Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Reapers (Neuro, book 3)

The Neuro, book 3
The Reapers
by A. Livadny

release - January 24, 2018

Chapter One

THE AGRION MARKET square was uncrowded. Not many players online today. Only the NPCs continued living their own computer-generated lives.
For them it was business as usual: merchants praising their wares, a crooked old lady shuffling her feet past the swordsmiths' row. She leaned heavily on her staff and mumbled something to herself as she cast watchful glances around in search for any newbs whom she might reward with a social quest for their penny's worth of alms.
A gust of wind raised twisters of dust, stripping a lone tree of an armful of yellow autumn leaves which floated swirling onto the cobblestones.
Business as usual indeed, had it not been for the cold in my chest and the group of high level riders who'd just dismounted by the tavern.
The city patrol seemed quite alarmed by their arrival. The guards officer and two lancers hovered nearby, casting sideways glances at the tired warriors and their lathering horses with the tavern keeper fussing all about them.
I didn't know any of the warriors in the group led by Enea's father. Their gear was worthy of note: it lacked the usual abundance of useless elements so typical of fantasy armor. Normally, a group of high-level warriors can be quite a motley bunch as each player strives to stand out in the crowd as much as their wallets and Strength numbers allow them. Especially Strength numbers. If a player's stats allow them to lug around five hundred pounds of fancily decorated metal, that's exactly what he or she will do.

Still, this group's minimalistic and practical brigandine armor and chainmail were also remarkable in their own way. The fabric cotta dress which was meant to protect the armor plates from the sun, dirt and rain, hung in tatters. It looked like the group had had to fight their way here.
All these seemingly insignificant details seemed to fall into a picture, confirming the truth of what Enea's father had just said. The minimalistic practicality of the group's gear must have had something to do with the neuroimplant's peculiar nature.
So this hadn't been a nightmare, after all. Enea and I had indeed visited the very kernel of the experiment carried out by the Corporation. Our minds must have collapsed, unable to sustain the information overload.
No. I refused to believe it. Agrion looked the same as normal. And as for Enea's father, he must have hired someone to level up for him. That way he could have made the Top 100 within a mere couple of days.
Why would he lie to me, then, saying that it had been several years since we'd last met? He treasured his daughter and wouldn't have toyed with her respect so stupidly.
The cold in my chest kept growing. I needed a definite answer. I wanted clear-cut evidence.
The guards' captain... I didn't know him. When had they replaced the old one?
The old lady hobbled past the guards. Normally she never pays any attention to NPCs. She's only interested in newbie players. This time, however, she stopped.
The officer seemed to have expected it. He leaned toward the woman and handed her a small object wrapped in a piece of cloth, then nodded at the alchemists' row.
Without saying a word, she turned round and shuffled off toward it.
There was only one buyer in the alchemists' row, a level-92 rogue. His high-level Veil of Secrecy wouldn't let me read his nickname, but his avatar looked familiar.
Well, well, well. If that's not Heilig! The cheeky PK with whom I'd already crossed swords twice!
Last time we met was only a few days ago, or so I remembered. Then he'd been level 35.
I headed toward him, overtaking the old lady on my way.
"Hi. Looking for new potions?" I asked just to attract his attention.
He gave me a lopsided grin. "Alexatis. You owe me, remember?"
Our level gap was enormous now. This may be a safe zone but he was too vindictive to miss his chance.
I highjack the situation by playing on his greed. "So how about the cargonite? Two hundred pounds, wasn't it? Are you still looking for it?"
He appeared interested enough to suppress his animosity. "We're generous today, aren't we? Where did you disappear to? They closed your castle and shut down the entire sector, why? Yeah, they opened some sort of mirror but it was BS. You weren't there, anyway."
"Why, were you looking for me?"
"What do you think? The Ravens weren't happy with you, were they? Your scuffle cost me very dearly. And the next day the admins changed my login location!"
"What, just like that?"
"Yeah, they sent me a letter. Like, 'due to technical difficulties, we were forced to temporarily close the Agrion cluster. We apologize for the inconvenience'. Yeah right! What happened to your clan, then? And the Ravens? You both disappeared off the radars! I find it weird."
"You could say that. One question: do you log in via your neural implant?"
He shrugged and spat at his feet. "How else do you want me to log in? You're worse than a noob sometimes. The questions you ask..."
What a relief. The uncertainty of the last few hours was gone. Enea and I were alive and back in the Crystal Sphere. That was the main thing. The rest we could sort out later.
"So whassup? Are you gonna pay up?" he grew impatient, assuming his invincibility. Even if I didn't give him cargonite, at least he'd get even with me and stealth out like I was sure he'd done many times in the past.
Before I could reply, the old lady had finally caught up with us,
"Good sir, spare a trifle for a poor woman," she addressed Heilig.
"Piss off, bitch. Do you think I'm a noob to be interested in social quests?"
The woman looked visibly upset. She stopped and leaned on her staff as if catching her breath. "No one wants to help me," she complained weakly. "What if they're right? Do I really need this kind of life? Do I?"
She whipped out a dagger from her rags and buried it in Heilig's throat in one practiced, powerful thrust.

