01.09 – Ghost Town

Cian awoke to sounds of battle. It seemed he was fighting in the middle of a group of Pa’Ran soldiers! His body was moving on its own. He was fighting against other players! But his hands were… pincers? He was a Pa’Ran! With that realization, Cian remembered. The soldier who poked at him – he had leapt into it. Now he was riding shotgun in its body, watching as it killed other players.

Trying to log out again proved fruitless, so Cian tried to reason out the situation. He was stuck in the game. His character was dead, but he still had most of its stats. His class was Boundless – maybe this was a class feature? As soon as he got a proper body, he should be able to log out again. With that bit of creative reasoning, Cian calmed himself down and got to work. His Willpower was regenerating slowly now, so he just had to bide his time until a solution presented itself.

Looking around, Cian didn’t recognize the town he was in. It was a very small town with one street, a few shops, and a planetary shuttle center. A group of players were fighting alongside the local NPCs while a stream of NPCs were rushing into the shuttle. A loudspeaker blared, telling everyone to evacuate. The Pa’Ran that Cian was in rushed forward and joined the melee. It wasn’t going well for the players, but most of the NPCs had made it into the shuttle. The players were standing their ground to the death, so the reward offered for helping the NPCs to escape must have been pretty good.

In cases like these, quest rewards paid out even if you died – as long as the objective was accomplished, you would find the money in the bank and could even use it to buy back in with a new character. Often they even had rewards for partial completion, and the Pa’Ran event was making respawn free. The result? Valiant players fighting to the death for the hope of a big payout.

Cian tried to exercise a bit of control over the Pa’Ran he was in, finding that he was able to make it stumble or throw it off just enough to miss its swings. He could feel the annoyance from his Pa’Ran host as he continued to sabotage it – even causing several of the other soldiers to die. It looked like the players might actually make it.

Suddenly, a loud sound rang out as heavy weapons fire erupted all around him. The Pa’Ran, tired of the player’s continued existence, had fired their ship to ship weaponry into the crowd.

Cian’s host body had been torn apart, and he soon found himself floating over the scene. Again his vision changed, with colors becoming dull and washed out. Almost everyone had been killed. A Pa’Ran sat staring at stumps that were once legs. A lone player crawled away toward the respawn bunker. He didn’t want to be a Pa’Ran with no legs, even if he did figure out how to take full control. He didn’t see many other choices, so he followed the player.

The player managed to get up, open the door to the lift, and step inside before a thrown Pa’Ran spear took him through the back of the neck. The player slumped backwards partway out of the lift. The legless one had found a way to lash out, and now lay back chittering to itself. Cian’s willpower was shrinking along with his options. He remembered that sometimes players would hide in respawn bunkers during events like this, since they had built in defensive weapons that fired at NPCs.

Taking a chance, he went into the lift before it closed – crunching the tip of the spear and the unfortunate player’s head in the process. After a few agonizing moments, the door opened to an empty room. Cian floated in, scanning the room with his strange, ethereal senses. There was nothing but the spawn tubes; no players, and no way to push the button to make the lift go back up. Could he move through metal? Even if he could, it was way too far back to the surface merely to get stuck in another Pa’Ran.

Cian debated his options in a panic. He suddenly noticed a feeling from the respawn tubes similar to what he had felt when near his old body. Not seeing any other options, he dove into the tube and was sucked into the thing.

He would have never expected what greeted him next. It was the character creation screen. Had the game finally realized he had died? It hadn’t said anything about the fee being waived, but wasn’t asking him for the $1000 payment. His next surprise was when, going through the process, he came to the screen to select attributes. Instead of 25s, he had 52 Will, 42 Wit, and 41 Presence! Trying to lower them did nothing. His other stats were similarly stuck at 25.

Without much other choice, he finalized the attributes. His second shock was his character’s appearance – it looked exactly like his real life body, and trying to change it just gave him error messages. And what happened to the class selection window? Moving on, he tried to select Cian again as a name, but that gave an error too.

Only one option was available for starting towns – a small ranching city named Chalo built on an oasis in the middle of nowhere. The town didn’t have much infrastructure except for a respawn area and shuttle zone, but the player count was showing zero. That must be where he was! Probably a lousy start, but he didn’t have much choice. He could always get transport to another area – intra-planetary shuttles weren’t very expensive.

