Grant skirted away to sit down. Owen didn't mind—he had the information he needed. He would be able to tell Grant's mother that yes, her son was playing. And yes, he was trying to get better. If his mother was worth her salt, that's really all she could ask from an addict.
Owen headed out before the next speaker was up. Leaving a meeting and going straight to the game always unnerved him, so instead he'd go home and close the case first. Finishing a job was equally, if not more, satisfying than any quest. It had taken Owen weeks to track Grant down, and he was ready for payday.
He stared at his phone with the new text screen open and the mother's name and number seemed to be waiting too. The job didn't always make Owen feel like a professional tattletale. Grant seemed like a nice enough guy. Why couldn't he be cheating on his wife, or politician using slurs in the game? Owen's thumbs twitched above the letters before he shook the feeling off and texted everything he learned.
Thinking about it any more would cause him to refresh his emails a dozen times, or obsessively check his texts. He wanted to play, but unfortunately his friend Neal said he was going to come over, so it was more logical to just wait a little longer. One text from the mother and two compulsive refreshes of his email later, there was a knock on the door.
"Sorry, I'm late," Neal said as Owen let him inside. He ran a hand through short messy hair that suggested it was windy outside. His clothes were baggy. They didn't sag around his hips, but were a clear fashion choice.
"No worries." Owen locked the front door before returning to the couch. "Not sure how interesting watching me play is going to be."
"It's fun," Neal said, "Plus, it gets me out of the house."
"Whatever does it for ya." This time, Owen's tone was more dismissive as he hoarded the couch. Neal took the chair by the desk. The TV went ignored since the headgear took up his entire field of vision. Unlike older game systems, this one didn't need a controller or keyboard. All you had to do was think and the headset picked up the brain's requests.
Tech like this had been attempted dozens of times, but Age of Shadows was the first game that proved it could be done properly. No limited controls, no eye strain, and a game that let you breathe in an open world only alluded to before in pixelated imaginations.
For Owen, the boot up always started with his hand. He'd heard other players describe it differently, but for him, it was the feeling of reaching out a hand and spreading his fingers against a nothing that almost felt tangible. If he looked up fast enough lights outlining shapes could be spotted before they blurred like fast-moving traffic that gave way to a fully rendered city.
Footsteps beat gently against digital streets. This fake Spanish city had almost become a second home. Friends made here felt just as real as the ones made in person. Excitement rose up through Owen's bones like a wave of heat as he walked closer and closer to the target of his current quest. The mark was talking with some other men as girls danced around them like cherry blossoms in the wind. There were enough NPCs and players around that, given enough care, this all could be done cleanly.
"Why don't you take the path to the left?" Neal interrupted.
"I don't need a backseat player." Owen groaned, ignoring the suggestion. "You break the immersion. If you want to play so bad, load up your own character."
"I like watching your story more," Neal said, with the ease that someone might use for why they liked watching football more than playing it. Age of Shadows had been designed to avoid this sort of thing, testing personality type and giving each player a story arc and missions they'd enjoy. But maybe Owen had spent so much time with Daniel as his avatar that the character was no longer flat to Owen or Neal. Daniel had a whole life to share with them.
After a quick check to see if the coast was clear, Daniel moved over stone railings as easily as a pebble skipping over water, then jumped to reach the edge of a windowsill that would allow him to climb up the roof in a fashion that would make parkour enthusiasts envious. It was one of the perks of being part of the Thieves Guild.
Players could choose between different class types. Each had its own social perks or status upgrades, but Owen would argue this was the best way to go about things.
The headgear gave the player a rush that was close to the real thing, but without the stray looks that flipping over benches could get you in real life. Daniel ran across the roof and slid to a stop before reaching the edge. There was no room for error. The toe of his boot hung off the edge.
Owen's fingers twitched as he watched his target below him. The movement echoed to Daniel before he reached for a throwing knife. With a mixture of art and timing, Daniel flicked his wrist, and the blade flew to sever a bag from one man's belt. The loot dropped to the ground, the knife holding it safe for now. The men carried on through the street without notice of the trouble they could have been in.
"Perfect," Daniel said to himself.
"See, I can't do cool shit like that!" Neal added.
Owen grinned. This time the headset picked up that he wasn't responding to in-game stimulus. "Well, that's what you get for joining the Knights. I told you the Guild is the way to go." A different stat boost and logged playtime that tripled Neal's also played a factor, though. Daniel jumped off the building and rolled safely to a stop on the street.
"Oh, now you're just showing off," Neal said.
Owen opened his mouth to reply, but he noticed a man in armor was eagerly headed towards the item drop. The blue tint of the name that popped up instantly showed that he was another player-controlled character. Johnny wasn't the most period accurate name, but the game allowed it. Stealing someone else's loot wouldn't get you a lot, but you could sell it all the same. It wasn't much to gain compared to what Daniel would lose. Unlike offline games, there'd be no reload if his quest got hijacked by another player.
"Back off," Daniel warned.
Johnny the Knight stopped a few steps away as the shining glint of another throwing knife caught his attention. He didn't look worried as his hand hovered over the mace hanging from his belt. The spikes were a far more imposing weapon than a throwing knife.
Daniel looked past the knight to the crowd behind him. He tracked a figure moving between the people before playing with the blade in his hand.
"Are you going to fight me, thief?" Johnny asked.
That brought a crooked grin to Johnny's face, and his hand fell away from his weapon. He seemed more than ready to grab the loot and be on his way.
"But, he will." Daniel nodded over to a man who now stood behind the knight.
Johnny looked over his shoulder, almost nicking his neck on a fine sword that had been drawn on him. This man looked more like Owen himself, with a quiet confidence that sat on a smaller frame than Daniel's. Unlike other NPCs with their names listed in black, his was grey.
Johnny grumbled an insult.
"Meet my companion, Lance." Even with his charm, Daniel's taunt was obvious.
"Take your prize then. See if I care." Johnny said, as if he hadn't wanted it in the first place. An act that Daniel didn't believe. He kept wary eye on Johnny until he left the area, likely to go rain on someone else's parade.
"What did I tell you about having adventures without me?" Lance said, but didn't sound like he was broken up about it. He bent down and picked up the loot for Daniel. Owen's inventory updated when Lance handed it off.
"Thanks," Daniel said. "I was worried I drew too much attention after all."
"I got your back."
Owen smiled at Lance, at his freckles where others wore war paint. He wasn't sure how he was lucky enough to snag a companion. They were rare. Some even suggested it was a bug in the system, despite the game's creators proudly claiming it was all part of their personality system, that nearly anyone could decide to join you if it suited the NPC.
"Do you have another adventure planned?" Lance asked.
"I was only planning on this mission."
"Hélas," Lance said, showcasing off a bit of his programmed native language. "Until next time, then."
YOU ARE READING
Bone Diggers (Paperback out now!)Science Fiction
When everyone IRL lies, the only person you can trust is an NPC. Dirty little secrets can't be hidden behind player avatars, because Bone Diggers like Owen expose the lives behind the code. When his two worlds blur, he must decide which is more impo...