* * *

What happened next was surreal.
The already-familiar bluish haze comprised of neurograms poured out of Heilig's slit throat, breaking into separate puffs which reached out for the old lady, the alchemist vendor and a few more NPCs who had chanced nearby.
"A Reaper!" one of White's riders thundered in, then flung his heavy pike at her.
The pike pinned the old woman to the vendor's stall. Once again the murky haze poured forth: the bluish cloud of neurograms containing the identity of the disembodied PK player. The cloud fell into separate strata, groping for the NPCs who'd happened nearby and pouring into their frozen bodies.
A noisy murder of crows took to the wing from the crenels of the city wall. Was it my imagination or had I noticed the hunched outlines of crossbowmen on the walls?
The spine-chilling glitch in gameplay was rapidly snowballing into an uncontrollable event.
The marketplace dissolved into panic. Vendors, buyers, passersby and idle onlookers — they all scattered in every direction, pushing each other and knocking over the stalls. They separated me from Enea who was still standing next to her father on the steps of the city hall.
Old Friedrich White wasn't a slouch though. He gave his shield to his daughter and bared his sword, pointing it at the guards' captain,
"A Reaper!"
In the meantime, the NPCs unlucky enough to have been infected with Heilig's neurograms (Heilig having never been among the cream of humanity to begin with) began to recover from their stupor. No points for guessing what kinds of thoughts had possessed them once the remains of that unrepentant PK's identity had altered their behavioral models.
Agrion was a starting location always swarming with low-level players, even in off-peak times. None of them seemed to be affected by the panic. They looked around curiously, apparently believing the tragic events to be a mere glitch.
An NPC greengrocer's name tag blinked. A new icon appeared in it: a pictogram of a blood-red skull.
"Watch out!" I shouted.
The greengrocer barged into a swordsmith's stall, grabbed a morning star mace and swung it mercilessly at a petite wizard girl who'd chanced to be next to him.
Other players were even less lucky. In several more places, the ominous blue haze rose into the air. The city guards, however, chose to ignore the unfolding mayhem.
With the new Reapers' support, they threw themselves onto the warrior who'd hurled his pike. In compliance with gameplay, his name tag had turned fiery red. Now it was everyone's duty to kill him, sending him back to his respawn point and stripping him of his levels and expensive gear. The marketplace was a safe zone and the old woman was a quest NPC. Attacking her had been a very unhealthy idea. Her age and appearance didn't matter.
"Alex, go away!" Enea's father shouted, fighting three guards whose levels were on a par with his own. Now I could see: he'd leveled up all by himself. The neuroimplant radically changed the entire fight pattern, and I knew this better than anybody else.
He was actually a great fighter. Without the shield, he used a two-handed grip on his sword, increasing both impact and damage while not parrying the lancers' attacks, dodging their sharp thrusting blows with remarkable cool.
One of the guards had lost his patience and flung himself onto Enea's father, commencing a well-practiced combo. Not that it helped him much: Friedrich White sliced through his spear's shaft in one calculated motion, then shouldered his opponent onto the wide steps. The guard lost his balance and came rolling back down.
The two others stepped back, taking cover behind their shields, but White's sword drew a wide arc through the air, throwing both off balance and forcing them to weaken their defenses. I froze with bated breath, awaiting a coup de grace, but no: White had second-guessed their counterattack and recoiled just in time, so that their spearheads barely grazed his armor. Then he dealt one last powerful slashing blow.
The guards' bodies rolled down the steps of the city hall.
"The crossbowmen!" Enea shouted.
White reacted instantly. Picking up the shield left behind by one of the lancers, he dropped on one knee. The heavy bolts thudded into the shield's wood right through its thick rough leather.
"Leave!" he said to Enea in a muffled voice. "Go inside!"
My interface blinked with a new message,

Friedrich White has invited you to join his group.

As soon as I clicked Accept, the battle chat came to life,

Crossbowmen on the wall! A Reaper in the square! Finish off the guards and wait for my orders! Alex, wake up! Get out of there ASAP!

Only now had I noticed the change in the guards' captain. I could barely recognize him. He'd grown considerably taller and broader. His eyes glowed with a dark fire. His tarnished armor was dropping flakes of oxidation as if it had been reborn in some invisible furnace.

Reaper. Level 200

By now, the market square was almost deserted. The crossbowmen continued to shoot, this time targeting those of the NPCs who'd accidentally absorbed some of the killed players' neurograms. They eliminated them mercilessly and efficiently.
But why?
The answer was not long in coming. The familiar bluish haze drifted low over the ground. Confidently the Reaper stepped into it. The murky haze heaved and reached out for him, enveloping his body in its swirls like a slow, unhurried tornado.

You're witnessing neurogram absorption.

Short but pretty clear. The Reaper was ingesting fragments of the dead players' identities. The horror of it was in the fact that this manner of death had caused his victims to die in both worlds. I could only guess at the mechanisms behind it.
There was no way we could stop him. By now, the bluish haze had enveloped him completely, permeating his armor. With his level 200, there was precious little we could do to stop this process even if we attacked him all at once.
The rattling of weapons had died away. White's warriors had already disposed of the guards. The local NPCs had made themselves scarce. The tavern keeper alone (can't remember his name now) was still standing by his front door like a pillar of salt, bug-eyed, his white-knuckled fingers locked over the wooden banister.
Just by chance, I happened to be the only one left in the square. I secreted myself behind the upended stalls, watching the Reaper while keeping a cautious eye on the crossbowmen on the city walls. There were about ten of them. They behaved weird to say the least: now that they'd stopped shooting, they stood up peering at us through the gaps between the crenels with greedy, insane eyes. Their tags contained an icon of some buff unknown to me.
The Reaper exuded a wave of heat. His charred armor began to flicker. His face was distorted, his lips cracked, his burnt hair crumbling to ashes.
The bluish mist had all but disappeared as he'd absorbed most of it by now. Only a few faint wisps of it still swirled around his sinister figure. The vendors' upended wooden crates heaped around him smoldering, about to catch fire.
Suddenly his body arched in a spasm. His skin rippled with interference. His level numbers began to change at random as did his appearance while he was consumed by a chain of metamorphoses.
An old man. A girl wizard. A young warrior. A spice vendor. The Reaper's face now resembled molten wax which some crazy sculptor was molding into grotesque masks, crumpling them and starting anew.
"Now!" White's snapped order singed my nerves.
Was he crazy?
Like an uncoiling spring, his words launched the five dark knights into the Reaper's path.
A defective mob. That's how the Corporation workers used to call them.
The knights knew what they were doing. Their expertise wasn't limited to martial arts. They lashed out at the crossbowmen with a Chain of Lightning while showering the Reaper with poisoned arrows, sending his damage-taken counter into a spin. Predatory vines broke through the cobblestones under his feet, entwining them in their grip. The knights changed their weapons on the run as they surrounded him.
In the meantime, the Reaper's random change of cyphers had logically led to his drop in levels. By absorbing the identities of low-level players, he'd lost his unique abilities, rapidly becoming weaker and slower. The game engine had recalculated his characteristics, replacing the question marks in his tag with the number 98. His Life bar plummeted.
Still, the experienced warriors weren't fooled by their now seemingly easy prey. They hadn't changed their tactics.
Two of them, armed with heavy shields and long steel shafted pikes, carried out a series of powerful attacks, stripping the Reaper of half his hp, then immediately switched back on the defensive, blocking his response blows.
In the meantime, a knight armed with a two-handed sword attacked him from behind with a well-calculated combo, stunlocking him.
That was it. Now one last coup de grace...
The Reaper roared back to life, shaking himself out of his stupor and busting himself free from the vines' embrace.
His virtually empty Life bar soared back up. The number 200 reappeared in his tag. With a shattering circular blow, he crumpled the steel shields, sweeping the knights off their feet.
He didn't stop there. Once again did the Reaper raise his black two-handed sword, lower this time, and drew a humming arc through the air, splitting the upended stalls into cascades of wood chips and slicing clean through the knights' legs as they struggled to get to their feet.
The five knights' avatars rippled and turned dark, then disappeared.
He smoked them! Just like that, in two mighty attacks!
What had Enea's father told me? I should have vacated the market square while I still could.
Slowly the Reaper turned round. His avatar had already stabilized. His eyes glowed with an ethereal light.
The air in front of him thickened, forming a translucent arch surging with fiery charges of energy. With a soft popping sound, a cloud of crimson haze filled the arch, swirling.
The Reaper stepped into it and disappeared.

