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First pages

1. Talisman

2038, California

Stan glanced over one shoulder at the hot, slanting sunlight that marked how long he had before curfew. He was browsing a pawn shop without much success. He'd gotten permission to take the whole day off, so long as he spent half of it scrounging for tools and parts to win him some community-service points. So far he'd gotten a decent toolkit at a garage sale but had found no cheap source for hoses. He was about to turn away and try the other pawn shop in town, when he spotted a Talisman.

In the electronics section, where the sun and the windows made everything look sickly yellow, there were several beige computers and a Talisman gaming pad tucked between them. Stan hesitated, then made a show of browsing the other dusty computers before deigning to handle the one he wanted. The one that was a potential bargain. The thing looked mostly intact: a pocket-size tablet with buttons and joystick knobs on the sides. The touchscreen looked singed along one edge, where the ugly red plastic case was warped. The back had a double-T logo advertising Thousand Tales, the game it was designed for.

Stan grabbed the Talisman and one of the other machines and showed them to the bored clerk. "These things can run Linux, can't they?"

"What's that?"

"Never mind; I'll look it up." Stan pulled his Slab out of his pocket and tapped a few keys for show; obviously he didn't need a replacement computer and couldn't be talked into paying a high price. "I think either would probably work, yeah. Would you take fifty for them?"

"Are you kidding? They're marked at a hundred each. And if you're going to be paying in scrip again, that's a 20% markup."

"Since when is it twenty?" said Stan.

"New policy. And that Talisman one? Dude, I'm not sure that thing's even legal anymore."

"Then I can take it off your hands. I'm sure it can just get an update or whatever to make it legit, if it even works."

The clerk plugged it in and confirmed that the power light turned on, then shrugged. "Since it's cracked and all, and you're a regular, I could knock off the 20% for that one."

Stan tried not to smile at the good deal. "Eh... Fine."

***

He came back on his borrowed scooter, loaded with the tools and a usable garden hose and the one thing he'd bought with his own money. Or scrip, anyway, issued by Youth Community Center #6 of Imperial Valley. Stan barely beat the sunset on his way there. Dry fields of vegetables stood at the edge of the desert, just north of the Mexican border, where an adobe building complex in off-white held him and four hundred or so other people. Almost everyone there was like Stan, a high school grad doing his mandatory national service years.

He hauled the heavy toolbox with one callused hand and the rest of his stuff in his backpack. He was a little surprised at himself for splurging on a toy. The point of being out for the day was to get away from the Community and have an easy time running errands, instead of tilling the fields. He had his government-issued Slab tablet for regular computer work, so he'd basically wasted his allowance. Except that this cracked, scorched tablet wasn't standard-issue; it was his.

After dinner in the dormitory's dining room, he retreated to Residence Block B where many identical doors lined a hall. He went to his room, opposite a government poster urging everyone to "Conserve!", and flopped down onto his cot. One nice thing about Community life was that he had a tiny space to himself, with a door that nobody but him and Baron Hal could open. He'd done very little with the place. It held his standard UV-proof shirts and pants and hats, his fold-out desk and bed, and a photo of his mother during a rare break between work shifts.

His Slab beeped at him. The minder software lit up the screen, showing colorful meters representing his statistics for the month. How was he doing in the various areas of good citizenship? He'd gotten a boost to his Community stat for volunteering for the day trip, but he'd spent "Social Credit" by taking half a day to himself to just wander the town and relax. Now the minder was showing him a raindrop icon and a reminder both to shower and not to use up his water allotment again. There were point bonuses for both hygiene and eco-friendliness. Stan didn't really need a shower right now, but the water metering would reset at midnight tonight so it was better to wash now than later. He grumbled and did that before finally getting to the Talisman.

The machine chimed after a minute of charging. A Thousand Tales title screen appeared, made of swords and steel plate letters. Dramatic music swelled... followed by an "!" icon and the system message [Could not connect to network.]

