Syn: <We’ve got this, guys. The dragon is on its last leg.>
Trist: <Thank you, Captain Obvious.>
Syn: <Well, excuse me. I’m not the one who botched up the last boss when it was low on health.>
Trist: <Hey, I apologized for that. Don’t make me bring up the raid against the hydra.>
Syn: <Three months ago? Really? Is that the best you got?>
Piper: <Guys, guys, as fun as it is listening to you bicker like a married couple, can we focus? I could use some help.>
Syn: <You’re right, Piper. I’m sorry for stooping to Trist’s level.>
Syn: <Here’s a Heal, Piper. Need anything else?>
Piper: <Thanks. Could use a barrier. Is it off cool down?>
Syn: <Just barely; here you go. Oh, we’ve got hatchlings coming in on the right side. Can you handle them, Trist?>
Trist: <On it.>
Syn: <Make sure you have enough Mana for the finishing blow, Trist.>
Trist: <Ok, mom.>
Syn: <Piper, the poison wore off the boss again.>
Piper: <I see. Just poisoned it again. Darn, running low on health again. Ouch, man, it hits hard. We’ve got to finish it off soon.>
Trist: <You’re doing just fine, big guy. I’ve cleaned up the hatchlings. I’m ready to finish it whenever you are.>
Piper: <Ok, the poison did its work. It just turned red. Syn, go ahead. I’m backing off for the final attack to protect you.>
Syn: <I see, good job. I barely have enough Mana. Get in position, Trist. Three, two, one, SUMMON THE KRAKEN!!>
On his computer, Eric watched his character, Syn, summon a giant squid-like creature. If Syn got hit once, it would unsummon the Kraken and their plan would fail. The Kraken launched itself at the dragon boss and wrapped its tentacles around it. The dragon struggled, but the Kraken held strong. The only limbs the dragon could move were one arm and its tail. Syn barely dodged the dragon’s tail as it thrashed about.
Trist summoned a falcon and ran toward the dragon. The falcon scratched at the eyes and blinded the dragon, but the dragon slammed its head against the nearby cliff, killing the bird instantly.
Trist: <Birdie, you shall be avenged!>
Trist ran towards the dragon and expertly dodged the incoming claws and tail. Piper cast a sound grenade, which stunned the dragon for half a second. Trist equipped a grappling hook and roped it around the dragon’s neck. He swung up to the top of the head and slammed his dagger through the brain. The dragon fell to the ground and dissolved into blue particles. Square coins dropped from the dragon’s passing.
Text appeared across the screen:
<GOLD BOSS RAGNOK HAS BEEN DEFEATED.>
Eric leaned back in his chair and muted his mic. Raising his hands, he yelled, “Yes!”
He heard a door across the hallway slam open and Ben, username Piper, burst into his room. He had thick glasses, a hunched posture, and was slightly overweight. “I can’t believe that worked!” Ben said with a goofy grin.
“Todd did say he wanted to kill the hardest boss in a flashy way. Awesome plan,” Eric said.
Ben blushed and mumbled, “Thanks. How’s our view count?”
Eric alt-tabbed to a web browser and checked their streaming profile that Todd ran; Todd was still streaming by doing a post-battle loot check and interacting with the fans.
“75k. Awesome, our new record.” Eric chuckled. “He’s doing a memorial service for Birdie.”
Ben bowed his head. “May he rest in peace.”
Eric and Ben watched the stream as Todd was going through the loot and making jokes with the viewers.
“So, what’s the plan now?” Eric asked.
Ben shrugged. “This was the last undefeated boss. We’ve virtually beaten the game; naturally, our viewers will start to go down. Trist’s PvP games have also been decreasing a bit. Even my website is starting to go on a downward trend. Mythic has been oddly quiet about the next expansion.”
“You suggesting we look for a new game?” Eric asked.
Ben shrugged. “I think it’s good to have more than one game to rely on. It’s hard when over ninety percent of our income comes from one game.”
“Maybe,” Eric said.
Todd sounded off through the stream, “That’s it for me tonight. Until next time, peace.” The stream went dark.
They heard footsteps above them walk to the stairs and a moment later Todd sauntered through the door. He was tall and fit with shaggy blond hair that grew past his ears.
