"Hello, Arc. Sorry, I have work to do." Limit was a space otter as well: a genetically modified human adapted to life in space, whose exterior appearance mimicked a Terran otter's. Unlike Arc, Limit looked the 'space' part of his species name, with a coat of midnight blue dusted with white dots like stars.
"So do I, but I'm not doing it either. C'mon, you've been staring at the same file without doing anything with it for half an hour."
"Then you can think while playing. Seriously, Limit, you need a break," Arc said. "And I need some help with Kingdom of Death."
Limit chuckled. "Are you still playing that?"
"Yes. And I really need a partner for this section. Plus it'd be more fun with company. The NPC AIs don't count."
The midnight-blue space otter gazed at a window full of diagrams, charts strategic options, available resources, supply lines, and probable outcomes. Maybe pondering a scenario where no one I knew was actually going to die would be a nice change of pace. He sighed. "All right."
An hour later, they were pinned down on the wall of a crumbling fort, besieged by slavering hellhounds and fire-breathing demons. They'd lost the NPC spellbinder and rogue, Arc's archer avatar was nearly out of arrows, and the only components Limit had left were for his avatar's weakest heals and some esoteric spells to which their enemies were generally immune. Limit tossed another heal on the NPC warrior that was holding the smashed gate, while Arc took aim at a demon tearing apart the wall, brick by brick. "You know," Limit said, reviewing his spell list to see if he'd overlooked anything that was still available for casting, "if you want a constant struggle to maintain a bare minimum of necessary supplies in a war against hopeless odds, near-friendless, and facing almost certain death, we could go back to reality."
"Shut up." Arc loosed the arrow at point-blank range, spearing the demon through its eye and taking it out. "I'm sure we can do this." Another monster moved up to take its place.
Limit tried casting Create Water on the demon that was barbecuing their warrior. With a sploosh, water filled the demon's mouth, extinguishing the blast of fire breath and sending the enemy into a choking fit. Their NPC warrior closed with the monster and beheaded it, then backed up to avoid a counterattack by a hellhound. "That worked?" Limit said, surprised.
"That's terrific! How many more times can you do that?" Arc asked, aiming another arrow.
"As often as I can make the gestures, really. It's a cantrip, no components and not much mana." Limit put out another fire-breather. "This will not be enough to turn the tide, however.."
"Yeeeaah ... not at this point. But I bet we can get through this if I reload from an earlier save and we use that trick from the start."
On the second attempt, they kept the computer party members alive and fended off enough of the horde of monsters to escape the fort. They were still perilously low on everything: neither the hellhounds nor the demons had carried any supplies of note. "Didn't the developers ever hear of loot?" Arc complained.
"We just have to get to the Light Isle," said Misty, the NPC spellbinder. She was a beautiful elf with black skin and long black hair. Nearly all the PC and ally avatars in Kingdom of Death were elves, half-elves, or humans, with the exception of a couple of demons that the player could recruit to his team under certain circumstances. Their warrior, Asmodel, was one of the ally demons; his backstory was that he wanted to learn to be good. The rogue was Kitty, a human street urchin. Arc's archer was a brown elf, and Limit's healer-mage was a blue-skinned human.
"You keep saying that." Kitty didn't get along well with Misty. "'Everything will be sunshine and rainbows and unicorns as soon as we get to the Light Isle'. I'm starting to wonder if it even exists. Or maybe you just don't know how to get there?"
"I do!" Misty insisted. "The ferry to the Light Isle is east along this road, down by the sea."
"And the ferry still runs?" Limit asked skeptically. "What's it ferrying between here and the Light Isle? Demons? Skeletons?"
"It's only a game, Limit. The economy doesn't have to make sense," Arc said.
"It'll be there," Misty said, earnestly.
The ferry was docked where Misty had said it would be. The docks were in disrepair, demon-clawed and scorched, and the surrounding grounds had the same blighted look as the rest of the Kingdom of Death. The water around the ferry was brackish and choked with weeds. No one was visible on the boat, but it appeared unharmed.
"Well, that doesn't look like a trap at all," Limit said, looking down on the dock from the top of the adjoining bluff. Hellhounds howled in the near distance behind them. The NPC party members whooped in triumph and ran towards the deserted dock. "Do they have to charge in like that?"
Another baying behind them, closer. "Might as well," Arc said, running after them, "or we're just going to get caught here."