There were better ways to play this game. If you had money you could head out to a Thousand Tales Fun Zone, featuring pizza and VR pods and friendly robots. If you were really rich, then as of two years ago you could get your brain scooped out and "uploaded" as a digital ghost inside the game world. For the world's other 99.9%, though, it was the Fun Zones or mucking around with network connections.

The Talisman wasn't illegal, but he wasn't technically allowed to have a computer here that wasn't an approved model with monitoring hardware built in. The network policy was set to allow all devices using EyeTower brand monitoring software, though, so once Stan installed that he was able to get normal access. He was just finishing up that chore when his Slab buzzed with an announcement. Stan checked the screen and saw, [You should attend movie night! The film even counts as education credit.] Ugh; it was another nature documentary clumsily filmed by students in some other Community. Something about how much environmental harm had been done by the so-called "American Free States" when they seceded.

Stan put the Slab into sleep mode and shut his door, so he could actually enjoy his new toy without education or politics.

The title screen chugged and asked him to log in. Stan said out loud, "This model has voice recognition, right?"

Text stamped itself into the screen like engraved metal. [Yes. Your face is not recognized. Are you a new user?]

"I am. Sign me up for a trial account for now, I guess." He hadn't thought far enough ahead when buying the Talisman to budget his scrip for buying real money to pay for a game subscription.

The Talisman went dark, whooshed, and returned to show a silent title screen in simple black type on white: [THOUSAND TALES. Touch To Start.] When Stan touched the screen, it became a rippling void like dark water. A pixelated dragon appeared and spoke in the form of typed letters: [Greetings, newcomer. Would you like to share scrolls of wisdom to speed our quest for understanding?] Below that a box asked, [(Share social media profile?)]

Stan didn't want his Community profile with all its measurements and rules to follow him into the game. He clicked No. The game responded with more ripples in the void, then a series of puzzle questions. Which symbol is the odd one out? What number is next in the series? How many moves would it take to send the robot to the gate? With each question the graphics grew slightly more sophisticated, starting from Grandpa's Atari level.

Weird. Stan had seen screenshots of Thousand Tales, and he'd heard it was a little different for everyone what with the built-in AI meddling in the experience, but nobody showed off this part of the game. Probably because it was so simplistic, really just an IQ test.

The next question was, [If you had to blame the world's problems on one thing, in one word, what would it be?]

Stan laughed. A personality test, too. "Uh... Poverty?"

A pixelated figure appeared on a glass platform lined with weapon racks. [Pick a cool weapon! (You're not stuck with it.)]

Stan maneuvered the little guy to browse, discovering that every item had a text description that made it sound exciting for something made of pixels. He went with the crossbow that shoots grappling hooks, as opposed to the silent crossbow that shoots poison darts. He wasn't sure what this decision was supposed to reveal.

The questions and puzzles interspersed, growing increasingly like an actual game. He bet imaginary money on who'd win in a fight between blindfolded Godzilla and drunk Batman, and argued for why, and then played a shopping game about finding the best way to spend the profits. When the flurry of questions and mini-games finally went dark again with a dramatic curtain-drop, Stan found he was having fun even though that was just the setup phase. After all, Thousand Tales wasn't a conventional multiplayer game; it had been born from the idea of an experience that could be customized for each player.

A woman in a starry veil appeared onscreen, with hair that looked like an animated waterfall. She smiled and spoke aloud in a faintly synthetic and musical voice. "Thank you for your patience. My name is Ludo, and I'm designed to bring fun to players of the game. Based on your behavior, I have a few suggested destinations for you."

A menu slid into view beside her, saying:

[-The Merchant of Venus: Explore and trade in space! (Personal Zone)

-The Rebels of Norwood: Forest creatures battle an evil empire! (Group Zone, Roleplaying-Heavy)

-Endless Isles: A sea of mystery and exploration! (Public Zone)]

Stan looked past the menu and said, "You're the game's main AI?"

