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Dug was exasperated. “Forget it, Ed! I’m not interested in any silly computer game. They all claim to be so easy to play and so exciting, and every one of them has a squintillion stupid
things you have to do just to get started, and then the games are just awkward
.gures on painted backdrops, and you have the May- I syndrome.”
“You know. No matter what you do, you get an error message and you have to start over, because you forgot to say ‘May I?’ or something just as idiotic before you did it. Computers are great at that. They .gure you’re supposed to know everything before you start, and they’re going to make you do it over and over until you .nally .gure out what they want, by which time you’re sick of it all. I don’t want to waste my time.”
But his friend Edsel had the annoying fault of being too per sistent. “I’ll bet I can .nd you a game you’ll really like. No May- I syndrome. No dull backdrops. Real adventure. Something you’ll get into easy and never want to leave.”
“And I’ll bet you can’t. There is no such game, because real people don’t program them, just computer scientists who lost touch with reality de cades ago.”
“It’s a bet,” Ed said immediately. “What’re the stakes?”
Dug refused to take it seriously. “My girlfriend against your motorcycle.”
“Done! I always liked your girlfriend anyway. Give me a week to get the game in, and you can kiss her goodbye meanwhile.”
“Hey, I wasn’t really—” Dug protested. But Edsel was gone. Oh, well. It
wasn’t as if there was any real risk. Dug wouldn’t take his friend’s motorcycle anyway.
Now it was time to get into his homework. So he called Pia instead. “Hey, I just made a bet with Ed. The stakes are you against his motorcycle.”
She laughed. “You better hope you lose, because that cycle needs work.”
“I know. I won’t really take it.”
“But he’ll really take me if you lose. He likes me.”
Suddenly Dug was ner vous. “You mean, if— you’d—?”
“A bet’s a bet, Dug. You have to make good on it. You know that.” She hung up.
Shaken, he stared at his unopened books. She had hardly seemed surprised, and not at all annoyed. Had he been set up?
It didn’t take a week; Edsel had the game Saturday morning. “You crank this into your computer, and call me when you’re sick of it. If you don’t call in an hour, I’m calling Pia for a date, because I’ll know I won.”
“Aren’t you going to stay and help me get the thing loaded? You know it’s going to take time just to—”
“Nah. The bet is that you can do it yourself, with no hassle, and you’ll really like it. So if I’m right, you won’t need me at all, or care that I’m not around. If I’m wrong, you’ll be on the phone within an hour to let me know.”
“Half hour, more likely,” Dug said grimly.
“What ever. So try it and .nd out.” Ed departed.
He seemed so sure of himself! But Dug had never met a computer program he liked, other than the one that blanked the screen after .ve minutes, and he seriously doubted that he would like this one. But if it was easy- loading, he’d give it a fair try, and still be on time with the phone call.
He looked at the package as he went upstairs to his room. COMPANIONS OF XANTH. This appeared to be a silly fantasy setting, exactly the kind Dug didn’t much like. How could Ed think he’d go for this, even if it wasn’t too hard to get going? Then he looked again. There was a picture of a young woman of truly comely face and .gure, in an out.t resembling the sinuous contours of a serpent. Wouldn’t it be something to meet a creature like that! Maybe she was the inducement; they .gured that some poor sap like him would buy the game in the hope that she was in it. If she was, it would be only as an animated .at picture. A ripoff in spirit if not in technicality.
He settled himself by his computer table and turned the system on. While it warmed up and went through its ritual initial checks and balances, he opened the package. There were no instructions, just a disk. There wasn’t even the usual warning note forbidding anyone to copy it. Just the words INSERT DISK— TYPE A:\XANTH— TOUCH ENTER. He had to admit that was simple.
He inserted the disk, typed the mysterious word, and touched ENTER. There was a momentary swirl on the screen. Then a little man appeared, almost a cartoon .gure. The .gure looked at Dug and spoke. His words appeared in type in a speech balloon above his head. “Hi! I’m Grundy Golem. I’m from the Land of Xanth, and I speak your language. I’m your temporary Companion. If you don’t like me you can get rid of me in just a minute. But .rst listen a bit, okay? Because I’m here to take your hand and lead you through the preliminaries without confusion. Any questions you have, you just ask me. You do that by touching the Q key, or clicking the right side on your mouse. So go ahead— ask.”
Why not? Dug touched Q.
