Read an Excerpt
Rik Maliani stepped out of nothingness into the narrow cobbled confines of Troker’s Lane, overhung on each side by ancient half-timbered houses . . . and as his second step went squish, he realized he’d just put his left foot down right in the middle of a turd.
He stood there for a moment looking down at his booted foot and the unsavory dinner-plate-sized object he’d stepped into. It was blue. Rik stood on one foot, lifted the other one up and looked over his cloaked shoulder at the sole of it, sniffed. He immediately caught the unmistakable acrid whiff of griffin poop. Rik shook his head and smiled, impressed for about the hundredth time this week. Technology, he thought. Don’t you love it when it works!
He went over to the curbstone in front of the nearest shuttered house and used it to scrape the griffin crap off, or at least as much of it as he could see in this light. Above Rik, between the raggedy-edged, mossy tiles of the hanging roofs, only a strip of indigo blue showed, for it was coming on toward evening in the City. The usual town smells floated through the air: roasting meat, rotting garbage, frying fish, woodsmoke, perfume, the multispecies sweat that the perfume couldn’t cover . . . and, of course, ordure. The droppings of various animals, fabulous and otherwise, were something you just couldn‘t help but notice here, especially once you had the right hardware. In the face of numerous complaints about the problem, and the ever increasing traffic, the City had redoubled its claims that it was going to do something about the problem soon. But as for the magicians that the City kept hiring to do the job . . .
As he scraped the last of the stuff off his boot, Rik glanced up and around at the oriel windows of the old inward-leaning buildings, just to make sure that somebody wasn’t about to enrich his game experience—and the crap quotient of the laneway—by emptying a chamber pot over his head. The word on the City newsfeeds had it that the present administration just couldn’t keep wizards on the payroll long enough right now. But maybe this was understandable, since no magician worth his or her spells would waste time on a sanitation job when wizardry could be much better employed—and better paid—on one or another of the big campaigns that was running now. A huge and bloody war had just broken out in the TwoMoons Macrocosm (now that the necessary threshold number of Moonies had finally responded to their invitations). Over in Pandora they’d just had a coup, and the deposed queen in question was busy recruiting an army as fast as she could. Dasheth Prime and LongAgo Three were also in the middle of rebellions or battles between major game guilds. And those were merely the “conflicted” game worlds Rik could think of off the top of his head: there might be ten or twenty others, Macrocosms he hadn’t been following, that were either actively rumbling or getting ready to. With business so brisk and prospects so positive for a smart war wizard or combat mage, odds were even that Omnitopia City was going to have to find other ways to handle its garbage management besides magical ones. And since no one with a brain would willingly spend valuable game time picking up street crap by hand, Rik felt sure that until out-universe matters calmed down a little, the ordure was going to stay right where it was.
But none of these matters were really issues for Rik right now. And anyway, at the moment he wasn’t Rik; he was Arnulf the Manyfaced, a paramage member of the Human League organization MediMages Without Frontiers, and he was on his way to Meruvelt to spend a little bit of hard-earned game gold on some new magian equipment in that Macrocosm, and to socialize with some folks he knew who also played and fought and healed there.
With his boot now cleaned to his satisfaction, Arnulf turned and strolled upward along the lane toward the light of the nearest cresset, which was stuck into a wattle-and-daub wall some twenty yards or so farther along. Up there, at the corner where Troker’s Lane crossed the only slightly broader Shade Street, Arnulf paused and leaned against the wall for a moment, enjoying the feedback from the new RealFeel synesthetic sensory input system he’d finally been able to afford. His wife Angela had protested a little at first about how much money he’d spent on it, but he’d taken some time to explain to her—not entirely untruthfully—how having it would actually make it quicker and easier for him to play the game effectively. When she understood the difference it would make, Angela had rolled her eyes at Rik, not particularly fooled by the spin he was putting on it. But she’d also stopped complaining.