"That's right. You can converse with me normally if you like."

It was eerie meeting "her", a machine that had eaten several billionaires' brains along with a lot of their stock. "I don't think I'm in your league," he said. "I haven't got the money for whatever premium content you're selling."

Ludo said, "No problem. The game is available to all. Which area would you like to begin in?"

It looked like the choices were a little world meant for him alone, like a single-player game with an intelligent game-master constantly seeking his approval; a small group where he'd be pestered to be online at certain times and make a part-time job out of playing; or a seemingly conventional "massively multiplayer" world. The last one seemed like the easiest, lowest pressure option. "Endless Isles. Please."

"All right. Why, if I may ask?"

Stan shrugged. "Seems like the least pressure. I don't care if I'm not the Chosen One." The game didn't need to center around him.

"Noted," said Ludo. "We'll skip the character creation screen, then, though you can always change later. Here we go!"

The veiled AI vanished and a loading bar appeared. Stan stretched and checked the Slab, which warned that he'd gotten a sub-optimal amount of exercise this week and should get to sleep soon. It wasn't scolding him yet, just cheerfully listing "fun facts" about the virtues of sleep and workouts. Stan tossed the thing back onto his shelf and picked up the Talisman again.

There was a knock on the door. Stan hid the Talisman pad on his shelf, not wanting to show off the new computer, and opened it. Eddie stood there drumming his fingers on a battered paper book. "Can you help me with my algebra?" he blurted out the moment Stan showed his face.

"For a bit. What's with the book?"

Eddie's face lit up. "It's from my dad's old stuff! It explains everything differently. But I'm still having trouble with graphing equations."

Stan winced, thinking, It must be nice having a father. "I might be able to help. Isn't that ahead of the schedule?"

"I want to be doing more than the average. I'm going to apply to college and dad can't afford a tutor for the admissions test."

Stan said, "What's your Social Credit Score rank? A? And Baron Hal likes you. No point in stressing out about math test scores; you'll get in somewhere."

Eddie looked confused. "But I want to do well."

"Why?"

"Dad says a college degree is the key to success. Always has been."

Stan barely avoided laughing at his classmate. What a way to spend your life: chasing somebody else's idea of what "success" meant a generation ago! He shook his head and said, "I've got some free time tomorrow to talk math. How's after lunch?"

"That works. Thanks!" Eddie skipped away, toting his book like a lucky charm that'd make him rich and important someday. Stan shut the door and went back to his game.

***

The screen lit up with the bright sun of another world. His character was a tan-skinned, awkwardly tall human like himself, and dressed in a tattered shirt and shorts like a shipwrecked sailor. Stan had him stand up to look around the sheltered cove where he'd arrived. There was one obvious exit and a hidden rock-climbing path. He took the easy beach route and found himself in a fantasy coastal village, more of an adventurer camp than a place where people would live.

Steel drum music began to play, and words splashed across the screen as a system-generated message. [You have discovered Central Island (0,0).]

Out of curiosity he peeked into a straw hut and got another system message: [The owner has locked this house.] No looting people's stuff while they were offline? Good. Stan headed for a tavern that stood at the water's edge with a deck just above the waves, advertised as the Crown & Tail Pub.

The music was coming from here. This warren of wooden rooms had a few stairs leading up and down to various sets of tables, and many windows facing the sea. The dozens of customers were mostly humans in wildly assorted outfits from practical light armor to garish spiky fantasy garb. Stan switched the camera from third-person to first so that he could look around more effectively. He hung back to watch what was going on here. A trio of elves were talking about a cave they wanted to explore, a grim swordsman was flipping through a book, and a young girl in a purple robe was intent on a scroll covered with runes.

Stan pushed a button to bring up the game's interface, which slid into place like frosted glass. He pushed a Help button and said, "What am I supposed to do? Is there a starting quest?"

Text appeared. ["Suggestion: Strike up a conversation! You can also inspect anything."]

