3501 words (14 minute read)

Chapter 1

Aleister Coldblood paced through the cavernous space that he called his office. His agitated shadow stretched across the floor in the soft light of the moon crystals embedded in the extravagantly decorated ceiling. He spoke aloud, with as much authority as he could summon, rehearsing a speech that he absolutely did not want to give. Occasionally he paused to glance at the open door that lead to the attached balcony as a cruel voice in his head urged him to go on out and have a peek. He attempted to ignore it, but each pause grew longer, until finally, he abandoned his preparations all together. He let out a defeated sigh and gave in to the nagging feeling that had been eating away at him for the last few days. He knew going out there wouldn’t make him happy, but still, he had to see for himself. So against his better judgment, he stepped out into the open night air to look down on city below. As usual, the city of Ferris sparkled brightly in the dark. Its streets lined with lamp light and its windows a buzz with activity. Normally, it was a view that filled him with a sense of pride and satisfaction. But now, the crowd gathering below ruined it, the flickering lights of their torches adding very little to the cityscape.

Of course the people below, which were quickly becoming a mob, couldn’t get in, as the Citadel that housed his office was surrounded by a large moat. It had been put in mostly for decoration, but due to the recent controversy, it had come in handy. With the bridges raised, it cut off all access to the building from the outside. Unfortunately, it also made it impossible for his employees to leave the building through normal means. A fact, that had forced Aleister to reassign a team of interns wielding various teleportation spells to allow the buildings workers to go about their day uninterrupted. 

Technically, the moat wasn’t even necessary, since there wasn’t much that the crowd below could do to him even if they were to get in somehow. His position, giving a cleric armband, allowed him control over magics so powerful, that it wouldn’t take much more than a few swipes of his hand to destroy the whole lot of them. But that would probably be going too far. Though, he did seriously debate on summoning a light rainstorm to make things uncomfortable for them. He refrained. After all, he wasn’t really mad at them. In fact, it was quite the opposite. He wanted to skip his next few meetings and go down there to tell them the truth about his actions over the last week. But that would probably get him in more trouble. So instead, he let out another sigh, and resigned himself to being the villain of the day. 

He sunk his chin into one hand and leaned over the ornate stone railing of the balcony, squinting as hard as he could at the flickering lights below. From his perch high atop the Citadel’s towers, the torches reminded him of candles on a cake, ready to grant his every wish. It was a cute distraction, but the problem at hand forced him to shake his head, dislodging the unhelpful cake thoughts to make room for more productive lines of reason. He reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out a small leather bound book with a decorative silver dragon coiled on its front. He flipped to the back where a small rectangular piece of glass rested in an indented space built into its rear cover. He popped it out and held it in front of his right eye, activating an enchantment that imitated a telescope to focus in on the scene below with significantly more clarity. What he saw sent a wave of shock across his face. 

His fingers fumbled in surprise, almost dropping the tiny window over the edge. Recovering his grasp, he clenched his hand around the item, his expression changing to one of utter indignation. “Oh come on people, REALLY!?” He yelled, “Pitchforks? Isn’t that a bit much!” 

It had happened. The crowd below, had become a full fledged angry mob, complete with torches, and pitchforks. Upon further inspection, there was even a man holding up a paper sign with the words, “Coldblood is Cold Blooded,” written in heavy red calligraphy.

The people outside couldn’t hear him vent his frustrations from the distance above, but that didn’t stop him from yelling at them anyway. “Where the hell did you even get pitchforks? Those aren’t even available to buy! You probably looted them from some poor farmer. His family will probably starve, you monsters.” He spit his words with as much disdain as he could muster. Then finally, he chuckled. He had to respect the effort. 

It was actually rather impressive that someone had made a paper sign in the first place. Sure, you could buy several types of books and scrolls easily throughout the world of Valain. But to get a sheet of what looked like card stock at poster size, was a bit of a long process. First, you had to chop down a tree for some wood, then break it down into pulp, and then refine it several times before it would even function as something akin to paper. Not to mention that you would also have to make the ink for writing on top of all that. The range of crafting skills needed for the whole thing was immense. Actually, now that he thought about it, he wasn’t really sure how to make ink in the first place. Crushed berries? he wondered. Anyways, the point was, that it was a lot of work to go through just to create a stupid sign, making fun of his already ridiculous name.

Of course, Aleister Coldblood wasn’t his real name. It was just the one he was known by in the world of Valain. And the world of Valain, was no more real than his name. His real name, was Milo Parker. And Valain, was a fictional world existing across a complex network of servers as part of a game called Dreamfall. Nevertheless, to the millions of users that spent eight to ten hours inhabiting it every night, it was real enough. Or at least, it was real enough to merit protesting, when Neal Ravensburger, one of its creators, was fired by ArkConnect Systems, the company that ran it. And Aleister, being the CEO of said company, was now the center of the controversy. It had gained him a reputation throughout the land, as being kind of a dick.

