When deep-space travel altered the genes of the first interstellar colonists, Earth abandoned them. But some of the colonies survived, and a new civilization of mental and physical “Variants” has been established, centered around clusters of space stations known as the outworlds.
Now the unthinkable has happened: a suicide assault has destroyed the life support system of a major waystation. All that is known about the young men responsible is that in their last living moments they were receiving messages from an uninhabited sector of space, and were playing a virtual reality game.
Two unlikely allies have joined forces to investigate the incident: Ru Gaya, a mercenary explorer with a taste for high risk ventures, and game designer Micah Bello, who must find the parties responsible for the attack in order to clear his name. From the corridors of a derelict station lost to madness to an outlaw stronghold in the depths of uncharted space, the two now follow the trail of an enemy who can twist human minds to his purpose, and whose plans could bring about the collapse of outworld civilization.
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The dragons were out in force tonight.
Ramiro tried to keep to shadows as he moved, but the narrow stone corridor didn't offer a lot of cover, and the flickering light from torches set high on the walls kept shadows constantly moving. Which meant that the evasive maneuvers they'd used to avoid the Citadel's reptilian guards aboveground wouldn't work here. If any dragons crossed their path while they were down in the labyrinth, the two of them were done for.
"Should be coming up soon," Van whispered nervously. He glanced down at the crumpled parchment map in his hand. "Any minute now."
You've been saying that for an hour, Ramiro thought.
The labyrinth was ancient, a maze of tunnels whose masonry had been degraded by centuries of rainwater seeping from above; the floor was littered with fragments of fallen brick, making walking treacherous. As they picked their way carefully over the rubble, Ramiro was acutely aware of the tons of earth poised overhead, held at bay by nothing more than rotting mortar and a prayer. How does the gaming program do that? he wondered. The virt software that was controlling his sensory input could add anything to the environment that a person could touch, taste, hear, or see, but what physical experience conjured such a sense of claustrophobia? What tangible sensations translated into dread?
God, he thought, I love Dobson games.
"You okay?" Van put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Ramiro could feel his friend's fingers trembling, though whether from excitement or fear it was hard to say. Intellectually a person might understand that a virt couldn't hurt anyone-it only provided the illusion of being hurt-but it was possible for a player to get so wrapped up in the story that he forgot such fine details. The resulting adrenaline rush was very real-as was the pain that the virt would feed into their brainware if they were injured in this fantasy realm. And fear of that was totally rational.
"Yeah," he lied. "Keep going."
They hadn't expected so many dragon guards to be on duty. True, any they ran into down here would likely be in human form-a necessary adaptation within the labyrinth-but that didn't make the creatures any less dangerous. Dragons could breathe fire even when they were transformed, and a fireball in these narrow tunnels was on the list of things Ramiro would like not to run into. But the fact that so many dragons were present confirmed that this place was important, right? That was a good thing.
Suddenly Van grabbed Ramiro's arm, jerking him to a halt. "Incoming," he whispered. Ramiro knew enough to trust his friend's instincts-Van had an almost supernatural ability to anticipate in-game threats-so he looked around for cover. But there was nothing. The tunnel was too narrow, its walls too smooth. If a dragon guard showed up now they were dead.
Then: "There!" Van cried, pointing ahead. Squinting, Ramiro saw nothing at first, but then the flickering shadows seemed to resolve into a deeper black shape on one wall. An opening of some kind? Whatever it was, it was the only option besides standing there and looking stupid. They ran toward it, leather armor creaking and weapons jangling with every step. Ramiro's heart lurched with every sound, but that couldn't be helped. When you were loaded down with this much gear you couldn't run quietly.
Dobson games were great on detail.
The dark space was indeed a crumbling archway. Thank God! Maybe it would lead to a chamber where they could hide, or even better, a side tunnel that would allow them to get the hell out of here. Ramiro skidded on rubble as he tried to make the turn, and he had to grab onto the side of the arch to steady himself. A quick look behind him confirmed that no enemies had shown up yet. Jesus Christ, they might really make it! He turned back to the dark space, wondering what kind of chamber or tunnel they were about to take shelter in-
Only there was no chamber. No tunnel. Just a mound of rubble from floor to ceiling, where the tunnel had collapsed long ago. Despairing, Ramiro knew there was no way the two of them could clear it in time.