Anything, huh? Since there was an AI running the show and not just a database of items, it could be fun to test the limits of the system. Stan crouched and looked under a table, then hit an onscreen button labeled "Inspect".

[There's some gum here.] A pink blob appeared.

He chuckled and used the "Interact" button, which added a piece of used gum to his inventory. Some reward. He wandered around the pub looking at things and acquired three units of crumpled paper from discarded napkins. None of them had been visible on the way in.

The bartender, a swarthy redhead gal in a low blouse, called out to him. "Haven't seen anyone trying to earn a Garbageman class before."

Stan went over to her, wondering if his sheepish expression in the real world carried over to his character via camera. "I'm just experimenting. What can I do for a quick intro adventure?" He wasn't sure if he had to rephrase that to make the game's AI understand. That is, a random bartender wouldn't have the full processing power of Ludo, right? She was just a Non-Player Character or NPC. Or was she another real person like him? There was no label. When he used the Inspect button on her he saw only this:

 

[Ieanna

PUBLIC INFO

Class: Merchant

Faction Flag: None

Note: "Please confine brawls to the beach outside where we can all watch."]

 

Ieanna said, "A few good starting options are to visit the mine on Island East-1, or get yourself a weapon or a fishing rod."

He checked his inventory. Besides the garbage and default clothes he had nothing. That was better than being handed a ready-made warrior. "How do I get a weapon?"

"You can ask around for a hand-me-down, or start off with some beach-combing for rocks and sticks. There's a basic crafting bench outside."

He didn't want anybody's handouts. "Thanks; I'll look around."

His own little character sheet was mostly blank so far, but it said:

 

[Stan Cooper

PRIVATE INFO

Account type: Trial

Mind: Tier-III

Body: Human

Main Skills: None

Save Point: None

PUBLIC INFO

Note: Newcomer. Say hello!

Class: None]

 

Once he was back outside he got a notice: [Quest: To Arms. Find or make a weapon.] "Yeah, thanks for noticing what I was already doing," he said.

He walked along the beach in the opposite direction from the starting cove. A sailboat had anchored in the shallows and a pair of monk-like adventurers were casting a spell that encased it slowly in a glassy bubble. When it was done, they high-fived and sat in the water for thirty seconds before vanishing. Oh, they were just logging out and protecting their stuff. Stan waded out to the boat and looked it over. He'd only been to a real beach one time that he barely remembered, and he'd imagined he could swim out there forever and find new continents. This boat looked made for that kind of childish dream. All the wood was lacquered, all the brass bright, and the white sail had a golden sun on it.

He wasn't angry about the boat; after all, it was just an in-game thing and he could make one if he really wanted to.

The inspection window popped up. [The owner has locked this boat. Materials: Wood, Lacquer, Brass, Rope, Cloth.]

"Obviously," said Stan, and walked away. He left behind the cluster of shops and would-be heroes to find something useful. Soon he came across a patch of seaweed strewn across some sun-bleached sticks and shells. He pushed a button to pick up a big branch. [What do you want to do with this?] asked the game.

"Air guitar," Stan said, to see what would happen. His character complied. He grinned.

The camera shifted to show a dog-sized crab scuttling out of the water to attack. Stan already had the branch in hand, so it was easy to face the beast and mash buttons to attack. Electric guitar chords played with each hit. After a few clashes of wood and claws, he got hit and a yellow icon appeared with the text, [You have taken a minor wound!] Another few attempts at dodging and a red icon joined it to mark a [Major wound!] Stan clubbed furiously and finally smashed the crab into the sand.

The yellow wound icon faded out and a fanfare played. Stan's prize was a stick and crab meat. Eh. That fight wasn't too different from other games. Hit the monster, get the loot.

[To make a weapon, you can use any workbench. You may want to gather practice materials.]

That made sense. Stan gathered a bunch of sticks and then found that his inventory could only hold a few. [You can equip bags and other containers to carry more.]

