“Son of a bitch!” Nila yanked the visor from her face and threw it hard enough onto the couch cushions that it bounced. “Fucking newbies.”
She glared at the visor for a moment longer then went into the kitchen to get a glass of water and some painkillers for her pounding headache, leaning against the counter to drink. The sound of the front door unlocking alerted her to her roommate’s arrival and she poked her head out into the front hallway to say hi, lifting the hand not holding the water glass in a half-hearted wave. Sireno waved back, kicking his boots off his feet and onto the shoe mat, and came to take her by the shoulders and plant a kiss on her forehead.
“You look pissy,” he said.
“I just got fragged by some newbie who shot me in the back of the head after we had a deal. Now I’ve lost that prize money that was supposed to fix the car.” She scowled up at him. “Why are you giggling?”
“Because you’re so cute and tiny. It’s like watching a doll get angry. Besides, you know the risks. Why settle for the prestige of helping a ranker when you can just blow the shit out of them instead and rack up serious points?” He kissed her forehead again. “What do you want for dinner?”
“Roast newbie.” Nila followed him back into the kitchen and dropped down in one of the chairs with a heavy thump. “And you know what he said? He goes, ‘Backstab is the name of the game’.”
“Well, it is,” Sireno said, crouching down to pull the roasting pan out of the drawer beneath the sink. “We’re out of newbie, but roast chicken okay?”
“Yeah, sure. And not the point. Next time I see him, he’s getting his ass handed to him, along with a lesson on etiquette.”
“It’s just a game, Ni. I’ll cover you the cash. You can pay me back next tournament. What’s your new mortal enemy’s handle, anyway?”
“Ricochet. Ring any bells?”
Sireno thought a moment then shook his head. “Haven’t run into him before, or heard of him. Or her.”
“He used a male avatar.”
“So do you.”
“All right, all right.” Nila got up to prepare salad, taking out the last of her lingering anger on the tomatoes and cucumbers. “And I don’t need your money. I’ll find some other way to get it.”
“You know how they say pride goes before a fall?”
“Shut up, Reno.” Nila bumped him lightly with her hip on the way to put the salad bowl on the table.
Neither of them said much while preparing the rest of dinner and conversation turned to school once they sat down to eat. Nile felt herself relaxing again as she listened to Sireno rant about the other students in his law courses, nodding and making occasional encouraging noises around mouthfuls of food. By the time he’d exhausted the topic of how much he wanted to jump out of the third-floor window every time a certain classmate spoke, they were both cleaning up the last crumbs from their plates. Nila leaned back in her chair, lacing her hands across a stomach that felt full to bursting, and shrugged a little when Sireno asked how her classes were going.
“The usual. Might be getting a few pieces in a show towards Christmas. Just waiting to hear back on that big project, the oil painting one. You coming on tonight?”
“Yeah, got some homework to do then I’ll join you.” Sireno glanced at the clock. “Give me a couple hours. I’ll ping you when I’m there.”
“Good. I’m going to look up some more info on our Ricochet buddy.”
“You’re going to find out he’s some thirteen-year-old kid, then you’re going to feel like an ass,” Sireno called after her as she pushed up from her chair and headed back into the living room.
“I’m willing to take that risk,” she yelled back and dropped onto the couch again, settling herself comfortably before sliding the visor back over her face.
She gave the voice command—geared towards her and Sireno alone—to connect to the internet and the darkness of the visor vanished, to be replaced with the bustling town square that served as the central area of NetLife. High above the sun still blazed in a flawless blue sky, though she knew that outside the small house she and Sireno shared it was getting dark, and heat haze shimmered in the air around the buildings and storefronts. The buildings themselves were all uniformly pale sandstone but the signs and neon lights outside them blazed with colour and life, advertising games, meeting areas, and places to shop. Even as she watched, one of the advertisements rearranged itself from spelling out the name of one popular game to spelling out another.
The crowds eddied and flowed around her, brightly coloured knots of avatars in all shapes and sizes. She saw a couple walk by holding hands, the only difference between them and a real-life human the gently waving dog’s tails they both possessed. In the distance she saw what looked like a purple giraffe leaning down to read one of the message boards scattered around the area. Voices and music in a variety of languages filled the air, giving the market square its name: Babel.
Someone pinged her on a private channel and she moved to stand in the shadow of a building excitedly advertising a line of headphones, turning down the volume of the crowds as she opened up the channel. She’d expected it as soon as she logged back on but it still stung to have the results of the deathmatch in Backstab read out to her by a bored-looking NetLife messenger wearing a pair of bright pink bunny ears. She’d come in second, earning enough prestige to keep her place as number 26 on the top 100 list, but not enough to award her the cash prize she’d been aiming for. She dismissed the messenger, trying not to feel like it was laughing at her—it was nothing but code, not even controlled by a real person—and set her search agents to find out everything they could about Ricochet. When she was finished, she came off her private channel and back to the hubbub of Babel.
For a little while she wandered, checking out the advertisements and greeting people she knew. She turned off all languages except English, which didn’t do much to reduce the noise but did at least make it slightly more intelligible. Overhead the sun slowly sank down towards the horizon, mimicking the weather wherever its designers were; she could set it to her own time but mostly she preferred to let it stay on default, so that she could enjoy the warmth of the sunshine even when it was cold and snowing in the real world.