Rik considered himself lucky that Angela genuinely didn’t seem to mind all the time he spent in Omnitopia. It probably helped a lot that he brought home a little money from the game every month via his crafting of custom tools and accessories for other players who were interested in the medical side of magery. He thought Angela realized, too, that in Omnitopia he was able to do the socializing that the double shifts he frequently worked for the country’s second-biggest parcel carrier didn’t leave him any other time for. I really do have it better than a lot of people, Arnulf thought, running a hand down the knotted, splintery surface of the half-timbering at the corner of the buildings that fronted on Shade Street. It was going to be a long time before he was bored by the fact that he could now actually feel the wood, smell the scents programmed into the air, even taste the virtual food. Though admittedly sometimes the tastes were a little weird, as that feature was very new and the game warned you when you added on the Extra Helping module that “your flavors may vary.” Rik didn’t understand the mechanism that allowed him to receive touch and taste and smell information via his optic nerves—but, frankly, he didn’t care. Omnitopia had been like another home to him for years. Now that he had the new hardware interface broken in, Omnitopia felt physically real as well as just looking that way—and as long as there were no long-term effects from the software spoofing his brain by way of his eyes, that was fine by him.
Arnulf glanced up and down Shade Street. It was empty, a little unusual for this time of day; but then it was getting on toward dinnertime in Omnitopia City, and a lot of transiting gamers in this part of town, historically more residential than commercial, would be heading for the pubs and taverns and cookshops, preparing to do a little business, make a little trouble, or just sit down and have a good time with their fellow Omnitopians. Arnulf considered the possibility of going down to Uncle George’s Flat Patty Place at the far end of Shade Street, or maybe Prince Dave Bongo’s over in Halflight, on the off chance that he might meet somebody there who would send a little more business his way. Uncle George’s in particular was well known as a place where medimages, midwives, herb doctors, and others interested in Arnulf’s trade hung out before heading outworld. But no, he thought then. I want to get my hands on that new magia kit. And those league robes with the new sigils for the campaign next month—I’ve been talking about them for days. If I don’t bring them home today, Angela’s going to start giving me grief for being indecisive, or wasting time . . .
Arnulf let out an amused breath and continued on down Troker’s Lane, now widening into Hook Street as it headed toward the center of town. This landscape was one into which Angela had never set foot: his wife was no gamer. But this had never been an issue between them, and she was happy enough to let him indulge his otherworldly life . . . while still very much functioning as the knot in Rik’s balloon. He was always full of fantasies, but she was full of more than enough practicality to balance him; she probably worked more double shifts than he did so that the two of them could keep food on the table for their three kids, and for the dog and cat and the bird and the hamsters and whatever other livestock might turn up in the company of their insatiably pet-loving children. Sure, sometimes Angela would come into the little spare room that functioned as their game room while Rik was online, and she’d give him that look from under her eyebrows that seemed to say, you do know what I’m doing for you, don’t you? But that was all she did, and all she needed to do. The knowledge that he needed to do right by Angela in return for her understanding kept Rik grounded. And it kept him aware that, even here, he needed to have the family’s interests at heart—at least some of the time. He was also allowed to enjoy himself.
So he turned his attention back to doing that, making his way past the lantern-hung shops and stalls of Little Cheaping Street and continuing on through the pens and cages of the beast-market of Welladay Square, now shut down for the day, toward the town center. Omnitopia City had grown rather peculiarly, in fits and starts, and in this part of town, one of the oldest, the peculiarities were obvious. Probably why I like it so much . . . As Arnulf walked on, the architecture of the houses and shops around him shifted abruptly from muck-plastered Pythonesque Retro Feudal to sandstone-arcaded Mitteleuropean to prefab neo-Tudor to bleak Sixties revisionist to suburban stuccoed strip mall. Buildings in styles that in the real world had existed separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles—if they’d actually existed at all—had sprung up here in little groups and ghettos, as if huddling close for company, or else they hunched down or speared up singly and with apparent unconcern right next door to one another. This haphazard but enthusiastic arrangement went right back to the time before the City had grown itself an actual government. The earliest gamers exploiting the site, finding no controls yet in place, had thrown the buildings up to their own tastes, with great speed and utter lack of concern about the general look and feel of any given neighborhood. As a result, this part of the city looked like the creation of someone who had visited Disneyland while on crack and then the Mall of America while on acid, and afterward had attempted to synchronize their styles.
