01.01 – Meet Cian

A man shivered, stripped to his boxers and chained to a metal chair by his arms and legs. He was in his early twenties and had the look of a soldier – tanned, clean shaven, sporting a buzz cut, and very fit.

The bright lights reflecting off the table in front of him hurt his eyes and his head ached from the blow that had landed him here, an angry bruise still forming behind his ear. He stared defiantly at his captors.

The three unusual, humanoid figures stood around the table opposite him wearing a form fitting, jet black dress uniform with a multi pointed half star insignia on the lapels that seemed to represent a rising sun. They had been trying to interrogate him, but all they got were expletives and threats.

“It’s no use. None of them can understand us.” spoke the first, a man with dark brown skin and jet black hair and eyes. He was short and stocky – his facial features rough, with a protruding brow and wide chin.

A woman replied “But we’re speaking his language Kodai! He should be able to understand!” She was tall and lithe, with bright white skin, shimmering silver hair, and eyes so blue they almost glowed.

The short one, Kodai, continued “It’s no use. The programming is too strong. No matter what we say, this one thinks we are threatening or torturing him. Tell her Bann!”

The third, Bann, replied in a deep voice “He’s right, Reema. This isn’t going to work. This is the fifth one we’ve captured since learning their language, none of them can understand us. Even speaking their language, they still don’t truly hear us. It’s the network, they’re using it to control perception.” He was androgynous in appearance and stood at a height between the others, with blonde hair, brown eyes, and pale skin with a faint greenish tinge.

“What about the network?” asked Reema “Can’t you find a way to bypass it?”

Bann sighed, replying “You know what happened to the others Reema, as soon as you tamper with the system, the kill switch engages and their consciousness transfers. We haven’t even figured out a way to stop them from the rebirth, let alone disable the part that controls perception without tripping the kill switch. The tech is too advanced. Maybe if we had the original Weaveborn artifacts we could do something, but everything we get from these ones self destructs.”

The chained human heard none of this. To him, these aliens were plotting how they would torture him and telling him he would divulge all his secrets when they started skinning him alive. No one was coming to save him, they would skin him and eat him alive. The rest of the conversation consisted of growls and them arguing over which part of him they would eat first.

He sighed and waited for the countdown on his Log Out command. Once it was done, he would have to make a new character. He would have to start over, but he could see no other way out. He had already lost all his gear. He had been warned to stay away from flesh reaver space – the mobs here were much higher level. But the loot out here was incredible, and he was promised a share of the bounties. If only those bastards hadn’t left him behind. Ah well, no risk – no reward, the man thought, as his screen went black and he mentally tapped the Delete Character button.

You use absorbent powder. Critical hit! The vomit is destroyed! Gain 1 million experience! Level up!

Cian tried to distract himself while he shook the disinfectant absorb powder over yet another pool of vomit. If wasn’t quite as gross if he pretended it was a game. This one had blood in it. The ER was busy tonight, and this was only the third grossest thing he had cleaned up so far this shift.

Working overtime as a hospital janitor just to have a crappy car, live in a tiny apartment, and almost pay his bills wasn’t quite what Cian expected when he graduated top of his engineering class. His degree in mechanical engineering didn’t go far in this economy – nobody got a job without connections, and Cian had none. Oh, he had done a few unpaid internships – the kind where you worked your ass off with ten other idiots only for none of you to get the lucrative position – but his dreams of eating something better than ramen and buying something more advanced than his ten year old gaming rig remained woefully unfulfilled. If he was lucky, the overtime he worked this week and the next would cover his water bill before it got shut off again.

If only he could afford one of those TIVI (Total Immersion Virtual Interface) units. Worlds & Empires had been out for two years now, and it was still the game that everyone played. It was also the only game the TIVI ran, being developed by the same company. “Virtual reality like never seen before!” “More real than reality!” the reviewers gushed. But at 50k and 500 bucks a month, it was a bit out of his price range. Cian had tried some of the cheap knockoffs, but nothing compared to the real thing. It was so popular among the elite that the world commodity markets had started trading in virtual resources and the in-game currency had a higher volume and market cap than the most popular crypto. It even had an app accepted everywhere from department stores to hole in the wall restaurants, it was more liquid than paper money.

