I looked at Frank in the mirror. He was smiling. I really wished quantum reading of symbiote processor states worked in the virtual world. I had worked out the basic math for that particular exercise, and fully understood why B didn’t even try. Bad enough for young symbiotes. Incredibly processor intensive for advanced pairs. Since I didn’t have the ability to read Frank’s general mood by looking at his processors, all I could go by was his physical expressions. Which really meant nothing. Frank’s body said only what he told it to. I, on the other hand, was a lot easier for Frank to read.
Frank shook his head. “Wasn’t me, Bob. Wish it was. That’s hilarious.”
He was right. It was pretty funny. But if it wasn’t him, who was it? If it wasn’t Frank, then Ayva or Danielle might have managed it, or A, or B. I started making plans for a funny costume for Ayva. A nurse’s outfit, a bit naughty, would probably work. It would be worth the potential bruises too.
I decided to look around for other surprises, and walked outside my door, into the wider virtual world. Frank followed me out, scanning. We heard fighting in the distance, but it didn’t sound right. There were too many strange noises mixed in with the yells. Hearing that, Frank and I both retrieved our staves from the rack with a thought. While inside our personal area, we had total control of everything in it, but once outside our claimed personal area, there were more normal rules. Resources acted more like real world resources in the main virtual world. In embedded worlds though, like tiny personal areas, the sky is the limit. If you use all the resources of an embedded world, you can just reset them. Frank and I didn’t really want an embedded world of our own. We had the real world, and the virtual world. That was enough for us. For now anyway.
Fighting in the main virtual world, outside of embedded virtual worlds, was pretty common. Battle re-enactments, from World War Two, to the civil war, to the Thirty Years War, even massive renaissance faire style medieval re-enactments, huge gatherings of martial artists testing themselves cross-discipline. In gaming terms, the main virtual world was very much a sandbox style virtual world. If you made changes, the world stayed changed. Until someone else made changes. If different people wanted different changes in the same place, sometimes fights broke out. Good fighters were recruited by companies, governments, and organizations who wanted to maintain their facilities that protected their embedded worlds.
It was all rather chaotic, really. And things had exploded in the last twenty-four hours. As I listened carefully, I could hear fighting coming from every direction. Lots of fighting. Maybe people had been frightened when they might die in here, but now were back with a vengeance? Had a large group of civilians managed to threaten a military research facility? Were the shadow-people attacking our neighbors?
Neither Frank nor I were terribly concerned about the shadow people anymore. We could take a beating with the best, especially now that there was no possibility of death or mental damage at the end of the beating.
Our area of the world had always been very safe, because Frank and I kept it that way. In the virtual world, before damage was real, we were merciless about stopping people from messing with us or our neighbors. Frank never played with troublemakers, normally taking intruders who were disruptive out before they even realized they were in a fight, forcing their mental presence out of the virtual world, back to the real world for a few seconds. Then they had to log back in at wherever their spawn was, and initialize before returning to give us more trouble. There were very few who gave us trouble on a regular basis. They got bored with all the re-spawning and loading messages.
As we came to the edge of the street we had been protecting for the last year, the fighting sounds got louder. And weirder. I started analyzing the sounds of battle.
“Frank are you hearing what I’m hearing?”
“Are you hearing a whole lot of high tech weaponry and seeing absurd energy signatures in reflected light from the battle around the corner?”
“I hadn’t looked at the light. One second.” I looked at the light flashing off the glass and analyzed it. Definitely absurd. Not hugely powerful, but very weird. I had never seen anything like it.
“I am seeing and hearing what you are, I think. Any ideas?”
“Experimental weapon systems is the best potential answer I can think of, but I am having a hard time imagining how to design weapons that would create the energy signatures I’m seeing. Nothing to say a group of researchers didn’t develop rapidly down a narrow knowledge path to be able to do something I can’t even properly imagine, but…”
The fighting noises stopped.
“Yea, Frank, highly unlikely, I agree. However, they are on the border of our territory. Want to push them back and see if any strange weapons stay manifested long enough to investigate them?”