But to Arnulf’s mind, this architectural form of ADD just added to the neighborhood’s charm. It physically reminded you that once upon a time, this place had been nothing but a small rough rocky island off the coast of Himardell, itself probably the least interesting minor continent in all of old Telekil. It had been the sort of place no one bothered journeying to, a useless scrap of territory that no Elf or Man or even Gnarth could have been bothered to get into a fight over, because there was nothing to fight over. Elich Island had been nothing but a houseless rock in the sea, straggly around the edges with seaweed, streaked with bird droppings, and worthy of no attention whatsoever.
But then everything had changed.
As Arnulf walked, the streets got broader, and people began to pass him. Every kind of person, every kind of character you could imagine, and a lot that you couldn’t, became more and more frequent as you approached the town center: Dwarrows wearing three-piece suits and carrying Armani ax-cases; strolling, elegant Elves burdened with swords and spears and shopping bags; Men in every kind of human dress; holidaying Gnarths in Hawaiian shirts and fanny packs, pointing cameras at everything and ignoring the uneasy sidelong glances of the humans and other species; pack unicorns, hedge-dragons, and basilisks in mirrorshades; half-beasts and werebeasts and hunting cats and wolven—creatures familiar and creatures unimaginably strange, all making their way purposefully toward or away from the center of the City, like blood entering or leaving a hidden heart. Finding the buzz contagious, Arnulf quickened his pace as he crossed the boundary into Third Quarter. Here the street in front of him opened out even further, the cobbles gave way to fine set stone, and the houses on either side started to look more like Italianate palazzos than anything else, with ornate gilded ironwork and stained glass windows. Here and there an old blunt fieldstone tower or other feature of someone’s stubbornly unredeveloped unreal estate still broke through the surrounding glossy veneer of wealth and success, suggesting that it was still location, location, location that really mattered, not the fancy trappings of the nouveau riche. And indeed, if you had managed to pick up a piece of property in this part of Elich Island when the city was building, then you could truly be said to be successful. Especially just here, right by the most famous reminder of the Change.
Arnulf came out at the bottom of Quarterlight Street into the Plaza of Exploration, its smooth-paved expanse brightly lit by torches and magelight-powered spots. There it was, at the center of it all, surrounded by a many-spouted ornamental fountain with stray dogs drinking out of it, and a hungover waterdragon lying on its back under one of the spouts: the great bronze statue of Lahirien the Excessively Far-Traveled. As he crossed toward it, Arnulf wondered how much of the story about her, or the player who ran her, was true. Is she just some kind of marketing ploy, something the game designers made up? Yet at the same time, even back then, there had been gamers so obsessive that they’d spent all their time using their avatars to visit every single part of Telekil that could be visited by a gamer. Even now, there were lots of people more interested in exploring a given world than in playing in it. It wasn‘t a mind-set Arnulf understood—himself—he was all for the prewar intrigue, the battle, and the après-fight camaraderie. But it made sense that it would have been one of those more abstract-minded players who, by sheer doggedness, would have eventually discovered the island’s secret.
And if she is real, did they ever give her a bonus for that, I wonder? Arnulf thought as he paused for a moment, halfway across the plaza, to gaze up at the statue. It portrayed a slender young woman, her long hair tied back, her cloak streaming away from her shoulders in the prevailing westerly wind, as she gazed thoughtfully out over what in those days would have been an extremely inhospitable strait of the Himardell Sea. Behind her on the great bronze pedestal were replicas of both the coracle in which she had sailed here, and of a rather seasick-looking cow—a reminder of the time when Elich Island’s only useful resources had been its tiny scrap of summer grazing and enough seaweed to keep a shore-based farmer’s cow alive through the winter. Once such resources had been precious in this barren, overlooked part of Telekil. But that was a long time ago, Arnulf thought. And who even thinks that much about Telekil anymore? All around the pedestal of the statue ran an inscription that now graced many a commemorative menhir across the hundred and twenty-one Macrocosms, the words set into the stone in letters of water-greened bronze:
TO THE EVERLASTING GLORY OF
LAHIRIEN THE EXCESSIVELY FAR-TRAVELED,
KNOWN IN THE SO-CALLED
REAL WORLD AS
MALLORY LYNN REAVES
And under that, in smaller letters, the wise words of the great Discoverer of the Way to the Outworlds:
“i just couldn’t stop wondering
why the cow was so freaked”
Like many other passersby, Arnulf waved a hand in salute to the statue and then went on through the plaza, all surrounded by its high and stately houses, built and rebuilt many times now by those wealthy gamers who’d been smart enough to realize quickly just what it was Lahirien had found. Out the other side of the plaza Arnulf went down Left Ring Street, making his way into the much larger Court of the Wanderers. At the court’s edge, Arnulf stopped. Here the buildings surrounding the court had been kept back a decorous distance from the street. But that only made sense, for from the many streets and avenues that poured into the great circle, a constant stream of players was coming and going. Here the buzz wasn’t just something you felt, but something you could hear. And here in the middle of it all, massive, ancient, and softly humming with the power of ages, stood the Ring of Elich.
