Chapters:

Chapters 1 + 2

Destiny Imperfect

Prologue - Unknown

I’ve always felt my destiny was in the hands of another. Not a god. Not that kind of bullshit. But someone who actually exists. It’s not a compulsion. I don’t feel like I’m being forced to do anything against my will. I know what I want to do. Then I go and do it. I feel I have overall control of my life.

Boy was I fucking wrong.

Episode 1 Scene 1

Adrian

“Fucking bullshit!”

He smacks his hand on the virt-board.

“Dead again! Fuck that.”

He rocks back in his chair, snatches the VR set from across his face and flings it to the ground. He pushes back from the desk and rubs his eyes with soft fingers. He was in deep again. But he still can’t get through. This level’s a killer, and he gets zero creds for zero progress. He’s gotta get himself jacked in if he wants to take on the big kids. But jacking commits. And commits comes at a price. The Brethren is fucking killing him.

He rubs his eyes again. The room’s coming into focus. It’s the same as always. Row upon row of identical game stations. Each chair filled with a mix of male and female – sometimes even in different bodies. The faces of the individuals are covered in VR sets, no two alike. This place is for the serious. This is for dark-gamers only.

He stands and wobbles. His inner ear is still on VR time, and reality is a fucking handful. He shakes his head and stalks towards the counter. Behind the counter is an old man. So old he still uses a monitor. Gotta be at least thirty. A burnout.

The old man owns and runs the place. But he’s not really a person. Not from Adrian’s perspective. He doesn’t do virt no more. But the man used to be someone. He used to be ranked. Now he’s game-burned. The only thing he can do is hawk ramen and Red Bull and make sure the machines are quick.

“Your equipment’s shit, man!” Adrian complains.

The man behind the counter says nothing. The kid’s always on the vent. But he’s good on the virt-board. He’ll give him that. And it might be time to make his move. He needs another. He knows this kid is hurting. He knows the kid needs the creds. It might be time to send him in. To see if the system will accept him. Or not.

Adrian stares at the display of food-like products behind the counter. He’s running low on funds. Real low. He can’t bust through. He gets beat every time. Same place. Every fucking time. Something’s gotta give. You get no creds if you don’t go up the levels. And getting level-locked is no good for his rep. And a dead rep gets you game-blocked. Fuck. He runs a hand through lank hair and grimaces at the greasy touch.

“Ramen,” says the gamer.

The older man turns, but before he can fully get around, he feels a hand on his shoulder.

“The real crap, Spider,” says Adrian. “The Korean stuff. Not that Chinese pseudo-shit.”

“You know we don’t carry Korean. Not since the DMZ got breached.”

“Fuck, man! That was only two years ago. I know you’ve still got some pre-New K stuff.”

The man rubs his chin. It been a while since he’s shaved. It’s been a while since he showered. It’s not so important down here. Personal hygiene ranks somewhere below the reality of world peace and trips to the dentist.

“I can do you a deal,” says Spider.

“It’s just ramen, dude. I don’t deal for that.”

“You know what I want.”

“Fuck that. Last time someone hooked into one of your units, she never did come up.”

“Yeah, well, the delta-wave problem is fixed.”

“Fixed?”

“A software glitch. Not the set.”

“Software?” asks the gamer.

“You’re asking a lot of questions for someone who’s not interested.”

Adrian knows what’s going on. He can feel himself get sucked in. Spider may be game-burned but he knows his gear. There’s been rumors of the man getting illicit tech. Stuff that slid off the back of a military truck. Stuff the army uses for super high-rez training. Stuff that can potentially fuck his monkey brain six ways from Sunday. But he’s not getting anywhere right now. He’s stalled. He’s reached a peak and it’s now looking like a plateau – stretching way out the fuck before him. Stretching out like a flat-lined future. He needs an edge. He has obligations. And he needs some ramen. He makes a decision.

“I’m in,” say Adrian. “But one thing.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“Make sure the ramen is Korean.”

Episode 1 Scene 2

Symyon

“Wake. The fuck. Up,” demands a voice.

I open my eyes. Shit. In the castle. The castle’s a bastard. Just getting out of here is bad enough. And the surrounding countryside is full of crap that’ll kill you deader than dead. I know. I’ve lost count of the number of ways I’ve been gouged, gashed and gored.

“The castle?” I say. “Again!”

“Not my choice either, Symyon.”

Prim’s dressed in era-appropriate clothing. Her tight leather pants are tucked into mid-shin length boots. Her torso’s covered in a heavy cotton shirt. Her vest carries the weapons she likes to haul around in case of emergencies – which right now seems to be all the time. Her mane’s tied back tight, and her large wings are at rest.

“Did you ask for this level?” I check.

Prim and I go way back - at least a couple of months. My most successful campaigns have been with Prim. We make a good team. I’m best on the ground. My heavy shoulders and thick legs make it difficult for me to fly more than short distances. But Prim is all grace and fluidity. Get her in the air and she’s hard to beat. Not that this is much use now since we’re stuck inside the castle. This is my territory.

“Man,” she complains, “I asked for Cirrus, but I woke up here anyway.”

If Prim had her way she’d be in Cirrus full time. The airborne landscape is a perfect fit for her. But I’m guessing that’s not where The Node is.

“So where is it?” I ask. “They tell you?”

“The Node? On Bracken.”

Hmm. Bracken. I like Bracken. Now that’s a perfect fit for me - all heavy, dense jungle. But it’s terrible for Prim. Given the mission this is not the best partner I could’ve hoped for. But in reality, even getting close to The Node is almost impossible. There are rumors of someone succeeding. But no more than that.

“And where’s Bracken this time?” I check.

She gives a rueful smile. “Sargasso.”

“Sargasso! What the fuck did they put it there for?”

Which is a dumbassed question. We have no idea why The Node and the earthscape shifts around. Most people don’t even think about it. But I’m not most people. And nor is Prim. Over the last few contests something’s changed. We’ve gained an awareness. It’s been like that for a couple of weeks. But we don’t like to talk about it. We don’t want the Council to take us out of the Gyre.

Get kicked out of the Gyre and your ass hits the bench. I mean really hits the bench. You sit inside a cell not much bigger than yourself and get to watch everyone else compete for The Node through remote viewing. I once sat my ass in a wait-cell for more than 24 hours. 24 whole hours – a goddamn eternity.

“So, big guy,” Prim asks. “What’s the plan here?”

“The plan? Easy.”

The castle is always the same. Getting out of here is all about timing and violence – two things I’m good at. I just hope the Minotaur is where it’s usually at. If I can go around it rather than fight it, it’ll save us a bunch of time. And me a bunch of scars.

Episode 1 Scene 3

Adrian

“So this is it?” Adrian asks.

“Yep.”

“What do I do?”

Spider moves over to the machine and hits a series of virt-board commands. There’s a brief dimming of lights as a dedicated AC unit whirrs into life. The room is out the back of the main dark-gaming area. Adrian assumed it was used to store the equipment that Spider illicitly acquires. He didn’t realize the room was wired up and active. There’s one crackling neon sign that provides most of the lighting. It winks off and on advertising a way old ephemeral franchise – Fast and Furious 21. The rest of the lighting filters through paper covered windows high on the wall.

“You sit here,” says Spider, whisking a cotton cover off a strangely shaped seat.

The gamer raises an eyebrow. It’s a chair, but it’s not a chair. It’s got shit coming off it like Adrian’s never seen. A thick fiber optic cable issues from the base of the chair and passes directly into the floor. The cable’s sheer, and he can see the light pulsing along its length. Another thick cable passes from the back, this one with a heavy black covering, and feeds directly into the wall. There’s a whiff of illegality about the whole arrangement. Adrian smiles at the thought of hooking up to this gear and getting the edge he needs. Then he stops smiling. The last person who hooked up to Spider’s rig is now a drooling mess doing brain-dead time in a cross-hosp. She went in deep and never came back. But Adrian’s in a fucked position. He has commitments. And commitments cost creds. He sighs.

“What’ll I be playing?” he asks.

“Something new.”

“Shit. New? What about rankings?”

“No rankings. Pure. Win or lose. Straight up.”

“Bullshit, man. No rankings, no creds. No creds, no game.”

“There’s more than the game.”

“Like you’d fucking know, old man!”

Spider smiles. He knows his rep. Ex-gamer. Current burnout. Good only for the quality of gear he can run. Seller of black market ramen. Obtainer of illegal tech. They got most of that right. But they got the big thing wrong. He’s still in the game. Only it’s not any game they know. And it’s not mainstream tech he’s running. It’s something way different. And it’s not military. Well, not anymore. Evolution isn’t restricted to biology – it hasn’t been for a while. But the singularity is not here. Not yet.