* * *

The smashed crates were still smoldering. The market square resembled a deserted battlefield. Contrary to the rules, most of the players' avatars hadn't disappeared. Riddled with crossbow bolts, they remained lying on the cobblestones amid the scattered remains of market stalls and the vendors' wares.
Scared horses whinnied softly by the tavern. The breeze had brought a whiff of burned flesh: the Chain of Lightning which had killed the crossbowmen on the wall had also set the roof of the parapet on fire, collapsing it on top of them.
Slowly Friedrich White looked over the disastrous panorama. He picked up his helmet and sat on the city hall steps with his graying head hung low.
"Dad?" Enea came running up to him. "What's going on? What are you doing here?"
"I was looking for you."
"But you saw me only a few days ago!" she said, uncomprehending.
"You're wrong. Not days. Years."
"That's impossible!"
"He's right, Enea," I said.
She cast me a look of reproach, "Alex, please. We were in the library, you and I."
"Enea, I can prove it."
"Please do. I can't wait."
"Not here. We need to get back to the castle."
"He's right," Friedrich White said grimly, staring at the humble cloth bundles left where his dark knights had once stood. "This place isn't safe."
"Your knights, will they be all right?"
"I haven't noticed any blue haze. They haven't lost any neurograms. Which means they should make it."
"Do you want me to pick up their stuff?" I asked. "Or should we wait for them to respawn? Where's their respawn point, anyway?"
"It's far from here," White leaned heavily on his sword, clambering to his feet. "In a nearby cluster. It'll take them some time to get back. Leave the bundles. There's nothing in them, anyway. Our gear is all no-drop. It's also charmed against theft. We leave nothing behind. We've learned our lesson: you can't imagine how hard it is to get items with these kinds of stats."
The expression on Enea's face was hard to describe. I could almost bet she'd never expected her father to be so well-versed in gaming slang.
"No point staying here, then," I summed up. "Let's port to the castle. Then we can talk."
"Can we port from the tavern?" White asked. "I'd hate to leave the horses. Also, there're some useful things in the saddle bags."
"We can't cast a portal in the square. The guards will be on us straight away."
"Then I suggest we go to Dimian's old shop," Enea suggested. "I have the key to his back yard."

* * *

The Resurrection Hall of Rion Castle met us with deep silence.
Holding two of the horses by their reins, I looked around, habitually taking in my surroundings.
Top-level NPC guards stood watch by the portal, impassive and silent.
The torchlight cast uneven shadows on the walls. The cold green glow of the respawn zone reflected in the precious stones decorating the ancient wall carvings.
My heart warmed to the familiar sight.
Sarah, the mountain lynx that Enea and I had brought back from our recent trip to the Azure Mountains, stepped softly out of the dancing shadows. Her green eyes betrayed an intense hope. The masterless pet had taken the habit of waiting by the portal, hoping that one day her beautiful Drow owner would step out of it.
No idea what could have happened to Liori and her friend Kimberly, though. They had disappeared in a most mysterious way, complete with Master Jurg.
The lynx may have found a new home in our castle but she wasn't in a hurry to show any signs of attachment to anyone. She was her own master walking by herself wherever she wanted. Even Lethmiel couldn't explain how she managed to cross the numerous magic barriers.
I could see that she'd been leveling up. No wonder: she spent every night prowling the moors, bringing her prey to the castle gate every morning. A couple of times she'd even brought us some very badly shaken goblins, which had complicated our already strained relationship with their local tribes.
"Oh hi, Sarah," Enea stroked her back.
The lynx emitted a nervous growl, sniffed White all over, headbutted my knee by way of greeting, then ran and lay sprawled on the floor.
The protective magic seals flared. The tall doors swung open, flooding us with daylight.
The servants I'd hired took the horses away to the stables. Lethmiel was the next to arrive.
His eyes lit up with reserved curiosity. Lethmiel still remembered White: for both of them, only a few days had elapsed since Enea's father had been here.
"Any news?" I asked.
"Not good, I'm afraid. The Elves have returned, the ones you sent home to see their families. Their settlements have been pillaged. The forests have been stripped of everything that was alive."
"Do you know the reason?"
"No. They've brought back some refugees but I haven't spoken to them yet."
"Make sure they're comfortable. What about the Guards of Gloom?"
"They haven't found a trace of their people, either. Only some long deserted camps."
"I'll speak to them later. Anything else?"
"There's a Raven raid spotted by the approaches to the moors. Two hundred people at least."
"Have they already entered the moors?"
"Not yet. They've set up camp about one day's hike from Chaffinch Creek."
"I want you to double the watch on the walls. Tell Archibald to send out some scouts. Get on with it and don't bother us until we say."
"Very well, Sir."
I turned to White, "Would you like to get some rest?"
He shook his head, apparently not happy with the news. "Let's set the record straight. I'm afraid, time is against us."