It looked like Stonehenge on steroids. A massive circle of trilithons and pillar-stones a quarter mile wide now surrounded the site of the original, time-weathered circle, whose stones had long since been moved outward and incorporated into the expanded Ring to accommodate the huge traffic of travelers from all over Telekil, the old game world. This was Omnitopia’s engine: the magical transit circle that let players with enough gold, or enough other qualifications, out into the Macrocosms of Greater Omnitopia. The discovery of this gigantic game within a game, four years ago, had turned the massively multiplayer online gaming world on its ear. No one had ever dreamed that such a number of gaming worlds, of such complexity and magnitude, could or would ever be staged inside the same platform—or that they would all be made available for no more than what you were already paying to get into the original. For hard-core gamers like Arnulf, the day the old “Otherworlds Campaigns” game had suddenly turned into Omnitopia had been like Christmas and all your birthdays and your wedding day rolled into one. Except that it costs a lot less than your wedding day.
The blue crackle of transit fire leaped from stone pillar to stone post of the Ring of Elich, connecting the lintels at the top of the circle. Players stepped through the doorways, verified themselves with the game systems, and vanished. From other portals around the ring, other gateways, players appeared from worlds far off in the Omnitopian Pattern of universes, or worlds very close. Here came a ten-man cadre of a warrior guild returning from some battle, possibly even the one in Pandora that Arnulf had been considering. They were carrying two downed colleagues, and behind them came the guild’s paymaster, staggering under sacks of loot, while behind him came a dragon on a lead, panniers over its huge back, carrying even more. Over there, a laughing group of human “crossbreed” adventurers, dressed like Elves in dagged tunics and bright hose, with bows slung over their shoulders, vanished into a gateway that lay briefly open on the green fields of Whereaway. Each time a group transited, the vista behind them flickered to show where they were going, or where they were coming from. World after world, Macrocosms, Microcosms, foreboding landscapes and benign ones, mountains and meadows, vast oceans, other planets—they were all there. Other gates revealed race courses full of careening vehicles with exhausts afire, or grim looking concrete labyrinths full of people and creatures shooting at each other. The vistas flickered in and out sometimes too quickly to get a grasp of what they were. The Ring of Elich was the second-by-second proof by which Omnitopia lived up to its name. Any kind of game you could think of was here somewhere, either as a Macrocosm built by the game company’s in-house staff, or as Microcosms built by favored gamers. Endless possibilities, endless challenges were here—and at least part of the buzz in the Ring right now was because the whole Omnitopia scenario was about to widen out again in three days’ time, on Midsummer’s Eve, when the walls between the worlds traditionally got thin.
Arnulf stood there a moment longer, drinking it all in. Just three days until the rollout, he thought. Another shift in the paradigm. What are they going to pull on us this time? What’s going to happen here? I can’t wait to find out! The hair actually stood up on the back of his neck at the thought.
