The river on the map was much wider than Brittany anticipated. It was not a narrow stream, but instead a raging river that dropped off at a steep waterfall. It had taken her nearly an hour of jogging downstream to the edge of the southern wooded area that she had seen on the map to find a shallow part of the river where she could cross. By the time she arrived, it was dusk.
She held all three guns above her head as she waded neck-deep through the water. For some reason the option to store weapons in her inventory was offline, so she was forced to carry them by hand. After her encounter with the dragon, she’d decided to keep the Saiga despite being out of rounds. She figured that if she were to take down any opponents armed with 12-gauge shotguns during her travels, she could extract the shells. The automatic load feature of the Saiga was far superior, because the few seconds it took to reload a standard shotgun could mean the difference between winning or losing a match.
When she reached the far shoreline, she felt her stomach groan. Normally the game would suppress her metabolism while she played by artificially stimulating the cortisol levels in her brain. Ever since the malfunction, though, nothing in the game seemed to be normal anymore.
In her youth, Brittany had been infatuated by the Survivalist movement. Her favorite television shows were documentaries about prepping for doomsday or how to survive in the wild. Some of her favorite books included topics like how to identify edible vegetation and how to skin a wild animal. It was this same infatuation that led her to ultimately enter the police academy.
She glanced at her lush surroundings in the dimming sunlight, identifying dandelions, wood sorrel, and dead-nettle. The virtual vegetation wasn’t exactly a feast, but, oddly, it kept her stomach pains at bay.
Something whizzed past her ear, and she intuitively knew it had been a long-range bullet. She dove for cover in the thick trees. She peeked her head out and squinted at the prairie to the north.
Where is the coward?
She saw the distinct flash of flint nearly 200 yards out. Another bullet embedded itself in a nearby tree.
There you are.
He had a long-range rifle. None of the weapons she had obtained could cover that kind of distance. She’d have to wait it out until both suns set before she could get any closer.
She became aware that her shimmery armor made her the perfect target. Every glint of sunlight betrayed her location for miles. It unnerved her to know that she was so exposed and vulnerable. She considered disappearing into the woods, but much greater dangers lurked in such shadowy places, so it was best to stay out in the open.
At least, until the game started allowing guns.
What a predicament: avoid the sniper by running off into the woods where she could face unknown dangers, or wait him out and try to get a jump on him after dark. She debated for a few minutes and made her decision: she’d wait it out. Besides, she was eager to get her hands on a long-range rifle. It would make gaining XP kill points to level-up much easier.
She dodged from behind one tree to the next. Three bullets zipped past after she saw the flashes of flint. What concerned her though was where each had come from. One of the flashes had come from the original reference point, but the other two had come from opposing 90-degree angles.
It’s a hunting party! They’re closing in from the sides!
All she needed was one rifle, and she could use it to take the other two down. They likely had night vision scopes on them, considering the hunters had seen her dodge between the trees in such dim light. There was only one choice left. Without a second’s hesitation, she dove deeper into the woods. After a hundred feet, she took a sharp turn to the left and barreled north through the thick forest. It was difficult to see anything, and she tripped over thick roots several times.
You have entered the Lost Zone. Your map has been disabled, and your chances for survival have greatly decreased. Many players have perished at the hand of unspeakable creatures in these woods. Proceed with caution!
She pressed her right temple and accessed her HUD. As anticipated, the map refused to activate. She knew the risk of encountering a monster was significant, but it was the only way she could get a jump on one of her attackers.
Being unable to track her location made it difficult to judge how far she needed to run, but she had a pretty good guess. After several minutes of stumbling northward, she had a gut instinct to turn back toward the clearing. Angling left, she slowed to a jog. The forest thinned, and she saw the clearing not too far off in the distance.
Brittany shouldered the AK-47 and inched forward while catching her breath. At any moment, the map would activate again and betray her whereabouts. She’d only have one chance to take the hunter down.