He could hear footsteps coming from behind them now, chillingly alien in their rhythm. Scritch-scritch-THUMP . . . scritch scritch THUMP. Talons on stone. Heart pounding, he pressed back as far as he could into what little space they had, drawing his short sword as he did so. The weapon had a dragonslayer amulet embedded in the hilt, so in theory he was ready to fight such a creature, but he'd bought the charm from a sorcerer who wasn't exactly reputable, so whether it would work or not was anyone's guess. He wasn't anxious to test it.
Then the dragon came into sight. It was a monstrous, hulking beast-half reptile, half human, and so tall that its crested head scraped against the ceiling as it walked. Its eyes glowed red with demonic power, and Ramiro knew that if a warrior looked into those eyes, or engaged the dragon in any way, he would die, instantly and forever. The concept was terrifying, but it was also a relief; the visceral panic that he'd experienced at the sight of the creature began to subside.
It was an NP, a non-player. Some mundane person had just happened to pass by the place where they were gaming, so the virt had used him as set dressing. The burning red eyes were a warning not to engage with him, since he would not have a clue about what was going on. Ramiro watched, breathing heavily, as the dragon passed by without noticing them. Of course it did. Now that Ramiro had seen its eyes, he would expect it to do nothing else.
That was another thing Ramiro loved about Dobson games. They wove any necessary restrictions right into the narrative, so you could stay immersed in the story. Another virt might have just slapped a cautionary symbol on the hulking figure to warn players to keep away, or maybe rendered it in black and white (an especially tacky solution), but Dobson had turned the warning itself into part of their story, giving them an in-character reason not to engage the creature. Genius.
Of course, that was only necessary because station rules prohibited multi-player virts in public spaces. If you confronted a passing stranger as though he were a dragon he might report you to the authorities, and then you could wind up in serious trouble. Ramiro didn't understand why that was necessary-was anyone really getting hurt?-but for now the prohibition was an inconvenience the gaming industry just had to accommodate.
As soon as the dragon was gone they edged back out into the main tunnel and started forward again. Soon they came to the place where their map said an entrance to the inner labyrinth would be located: the final stage of their journey. The heavy wooden door that barred their way was coated in cave-slime, but they could tell that there were inscribed runes beneath it. As Van used his sleeve to wipe slime away, Ramiro could not help but wonder at how many runes there were. It seemed oddly excessive.
On an impulse, he paused the game program. He wanted to see where they really were.
Stone walls morphed into plasteel panels. Flickering torchlight was replaced by the steady glow of lighting strips. The decaying tunnel was now a service conduit, streamlined and pristine. Wow. No matter how many times he dealt with reality-overlay programs, the suddenness of the transition always shocked him.
"Got it!" Van exclaimed. His mock-medieval garb was gone now, replaced by a gray no-G jumpsuit with many cargo pockets. Ramiro saw that the spell-chest tucked under his arm was real, though the mundane version wasn't nearly as ornate as the one Van had picked up in the virt. That was . . . odd. A game that could control all your senses, make you see or feel anything it wanted to, had no need for physical props. Yet apparently the box of magical artifacts had one.
As for the door itself, it had morphed into an oval-shaped portal with a high-pressure vacuum seal around the edge, flanked by a security panel. Clearly whatever part of the station the two of them had wandered into, it was a place that gamers didn't belong. That too was odd. Normally a virt would never lead them into restricted territory. But maybe that was a perk of playing with a master programmer's son. Maybe Van had convinced his father to give them access to parts of the station where mere mortals were not allowed to go.
Ramiro watched Van trace the runes with his fingers, muttering an incantation to give the motion power. As his fingers passed over the security sensor its light switched from red to green. Probably reading his fingerprints. "We're in!" Van exulted, then he stepped back quickly. Ramiro reactivated his virt just in time to see the massive wooden door swinging in their direction, and moved out of the way.
"You sure we should go in there?" Ramiro asked. Something about the situation felt wrong. Just . . . wrong. It bothered him that he didn't know why.
"After coming all this way? Hell yeah!"