What’s that you say? Eight to ten hours a night playing a game sounds like way too much? Well that would be true, if it were just a normal massively multiplayer online role playing game, but Dreamfall was anything but normal. What made it unique was that the time its users spent in the world of Valain, was the time they would normally spend doing nothing at all. Well, not nothing. To be more accurate, it was the time they spent sleeping. This was because the system that ran the game, dubbed Somno, the Latin word for sleep, created a sort of a shared dream. And among other things, it allowed players to enter Valain when they went to bed each night, and logout when they woke up in the morning. 

Surprisingly, it was actually a somewhat simple system, since most of the heavy lifting was done by the user’s brain. All the Somno had to do, was guide the visuals of the dream state and feed information in and out so that players could interact with each other. It didn’t even have to process the much of the sensory information, since the player’s minds simply filled in the blanks for most things. It could even populate most of the background elements using whatever it could find in the memories of its inhabitants. So, if the system said, “Hey brain, we need a sunset!” The brain would simply answer, “Oh I have one of those from last summer.” And there you have it. The result, was a world nearly indistinguishable from the real one. Well, other than the fact that it had dragons. 

As impressive as it was though, the Somno wasn’t perfect. In fact, many new users still reported graphical errors as their minds adjusted to using the system. The most common of which was a glitch known as the infinite sea, which was caused by a goof in the brain that loaded up a crystal blue ocean instead of a sky. Despite it being a pretty glaring error, most users came to think of it a sign of good luck, since it really was quite breathtaking to see and it only happened at early levels. It was as if Valain itself was wishing them well, and just wanted them to know that the adventure to come, would be unlike anything they had done before. Fortunately, as people used the system more, it tended to even out so that everyone in the world saw the same thing consistently.

After its release three years ago, the Somno quickly became the dominant entertainment system in the majority of households world wide. Although, this was primarily due to the device’s secondary benefit, which was the simple fact, that in Dreamfall, users gained back all of the time they would have lost to sleep. And when the average person spends a third of their life in bed, it wasn’t hard to see the value. So, for just a base cost of five hundred dollars for the system and a seventeen-dollar monthly user fee, it was a worthwhile investment for most. No more wishing you had more time to relax after work, or waiting till the weekend to see friends. In fact, for many people who were working two jobs just to get by, it was the escape that they desperately needed. Studies even showed that the reduced stress levels that resulted, made people more productive during their waking hours. Not only that, but the extended dream state left people feeling more rested after less sleep than people that just went to bed normally. So it wasn’t a surprise that, with over two hundred million units sold worldwide and billions in monthly fees, ArkConnect Systems had become one of the most profitable companies in the world almost overnight. Get it... Overnight... Sorry.

Anyways, when Neal Ravensburger, a classmate of Milo’s at MIT, had brought the early concept work to him for help in developing a business around it, he had recognized its potential immediately. So while Neal locked himself away in his lab, also known as his parents’ basement, Milo devoted himself to bringing Somno to the masses. After a year of trying though, he had little to show for it. Milo had leveraged every resource he could find and even dropped out of school to focus on the company. He also ran up more debt than what seemed humanly possible in the process. The kind that could destroy him financially for the rest of his life if he failed. But regardless, he had pushed forward, fueled only by a strong belief in what they were trying to create. Well, that and hot pockets. In the end, he risked everything to make it work. And just when it started to feel hopeless, Neal brought Milo a simple unlabeled cardboard box. Inside, was a device that looked like something out of a low budget sci-fi movie. It was all wires and LEDs, with a part on the side that Neal had warned might shock him if he wasn’t careful. Some design streamlining was definitely needed, but it worked.

Milo had collapsed the first time he set foot in the testing platform of the system, a place that Neal had called the Sphere. His knees hit the ground, unable to support his artificial body under the weight of the emotions that had welled up from inside him. It was just a bleak landscape of stone with crimson light punching through an overcast sky. But despite Neal’s poor taste in design, it was remarkable nonetheless. The air tasted clean and dry as it filled Milo’s lungs. He had actually gasped in disbelief at the feeling as his mind fed him all the sensations that went along with it. Crumbling bits of rock had dug into his knees and stuck to the skin of his palms as he supported himself on all fours. Even the crunching sound of the ground under Neal’s feet as he helped Milo back up, had been thoroughly, unmistakably, real. “You’ve done it,” Milo had said, meeting Neal’s eyes before his view shifted across the horizon, its slight curve indicating the shape of the blank canvas that they stood on. Milo had wondered how far it actually went as he ran a virtual hand through his hair, letting out a whisper that surprised even him. “Nothing can stop us.”

Shortly after, armed with a remodeled device wearing a sleek plastic shell to hide its exposed, shock inducing guts, and an interactive demo featuring some better scenery, investors came in one after another. Neal moved out of his parents’ basement and into a facility that gave him everything he could possibly need. The lab grew and expanded, until it took up an entire building. Then they bought a bigger building. Articles were written about the company, about them, and about what the system meant for the future. So from there, ArkConnect Systems, which was a name that Neal had insisted on, rolled forward with near-unstoppable momentum. Milo stood at the helm, guiding the company on to the covers of hundreds of magazines. And Neal toiled away in the lab, always pushing the limits of the system to do more. Public interest grew to a fevered pitch by the time they were ready to launch. So on day one, they were already on top of the gaming industry.