But then he took a deep breath. Outside, in the real world, time was flying: Angela was going to have words with him if he took too long about this. Okay, Arnulf thought. First, out to Langley B. That‘s going to take about half my transport gold for today. Head to the artificer’s there, pick up that new magian kit. Then back here and do the gating to Meruvelt. Get those robes, then meet up with Tom and see if his people are really serious about doing that run into Pandora . . . they didn’t seem to have their minds made up the last time. Stop in the tavern with them, shoot the breeze for a while, then head back home. Angela did say she wanted me to mow the lawn tonight—
Arnulf turned around and found himself looking at a gawky young human male, dark-haired and pale, dressed in Omnitopian beginner’s standard issue: the brown cloak, bleached linen tunic, cotton hose, and brown leather boots of a low-credit kern. He was almost the archetypal Clueless Noob—almost certainly some kid in here for the first time, caught up by the worldwide hype about the expansion rollout. “Well met, comrade,” Arnulf said putting out a hand. “What’s the score?”
The noob was so new that he didn’t even know yet to clasp Arnulf’s arm in return of the greeting. “Uh, yeah,” the noob said, “everything’s going pretty good. I think.” He looked past Arnulf, staring at the Ring. “Except, uh, I’m not real sure where to go from here . . .”
Rik/Arnulf kept the smile off his face. I must have been like this once, he thought. But then who wasn’t? I can never understand the schmucks who like making fun of these poor guys . . . “It’s okay,” Arnulf said. “Everything’s a little overwhelming your first few times. You heading outworld?”
“Oh, yeah, just got my first transit bonus.”
Rik nodded. He’d heard on the feeds that this had been happening a lot in the run-up to the rollout; noobs were being given outworld transit allotments as soon as they signed up—maybe a little too early, in Rik’s opinion. But the people running the game probably wanted as many new gamers as possible to get out there, see the other worlds, and get their friends excited about it too. “Where were you thinking of going?”
“Well, I heard about this place called Pandora—”
Rik looked the noob over while trying not to be too obvious about it. Kerns couldn’t afford a concealed-carry license, so it was immediately obvious that this one didn’t have a weapon, not even a knife. He probably didn’t even know he needed one. Or he thinks they’re cheaper somewhere else, or—oh, heck, who knows what he thinks? But you can’t let somebody like this just charge in there. Though Rik knew there were gamers who would, amused by the prospect of having sent a clueless noob into a war zone unprepared. Serve them right, such people would say afterward. They should’ve read the docs first, they should’ve done their homework, blah blah blah.
Rik/Arnulf shook his head. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “Unless you’re a really high-level gamer hiding in a noob suit—and don’t get me wrong, I know it can be fun to do that, I’ve done it myself on occasion—then I really don’t recommend you go into Pandora right now. Things are kind of busted loose. There are mercenary bands all over the landscape, and they’ll grab you and chain you up with a caffle of other slaves and sell you off to turn somebody’s grist mill or haul some big heavy war machine all over the landscape till they’ve whipped your avatar to death. Not the best way to get the feeling of the game, huh?”
The clueless newbie shook his head vigorously. “So I’ll tell you what,” Rik said. “If you go over there—” He pointed off to one side of the Ring. “See that little booth off to the right of the Ring, by where Dancer’s Street comes into the circle? Not that one—a little more to the right. Yeah, the pavilion with the red silk walls. You go over there, tell the Magister behind the counter that you’re new in town and you’d like an in-and-out transport to Pastorale. It’s a really nice Macrocosm, a good place to walk around, trade for a while, get the feeling of your new skin, meet some other people. There’ll be a lot of other n—” Arnulf stopped himself. No point in rubbing the poor noob’s nose in it. “—A lot of players just getting used to the scenario. And there are plenty of really friendly game-generated characters there who’ll help you get the ropes sorted out. Go get yourself some nice souvenirs, help out some bunny rabbit in distress, pick up a flower fairy or two, make a couple of friends, and get out of there with a little extra credit. How does that sound?”
The noob nodded enthusiastically again, smiling. “Uh, thanks, thanks a lot! It’s all so—”
“I know,” Arnulf said. “It’s really, really big. You have no idea! But you want to survive long enough to learn to enjoy it.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I will. Listen, thanks—”
The guy waved at him and actually ran off toward the Magister’s Pavilion. For a moment, Arnulf just watched him go, amused. But he remembered how excited, how completely blown away he’d been the first time he saw the Ring and realized what it meant to his future gameplay. Hope he does survive, Arnulf thought as the noob vanished into the Pavilion. So: there’s my good deed for the day. Time to get moving, though.