“We did it, boys,” he said as he jumped on the couch. “The reception was great, and we got at least 3k new followers.”
“Never thought I’d be doing this with my life,” Eric said with a laugh. “Playing video games for a living and tracking viewer stats. Who would have thought our college hobby would turn out like this? Maybe my parents will stop pestering me about getting a real job. I hated my ‘real job’ from before.”
“Real jobs suck,” Todd said and motioned at the room around them. “It got us this house. Not bad for a hobby.”
Ben said, “You mean, your house. We’re just renting from you.”
“Potātoe, potâtoe,” Todd dismissed. “We all live here. Anyway, what’s our next goal? Wasn’t this supposed to be the last boss?”
“We were just talking about that,” Eric said. “What do you think about starting a new game?”
“I don’t know, man,” Todd said. “Prestige still brings in good numbers. We have tried before, remember? The algorithm kicked us in the butt, and it took forever to recover.”
“I know, but we don’t want to get stuck in a rut.”
“Just relax a bit,” Todd said with a yawn as he scrolled through his phone. “We hit huge numbers tonight. Ben will figure something out.”
“No pressure then,” Ben said wryly.
“Yeah, we’ll talk about it later,” Eric said. “Anyway, I’m heading to Beck’s place for a game night. Making brownies for it. Any of you want to come?”
“Can’t. Got a hot date,” Todd grinned. “I’ll steal some brownies though.”
“I swear, you’ve got a date every other night,” Eric said with a bit of jealousy. “Ben?”
Ben shook his head. “I’m going to be doing a bit of research for the website. The Flame Bovine in the Velt region does something weird if you throw a rock at it.”
“That sounds . . . incredibly boring. Suit yourself,” Eric said. Before he could kick them out of his room, Eric’s phone buzzed. All of their phones buzzed. Eric glanced at it and asked, “Did you just get an email from Mythic Studios?”
Ben and Todd nodded. Eric read his email:
<From: Mythic Studios
To: Eric Richards
Congratulations. You and your team have defeated the highest-ranked boss currently in Prestigious Realms. We would like to invite you and your friends to our studio to meet with the developers and share your experience with the game. All expenses will be provided.
In addition to touring our studio, we would like you to play the newest build of the game. Due to the nature of the playthrough, we would ask you for a month of your time. You will be fully compensated. Please review the following documents you will need to sign upon arrival.
If you agree to the terms, follow the link below. Thank you for playing our game. We hope to see you soon.
“What the . . .” Todd said under his breath. “The CEO is contacting us directly. Is this real?”
“One month of testing a new game at Mythic,” Ben said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Eric asked, “So, we’re going right?”
“You bet we are,” Ben said. “No way we’re missing out on this.”
“Hold on,” Todd said. “Ben, can you look over the documents? You’re good at that type of stuff. I want to make sure we don’t agree to anything fishy.”
“Fine, fine,” Ben said. He opened the documents and started reading through them. “Basic NDA stuff like when we do reviews. We can’t share the stuff we see before the game is released. Also, there are compensation and safety documents. Wow, we’ll get a lot of money. Oh, here’s one that might cause an issue. They will confiscate our phones and devices before we go inside. No outside contact for the whole month while we’re there. We can leave, but they won’t invite us back.”
“No contact? Even at night?” Eric said. “Seems a bit extreme. Do you want to put on your tinfoil hat on this one, Ben?”
“Oh, my conspiracy theories are running wild right now, but I say bring it on. I mean, it’s Mythic.”
“A month?” Todd said. “What about our followers? Our business? A month away in real life is like five years in internet time. People will forget about us. We could lose everything.”
Eric and Ben looked at each other; Ben nodded. “Dude,” Eric said, turning back to Todd. “You’ve been obsessing over social media for a while. It might be good to take a break. For all of us to take a break. This creates the perfect excuse.”
Todd looked at both of them. Ben nodded. Todd sighed in resignation. “You’re right, of course. How could I even consider passing this opportunity by? We’ll come back stronger than ever. I’m in! Let’s do this.”
Ben smiled one of his boyish smiles. “Together, as it should be.”
“Ok,” Eric said. “Let’s all hit accept together.”
