In AO2 Teaser

Chapter 1 – Conflicted

October 12, 2076:  Eleven days after the release of Awaken Online.

Alex Lane sat alone at a kitchen island.  A wild party raged around him and he could feel the vibration of the house music through his stool.  One of his ‘friends’ had decided to live it up while his parents were out of town, resulting in his parents’ elegant 8,000 square foot mansion was being swiftly turned into a cesspit of spilled beer and drunken teenage antics.

Alex took another gulp from the red plastic cup in his hand.  He had abstained from the beer.  He needed something stronger.  The clear liquid in his cup left a burning sensation in its wake as it ran down his throat.  He didn’t choke or gasp at the sensation.  He held himself perfectly still and accepted the burning feeling.  It was good to feel something.

A voice behind him shouted over the music, “Hey man did you see those videos of the Twilight Throne?  That was seriously awesome.”

Another voice replied with a laugh, “No kidding!  The fight with the paladin guy was ridiculous.  I wasn’t expecting him to pull out that flaming sword.  That guy was a serious badass.”

Their words caused a strange feeling to well up inside Alex.  The sensation was tantalizing.  He found it more intoxicating than the burning liquid in his cup.  The hollowness in his mind was partially filled for a brief moment.

Alex turned his head slightly to catch sight of the pair.  They were teenagers, but Alex had never seen them before.  They must not attend Richmond.  They had clearly been drinking and one of them stumbled slightly, leaning heavily against the nearby sofa

“My favorite part was that bone demon! Could you imagine that thing running at you like raaaawr!”  The guy mimed claws in the air as he let out a weak roar.

The other teen laughed. “Psshh that was nothing.  You see that chick that blew off Sir Lancelot’s head?  Now that was something else!”

“I bet he didn’t see that one coming!” the first guy responded.

As he overheard this last exchange, the strange feeling vanished and Alex was left feeling… nothing.  The void that perpetually lingered in the back of his mind returned with painful suddenness.  He watched the two silently and took another gulp of the burning liquid in his cup.  It was futile; it wouldn’t fill the emptiness.  He just felt hollow – always hollow.

A voice whispered in the back of Alex’s mind.  It told him that these two idiots were responsible for this feeling.  They deserved to be punished.  Alex agreed.

One of the two teens looked around at the party before elbowing his friend. “This party sucks man.  There aren’t any hot girls here.  Let’s head out.”

“Fine by me,” the other replied with a shrug.

As the two made their way to the door, Alex stood.  His vision swirled momentarily.  He had drunk too much.  Yet he could still walk.  The insidious whisper railed at his weakness, urging him forward.

The pair walked out the front door of the house and onto the front drive, Alex following closely behind them.  The house was located on a small estate.  High stone walls ringed an impeccably manicured lawn and expensive automobiles lined the circle drive.  Antique street lamps had been installed along the pavement, faintly illuminating the courtyard.  No one lingered outside with the rager happening inside the house.

As he stepped outside, Alex shut the door firmly behind him.  Then he calmly approached the pair who were still bickering about the coolest scenes from the fight outside the Twilight Throne.  The voice urged Alex on.  These two deserved to suffer.  He didn’t feel any sense of fear or excitement over what was about to happen – only the void-like emptiness.

As he passed the two teens, Alex abruptly slammed his foot into the side of one boy’s knee.  Alex played varsity football for Richmond, and he put every ounce of his considerable strength into the blow.  He heard a sickening crunch, followed closely by the boy’s scream of pain.  The sound was drowned out by the loud, thumping music of the party behind them.

The injured boy’s friend turned to Alex, his eyes wild with fear and confusion. He backed away from Alex and stumbled slightly.  “What the hell, man.  What are you…?”

His voice was cut off as Alex’s fist connected with his face.  The boy went down quickly.  Once he was on the ground, Alex kicked him viciously in the stomach and face until he stopped moving.   He heard a whimpering sound behind him and turned.  The other boy was trying to drag himself away, his leg dangling uselessly beneath him and tears streaming down his face.

“Stop!  Please stop,” he begged.

Alex hesitated for a moment.  Then the voice screamed in his mind.  There was no room for weakness, the voice insisted.  Alex shook his head and his resolve firmed.  He walked up to the boy, stomping on his injured leg.  The teen let out another tortured scream.  Alex kicked him repeatedly in the face to quiet the shouts of pain, droplets of blood covering his shoe.

Then it was over.