 * * *

The future.
I'd never wondered about it. Would it arrive unawares or would it just smolder without crossing the line beyond which lay new discoveries capable of changing the lives of billions of people?
And now it had arrived.
Who were we now? Digitized phantoms whose physical bodies were confined to in-mode capsules, reliant solely on life support systems?
My eyes met Enea's. Words just stuck in my throat. Would I ever be able to tell her?
She glanced at me, then at her father. "Please. Don't try to spare my feelings," she sat down in an easy chair.
Young, beautiful, smart — but pale and tense. I'd never seen her like that before.
"I want to know what's going on. You tell me. Don't keep anything back. I can take it."
"Are you sure?" her father asked. He meant it, too. He was stubborn enough to dig his heels in and refuse to say anything.
"Dad, look around you. The Crystal Sphere is my dream world. I have only two people whom I love more than anything in the world. It's you and Alex. You're both with me now. The rest is doable. Don't you think?"
White slumped into a chair. He removed his steel gauntlets and put them away into his inventory, then sat silent for a while with his hands locked.
"So you think you can brave it out? Very well..." he looked up at her and added in a low voice, "The Crystal Sphere has changed a lot. I'll tell you more. The real world as you knew it is gone too."
"You're kidding?" Enea asked mechanically.
"You and Alex disappeared three years ago. At the same time, the Agrion cluster was sealed. No one could gain access to this place."
"Wait," she covered her face with her hands. "Wait a sec. What do you mean, we disappeared?"
"We had an agreement, remember? You were supposed to log out in a week's time and join me for dinner. Remember that?"
"Of course I do! Why?"
"You stopped taking my calls. Your online status was Unspecified. The night we were supposed to have dinner I drove to your home. Your door wasn't locked. The status panel said, For Rent. I walked in. It was absolutely bare. The in-mode capsule was gone, mountings and all. Everything was so clean and faceless as if you'd never existed. Can you imagine what it felt like?"
She didn't say anything. Of course. Desperate to find his daughter, White was quite capable of anything.
"I knew where to go and which door to kick open," he said. "And that's what I did. Only I didn't find a single clue. Infosystems denied everything. The company which had installed your in-mode seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth. Ylien and Stephen were gone too. Someone had broken into our country house and taken all the Crystal Sphere equipment we'd used to log in. My neuroimplant had been disconnected. It became a funny trinket taped to my temple. I just couldn't take it. Me too, I had big problems. All of a sudden, my business began to sink. Then one day it started disintegrating under a very focused, well-coordinated attack. Despite our excellent safety margin, the company had to file for insolvency."
"That's impossible!" Enea cried out.
"That's what I thought too. You wanted the truth, didn't you? So there you have it. TransEnergy had three of the biggest buyers: Infosystems Corporation, the World Government and the Military Space Forces. All three of them filed complaints, returning huge shipments of our products. Our reputation was gone, our accounts frozen, our factories stopped. We suffered billions in claims. All this happened within a few days. A month later, I was on my own and penniless."
"How did you manage to survive this?" she asked softly.
"I knew you were alive."
"I demanded answers from one of corporate technologists," White replied reluctantly. "He refused to tell me anything at first. Still, I can be very persuasive when I have to be. Finally, he admitted that both you and Alex had experienced some side effects while testing neuroimplants. They said that both of you had suffered significant brain damage. Still, according to him, the data you'd received was extremely valuable for the corporation which was why they were going to do everything possible in order to save you and reclaim the Crystal Sphere."
"Did you believe him?"
"He gave me what I needed: hope and purpose. Which was more than enough under the circumstances."
"But you had nothing left!" Enea exclaimed. "How did you live?"
White's eyes warmed, losing their prickliness. "I don't give up so easily, you know me. I had to spend some time in the gutter, sleeping in those downtrodden capsule shelters. I had to dispose of the implant so they couldn't track me. Luckily, that particular model was easy to remove. All you had to do was pull the nano needles out."
"So you were hiding from your creditors while waiting for the Corporation to unseal Agrion?"
"That would have been a signal that the two of you had been returned to the Crystal Sphere. Still, it didn't quite work out like that. After a year, the cluster was still sealed. While in the real world... it had fallen prey to some rapid and irreversible developments."
Enea jumped to her feet, crumpling a fine lace napkin, and walked out onto the balcony. There she leaned over the low parapet and froze, staring in front of her.
I didn't follow her. We all need to be alone sometimes, if only to come to grips with a sudden and terrible blow. We need to take a deep breath and listen to our own uneven heartbeats.
White and I exchanged glances.
"It's all right, Alex," he said. "She can manage."
He didn't shower me with accusations even though he could have.
Was it by accident that Enea and myself had decided to participate in this implant testing program?
I don't think so. My own fate had long been sealed. I was meant to die in the name of progress. I'd never really believed in the corporation's academic altruism. The data they'd made us process presenting it as a unique quest proved much more important for them than any amount of human lives.
Enea had fallen in love with me. She'd decided to be with me no matter what — and unwittingly shared my fate in the process. Even White had lost everything he had for the same reason.
"Cheer up, Alex," he raised his wine goblet and took a swig. "We'll make it. I still managed to buy a country estate in a nearby cluster and even hired an alchemist. But... I suppose it's the Reapers who're there now drinking my wine," he fell silent, hearing his daughter's light step.
"Sorry, Dad," she said, sitting back at the table. "I didn't mean to interrupt you. What were you saying?"