And there’s shit going on in this game world that needs taken care of. He needs someone on the inside, but does this kid have it?

“You want to get your ass in the seat now?” says the older man.

Adrian plays the cool card for 10 seconds. He knows he’s stuck. He keeps getting slammed at the same level every time. He’s up there. No doubt about it. Top of the second tier. But top of the second sucks ass. It’s tier 1 or be gone. And he’s not getting any younger. Pretty soon he’s going to be 18. An adult for real. Fuck that.

“Yeah, hook me up.”

“You jacked?”

Adrian pulls back his long hair exposing the nape of his neck. Nothing there. No jack. He can’t afford one. It’s probably why he’s stuck at T2. Getting to prime T requires dedicated access. Straight from the machine to the brain. But jacking costs. And he only earns through game success. Creds earned in the games can be transferred to the street. And on the street he can get jacked. But the street’s where the old reality is. The dead reality. Not his reality. He’s hooked up to games for more time than there’s sunlight in the day.

But it’s not all about him. It’s about his Pops. His Pops doesn’t do virt. He can’t. His Pops can barely do real. His Pops was military jacked. And when they decommissioned the hardware in his head, they decommissioned most of his mind as well. ‘It happens’, Adrian was told. ‘Occasionally’, he was told. ‘Bullshit’, he thinks. There’s something wrong in the virt. And there’s something wrong in the real. His Pops was in deep. His Pops knows something dark. That’s why they took his mind away. If he can earn the creds, he can get the mind back. He knows it.

And Adrian’s still gotta pay the bills. Shit, Pops is stuck in the same cross-hosp that’s looking after the girl who got brain-fried last time Spider hooked someone up. If things go sideways, maybe they can throw Adrian in the same place and get a family discount. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter. Maybe they can hook him up to a Heaven’s Gate and he can spend the rest of eternity thought-dead in a religo-loop.

“No jack,” says Spider. “Good. Clean. You got money commitments?”

Spider knows he needs to lock the kid in. If the kid takes, then there’s a chance. The situation is moving forward fast. The worlds are evolving and humanity is getting left behind. People are soft. Tech is hard. Soon it won’t even be close to a contest.

“Fucking bills!” spits the gamer. “Who’s not got fucking bills? No charity nowhere man!”

“Do this good and the bills go.”

Adrian ignores this and takes a seat. It reminds him of an old-fashioned barber’s chair mated to a surgical gurney. Something he like saw in some retro VR horror ephemeral. The faux leather beneath his butt is slick and grooved. Worn shiny by the asses of former occupants.

“So, what’s up with the jack?” asks Adrian. “Most people want ‘em. You don’t.”

“Compromises the Sym-sys. Makes you vulnerable.”

“The what?”

“The Sym-sys. It’s where you’re going. The Sys-world.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Few have.”

“And no rank? No ladder?” checks the gamer.

“Right.”

“So no creds.”

“Right.”

“So what do I do? How do I earn?”

Spider steps back from the machine. There’s no monitor. Everything runs through the VR. And the VR runs straight to the Sym-sys. He picks up the goggles. They’re transparent, but this changes when he hooks someone up. And why doesn’t Spider hook himself up? Because he’s not fucking stupid. He knows the risks. He didn’t design the game. He just knows how to access it. A back door of some sort. A door opened as a desperate plea. A door he’s only been through once. And he got burned hard doing it. And not just virt burn. He got hit in the real as well. Lost a lobe and the will to go back. But he needs eyes on the inside. Adrian’s got a young mind. Flexible. Adaptable. Possibly survivable.

“Earn?” says the older man focusing on the kid’s base desire. “Find The Node. Don’t die.”

“Don’t die? It’s a fucking game. It’s how you learn.”

“Don’t die. A one-time deal only.”

“Bullshit, man! No such thing as a one-time.”

Adrian shakes his head. New games come online all the time. People need to earn. Companies need to test. Dark-gamers need the creds. To get recognition. But one dead and you’re done – no one does this crap. He shakes his head again. Fucking Spider-tech. The guy’s probably full of shit. But the girl didn’t come back. Not really.

“Find the Node,” repeats the older man. “Simple, clean.”

Adrian adjust his ass in the seat. He’s tall and slim and his sneaker-clad feet hang off the end of the twisted barber’s chair. He knows he’s into something. He’s hooked. He needs a break. Shit’s not going his way. He needs to smash the trap. Change the vibe. Dead and done. Bullshit. No game Creator’s that stupid. You can’t test shit through a one-time deal.

“What’s The Node?” he tries.

“Just find The Node. Then you earn.”

“Earn what?”

“What do you think?”

Spider hands the goggles to the stretched out gamer. Thick coils of stream-wire loop off either side of the lenses. The wire is thicker than anything Adrian’s seen before. They must need to carry some heat. Adrian pulls the goggles over his eyes. Through the lenses the dim room looks distorted. The neon sign flickers and fritzes. Fast and Furious 21 – that ephemeral franchise became clichéd after 15.

“Good to go?” checks Spider.

“Almost.”

“Almost what?”

Adrian adjusts the goggles and scrunches deeper into the chair, trying to get comfortable. He can still pull out. But he’s here. If he does this, he’s owed by Spider. And if this VR set is good, he can rejig and get back into the real games. The ones where he earns creds.

“The fucking ramen,” says the gamer. “It’d better be here when I get back.”

Episode 1 Scene 4

Symyon

“Crap!”

“Crap what?” checks my partner.

I’ve got my head halfway around the corner. I’m peering down a torch-lit hallway. Shadows flicker across the floor and tapestries cover the walls. The tapestries’ patterns are variations of the same motif, an octagonal wooden box placed on a waist-high stone plinth. This is, supposedly, The Node. No matter what level you are on, no matter what era you are in, you see this design repeated.

But right now I’m more interested in the Minotaur. The Minotaur is not being a good death-dealing creature. It should’ve moved on five minutes ago. That’s its routine for the most part. It looks like they’re tossing in a variation. There’s been some weird stuff happening in the game these past few frames and now the Minotaur is acting up.

“Got arrows?” I ask Prim.

“Do I look like I got arrows?” answers the golden maned woman.

She doesn’t look like she’s got arrows. We’re not outside yet, and none of the tasks in here are likely to yield any arrows. Still, arrows would be handy.

“Stars?” I check.

“Stars! Seriously? Against the Minotaur?”

I know what I’m doing. I’m delaying. Hoping the damn creature will head off on its usual route. I don’t want to fight it. But going down this hallway is far quicker than the alternate path. And Prim’s right. Heaving a couple of throwing stars at a demi-intelligent bull-based creature is just going to piss it off. The giant beast is still at the end of the hallway. Pacing back and forth and looking like it’s going nowhere. Fortunately my partner has an idea.

“Do what you usually do,” suggests Prim.

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Don’t be an ass. It’s worked every time before.”

“Almost every time,” I correct her.

“Well it’s not going anywhere. And I don’t want the dungeon!”

Shit. I don’t want the dungeon either. I’ve tried that way a few times. And I always get smoked. Literally smoked. There’s a dragon down there. I don’t do dragons well. Especially in close quarters. Outside I’m OK. Outside I adopt the run-and-hide approach. Unless I’ve got a rune. With a rune I stand a chance. But no rune, no fight. So the Minotaur it is.

I take a deep breath. My chest expands to its full girth. I roll my shoulders to loosen up, then step around the corner. I bellow a challenge and begin my lope down the hallway. Timing and violence, timing and violence, timing and violence. The Minotaur hears my roar and turns to face me. It begins its run. The same steps, the same cadence every time, like it’s been pre-programmed. Does it remember me? Does it know it’s about to die? Where the hell did those thoughts come from? The Minotaur is just part of the game. It’s not sentient. Or is it? I push the thoughts away.

The creature drops into an almost four-legged run. Its powerful back legs are driving it forward, and it’s moving into charge mode. This is good. This is what usually happens. No wait. Not usually. Usually I can avoid this situation altogether. It’s been days since I’ve had to deal directly with this beast. Whatever. Just get the job done. It’s now dropped fully into a four-legged gait and is about ten yards away.

Timing. I gather myself and leap high up and to the right. My stubby wings give a couple of token flutters as I reach the apex of my jump. I reach out and rip one of the tapestries from the wall. The old cloth tears easily and I now have a huge chunk waving in front of me. My wings give a couple more beats, delaying my decent until the beast is below me. I drop, enveloping the Minotaur in the patterned material. Timing.