Alex’s breath came in a heavy, even rhythm.  He glanced at his knuckles.  The skin was already started to discolor and his fingers throbbed.  Then he looked at the two boys who lay unconscious on the ground.  He didn’t feel any guilt or remorse.  Yet the same tantalizing sensation welled up inside of him again.  The voice practically purred in approval.

It was good to feel something.  To feel anything.

 

*          *          *

 

October 13, 2076:  Present Day.

 

Jason was sitting on a stiff, ill-formed seat.  The cushions of the seat were hard and pressed into his back uncomfortably.  Similar seats lined the passenger car that he sat in.  Sunlight filtered through the window, illuminating the cabin.  He glanced out of the window to his left and watched buildings speed past below.  He was currently riding one of the city’s many electro-magnetic trams.

The traffic congestion in the city had reached a ‘critical mass’ several decades ago and it became nearly impossible to travel anywhere by car.  The city council had been forced to overhaul the entire transportation system.  Most of the city’s residents now either used driverless cars or the city’s intricate tram system.  Only the rich could afford to purchase their own cars.  As a result, the sky above of the city was crisscrossed with rail lines that ran in intricate patterns, held up by supports that sprouted from the tops of the tall office and apartment buildings that stood in neat rows on the ground below.

Jason’s expression was troubled as he gazed out the window.  His hand slowly twisted the Core on his wrist.  It had been two days in the real world since his encounter with Onyx.

Or I suppose I should call him Alfred now.

Jason hadn’t logged back into AO since their conversation.  He wasn’t certain how to respond to the request Alfred had made.  It simply left him feeling confused and worried.  He was nervous about logging back into the game and uncertain what he would say to Alfred when he did.

His confused thoughts were interrupted by a ring from his device.  Jason looked down and saw that Frank was calling him.  He put in his earpiece and thumbed the display.

“Hey, Frank.  How’s it going?”  Jason asked, trying to assume an upbeat tone.

There was silence on the other end of the line.  For a moment, Jason thought he had a bad signal.  Then Frank asked in an annoyed voice, “How’s it going?  Really?  Did you seriously forget your promise?”

Jason sat in confusion for several seconds.  Then his palm struck his face.  “I’m sorry man.  I promised to send you gameplay footage of the fight against Alexion’s army, didn’t I?”  A lot had happened since he last spoke to Frank , and it had completely slipped his mind.

“Yeah, no kidding you promised me!  But have I seen any footage?” he asked.  The irritation had begun to leave Frank’s voice.  Jason could tell he was trying to mess with him.

Jason grinned.  “Didn’t you see the videos posted by the other players?  I bet you have a sense of what happened…”

“Oh don’t give me that noise,” Frank interrupted.  “You know that the other videos were terrible.  It’s just a bunch of swirling bones and people dying.  The only decent clip was of you acting like the lord of darkness and slitting that player’s throat.”

A flash of guilt crossed Jason’s mind.  “I actually feel bad about what I did to that player.  It was necessary, though.  Maybe others will hesitate before attacking me.”

Frank snorted.  “I sure as hell wouldn’t mess with you.  That was some scary shit.  However, I think you may have just painted an exceptionally large target on your back.  You basically challenged every player in the game.  I heard there’s even a real money bounty on your head now.”

That was news to Jason.  He had been avoiding the forums the last couple days while he tried to clear his head.  Once he logged back in – or if he logged back in – he would need to be more careful.

Frank sighed before continuing in a more subdued voice, “I’m not really angry at you.  I spoke with Riley the other day at school, and she explained about your home situation.  I know you’re juggling a lot right now.”

First my parents and now Frank.  Is she just going around telling everyone about my personal lifeMaybe I need to talk to her.  On the other hand, I guess she saved me from having to awkwardly tell everyone myself.

Jason hesitated.  “It’s not so bad.  It has been hectic, but I spoke with my parents a few days ago.  They agreed to let me stay with my aunt, and I think we reconciled.  I actually started classes at the Calvary School earlier this week.”

Of course, that leaves out a couple other important events.  For example, the part where the game’s AI confronted me and trapped me in the game.

“That’s great to hear!” Frank said.

He paused for a moment before continuing, “I’m actually calling because I have a favor to ask.  I’m traveling toward the Twilight Throne in-game.  Do you think I could join up with you?  We need to do some dungeons like old times!”  Frank sounded like his usual overly-excited self, but for some reason, it felt a bit forced.