It was time for the moment of truth! Finalizing the character, Cian immediately thought he had broke something – everything went black! His whole body hurt and none of his senses were working. He tried to mentally hit the logout button, but still nothing happened. Pain bloomed in his head and Cian lost consciousness yet again.

Cian woke up, his head pounding. This was starting to become a worrying theme. This thing was going to give him an aneurysm or something. He cradled his head with his hands and rubbed his temples. Wait, hands? He had hands, and legs! It worked! The incredible pain and inability to log out temporarily forgotten, Cian excitedly looked at his character screen.

Name: Cian Kemp
Class: Boundless
Strength: 25
Endurance: 25
Presence: 41
Health: 250/250
Willpower: 520/520
Agility: 25
Wit: 42
Will: 52
Stamina: 250/250
Level: 5
Total Experience:16500/21000

Mental Projection (C): 25.3%
Mind over Body (C): 23.7%
Psi Defense (C): 15.5%
Psionics (C): 18.6%

His starting attributes were great! – he had 45 points above what he had started with as a Boundless. And his negative trait was gone – his original physical trait was left with his old body. That trait would have cost 30 points to get rid of, putting him at 75 points above baseline! That was like 50 levels! He still had all of his experience and skills. Jumping bodies had even bumped his mental projection skill up a bit.

And his name – it had put his real last name on there. Players normally didn’t have a surname – it wasn’t an option in character creation, and paying for a name change to get one was a ridiculously expensive real life purchase from WE Co. – $10,000!

Cian felt at his face and found dried blood around his nose. That was a bit alarming. How long had he been out? He remembered passing out, but wasn’t sure what was going on. He decided to try logging out now that he had a proper body again.

Nothing happened. He tried it again and again and didn’t even get a response. Jumping bodies must have broken something even more than it already was. He tried to access the forums, but it failed to connect and told him he was offline.

Offline? But he was still IN the frickin’ game!

Opening up the Help screen, he tried to submit a ticket – but it just gave him an error message saying that it failed to connect and to try again later.

After a few minutes of freaking out, he calmed himself down. There had to be a precedence for this, even if he couldn’t remember news of it. VR was still a pretty new tech, this was probably just a rare side effect that the company was keeping the lid on. He decided that he would simply have to play until he figured a way out. Once he met another player, maybe one of them could submit a ticket for him. Otherwise, he knew the TIVI pods had an emergency log out feature and the ability to call the authorities once his vitals started dropping. He may as well make the best of it until then.

Then Cian noticed another problem. He was naked – and not just underwear-naked, butt-naked. Well, that could be solved. He stepped over to the console and put his hand on the hand print.

Starting package already taken. Only one starting package is allowed per player.

Cian paused, taken aback by the message. “Great. Just great. I don’t even get UNDIES?!” he yelled at the machine and kicked it, hurting his foot in the process.

Cian slumped to the floor, then winced and shot back up. It was metal. Cold metal, and covered in a layer of gritty concrete dust. He stepped over to the elevator and hit the button. The doors opened, and a grisly scene greeted him – the player he had followed in was there, his neck crushed and head missing. Blood pooled and dripped into the elevator shaft. Well, this guy had clothes. And a backpack. Time to find out how looting worked…

“Ew, ew, ew!” exclaimed Cian as he drug the sticky, headless corpse into the room. The clothes were drenched in blood, but the backpack wasn’t too bad. He winced as he peeled the bloody backpack straps off. It turned out looting was realistic, too. He rifled through the contents and smiled.

A knife, four days worth of rations, five simple bandages, and an extra set of basic clothes – including socks and underwear. And no blood on any of them! This guy must have recently spawned too, and stuffed his starter kit in his bag after he bought new stuff.

Cian dusted himself off and quickly pulled on the clothes, then eyed the man’s boots – they didn’t look too bad. He yanked them off the unfortunate player’s feet and rubbed the worst of the goop off them on the corpse’s pants. They were a bit stained from wading through the viscera outside, but they were much better than going barefoot. Cian sat on a dusty bench and slipped them on – they were a little tight, but serviceable.

Cian didn’t know what to expect outside, but at least he didn’t have to face it in his birthday suit. He pushed the button to open the elevator doors again and stepped inside, careful to avoid the pool of blood.

After a few tense seconds listening to some disconcerting grinding noises coming from the elevator, the doors opened and Cian headed out of the spawn bunker and into Chalo.