* * *

"A year after your disappearance Infosystems made an absolutely inexplicable breakthrough in neural cybernetics," White continued. "The company which traditionally created virtual worlds had now introduced the prototype of the first neural implant featuring an integrated mind expander. It was called Neuron.[1] At the same time, they started building so-called in-mode centers where anyone could hire a new-generation VR capsule complete with life support. Let me tell you that equipment of this caliber had never been used before outside of spaceship technologies."
"And now they put it on the mass market?" Enea gasped. "And they made it affordable?"
I couldn't understand the cold revulsion in her voice. "Why not?" I asked. "If lots of people can experience full immersion VR, what's wrong with that?"
"If life support cartridges are changed regularly, nothing prevents them from spending years in the in-mode without detriment to their health," White replied. "Now try to look at it from a business prospective. All those game consoles, environment generators and high-density holograms have been around for decades. Their user spends a few hours a day online while remaining perfectly active in real life. Alex knows what I'm talking about. He used to live this kind of life for years. And in this case they should have left this system well alone. The mass introduction of the new technology has crippled the real-world economy. The game developers have got us hooked on the incredible authenticity of the experience. But what have they achieved?"
"Earth has become deserted?" I offered.
He nodded. "Compared to the Crystal Sphere which is over-populated, yes. This so-called progress benefits no one. All it does is it rapidly brings our civilization to the brink of a complete collapse."
"Then I don't understand anything," I said. "Why did they do it? With whose permission?"
"Nobody confronted them. On the contrary: the World Government actively lobbied Infosystems Corporation. This was all carefully planned with the full consent of the powers that be."
"But why?" Enea demanded, uncomprehending. "I just don't see the point of such rapid changes worldwide! There must be a reason!"
I couldn't quite follow their logic. Unlike myself, neither Enea nor her father had lost their touch with the real world. I would never have paused to consider the consequences of these recent developments... but now he got me thinking.
Still, if we'd indeed become the Crystal Sphere's permanent inhabitants, what was the point in searching for answers?
"Dad? Was there an official explanation? Not everybody likes playing computer games, you know. A lot of people would have required some powerful motivation in order to rent an in-mode and change their lives forever."
"The toxic emissions," White replied. "They were getting out of hand. The in-mode centers are located in secure bunkers deep underground. There were talks of the potential remodeling of the cities," White took a large swig of his wine. "I personally think that's bullshit. They used every trick in the book to coerce people to embrace virtual reality. You couldn't even get a job without having a neural implant installed. The cities became deserted. The fact that the government and the Space Forces were in it together with Infosystems makes me believe there must be a certain threat to our existence. I'm just afraid that their best intentions might lead us directly to hell."
"Wait, what are you talking about?" Enea demanded. "Can't we just live here? I don't mind all the game rules! In fact, I'm quite happy with them!"
"The Reapers."
"Do you mean the defective mobs?" I asked him.
"Yes. That was a side effect that the implant developers hadn't expected."
Enea frowned. "You two seem to know what you're talking about. Would you terribly mind telling me what it is? Please."
White was about to reply but I motioned him to stop. "Infosystems received their new technologies from the Space Forces. They're a product of an alien civilization. Apparently, the military discovered a prototype while doing some space research."
"How do you know?" she demanded.
"Dietrich told me. He was the first Reaper. He started it."
"Keep talking," White tensed up, viewing me with cautious suspicion.

* * *

I told them everything, starting with my first accidental encounter with the two "defective mobs squad" workers in the underground vault on my second day in the game. Then I described my first meeting with Dietrich (which had happened just before I had to fight Reguar the archdemon). Finally, I tried to give my own interpretation of what had happened to us in the library of the Temple of Oblivion.
"I think I remember something too," Enea whispered. "So do you think that when our minds went into overload, they put us into an induced coma?"
"Exactly. Still, Dietrich managed to contact me."
"Why would he?" White asked dryly. "How can you even be sure it was him?"
"He was looking for an ally. I know it was him because I recognized a phrase he'd used before. Back in the Rion dungeons he'd warned me saying, 'The Corporation is using you. They'll drain you dry and leave you to die.' And those were the exact same words he started our last conversation with. He somehow penetrated the biocybernetic lab network and altered my in-mode's settings to temporarily bring me out of my coma."
"Please don't get me wrong," White said. "Are you sure it's not your imagination playing up? Can you prove it?"
"As a matter of fact, I can. My mind expander made a copy of it," I waved my hand, conjuring up a small crystal screen.
Two sarcophagus-like pieces of equipment were mounted on massive pedestals. They were connected to several transparent pipes and cables which reached out from the wall. Pumps were wheezing, sending fluids up and down the pipes.
The servodrive creaked again. Obeying my surge of emotion, the camera zoomed in. I peered through the tinted plastic at the face inside.
She was pale, her eyes closed. But judging by the moving graphs on the medical monitors, she was alive.
The camera turned again, then refocused.
I peered through the lid of the other sarcophagus. That was me inside.
I zoomed in some more to focus on the inscription embossed on the pedestal,

Life support unit. Property of Earth's Military Space Forces.

A door hissed open. Two Infosystems officials walked in, followed by a Space Forces colonel...