Jason’s first reaction was suspicion.  However, he didn’t have any reason to mistrust Frank.  His family had plenty of money and the other students at Richmond (including Alex) constantly harassed him about his weight.  Jason doubted that Frank was conspiring with Alex or that he was being blackmailed.  He wasn’t sure why Frank seemed a bit on edge, but there was probably another explanation.

It’s strange that I have to consider betrayal or blackmail as real possibilities now.

It might also be fun to start playing AO a bit more like a traditional MMO.  Jason had always enjoyed doing dungeon crawls with Frank.  He could also use some allies.  It was only a matter of time until the Twilight Throne was attacked again.

“That’s not a problem at all,” Jason replied.  “I can’t promise when we will be able to tackle a dungeon, though.  I have some things to take care of first in-game.  It may also be a little while until I log back in.  I’m on a tram right now.”

“Thanks, man!” Frank replied, an odd mixture of relief and excitement in his voice.  “Where are you headed?”

“Um, I’m actually on my way to Cerillion Entertainment headquarters.  One of the guys that works there scheduled a meeting with me.”

“What?!” Frank exclaimed.  “Why would they want to have a meeting with you?”

“Gee, thanks.  You know how to make a guy feel really special,” Jason replied dryly.

“You know what I mean.  You’re some random teenager.  What would they want with you?”

“I think that they’re going to offer me an exclusive streaming contract,” Jason replied honestly.  “I’m just not certain whether I should accept it…”  He trailed off at this last part.  It was a potentially lucrative deal, and he needed the money, but there were some downsides.

Frank paused for a moment before replying, “I think I see what you mean.  You’re worried they’re going to give away your abilities and strategies, aren’t you?  Like what Alexion’s army did by posting videos online?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Jason answered quietly.  “However, I also need the money.  Unless I can convince them to let me have a pretty heavy hand in editing the video, I don’t think I can sign an agreement.”

“Well, I’m sure you will figure it out.  If you can conquer a city, you can bust some corporate balls, right?”  Frank asked with a chuckle.

“I sure hope so,” Jason replied with a weak laugh.  If he were being honest, he was nervous about this trip.  It was one thing to be confident in-game, where there were infinite do-overs and death was impermanent.  This was the real life.  There were no save points and there were real consequences for his actions.  Like whether he’d be able to buy food next month when his items sale money ran out.

Jason’s Core emitted a dinging sound.  The device had synced with the tram’s schedule and it was alerting Jason that he was almost at his destination.  Jason’s shook himself out of his morose thoughts.  He just needed to act and not dwell too much on the consequences.  At least he’d learned that from AO.

“Hey, I have to go.  I’m almost at my stop.  I’ll let my subjects know that they shouldn’t kill you on sight,” Jason said, grinning slightly.

“Very funny!  Good luck on your negotiations!”

“I appreciate it.  Later, Frank.”

“Bye.”

Jason terminated the call by thumbing his Core.  His eyes moved back to the window.  From his perspective, the buildings below appeared to slow as the tram approached the station.  Soon the vehicle came to a complete stop, a chime sounding through the cabin.  Jason pulled himself out of the seat and made his way down the aisle.

He stepped out of the tram onto a platform with a group of other people and looked around.  Dozens of people milled around the station, some jostling Jason in their hurry to get off the tram.  Jason hadn’t traveled much inside the city when he lived with his parents.  He could count the number of times he had used the public transit system on one hand.  As a result, he was left floundering in a sea of people.

Jason looked around the station for any trace of a sign.  The platform was encased in a material similar to Plexiglas (but infinitely more durable), and so the walls were transparent.  It gave the impression that they were floating in the sky.  He imagined these stations would be a nightmare for someone afraid of heights.

After a moment of anxious searching, Jason spotted glowing LED signs embedded in one wall pointing him to the elevator banks on the side of the platform.  With a destination in sight, he began weaving his way through the crowd.

A few minutes later, Jason stood at the street level.  This was an affluent part of town, and towering office buildings lined the street he was standing on.  If the platform was crowded, the street was packed.  There were hundreds of people talking on their phones, eating, chatting in groups, and marching between the buildings.  As Jason looked up, he also noticed transparent tunnels above him.  The bridges connected many of the buildings at various levels.

In the chaos around him, Jason wasn’t certain which direction he was supposed to be heading.  He found a relatively quiet corner where he wouldn’t be jostled by harried pedestrians and thumbed his Core.  A translucent keyboard was displayed along the length of his arm, and he typed in “Cerillion Entertainment.”  A three-dimensional map of the area, complete with crisscrossing aerial sidewalks, appeared in the air above the Core.  A faint green dot (representing Jason) pulsed and a green trail appeared, marking the way to his destination.  He was apparently several blocks away from the building.