Cian walked out of the bunker and into a scene of devastation. No wonder no other players were here. It looked like some time had passed since he went in. What little town there was, was in shambles. Blood and viscera lined the streets, with the occasional Pa’Ran corpse. The smell was terrible. He tried to turn down his sensory inputs, but the options menu also seemed to be broken.

This place had been hit by the same attack that hit the rest of the planet, although it fared worse than most of the cities. Main street, which was pretty much the only street, was a row of smoking ruins. The bar, general store, garage, and charging station were gutted. The shuttle station was in even worse shape – barely anything remained but a large crater, with bits and pieces of what looked like a planetary shuttle strewn around the entire town. It looked like the Pa’Ran had opened up on it with their ship to ship guns rather than let them escape.

Cian looked around, checking for survivors and usable supplies. The town had been thoroughly looted – everything usable that hadn’t been destroyed had been carried off. Everything was dead. Cian didn’t see any bodies except the Pa’Ran – they must have carried them off. He received a notification about a quest.

Quest Alert! – Search for Survivors in Chalo. Rewards: Unknown. +2000 experience.

He was planning on doing that anyway. Not one to refuse free experience, he accepted it.

Now that he was seeing one outside of combat, he took a moment to take a closer look at one of the dead Pa’Ran. Its outer shell was some kind of tough organic armor, seemingly grown around the actual creature within. The actual Pa’Ran looked like some kind of stick insect, with a large bulbous head. The purple goo leaking from the armor smelled terrible. Cian retched, forcing back bile in his throat. The entire town stunk horribly – it looked like it had been a few days, and rot had set in. He found it strange – he didn’t remember smelling things quite so vividly before, not even in the awful battlefield in Valcim. His sensory settings must have changed. Walking further out toward the ranch land revealed more devastation – the livestock were all missing and the buildings burned.

Cian continued searching, checking all the ranches he found as he went. Hours passed, and Cian was tired. He had found nothing, and decided to find a place to rest and come up with a plan.

He located a mostly intact barn and sat down to look at his map. It was a little over five hundred miles, most of it through harsh desert, to the nearest town. A small mining town named Gregar’s Hill. There would be a shuttle service and his interface showed a small player count, so he knew he could find help there. But he only had rations for four days, and he had no idea how dangerous it was between here and there.

If he died he didn’t know if he would be able to get another free body and wasn’t sure what might happen to him. And given how broken things were, he didn’t want to test the issue – what if death would affect his real body, since he was stuck so deep in the simulation? On the other hand, if he stayed here he would quickly run out of food sitting still. He had no idea if any help was coming. He would have to gather up extra water in something and attempt the walk on his meager food stores.

As Cian thought this over, he heard a loud WHUMP. Looking around, he heard it again. It was coming from under a pile of rubble! Grabbing a piece of wood for leverage, he started digging and pushing aside the charred and broken lumber. The sound had stopped as soon as he started digging, but he kept on.

Soon he had revealed a small, well hidden hatch. It looked identical to the floor. He wouldn’t have found it if not for it being shifted up and damaged a bit – something had been trying to get out. Knife in hand, Cian carefully opened the hatch and looked down. A small ladder descended into the darkness.

Not hearing or seeing anything, Cian called out, “Is anyone down there? I’m here to help!”

After a few moments, he could hear what sounded like a guttural language of some kind. He felt a mild electrical jolt in his head, like a static shock, and suddenly heard the words “What? Who are you? Are the Pa’Ran gone? Are you part of the rescue party? My comms are fried so I haven’t been able to call out.”

Cian made to reply, but stopped at hearing the strange guttural sounds he seemed to be making.

Confused, he went on “Ye… Yeah, the Pa’Ran are gone. I’m Cian. I’m a human. I guess I am the rescue party.” Through his whole talk, he was faintly aware that he seemed to be speaking some strange, harsh sounding language – yet was able to understand it.

The person below replied, “Human? Oh, one of those. Um. I’m coming up, I don’t have any rewards or whatever for saving me, so don’t get your hopes up.” The voice was a bit lighter than his, but it spoke in the same harsh language.

Soon a small, furry hand popped out of the darkness, followed by a creature covered with short, tan fur wearing very dirty, loose fitting robes. The hair on her head was a messy pixie cut the same color as her fur. Cian’s interface identified her as ‘Rastlin, Female.’ He quickly checked the entry for them.

Rastlin – Sentient. Furry, mammalian species originating from the planet Rast. Ranging from 3.5’ to 5’ in height. Intelligence range similar to humans. Known for their agility and tracking skills.

