pain.
A cold sweat broke out on my back and chest. I clenched my fist trying to keep myself from feeling woozy.
My reaction to the news had made me oblivious to a new countdown. When the voice reached zero everything went black.