Posted by: lordkyler | May 28, 2016

“War Games” – A Not-So-Short Story Draft

“War Games” was going to be the first entry in this year’s Short Story Week, but thanks to a sudden brainstorm, that quickly expanded into something much larger.

This was originally intended to be something of a spoof on the flood of YA dystopias on the market, including the use of first-person present-tense (which I found very annoying to write in, by the way,) taking the premise on its face and then adding a twist to the end.

About 2,000 words in, however, I realized I was getting way too deep into this world, and soon after, I had a random brainstorm that expanded this kernel of a concept into a full-fledged popcornian idea.

I don’t know when – or if, to be honest – I will actually write this thing, but I didn’t want to let that initial writing go to waste, so I’m putting it up here for your enjoyment. Let me know what you think?

I close my eyes and feel myself slip into the space between realms. I fly through an empty void, other worlds flashing past me like reflections in water, brief glimpses into realities that can be very different from the world I know. Places of magic, scenes of the supernatural, empires that span across the stars. Some are familiar to me, and others are totally foreign. I could stop and peer more deeply into any of them, but I don’t. I’m looking for a very particular place, one that I know as well as I know myself.

Athesallia. It’s a high fantasy module, but it’s not like a lot of the other fantastic realms. Most settings like this rely on complicated and arcane magics that users can spend a lifetime learning to manipulate and exploit, and those that don’t are typically a mishmash of clichés and high drama.

But Athesallia is different. The system is simple but robust, and the setting is grounded and sensible. A lot of users find that boring, but I think it’s elegant. It actually requires practice and creativity to master, which is appealing to me.

I’m not alone in that, either. My best friends also stick to Athesallia during their sessions. None of them are actually in my cluster, but I’m closer to them than anybody I know in wakespace.

It only takes me a moment to locate Athesallia’s dreamspace among the swirling realities of the central nexus. I could keep it linked among my favorites, but I prefer to search it out each time. It’s like a little quest to get me started. I access the world and  let it wrap around around my mind like a warm blanket, comforting and familiar.

Establishing connection, says a thought in my head, and I can see it happening around me. Even though our Cradles are incredibly advanced, they can’t replicate entire worlds in the detail that would allow our minds to accept them. So instead, it taps into the power of our subconscious mind, suggesting the shape or idea of a thing, and then letting our minds fill in all the details in the very moment we look for them. That’s why they call it dreamspace; it’s like a lucid dream, with the computer to connect you to everyone else’s dreams and keep your thoughts grounded to a consistent place.

But that connection takes time to synchronize, so I watch as the world bleeds into being around me. Grass springs up around me, and I run my bare feet through it. It’s soft and wet with dew. Waves of green race away from me, rising and swelling into hills and valleys. Rivers appear, snaking through the landscape, and mountains crawl up the horizon, impossibly tall and majestic. A few seconds later, snow covers the peaks like frost, and forests spread from their feet like mold. A glorious blue sky fills the air overhead like a great dome, full of huge fluffy clouds and sprinkled with daytime stars and tiny moons.

Then the human structures begin to load, roads and bridges branching across the land to connect gleaming cities and great towers, the massive temples and imposing castles of my home faction. A moment after that, life springs up to fill the empty scene. Butterflies flutter above the fields, birds sing proudly in the woods, and in the distance, larger creatures loom: dragons and auliants and leviatha. Then came the people, farmers tending fields, traders traveling the roads, soldiers patrolling the borders.

Last of all were the changes to myself. Armor sparkled into existence around me, even as my body changed, becoming taller, leaner, stronger. My mousy brown hair grew long and dark, tumbling over my shoulders. Sometimes I felt as though this was the real me, emerging from a shell I wore elsewhere. That’s one of the reasons I choose to watch the loading process rather than entering the simulation fully-formed. As much as I love Athesallia, I need to remember it isn’t real. I would never let myself forget that. Not after what had happened to Peter.