"Or we could get caught in the trap and by the enemies behind us," Limit said, but Arc was already gone. Resigned, Limit cast a few Create Water spells on the dirt road behind them, turning it to mud to slow the pursuit down, then followed suit. By the time he caught up to them, the NPCs were already on the boat and surrounded by an army of skeletons. The skeletons were fragile, but there were a lot of them and Arc's arrows were ineffective against skeletons, forcing him to use his flail. When the pursuing monsters finally caught up with them, the NPC party members started dropping.
"All right, new plan," Arc said, bashing skeletons with his flail. "We'll reload from save, then take the pursuit on top of the bluff. Then we can take the ferry ambush separately."
"Why are we taking the ferry ambush at all?" Limit cast a weak heal on Asmodel.
"To get to the Light Isle?"
"How? The crew's dead. Does your avatar have sailing skill? What makes you think the boat's even seaworthy?"
"I can sail," Asmodel said, stabbing a hellhound through the heart, while skeletons clawed at his back.
"See? It's got to be this way," Arc said.
"Very well, but later. I've got to get back to work."
"C'mon, Limit! We're almost there. Just one more fight." Arc reloaded the game, putting them back on the road to the bluff.
Limit sighed. "This is the last fight, though."
Somewhat to Limit's surprise, once they had cleared the pursuers and the ambush, the ferry was salvagable. It needed minor repairs, but a few minigames were sufficient to cover that. ("It's not a fight, Limit, it's a puzzle game. That doesn't count.") Misty and Asmodel were able to crew the boat, and soon they were at the Light Isle.
It was as beautiful as Misty had promised.
Blue waves and white sea foam slapped against beaches of golden sand. Tall green trees covered in white and orange blossoms waved in the gentle breeze. Inviting green meadows full of flowers peeped out of the forest. The party docked their boat at a city of white marble, where an impromptu audience of elves and men gathered to welcome the war-weary strangers with cheers, eager for news of the mainland. The Queen of the Light Isle herself came to offer them sanctuary, and ask for their help in the continuing struggle to protect the Light Isle against invasion.
While Arc started on the tutorial for the resource-gathering-and-building game that followed from the Queen's request, Limit took his leave and logged out of the sim.
Three days later, Limit returned to his quarters after running some errands, and found a message from Arc on his computer: "Can you take a break for a while and join me in KoD? There's something I need help with."
With a shrug, Limit logged into the fully-immersive sim. He asked one of the city guards where Arc was, and was directed to a hostel. There, he found Arc's elven archer avatar in a small spartan room. Making out with Misty on the room's single bed.
Limit cleared his throat. "I'm pretty sure you can manage that minigame on your own."
Misty leapt apart from Arc, embarrassed. Arc gave Limit a sheepish grin. "Eheheheheh. Noooo, it's that the main game has gotten really annoying."
"'Taxes'. The building game lists all kinds of cool stuff you can make -- siege weapons, armor, enchantments, even non-combat stuff like buildings and furniture. The building game is sort of annoying in itself -- if you do the puzzle just wrong, you can get a 'catastrophic failure', which for enchanted items means 'will explode on equipping', so you have to recycle those immediately. Because of course there's no warning tag on it or obvious defect, if you don't notice the problem while you're making it. But the worst part is that I can't get to any of the good stuff, because it all requires gathering sufficient resources and crafting tools and building intermediary stuff. And before I can get half the stuff I'd want for something awesome, the Queen sends her guards around and they take everything."
Limit raised one of his human avatar's eyebrows. "Everything?"
"Yes! And I have to start over from scratch with gathering. They say it's for 'the defense of the Isle'. I'm wondering if it's a bug, although the documentation does say she's supposed to collect what we make. But everything? I'm still stuck in the equipment I arrived in."
"I didn't expect her to be so ... greedy," Misty said, reluctantly. She was perched at the foot of the narrow bed. "I know the Light Isle needs materials for its defense, but we're part of that defense. Why does she want us under-equipped?"
"Maybe I need to build faster, somehow?" Arc said. "So I can finish the good stuff before the guards come to take it?"
"But we still wouldn't be able to keep it," Misty said.
"At least I'd feel like I was getting somewhere. Sort of. Contributing to the defense."
Limit was thoughtful. "What's Kitty doing?"
"She's on a resource-gathering mission."
"She's got spying skills. Send her out to find out if the guards 'tax' everyone like this. And maybe what the Queen's actually doing with your goods," Limit said. "Let me know what she comes up with. I'm going to log out."
Arc wrinkled his nose as Limit's avatar winked out, then glanced to Misty. "We've still got some time before Kitty returns. So ... where were we?"
Misty grinned, and crawled up the bed to kiss him.