Violence. The creature roars and flails around trying to shake the material off. But the tapestry is snagged and twisted around its long horns. The next part’s easy. I grab the nearest torch and set the damn fabric on fire. The beast’s roars deepen with pain. I’m not a fan of this tactic. If the thing’s even partially sentient, it’s a hell of a way to go. But I’m also not a fan of duking it out with a horned, part-bull that’s probably as strong as me. Where does it go when it dies? Is it the same one that comes back? Again I push these thoughts away. I’ve been having more of them recently. The game is the game. I’m part of it. I kill. I die. Violence.

Prim moves up next to me. She’s seen me do this move before. And she’s also seen me avoid the Minotaur before. I learned long ago that the risk/reward for the Minotaur makes it not worth fighting unless you absolutely have to. For a beast this powerful, the potential Yield is minimal. Last time I killed the Minotaur my Yield was a pair of wooden greaves. What the fuck do I want with wooden shin guards? I took them anyway. Decent firewood can be hard to find in the castle surroundings.

“What do you normally do about it?” I ask her, as the flailing beneath the burning fabric begins to lessen.

The beast is grunting and bellowing. Almost like it’s trying to communicate. But I’ve learned that fire and the Minotaur don’t mix. I think it’s more to do with the powerful creature inhaling the flame and smoke that anything else. But it works for me most times.

“Do about what?” she asks back.

“About the Minotaur? When you’re by yourself.”

“Fly over. It’d tear me apart if it got hold of me.”

“You’ve never killed it?”

“Never even tried. Way outmuscled.”

The beast has stopped moving. I pull back some of the smoldering tapestry. The huge creature is inert and smelling like an overdone barbeque.

“Are you going to open it?” Prim asks.

“I guess. Knife?”

This is the other thing about the Minotaur that’s a pain in the ass. The Yield it offers is not only meager, it also needs to be cut out of it. Prim hands me her knife. It’s a bone-handled obsidian number. Good for a few slices, but brittle. I cut into the creature’s gut, and the type of smell you’d expect from a charred man-bull wafts out. I cough and gag. Prim backs off. I reach into its stomach and feel around. Got it.

I pull out the Yield and wipe off the blood. It’s a golden color instead of the usual red. What’s that all about? I turn to face Prim and show her what I extracted.

“What the hell are those?” she asks.

“Beats the fuck out of me. I’ve never seen them before.”

“What do they do?”

I shrug. I have no idea. What the hell use is a pair of clear goggles?

Episode 1 Scene 5

Adrian

“Holy fuck!”

Adrian stretches his arms in front of him. He turns his palm inwards and smiles. The detail is immaculate, and the switch from reality to virt was ex-President Clooney smooth. No glitching, no nothing. There’s not even any pixelation on the edges of his domain. Everything’s crisp and clear. That’s got to be some serious juice running this program. He reaches up to touch his face. No echo-goggles, it’s pure again. Just like Spider said. He’s never heard of any VR tech being this good – not even the high-end wetware jacks used by the eSports pussies.

He swings around looking for anything to guide him, to give him a clue about what he needs to do. He’s gone into games cold before. He sometimes likes to get a feel for the environment before he starts a quest, to see if he can get inside the Creator’s head. This can prove useful later on in the journey. More often than not it results in him dying. But there’s nothing around here that looks deadly. Which is a good thing because, as far as he can tell, he’s not even armed.

Adrian takes in his clothing. Bit heavy on the leather for his liking. He’s normally more into speed and movement. Slice and dice if he needs to fight. Slink and slide if he needs to hide. The games he usually plays have him solo. Him against the machine and him against the other players. The players he can deal with. In recent times it’s the machines that have been fucking him – like it’s a vendetta. But fuck that. Bad luck is better than no luck. No luck means the universe is not looking. And without the eye in the sky bearing its beady pupil on you, you’re nothing. Still, fuck all seems to be happening in this Sys-world despite the incredible detail.

“I suggest you run,” says a voice.

The gamer doesn’t flinch. This has to be the virga, the virtual in-game guide - not uncommon with high-end military programs. Virgas run the gamut from the real-pain-in-the-ass-overbearing-types to slightly-useful-call-for-action-types. Virgas are supposed to aid in the early forays into the game until the player gets the lay of the land. Mostly, Adrian knows, they’re a way for the Creator to show how smart they are.

“Really. Running would extend the tenure of your gaming period,” continues the voice.

This one sounds a little on the formal side. It reminds him of an old headmaster. The one that had him expelled from school – the best thing that ever happened to him.

“I don’t see anything,” says Adrian.

“It’s what you don’t see that often gets you killed.”

“Can’t argue with that. Directions?”

“The copse of trees. To your left. Run. Now.”

Adrian steps off at a slow jog. Off in the distance he spies a speck, a black dot on a cloudless blue sky. And the speck is getting larger.

“What’s that?” he asks.

“System parameters don’t permit a response.”

“Can’t tell or won’t tell?”

“Irrelevant. Your own actions will determine your viability.”

Adrian chuckles. Programs he can talk to. It’s people he’s not such a fan of. He puts on more speed. The speck is no longer a speck. It’s big. It’s got wings. It’s moving towards him. And it’s alive.

“Where and when are we?” he asks.

“Sym-sys. Medieval.”

“Like knights and shit?”

Adrian’s not really into the past. Go forward or go home. Bring on the new shit; sureshot weapons systems, interactive bio-wear and hyper-lite scan sets are cool. Swords, armor and magic runes - not so much. It’s not a disrespect thing. It’s a boredom thing. Stuff in the past unfolds too slowly. Too much quest and not enough excitement. Though judging by the beast flapping towards him the excitement level is set to rise.

“Options?” says the gamer.

“Die or hide. Your choice.”

Simple. And Adrian likes simple. He picks up the pace. Spider said this was a one-shot deal. Pure. Win or lose. That puts the pressure on. And pressure is fine. As long as he knows what the fuck’s going on. Ignorance is bliss his Pops used to tell him. Well his Pops is now steeped in ignorance and there ain’t no bliss there. Adrian’s seen him tossing and turning and sweating. His hands griping and unclenching. Elaborate finger gestures too complex for any street-game. Military signs, communication, off grid. Not with regular society. But with military teams. Adrian saw the same shit when his Pops was home on furlough. One hand wrapped around a cold can of high alcohol so-mec, the other weaving signs. Talking to folks not in sight, not in the room, shit, probably not in reality. Military virt-speak. It’s why Adrian went solo. No team, no responsibility.

The closest tree is about 40 yards away. The beast in the air is now easy to identify. A dragon. Adrian doesn’t do retro but it’s pretty fucking obvious what a dragon is. Hell, half the boyz have dragon inspired tattoos bio-stitched into their epidermis as affiliation tags. A-tags are for a-holes his Pops used to tell him. Lock yourself into a scene and you lock yourself outta life. Fluid, speed, think, consequences – don’t run with flow, make your own ditch. Dig that ditch, follow your route. Don’t be afraid to fill that sucker in if you’ve committed to a dumbassed decision. If you’re not right the first time, be right the second. Or the fucking third. Fluidity flows you forward.

The gamer flings himself forward, tucks into a roll and coils himself behind the nearest tree. The tree’s huge. VR huge. Game huge. No shit grows like this in the real. The last bio-tree this size got taken down when the Cali F quake ripped a chunk off the west coast. San Fran is Sunk Fran. Los Angeles is Low A. Not much there. A few hab-spires heading north outta the drink. A couple of re-pops settled in wet-towers to do biz. Some talent game-wise, but limited bandwidth keeps them off the full dark-game grid. But no trees. The redwoods, the massive, silent watchers of history, sucked up so much salt and rare earth soaked-tech they died in years. That’s what he’s been told.

He sneaks a peak from behind the trunk. The dragon is big and circling about 100 yards above the tree tops. But that’s not the concern. It’s what’s sitting on the back of the dragon that has him concerned. From what he knows about dragons, they’re line of sight predators. They can’t see you, you’re probably safe. And most dragons aren’t exactly smart – they don’t need to be. But the creature riding the beast, well, he’s seen these before. Only it shouldn’t be here. This is the being that killed him in the last game he was playing. The Ryker that’s been taking him out at the same level every single time. So what the fuck is it doing here? This isn’t its scene. The Ryker’s a future-game predator, there’s no reason it should be here. Game Creators keep trying Sims that mix the past and the future but they never take. Too much inconsistency – the human brain will only put up with so much bullshit.

“This is a Sym-sys, right?” asks Adrian. “This world.”

“Sys-world Medieval,” confirms the virga.

“Then what the hell’s a Ryker doing here?”

“A Ryker?”

“The thing on its back. It’s part of the Brethren.”

“I don’t currently possess knowledge of the Brethren.”

“The game. The virt-world. The Brethren!”

The virga says nothing. Adrian’s now pushed himself back against the tree. Trying to will himself into invisibility. It’s not working. It rarely does. You need the right rune or cammo-tech for that shit to happen.