Of course, the Somno system could have just been a network that allowed people to be active during their bedtime hours. It hadn’t actually needed to be a game or a fantasy world. But, Milo was a nerd. So to him, a simple network just wasn’t enough. He wanted more. He wanted, a place for people to escape.

Milo had spent much of his early life consuming video games and books like no other. So most of all, he wanted to give people the ability to create their own stories, with their own victories. He wanted to let people live out their fantasies. To build kingdoms, taste adventure and triumph over their fears. Sure, you could have fun and be successful in everyday life, but who could say they had fought an actual dragon. In today’s society, people didn’t really need things like bravery and honor. So when Neal had given him a system that could create a world that he had always dreamt of, he wasn’t about to let it be used for anything less. And so, Milo dusted off one of his old Dungeons and Dragons character sheets, and Aleister Coldblood stepped off the paper, and into Valain.

Now, he stood cowering in his office, unable to set foot in the world he helped create after some very real world problems had invaded his fantasy. He hated the situation. Even more, he hated that he could do nothing about it other than attend meetings and work with his publicist to try to turn things around. He wondered how long it could take for the whole thing to eventually just blow over. A year maybe? That was when a system chime sounded in his ear.

Aleister glanced at the spine of his journal where an icon of a feathered quill overlapping a scroll faded into existence, indicating that he had a new message. Back during testing, they had originally used a system similar to augmented reality to display the game menu. Though in practice, they found it too distracting to see people wandering around with a bunch of glowing text boxes hovering around their heads and breaking the illusion. The next option was to make the windows invisible to other players. But still, that just left them waving their hands around in the air like a bunch of mimes. And nobody likes mimes. So in the end, they decided to center the game’s system messages and menus around a physical journal, while using a players own skin to give them quick access to the more important information in the form of complex tattoos of digital ink.  

He opened the small book and placed his glass back into the indent in the back cover. It snapped back into place as if magnetic, then he flipped to page that displayed his in-box. Columns of  text ran down the paper, displayed in a delicate cursive script that Aleister had chosen in his preferences as his default font. At the top of the list was a message in bold, seemingly written with a heavy pen to indicate that it was unread. The sender, read Neal Ravensburger. The subject, was HARD FEELINGS, all in caps. He groaned at seeing the name, expecting nothing good as he touched the line with his finger. The text on the page faded away irregularly as if staining the paper in reverse, then reformed to show the selected message. 

Strangely, there was no text, just a decorative icon of a frame with a triangle inside representing a video attachment. Aleister tapped it and flipped back to the glass embedded in the back cover, which among other things, was the only screen that players had access to in game. He popped it out again, this time tossing it into his office where it floated into the air as if ignoring gravity all together. Thanks to an upgrade that came with his cleric armband, the glass grew to the size of a large monitor. His eyes narrowed into slits as Ravensburger’s face took over the portal. Then his jaw dropped, as the horror of the video’s contents slammed into him. His forehead grew hot and his legs shook as he raised one hand to his mouth in disbelief. He took a step backwards as if trying to get away from it, but the window followed, tracking his movement and reinforcing the videos message. Escape was impossible.

The video ended and he held out his hand, prompting the glass to return to normal and float back to him. He slapped it back into his journal, shoving down the fear bubbling up inside him. He took three deep breaths and calmed down, calling back some of the determination that he had showed years ago in creating the game. Then, he flipped to a page showing his schedule and slid a small silver pen from a slot in the book’s binding. He crossed out everything for the next two days, confirming their deletion with a simple check-mark as the page went blank. It was not the time for meetings. 

Closing the book, he raised his caster, which was the primary item for casting magic in Dreamfall. The elegant bracelet hugged his right wrist tightly, a braid of silver serpents along its surface with a rectangular chamber underneath. It was a custom design, made just for him. He snapped it open, revealing a glowing crystal, its deep crimson light reminding him of the sky from his first trip into the system’s virtual environment. He swiped his hand up to open his spell menu, which appeared before him as a curved field of glowing glyphs, their animation making them look more mystical than anything produced by technology. 

He rapidly swiped the rows of symbols from left to right, aligning the teleportation spell he wanted into the vertical selection column in the center. From the top down, each glyph identified a different part. It was a travel spell, with an air element that targeted only himself to send him to a specific destination without any additional bonuses or combos. The last symbol selected, set its use as immediate rather than adding it to his quick-cast queue for later. Once finished, he raised his hand and swiped down with a decisive flourish, activating the spell and unconsciously striking a rather cool pose that had become habit for him. He stood motionless as an orange glow came from below his feet. Threads of energy climbing and swirling around him before expanding into a solid sphere that’s light could be faintly seen by the players still gathered below in protest. Then starting at the bottom, the shell quickly dispersed, flaking apart into shimmering particles of energy that glowed a bit brighter just before vanishing. The light faded. He was gone.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2