A couple hours later, Arc called Limit, fuming. "She's completely corrupt! She's just plain stealing from us!"
Limit ran through his mental list of untrustworthy singletons. It wasn't a short list. "Who's this?"
"... you're talking about that game again, aren't you?"
"Yes! I can't believe I've been wasting my time building things for her! She's not using it to 'defend' the Isle! She gives the best stuff to her favorites or keeps it for herself, and sells the rest! To -- and this is the best part -- the frigging Kingdom of Death. To demons! Argh!"
"I sent Kitty on like eight different missions to figure it all out. The queen confiscates almost everything anyone makes. Practically everyone in the city is stuck in tiny rooms like the one I'm in. All the mansions and grand carriages and tall ships, they're just for her and her cronies. And if the Kingdom ever does turn on her, the defenses are in shambles. Everyone resents her, but they're scared because she sics demons on dissenters, to 'disappear' them. Gah! It's almost as bad as the KoD itself."
"If you're tired of playing in a crapsack universe, you could go back to the one we live in," Limit suggested.
Arc glowered. "It's a game. There must be some way to win."
This was more than Limit could say for the universe he lived in. "I'm not getting a lot done right now anyway. I'll log in and look at it in a few minutes."
Kitty's unmasking of the Queen's corrupt regime had triggered scripts in all the NPCs. "Is this what good is supposed to be like?" Asmodel asked. "It's an awful lot like the side I left."
"No," Limit answered.
"Just let me steal it back!" Kitty begged. "We made it and she's got no right to use it for her own selfish ends."
"Not when you can use it for your selfish ends?" Misty said. "Sorry. ... It's not that I wasn't expecting better. A lot better. But I don't want to be on the run from demons again. No offense, Asmodel."
"It's all right," Asmodel said. "I don't like running from demons either. Or getting caught by them."
Arc said, "There must be a way to cheat her. Keep her guards from getting what we make while we stockpile it."
"But she'll still be defrauding the rest of her city," Limit pointed out. "You said she kept the 'best' stuff for herself. How does she determine what's best, anyway?"
"She keeps anything that uses one of the three rarest resources ... " Arc trailed off, his eyes lighting up. "That's it! Limit, help me look through these recipes." He passed over a set of files: in the game's UI, it looked like a fat tome of blueprints.
"All right. What are we looking for?"
"The perfect failure. We're going to give that queen exactly what she wants." Arc cackled, rubbing his hands together.
They had to plan the creation carefully, distributing tools and resources evenly among the party to make sure no one of them had enough items to trigger the 'tax' routine that would take it all. When they had enough between them to make the Golden Crown of Storm Summoning -- an enchanted item requiring all three of the rarest resources -- they handed everything over to Arc at once, and he immediately started the construction puzzle for the item. The tax routine initiated at almost the same time, but it couldn't finish while Arc was in the construction puzzle. So the guards waited while Arc botched the minigame in exactly the way he wanted, creating a normal-looking Golden Crown of Storm Summoning while getting the 'catastrophic failure' message.
The tax-collecting guards took possession of the crown, oblivious. The party waved cheerily to them. "Enjoy!"
"Do you think the game actually has her use it?" Limit asked, after the tax collectors were gone. They were on one of the public balconies that overlooked the city.
Arc shrugged. "Hope so? Kitty did say she used the best stuff."
"Have you ever actually seen one of the catastrophic failures explode?"
"No. The tutorial said it depended on how powerful the enchanment was, but that it was always ... " In the distance, the queen's palace exploded. A giant plume of smoke and dust rose into the air. Rubble rained down for blocks. "... bad."
With the queen and the best of her guards dead, her AI-run people revolted against her remaining cronies. Limit and Arc were appointed by general acclaim as the Isle's new leaders. A great festival was held in their honor, for their cleverness in tricking the queen to her downfall. It was quite lovely. Arc spent part of it figuring out what resources he needed in order to build a new palace for himself.
"Enjoy," Limit told him.
"You're not leaving in the middle of the victory cutscene, are you? Really?"
"Really. Good night, Arc."
But Limit didn't go to bed after logging out from the sim. Instead, he found himself studying his strategic problems in the real universe. Pity there isn't any way to use the greed of my real enemies to lure them to their destruction, Limit thought. He reached for the 'sleep' button on the computer, then paused. He rested his chin against one paw. Though, given their typical motives, perhaps that idea could use further consideration.
[From a prompt by terrycloth, using his characters Arc and Limit from the Space Otters stories. I think this is the first time I've ever written fanfic that wasn't using an RPG setting. This story would take place around the second half of Familiar. ]