After checking the time she stepped into one of her favourite simulations, spending the next hour and a half immersed in a world of Greek gods and royalty. She left only when a small alarm went off in the corner of her vision, visible only to her, and walked out into the bustle of Babel again with a sigh. She debated keeping the avatar of the Greek king but ultimately decided to pull on her default avatar, a short male body that didn’t look all that different from her real-life appearance. Instead of commanding herself straight to The Shack, where she usually met Sireno when he came online, she walked, enjoying the cooling evening air and the sound of music coming from a four-piece band set up on the corner of one of the streets leading away from the square.
She passed a new sign plastered across the wall of one of the buildings without quite seeing it, then paused and backtracked to take a closer look. Between its brightly decorated neighbours, the sandstone building seemed plain and almost faded, looking more like the construct of code it was than the nearly seamless representations around it. Only the sign, surprisingly plain coloured lettering on a white banner, looked fully there. Nila looked up at the single word emblazoned across it, then shrugged and continued walking.
Sireno pinged her when she was within sight of The Shack, a lightweight wooden building set at the top of a long white beach leading down to ocean water so impossibly blue it made Nila feel a little dizzy to look at it. She followed Sireno’s signal to the bar within the building and dropped down on the empty red stool beside him, making a brief motion with her left hand to tell the bartender—code or person, she wasn’t sure which—what to bring her.
“You can’t actually get drunk here, Reno,” she said, eyeing the row of shotglasses neatly lined up in front of Sireno’s green-haired avatar.
“I can pretend.” Sireno tossed back another shot. “Besides, I plan to drink for real once we’re done here.”
“You better share.” Nila accepted the glass the bartender handed her and glanced around. The Shack was emptier than usual but she put it off to it getting late in most places in the world. “Oh, there’s apparently a new... something coming soon.”
“A new something?” Sireno twisted on his stool to face her and she had to bite back a sudden smirk at the thought of how strange it was that she almost always chose a male avatar, and Sireno almost always chose female. The latest one had a short skirt and knee-high boots to go with the green ponytail and multicoloured plastic bracelets.
“Why do you always look like a rainbow goth teenager when you come here?” she asked, still trying not to grin.
“Don’t mock my fashion choices. I saw you wearing overalls the other day.” Sireno stuck his tongue out. “Tell me about your something.”
“It was a sign I saw when I was walking over here. Just this big white sign with letters spelling out ‘Utopia’.” She spread her hands, calling up a miniature version of the sign to hang in the air between them, rotating gently. “Nothing else.”
“Maybe. Games are usually a little less... subtle though.”
“Come one, come all, here’s some dancing clowns and busty women?”
“Exactly.” Nila closed her hands again and the image disappeared. “I guess we’ll find out. Now are we gaming or not? We still have that quest to finish in Midgaard.”
“We’re gaming.” Sireno got to his feet and straightened out his skirt. “Find out anything about this Ricochet guy?”
“Still looking.” Nila flicked her hands through a series of small motions that brought them directly to their homebase in the Midgaard MMORPG and let her avatar change to the slim, small trickster thief version of Supernova. She waited just long enough to let Sireno settle into his own gaming avatar, a female mage, then double-checked their quest specs and led the way out.
Halfway through the session, while she was clinging desperately to the base of a giant rocksnake’s skull and waiting for Sireno and the tank they’d paired up with to actually do something, her search agents pinged her. She almost lost her grip waving them off and grimaced a little at the realistic sensation of scales as hard as diamond digging into her flesh. Sireno’s air spell nearly knocked her from her perch again, but she managed to hang on, riding the rocksnake’s head down and leaping off to give their tank a shot at the snake’s unscaled throat. One hard thrust with a sword and the rocksnake collapsed, flailing hard enough to knock chunks loose from the cavern’s walls in its death throes. Nila stayed out of its way until it stilled, then helped Sireno cut off the scale they needed for the quest, thanked their tank for his help, and led the way out of the cavern.
“Don’t let me walk into anything,” she told Sireno, and slipped into her private channel to see what the search agents had found.
She scrolled through the short list of information with slight movements of her fingers, feeling her eyebrows rise. According to the docs her search agents had pulled up, Ricochet had only entered NetLife a week earlier, and in that week had had risen so quickly through the ranks that he’d been flagged six separate times. Each flag had been investigated and then dismissed, allowing him to continue playing and winning. His stats were impossibly good and Nila thought of the databomb he’d used in Backstab. She’d cheated—hacked—once or twice herself, mostly to see if she could, but everything about Ricochet’s actions and stats screamed cheater—or bot.
A quick check showed her that the search agents hadn’t pulled up anything on a real life person behind the Ricochet avatar. She spent a few minutes tweaking them and set them on the search again, concentrating specifically on the person behind the avatar, then returned to Midgaard to find they’d almost reached the waypoint that would bring them back to their homebase.
“Anything interesting?” Sireno asked.
“I don’t think our boy Ricochet is some thirteen-year-old hacker kiddie.” She followed Sireno into the waypoint and closed her eyes to avoid the flashing lights, only opening them when she felt the solid wooden floor of their base under her feet. “I think he’s an AI.”