Authors: Jaron Lee Knuth
Tags: #virtual reality, #video games, #hackers, #artificial intelligence
Also by Jaron Lee Knuth
The Infinite Life of Emily Crane
The NextWorld Series
Book 3 coming in 2015
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © by Jaron Lee Knuth
First Edition 2014
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution - NonCommercial - ShareAlike
3.0 Unported License
The NextWorld Series
by Jaron Lee Knuth
“Whatever that be which thinks,
understands, wills, and acts.
It is something celestial and divine.”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
I won the game.
I killed my enemies and I got the girl.
You'd think I'd find contentment in the fact that with an army of Level Zeros, all operating at the same Level as me, I was able to kill every monster in every zone. The civilians are free to spend their days without fear, gathering information from every book the designers placed inside the world, learning and exploring their new found emotions.
Yet here I am, marching the Level Zeros into another unfinished zone over the Darkfyre Mountains, continuing my search for more game to play. The name on the map is a series of meaningless numbers with multiple decimal points, but it's massive, four times the size of the desert zone. It's full of hills and valleys and clusters of trees, with a canyon that rips through the center, ending in a cliff side that falls off the edge of the world.
Every time we reach the top of another hill, a valley stretches out toward the horizon, mocking me with its emptiness. There are no structures, no signs of civilization or activity of any kind. There are only tall grasses swaying in the wind like waves of green. It's been weeks since we've entered the zone. The troops are growing restless, but not nearly as restless as me. I slide my pistols back into their holsters and let out a defeated sigh.
The barbarian standing next to me says, “It's the same thing.” He pushes the blond hair out of his eyes and adjusts the horned helmet on his head, his arms flexing as he performs the simple task. “I'm starting to think Cyren is right. These zones beyond the Darkfyre Mountains were probably meant for some kind of future expansion, a planned area that wasn't finished by the time they released the beta.”
“I'm not going to give up,” I say, lifting my telescopic goggles to my eyes and zooming in on the next hill. “If there's something out there, we're going to find it.”
“Forgive him,” a voice from behind us says, “Arkade is annoyed that he's run out of things to kill.”
We both turn to see Cyren climbing up to meet us. Her black leather straps glisten in the sunlight, every metal buckle twinkling like a star against the night sky that is her body. Her arms lift her lithe body without any effort as she hops on to the boulder next to me. When she leans over to hug me, her black lips brush against my cheek, planting a kiss there as they pass.
“I'm not just trigger-happy,” I say, even though it's a lie. “We need to know if there are any monsters left. I'm not going to rest until there's nothing left to threaten the life of any NPC.”
“As you've said many times before.” Cyren flashes a knowing smile. “But there's something you don't understand.”
“No? What's that?”
“There will always be the threat of death for us. Car accidents, natural disasters... heck, I could fall off this boulder right now and snap my neck.”
“As long as the Level Zeros are grouped with me, their Levels will match my Level 100. You're not going to suffer much damage falling from this height.”
Cyren smirks, like she thinks my argument is cuter than it is poignant.
“You're missing the point. That impending doom? That fear of death? That makes us more human.”
“It helps us understand you,” the barbarian says as he slaps my back, knocking me forward with his Level 100 strength. “From what I've read, fear is the source of most human interactions.”
“We should get moving,” I say, pointing toward the nearby hilltop. “We could reach the next hill by nightfall.”
The barbarian points to the western sky and says, “There's a storm coming. We should make camp.”
“We still have time to-”
“No,” Cyren says firmly, “
have a previous engagement.”
I take off my cowboy hat, knocking the dust from the brim. “We do?”
“Xen and Raev?”
“Oh. Right. Of course. I-”
“No. I just...”
“It's okay. If I didn't expect you to forget, I wouldn't know you very well,” she says with that same comforting smile. “But these are your best friends. I think it might be nice not to be late to their partnership ceremony.”
“Fine,” I say with a pouted bottom lip, but when I turn around to give orders to the barbarian, I stand up straight. “Send the scouts ahead of us. I want them to reach that treeline and report back before daybreak.”
The barbarian nods and makes his way down the hill, back toward our camp.
“Don't look so depressed,” Cyren says, playfully punching my arm. “The Omniversalist partnership ceremony is a celebration.” When I don't respond, she adds: “That means you should smile.”