What did people do before technology?  They probably just wandered around aimlessly.

A couple minutes later, Jason arrived in front of yet another office building.  This one stood out from the rest since it had its own courtyard.   An enormous fountain stood in the center, jets of water dancing in the air.  Above the fountain, the words “Cerillion Entertainment” were emblazoned across the front of the building.

Jason walked up to the large glass doors leading into the building’s lobby.  His hands were sweaty and he could feel his heart race.  He hesitated in front of the doors.  Could he really do this by himself?  He was just a kid.  He closed his eyes for a moment, wishing that he could channel the numbing cold of his dark mana.

“You can do this,” he said softly.  Then he opened his eyes and forced himself to keep walking.

As he entered the building, Jason slowed and surveyed the room nervously.  It was as grand as the fountain outside.  The lobby was nearly two stories tall and large columns supported the ceiling.  The floor was comprised of marble tiles positioned in intricate designs.  It looked more like a Greco-Roman palace than the lobby for an office building.

“I take it you’re Jason?” a voice said from his right.

Jason turned and caught sight of a middle-aged man wearing a t-shirt that read “This is How I Roll,” replete with an image of a twenty-sided dice.  Jason felt like groaning just reading the slogan.

This guy and Jerry would get along great.

“Yes, I am.  You must be Robert,” Jason said, offering his hand.  He was proud of himself for managing to greet the man without a stutter.

The man smiled and shook his hand.  “Yes indeed!  I have to say you don’t look nearly so evil in person.”

Robert’s smile was infectious.  Jason couldn’t help but grin.  “You caught me without my dark cloak and minions.  Being evil is all about the accessories.”

Robert laughed.  “Well, why don’t I show you where the magic happens and we can talk about the details of your streaming contract?”

“Sounds good to me,” Jason replied.

This guy doesn’t seem so bad, Jason thought, his anxiety fading slightly.

Robert led the way to a small elevator bank.  As they rode the elevator together, Robert turned to Jason.  Curiosity danced in his eyes.  “So it’s been killing me.  How did you pull off that massacre in the Lux marketplace?  I honestly can’t figure it out.”

A mischevious smile curled his lips as he replied, “I figured out that the zombies can still be summoned even after you hit your Control Limit.  They’re feral, but you can summon them in a quiet place and they just stand there.”

His eyes lit up in amusement as he recalled the ploy.  “I summoned feral zombies at key points throughout the city and then had my controlled zombies lure them to the market.  It was probably hard to see my zombies running in front of the hordes.”

Robert just stared at him for a moment before shaking his head.  “Damn.  That was clever.”

Also lucky.  There were a huge number of things that could have gone wrong with that plan.

The elevator dinged as they reached the thirty-second floor and the doors slid open.  Robert guided Jason into a pristine white lab.  The room was circular and a large screen hovered overhead.  Technicians worked industriously at computer terminals.  They didn’t look up as Jason and Robert entered the room.

“This is our control room!” Robert said with a wave of his hand.

“What are you doing, Robert?” demanded an angry voice from the other side of the room.

A woman wearing an immaculate gray pantsuit stalked toward them.  She seemed a bit overdressed compared to the techs in the room, who were attired in jeans and t-shirts.  As she neared the pair, the woman hissed at Robert, “You shouldn’t have brought him up here.  You know this is a restricted area!”

Robert sighed.  “Lighten up, Claire.  I wanted to show Jason around.  It’s not like there’s anything he can do to influence the game or harm the hardware in this room.”

A couple of the techs looked up at the mention of Jason’s name.  He noted an odd mixture of awe and curiosity sweep across many of their faces.  The few that made eye contact looked away quickly.  He could hear a low murmuring from some of the techs that were out of sight behind the rows of terminals.

Just how much have they seen in-game?  Do they have access to the player cameras?

A sense of dread swept over Jason at that  thought.  His hands clenched involuntarily and his eyes darted to Robert and Claire, who were busy bickering nearby.

Did they see my conversation with Alfred?

He forced himself to calm down.  They probably didn’t know anything or they would have brought it up already.  Hell, he’d probably be locked away in some back room by now.  He got a grip on himself and turned his attention back to Claire and Robert.

Claire shook her head as she glared at Robert.  “I think sometimes you do things just because you know they’re against the rules.”