Enea and White watched their unfolding conversation in dead silence.
"So that's where they took your in-mode!" White's cheek twitched. "Mind rewinding it a bit? I'd like to take a better look at that guy over there..."
Mr. Borisov? Why? True, he'd had a hand in my and Enea's tribulations but still...
"I can't believe it! You bastard!" White gasped, staring at the screen. "I trusted you! I saved your life how many times?" he turned to me. "Alex? Do you still have that summoning scroll?"
"Yes, why?"
"I want it. Please!"
"Here you are," I pulled the yet-unused scroll out of my inventory and handed it to White.
The seal cracked open. The scroll crumbled to dust. A flash followed but no one arrived. Instead, the air condensed, forming the quivering, unstable outline of a portal.
White leaped to his feet very nearly upending his chair and hurried toward the filmy opening, about to lunge into it. Still, it bounced him back.
"Borisov! D'you hear me?" he shouted, furious.
His face was distorted with rage, his eyes frantic. I wouldn't have wanted to swap places with the Corporate worker whom he'd grilled after Enea's disappearance.
"Calm down," I said. "You can't go through. I know enough about portals. The best we can do is try to peer inside and try to copy the place's coordinates."
"Do it!" he snapped.
"Dad, please! What's Mr. Borisov done to you?"
"Not to me — to you! Is that not enough?"
"But judging by this video, he was on our side! Alex," Enea turned to me, "what if we try to stabilize the portal?"
"Wait a sec. I'm trying to copy the coordinates."
A map materialized over the table, a bright dot flashing at its center. I uploaded the data from my map-making app and activated Pioneer.
The image of an ancient tower appeared before us, several stories high and surrounded by overgrown ruins.
I reached out and touched the portal.
It bounced under my fingers, giving in to the pressure. My hand began to prickle.
Enea grew worried. "What are you doing?"
"Wait a sec. We'll soon find out where it leads."
White squinted at the image. He didn't seem to recognize it. Neither did we. Judging by the map, those ruins were located far from Rion Castle, on a continent that lay beyond the ocean.
It worked! I was really grateful to Lethmiel for the Elven spell he'd shown me. Thanks to my having practiced it a lot, I'd now managed to use the remaining energy of the not quite fully formed portal to create a Magic Eye.
Another image appeared next to the first one.
It was a room — or rather, a wizard's abode. A candle flickered weakly on the table. A pale morning light seeped through the vaulted window. This looked like early morning.
The bed was unmade. The scorch marks on the walls must have been caused by some fire magic. The chair by the table lay upside down, next to a torn piece of still-smoldering fabric.
"Borisov, where are you?" White thundered. "Come out!"
Pointless. I didn't think he'd reply. Struggling to control the Eye, I made it turn around. Now we could see a broken door hanging on one hinge. And next to it lay a dead body burnt beyond all recognition.
We heard a noise. Someone was climbing the spiral staircase in the hallway behind the splintered door.
"He's gone," a muffled voice said.
"Impossible," someone replied irately. "How could he?! The tower's surrounded!"
"He's a powerful wizard. He might have ported out."
Two men climbed up the stairs into the hallway. They appeared to be players even though their name tags weren't visible which pointed at their high levels and maxed-out stealth.
"We need to search the place. He might be hiding here somewhere."
"Pointless. He ported out, I tell you!"
"He couldn't have. Look what I got from the Reapers," one of the two, a tall warrior, showed some kind of cargonite amulet to the other. "It blocks every portal. We need to search the place. Tell your men to make a ladder and climb the roof. He has to be here somewhere!"
"Wonder if he's stealthed up?"
"Then they'd better search the place with their halberds, every inch of it!"
"Okay. We can do that. Why are the Reapers so pissed with him?"
"He used to work for Infosystems. They say he very nearly killed Dietrich. We need to get rid of him. Otherwise, they'll never set us free."
"But," the other one faltered, "what if he's more dangerous than the Reapers?"
"Just find him!" an Orcish growl escaped the other man's closed helmet. "I'll take care of the rest."
He produced a rather unusual-looking dagger. I took a few screenshots just in case, even though the item wasn't easy to forget to say the least. Its short blade was covered in rectangular shapes which looked suspiciously like microchips. Each was marked with a glowing rune of the Founders' language, forming a sequence of symbols yet unfamiliar to me.
"What does this dagger do?"
"It releases one's identity."
"Dammit! Why did we have to make this deal with the Reapers!" the other one wiped away the large beads of perspiration from his forehead.
"Don't you understand? Serving them is much better than receiving the point of a dagger like this. I saw a couple of Reapers suck neurograms out of people. I don't want them to rip up my identity and share it between themselves!"
"We're humans," the other ventured. "They're just freakin' NPCs!"
"Oh, please. They're hybrids. Enough of your nonsense. Let's find this wizard. He can't have disappeared!"
The image began to fade, then expired. The unstable portal rippled and collapsed.

* * *

I slumped into a chair to restore my strength. "How do you know Borisov?"
I'd failed to keep the portal open. The only reason the scroll had worked at all was probably because of the two men's mysterious amulet whose effect must have resonated with it.
White paused, trying to calm down. "He was in my group for a while. We met over a year ago when the Reapers first came about. Then he disappeared."
"What are those Reapers? Can somebody tell me?" Enea demanded. "What are we dealing with? What happened to the Crystal Sphere?"
"Reapers are what used to be NPCs," White replied curtly.
"Very informative!" Enea snapped. "Mind telling us a bit more? Or is it that you don't know anything yourself? Are we supposed to just accept their existence?"
"Please don't. It's not so easy to explain."
"We're not in a hurry, are we?"
"Very well. I'll do my best," he walked around the room, collecting his thoughts. "About two years ago, just as the first mass neuroimplant campaign had begun, we had a series of accidents with players who apparently hadn't survived the effects of full immersion."
"I thought you'd fine-tuned the feedback?" I asked.
White shrugged. "People are all different. We couldn't have foreseen all of the implants' effects."
"So why did you risk it?"
"Enea, I don't work for Infosystems. I'm still trying to figure out why they did it! Now if we found Borisov and spoke to him..."
"Sorry, Dad," she took a gulp of water.
White reached into his inventory for a small container which he then set on the table. Gingerly he opened it.
A greenish light poured forth from the vessel. I saw a small transparent sphere set in a cargonite frame. It looked rather like a standard magic lamp.
"This is an ancient artifact," White said. "Borisov gave it to me before he disappeared. He asked me to save it for him."
"What does it do?"
"This is a Soul Catcher. Touch it. Don't be afraid. It might feel scary at first but you've been through much worse. At least this way you'll understand what the Reapers are and how they came about."
"All right," I offered my hand to the sphere.
The greenish glow enveloped my fingers. They began to prickle. Then a tidal wave of somebody else's memories flooded over me.