There was a ding. A huge human .nger appeared and nudged Grundy on the shoulder so hard that he stumbled to the side. “Hey, not so hard!” Dug had to smile. “Okay, so you have a question. You have one of those primitive Mundane keyboards, right? So you have two ways to do it. You can type the question so I can see it, or you can touch ENTER and it will bring up the list of the ten most common questions at this stage. Then you can use your arrow keys to highlight the question you want, and touch ENTER again, or just shortcut it by typing the number of the question you want. I’ll wait while you decide. If you want me to resume without waiting, touch ESCAPE.” Grundy took a step back, twiddling his tiny thumbs.
Dug found himself intrigued despite his cynicism. He touched ENTER.
Grundy reached down and caught hold of a bit of string at the bottom of the screen. He pulled it up, and a scroll of print unrolled. There were numbered questions.
1. HOW DO I GET OUT OF THIS CRAZY GAME?
2. HOW CAN I SHORTCUT TO THE ACTION?
3. WHO IS THAT CREATURE ON THE COVER?
4. CAN I GET MY MONEY BACK IF I QUIT NOW?
5. HOW DO I GET A BETTER COMPANION?
6. HOW DO I SAVE MY PLACE SO I CAN TAKE A PEE BREAK AND PICK UP WHERE I LEFT OFF?
7. WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THIS GAME IS SO GREAT?
8. CAN A FRIEND PLAY TOO?
9. WHAT’S THE PRIZE FOR WINNING?
1O. HOW MANY PRINTED QUESTIONS ARE THERE, AND CAN I CALL THEM UP ANYTIME?
Dug smiled. It seemed they had had some player input. He touched 0, which he took to be 10; he realized that it couldn’t be listed as 10 because when a player touched the 1 it would take him to 1 without giving him a chance to complete the number. That was one of the things computers did: pretending not to know what the player really wanted.
The question highlighted. Grundy came to life. “There are a hundred questions in this edition of the Companions of Xanth Game, and there may be more in future editions as we get more player feedback. You can call up the list anytime by touching HELP and paging down. For two- digit numbers you can hold down the .rst number while you touch the second, and both digits will register. But it’s probably easier just to ask me.”
It probably was. But Dug decided to play with the list a bit more. The questions were still on the scroll. So he touched 1.
Grundy animated again. “To quit this game, touch ALT ESCAPE and turn off the set. But I hope you don’t quit yet; you haven’t given us a fair chance. We hardly know you.”
They hardly knew him? As if they were real and he was a mocked- up player! That seemed arrogant. But also intriguing. Dug touched 2. “To shortcut directly to the action, touch SHIFT ESCAPE. But I strongly advise against this, because there’s more you have to do, like checking in, and you’ll be stuck with me as your Companion. Once you know the ropes, you can skip this whole scene, but please don’t do it this time.”
Fair enough. So far there had been no confusion, and he had not yet gotten into the game proper. He could skip ahead and look at it, but it made sense to give the Golem his chance. He touched 3.
“That creature on the cover is Nada Naga, Xanth’s most luscious eligible princess. She is one of the available Companions.” Grundy cocked an eye at him. “Maybe it’s time you asked about Companions, if that isn’t clear yet.”
So Dug typed WHAT ABOUT COMPANIONS?
“I’m so glad you asked about Companions!” Grundy said. “That is of course the name of this game, and the main thing that distinguishes it from others. In this game you are never left to .ounder helplessly, guessing at the procedures. You have a Companion to guide you through. Anything you need to know, you can ask your Companion, and if he (or she, if you select a female) doesn’t know the answer, he’ll give you a responsive guess. He will also warn you when you are going wrong, and in general be a true friend to you. You can trust your Companion absolutely—except for one thing. Touch Y or ENTER if you want to know about that one thing.”
Dug was tempted to touch the ESCAPE key instead, but was hooked. So he touched ENTER.
“That is smart of you,” Grundy said. “You see, your Companion is your truest friend, ordinarily. But there is one chance in seven that he will be a False Companion. That one will pretend to be your friend, but will lead you into mischief and doom. So if you get that one, you must be wary, and not take his bad advice. Unfortunately, there is no obvious way to tell a Fair Companion from a False Companion, because they look and act the same—until some key point in the game, when the False Companion will betray you. You must judge only by assessing the quality of the advice you are given, and recognizing bad advice. If you are able to identify your False Companion, you can not exchange him for another; once you choose your Companion, you are stuck with him throughout the game. You can ask him to go away, but then you will be alone in the game without guidance and are likely to get eaten by a dragon, or suffer some worse fate. It is better to keep him with you, but to be wary of him. It is possible to win the game with a False Companion, just a lot more dif.cult.”