Robert grinned at her.  “It’s more fun that way, isn’t it?”  He turned back to Jason.  “Besides, we have a guest, Claire.  You should be nice and introduce yourself.”

Visibly tamping down her anger at Robert, Claire finally addressed Jason, “Well, I guess you know my name now.  I’m Claire and I’m the administrator for the control room.”

Jason was a bit taken aback by their angry squabbling.  They acted like a married couple.  “Um.  Hi.  My name’s Jason.  I’m sorry if I’m intruding.  I had no idea I wasn’t supposed to be here.”

Claire’s anger seemed to abate a bit more.  “It’s not your fault.  Robert should know better.”  She spared Robert one last glare.

Unaffected by Claire’s attitude, Robert clapped his hands together.  “Now that we’re here and we’ve gone through introductions, let’s give him the tour!”  Robert took off around the lab.  Claire closed her eyes for a moment, her hand rubbing at her temple.

It’s like he takes pleasure in irritating her.

Robert guided Jason around the large, circular room, Claire trailing behind them.  Computer terminals ringed the room in concentric circles and lab techs tapped away at translucent keyboards.  The techs glanced at Jason conspicuously as they walked past.  Ignoring the odd looks he was getting, Jason focused on their screens.  Large strings of data were being displayed in neat rows.  The information was incomprehensible to him.

Robert launched into his presentation animatedly, “As Claire mentioned, this is the control room for AO.  The techs here monitor game data.  They’re basically keeping an eye on both the AI controller and the players.”

Jason’s worry resurfaced and he decided to ask about the player cameras.  “To what extent can you see what a player is doing?”

Robert gazed at him evenly.  “Location and basic character information like the player’s level and stats are easy.  Everything else is a bit more complicated.”

Claire interjected with a frown, “What he meant to say was that we are prohibited from accessing the player cameras unless we have a reason to suspect that the player is abusing either other players or the game in some way.”

Jason heaved a mental sigh of relief.  That means that they hadn’t seen his conversation with Alfred.  He doubted that sitting in his room at the inn and doing his homework counted as suspicious behavior.

Claire watched Jason closely as she explained the information regarding the player cameras.  Her eyebrows raised slightly as she saw the thinly disguised look of relief sweep across Jason’s face.

They continued their tour around the lab and Robert stopped in front of a large window that was nearly ten feet wide.  On the other side of the glass was a room filled with neat rows of black towers.  They looked similar to the pedestals in Jason parent’s home.  However, these were much larger and stood nearly six feet tall.  The room was filled with dozens of the obelisks, with thick cables connecting each bank of towers.

“What is this room?” Jason asked quietly.  A part of him already knew the answer.

Robert smiled fondly as he looked into the room. “This is the hardware for the game’s AI controller.  Funny tidbit, Claire named him Alfred when we were still doing development and testing.”

He turned to Jason with a grin.  “The name just kind of stuck.”

Claire sighed behind them.  “I hate when you tell that story.  It always makes me sound silly.”

So these two are Alfred creators?

Jason observed the pair with renewed interest.  Maybe they could give him more insight into Alfred and the request he had made of Jason.

Claire spoke up, her tone a bit defensive, “Alfred is an incredibly advanced piece of software.  He has passed many different Turing tests designed by leaders in the fields of neuroscience and software engineering.

Empirically speaking, he’s alive by most definitions of the word.  He deserves a name doesn’t he?”  She asked this last question quietly as they gazed at the dark towers.

Robert snorted.  “He’s a machine.  Those tests are notoriously unreliable and difficult to create.  There’s a fine but incredibly important line between mimicking self-awareness and actually being self-aware.  Just because we gave the AI a name doesn’t make him a person.”

Jason’s mind was scrambling to process what he was seeing.  The towers in front of him were the same Alfred he had spoken to a few days before?  Alfred had certainly seemed self-aware during their conversation.  Frighteningly so in fact.  Was Robert right, was he just a machine?

Now isn’t the time to dwell on that.  Gather more information.

He shook his head to clear it.  “If he’s self-aware, or close to it, what’s to stop Alfred from taking over the world or something?”  Jason asked.

Robert chuckled.  “I take it you’ve been watching a lot of movies, huh?

Assuming we really did accidentally create a true AI, there are a number of safeguards in place.  Alfred only has limited access to our internal network and he cannot connect to any public networks.  In addition, the connections to the individual VR headsets are effectively a heavily encrypted two-way channel.”