And then she saw the dim light of a cigarette. The hunter had taken the necessary precaution of pointing it away from the clearing and shielding it with his hand, but he hadn’t expected that anyone would approach him from behind.
She dropped him with a single shot to the head.
An invisible force knocked her over. She screamed out in terror when an inky-black tentacle wrapped around her leg. Turning abruptly, she came face to face with what appeared to be a land-bound squid covered with gnashing, razor-sharp teeth.
Threat Detected: Level 6 Voidspawn
Strengths: Long black tentacles allow for speed and easy subduing of prey. Head is covered with gnashing mouths full of razor-sharp teeth to allow for rapid devouring of trapped prey. Head is also covered with eyes to allow for 360-degree sight with intense focus. Will not remain killed.
Without hesitation, she switched the AK-47 from Manual to Semi-Automatic mode. The spray of bullets knocked the creature backwards, sending it shrieking back into the forest. After expending the full magazine, the trigger clicked a few times before she released her finger.
That was a lot of ammo I just burned through for no XP, she scolded herself.
She wasn’t about to chase the creature. Knowing the other two hunters would be alerted by the appearance of her marker – not to mention the loud ruckus she just made to ward off the vile creature, she bolted out of the creepy forest and ripped the rifle out of the dead hunter’s hands and removed three 50-round capacity sashes off of his body.
You have survived the Lost Zone unscathed.
Claim your reward for your endurance and courage:
New Weapon Aquired: Remington 700, Bolt-Action Hunting Rifle
Ammunition: .308 ammunition, 136/150 available rounds. Delivers 60% damage or Instant Kills. An Instant Kill requires the use of either a Headshot or a CardioBlast skill. Chances of longer range accuracy are 75%. Greater chances for Instant Kill increase with higher levels. Requirements: Level > 3, Strength > 6 Agility > 2, Stamina > 2, Intelligence > 2
She took quick aim with the night vision scope, and took out the next hunter without a challenge.
A bullet whizzed past, sharpening her focus. The marksmanship of these hunters left a lot to be desired. She glanced down to the body at her feet. He was just a kid.
A pang of guilt rose in her throat, and she had to remind herself yet again that it was just a game.
But it feels so real…
Shaking off the morbid thoughts creeping into her mind, she took careful aim and fired.
Another alert followed.
A wisp of darkness swirled at her feet and a chime sounded from the sky as her character ascended to Level 4.
“That was too easy.” she chuckled to herself as she strode into the clearing to collect the ammunition from her fallen opponents.
She pulled up her HUD as she walked. According to her character sheet, she was now 145 XP away from Level 5. As the game progressed, each level would become increasingly more difficult to obtain. On the plus side, XP kill points would also increase based upon a set calculation between an Easy Kill, a Medium Kill, or a Difficult Kill.
Having formerly been a Level 8 player prior to the game malfunction, thinking about this only made her angry.
Doug did this. When I find him, I’ll make him pay!
Brittany stayed close to the edge of the forest, but not too close as to avoid being dragged inside by the hidden beasts she was certain were following her every move. Her senses had heightened from the recent encounter with the tentacled monster, and the follicles of her hair were prickling in anticipation. The three moons cast an eerie blue glow in the sky, making the prevailing darkness unsettling.
A faraway boom echoed overhead, and the sky lit up by a falling fireball. She watched the strange sight as it descended and felt the tremor as it made impact.
Her HUD lit up and pinpointed the impact site.
Conquest Servers detect a foreign object has fallen from the sky in your vicinity. Unknown objects hold hidden secrets that often yield Player Improvements.
Would you like to begin a Discovery Quest?
Yes | No
Though it would take her slightly off course from her Weapon’s Quest, Brittany’s curiosity got the better of her. She selected ‘Yes’.
After stumbling through the dark for several minutes, she crested a hill, seeing the glow of fire in the distance. Her HUD confirmed the glow as her intended destination, and she felt drawn to it like a bug to a flame. She was tired from the long hours she had logged, and wanted nothing more than to log out and curl up in her bed, but the prospect of increasing her player stats was too tempting an offer to pass up. She trudged onward.