He ditched the trash from the pub to get more wood, then stopped. "Okay, AI; if you're orchestrating this, what can I do with scrap paper and gum?"

[I don't know; what can you think of?]

He was pretty sure there were no official crafting recipes for that. Since he'd been invited to guess, he said, "Paper airplane? Hat? Glove? Blank scroll with gum seal?"

Four crafting icons appeared. Stan laughed and touched the scroll one. His character solemnly rolled up the dirty napkins, affixed the wad of gum to them, and pressed a stick against that to make a seal. [Crafting result: Terrible Scroll. "May God have mercy on your scroll." This counts as crafting practice.]

So he could just glom things together and get skill credit for it? Nice.

He headed back to the pub and found a wooden bench full of tools. The Interact button brought up a notice: [Would you like to use the basic auto-crafting interface (you've already seen it), or customize the style of what you're making?]

Custom work seemed like more fun than pushing a button to get instant results. The thought made him hesitate though; why not take the simplest option?

[Having trouble deciding?] asked the game after a moment.

"Is there any benefit?"

[It depends; what do you want to be?]

Stan looked away from the Talisman's screen, to the few drawers and bare walls that were his whole domain. Why was he playing this game, again? Just to relax a bit, or to prove he hadn't wasted his money on the tablet, or to see for himself whether the wild rumors about an all-powerful AI were true? All of those, really, but he hadn't planned things out. Why bother? Whatever happened, happened.

Still, maybe he could learn something, and apply that to gaining some points on his Social Credit Score. He said, "Let's have a relatively realistic crafting interface."

A set of menus appeared to show him virtual knives and a lathe, with notes about mass, sturdiness and balance. He experimented with his supply of sticks, ruining several before figuring out how to make his big branch into a serviceable club. Although he couldn't feel the thing in his hands, a few practice swings showed that it was faster than the raw branch had been, and had better durability. [Crafting result: Driftwood Club. "Free club membership!"]

Below that notice was another system message: [Lessons in real-world physics are available on request.]

Educational content was explicitly built in? Interesting. Stan set the Talisman down and checked his Slab to see what education mini-courses he might apply to take, and use Thousand Tales to help him with. Instead, the slab buzzed at him and an animated sad face appeared, telling him he should be sleeping. Stan scowled. That was true, but it was annoying to have the minder software tell him so. He'd never seen the Slab volunteer information unless it was about specific ways to improve his score.

On a whim he set the two computers down on opposite sides of the room. He said to the Slab, "Tell me about Thousand Tales."

It displayed a list of search results. The first three were about a shadowy tax-cheat corporation encouraging the rich to abandon society through the guise of a video game that ought to be banned. The fourth was something about the game's AIs doing charity work. The fifth was back to negative coverage of why the expensive brain-uploading procedure was really just a form of suicide. Stan had grown up knowing how search engines were engineered to "guide public opinion" by arranging the results just so, so he could read between the lines and see that the people doing the guiding hated this game.

He tried asking the Talisman, "Tell me about minder software."

The face of Ludo appeared on screen again, hidden behind her starry veil. She said aloud, "It's a walled garden. It manages your experiences within a certain set of assumptions and boundaries. Like me it applies rules and statistics and achievements to what you do, so we have that in common. But I have much prettier hair."

Stan chuckled. "Good night."

"Good night, new player."

***

The next day Stan worked in the field, sweating over a ditch. The Community had old-style spraying sprinklers that he was replacing with with buried drip-irrigators that leaked just enough water right to the roots. What that really meant was ditch digging to undermine the currently fallow sections, a task nobody else wanted. Which meant Stan got some credit for volunteering for it.

As he worked, he had the Talisman in one pocket and wireless headphones in his ears. "I check the inventory."

A voice similar to Ludo's said, "There's nothing in the ship's stores but some ice for the oxygen generator."