They all nodded. “One, two, THREE!” They all hit accept.
Eric’s phone beeped a few seconds later:
<Thank you for accepting. Attached are your flight plans and travel accommodations. Please be prepared by the time of departure.
Link to create a new character. Please create your new avatar within twenty-four hours.
“I guess they were expecting us to agree if they’ve already got tickets,” Todd said. “We’ve got about a week before we leave.”
“Ok, everyone, get out of my room,” Eric said. “I’ve got to create my new character.”
The three friends stared out the window of the limo as they drove through the gate leading to Mythic Studios headquarters.
Ben talked eagerly. “Mythic Studios formed three years ago when they released Prestigious Realms. The game quickly rose to the top of the charts with millions of monthly subscribers. They’ve released a major update every year since launch, each with incredible success. The company itself became one of the most prominent and secretive companies in the world. Nobody knows what goes on inside. I’ve read so many speculative posts. I can’t believe we get to see inside.”
“Ben, calm down. Take a deep breath,” Todd said, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We all know this. You talk about it all the time.”
Deborah, the woman who was escorting them, let out a pleasant chuckle. She had black hair tied back in a bun and a stiff business suit. “It’s nice to see someone so excited.” Ben blushed and stopped talking but still looked excited.
A building appeared through the trees. Eric thought it looked more utilitarian than extravagant, more like a secure government building than a video game company. They had to pass through another security gate to get to the building.
Deborah seemed to pick up on his thoughts. “We don’t invite many visitors here, so we invested in function and security rather than appearance.”
The boys nodded in acceptance. The limo came to a stop in front of the entrance. A man in his early fifties in a suit but no tie greeted them.
“I can’t believe it,” Ben whispered. “It’s Walter Donaldson, the CEO.”
Deborah laughed. “Don’t inflate his ego too much. Come on, let’s get out.”
Everybody shuffled out of the car and the man greeted them with a smile. “Welcome, welcome. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. My name is Walter Donaldson, CEO of Mythic Studios. Please call me Walt.” The boys introduced themselves with varying degrees of confidence.
“You know, my son is a huge fan,” Walt said. “He watches you guys religiously. I hope you wouldn’t mind after this is over that you would visit us in our home. I think I could score some dad points by doing so.”
Todd chuckled. “We’re all yours while we’re here. It would be an honor.”
“Great,” Walt said. “I’m excited to get to know you guys a bit better.”
Deborah said, “Once we go inside, you’ll have to surrender your phones and other devices. We’ll take care of all of your luggage as well and put them into your rooms.”
Todd spoke to Walt. “Do you think we could get a picture with you before we go inside?”
“I don’t see why not,” Walt said with an easy smile.
After Deborah took a picture, Todd made a post after asking for Walt’s son’s name.
<Here at Mythic Studios with Walter Donaldson. Last post before going dark for a month. See you on the other side. Oh, and Cody, your dad is awesome.>
Walt laughed as they walked inside. “He’ll love that. Or find it super embarrassing. I can never tell which way it’ll go. Anyway, I’ve got to get to a meeting. Deborah is giving me the dirty eye. I’ll leave you in her capable hands.”
They bid farewell, and Walt walked through the heavy security. The boys emptied their pockets and placed any valuables into a locker by the entrance. Todd hesitated with his phone in his hand. “Let me just see the response to the last post.”
As Eric tossed his phone in the locker, he said, “Don’t be so dramatic.”
Todd relinquished his phone like he was pulling out a tooth.
After passing through security, Deborah led them to a room with chairs, desks, and a TV. Deborah motioned Eric and his friends to sit down.
“Thank you for agreeing to come here today,” Deborah said with a professional smile. “Before we begin, please sign these documents.”
She handed out papers to everyone. It included the papers from the email. However, another paper was included with a watermark of the government symbol.
<Eric Richards has been cleared for Tier 1 Clearance for Project Prestige. Under no circumstance is he allowed to reveal information regarding the project to anyone outside the Mythic Studios building.
Secretary of Technology>
“I knew it!” Ben exclaimed.
“Excuse me?” Deborah asked.
“Nothing,” Ben said, blushing as all eyes turned to him. “I had a theory that the government was involved somehow with the company.”