When my cloak and daggers appear, I know the synchronization is complete. It only takes a few seconds for Valdrian’s messenger bird to find me. A tiny scarlet hummingbird zips through the air like a laser, and comes to a halt right in front of me.

“You’re late, Nyxen” it says, mimicking Valdrian’s deep, velvety voice by the way it beats its wings. He calls me by the name of my persona, instead of my actual name, Grace.

It’s a common practice to use different nicknames in the dreamspace. I made no effort to hide my real name, but I didn’t really use it either. The same was true of my guild. I think Valdrian’s real name was Nicholas, but I’d never really called him that, and even though I’d spent years alongside his persona, I had no idea what he really looked like. I only knew how old he was because he’d served his Onus last year.

“I’m sorry, Valdrian,” I say. Nyxen’s voice is also different from my wakespace one, husky but still feminine. I begin moving around to get the feel of my dreamspace body. “Next shift was slow relieving us. You know how spy-heads get.”

Valdrian grunts, or rather, his hummingbird grunts for him. “Well, as long as you’re here now. We’re at the Helltorch Waystone. Be quick.”

I nod, and the hummingbird is gone in an instant, leaving only a red trail in the air. I tap into my totem and feel the power of the bat fill me. My cloak comes alive like a pair of giant wings, and soon I’m flying through the air, casting an enormous shadow beneath me. I pass over thousands of sim-folk, who look up at me with wary awe, but are not fearful of me.

I toyed with playing a villain in the past, but while I like the freedom and even the aesthetic, I don’t really have it in me be diabolical. To say nothing of the fierce competition among the underworld factions. I’m firmly on the side of angels now, even though I kept the dark clothing and devil-may-care attitude of the other side. I know it’s all just silly playacting when you come down to it, but I feel better doing pointless good than pointless evil anyway.

I reach the Waystone quickly, three crude slabs of stone arranged in an arch. This will allow me to quick-travel to my guildmates. It would cost me a little bit of my spirit power, but it was better than flying across half the continent. The world spins around me as I pass through, and suddenly I am in a very different place, blasted and withered.

This is the Umbran Empire, run by the Carrion Clan. They’re the most powerful dark magic faction in Athesallia. They recently claimed Pyre’s Point, renaming it Helltorch. Today’s mission was to reclaim the citadel by assassinating the local clan leader, a fire sorceress who went by the name Sinistri.

This was a big deal, and I’m embarrassed to be even a little late, so I waste no time flying over to my team. Valdrian waits with crossed arms, his hummingbird hovering over one shoulder, and his eagle perched on the other. He’s a totemist mage like I am, and he’s been the leader of our team for the past year. He’s every bit as strong and decisive as his persona, a tall, broad-shouldered man with keen eyes and a noble jaw.

Other members of the team wait less patiently, eager to get started. We make a colorful group. Including myself and Valdrian, there are nine members in our team, each with a different focus and style. Some worlds reward a narrow, specialized focus, but in Athesallia, it pays to have a diverse group with good synergy. We all worked together well, but I only count two of them among my actual close friends.

Logaine is our team’s alchemist and artificer. While he doesn’t do much fighting himself, his support and backup makes him almost as vital as our team’s healer. He’s got a unique sense of humor that fits well with my own, and we constantly banter during battles. And to be honest, even though I know it’s shallow, it helps that his persona is incredibly cute, with long, wild red hair and laughing green eyes. He’s the closest thing in my life to a boyfriend, but I don’t see any point in starting something so close to the time of my Onus.

My other friend goes by her real name, Annabelle. Her persona was an elemental, an eight-foot tall creature made from clouded quartz. She looked like a living statue, but only half-finished, vaguely humanoid but lacking details Her “real” body is visible only as a shadow inside the crystal chrysalis. The quartz is studded with glowing gemstones; rubies and emeralds and sapphires placed at key points. One massive diamond forms her entire face, forming a point that juts outward.