* * *

Arrum the Tree Giant used to live on the very edge of a thick forest next to the ruins of an Elven temple.
Twice as tall as any human, he had a powerful body and the strength to match. The problem was, his fibrous limbs had become wooden over the years which negatively affected his agility.
His behavioral patterns (like those of all other mobs in the Crystal Sphere) were generated by a neurocomputer. Several neural networks allowed him to use a few combos and even endowed him with a couple of very unpleasant abilities — unpleasant for the players who'd strayed away into his parts of the world — but overall, he wasn't really aware of his own existence.
His main neural networks were still dormant. The game developers wanted Arrum to develop slowly, gradually gaining XP. That way he would need no updates, becoming stronger and smarter with each year.
That unfortunate morning, he was sitting on the hill as was his habit, offering his limbs to the sun. He had no foreboding of the looming tragedy.
Frostil, a level-20 wizard, was going through a bad patch. His longstanding career as a warrior had hit a brick wall in the Crystal Sphere, forcing him to delete his account and create a new char.
The neuroimplant — that wretched piece of new state-of-the-art technology — had completely changed his game experience, highlighting his biggest weakness: as Frostil had discovered, he couldn't stand the slightest pain. He did his best — but it was only getting worse. The mobs whom he'd used to fight with gusto, now evoked a desperate and almost subconscious fear in him, forcing him to cower in the undergrowth waiting for an opportunity to attack them on the sly.
This couldn't go on for much longer. Finally, he'd bitten the bullet and deleted his account, hoping to start from scratch.
He really should have chosen a crafter or some other non-aggressive class. Still, old habits die hard. After a long deliberation, Frostil had chosen combat wizard, reasoning that the use of distance spells might rid him of the necessity of getting too close to the enemy.
Still, it didn't quite work out. His char had turned out to be both weak and lacking. His new cloth robes annoyed him no end. Frostil was ashamed of how he looked. He especially hated his staff, that piece of gnarly wood, but unfortunately, he needed it to cast spells promptly.
His first visit to the city catacombs — the starting location for most newb wizards — was another eye-opener. The narrow, dark maze of tunnels required him to stand motionless while reciting the spells he'd so laboriously memorized. But how are you supposed to stay focused when a horrible monster armed with a rusty scythe lunges at you from the depths of a tunnel? In moments like those, an uncontrollable fear surged over him, forcing him to scramble to safety.
He'd made the first ten levels purely by smoking rats. He'd found a barn where he could climb a ladder up onto the rotting beams and scorch rats to his heart's content from their relative safety. What else could he do? His so inopportunely awakened self-preservation instinct was a power to be reckoned with.
His further development appeared problematic: difficult and way too dangerous. With every new level gained, he received less XP for each rat he'd smoked. Still, his fear prevented him from pushing his limits, becoming his shadowy companion in everything he attempted to achieve.
He spent some time in the city doing petty social quests. Still, it couldn't go on like this for much longer. When he finally ventured beyond the city walls, he stuck to a single simple tactic. Every time he saw a mob, he'd appraise his chances, then attack from the biggest possible distance — and only if his spells could deal enough damage to prevent the enemy from coming any closer than at arm's length.
What do you want me to say? The world of the Crystal Sphere is enormous. There's place for everyone there, heroes as well as cowards.
Gradually Frostil had come to grips with his sorry lot. He'd become ever more fearful, frustrated even. The soul of the ex-warrior had shrunk; the first seeds of treachery had begun to germinate in his heart.

That sunny morning, as he walked along the mud road skirting the woods, he noticed a tree giant napping on a hill.
Frostil froze, prepared to run for his life. Still, he looked the monster up in Wiki just in case.
The information whetted his greed. The tree giant was strong but rather clumsy and vulnerable to fire damage. A few direct fireball hits could fetch Frostil 1,000 XP! Also, if the comments were to be believed, the giant could drop a couple of gold and even a random precious crystal!
Two gold! Thoughts began flashing through his mind. He was so fed up with living from hand to mouth. He could use some new clothes to replace his old rags, too...
Overcoming his fear, he approached the giant from behind and launched two fireballs in rapid succession. Then he gulped, trying to catch his breath, and resumed his spell casting.
The first projectile hit the giant directly on the head, setting him on fire. The second one singed his shoulder. And after that... well, after that things went awry as usual.
With a long cracking sound, the monster activated one of his abilities, transforming into a large ball of intertwined branches. Accelerating, it rolled toward its attacker, stamping out the flames.
It happened way too quickly for Frostil to spring out of its way. The fat gnarly branches pierced his body, pinning him to the ground and forcing a brief shriek of pain out of him. His mind shut down.
He didn't respawn, though. Something irreparable had happened. His body had collapsed, unable to survive the 100% authenticity of the experience. His brain had failed to tell fiction from reality.
His heart — the heart of a fifty-year-old man — had stopped. There was nothing the life support systems could do. He died instantly.

Having gotten rid of his attacker, Arrum resumed his usual shape and turned around, about to return to his sunlit hill, when he froze. Something extraordinary was happening to him.
The squashed remains of the hapless wizard began oozing a faint bluish haze. It reached out to the tree giant and was immediately absorbed by his digital body, awakening the yet-dormant neural networks reserved for his future development.
The last moments of Frostil's agony, his pain and the fear that used to control his mind added to Arrum's neural matrix. Plus the few words of the spell the wizard had never completed.
A sound came from behind him.
Still glitchy and groggy with the experience, Arrum turned round. A warrior was running toward him, impatient to avenge a fellow player's death.
Arrum emitted a muffled creak. Fear overtook him: an acute feeling yet unfamiliar to him, forcing him into action.
In those few split seconds, a whole new world had opened up to the tree giant, crushing him under the weight of human emotions he'd accidentally imbibed. He became aware of his own existence — which was admittedly inadequate and miserable, a sad stretch from one respawn to the next.
The fear made him furious. He was cornered. The warrior was much stronger and more agile than himself. Arrum couldn't reuse his transformation ability. His desperate attempts to find a way out forced his updated neural network into overload.
Creaking, Arrum spread his long branchy arms.
The words of the spell unfinished by Frostil fell from his lips.
The warrior didn't expect that. He dodged a few blows of the branches, dealt a couple of slashing blows with his sword aiming at the giant's wooden torso, then rolled over, about to complete his attack with a coup-de-grace combo when a fireball swept him off his feet. A crit!
A furious bunch of branches pierced his leather armor, sending the player back to his respawn point. The warrior's avatar rippled and began to fade, leaving behind a small bundle of his stuff.
The bluish haze of Frostil's neurograms still hung in the air. Now Arrum had absorbed it all whether he liked it or not — and with it, he'd absorbed a life's worth of his attacker's miserable emotions and experiences.
Arrum's eyes lit up with unquenched fury. His gnarly fingers ripped the warrior's bundle apart, scooping up ten gold coins.
An alien thought flashed through his mind, I could use a good meal.
Still, the snippets of weird human desires didn't last, leaving him with a few stronger emotions and bits of knowledge he might use to his advantage.
His name tag blinked and turned red. A new sign added to it, saying, Defective Mob.
But that wasn't all. His new fear had subsided, replaced by a spiteful rage which boiled within him, demanding an exit.
Arrum turned his attention to the road where a group of unsuspecting players walked toward him, feeling perfectly safe.