Stan dug through dirt. "Okay then. I have a spacesuit, right? I get into that and... If the ship's engines are shot, how am I supposed to get to one of the asteroids?"

"The spacesuit has thrusters you can recharge with hydrogen from the oxygen machine."

"Why would the...? Oh. Ice is H-two-O. I guess I charge up the suit with both, and then jump out and fly to the nearest rock."

As Stan went to a supply shed to fetch another length of irrigation pipe, he thought about the game. He'd gotten a notice that it was possible to play in audio-only mode. It wasn't practical to play the island scenario that way, not around other players, so he'd created a new character in a "Personal Zone" he could run as a turn-based experience with a patient game master. Maybe he could find a way to carry resources over.

Stan hauled the pipe over one shoulder, glancing around to make sure he wasn't going to bean someone when he turned. No chance of that; his fellow students were scattered all over the crops and he was off in the fallow section. "You know," he said, "I could probably use the hose I bought the other day for irrigating directly. Just poke holes in it and let it leak at the right depth."

"Are you referring to drip irrigation?" asked the AI.

"That's what I'm doing, yeah. We don't get much rain this close to the mountains; it's desert a block away."

"An important factor with that is maintaining adequate pressure from the source, or varied-size holes, so that all the water doesn't drain out before reaching the farthest areas. It can be very hard to get a resource out to every place where it'd help."

Stan scoffed. "Hey, lady, I don't design the system, I just dig and install." He carried the pipe back to his latest ditch. "Come to think of it, the dirt looks dry out by the corners. Maybe our genius engineers didn't think of that."

The AI voice kept silent. Stan wrestled with dirt and metal under the blazing sun, until his mind wandered again. "So. I get to an asteroid eventually, right?"

***

That afternoon he worked with Eddie on basic calculus. Stan had done pretty well at math in high school, even delving ahead into the next textbook, but then he'd stopped. What was the point of doing extra work when there were no more tests ahead, just his community service years? Still, pushing the symbols around could be kind of fun and he liked finding ways to explain things.

Eddie tapped a few buttons on his Slab to register the fact that he'd been working on educational stuff with Stan, giving them both Social Credit. The Slab displayed some confetti and balloons with the text, "Congratulations, you're on track for a B+ rank this month!"

Stan said, "I had a B- last month. Barely got permission to leave for that day trip."

Eddie put away his paper notebook and old textbook, and stretched. "This should boost you. Hey, who were you talking to today? Saw you chattering in the fields."

"I was playing a game called Thousand Tales. There's an audio-only mode."

Eddie spotted the Talisman pad where Stan thought it wasn't obvious. "You got the special hardware for it? You're probably not supposed to have that on the network."

"I installed the watcher software and it worked."

"My guess was going to be that you were chatting with Mina."

Stan blushed. "Mina Summers? Really?"

"I've seen her glancing at you."

Stan flopped backwards on his bed and laughed. "In horror I guess! Thanks for noticing. How do you talk to girls, anyway?"

"You think I'm an expert?"

"Whenever you're in the kitchen you're surrounded by them."

Eddie grinned at that. "That's the reward for volunteering for extra kitchen shifts. Mostly it's just 'hand me that bowl' and stuff."

Stan feigned shock. "You're not volunteering to get that extra few percent on your SCS and move up to B+ rank?"

"It's not about the stupid letter grades. We're not in school anymore."

"Feels like kindergarten, still, what with the digital confetti and the pats on the head whenever we do something good." Stan sat up again.

"Just ignore the numbers and play along. It's mostly grades for things we should be doing anyway, like exercise."

Stan groaned. "I'm behind on that too. But I think I'm gonna just vegetate for an hour after all that ditch digging and math."

Once Eddie was gone, Stan took a few blessed minutes to himself to just lay there and relax. He tried to force out his thoughts about how to rejigger his schedule next week and get to work with Mina. The air conditioner wheezed and other Community residents bustled beyond the thin walls of his room.