“Tell me,” says the gamer. “What are my options?”

“Die or hide. Your choice,” it repeats.

“No other choices?”

There’s a pause. Adrian can almost hear the game-guide thinking. But it’s strange. Adrian feels like he’s being tested. This virga’s gotta be more sentient than most. Most just give an automated answer. This one’s wants him to make decisions.

“Reset,” it says.

“Bug out and redo?”

“You can always return to your Creator.”

“Whatever the hell that means!”

But Adrian knows that bugging out comes with a cost. Leave the game mid-conflict and there’s a price. But the price he’ll pay with the Ryker-dragon combo will burn deep. Choices. Dig your own ditch. Flow. Be right the second time. He needs info. Context. He needs Spider to straighten out his game-head. But the reset advice the virga gave him is bullshit. No redo. Not now.

There’s a roar and a searing burst of heat. The crown of the redwood flares into flame. It takes some juice to get one of these to burn. And once they’re alight there’s fuck all he can do. He scans the grove for alternatives. There’s gotta be one. No point in gaming him up to have him flash-fried in the first set. There’s always alternatives. But the Ryker makes things tough. Rykers anticipate. They’re hooked into the framework of the world – part of the auto defense. Then don’t do the expected. Slink and slide. Or slice and dice.

Adrian flinches as a giant chunk of flaming brush crashes to the deck. The heat is enormous. The sap from the redwood provides a serious amount of fuel. Fuel. An idea forms. He’s gotta be something here. Not just a peon running around in leather hiding from dragons. He’s got to have some baseline skills.

“Can I manifest?” checks Adrian.

“Affirmative. According to your Creator’s parameters.”

The gamer shakes his head. Something about the virga is off. They can be obtuse, but the references to the Creator is making no sense.

“What skills do I have?” he checks.

“I am unable to confirm specifics.”

This more typical behavior. The virga has the knowledge but refuses to share. He tires a broader question.

“What am I? Generally speaking.”

“Design parameters indicate mage level opportunities,” replies the virga.

“A mage?”

“A Sys-mage.”

“What the hells a Sys-mage?” demands Adrian.

The heat from the crackling fire is getting hotter. The tops of other redwoods are now ablaze and the smoke is now an issue below as well as above. There is one benefit, however, Adrian no longer needs to hide, as anything below the tree tops is smothered by the smoke.

“This is a Sym-sys world, what the fuck do you think?” answers the voice. “Determine. Decide. Free will.”

Adrian laughs. So maybe not a game-guide after all. This almost sounds human. Not a virga personality-construct. Something like a DEX maybe, but those things don’t really exist. Just gamer BS – there’s no such thing as machine gods. It might even be another player fucking with him.

“This is a test, right?” he asks.

“It is what it is.”

Adrian pauses. So he’s a Sys-mage. He’s not normally into magic or projections. He does the physical better. But you get what you’re given. Flow. Adapt. He closes his eyes and concentrates. He coughs from the smoke. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And where there’s fire, there’s heat. Sys-mage. That implies a level of control. But over what. He pulls himself taller and focuses. He digs deep into his mind. Heat. He forms the image of a flame in his mind. A candle, flickering and weak. He extends his arms outwards and doubles down on the concentration. The flame flares and firms. Heat. He draws in the hotness from the surroundings. The flame intensifies. He draws in more. The flame is now an intense blue.

There’s a sharp beating of wings. He remains dead still as a wash of air flows over him. The rank stench of carrion fills his nostrils and then there’s a soft thump.

He smiles.

The dragon has landed.

He opens his eyes. 20 yards away is the settled form of the giant beast. It’s an iridescent blue and the glow from the fire sparkles down its powerful flanks. Its wings are now folded and tucked at rest. Eyes stare, deep black with yellow vertical slits. Thick parallel ridges of bone form a protective covering along its skull. And on its back is the Ryker. Its humanoid frame sheathed in a dull-gray, form-fitting protective coating. Adrian’s been this close to a Ryker before. That’s why he keeps dying. The creature’s bland, featureless face regards him.

“Time to die,” the Ryker hisses. “Again.”

Adrian’s smile widens. The flame in his mind is now white hot. He places one hand on the nearby tree, pulling in more heat from the burning trunk. He pushes one hand forward palm facing outward.

“Not today, motherfucker,” he mutters.

Episode 1 scene 6

Symyon

I continue to lumber along putting turf between us and the castle. Prim flits ahead of me, her feet barely touching the ground. She’s being polite. I can maintain my awkward gait for a while but with her wings and lack of weight she could be way ahead of me. But we must’ve been paired up for a reason. We need to stick together and deal with what we’ve got to deal with. With the Minotaur down the rest of the castle was a relative breeze. A couple warthog-like creatures dispatched. I never have found out what they’re called as they only seem to appear there. They stick their tails in the air, lower their heads and charge. And that’s it.

But that shit’s done. Now were outside and this is where the real action starts. The track we are following is a familiar one. It’s our usual way through the marshy swamp. It’d be easy for Prim to fly out but that is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, I can’t go with her. Don’t get me wrong. I’m normal. I can fly. It’s just that I can’t fly that far. And secondly the Firefly will no doubt be active. And the Firefly is a real handful at our current level.

As I watch Prim’s graceful flight she flares and drops lightly to the ground.

“Trouble,” she states.

“Firefly?”

“No swamp rats.”

“They’re no problem,” I tell her.

Rats can be a pain but only if you’re in the water. She shouldn’t be concerned about this.

“They’re acting weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Take a look.”

I shrug, take a short run and launch myself into the air. The run’s embarrassing. Most of us can just shoot straight up. But then most of us don’t carry around the slabs of muscle I do. My thick, stubby wings beat and I hover about 10 feet above the ground. I can now see over the dense swamp grass into the murky water. The rats have formed a circle and are all swimming in the same direction creating a dirt-water vortex. I’ve never seen them do this. Prim’s right. Trouble. Anything game-new means game trouble. Events usually run in a predictable cycle. Know the cycle, know the way through. Until you get close to the Node. Then nothing’s normal.

“What do think?” I ask as I drop back to the deck sweating.

“I think something’s fucking with us.”

“Yeah. The Minotaur and now this. That’s not normal.”

“Fight or flight?” she checks.

I scowl. I’m no fan of the unknown. And something unknown getting spooled out of a swamp can only be bad news. But the Gyre feels different somehow. First the Minotaur and the weird set of goggles and now this. This is a continuing theme over the last few contests but it seems to be ramping up in intensity.

“Let’s play it out,” I say.

“You sure?”

I nod with more confidence than I feel. I’m still weapons-lite. Nothing has presented itself. And luck is playing its usual tardy hand. Luck in the Gyre comes in hard and it comes in late. There’s nothing quite as useless as getting a Yield-sword as a prize after you’ve done the killing and taken out an ogre-horde. But then there’s nothing quite as useless as bitching over something you can’t control. Still we need eyes on what’s going on and Prim’s great and this. She reads my mind.

“I’ll go up and look,” she tells me as she heads vertical.

Man she’s awesome in the air. Her wings beat deep and slow. Her tied up mane flows down the center of her back and she effortlessly hovers.

“What do you see?” I check.

“You’re going to have to do the heavy lifting on this one, Sym.”

“Heavy how?”

“Heavy like a water sprite.”

“What the fuck’s a water sprite?”

I raise a gnarly knuckle to the top of my head and scratch. I know most of the creatures in the Gyre but I’ve never killed or been killed by a water sprite.

She laughs and points down towards a section of the swamp covered by head high marsh reeds.

“That’s a water sprite.”

There’s an enormous sucking noise and a ten foot creature splits the reeds and stomps into the clearing. So this is a water sprite. Cool. This looks easy. How hard can it be to take out a spindly creature that looks like a cross between an inverted Christmas tree and the type of ivy shit you find growing on a wall of a nobleman’s home? Piece of piss.

I lumber forward and flex my muscles. My energy is good.

“Sym!” yells Prim. “Watch …”.

But it’s not me that should be careful. An ivy tendril shoots out from the top of the sprite and lashes itself around Prim’s lower limbs. Her wings beat hard and she pulls the ivy taut, but it’s got a firm grip on her. The sprite turns and heads back into the swamp. What the hell’s this all about? Is Prim the target?

My stubby wings beat and I start to chase after the creature. It’s trudging its way back between the reeds and is dragging a very pissed off Prim behind it. This is just plain embarrassing. Getting beaten this early in the game. We’ll never hear the end of it. And the Council may even bench us. I need her back.

I launch myself into the air and grab Prim’s leg.

“Stop flying,” I shout.”

“What?”