“I see. I hope you can understand the gravity of breaking the agreement.” Deborah stared at them sternly.
Ben smiled and immediately signed. Eric and Todd nodded to each other and signed. Eric felt like he was getting over his head, but it was too late to back out now.
“Great,” Deborah said as she collected the paperwork. “Before you sign the safety waiver, we are obligated to tell you the risks involved.”
“Risks?” Eric asked. “Aren’t we just playing a game?”
“Yes and no,” Deborah responded. “It’s not a normal video game. We have developed a fully immersive game world. The technology is sound, but the actual game has the potential to be dangerous.”
“What do you mean, fully immersive?” Todd asked. “Like a high-tech VR headset?”
“No,” Deborah said, a hint of a grin on her lips. “Fully immersive. You will enter the game and be the character.” She turned on the TV. They saw a room with multiple pods large enough for a person. Nine pods. People were examining the pods or working on nearby computers. TV screens lined the walls where they showed landscapes, caves, medieval cities, and more. “After entering these pods, your mind will directly enter the game world. It’s why we needed you to create your characters early; it takes time to create your avatars.”
“No way,” Ben breathed.
The screen shifted to a picture of a man at a computer. Deborah said, “Over ten years ago, Terrance Hopkins started working on an AI to create a virtual world. He succeeded, and the AI built a fully functional world. However, he had no way to explore or play the game the AI developed. We could only access a limited area.”
She hit a button on the remote, and it showed a video of the man controlling a character on a computer screen through a mouse and keyboard. However, it became apparent the character on screen was moving awkwardly within a large room; when the character left the room, the screen faded to black. Another clip showed him using a VR headset with full-body sensors with only slightly better results.
“With help from the AI, he started to make a machine to sync a person’s mind with the avatar’s,” Deborah said. “The government became involved when Terrance applied for funding and help to research the technology, hence the government document. However, as we began entering the digital world, we faced two major problems. First, it takes an enormous amount of power and resources to enter the game and keep it running. Right now, we can only send twenty-seven people inside at a time. We have to rotate them in and out at one-month intervals for health reasons, both physical and mental.”
“So that’s why we are here for a month?” Todd asked.
“That is correct,” Deborah replied. “The second issue is we can’t directly alter the code to the game or duplicate it in any way. The AI uses complex algorithms that we haven’t been able to decipher; it used to help us, but it stopped for some reason. We can read some data that the players have directly observed. Progress has been slow with only a few people able to enter at a time, and our funding was drying up. So, we came up with the idea to use the data we had been collecting to make a more traditional video game for the general public.”
“You mean to say,” Eric said, “Prestigious Realms is based on this immersion game?”
“Exactly,” Deborah said. “Though, it’s only a pale imitation. We mainly stuck the data into a generic MMO game. After we gather more data, we hope to make a sequel that more closely resembles the game. That will be one of your assignments within the game. Look for new creatures, races, items, and more. We’ll provide you a list when you enter the game of the things we have.”
Deborah continued, “Using the money we’ve gained from Prestigious Realms, we’ve been able to create more immersion pods and increased the number of players inside the game. We recently finished nine more pods, so you three will be entering the game with six other people; you’ll have a guide who’s been in the game before and is a maxed-out Rank 2 character. She’ll mainly be there for emergencies.”
“Why us?” Eric asked, feeling overwhelmed by all of the information. “If you don’t mind me asking. This seems like incredibly sensitive information to share with us.”
Todd asked, “Was it because we beat the dragon boss last week? You sent the email right after we beat it.”
“Once again, yes and no,” Deborah replied. “We’ve had our eyes on you for a while. You were chosen because of your knowledge and skill in the game. Especially you, Ben.”
“Me?” Ben asked, a little dumbfounded as all eyes focused on him.
“The website you run contains information that our developers didn’t even know,” Deborah said. “When we migrate the data over, we don’t always understand everything.”
“That explains a lot,” Ben said. “The creatures and NPCs in the game seem to act way too naturally; they seemingly have an infinite amount of move sets. It’s what makes the game stand out.”