Cian reached down and helped the Rastlin out of the basement. It looked like she was about 4’6”, with striking silver eyes and a cute button nose.

Dusting herself off and coughing, the Rastlin looked around and said “Thanks. Hell, those Pa’Ran did a number on the place. Cian, right? Names Vanna. Where are the other survivors gathering?”

Cian replied, “Uh… I don’t know if there are any others. I haven’t seen any. I was planning on going to Gregar’s Hill.”

Looking shocked, Vanna replied “No survivors? … Oh, they… they probably left in the shuttle. They were calling for boarding to evac when I hid in the cellar. Old Garlo, my boss and the owner of this place, went there to make sure the others made it back. I stayed in case anyone came back this way and hid when I saw the bugs coming. Old Garlo and them would have went for the shuttle. By now they’re probably almost back with a rescue group.”

Cian replied “Oh, um. Sorry to tell you this, but the shuttle looks like it exploded. Maybe there were two shuttles, and everyone left on the second one?”

After a few moments, Vanna, looking crestfallen with tears welling in her eyes, replied “Oh… No… No, we only have two shuttle berths. The second berth is for our quarterly trade shuttle, it aint due for another month and a half. Only one shuttle was there, it’s a local transport that mostly ferries humans and other travelers like you around. Not many of you come out this way, though.”

Cian felt bad – these NPCs (Non Player Characters) sure were realistic, the look on her face broke his heart. “Well, maybe someone is hiding in other hidden cellars. I looked around, but didn’t check for hidden doors.” Cian said.

Vanna wiped away her tears, nodding.

Cian shared some of his rations and he and Vanna spent the rest of the evening searching the entire area thoroughly. All the handheld devices they found were dead, presumably due to whatever the Pa’Ran had used to knock out communications. They found some supplies and survival gear hidden away in another cellar, but no other survivors. Vanna was quiet after that. They bedded down for the night in the small underground cellar. They quietly talked a bit and made plans to head toward Gregar’s Hill the next morning. Cian looked over the gear they had found and the notification that had popped up.

Quest Completed – Search for Survivors in Chalo. You found the only survivor of Chalo. Rewards: Increased reputation with Vanna. Travel Equipment and Supplies. +2000 experience.

Stealth Travel Tent – A small tent that sleeps up to two comfortably. Packed with two thermal blankets. Stealth field generator blocks heat signatures and deflects visual spectrum scans. Functional only when stationary. One class S energy cell lasts for up to 24 hours of continuous use. Charge: 700/1000. Durability: 95/100

Travel Rations, Omnivore – Food rations designed for omnivorous creatures. Contains no known allergens to known omnivorous species with enough calories for one day.

Survival Canteen – Processes and stores ambient moisture, amount depending upon local humidity. Capable of removing known pathogens and 99.9% of impurities if filled from water sources. Rechargeable battery lasts 7 days. Charge: 0/100. Durability: 93/100

Solar Anti-Grav Travel Pack – Micro generators reduce weight of pack by up to 50%. Charges during the day with small solar panel that doubles as cover to shade user. Can be used to charge other devices. Without exposure to solar energy, charge lasts for 2-7 days depending upon load. Charge: 0/1000. Solar charging 20-200/hr depending upon sunlight exposure. Durability: 98/100

Pulse Pistol – Basic energy pistol, fires pulsed lasers. Highly accurate. Damage: 50. Semi-auto, ten shot firing cycle. Requires one second between shots to prevent overheating. Up to 10 second cooling time between cycles. Uses class S energy cells, 20 charge per shot. Effective range: 100 meters. Maximum range: 500 meters. Charge: 800/1000 Durability: 70/100.

Class S Universal Energy Cell – Small energy cell used for various equipment and small firearms. Rechargeable. Charge: 0/1000. Durability: 80/100

They had found one tent, thirty rations, and three of the travel packs. One of the backpacks was nearly new, but one had a cracked casing and didn’t seem to work and another one was badly ripped. Half the food appeared to have been chewed on by some kind of rodent. With the four Cian had found earlier, that left them with sixteen usable rations and one usable backpack and tent between them.

It was bitterly cold here at night, so Cian bundled up tight and was still shivering. It felt strange trying to sleep in a game, but he was tired and couldn’t log out. He lay there for a while, thinking over recent events. Did anyone notice he was stuck yet? Would they even notice when he didn’t show up for work?

Eventually he was able to quiet his thoughts and he drifted off to sleep.

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