She’s our defender, always on the front lines, taking the worst of the damage, and dealing it back just as hard, using her massive jade hammer and the spells we store in her gemstones. I don’t know anybody more solid and sensible and honest. She is the first to greet me, wrapping me in a hug that nearly costs me health points.

“I thought you had maybe forgotten,” she says. Her voice is musical, adjusted by her filters so that it resembles the singing of a wine glass when you rub your finger on it.

“Just a little delayed,” I say, speaking to the group as well as Annabelle.  “But I’m ready now. All my reserves are fully charged and all my feats are primed.”

“I’m not much of a foot guy myself, but yours do look pretty nice,” Logaine smirks.

“Enough chit-chat,” says Treane, our animaster. Her bear snorts impatiently and paws at the earth with golden claws. “We only have one shift to accomplish this mission, and I’ve got to stop by the Galaxia realm before it’s over.”

“What’s the matter, Tre?” Herman asks tauntingly. “Still haven’t figured out your drone problem?”

Herman and Treane play on rival factions in the Galaxia realm, constantly vying for rare materials and coveted upgrades. It’s mostly in good fun, but there have been times after a particularly clever scheme where they won’t talk to each other at all.

Valdrian interrupts them before they can get into a squabble. “Not now, guys. This isn’t a simple crypt clearing. Sinistri has lots of defenses in place, and there are a few Carrion players that could present a real challenge.”

The hummingbird zips into the air, using its elemental infusion of light to make a line drawing of the Helltorch Citadel. “We’re splitting into two teams. Flasher and Crasher will go with Annabelle to attack the main gates, with Logaine, Liren and Card for support. The rest of us will…”

He trails off, tilting his head at something only he can hear. A second later, his persona becomes transparent, and a pulsing blue sphere surrounds him. He’s receiving a message,

Annabelle looks at me, worried. If  Valdrian is interrupting the game to take a message, it must be very serious. His suspended persona shows no emotions, but when Valdrian emerges a few minutes later, I know something terrible has happened. His persona masks his expression, but it can’t quite hide the slump in his shoulders or the tremor in his voice.

“Something’s come up,” he says quickly. “You guys can play without me if you want. I might not be back for a while. Sorry.”

Before any of us can say anything, his persona begins to dissolve, scattering like a swarm of fireflies. His birds vanish as well, and for a while, there is only silence. Several members of the team go still, but their eyes glow, revealing that they are looking away into other places in dreamspace.

“Found it,”  Herman says suddenly. “Nothing official yet, but the Onus talkspaces say–”

“Guys, maybe we shouldn’t pry,” Annabelle says. “Valdrian will tell us what happened when he’s ready.”

One by one, the glowing eyes around the circle grow dim. Nothing really needed to be said after Onus, anyway. We were able to spend our lives in dreamspace fulfilling every dream and luxury, but there was a terrible price to pay for this paradise. I try not to think of Peter and fail.

“I think I’m just going to go, too,” Annabelle says. “It doesn’t feel right to do the mission without him.”

The others agreed as well, some more reluctantly than others. Herman and Treane quickly make the jump over to Galaxia, while Annabelle invites several players to spend some quiet time in Eden. I turn her down gently, and soon only Logaine is left with me.

He isn’t wearing his trademark rakish grin, but he seems restless, craving a distraction. “Do you want to check out another realm?” he asks. “I hear there’s a new arena sub-world on Titania that’s fun. The superhero realm. Or we could dream up a realm of our own. I’ve got this idea for a supernatural sort of thing…”

“Sorry,” I interrupt. “That sounds like fun. Maybe another time?”

Logaine shrugs, looking slightly hurt, but he vanishes before I can soften the rejection. Besides, I have my own pains to deal with. I close my eyes, shutting out Athesallia, and disconnect from dreamspace.


Waking up isn’t truly uncomfortable, but it’s never really pleasant either.


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