Top players made their living solely from playing, and top guilds attracted investors and sponsors in droves. It was a harsh and unforgiving game, where a misstep could cost you thousands of real dollars worth of in-game value. Death was permanent, but if you had the money you could buy back in – and with the right amount you could even buy back the lost skills and experience and rebuild your character. The only things that you couldn’t lose from death in the game were your penalty points and your bank account.

For someone who would probably never play it, he had spent an inordinate amount of time reading about it. He had signed up for the “scholarship” program when the game launched, which gave you a free TIVI and half price subscription. It had been two years, and no one but WE Co., the developers of both the TIVI and W&E, knew how the scholarship process worked.

He especially couldn’t get the game off his mind now, because he had hope to maybe play it. WE Co. had announced last week that they were going to be giving out thousands more scholarships this week. Cian just knew that if he could get into the game, he could be a top player…

“You almost done, kid?” asked the overworked nurse peeking his head in the room, whose name Cian still couldn’t remember.

“Almost!” said Cian, snapping out of his reverie as he poured a bit too much powder on the mess. Okay, maybe he had poured the whole box onto it. Oops. He finished cleaning up the room and headed toward the break area. Maybe he could sit down for a few minutes before…

“Hey, you!” called Dr. Bradley. She was the doctor on shift tonight, “Get over to hall C, we had a bleeder. Damn paramedics didn’t do their job right.”

“Uhhh, that’s Tina’s section.” said Cian.

“I. Don’t. Care. I need a clean ER. Get it done.” answered the doctor, already heading past him to another room.

“Damnit…” thought Cian. He went and gathered more supplies and headed over to do Tina’s job. Lazy ass probably called off sick again.

Cian fantasized about what class he would play when he finally got into the game. The setting was a dystopian, science fiction future where numerous alien species vied for domination of known habitable space. It had grand combat – from fighting on the ground, to dogfights in fighters, to huge capital ships; resource gathering and crafting skills in every imaginable field that expanded on real sciences; and a deep economic system of inter-species trade and investment. The skill and class system was so complex that even now, after two years, new skills and classes were being discovered.

There were numerous classes and skills, with roles for trading and piloting and crafting. From what he read, the combat players were the ones who leveled up faster. The top players had all started as combat classes, fighting on the ground until they had the resources to pilot ships and on from there – many of them had made fortunes trading and crafting, but all the best ones got their start by fighting. In every game he played, he always played for the long game, so he would probably start a combat class and work his way into a lucrative crafting character. He had already spent way too much time on the online character builders, checking out available classes and equipment.

Now he just needed to get that scholarship… or win the lottery. Or have some distant relative die off and leave him a bunch of money. Or actually get a job that paid more than minimum wage. Any of those would be good, and probably equally likely.

Cian made it to hall C. Ugh. Did the guy die? There must have been at least a pint on the floor. It was even on the wall. Was that a good sign, or a bad sign? They must still have a decent blood volume to have enough pressure to…

“Excuse me! Damnit, can’t you guys keep our halls clean? This is a damn biohazard. Where’s Tina?” asked a nurse as she rushed through.

Cian had been daydreaming again. He snapped to attention and started cleaning up “Uh, not sure. I’m working on it!”

You use mop on blood puddle. Critical fail! The blood puddle uses smear across the floor! The floor is destroyed!

Cian smiled to himself. Blood, blood, blood. Blood was messy. W&E had realistic blood. Player Killer (PK) players raved about the gore, and they took a bit too much pleasure in the ability to inflict pain – thankfully the system let you turn it down almost to off. It wasn’t a free for all, though. The penalty point system was actually pretty decent. They were acquired for destruction of property and unprovoked killing of others, with a higher penalty for killing low level players and unarmed NPCs.