He headed across the circle toward the Ring. The actual transit was a simple matter. As you got close, the Ring protocols checked your game status and points balance, looked to see if you had enough gold, valuta, or other game credit to pay for the transit, and then noted whatever destination settings you’d laid in at the beginning of this session. All you had to do was find a portal that wasn’t occupied with an incoming transit—those were easy to identify, as they grayed themselves out with swirling, iridescent fog—salute the Ring, and step through.
Arnulf got in the shortest line in front of one of the portals on this side of the Ring—though it was hardly even a line, just a group of ten people. There were about ten people in it, all dressed like contemporary Arctic explorers in parkas and furs. Some of them were hauling “hybrid” sledges on wheels, the runners clipped up at the moment; others were trying to control two leashed sets of excitedly barking huskies, and mostly succeeding. In front of them, as they raised their hands more or less as a group to salute the Ring, the massive portal went from starry darkness to a ferocious obscurity of blowing snow—whiteout conditions that made it impossible to tell what ’cosm they might have been heading for. At the sight of it, the dogs barked with joy and plunged through. The players went after them in haste, vanishing into the screaming whiteness, then the portal went dark and starry again.
Arnulf Manyfaced stepped up to the doorway, spending only a moment gazing into the endless depths. Then he raised a hand, saluted the Ring, and stepped through—
—And found that there was something very wrong. It was completely dark all around him, and the hill-town vista surrounding the City of Artificers on Langley B was nowhere to be seen.
What the heck?
Cautiously, Rik turned in a slow circle, wondering whether he’d run into some kind of game glitch associated with the upcoming Great Rollout. But then he caught the faint glow off to one side. Blinking a little in the darkness, he turned toward it.
All around him, and all around the source of the glow, that utter, bottomless blackness remained. But the vague warm light hanging in the sky slowly got brighter and brighter, like a very localized dawn.
Suddenly Rik realized that the glow was coming together, coalescing into letters, then finally into words. And in shocking pink and blue, the words said:
Rik’s eyes went wide, and the breath went right out of him as he realized what he was looking at. Standing there, looking through Arnulf’s eyes, it took some moments before he could even summon enough reaction to activate the “player services” control in the game software and bring up his account info. A little graphics window popped open in the darkness next to him, glowing with basic information: his lifetime score history, acquisitions, game gold balance, overt karma, professional in-game associations. And there, by the cross-and-wand logo of MediMages Without Frontiers, he saw something he had never expected to see, never even considered possible: a symbol that looked like a golden apple.
Oh . . my . . . God!
In the master info panel, the little envelope logo for his in-game messaging inbox was flashing. “Go to mail,” Rik whispered.
The window cleared, showed him the messaging pane. One new message, from Omnitopia Microcosm Management to R. Maliani.
“Open message,” Rik said.
Congratulations and welcome! Your game status average and other criteria have qualified you for entry to Omnitopia’s Microcosm Development Program. Attached to this message you will find introductory materials and links that will allow you access to . . .
He had to stop and get control of his breathing: he was actually starting to hyperventilate. Oh. My. God!
“Game on hold,” Rik said hurriedly. The big pause symbol superimposed itself over his control window and began flashing on and off. He stared up at the glowing words hanging in the empty sky. They didn’t go away.
“Save position and exit game!” Rik said.
“Game position saved: exit recorded at seventeen fourteen local time,” said the dulcet Omnitopia control voice. “Thank you, and come back soon to Omnitopia!”
Between one blink and the next, the darkness vanished. He was lying on the couch in the game room, with the RealFeel goggles and headset screening the rest of the room from view. He pulled them off, still breathing hard. Acoustic ceiling, coffee-colored walls, bookshelves, slightly tatty rug, everything was perfectly normal. Except for what just happened. Not normal, not at all. Maybe we’re finished with normal as we’ve known it . . .