“Based on what I’m hearing, whoever is there is accosting people, so sure.”
We turned the corner and stumbled a bit as we took it all in. There were two very large figures standing there which immediately gave us pause. While people could create themselves in a very wide variety of shapes and sizes with little difficulty in the virtual world, most chose smaller bodies for energy and speed reasons. Frank’s success record tended to encourage that amongst serious solo fighters who looked at successful methodology. Established groups, well trained to work together, would sometimes adopt a larger size individually because they could work together to defend their flanks, while having greater strength and reach. These two threw all that to the wind. There were only two of them, and they were both very large. One of them looked like a seven foot tall cyborg, wide and heavy. Shiny metal and flesh randomly occurring on all of their surface skin we could see. He was probably well over two hundred kilos if the metal on their skin was shallow, just on the surface, and four hundred kilos or more if the metal wasn’t just skin deep. I could tell by spectral analysis that the metal was some odd steel. The spectral analysis code didn’t like some of the components and threw an error, which shocked me. The other was also nearly seven feet tall, featureless, just a whole-body one-piece suit with a black and white checkerboard pattern. The one in the checkerboard suit was very thin, if compared against the cyborg, but was actually a healthy normal human mass for his height, at first guess I imagined him at maybe one hundred fifty kilos.
Both of them were relaxing a bit, but there was nobody else around. Which, based on all the nearby wreckage, meant they had probably either been fighting each other, or they had just killed someone in the virtual world.
As Frank and I were mentally stumbling and trying to figure out what was in front of us, the absurdity of their body sizes and shapes confusing us, the two looked at each other.
The cyborg grinned. “Look, Chess, more noobs!”
The other answered to the name Chess, apparently, since he nodded. After a brief pause, he started to speak while watching us closely. “I recognize them, Shocker, that’s Bob and Frank. We’re on the edge of a substantial amount of territory that they used to be able to control.”
Frank was fully in control again, and started talking. “You’re calling Bob and me noobs? Chess? Shocker? Dale, I recognize your scents, you and your symbiote, Jammer, there. It’s been a while since I kicked your tails, but I did it pretty well last time. I’m not sure what the absurd sizes and appearances are all about, but if you don’t leave now, you will get a repeat performance.”
Chess spoke again. “Frank, you aren’t even in costume, and Bob looks ridiculous. What do you even do, Bob?”
Frank and I just looked at each other, completely unable to understand what they were saying.
Shocker started to laugh. “Chess. They didn’t do the tutorial. The two high and mighty ones, the oldest and smartest symbiote pair, just waltzed into the world thinking they were still top dogs.”
Frank started muttering “power levels commensurate with the inverse of the processing capacity of the individual,” then his eyes got big. “Bob, run, we need to get out of here and log out. Now.”
Chess chuckled. “Too late.”
Shocker took two steps back from Chess, and pointed both of his arms directly at his teammate. Frank and I both stared at the impossible buildup of energy in Shocker. That was where the strange energy signature had been coming from.
Frank grabbed me, and started to run while pushing me. I thought that was a damn fine idea, and ran as hard as I could.
I looked back and saw that Chess was fully enclosed in a globe of power extending from Shocker’s hands. Then, amazingly, Frank was inside Shocker’s globe, which had rapidly started to shrink. Frank’s back and limbs were arching, wracked in spasms. I had strange green afterimages in front of my eyes, and an urge to reach for them that I couldn’t resist.
As I reached my arms out in front of me to grab at the greenest looking dots, I stretched forward, and my head dropped. A black and white checkered arm, moving at symbiote combat speeds, passed my head. Frank and Chess had changed places. I pushed the perception effect to its maximum and swept my staff at Chess’s legs to force him to jump. Then I struck him center mass while he was in freefall parabolic motion, throwing him away from me and giving me room to stop and check on Frank.