Some of the top PK players had racked up millions of them by destroying whole transport ships full of low level players and unarmed civilians, but the penalties were harsh. Above a certain amount made you hostile to the Dromon Peacekeepers, the empire controlling the starter planet Kiana Prime. There were other empires that didn’t care and had their own justice system, but NPC privateers would hunt them down and even being offline wasn’t completely safe. They slowly went away on their own at 1 every 8 hours. There was also a way to pay to get rid of them, which players often abused to steal valuable things from each other without penalty. Cian wasn’t really into Player vs. Player (PVP), but if he found someone bleeding out with good loot that might be a good way to…

“Oh, hey man. You got this? Cool. Cool. Ima go get that… that other thing.” interrupted Tina. She was a baby faced, heavyset gal who didn’t look a day over eighteen, despite being in her twenties. She abruptly turned around and was about to walk away.

“Dude, I’m doing your job here!” exclaimed Cian, “Come help me finish it. You can get the rest on the floor while I get the wall.”

Tina stopped for a moment, looking glum, then brightened up like she had a good idea. “Oh, uh, I forgot gloves. Let me just…”

Cian slapped a pair of nitrile disposables in her hand before she could finish and gave her a look.

“Okay, okay. Don’t yell. I got it.” replied Tina as she got to work.

Cian’s radio came to life. The voice of Ms. Hawthorne, the head nurse of the ER, came over it clearly “2-1-0! This is 2-0-0! Where the hell are you? I need these rooms cleaned yesterday! We have patients dying for a room over here! Over!”

Cian cringed and took his radio off his belt, “Uh, this is 2-1-0. 10-4. Heading your way now. Over.” He looked at Tina, “Looks like you got the rest of this! See ya.”

“Wait, I thought you were getting the wall!” complained Tina.

“You heard the woman, that’s not a voice you say ‘No’ to.” said Cian, rushing back to his section. It was going to be a busy night.

Two hours later, Cian was hiding in a maintenance closet, hyperventilating as he looked at his phone. He had almost deleted it out of habit. There had been so many false positives before, but this didn’t look like a phishing email…

“Congratulations! You have been accepted into the WE Co. Scholarship program! Your unique scholarship code is ML2L-L8FN-LS4U-AQVL. Just follow the links below to begin the sign up process. This code will only work for you. If you are no longer interested, there is nothing you have to do – the code will expire and be reassigned in five business days. Congratulations, and we hope you enjoy our game!” it said, followed by links that went to the actual W&E website.

With shaky fingers, Cian copied the code and went to the W&E website to paste it in, and hit the “Continue” button…

“Welcome to Worlds & Empires Scholarship Program! Your journey begins here! Just fill out the following information so that we can properly set up your account, and your TIVI unit will be shipped to your door, free of charge!”

Cian started going back and forth between feeling like he had won the lottery, and panicking – The invite said he had 5 business days to claim his account and log in. Where was he going to get the money for the subscription? Was there an installation fee or taxes? His paycheck wasn’t until the Monday after next, seven business days away! But he actually got in! He could pawn his gaming rig! His couch! Maybe not his bed. Definitely the stove, though – the landlord wouldn’t notice, would he? He slumped to the floor and began filling out the forms and agreeing to all the EULAs and waivers.

After he finished filling out the information and setting up his account, he wasn’t sure what to think – it asked for his bank account information and even synced up to his online bank account, but never did say anything about how much it was going to cost. In the end it simply told him that he would be contacted within 72 hours.

The next three days, Cian spent every waking hour planning out what he wanted to do. He barely focused on his work, just doing the bare minimum and sneaking off at every opportunity to look up details of the game on his smart phone. He looked at guides and in-depth analysis and character builders and read half the forum. Once he actually logged in, he would be stuck with his choices and have to make do with whatever his measly finances could afford. You could only have one at a time, and it cost $1000 to restart even as the most basic character.

Players started as a completely average human with 25 attribute points in all 6 statistics. You could add and subtract points in order to shift them around a bit, but you couldn’t go below 10 or above 50. Raising an attribute over 40 cost double, but only during character creation. They were divided in two sets – three physical, three mental. Strength, Agility, Endurance, Wit, Presence, and Will. There were no other races to choose from, and the starting class selection was minimal.