I know she's calling me out, so I force a chuckle. “Sorry. It's just that... I mean, Xen and I barely get a chance to talk anymore. And it's not my fault this time! He's been so busy with Raev and getting everything organized...”
“You should be excited to see him then.”
“Do you have a speech prepared?”
The size of my eyes reveal how startled I am by the question. “A speech? I have to give a speech?”
Cyren slaps my arm, less playfully this time. “Of course you do! You're his witness!”
“No one told me that involved talking to people!”
“It's common knowledge.”
“Not common enough, apparently.”
Cyren tugs on my arm, leading me down the hill, back toward the camp. “Come on. I'll help you write something.”
“Can't I just... wing it?”
“This isn't a low Level quest. You're going to be in front of a crowd, and they're going to expect you to at least pretend you feel emotional about your friend's happiness.”
“Don't you think this ceremony is... kind of pointless?”
“When you say things like that, it proves that there is no way I'm going to let you 'wing it.'”
“I thought Omniversalism was all about telling the truth,” I say with a smirk. “The truth is, I think this is kind of pointless.”
“That isn't funny. This day is important to Xen and Raev, and you should be honored you're a part of it.”
I grunt, pretending to acknowledge what she's saying, but Cyren doesn't let me off the hook.
“What's the problem now?”
I bite my lip, knowing I shouldn't say anything, but of course it comes out anyway. “It's just that people are always telling me how I
feel, but it's never how I actually feel.”
“And by people, do you mean me?”
I shrug my shoulders and mumble, “Sometimes.”
She grabs on to my wrist and stops my descent down the hill. She yanks harder and pulls me so close to her that I'm looking into her eyes from a few inches away.
“I'm trying to help you.”
“I know,” I say, my eyes shifting from side to side, looking at everything except her.
She appears more sullen than before as she says, “I'm trying to help myself too.”
My eyes flash to her.
She turns away from me and looks out over the camp of Level Zeros. “As more and more connections are forming in our programming, we're becoming more like you. These feelings, these emotions, we're experiencing them for the first time. Some of us aren't sure how to deal with it. Some of us get overwhelmed. But you have this lock on everything you're feeling, like you can control your emotions, set them aside so you can focus on logic and reason.”
“Is that what you think I'm doing? You think I'm controlling my emotions?”
She glances over her shoulder with eyes so sad that I want to reach out and hold her and tell her everything will be alright, even if I'm lying.
“I don't know, Arkade. Sometimes I think the more I feel, the less I understand.”
I can't help laughing to myself. “Cyren... sometimes I think you and the other NPCs are becoming more human than I will ever be.”
But I'm lying again. I don't think Cyren and the other Level Zeros are becoming more human. I think they're becoming something else entirely.
When we sit down to watch the video-cast of Xen and Raev's partnership ceremony, I realize how nice it is to have some time with Cyren. It's rare to share quiet moments with her. I'm always moving forward, over the next hill, looking for more of the game. Holding her hand, with her head on my shoulder, is a treasure I never stop craving.
The screen playing the video-cast is hovering in front of us. Cyren can't access casts from outside of the game world, so I try to explain everything that's happening.
Xen looks happy. Happier than I've ever seen him look. His smile is beaming like the sun itself. The moment Raev enters the room, he looks like he might explode. She's wearing a plain, gray cloth wrapped around her body multiple times, per Omniversalist tradition, but it looks nice against the deep blue of her avatar's skin. Her hair looks like rainbow-colored ribbons that stream behind her as if there was a constant gust of wind blowing through the room. As she approaches, her eyes never leave Xen. They're lost in each other.
From the back of the church, a DJ plays music. He mixes their two favorite songs together to create something that sounds entirely new. Cyren assures me this is symbolic.
Even though she can't see it, the whole ceremony is making her cry. She keeps apologizing for it and I keep telling her it's okay, but it scares me. It's affecting her on a level I'm afraid I won't ever understand. To me it looks unnecessarily decadent.
As the ceremony continues, Cyren explains the details of the ritual to me. Omniversalism is one of the things she's been studying, trying to understand the human need for spirituality. She's tried talking to me about her theories of souls and binary code, but I spend most of the conversation nodding my head. That stuff has never felt important to me. It's like a puzzle with a solution that holds no reward. What's the point?
The Omniversalist teacher reads from some ancient text called “First Origins” before lighting a series of candles. Each candle emits a different colored flame.