Frank was literally smoking inside Shocker’s sphere, his body in mad spasms, but he still held his staff, and was beating the hell out of Shocker with it. At first, I could not imagine how Frank was controlling his muscles, but then I saw that he was using the charge of the shock sphere to guide his body. He was not fully in control, but he had enough control to selectively expose various parts of his body to the shock globe in preference to other parts. This allowed him enough control to hit Shocker. Shocker was hurt, but was taking the blows stoically, bleeding from several head and torso wounds. His metallic parts displayed a few dents and a couple turned up pieces of metal. He was in better shape than Frank though. I could tell that several of Frank’s muscles were completely burned through, based on how he was moving. Something was preventing Frank from leaving the sphere, every time he tried, he was drawn back in.
Chess was charging me, with a lance? Various green shades appeared in my field of vision. I was drawn to poke my staff at the greenest part, and shift my legs and hips so that my body filled into a shape defined in green. Chess’s lance slid under my staff and then under my left armpit. I grabbed the lance with my left hand and yanked it towards me, hard, which lifted Chess a bit into the air, making it possible for me to grab him with both hands, by his upper arms. His eyes opened widely. There was no green visible to guide me, so I just head butted him as hard as I could, my forehead to his nose, doing far more damage to him than me.
I turned away from Chess and back towards Shocker, seeing Frank collapse to his knees and fall to his side. I started charging back in towards Frank and Shocker at maximum acceleration. Fuck the heat. Frank’s in a terrible bad way. I couldn’t see any green in front of me.
Chess shouted “En Passant” from behind me. There was a green flash to my right as he started to shout, but I was so intent on reaching Shocker and Frank that I didn’t notice it until I had almost passed it and could no longer reach it. Something heavy hit me from behind, and I felt myself being impaled above my left kidney, the pain angled up, bypassing my ribcage into my chest cavity, then something hit my head and everything went black.
I disconnected myself from the quant.
“Frank, what the hell was that?”
“B apparently designed some sort of equalizer system into the main virtual world. Remember that bit about people having ‘power levels commensurate with the inverse of the processing capacity of the individual?’ It wasn’t a metaphor or some sort of intentionally misleading statement. It was a simple statement of fact. B made his virtual world a super powered sandbox simulator in order to give the weakest pairs in real life a chance against the strongest – at least in the main virtual world.”
“Super powered sandbox virtual reality? Wow. So the less capable a symbiote pair is, the more they get in the way of the super powered lottery?”
“It breaks down to individuals. As far as I can tell, I got nothing. You noticed I didn’t even get a costume? You got a costume, and based on what I saw, some sort of enhanced senses?”
“Best I can figure it, I can see safe places to put my body parts or things that I’m carrying, if I’m exposed to danger and there’s any way to avoid it. It’s weird. I can’t sense danger, I can see safety when danger threatens.”
“Dale and Jammer are very new symbiotes. Very young. Jammer picked up some sort of chess-themed powers which put him on a fairly even footing with you in combat. Dale picked up extreme durability and some sort of bioelectrical powers.”
“Weird. Surreal, even. I cannot even imagine the chaos in the virtual world right now. What was B thinking? Shocker mentioned something about a tutorial? We didn’t see that. We didn’t see any mention of super powers in the EULA or in the questions we had to answer.”
“It might not be as chaotic as you think. It wasn’t peaceful in there before. Remember that humans without symbiotes can’t be harmed at all in there, if they manage to manifest. Since the rule was added, I bet they can manifest now, or will be able to soon.” I could feel Frank thinking. I was too.
“Our attackers from before, Frank. The ones we thought were some sort of virus. I bet they were humans.”
“That’s what I’m thinking too. Something to keep in mind.”
“Could we have skipped the tutorial because I tried to reach out to B before entering the world?”
“Plausible.” Frank paused. “Or B might be giving us a little bit of payback for needing his help.”
I stood and stretched, making sure we were fully healed before leaving the workshop. As I passed the guest room Kirk was in, I slid a note under the door that I had written in the workroom. I wasn’t extremely quiet about it, and heard movement. After a moment, there was a single audible tap on the frame of the bed. Message received. Kirk would not engage his quant, if he had brought one, without speaking to me first about world changes.