The classes weren’t very limiting, skills were on a percentile system from 0 to 100%, the higher you got the harder it was to progress more. Most of the skills were general and were available to every class, but the best ones were class-specific. Optionally, you could pick a new active class every ten levels. You kept your old class skills, but raising them was very slow while a different class was active. The classes were on a tier system, with tier 1 classes being available from the start and tier 2 and 3 classes requiring advance knowledge and higher and more specialized attributes and skills. You earned more attributes as you leveled, and it was based on what class you were. Cian read the descriptions of all the attributes carefully.

Strength – Physical power. Influences how much physical force you can apply. Determines how much weight of equipment you can comfortably carry and use.

Agility – Fine motor control. Influences how quickly you can perform actions, especially intricate ones. Influences movement and attack speed.

Endurance – Ability to physically endure. Affects how long you can perform physically demanding actions and how well your body resists damage of all types.

Wit – Mental power. Increases ability to learn – both in speed and in understanding of advanced skills. Influences perception.

Presence – Mental control. Improves ability to focus, quickly read situations, and multitask. Boosts perception, social skills, and leadership ability.

Will – Ability to mentally endure. Affects how long you can perform mentally demanding actions and how well your mind copes with trauma.

According to the posts he read online, the attributes actually changed how you interfaced with the world – high agility actually made reaction times to things faster, and higher endurance made things hurt less.

Tier 1 classes were pretty basic – their skills were stuff you could do in the real world like soldiers, medics, business professionals, and scientists. Tier 2 classes were the peak of human performance in some way, but starting as them required sacrificing some attributes to meet the requirements. Tier 3 classes were superhuman – you could wield magic, run as fast as a car, or interface with machines on a subconscious level.

Higher tier classes were able to be unlocked during character creation without the required skills – if you knew the name of the class. There was a little box where you could input the class. If you got the name wrong, it simply told you the class didn’t exist. If you got it right, it would either give you the class or tell you that you didn’t meet the attribute requirements. Nowhere did it say what they were unless you already met them – you had to find out from someone else, or guess.

The top players were all playing various tier 3 classes. The requirements of the tier 3 classes was a closely guarded secret of the top players and guilds, and a few even managed to start as Tier 3 by focusing heavily on certain stats and taking heavy penalties. You could buy out of these penalties later on, but without help it was nigh impossible to get started. It was worth it, since higher tier classes got more attributes per level. Tier 1 classes gained 4 attributes every 10 levels. Tier 2 classes gained 8 attributes every 10 levels. Tier 3 gained 10. And the class skills got more powerful with the higher tiers. All tiers gained 5 character points every 10 levels, which could be used to buy out of penalties, buy bonus traits, or increase attributes.

There was no known maximum on levels, but even the best who had been playing professionally for two years were only in the low 200s. It was rumored that a few had survived long enough to reach level 300+, but the cost of death and rebuilding a character at that level was astronomical. Millionaires had spent their entire fortunes rebuilding a top tier character.

Cian spent much of the next three days in character builders perfecting a tier 2 class he had learned about on the forums, the Brute. It turned out that this class was considered the meta, or “most effective tactic available”, build for new players just starting out. The starting equipment needed was cheap (large stick as a club? Good to go! Sharpened piece of metal? Even better!), you didn’t need expensive ammunition, and you could grind your way up on readily available quests outside the starting towns.

It required 45 endurance and 35 of both strength and agility, and came with impressive close quarters combat skills. He even learned that there was a tier 3 class called a Juggernaut one step up from Brute. It only required more of the same attributes and higher levels of the skills he was starting with, and finding a trainer for it was supposed to be easy.

But no matter how effective it was, it didn’t feel right. Cian didn’t want to play the same cookie cutter character that everyone else had.

The other option he had come up with was another tier 2 class, the Marksman. It was a generalist ranged class that started with impressive gun skills, some of which even worked in ship to ship combat. It had required 40 in Agility, plus 30 in Strength, Endurance, and Will. But it was only recommended for advanced players who could get around the starting weaknesses. More experienced players simply re-started as tier 2 or 3 and bought their way into enough experience to shore up these weaknesses from the start. He just didn’t have enough information to make an informed choice…

The door to the maintenance closet suddenly opened. Cian looked up from his phone to see Tina standing there, looking irate.

“There you are! What the hell, man?! They had me and Mike cleaning up your rooms! Why are you hiding in here?” she asked.