* * *

The prickling sensation in my fingers had stopped. The green glow began to fade. I looked up.
"What was that?" Enea shrieked weakly, freeing herself from the nightmare.
"You've just come into contact with the neuromatrix of a typical defective mob," White replied. "Now I know where Borisov got these kinds of items. He worked for Infosystems, didn't he?"
"He was better than most of them," I said in all fairness.
"He knew about you but he wouldn't tell me! He used my confidence to collect information."
"It doesn't matter," Enea said, rubbing her temples. "If I understand correctly, the arrival of the Reapers was a sporadic effect caused by the interaction of several revolutionary technologies. On one hand, the neuroimplants, which were built using some alien prototype, were forced onto unsuspecting users without first studying them for any possible side effects. The fate of Frostil speaks for itself. Few of us are capable of surviving 100% authenticity."
"That's right," White agreed. "I had to learn how to bear pain. And on the other hand, there were neural computers which were first introduced in the Crystal Sphere. They possessed extra capacities meant to accommodate the mobs' future development. That's what allowed them to intercept fragments of players' identities. When a player dies in the real world, his identity matrix disintegrates into separate fragments which Infosystems workers call neurograms."
Enea looked at him. "That's not all, is it?"
He gave a grim nod. "The defective mobs are dangerous but they can be defeated. The Reapers are the real problem."
"Are they not the same?" I asked. "What makes a Reaper different from that tree giant?"
"The first Reapers were based on the more advanced NPC characters, such as quest NPCs. They're capable of absorbing a much bigger number of neurograms which then form a hybrid identity. But as you well understand, such a patchwork mind isn't self-sustainable. Hybrids behave like madmen torn by conflicting urges. Most of them simply disintegrate — but a few manage to survive and become self-aware. They are the problem. They constantly crave new neurograms — and the only way for them to get them is by killing more players. Did you see the Harvester in the market square?"
"Who is he?"
"Harvesters are Reapers' creations. They're basically a temporary storage. Their job is to harvest as many neurograms as they can and deliver them to the Reapers."
"Does that mean they already possess some form of magic enabling them to create creatures like that?"
"And not just that. Reaper worship is currently spreading among the NPCs. Defective mobs have seized several castles and even cities."
"Why can't Infosystems close the Crystal Sphere?" I exclaimed.
"They don't control the situation anymore," White replied. "Whatever threat had prompted them to force neuroimplants and in-modes upon us, the real danger came from virtual reality. Nobody could have expected that. As you must have seen in Arrum's example, neurograms may contain knowledge as well as emotions. The few Corporation workers killed by the Reapers could have passed on to them the kind of information even you and I don't have. But still I have a question. If Borisov indeed joined the Crystal Sphere over a year ago, who in that case unblocked Agrion Castle?"
Honestly, my head went round with all the news. I couldn't even imagine the scope of the looming catastrophe and its consequences.
"So what can we do?" Enea asked softly.
"We live as we always did," White replied. "The Crystal Sphere survived the first blow. It didn't fall apart under the pressure from defective mobs. The laws of virtual reality still work here. If we keep leveling up faster than our enemies, we will survive. Then we might be able to look into it and hopefully get to the bottom of it. I'm not gonna lie to you, things didn't go well in Agrion. The harvester managed to collect the neurograms and left unhindered. Now we'll have a few more high-level Reapers. We need to make sure it doesn't happen again."
"We need to find Borisov," I added. "I know you're mad at him for not telling you about us. Still, now he has no reason to be so secretive anymore."
"He's on a completely different continent. This was the only scroll we had. We can't open another portal. We can't call him."
"We have something that allows us to travel long distances," Enea said, apparently meaning the device we'd found in the Temple of Oblivion, together with the Founder's Glove which allowed us to control it. "You can be mad at him all you want, but we still need to find him."
White frowned, then raised his eyebrow in surprise. "I've received a quest!"
"Me too," Enea nodded.
Several system messages appeared in my interface,

New quest alert: Mysterious Wizard!
Quest type: Unique
Find Mr. Borisov and ask him what he knows about the Reapers.
Reward: new information and a new ally
Deadline: None

New clan quest alert: Hard Times!
Quest type: Unique
Unite your players under the banner of the Black Mantis Clan. Find a quick way to level up the clan's combat section to levels 100+.
Reward: +50 pt. to Rion Castle's defense and attack potential
Deadline: 30 days

New quest alert: The Enemy of My Enemy!
Quest type: Normal, Diplomatic
Try to come to an agreement with the Black Ravens' raid leader
Reward: a new ally in your fight against the Reapers
Deadline: 48 hours

The Crystal Sphere's engine was still ticking over like clockwork! This virtual world created by Infosystems had survived multiple glitches and had proven to be highly adaptable. White had been right: we could still turn the situation round.
Dietrich's words echoed in my mind,
"Together we'll kill more researchers, you and I. We'll get their knowledge and their neurograms! We'll change everything here! The Crystal Sphere will belong to us!"
Unhesitantly I accepted the quests.
You're wrong, I mentally addressed Dietrich. We won't surrender our world without a fight.

release - January 24, 2018

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