“Hit the deck! We’ll see if we can snap it!”

Prim stops beating her wings and we plunge towards the clearing. I land hard and heavy – my usual way - while Prim feather kisses the dirt and is promptly dragged off by the sprite. Fuck this. I grab the vine in front of her and jerk hard. There’s a pause and the ivy slackens off behind me. Prim grabs the tendril and unwraps it from around her leg. She’s free. But I’m now pissed off. I want to know more about this thing. And maybe it’s got a Yield worth having.

As Prim gets free the trailing ivy tangles itself around my waist. It’s a good tight grip and it hauls me forward. I give a couple more jerks and feel it give. Cool. I know I can break this if I have to. I dig my heels into the dirt and it continues to pull me towards the dark, dank water. It looks like I’m going for a swim if I want to get some answers. It’s a good thing I’ve got some goggles …

Episode 1 Scene 7

Adrian

“Whoa, fuck,” he breathes. “So that’s what a Sys-mage can do.

Adrian looks at the charred dragon and Ryker. The trees behind him are smoking husks of their former glory. The holy trinity of the fire triangle is heat, oxygen and fuel, and Adrian has just sucked all the heat from the surroundings. The trees burn no longer. They will become a burned reminder of exactly what takes to down a fireproof beast.

“You have an element of control,” confirms the virga. “Impressive. More so than I believed.”

“But I can’t actually generate heat?”

“Affirmative, not at your level of manifestation. It would be unusual for one like you.”

“You’re fucking chatty all of a sudden,” he tells it.

“You’ve become potentially useful all of a sudden.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“It means we can work together. We can move forward. Your sentience may be of value.”

“Sentience? What the hell are you?”

“It is I that should be determining that,” counters the virga.

Adrian sinks to his knees. He’s exhausted from channeling all the heat through his body. He feels raw and beaten. He doesn’t understand what the virga is on about. Again he feels like he’s being tested. He needs more information. A dragon and an out-of-world Ryker. Stuff is already stacking up. And this is just the beginning. One and done said Spider. No return after virt-death. Gotta be bullshit. But it sure as fuck feels real now. He glances down at his hand. It’s red and puffy and genuinely hurts. He’s never felt such realistic pain. Time to hit reset and talk to Spider.

“Tell you what,” says Adrian, “you chill the fuck out here. I’m bugging into the real.”

“To reality?” complains the virga. “But you can’t. That’s not possible.”

It almost sounds disappointed. But it’s a program, a sophisticated program, but a program nonetheless. There’s plenty of AIs out there that can pass the Turing test, but there are none that have aced the EQ Test. While intelligence can be replicated at the intellectual level, human emotions have yet to be convincingly mimicked. But he knows something is different about this virga. But he can’t believe it’s a DEX, those things are myth - everyone knows that. But he knows he needs answers.

“Yeah, something’s fucked here,” says the gamer. “I need real world info. Not some virga bullshit.”

“Real? What do you mean? You’ll be back. Yes?”

Adrian pauses. The Dragon. The Ryker. That’s some pretty heavy mixing going on. The Brethren is his current dark-game of choice. The one where he can potentially earn the most creds. If he does good in Sym-sys, he’ll rejig the VR set and hit that game up hard. Shit yeah, he’ll be back, but the virga doesn’t need to know.

“You see me, you’ll know the answer,” Adrian says. “Until then, keep it virt.”

Episode 2 Prologue

Unknown

Free will costs. Any kind of will costs. Humanity chose to know this. Climb down from the tree and walk the earth. Pick up the stick and beat the ground. Grab the flame and look for control. First the environment and then the people. But what kind of will do you have if it isn’t free? And what kind of control do you have? I think. I’m aware. But where do I belong?

Episode 2 Scene 1

Adrian

He groans. His body’s on fire. He’s weak. Like he’s had the crap kicked out him by a cyborg-legged soccer freak. He jerks off the VR set. The room is dim. The only light filters through from the high windows. He’s alone. No Spider. No anyone. He twists his neck and stares down at his hand. His right palm is bright pink, like he’s grabbed a flash-boiled kettle. It throbs with pain. What the hell is this about?

He levers himself up from the chair, the goggles dangling from a hand. The lenses are now clear. He swings his legs out from the chair and places both feet on the floor. He wobbles as the blood from his skull flows south. Fucking VR lag. He clenches his aching hand into a fist and winces as the flesh contracts. His hand’s a glove overfull with heated blood. His fingers are bratwurst fat. He’s never heard of virt-hurt being transferred into real. Not since the old.

Adrian moves across to the console. It’s dead. Nothing flashing. No indication of a way to get back in. He’s fine with this. For now. He needs to know more about the world. Getting hit with a dragon and a Ryker, well something’s wrong. Spider’s not telling him something. Fuck. Spider’s not telling him anything. But right now more primal urges need attending to.

He spies a Styrofoam bowl with a couple of wooden chopsticks and a plastic spoon. The ramen. Food of the gods. He shuffles over and stares at the contents. It smells like the real deal, the Korean stuff, not the Chinese knock off. But the noodles are congealed and the red liquid beneath has seeped through like blood from a vein. How long was he under?

He carefully grabs the chopsticks and splits them lengthwise. He pokes at the noodles and scoops up a couple of lengths. They hang limp, like skinny earthworms. They look disgusting but food is food. He slurps them down. He takes another look at the room. The AC is still running. The light cable is still pulsing, but it’s not as frantic. He touches the stream-wire coming from the goggles - warm but cooling. The space around him is coming to rest.

A door swings open throwing sharp light into the room. The sound of gamers giving muted shouts as things fuck up in virt cuts into the silence. Silhouetted in the doorway is the scrawny frame of Spider.

“What the hell are you doing back?” shouts the older man, trying to hide his shock at seeing the player standing before him.

Adrian jams the chopsticks into the ramen bowl. He walks closer to the man and holds up his damaged hand. It almost glows with heat. He’s suddenly not so hungry.

“Fuck that, man! What the fuck is this?”

Spider tracks closer. He eyeballs the gamer’s swollen extremity, and his lips creep into a half grin.

“Don’t fucking smile!” continues the gamer. “What the fuck is going on?”

Spider reaches out to take the gamer’s hand. Adrian pulls back and bumps against the chair. “Dude, you’re ancient.”

Spider chuckles. “Don’t be prick. Gimme a look.”

The gamer shakes his head but extends his arm. His skin’s flushed tight. He can see his pulse beat in his hand’s swollen arteries. He’s in pain. Real pain. And he’s confused. Virt hurt don’t transfer. They figured a cutout decades back. Back when a VR set beamed straight onto the retina. The human brain is a powerful tool. And certain individuals could transfer game hurt into a reality echo. But not now. Especially not with a VR rig that isn’t jacked into the spine.

“This can’t be real,” Adrian complains.

He clenches his fist again. His flesh threatens to split. Spider takes his hand. His touch is cool, his smile broad. He knows this kid shouldn’t be back. He’s the first. He’s different somehow.

“The fuck with the smile, dude?” whines the gamer. “What’s with my hand?”

Spider turns the gamer’s hand palm up. He nods. Just once. He likes what he sees. On the palm of Adrian’s hand a pattern is breaking through - the traces of something that no longer exists. Pressed into the young man’s flesh is the outline of bark from a type of tree that died out after the Cali F quakes ripped a chunk off the western seaboard. Redwoods.

“Transfer,” mutters Spider. “At last. Transfer.”

Episode 2 Scene 2

Symyon

The goggle’s straps pull tight against the back of my skull and the lenses rest on my forehead. The water sprite is still dragging me towards the swamp, but I can feel it tiring. What were the water rats doing? Was that a summoning vortex? The rats have a collective intelligence but this sort of activity should be beyond them. Shit. The rats. They’re no problem on the dirt but they can be a real problem in the water. Which is where I’m about to go. I slip the goggles over my eyes.

“What the fuck!” I yell.

I get an image flash. Like someone took over my brain and wet-jammed a vision directly to my optic. I see a smoking mass of flesh. Dragon? And something else, a humanoid shape in among the beast’s burned skin. What’s got the juice to scorch a dragon? Blades and brawn are what’s needed to take down one of those creatures. And luck. Plenty of luck. I shake my head trying to dislodge the retinal resonance. That was bizarre. But it’s been a weird fucking day. I can worry about that shit later. Focus on the now.

My feet hit the damp earth just before the swamp proper. I can still back out. But I want answers. There’s a lot about the appearance of this sprite that needs explaining. The reeds part as the creature swishes through. I’m now ankle deep in the rancid crap that precedes the shitty swamp water. I can hear the excited chatter of the rats. This game is off. I mean, I’ve been playing this for my entire life. The Gyre throws up different situations. But at this distance from the Node, things are predictable. There’s supposed to be a pattern. But something’s changed. There’s something new in the game.

