By Cory Doctorow
Public Domain Books
The brigands on the road were punters, but the cottage that was their target was guarded by an altogether more sophisticated sort. They were spotted by sentries long before they got within sight of the cottage, and they saw the warning spell travel up from the sentries’ hilltop like a puff of smoke, speeding away toward the cottage. Anda raced up the hill while Lucy covered her with her bow, but that didn’t stop the sentries from subjecting Anda to a hail of flaming spears from their fortified position. Anda set up her standard dodge-and-weave pattern, assuming that the sentries were non-player characters – who wanted to pay to sit around in gamespace watching a boring road all day? – and to her surprise, the spears followed her. She took one in the chest and only some fast work with her shield and all her healing scrolls saved her. As it was, her constitution was knocked down by half and she had to retreat back down the hillside.
“Get down,” Lucy said in her headset. “I’m gonna use the BFG.”
Every game had one – the Big Friendly Gun, the generic term for the baddest-arse weapon in the world. Lucy had rented this one from the Clan armory for a small fortune in gold and Anda had laughed and called her paranoid, but now Anda helped Lucy set it up and thanked the gamegods for her foresight. It was a huge, demented flaming crossbow that fired five-metre bolts that exploded on impact. It was a beast to arm and a beast to aim, but they had a nice, dug-in position of their own at the bottom of the hill and it was there that they got the BFG set up, deployed, armed and ranged.
“Fire!” Lucy called, and the game did this amazing and cool animation that it rewarded you with whenever you loosed a bolt from the BFG, making the gamelight dim towards the sizzling bolt as though it were sucking the illumination out of the world as it arced up the hillside, trailing a comet-tail of sparks. The game played them a groan of dismay from their enemies, and then the bolt hit home with a crash that made her point-of-view vibrate like an earthquake. The roar in her headphones was deafening, and behind it she could hear Lucy on the voice-chat, cheering it on.
“Nuke ’em till they glow and shoot ’em in the dark! Yee-haw!” Lucy called, and Anda laughed and pounded her fist on the desk. Gobbets of former enemy sailed over the treeline dramatically, dripping hyper-red blood and ichor.
In her bedroom, Anda caressed the controller-pad and her avatar punched the air and did a little rugby victory dance that the All-Blacks had released as a limited edition promo after they won the World Cup.
Now they had to move fast, for their enemies at the cottage would be alerted to their presence and waiting for them. They spread out into a wide flanking manoeuver around the cottage’s sides, staying just outside of bow-range, using scrying scrolls to magnify the cottage and make the foliage around them fade to translucency.
There were four guards around the cottage, two with nocked arrows and two with whirling slings. One had a scroll out and was surrounded by the concentration marks that indicated spellcasting.
“GO GO GO!” Lucy called.
Anda went! She had two scrolls left in her inventory, and one was a shield spell. They cost a fortune and burned out fast, but whatever that guard was cooking up, it had to be bad news. She cast the spell as she charged for the cottage, and lucky thing, because there was a fifth guard up a tree who dumped a pot of boiling oil on her that would have cooked her down to her bones in ten seconds if not for the spell.
She power-climbed the tree and nearly lost her grip when whatever the nasty spell was bounced off her shield. She reached the fifth man as he was trying to draw his dirk and dagger and lopped his bloody head off in one motion, then backflipped off the high branch, trusting to her shield to stay intact for her impact on the cottage roof.
The strategy worked – now she had the drop (literally!) on the remaining guards, having successfully taken the high ground. In her headphones, the sound of Lucy making mayhem, the grunts as she pounded her keyboard mingling with the in-game shrieks as her arrows found homes in the chests of two more of the guards.
Shrieking a berzerker wail, Anda jumped down off of the roof and landed on one of the two remaining guards, plunging her sword into his chest and pinning him in the dirt. Her sword stuck in the ground, and she hammered on her keys, trying to free it, while the remaining guard ran for her on-screen. Anda pounded her keyboard, but it was useless: the sword was good and stuck. Poo. She’d blown a small fortune on spells and rations for this project with the expectation of getting some real cash out of it, and now it was all lost.
She moved her hands to the part of the keypad that controlled motion and began to run, waiting for the guard’s sword to find her avatar’s back and knock her into the dirt.
“Got ’im!” It was Lucy, in her headphones. She wheeled her avatar about so quickly it was nauseating and saw that Lucy was on her erstwhile attacker, grunting as she engaged him close-in. Something was wrong, though: despite Lucy’s avatar’s awesome stats and despite Lucy’s own skill at the keyboard, she was being taken to the cleaners. The guard was kicking her ass. Anda went back to her stuck sword and recommenced whanging on it, watching helplessly as Lucy lost her left arm, then took a cut on her belly, then another to her knee.
“Shit!” Lucy said in her headphones as her avatar began to keel over. Anda yanked her sword free – finally – and charged at the guard, screaming a ululating war cry. He managed to get his avatar swung around and his sword up before she reached him, but it didn’t matter: she got in a lucky swing that took off one leg, then danced back before he could counterstrike. Now she closed carefully, nicking at his sword-hand until he dropped his weapon, then moving in for a fast kill.
“Call me Sarge!”
“Sorry, Sarge. Where’d you respawn?”
“I’m all the way over at Body Electric – it’ll take me hours to get there. Do you think you can complete the mission on your own?”