The Golem paused, so Dug typed in a related query. SUPPOSE I JUST QUIT THE GAME, AND COME BACK NEW?
“If you try to leave the game and return, so as to get a new Companion, you will .nd that the layout of the game has changed, so that not only are you not certain whether your new Companion is True or False, you are not sure whether paths which were safe before remain so. If you are well along in the game, it is better just to continue. But it is your choice, of course.”
This warning, rather than turning Dug off, intrigued him. So he could never quite trust his Companion. That promised a special thrill of excitement that would not have been there otherwise. He looked at the listed questions, and touched 9.
“The prize for winning the game, which is not easy to do, is to receive a magic talent, which will be yours in any future games you play. We do not know what that talent is, but it will surely be a good one, that will be a great advantage for you.”
Sort of like getting a free pass to another game. Dug shrugged. He didn’t care much about fantasy anyway, so this wasn’t much of an inducement. He was beginning to get bored with this, so he touched 5.
Grundy frowned. “I was hoping you would decide to stay with me. I can speak the languages of animals and plants, and learn things that others can not.” Then he smiled. “But maybe you still will choose me. Here are the six other Companions from which to choose.” He pulled up another scroll.
This contained six names: Goody Goblin, Horace Centaur, Jenny Elf, Marrow Bones, Metria De mon ess, and Nada Naga. Dug recognized the last name: the luscious creature of the cover. He didn’t need to check the others. He highlighted Nada Naga, and her description and a picture appeared.
NADA NAGA, PRINCESS OF THE NAGA FOLK OF XANTH, WHICH ARE HUMAN/SERPENT CROSSBREEDS, CAPABLE OF ASSUMING EITHER FORM OR ONE IN BETWEEN. AGE 21, UNMARRIED, INTELLIGENT, NICE, BEAUTIFUL. ASSETS: MATURITY AND ABILITY TO ASSUME FIGHTING FORM. LIABILITIES: PRINCESSLY LIMITATIONS.
Being a princess was a liability? Dug had to laugh. He was prepared to cope with it. What fun it would be to have such a woman as his Companion! Without hesitation, he touched RETURN.
The picture expanded, and Nada Naga stepped out onto the main screen. “Thank you, Grundy,” she said in a dulcet voice. Actually it was print in a speech balloon, but Dug could almost hear it. “I shall take it from here.”
Grundy sighed and walked off- screen. Nada turned to Dug. “Please introduce yourself,” she said appealingly. “Just type your name and description, so that I can relate to you.”
Eagerly he typed. DUG. MALE. AGE 16. So she was .ve years older; who cared? This was only a game.
“Why, hello, Doug,” she said. “I am sure we shall get along very well.”
Oops. DUG, he typed. NO O. IT’S NOT SHORT FOR DOUGLAS, EITHER. IT’S JUST DUG.
She lifted one dainty hand to her mouth, blushing prettily. “Oh, I apologize, Dug! Please forgive me.”
Actually, if she wanted to call him Doug or Douglas, let her do it. From her it would sound just great.
NO NEED, he typed quickly. I NEVER MET A PRINCESS BEFORE. It was a game, but it had become an interesting game, and he wanted to play it for what it was worth. He realized that he was losing his bet with Edsel, but he no longer cared. He just wanted to continue playing.
“It is a liability, being a princess,” she said. “It was nice of you to select me anyway. I shall try to be an effective Companion for you.”
I’M SURE YOU WILL BE PERFECT, he typed, speaking the words at the same time, really getting into it.
“Dug, may I give you some advice?” she asked prettily.
“Anything you want,” he said, his .ngers .ying to keep the pace.
“It will be easier if you get into the scene with me. So that we can relate to each other more readily. Do you know how to do that?”
“I’d love to get into the scene with you,” he agreed. “But you’re on the computer screen, and I’m out here in real life.” So maybe it was a foolish business, getting emotionally involved like this, treating her as if she were a real person, but it was fun. He was amazed at how responsive she was.