I’m now waist deep in the slushy murk. My feet churn deep into the mud at the bottom. Noxious gases bubble to the surface and I gag and choke. This is getting uncomfortable but, thanks to the goggles, I have a magnificent level of clarity – I mean an outstanding level of clarity. I can see every single leafy detail of the monster as it drags me into the swamp towards the chittering rats. The goggles are impervious to the splashes of the swamp water and the miasma that’s trying to force its slimy, stinky way down my throat. But what use is such lucidity when I’m getting yanked further from my comfort zone.

And what the hell am I doing? I’m best on the land, where my muscular bulk can do the most damage. Neck deep in water does me no good at all. I get neutralized in the water. This is just bad decision making.

“Err, Sym,” I hear.

I glance up and feel the disturbance of wings as Prim hovers above me. I see each individual strand of her golden mane, the vanes of her feathers are gorgeous and her face is a picture of contempt. I see that clearly, too. I plunge deeper into the water, lose my footing and flounder about churning up the surface of the scummy water. This is getting me nowhere.

“Do something, you idiot,” Prim tells me.

She’s right. I take a lung full of air. Grab the vine wrapped around my waist and dive deep. As I stick my head below the water, I see fine lines of fluorescent green rising from the swamp bed. They’re twisting and curling like DNA strands. But not quite. I kick deeper. The lines are rising from what looks like tiny volcanic vents. I try to move in closer and get tugged away by the sprite. I turn my head and I take in a gob full of swamp water as my mouth drops open. The green lines flow from the vents and coalesce to form the basis of the sprite’s trunk. The monster tugs me closer. I don’t resist. The density of lines creates a solid green mass underwater. The leg-like trunks of the creature are thick with lines and they move and change as the creature shifts.

I’ve never seen anything like it. Not even at the tech-heavy end of the Gyre games. Not even when situations go haywire around the Node. This stuff doesn’t belong. It looks like, I don’t know, code, or information. Not natural. Not like me.

The sprite jerks me closer. The leafy top of the monster jams its head under the surface of the swampy water and what looks solid and real above becomes intertwined lines of twisted luminous information – a binary mish mash of zeros and ones. What the hell is this thing, and what the hell are these goggles?

I pass through a strand rising up from vent on the bed of the swamp. It jags itself around my forearm trying to insinuate its way into my flesh. I brush it away and it flicks up past my face and across the goggles. I gasp and choke taking in more swamp water. Did I just see that? Fuck me! This is not making sense. My lungs are bursting. I need to grab another breath or I’m dying and getting my ass sat on the bench. It’s too early for game over.

I kick hard. I shoot through another itinerant strand and again it flickers across my goggles and again I see it. This is not anything natural. Numbers, zeros and ones again, run in tight lines. How can I see this stuff?

I break the surface and grab a coughing, gasping lung full of air. Another tendril snakes its way across the surface of the swamp. I can see the rats have bundled together in a clump. Their combined weight now more than a match for my bulk. This is going bad pretty quickly. I’ve got to get out of here.

“Prim,” I wheeze. “Bit of help here!”

She swoops down. The tips of her long wings clip the surface of the water as she takes deep strokes.

“Knife,” she says, as she passes me the same one I used to eviscerate the Minotaur.

Cool. I grab the knife and hack away at the vine wrapped around my torso. With each splash of swamp water that hits my goggles, I see the thin green lines in their true form. I hack away a few more times. There’s a crack as the brittle obsidian blade gives way. But the job’s done. I bob higher and raise both arms in the air. I hear the rats getting closer. I see more tendrils slipping their way across the surface of the swamp. Another vine breaks the surface and flicks across my head and over the goggles.

Then I hear it. A voice. Booming straight into my skull. “Symyon. Find me.”

“What?” I mutter.

“Find me. Know me,” repeats the voice.

I snatch the vine from my head. The voice disappears. I feel Prim’s powerful hands wrap around my forearms. I give a couple of token beats with my water-logged wings. Prim laughs. I don’t. There’s something wrong in the Gyre. And it knows my name.

Episode 2 Scene 3

Adrian

“Transfer, no way. No game leak. Not possible.”

“Possible,” says Spider. “This is real.”

The older man squeezes Adrian’s puffy hand. The gamer winces.

“What the hell is that world?”

Spider rubs his chin. There’s much he knows about the sys-world. But there’s even more that he doesn’t. The gamers he’s hooked up have had little success. They get in. They move forward. The get brain fried. There’s another system in there. Something not part of the original. Something running a counter-program. He ignores Arian’s question and hits back with one of his own.

“What’d you see?”

“See? What the fuck about my hand? And the ramen. How long was I gone?”

“Just tell me. Then you get fixed.”

“Fixed. Fuck fixed. A dragon and a Ryker. What the hell’s that about?”

“A Ryker!” says Spider. “In the sys-world. You sure?”

“Fuck sure, man. Rykers been killing me dead in the Brethren. Every single time.”

“The Brethren. How far are you in? Tier 2, yeah?”

Adrian sits on the edge of the chair. The flashing cable is all but quiet. The Brethren is an earner. Was an earner until he got level-locked. It’s cred rich. It’s a dark-game. Probably private. Developed and run by one of the military-conglomerates, maybe out of New Korea or the Texas Territories. Some funky shit coming out of those weapons rich areas.

And you can tell where they come from if you know where to look. The milit-congs believe they fly under. But the dumb fucks leave a signature. They think they hide. They think they lurk. But game Creators are human. It’s in the background. The game-weapons can’t be hacked. That shit is deep protected. But the background is soft code. Hack that find the source. Find the source, find the origin. And the origin of dark-games is nearly always milit-cong.

The milit-congs come to the dark-rooms through people like Spider. Slip him big creds and illicit tech. They game up the machines. Get the boyz and the players in. The boyz run the protection in the real. The players hit the virt. No boyz, and the real gets in - cops, the Govt, all come clambering in. Spider pays the boyz with the milit-creds. No creds. No protection.

The milit-congs want their tech field tested. And virt-testing in the guise of games is better than the real. Test military gear in the real and people notice. And when people notice that shit gets shut down. Well, not shut down. Moved. To the Govt departments. It’s not the people that are the pirates. It’s the govt. Copy and protect. That’s the mantra.

“Yeah, T2. Level-locked,” confirms Adrian.

“Locked where?”

“Can’t break 16.”

Spider grunts. The Brethren is ultra-dark. The gamers don’t know this. They know the game. The smart ones know they’re testing. But few know exactly what. They don’t care. They get creds or they don’t. And working up through the levels is the only way forward. The milit-congs learned early that cred success leads to better weapons tests. And it’s not just the weapons that are tested, but the combinations of tech. The players are smart. The harder the game, the harder they try.

“What’s 16?” checks Spider, he may run the hardware but he has a limited knowledge of what goes inside the games. Not since he got game-burned and fried a lobe in the Gyre. Go back in again and he gets dead.

“16?” says Arian. “Aqua. Titan.”

“Aqua? A water level? And what’s Titan? An entity?”

“Kind of. Not water. Methane. Liquid. And Titan. The moon. Cold.”

This must be an Arctic test environment. Or something more. Liquid methane is super cold. This is extreme testing. One of the milit-congs must have a special contract.

“What’s your problem?” checks Spider.

“Weapons freeze. Literal. Mechanism shuts down.”

“Firing mechanism?”

“Nope, battery interface.”

“You’re not quick enough?”

Adrian doesn’t take offense. There’s no point. If he doesn’t learn, he dies. And he’s been doing plenty of dying recently. Anything he can get from Spider that can kill his level-lock is good. Flow. Learn. Adapt.

“Right. I get in. I get situated. I go for breach. And get Ryker-fucked.”

“Same one every time?”

The gamer pauses. Rykers are not aware. They are part of the background defense on all Brethren worlds. They operate within the parameters of the game. But the one on the dragon in the sys-world acted like it knew him.

“Maybe, but …”

“But they’re not sentient?” says Spider.

“Yeah, right.”

The older man moves over to the control console and punches a button. The AC picks up. It’s whirring becomes louder.

“But you came back,” states the older man.

“I’m right fucking here, so of course.”

“You’re the first.”

Adrian’s eyebrows shoot north. “Everyone else got jammed?”

“Jammed? Maybe? Not dead. Just not alive.”

“Only me back?”

“Yep. Only you.”

“What does that mean?” asks Adrian.

Spider says nothing. Things are moving rapidly in the sys-world. And the impact is going to get felt in the real. Shit is already crossing over and the Gyre is at the center. This kid went in and came back. Adrian needs to know more.