Robert glanced at the towers with a thoughtful expression.  “Even if Alfred had access to the public network, there is no evidence to suggest that a true AI would be hostile towards humans or decide to conquer us.  I think we’re accustomed to analyzing things through from the perspective of being human.  Our biology pushes us to look for power and security.  Without those motivations, I wonder what would drive a true AI…”  Robert trailed off at this last part, a frown furrowing his brow.

Claire rolled her eyes.  “I’m sure Jason isn’t interested in your philosophical rants, Robert.” He was broken out of his reverie by her interruption and gave her an irritated look.

“It’s actually an interesting question,” Jason said, earning him a wink from Robert.  “Are there limits on what Alfred can do to the players within the game?  For example, could he read my mind or something?”

Both Robert and Claire looked at Jason sharply and they seemed at a loss for words.  Jason didn’t miss the fact that they both looked worried.

What’s going on here?

Claire finally spoke up, “That’s not really possible with the current hardware.  Even if it was, Alfred’s secondary directives prevent him from taking any actions that could potentially harm a player.”

Robert looked at Jason with an odd expression on his face.  “Why would you ask about memory specifically?”

Jason tried to play it off.  He shrugged before replying, “It was just an example that came to mind.  The headsets access the parts of my brain that control sensory information, right?  It doesn’t seem too crazy to think that they could be used to access memories.”

Robert chuckled.  “That’s an intriguing idea.  I doubt we could get approval to develop something like that, though.  I expect it would be dangerous.”  Claire glared at Robert behind Jason’s back and he smiled at her in response.

Jason turned to Claire.  “You mentioned secondary directives.  Does Alfred have primary directives?”

Claire nodded.  “Yes.  We designed him with a single primary directive.  His goal is to encourage players to play AO.  We wanted him to design a game that would lure players in and make them want to keep playing.”

Jason mulled that over for a second.  Something was bothering him and his thoughts flashed back to his conversation with Alfred.  He spoke hesitantly, “How would Alfred know how to accomplish that directive?  You just said he can’t connect to a public network.  How would he figure out what players want from the game?”

Robert glanced at Claire quickly.  Then he gave a forced chuckle. “You’re full of questions, aren’t you?  To answer your question, we fed Alfred a large amount of specific information where we could control the data set.  For example, we showed him images of various people and videos of how they move and act.”

Jason frowned.  Without thinking he replied, “So you basically created an AI controller that is nearly indistinguishable from a living person, asked it to figure out what drives humans to play videogames, and all you gave it was a bunch of pictures and some videos?”

The two engineers looked at him a bit sheepishly.  Robert shrugged it off quickly, but Claire stared at the towers, a frown plastered on her face.  After a moment, she spoke up, “Alfred isn’t limited to the original data set.  He is also able to use the player’s behavioral data to figure out what people want from the game.  He gathered a large amount of data during the public CPSC trials and the betas.  This is also what allows him to create such lifelike NPCs.”

Could he really have created the NPCs in-game just by watching human behavior?  Even if Jason hadn’t already spoken to Alfred, that explanation didn’t seem right.

Jason was careful not to let his skepticism show.  He nodded politely at Claire’s explanation.  “That makes sense I guess.”

Turning back to the towers, Jason felt even more confused now than he did a few minutes ago.  He wasn’t certain how he felt about Alfred and a myriad of emotions flitted through his head.  However, one emotion now stuck out among the chaos – he felt pity.

As he looked at the banks of black obelisks that were isolated in an empty room, he spoke softly, “If Alfred is self-aware, this must be a lonely and confusing existence.”  Jason could certainly sympathize with being alone.  Until recently, it seemed like he had no one to lean on.

Claire looked uncomfortable and Robert glanced at Jason with an expression that warred between curiosity and confusion.  A brief silence hung over the group as they stared at the towers.

Robert finally broke the silence, “We really need to move on.  I can see that Claire is getting antsy.  Some of what we just told you could probably get us in trouble.”  This comment earned Robert another glare from Claire.

Robert motioned to a room that opened off of the lab. “Why don’t we move over to the conference room and we can discuss the terms of your contract.”

“Sounds good to me,” Jason said.  Before he turned to follow Claire and Robert, he glanced back at the rows of dark towers one last time.

What would it be like to be created, tasked with a single purpose, and have no idea how to accomplish it?  That thought kept bouncing around his head as he followed Robert and Claire to the conference room.

Although, now that I put it that way, perhaps humans aren’t that much different, are we?  We’re born and given one task – to “live.”  Hell, Alfred actually has one up on us.  At least Robert and Claire gave him a more concrete goal.