“This is true. But though I can not come out to join you, you can in effect come in to join me. You have to suspend your disbelief a bit, and refocus your eyes.”
“I’ll try.” He wished he could forget this was a fantasy game, and just live the fantasy: himself with this lovely woman.
“You see, the screen looks .at to you because you are focusing .at. But if you will try to focus your eyes on something behind the screen, as if it were a window to another world, you will .nd that it becomes rounded. See if you can do it.”
Rounded. She was already so nicely rounded that he hardly cared about the rest. But he obligingly tried to focus his eyes beyond the screen. The image of Nada fuzzed somewhat; that was all. “I don’t see to be getting it,” he said.
“See the two dots at the top?” she asked, pointing. Now he saw them, hovering just above her speech balloon. “Try to make them become three dots. Then you will be in the right range. It may not happen right away, but once it does, you will know it.”
“Okay,” he typed. He was glad that he could do it by touch, so that he could answer her without taking his eyes from the screen. He refocused his eyes, trying to make the two dots into three. He didn’t really believe that anything would come of this, but he wanted to give his best try to what ever she asked him to do.
The picture blurred, refocused and blurred again. The two dots became four, then bobbed a bit and fused into three. And then, quietly, the third dimension came.
Dug stared. Literally. The picture was now 3- D! He wasn’t wearing colored glasses or using one of those two- picture stereo dinguses; it was just the computer screen. But now the screen had become like a pane of glass, a window opening to a scene beyond. Nada Naga stood in the foreground, with the grass of the glade behind her, and the fantasy jungle in the background. It was all so real he was stunned.
“That’s better,” Nada said smiling. “I see you in rounded form now, Dug.”
She saw him as rounded? She was the most delightfully rounded woman he could imagine! But he did not type that in. Instead he made a safer statement. “It’s amazing! How did it happen?”
She frowned prettily. “I don’t suppose you would believe me if I told you there’s some magic involved?”
He shook his head. “I don’t believe in magic.”
“That’s too bad. That is the second, and greater step. When you manage to do that, you will truly be in the game.”
“Suspension of disbelief,” he agreed. “I really wish I could! But I’m a skeptic from way back. As they say, I’m from Missouri.”
She looked blank. “I thought you were from Mundania.”
Mundania. Cute notion. “I think Missouri is a state in Mundania. The people there always have to be shown something before they believe it. So if you show me magic, I’ll believe it. Otherwise—”
She smiled. She made a sinuous ripple, and suddenly she was a snake with her human head. “This is my naga form, which is natural to me. My magic enables me to assume human form, or full serpent form.” She became a coiled python, whose reptilian eyes .xed on him as it slithered from the fallen garments. But he was not revolted. He could take snakes or leave them; he knew they were bene.cial creatures, so he just left them alone. This one did not dismay him at all. He knew it was Nada, in the context of the fantasy game. It would be useful to have such a reptile on his side, if some game threat materialized, as was sure to happen when he really got into it.
“I realize there is magic in a fantasy game,” he said carefully. “Things happen all the time in movie cartoons and such. People get .attened by steamrollers, and then pumped back into round with a shot of air, and they are normal again. So you might say that I believe in magic in such a context. But never in real life.”
The snake slithered behind a screen, carrying the woman’s piled clothing in its mouth. In a moment the human form reappeared from behind the screen, decorously dressed. “But if you come into Xanth, then magic will work. If I went to Mundania, I would not be able to change form; I’d be just a little helpless snake.” She frowned. “I know; it happened once. But here we follow our rules. So when you can manage to believe, then you will experience magic.”
“When I believe that, I’ll be crazy,” he said sourly.
“No, you will just be in another realm. But you don’t have to believe, to play the game. Just remember that our rules govern here.”
“I’ll do that,” Dug said, surprised by her responsiveness. It really seemed as if she were a real person, communicating through the barrier of his disbelief. “How do I play this game?”
She smiled again. The glade lighted when she did that; it really did become brighter, as if a slow .ashbulb had gone off. So it was a foolish technical effect; he still liked it. She was just such a beautiful woman that he could bask all day in her smiles.
“Take my hand,” Nada said, “and I will lead you into it.” She extended her lovely hand to him.
Dug reached for the screen, then caught himself. He typed I TAKE YOUR HAND.