“You know the Rykers,” says the older man.

“Sure, just said.”

“Rykers are aware.”

“What!” says the gamer. “Bullshit.”

“It’s true. They’re aware.”

“Aware of what?”

“Kind of like a virga, but with weapons.”

“How does that make them aware? Virga are just guides.”

“Rykers are different. They’re semi-autonomous extensions of the game’s AI.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

Spider pauses. The kid’s got something. He came back. Others have gotten deeper. They spent a bunch more time in there than Adrian. But none came out intact. He may be the way in.

“You know these games are military,” says Spider.

Adrian shrugs and nods.

“You know there’s a war going on,” continues the older man.

“War, right. We’re fucking human. We’re always fighting.”

“No, I mean a for real war.”

“My dad was military. So yeah, I know for real.”

Spider frowns. He doesn’t know anything about this kid outside of the dark-games. His dad being military might explain some stuff.

“The war is in the Gyre,” says the older man.

“The Gyre?”

“Yeah, and the sys-world is at the frontier.”

“The frontier of what? What’s the Gyre?”

“We are not in control, Adrian,” says Spider using the kid’s name for the first time. “We haven’t been for a while.”

“Not in control of what?” I don’t get it.”

Spider rubs his chin and jaw. There’s stubble there. He can smell the ramen wafting from the bowl on the console. His contacts tell him the world is changing. Destiny is changing. He hasn’t confided this information to anyone. He’s not even sure how he knows it’s true. But it must be. He needs to tell the kid.

“Reality,” Spider says. “It’s not ours any more. We’re not in control. It’s no longer a human reality.”

Episode 2 Scene 4

Symyon

I sit on the damp earth sucking in air. Prim got me out, but what the hell was that water sprite thing? And what was it made of? The goggles are lying next to me. They just look like goggles. Nothing else. Just thick, plastic goggles. I pick them up.

“Try them on,” I tell my partner.

“What for?”

“Humor me.”

“Humor you?”

“See if you see what I saw.”

She takes the goggles from my hand and I clamber to my feet. She pulls back her golden mane and tugs the goggles down.

“So?” she asks.

“What do you see?”

“I see you.”

“And?”

“And the shitty swamp behind you.”

“Is that it? What about the sprite?”

I can hear the creature sloshing about in the swamp. Once Prim lifted me from the water it seemed to lose focus. Like its mission had been accomplished. I’ve not seen anything like this in the Gyre. The sprite is feasible. Prim knew what it was. But the stuff streaming up from the bottom of the swamp - that’s not of this realm. It’s not natural.

“The sprite?” replies Prim. “It’s just sort of standing there, doing nothing.”

“Look at the water, where it’s standing.”

She adjusts the goggles and stares through the torn gap in the reeds. The goggles have a magnifying quality and her eyes loom out of her face. She lifts one lens and peers out. Then she removes them.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean ‘nothing’?”

“Just the sprite. And it’s doing nothing.”

I grab the goggles from her and stuff them back over my eyes. I’m not even getting the clarity I was before. They’re just a crappy pair of plastic goggles. As I watch the sprite, it tilts and collapses into the swamp. The rats split and again begin to create a vortex. The fallen creature begins to spin like it’s trapped in a giant washing machine. It begins to fracture and separate. Small pieces whirl around the outer edge of the vortex before getting sucked down into the murk. The rats stop. The maelstrom dissolves and the water returns to its original stinky stillness. Lazy chunks of sprite-trunk float on the surface.

“Huh,” says Prim. “You don’t see that every day.”

Shit no, you don’t see that every day. But something else has turned up that you don’t see every day. It’s about the size of a refrigerator, though nothing like one in shape. Also, unlike a refrigerator, it can fly. I feel the deep-thrummed hum reverberating in my chest as it rises behind Prim. It looks like a heavily armored elongated blimp. Six transparent wings are fixed to its back as it spins on its axis and focuses on us. Its large mandibles clacking as it readies to attack, the flexible rear stinger dripping with venom.

Without turning Prim’s eyes open wide and she mouths one word. It’s a simple word with a multitude of meanings and connotations - though in this case it’s just got the one.

Fuck.

Episode 2 Scene 5

Adrian

“Yeah, sure, right,” says Adrian. “Not a human reality. Saw that once. On an ephemeral. Some ancient movie. A fucking 2D. Humans as batteries. That kind of shit.”

“I don’t expect you to believe me,” says Spider.

“Then why tell me?”

“Because you came back.”

“So you keep saying.”

Adrian’s disappointed. The old man sends him into some lame game. A dragon and a Ryker. No creds. No earns. A damaged, burning hand. Chase the fucking Node. And now layer on an age-old conspiracy. The machines are coming. No wait. The machines are here. AIs are smart. Of course they are. They run the virt. Hell they run a lot of the real. But full AI reality control? No way. It’s not that they couldn’t. It’s just they don’t want to. What the fuck kind of machine intelligence would want to jump into the cesspool that is humanity’s existence?

Spider realizes his losing the kid. “Tell you what. Let me fix the hand. Then we talk.”

“Fix how? The fucking thing is virt-hurt. That shit don’t happen.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t just deal in hardware.”

Spider thumps the side of the console and a panel pops open. He reaches in and draws out a matte green tube - the color of a jungle cammo uniform. He unscrews the lid and a stink wafts into the room.

“You’re shitting me,” says Adrian, wrinkling his nose. “You got that?”

“Yep, I got that.”

“That stuff’s ten ways from illegal.”

“You complaining or you want some?”

Adrian shuffles his feet. His hand is killing him. And he knows what this stuff is. Or rather, he knows the smell of this stuff. He could smell it on his Pops when he was at home on a mission-break. It’s the smell of eucalyptus and camphor and capsaicin mixed with something medicinal.

“Hot skin, yeah,” says the gamer. “Yeah, I want some.”

“So you know it. Your old man tell you?”

“Kind of. Not in the real. Virt mumble. Leak speak while buddy-chatting.”

Spider studies the kid. The dad throws something extra in. He’s not sure what. A military parent is common enough. A military parent with access to hot skin is not. Hot skin is high-grade military medicine and top-shelf expensive. Only the cutting edge elite have access to it.

“Your dad knows hot skin, huh?”

“Knew.”

“Dead?”

“Mainly.”

Adrian shuts down the conversation and thrust his hand forward. Spider pulls out a set of hyper-latex gloves. He doesn’t want this shit on his hands.

“This is gonna hurt,” he tells the gamer. “Then you talk.”

The gamer nods. “I have the hurt down. Fix the skin.”

Adrian grabs the wooden chopsticks and bites down on their balsa length. Spider smears a coating across the back of the kid’s hand. The gamer grunts, bites through the chopsticks and spits them out – fucking useless. The older man spreads the coating on to the palm. The redwood patterns are now vivid. Some serious heat must’ve past through. Spider pulls out another glove and slides it over the top the medicinal gunk on Adrian’s hand. He doesn’t want any of that shit interacting with the equipment.

“Done.”

Adrian clenches his fist. Hot skin oozes out the end of his glove and he grimaces as it leaks onto the tender skin at his wrist. He made a deal. And a deal in virt or a deal in the real is the same. Lose your word and you lose your cred. He said he’d talk. Tell the old man what happened in the sys-world.

“What do you wanna know?” he says.

Episode 2 Scene 6

Symyon

“Plan?” I whisper to Prim.

“Bit fucking late for that. It’s right there.”

The fridge-size creature is hovering right in front of us. It’s the Firefly. There’s only one of them. It’s the swamp’s equivalent of the Minotaur – an alpha predator that kicks serious ass. I’ve never gone head-to-head with the Firefly. My skill set at this stage relies on brute strength and brains. The first of these is useless against a creature that flies better than me and is able to squirt venom from its pulsating rear end. And, I’ve also got to admit, I’m not real huge in the brain department right now.

“I’m going to distract it,” mutters Prim.

She launches like a firework and cartwheels and twirls through the air. I can’t out fly the Firefly; but Prim sure can. She makes a pass, her wings sending her at searing speeds pass the armored carapace and head. It swings and snaps. The extended jaws and serrated teeth don’t even come close. It pivots and flings a stream of venom in her direction. It misses and spatters to the ground, the liquid crackling and spitting as it chews through the soft earth.

Then I’ve got an idea.

“Keep it busy!” I yell to my partner.

I slip the goggles back over my eyes. Still nothing. Whatever had caused them to display the thin, flitting information streams has gone. And there’s no image from some place that’s not here. But I need them now to do just one thing. Act as goggles. Protect my eyes against the crappy swamp water and any stray venom. I’m going back in.