“Our team has used your website to progress further than they would have otherwise,” Deborah said. “When we were deciding who would join the game next, you guys came up, but only if you could defeat the Realm Boss from the last update. We also want to test how civilians react to the game’s mechanics so we can choose what to carry over into the sequel. We had to do a bunch of extra paperwork and convince a lot of people, so we expect great things from you guys.”
“No pressure,” Ben mumbled.
“We’ve got this,” Todd laughed, slapping Ben on the shoulder. “It’s because of you that we’re here. Have a bit more confidence.”
Ben gave a weak smile but still looked nervous as he fidgeted with his pen.
Todd could barely stay in his seat. “So, when do we get to play?”
Deborah chuckled. “Hold on a moment. Let me explain a few more things. First of all, consider this a trial run. If you perform well, we’d like to bring you on as full-time playtesters where you play for a month and then off for a month.”
“We’d have a job here?” Eric asked.
“Could we still run our channel?” Todd asked.
“Yes and yes,” Deborah replied. “Though, you couldn’t mention anything about the immersive game at all. Not even a hint, do I make myself clear?”
All eyes turned to Todd. “Hey, what are you guys looking at me for?”
“You do tend to ramble,” Eric pointed out.
“Yeah, well, I can keep a secret.”
Deborah continued. “Of the other people you’ll be entering with, three are from the military and three from inside the company; Julia has entered the game before and will be your head guide. The other two from the company are familiar with the game but have not entered before. One of them will be your team leader. You’ll meet them before you enter the game. Outside of your group of nine, eighteen other people will be inside the game. They will be exploring the higher Realms, so you probably won’t see them on your first dive unless something serious happens.”
“Um, you said there were dangers,” Ben asked. “You keep on mentioning something serious could happen. Don’t tell me, if we die in there, we die in real life?”
Deborah laughed. “No, nothing like that. You’ll most likely die multiple times. Here are a few risks you need to know before going in.” She handed out some more papers for them to sign. “First, your real body will be put into a coma-like state for the whole month. We will monitor your vitals, but your mind will be in a different location. Second, you can experience pain inside the game.”
“Really?” Eric said. “Can’t you just turn it off?”
“It’s not that simple,” Deborah said. “If we shut off all the pain, we also shut off all sense of touch. It has . . . unique effects when you exit the game. But, we do have sensors to keep the maximum pain down if the pain passes a certain threshold. Third, you can only log out from places we control. We can’t monitor your activity outside of those locations, so we’ll need you to check in at least once a day. It’s also how we’ll collect data from the game.”
Eric raised his hand. “How do we do that?”
“Through specific Mana Crystals. Julia will show you how once you log in,” Deborah said. “This leads us to the fourth thing, your spawn point. If your spawn point is ever compromised, contact Julia or another Mythic employee and stay hidden. We will send a team from the higher Realms to assist you.”
“Is that possible?” Todd asked. “We could lose our spawn point?”
“We have our spawn points heavily protected,” Deborah said. “It has never been taken over. I am legally obligated to tell you it is possible, and that we have a plan in case it does.”
“Have there been any issues in the past?” Ben asked.
“We had one issue near the beginning,” Deborah replied. “When Terrance first entered the game, we didn’t know how to get him out. We spent about three months trying to get him out, which was over a year within the game. In response, we made sure to have safeguards so something like that wouldn’t happen again. That was five years ago, and we haven’t had any serious issues since then except for actually progressing through the game.”
“Wait,” Ben said. “Three months is a year? Time dilation?”
“Indeed,” Deborah said. “Time works in odd ways within the game; as you progress, the time compression will increase. Anyway, those are the risks of entering the game. Do you have any questions or concerns?”
The boys looked at each other, but nobody said anything. “I just want to play,” Todd said with a grin, signing the paper. “We get to spend even more time inside. I was worried a month wouldn’t be long enough. Can we begin?”
“Man, we look so weird,” Eric said.
They were dressed in full-body wetsuits. About a dozen people were hooking cords and devices to the boys. Eric didn’t want to think about where all the tubes connected.
“I’d expect nothing less from my first full-immersion experience,” Todd said with a goofy smile.
“You look more comfortable getting into a strange pod than you were putting your phone away, Todd,” Eric mentioned.