The scene expanded. Now he seemed to be in the glade, and Nada stood beside him, about half a head shorter than he. She turned to him, her bosom gently heaving, her brown- gray eyes complementing her gray- brown tresses. Suddenly brown- gray was Dug’s favorite color. “Thank you, Dug; it is so nice to have you here.”
“It’s so nice to be here,” he said, discovering that disbelief was getting easier to suspend, at least in this context. He knew he would never get close to a woman like this in real life, so he might as well do it this way. Certainly the way the scene had come to life was amazing.
“Now, this glade is a safe haven,” Nada said. “But the moment we go out of it, we’re playing the game proper, and there will be challenge and trouble. So while I don’t want to bore you with too many explanations—”
“You aren’t boring me,” Dug said quickly. She could have been delivering the world’s dullest lecture on Shakespeare’s most boring historical play (which was a fair description of a normal En glish class session), and still have fascinated him. He was satis.ed just to remain in this glade and watch her talk. Because she seemed to be genuinely interested in him. That was surely the fakery of the game programming, but it was excellent fakery. He remembered a challenge that was ongoing: companies were trying to build a computer that could maintain a dialogue with a person so effectively that the person would not know it was a computer. The computer would be in a sealed- off room, so the person couldn’t see, and would have to guess whether there was a computer or a person in there. So far no computer had fooled the experts, but it was getting close. Nada Naga, as an animated projection for such a computer program, was awfully close. She seemed so alive, and not just because of her appearance.
She smiled again, as he had hoped she would. “Thank you, Dug. I need to be sure you understand what is happening, because it is my job to take you as far through the game as possible, and if you fail to win the prize, it won’t be through any fault of mine. But my ability is limited, and in any event the decisions are yours; I can only answer your questions and advise you. I myself don’t know the winning course. But I do know Xanth, and so I will be able to guide you away from most of its dangers.” She paused, glancing at him. “Are you familiar with Xanth?”
“Never heard of it,” he said cheerfully. “I’m not a fantasy reader. I gather it’s a hoked- up fantasy setting, with beautiful princesses, ugly goblins, walking skeletons, and smoky de mon esses.” He had picked that up from the list of alternate Companions. “I presume I’ll have to cross mountains and chasms and raging rivers, and .ght off .re- breathing dragons, and .nd special magic amulets to enable me to get into magically sealed vaults where the trea sure lies. And that there are so many threats lined up that the chances are I’ll be wiped out early, and then I’ll have to start over, knowing a little more about what to avoid. Frankly, I’d rather just stay here and talk with you.” His glance fell to her bosom, and bounced away, because when he was standing this close to her he could see right down inside. He loved the sight, but didn’t want her to catch him staring. She might put on a jacket, ruining the view.
“You do seem to have a good notion of the game,” she agreed. She inhaled, and he almost bit his tongue. “But you can’t win it by staying here. So soon we shall have to start the trek. Normally the best .rst step is to go to ask the Good Magician Humfrey for advice. Unfortunately he charges a year’s ser vice for a single Answer to a Question. Since that isn’t feasible for you—”
“Right. No point in going there. Let’s talk. Do you ever date Mundanes?”
“Date? Do you mean one of the Seeds of Thyme? We might .nd one of those if we go to the right garden.”
He laughed. “I mean, do you ever go out with Mundanes?”
“I am about to go out into Xanth with you, to show you the best route to—”
“I mean like doing something together. Seeing a show, having a meal, talking. Having fun.”
Her lovely brow almost furrowed. “We shall be pursuing the quest together, and we shall see what Xanth has to show along the way. We shall talk as much as we need. I hope this is not unpleasant for you.”
She just wasn’t getting it. So he tried once more. “Like maybe dancing together, and kissing.”
Nada gazed at him, a peculiar expression crossing her face. She was .nally getting it! “I think not. I am here to be your Companion. I am not your romance. Please do not try to kiss me.”
Dug laughed again, but it was to cover up embarrassment. She had told him no plainly enough. If he tried to kiss her, she would turn into a serpent and chomp him. “I was just asking. So what else do I need to know about the game?” Because if he had to play the game to keep her with him, it was worth it.
Then he had to laugh at himself. Nada was a game .gure on his computer screen! He couldn’t kiss her anyway. Yet here he had gotten all interested, in the faint hope that she might agree to do it. He really was getting into this.
Excerpted from Xanth By Two by Piers Anthony.
Copyright © 2010 by Piers Anthony.
Published in February 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.