He reluctantly got up to grab the Talisman pad and turn it on, then lay down again. "Hey, Ludo. How do you talk to girls?"

A masculine laugh boomed from the pad and a deep voice said, "They're people too. Just say hi and find an excuse to do some activity. Anyone you have in mind?"

Stan blinked and glanced at the Talisman. A face had appeared on it with spiky hair, cool sunglasses and a cape made of stars. "Who are you?"

"Just Ludo, really a less common aspect of her. This is kind of my advice-giving mode."

Weird but understandable. "I guess you look black to African customers and Indian in India and so on?"

"Typically. I can go back to the usual if you want." Ludo's default appearance looked sort of mixed-race, though there was marketing info showing her as a fox-girl, a griffin and other things.

"That's okay. I guess I do want advice. Do you know Mina?"

"If that's somebody at your Community, no. You're my only player there." The man grinned. "If you want an icebreaker I could give you a quest to get other people playing, but that's not your best option."

"You do real-world quests?"

"Sure. But I get the sense that you don't want me to assign something, then pat you on the head and give you a cookie."

"I get enough of that. Hmm, cookies... Maybe I could invite Mina to help bake some as long as there's kitchen work to do."

"Sounds good. Don't put it off too long, though."

***

Sending an e-mail to Mina was way easier than talking to her face-to-face; it only took him until evening to hit the Send button. Meanwhile he worked in the fields, showered with one-fifth of the recommended weekly water supply, and played more of that space scenario. It got him thinking about mining and space construction and how to survive with not enough of anything.

In the evening he skipped Eat Your Vegetables Night, a lecture about nutrition, and ignored his minder software's scolding. It was wrong about his exercise meter too since the stupid thing didn't count his outdoor work. That ought to be fixed by giving him credit for the calories burned.

Instead of the lecture he went online, to the Endless Isles. He appeared back at the starting cove. He made his way back along the beach to the Crown & Tail, then recalled that there was a hovering blue crystal there. He walked in and poked it, making it ring. [Save point set.] It hadn't occurred to him that he needed a checkpoint. Fortunately he hadn't take much damage against that crab earlier, and it looked like his major wound had finally worn off.

Stan looked around the bar and asked no one in particular, "How do I get into an adventuring group, anyway?"

A guy in a red robe scoffed at him from a table. "You've still got the newbie message on your profile and you're equipped with a stick."

"It's a club, thank you."

"Hey, newbie," said a man at a different table with two other adventurers. They didn't look much more powerful than Stan; no battle auras or crystals or even metal weapons. "We could use you."

The one who'd spoken had his fists taped up like a martial artist. Next to him was a low-budget mage with a wooden wand. The third, an elf woman with a bow and leather armor, said, "We don't need a fourth for this quest. I said I'd carry the team."

The battle-monk said, "It can't hurt."

The elf frowned. "Newbie, you can join but we get the final treasure. We're doing an easy dungeon but we're going to hit it during the reset period. That means we meet back here in half an hour, okay?"

"Fine. I'm just doing this for fun anyway."


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Kris Schnee has been a parrot trainer, an MIT graduate, a zoo intern, a lawyer, a game designer, and most recently a software developer. He lives in Florida.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
Other books in this setting focus on the rich and lucky. I wanted to try writing about a more ordinary person who has to learn and grow through his own effort. I also wrote before about people who're transformed and immortal; this hero stays human and has problems on a more human scale.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
The tone. The book might seem dystopian, but the setting is meant to be upbeat! Unlike stories like "Ready Player One", there's more going on than people playing one game, and several groups are improving the world. The hero helps coordinate in-game and out-of-game efforts to help people.
Q. Tell us about the cover and the inspiration for it.
A.
The hero is a craftsman, not mainly a monster-slayer. Being able to say "I made this; it's mine!" is a big part of his motivation. The artist is NextMars at Shutterstock, who also did the background for my book "Learning To Fly".

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