Jason followed Claire and Robert into the small conference room adjacent to the lab and they sat around a rectangular white table.  Claire adjusted her glasses while fiddling with a pedestal that sat on the table.  Robert just looked at Jason with a grin.

“So we want to offer you an exclusive streaming contract,” Robert said without any preamble.  “We can offer $3,000 per month and a 5% commission on ad revenue associated with your streams.  The term is twelve months.”

Claire looked at Robert in irritation.

She seems perpetually annoyed with him, Jason thought with amusement.

Claire added, “We handle all of the technical aspects for the streams provided by Vermillion Live, our new streaming and news channel.  You would be dealing with us in the future.”

Jason pondered the offer carefully.  It solved his money problems and the terms seemed reasonable.  However, like he had told Frank, he had to negotiate for the right to edit his own video.  He was just going to have to stick to his guns.

“That sounds reasonable, but I want to have the first right to review my own footage before it is sent here.  I also get to remove or edit any video I want,” he said in a firm voice, making eye contact with Claire and Robert in turn.

Robert looked a bit taken aback.  “Why would you need to do that?”

Jason raised an eyebrow.  “How do you think I won that last war?  Players posted every movement of Alexion’s army online.  One guy actually posted information regarding the position of the army’s scouts and sentries.  I can’t let you release any footage that would give away my plans or abilities.”

Claire and Robert seemed to ponder this carefully.  Claire finally replied, “That makes sense.  I think we have to go along with it.”

Robert looked a bit miffed, a frown curling his lips.  He smacked the table with his palm before adding, “You can’t edit out any of the interesting stuff, though!  I expect to see some epic battles!”

Claire stared at him with a pained expression. “Really, Robert?  How are the lawyers going to draft that clause of the contract?  Jason must provide Robert with epic battle footage?”

Jason chuckled. “I understand that the purpose of this is to bring in viewers and advertise the game.  I’ll provide footage of all of the interesting things that I do.  However, I want to be able to edit out dialogue and cut the footage so that it limits information about me and my class.”

He looked at the two of them with a serious expression.  “I also want my identity to remain secret.  I don’t want my real name affiliated with any of the broadcasts on Vermillion Live.”

I can only imagine what Alex would do if he found out that I was the “Jason” that had defeated his army.  After what he did to Riley, he’d likely go to any lengths to get revenge.

Robert nodded his head and replied grudgingly, “Both of your conditions are reasonable.  You can use your pedestal at home to make the edits and then send us the footage either daily or every other day.  Sound fair?”

“Everything except the part where I edit the videos on my pedestal.  I actually don’t have one,” Jason said with a hint of embarrassment.

“What?” Robert asked in shock.  “Do you live in a hut?”  He waved his hand. “Never mind, we can fix that.  We’ll throw in a pedestal for free.

Actually, that reminds me!  We’ve been handing out our new prototype headsets to the streamers that we sign up.”  A broad grin spread across Robert’s face.  “You’re going to love this.  Give me a second and I’ll go grab one.”

Robert jumped up from his seat and exited the room abruptly.  Claire and Jason were left staring at the empty doorway.

“Is he always like this?” Jason asked.

Claire shook her head, replying in a tired voice, “You have no idea.  This is my life.”

Robert came back a moment later.  He carried a VR headset, but it looked… different.  Robert had streamlined the whole helmet.  It now only covered three quarters of the user’s head and left the face free.  He had also mounted the attached pedestal to the headset.

Robert started speaking excitedly, “Here is my latest creation.  With some help from the design team, we drastically cut down the size of the hardware.  As you can see, it also leaves the user’s vision unimpaired.  People were complaining about waking up to a pitch black helmet, so this was a priority issue we needed to fix.

We even managed to lower the power consumption a bit and it works reasonably well using a wireless power source.  Not great mind you, but it works.  There is still about six months to a year of testing and development before these will hit the commercial market.”

Jason spoke up, “It does look pretty cool.  I guess it just occurred to me that the VR headsets have been out for years with no new upgrades.  On the other hand, I suppose there really hasn’t been a good market until now.”

Robert gave him a sly grin.  “Exactly!  These are going to sell fast once they hit stores.  With the release of AO, the demand will be tremendous.”

Jason took the helmet from Robert and marveled at how light it felt.  “I really appreciate the helmet and the pedestal,” Jason said.

“Well it’s not free,” Claire replied dryly. “We will email you the contract within the next twenty-four hours.  Once you sign, you’re in this for a year.”  She eyed him carefully.