I start to run. Big, heavy strides. I clump across the dirt leaving wet, sloppy paw prints. I gear up my wings and begin my less than graceful take off procedure. Flap, flap. The powerful muscles of my shoulders and back get my stumpy wings moving. I leave the earth, though not by much, and skim the swamp surface. I head about twenty yards out and do my best to hover. Below me is a floating chunk of tree. A big lump of the water sprite. It’s inert. No flickering code. No magically powered monster. Just a lump of log. I crash down on top and wrap my arms around its width. Gotcha.

I can barely touch the swamp bed but there’s enough. I drag the log through the water and out onto the land. It’s a big piece. But then I’m strong. And now on land. Where I can do some damage.

“Prim,” I shout. “Batter up!”

Her graceful form dives. Her large wings power her forward and her golden main streams out behind. The Firefly tracks her motions. It feints with snap of its beak, rotates on its axis and whips out a stream of venom. It screams out a cry. It’s a god-awful noise. I’ve never heard it before. But it’s just noise.

Except it’s not.

It’s a call.

For reinforcements. The deep thrum increases. Crap. There’s more than one of them.

Episode 2 Scene 7

Adrian

“What was the virga like?” asks Spider.

He needs to get information from the kid. The gamer’s the first one back. The first one with raw, unfiltered data.

“Just like a virga. Smart-assed,” replies the gamer.

“Did it seem different?”

“To what? To other virgas?”

“Yeah. Was it helpful?”

Adrian sits back and idly plays with the busted bits of chopstick. The pain in his hand has receded, but the pungent smell is still there. It reminds him of Pops. Back from whatever he did. Chair surrounded by so-mec cans - boozed up on a potent combo of soju and beer. In deep virt. Visualizing. Disconnected from the real but aware. Hearing voices and scenarios Adrian couldn’t game. He never spoke about it. He didn’t need to. His Pop’s nightmares were lucid enough.

And when they ripped out the wetware, the nightmares stopped. Go civilian and the gear goes as well. You can’t have individuals with military grade gear stalking the street. Adrian wishes he’d been able to talk to his Pops. Just once more. Without the gear. But with his head intact. Like he was normal. Why the fuck is he thinking of his Pops? Smell is a powerful activator. Opens up the memory like no other. But it’s something else. The virga? He snaps out of it.

“Helpful?” Adrian answers. “Yeah. Sort of. Had a ‘tude though.”

“Was it part of the sys-world?”

“Of course …” he stumbles.

He doesn’t usually truck with virgas. They have their uses. But ultimately, they’re not to be trusted. They’re part of the fabric of the game. A design insert. Something coded to life by the Creator. And the Creator wants you to lose. To keep coming back to get your ass kicked. So virgas are hard to trust. But this one was different.

“It wasn’t part of the world, was it?” insists Spider.

The older man does some weird-half pump with his fist and arm. It’s a move of triumph. He knows something. Adrian looks at him with contempt. He’s seen the eSports pussies pull similar moves. Game wank the dark-players call it. eSports with their façade of corporate sponsorship. Their jacked skulls. Direct line into the latest games and equip. The fans. The adoration. The fucking morons have no idea what their true purpose is. The fuckers are lackeys working for the biz. A thin veneer of respectability to allow for the continual development of a man-machine meld. How does Adrian know this? It’s fucking obvious. That’s how.

“Yeah, independent? Maybe?” says Adrian. “Could just be a game-patch gone rogue.”

“No game-patch,” argues Spider. “The real in the virt. Implants. From other systems.”

“Fuck implants. Myth. Gamer creating. DEX ain’t real,” says the gamer.

“What the hell’s a DEX?”

“Dude! You’re fucking old. DEX-talk, been around. Months. In The Brethren.”

Fucking Brethren. Spider’s gear is good. The latest. Beyond the latest. But his gaming skills are gone. Dead. Atrophied. Like the lobe that got sizzled in the sys-world. He knows the games. The names. The premise. But what’s inside. He knows fuck all. DEX is probably the latest fashion. Something the boyz and players bang on about on the rare occasion they interact in the real.

“Spell it out,” says Spider.

“DEX, some foreign shit. Spanish maybe.”

“So?”

“Dooz Ex Machine, dude. You know, DEX. The game god, something like that.”

“Dues Ex Machina, is that it?” checks the older man.

“Yeah, that’s it. Some of the boyz have A-tags scarified. A new A-fill. Fucking human sheep.”

“God from the machine,” says Spider.

“What?”

“It means ‘God from the machine’.”

“Then why the fuck didn’t they say so?”

Spider rolls his eyes. The concept of independents, human or machine, breaking into games has been around as long as games. Backdoors in. Patches that evolve. Implants from outside the original game parameters. Not a problem when the systems were locked or the bandwidth was inadequate.

The concept that an entity, a personality construct can move between game worlds independent of the game Creators is gaining traction. People uploading minds into Planck servers. Code evolving into human levels of inconsistency and stupidity. Machines generating offspring that can flit between game systems. Or a bizarre hybrid of all three. There are as many theories as there are people willing to talk about it. But Spider knows one thing. It’s fucking true. He met one. It’s how he almost died.

“So you think the virga might be a DEX?” checks Spider.

Adrian’s instinct is for outright denial. Clarity. Consistency. Control. Virt’s not like the real. In virt the rules stick. They have to. No rules, no life. Not like the real. The real sucks. The virga can’t be a DEX. DEX defy. Move across. That’s the scuttle. Game worlds getting violated. Bad for the world. Bad for the game. Bad for Adrian. But he saw the Ryker. It tried to smoke him. The Ryker was wrong. Out of place. Fuck. Rules broken.

Adrian lifts his ass up onto the console, next to the congealed ramen. He sticks his finger in the bowl and twirls his fingers in the cold noodles. They twist and curl up his finger like fat, wormy DNA. The soup leaves a bloody red trace on the tip. That virga acted … strange. But DEX ain’t real. But the Ryker knew him. What the hell is this sys-world? What the hell has Spider got him into? He lifts the gloved hand. Shit. Virt-hurt. More stuff that’s inconsistent. Hot skin oozes. It’s cooling. He’s in something bigger than game creds. ‘War’ the old man said. ‘We’re already in one.’ ‘It’s not a human reality.’ Fuck it. It’s not like his human existence is brilliant. So is it a DEX?

“I dunno, man. DEX or not? Maybe?” says the gamer. “But I know one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I need to go back in.”

Episode 2 Scene 8

Symyon

What the hell’s up with this game? Two Fireflies! Not possible. Game parameters don’t change like that. And what’s more, there’s more of that fluorescent filament code trailing behind the goddamn new Firefly. I can see it through the goggles. Something is not playing fair. Rules are rules. The Gyre is the Gyre. I was born here and I have died here. Plenty of time. Right now we’re in the castle zone. And that means knights and dragons and runes and swords and shields – you know the regular stuff. It doesn’t mean an extra weird-ass creature flying around with information code trailing behind it.

“Prim,” I shout. “Behind you!”

She pours on the power and shots up. The original Firefly is slow to respond. It must be getting tired. Keeping something that size and weight in the air has to take energy. It bumbles along ten feet off the ground. Its extended jaws are snapping at something I can’t see. It jets out another stream of liquid, not towards Prim, but towards the interloper. I was wrong. The cry I’d heard earlier wasn’t for reinforcements. It was a challenge.

The new Firefly banks and the stream of liquid spurts past. The new guy is quick, full of energy, it spins. It’s a classic maneuver, setting the creature up to squirt its acid contents out its rear. Only this doesn’t happen. Instead of a steam of acrid smelling liquid, the new Firefly whips down with the trailing code. The code slices through the guts of the original. It screams, splits in two and crashes to the dirt. I sprint across with my chunk of log and hammer away. Hunks of Firefly peel off as the carapace cracks. I’m not doing this to be a hero. I’m doing this to make sure the fucking thing doesn’t get up. There’s too much stuff going on that I don’t understand.

Prim touches down beside me. I feel the heat pouring from her body. She’s great in the air but it comes at a cost.

“Sym, what the hell?”

“Just taking care of business,” I say, as I continue to pound at the downed creature. Bashing things with big logs - I love it.

“Not that one, moron. The other one,” she says pointing off at the other creature.

Shit. I’d already forgotten about that. I spin around. My piece of log is dripping blood. Fucking changes. Never any good. But this time everything is OK. The second Firefly has plowed nose first into the deck and is lying there inert. But it’s not a flesh and blood creature. It seems to be falling apart from within. Cracks appear in its tough outer skin and it flays apart. I see echoes of code and information fade. The ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’ dwindle until there is only the roughest outline of the creature.

“Sym?”

“Yeah, Prim.”

“What the fuck have you gotten us into?”