“This and that are two very different things,” Todd replied.
“This is safe, right?” Ben asked, his claustrophobia creeping into his voice.
One of the people responded, “There are many safeguards for your safety. Most of this equipment is here to keep you comfortable for the entire month and to monitor your condition; you’ll be perfectly safe. The pod will exercise your limbs so you won’t experience too much muscle atrophy.”
Eric nodded and looked over at the six other people being hooked up to their pods next to them. Eric could pick out the military people easily, two men and a woman, Aaron, Tyson, and Carol. They were fit and had a relaxed posture, but he could tell they were conditioned to go on alert at any moment. Eric felt like a kid next to them, even though they were only a couple of years apart. They had greeted the men briefly in the changing room, but nothing more than pleasantries.
The three others from within the company, two women and a man, talked with the workers and actively helped them set up their pods. Two of them were older, probably in their fifties or sixties, but one of the women looked to be even younger than Eric, around 24. She mainly kept to herself. Eric hadn’t caught their names, though he assumed the older lady was Julia.
“You boys look amazing,” a voice called out to them. Walt approached them with Deborah and another man in a wetsuit. The man Eric recognized from the video was Terrance Hopkins, the head developer and founder of Prestigious Realms. He was balding and seemed to have a permanent sour expression on his face.
“I feel we pull it off quite well,” Todd said with an easy smile.
“Quite right,” Walt said. He motioned to Terrance. “This is Terrance Hopkins; I may be the CEO, but he is the soul of the company. I felt it would be best to let you meet him before you jump in. He’ll be in the game at the same time, though you might not meet him since he’ll be in Realm 4.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir, ” Todd said as he stepped forward to shake his hand, but Todd’s arm got caught on a cord.
“Don’t move, boy,” Terrance said. “You’ll undo the cords connected to you.” He looked over the boys and sighed. “I’m getting too old for this. Listen, Prestige is a living, breathing world. Every action has consequences. If I’ve found out you’ve taken advantage of the people within the game, I will eject you personally. Do I make myself clear?” The boys nodded. Eric didn’t know exactly what taking advantage meant, but he’d resolved to be careful. “Good, now excuse me. I’m going to finish getting ready for my dive.” He walked away into the next room.
Walt laughed to lighten the mood. “Don’t mind him too much. He’s just a little protective. If he had it his way, no one but him would be able to enter.”
“If I can have your attention,” Deborah broke in, speaking to the whole group. “You are about to enter Project Prestige for the first time. This is Julia, your group leader and head advisor.” Deborah motioned towards the older lady from Mythic Studios.
“Thank you, Deborah,” Julia said. She had a no-nonsense tone of voice. “My name is Julia Campbell. I have entered the game before and have a maxed-out Rank 2 character. I will be within Alpine [Outpost] most of the time doing research and taking advantage of the time compression. Paul and Ashley will be your main guides.” She motioned at the two other Mythic employees. “They will assist you when you enter Realm 0, which we call the Tutorial Realm, where you’ll learn the basics of Prestige. Paul will assist the military personnel, and Ashely will help the civilians. I will be available to offer assistance if needed.”
Paul nodded when his name was spoken, but Ashley started. She nodded at Julia, and then politely nodded at Eric and his friends. She fidgeted with her hands to keep them from shaking. Eric felt a little anxious seeing Ashley so nervous.
“You’re not going to be in the tutorial with us?” Todd asked.
“No,” Julia said. “Since I already have a character, I won’t spawn there. Don’t worry, both of them are very capable. After you finish the Tutorial, you’ll be transported to Alpine [Outpost] within the East Zone of Realm 1. I will be waiting for you there.”
A buzzer sounded. “Alright, perfect timing,” Deborah said. “The system is ready. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. Your guides will be able to answer any questions within the game.”
“Let’s get you into the game!” Walt announced.
“Yes, finally,” Todd said.
Everybody climbed into their pods. The workers made some last-minute adjustments to Eric’s gear, including a mask over his face.
One of the employees spoke to Eric, “You’ll experience a bit of disorientation when you transfer over. This is normal and will pass quickly.”
The pod closed and water began to fill the tank. Before Eric even had time to panic, his vision went black.
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