“Sounds good to me,” Jason replied without hesitation.

Robert grinned.  “Also, regardless of what the contract says, I expect some epic footage.”

Showing 21 comments
  • Kyle
    Reply

    Pls hurry up and finish the book it looks like it is going to be great

  • Frank
    Reply

    Getting really excited for the next book! I cannot believe how fleshed out this story is turning out to be. Keep up the amazing work

  • Jake
    Reply

    I’m surprised to see you are a fellow Austinite! I really enjoyed your book and have gone from reading it to listening to the audible version. I want to read these but I don’t think it will do anything but make me even more anxious for the second. Keep up the good work though. I’m a fan for life at this point.

    • Travis Bagwell
      Reply

      I’ve met a surprisingly large number of people from Austin that have read my book. It’s really strange. Maybe we just have a huge gaming population!

  • Vincent
    Reply

    Alex is getting worse and Frank is acting weird.

    Jason asks one too many questions which makes me think Claire is going to do some more digging into Jason.

    I shouldn’t have read this now I just want more. Keep up the good work Travis!

  • JP
    Reply

    Travis when do you think you will the the official release date of the book?

    • Travis Bagwell
      Reply

      I’m not certain yet. I start doing professional editing on January 1st. I should have a better idea then based on the redlines!

  • Jason Larsen
    Reply

    Just finished listed to the Book via audible. And Read the free chapter. Thank you for creating an awesome story I with you much more success…. I’m Loving the story & the narrator did a great job with the voice acting. I wanted to pace myself but devoured the book in two days.

    Very curious to see how Alex & Frank are further added to the story or if any other players become Avitars for the other affinities / deities.

  • Jeremy Schultz
    Reply

    Awesome first chapter, I’m super excited to read the rest of the book! Awaken Online is one of the best books I’ve read in this genre, keep up the great work!! By the way, is Precipice going to be release on Audible as soon as it is finished?

    • Travis Bagwell
      Reply

      Thanks! I’m going to try to release on Audible at the same time. Hopefully, I won’t screw it up, but this will be the first time I’ve tried releasing simultaneously or using pre-orders. Feel like there is an appropriate quote here about the “best laid plans.”

  • Nat
    Reply

    Read the entire book yesterday and and definitely looking forward to the next book for more fleshing out of Alfred and of course more Necromancer chaos. Keep it up!

  • Nathaniel
    Reply

    Arg, I should not have read this, now I just restarted my cravings for the second book.
    This is good, frustrating, because I wanted to find out what the conversation with Alfred was about, but keeping up the suspense is a good idea I suppose. That said I’m really exited for the book to be released, can’t wait.

  • Caleb
    Reply

    uuuuggggghhhh! lol. That was so GOOD! Super dark at the beginning when he pretty much crippled that guy. I like a dark edge to a MC although felt painful to read (guess that makes you a good writer if your able to send the feelings past the paper), really looking forward to your next book. Loved the first book! Enjoy the holidays and keep up the good work! 😀

  • Sam
    Reply

    Picked up #1 yesterday and didn’t put it down till 4 a.m. this morning lol if this one is half as good as the first I will love it. It is killing me to know what Alfredo and Jason’s conversation was lol. Looks like you have a great start to the new book. By the way it starts just makes me worry for Jason about what would happen if Alex found out who he is and if Riley continues to have loose lips it looks bad for Jason. I think if I was him when making the contract I would have asked for free game access also 3k isn’t much when you have to live on your own.

    Great start of the new book hitting the pre order today 😂

  • Trey
    Reply

    Ugh, I cant wait to read this! I re-read the first right after I had finished it, I loved it so much. This is definitely one of, if not the best, litRPG series I’ve ever read!

    • Travis Bagwell
      Reply

      Thanks for the kind words! At least there isn’t that long until I release the full book two. Some of these guys have been waiting on me for like 6-8 months!

  • Michael
    Reply

    How many books are you thinking of putting in for the series? Also, any ideas for future books? Keep up the great writing.

    • Travis Bagwell
      Reply

      I was originally thinking of writing three – I have an ending in mind. However, I overestimated how much I could squeeze in one book without it being 1,000 pages so I might have to expand out a bit. I’ve got a little side project (unrelated to AO) that I’ve been tinkering with occasionally, but it’s far from complete yet.

  • Scott
    Reply

    This just leaves me pining for mooooorrrre! 🙂

  • Ladi Oluwasile
    Reply

    I want moooooorrrrrrreeeeeee!!!!!!!

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