He leaped up from the couch, yanked the game room door open, and ran down the upstairs hall. “Angela? Angela!”
No answer. Rik reached the stairs in the middle of the hallway, grabbed the banister, swung himself around on it, and went down the stairs as fast as he could. At the bottom of the stairs, eight-year-old Mike, about to head up to his and Davey’s room, had stopped and was staring wide-eyed at his dad. “Mike, where’s Mommy?”
“Out back, Daddy—”
Rik plunged past his son and ran around the corner and down the hall that led to the kitchen and the back door. “Angela?”
She had been sitting out on their little concrete patio reading a book. Now, though, almost certainly having heard him shouting upstairs, she was on her feet, heading toward the back door. He caught her halfway in a bear hug, swinging her around and around.
She stared at him. “Rik, what is it, what’s the matter?”
“Absolutely nothing!” he shouted. “Everything’s great!”
After a moment or two Angela dug her feet in and stopped him from twirling her around. “What?” she said. “What is it? Did we win the lottery or something?”
“Better than that!”
She gave him a strange look. “What? What could be better?”
“I just got a message from Omnitopia. They’ve elected me to the Microcosm program! I’m going to have my own Microcosm!”
She blinked at him. “And this is good?”
He swallowed, trying to calm himself. “Honey,” he said, “how many people play Omnitopia?”
Angela shook her head. “I don’t know. You’ve told me once or twice, but I have to admit I probably wasn’t listening. Fifty million or something like that?”
“Two hundred million,” he said. “That company makes about a million bucks a minute—”
“At least one of them off you,” Angela said, giving him an amused look.
“Nothing like that much. But don’t you get what this means? They want me to come build a world for them that’ll run inside Omnitopia! And every single time somebody comes to play in it—we get money!” He hugged her hard. “They call it ‘one percent of Infinity.’ If this works out—we could make . . .”
She looked at him with suspicion, though it was tinged with interest. “How much?”
There she was, Mrs. Practicality again: but right now Rik didn’t mind. “I don’t know. It depends. But it could be a lot! There are some Microcosm builders who’ve made a million bucks in their first year!”
Her eyes went wide. Then the caution showed again. “Okay. And how many?”
“Not a whole lot. Okay, a handful! But you don’t have to become a millionaire from it for it to make a big difference! It could mean a few thousand extra bucks a month for us, and for quite a while. A few less of those double shifts for you and me. Maybe even that new kitchen you’ve been wanting . . .”
“Wow,” Angela said softly. “You really think it could make that much of a difference?”
“It could. It could. If I’m smart about what I do. If . . .”
And there the knot in the balloon tightened down hard, without Angela saying a word. “If I can figure out what to do,” Rik said. “I’ve never thought about this before! I never thought this had the slightest chance of happening to me! Somebody’s handed me the world on a plate, I can build my own universe, and I have absolutely no idea what to do!”
And Rik broke out in a cold sweat of sheer terror. But after only a moment or so he had to find room for some surprise as well, for Angela was simply standing there and smiling at him. It was an unusual sort of smile, one he didn’t see often enough to suit him, but which delighted him when it turned up: absolute pride.
“You will,” Angela said. “You’ll figure it out. And you’ve finally succeeded in convincing me that the people who run that game are worth something. Because it looks like they’ve realized that you are.”
She took him by the arm. “Come on,” Angela said. “That other bottle of Cold Duck in the fridge from my birthday party? Let’s go pop it and celebrate.”
His pulse still hammering in his ears, Rik let Angela lead him back into the kitchen. Everything was going to change, if he could just get this right, and the change would be far bigger for him, for the whole Maliani family, than anything that was merely going to happen inside Omnitopia in three days’ time.
If I can just get this right, Rik thought as he sat down, dazed, at the dining room table. If I can just keep from screwing it up!
The bottle went pop! Rik barely heard it. A few moments later, Angela pushed a supermarket champagne glass into his hand. “To Omnitopia!” she said.
Rik nodded. “Omnitopia,” he said. “And Dev Logan!”
They clinked their glasses together and drank.
And jeez, Rik thought, do I wish I had him here right now, so I could say to him: okay, smart guy, what the heck do I do now?