“Uh, sure.” Thinking, Crikey, if that’s what the guards outside were like, how’m I gonna get past the inside guards?
“You’re the best, girl. OK, enter the cottage and kill everyone there.”
She wished she had another scrying scroll in inventory so she could get a look inside the cottage before she beat its door in, but she was fresh out of scrolls and just about everything else.
She kicked the door in and her fingers danced. She’d killed four of her adversaries before she even noticed that they weren’t fighting back.
In fact, they were generic avatars, maybe even non-player characters. They moved like total noobs, milling around in the little cottage. Around them were heaps of shirts, thousands and thousands of them. A couple of the noobs were sitting in the back, incredibly, still crafting more shirts, ignoring the swordswoman who’d just butchered four of their companions.
She took a careful look at all the avatars in the room. None of them were armed. Tentatively, she walked up to one of the players and cut his head off. The player next to him moved clumsily to one side and she followed him.
“Are you a player or a bot?” she typed.
The avatar did nothing. She killed it.
“Lucy, they’re not fighting back.”
“Good, kill them all.”
“Yeah – that’s the orders. Kill them all and then I’ll make a phone call and some guys will come by and verify it and then you haul ass back to the island. I’m coming out there to meet you, but it’s a long haul from the respawn gate. Keep an eye on my stuff, OK?”
“Sure,” Anda said, and killed two more. That left ten. One two one two and through and through, she thought, lopping their heads off. Her vorpal blade went snicker-snack. One left. He stood off in the back.
> no porfa necesito mi plata
Italian? No, Spanish. She’d had a term of it in Third Form, though she couldn’t understand what this twit was saying. She could always paste the text into a translation bot on one of the chat channels, but who cared? She cut his head off.
“They’re all dead,” she said into her headset.
“Good job!” Lucy said. “OK, I’m gonna make a call. Sit tight.”
Bo-ring. The cottage was filled with corpses and shirts. She picked some of them up. They were totally generic: the shirts you crafted when you were down at Level 0 and trying to get enough skillz to actually make something of yourself. Each one would fetch just a few coppers. Add it all together and you barely had two thousand gold.
Just to pass the time, she pasted the Spanish into the chatbot.
> no [colloquial] please, I need my [colloquial] [money|silver]
Pathetic. A few thousand golds – he could make that much by playing a couple of the beginner missions. More fun. More rewarding. Crafting shirts!
She left the cottage and patrolled around it. Twenty minutes later, two more avatars showed up. More generics.
> are you players or bots?
she typed, though she had an idea they were players. Bots moved better.
> any trouble?
Well all right then.
> no trouble
One player entered the cottage and came back out again. The other player spoke.
> you can go now
“Two blokes just showed up and told me to piss off. They’re noobs, though. Should I kill them?”
“No! Jeez, Anda, those are the contacts. They’re just making sure the job was done. Get my stuff and meet me at Marionettes Tavern, OK?”
Anda went over to Lucy’s corpse and looted it, then set out down the road, dragging the BFG behind her. She stopped at the bend in the road and snuck a peek back at the cottage. It was in flames, the two noobs standing amid them, burning slowly along with the cottage and a few thousand golds’ worth of badly crafted shirts.
That was the first of Anda and Lucy’s missions, but it wasn’t the last. That month, she fought her way through six more, and the paypal she used filled with real, honest-to-goodness cash, Pounds Sterling that she could withdraw from the cashpoint situated exactly 501 metres away from the schoolgate, next to the candy shop that was likewise 501 metres away.
“Anda, I don’t think it’s healthy for you to spend so much time with your game,” her da said, prodding her bulging podge with a finger. “It’s not healthy.”
“Daaaa!” she said, pushing his finger aside. “I go to PE every stinking day. It’s good enough for the Ministry of Education.”
“I don’t like it,” he said. He was no movie star himself, with a little pot belly that he wore his belted trousers high upon, a wobbly extra chin and two bat wings of flab hanging off his upper arms. She pinched his chin and wiggled it.
“I get loads more exercise than you, Mr Kettle.”
“But I pay the bills around here, little Miss Pot.”
“You’re not seriously complaining about the cost of the game?” she said, infusing her voice with as much incredulity and disgust as she could muster. “Ten quid a week and I get unlimited calls, texts and messages! Plus play of course, and the in-game encyclopedia and spellchecker and translator bots!” (this was all from rote – every member of the Fahrenheits memorised this or something very like it for dealing with recalcitrant, ignorant parental units) “Fine then. If the game is too dear for you, Da, let’s set it aside and I’ll just start using a normal phone, is that what you want?”
Her Da held up his hands. “I surrender, Miss Pot. But do try to get a little more exercise, please? Fresh air? Sport? Games?”
“Getting my head trodden on in the hockey pitch, more like,” she said, darkly.
“Zackly!” he said, prodding her podge anew. “That’s the stuff! Getting my head trodden on was what made me the man I are today!”
Her Da could bluster all he liked about paying the bills, but she had pocket-money for the first time in her life: not book-tokens and fruit-tokens and milk-tokens that could be exchanged for “healthy” snacks and literature. She had real money, cash money that she could spend outside of the 500 meter sugar-free zone that surrounded her school.
She wasn’t just kicking arse in the game, now – she was the richest kid she knew, and suddenly she was everybody’s best pal, with handfuls of Curly Wurlies and Dairy Milks and Mars Bars that she could selectively distribute to her schoolmates.