I walked upstairs, quietly, and spoke to Danielle while Ayva slept, advising her of the danger as well, with more detail than a little paper note. Then I got a bit of sleep myself.
The next morning was interesting. Ayva and Danielle read the EULA, and told Frank and I that it clearly spoke about super powers. The questions about the EULA did as well. Rather than doing the tutorial, Danielle logged out after reading the EULA and answering the quiz. Ayva and Danielle wanted to do the tutorial with Frank and me, if we could. She said it looked like the interface would allow people to choose a common meeting point.
Kirk didn’t have a quant with him, he rarely used one, but he looked up the EULA online, and showed it to me. Ayva verified it was the same one she saw. It wasn’t the same one Frank and I saw.
I smelled a practical joke on B’s part. Well, I owed him one, so I’d not be upset as long as the jokes didn’t cause any real problems.
I tried to enter the world again after we ate breakfast and saw Kirk to his car, and couldn’t. Not even to look at the EULA or to see if the tutorial was available. Not even to see if B would talk today.
So I cleaned up my workshop, then headed into town to pick up some lumber and a new external door to repair Ayva’s exit hole from the workshop. A lot of people stared at me with some hostility, unpaired humans and symbiotes both. The word had gotten out about B, the jail, and the changes to the virtual world. Most people had at least a couple things to be irritated about, where I was concerned. Those who weren’t irritated with me, were scared of me. Since I didn’t socialize much, I was an easy target. Fixing the hole in the wall simply using regular tools and old fashioned elbow grease was relaxing.
Eventually, my twenty-four hour death timer passed and Ayva and I logged in together. I got the option to enter the tutorial, and arranged to meet with Ayva, and we grouped inside the tutorial. It was fun, we figured out what our powers did and how.
Turns out that he was right. Frank really didn’t have any extra powers, though there were hints that he might get lucky every now and then in bad situations. Obviously not really lucky, or maybe bad luck counts. We had certainly gotten our heads handed to us yesterday.
Me? Much like Frank thought, my power was mostly sensory, though my belt of safety equipment had some useful items.
Ayva got cowgirl powers, as she called them. Two pistols, a rifle, and a lasso. The firearms were extremely accurate even though they appeared to be ancient technology from the late 1800’s. The things she could do with a lasso were pretty amazing, far beyond what you could do with a real lasso. The pistols and rifle would simply appear in her hands if she wanted them to, they never ran out of ammo, and never needed cleaning.
Danielle got a little something herself, despite being Ayva’s symbiote. She could encode and decode communications at will. Her targets had to be willing for encoding communications, but decoding could be done aggressively.
Ayva tried to get us to all take up code names. Frank and I were not interested at first. Then we noticed it was required for anyone who had powers. How? We didn’t have them last night? I suspected more B shenanigans. However, Ayva and I finally agreed that we would name each other.
We each wrote down our names for the other one. Our symbiotes talked to each other about our choices without letting us know what they were saying, and after three tries, the symbiotes agreed that neither one of us would be terribly offended by the name the other chose. The symbiotes chose their own names.
Frank simply chose Frank at first, but I made him choose another. He eventually decided on Dark Helmet. We all laughed.
Danielle picked up a pretty cool name, Code Talker.
Ayva hit me at least six times when I entered her name, Reverse Cowgirl. Then she laughed for about thirty seconds before putting her right index finger on the tip of my nose and telling me “You’ll pay for that, you villain. Add one Thrashing, Danielle”
I’d pay for that later, and enjoy it.
I knew I was in trouble when the three of them started showing me video clips of myself during the fighting parts of the tutorial. I saw the Moonwalk, the Robot, then the Monster Mash, Conga, and even the Night Fever dance. Ayva also mentioned half a dozen different dances which I had never heard of. B was apparently making it known that I was still in the crosshairs for making him interact with humans directly.
I did a very loud facepalm when Ayva entered it, but couldn’t help but be amused as I was given the superhero name “Safety Dancer”