“Uh, just taking a quick break. Sorry.” said Cian sheepishly.

“Ah, don’t worry about it. I thought hiding in the maintenance closets was my thing.” Tina said, chuckling. She peeked at Cian’s phone as he got up. “Hey, is that a W&E character builder on your phone? Did you get in too?!”

Cian froze for a second before answering, “Too? You got a scholarship? I didn’t know you even liked games? You never talk about it!”

“Well, if you ever talked to me more than ‘Hey Tina, do this.’ or ‘Hey Tina, why are you hiding in the maintenance closet instead of cleaning up the diarrhea in the bathroom?’ you might know! I love gaming. I told Mike I got in already. But he’s super jelly that he didn’t get in and wouldn’t listen to me about it. I might have told you if you hadn’t been hiding every time I came by yesterday.” said Tina.

“Oh. Yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m doing to do when I start.” said Cian.

“What’s so complicated? You got an engineering degree, right? Be an engineer! Crafting is where all the money’s at, and I bet your degree would help you figure out the system. Maybe you could make space ships or laser beams or something. Ima be a fashion designer!” said Tina excitedly.

“Fashion designer is a class?” asked Cian.

“Well, no. It’s not called that. I found a tier 2 crafting class that has starting tools and skills for making armor. But I can design it, and armor is fashion. Fashion designer!” Tina replied.

“Oh. Cool. When do you get your TIVI?” asked Cian.

“I’m supposed to be getting it day after tomorrow. Which sucks because I miss, like, the whole weekend!” said Tina, looking despondent, “What about you?”

“I think it’s supposed to be here tonight. I got an email yesterday asking to select a service window and it let me pick 5pm to midnight.” said Cian.

“At night? Geez, they’re serious about getting those things installed asap. Getting you set up for a weekend play sesh. I’m so jelly.” said Tina.

“I have to work tomorrow. I work Saturday’s, remember?” said Cian.

“Yeah, but you don’t work Sunday or Monday right? So you still get a weekend gaming sesh.” said Tina.

“True. I’m excited.” said Cian.

“Me too!” said Tina. She grinned and faked a cough. “Oh no, I’m totes getting sick. Don’t think I can come in Monday or Tuesday!”

Cian laughed. “Mike and Anton will be pissed if we don’t show and they have to cover for us. I’m definitely not covering for you! I’ll be out of town.”

Tina laughed.

“Well, I should probably get back to work. We should play together after we both get in.” said Cian.

“Eh, maybe. You’ve kinda been a dick. I dunno if I wanna play with you.” said Tina.

“Et tu, Tina? I thought we had a moment together. I’m hurt, truly hurt.” joked Cian.

Tina smirked, flipped him off, and walked away.

Cian rushed through the rest of his shift. On his way out to his car, Tina flipped him off again from across the parking lot, yelling “So jelly!” He shook his head. That girl was weird.

When he got home from work there was a WE Co. truck waiting outside his apartment building. A whole team of technicians was waiting with a pile of waivers and other paperwork to sign. They had already started running a dedicated fiber line up to his apartment. One of them took him aside and explained that the basic TIVI package and first month of game play was free. Additional months would be $250 a month.

In his excitement of even getting a chance to play, he signed the required one year contract with a $1000 restocking fee for early cancellation. He let them in his apartment and the technicians began installing the TIVI system. It only took them an hour and a half, most of which was running all the wires.

Now Cian was sitting there, staring at the TIVI and wondering what he had gotten himself into. Even with his 60 hour work week, he barely made enough to pay his bills – let alone an extra $250 a month. He had to make a character as soon as he logged in, and he didn’t have enough money for a do-over. If he didn’t figure out a way to make real money in-game real fast he would be forced to return the TIVI and be financially ruined. On the bright side, his credit was already crap and he didn’t have any assets to seize; but this was his shot. He couldn’t screw it up.

After a few more minutes on the online character builder going over his options, Cian finally stripped down and plopped into the TIVI unit. It was a bit awkward, sitting his bare butt into the thing and connecting all the electrodes – including an external catheter that fit over him. It was weird, but he had read the funny forum posts about people neglecting to put that on and logging out to find they had peed themselves after a long gaming session.

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