The doorway gave them access to a tunnel even darker and narrower than the one they'd been in. Here there were no torches, so Ramiro turned up the flame on his oil lantern to light the way. Flickering amber light played along the strands of ancient spider webs, dancing in the breeze from their passing. The hollow drip-drip of water somewhere in the distance hinted at a vast empty space up ahead. Now and then Ramiro thought he saw gleaming eyes in the darkness, but if anything was out there, it chose not to show itself. Thank God.
Eventually the tunnel disgorged into a cavern whose ceiling was lost in shadow high overhead. The part that they could see was a good twenty yards across. Directly opposite them was a stone sarcophagus with figures of demons carved into its base; the columns surrounding it were decorated with matching images. In the flickering lamplight it looked as if a room full of tiny devils were dancing.
For a moment the two of them just stood frozen, wonder and fear slowly giving way to elation. This was what they had come for, the prize they'd been gaming so long to find. It was hard to absorb that they'd finally succeeded.
"Stay here and stand guard," Van whispered as he started toward the sarcophagus. The place seemed to demand whispering.
Ten days: that's how long it had taken them. Ten days of skipping out on work and blowing off family obligations and not answering messages from friends, so they could focus exclusively on this quest. And in the end their dedication had paid off. There were other teams running the same virt-Ramiro and Van had crossed paths with a few of them-but the undisturbed layer of dirt on this floor suggested that his team was the first to find its way here. Which meant that whatever sorcerous swag was in that sarcophagus was theirs to claim.
This'll send us to the top of the leaderboards for sure.
Ramiro watched as Van opened his spell-chest and began to remove items from it, arranging them on top of the sarcophagus: amulets, herb bundles, tiny parchment scrolls . . . all the stuff they'd spent the last ten days collecting. The placement of each piece had to be perfect, Ramiro knew, and he watched as Van placed them, adjusted them, stepped back to study them, and then reached out to adjust them again. He turned some pieces around and flipped others over, and then started combining them, stacking them like checkers, one on top of the other. At one point he pressed two items together and rotated them, as if he was screwing one into the other. Ramiro's brow furrowed as he watched. Van was the team's sorcerer, and it was his job to know how such artifacts worked, but the game they were playing didn't usually require motions like that for activation.
Are they real props too? Ramiro wondered suddenly. Normally he'd have assumed they weren't, but the box had been real, right? So maybe the magical items were as well.
He hesitated, then visualized the pause icon again. Suddenly the game was gone, and in its place was a large mechanical room. There were switches and valves and pipes and data screens all over the place, and the sarcophagus turned out to be a control console. Red ring: Oxygen, one screen read. In the game that had been a picture of a demon. Red ring: Pressure. More demons. Green ring: CO2.
They were in Environmental Control.
No game should have given us access to such a place, Ramiro thought. Suddenly the sense of wrongness was overwhelming. Fear was stirring inside him-real fear, not the fake gaming stuff. "Van!" he called out. His voice was shaking. "Pause the game! Look around!" His voice echoed from the cavern walls, filling the chamber with his fear.
But Van was too wrapped up in arranging his magical items to listen. He did really have props for them, Ramiro noted, but not simple physical markers. Each one was a small device of some kind, and as Van connected them to one another, tiny lights blinked in acknowledgment. The game was directing him to assemble something.
"Van!" Ramiro yelled. He could hear the panic in his own voice. "Stop it! Stop putting those damn things together! Listen to me!"
But Van didn't respond. Ramiro could have been a ghost for all his words mattered.
Maybe he can't hear me, he thought suddenly. Maybe the game is keeping him from hearing me. But why would it do that? What purpose could it possibly serve?
Deep within his brain, a primal voice urged him to flee. Run! Run as far and as fast as you can! Don't wait! Go now!
But he couldn't leave Van behind. Not if there was real danger here.
He sprinted toward the console, meaning to break apart the strange device before it could do anything. But even as he did so Van threw up his hands triumphantly and stepped back, and Ramiro knew that in the virt the sarcophagus was probably cracking open. On top of the console, the small device blinked and beeped. Too late. Ramiro was too late! One by one the red lights on the device were turning green, while behind the thing, in the real world, security screens displayed various elements of environmental control: oxygen, pressure, circulation, air quality.