Half an hour passed before she finally neared her destination. As she drew closer, she stopped short.
I’m not alone.
Five players lit up on the screen. All were Level 3 characters.
Brittany aimed the hunting rifle at the group as they walked toward the meteor’s impact site and took out one of them. The others scrambled for safety.
Skill Unlocked: CardioBlast
Delivers an Instant Kill and blows a hole through an oppent’s chest when in close range. Chances of longer range accuracy are 25%. Greater chances for Instant Kill increase with higher levels. Requirements: Level > 4, Agility > 2, Stamina > 3, Intelligence > 2
She trained her eye through the scope, and the instant one of the players popped his head up she put a bullet through it.
“Hold your fire!” she heard a woman yell. “Please! We mean you no harm!”
The woman stood up, her arms raised in surrender. For a brief second Brittany hesitated, and that’s all it took. In an instant, she was surrounded on either side by two men, their gun-barrels pressed against her head.
“Drop your weapons, and we’ll spare your life.”
Brittany rolled her eyes. “What’s the point? I’ll just respawn back at the tower.”
“Funny thing is…” the woman sneered, “the three of us are all that’s left of our guild. We’ve lost four today, and still haven’t received any system alerts about their respawns.”
A look of alarm flashed across Brittany’s face as a foreboding thought returned.
No respawns?! But this can’t be RL!
“What are you saying?” Brittany’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Somehow Conquest seems to be locked in a permadeath setting.” the woman explained. “I have my suspicions that if you die here, you’ll also die in RL.”
“That’s preposterous.” Brittany said, unable to hide the tremor in her voice.
“Is it, though?” the woman said. “A lot of strange things have happened since the Server reset. I’m sure you’ve noticed?”
Brittany nodded. “What do you want from me?”
“We’ve heard a lot about you @IronVixen. We want to extend you an invitation to join our guild.”
“I work alone.” Brittany scoffed.
“I’m not asking.” The woman nodded to the men who in turn cocked their weapons.
A system alert popped up in her augmented vision.
@BlondeWarrior has extended an invitation to join her guild. Do you wish to accept?
Yes | No
“So what’s it gonna be?” @BlondeWarrior pressed. “Join us, or die?”
She stared at the screen. It took a full minute of internal struggling before she made her decision.
Brittany chose ‘Yes’.
The two men withdrew their weapons. Brittany took quick aim with her 1911 at one of the two men, but was unable to pull the trigger. Instead, an error box popped up:
You cannot attack a member of your own guild.
Annoyance flashed across her face as she lowered her weapon.
@BlondeWarrior grinned wryly. “Welcome to the team.”
“So that’s your angle.” Brittany glared at her.
“Seek out skilled players, and trap them in your guild. Nice one, Blondie.”
She extended a hand. “Call me Vickie.”
“No.” Brittany ignored the gesture. “Blondie suits you better.”
They glared at each other for several moments until one of the men—player name @Vragyth16—broke the silence. “Glad to have you on our team. I’m Brad.”
“Did this little wench force you onto her team as well?” Brittany fumed.
“Actually, no.” He pointed to his teammates.
“Vickie, Sam, and I have been in the same guild for years. The two members you killed off were newbies.”
The other man, @Gihr5, spoke up. “I’m honestly surprised you didn’t kill me off first. I’m usually the first one to go.”
“That’s because you always play like a noob!” Brad elbowed Sam in the gut.
“I assume Blondie here is your Guild Leader then?” Brittany asked, nauseated by the banter.
“Not exactly. She kinda assumed temporary leadership when our guild leader disappeared a few weeks ago. He often has hardware issues, so his absence isn’t too surprising.”
“Yeah.” Brad explained, “Every so often his microchip goes berserk and he has to get a new one surgically installed.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.” Brittany scoffed.
“We hadn’t either.”
“I have a theory…” Blondie chimed in with a wry grin. “I spoke with him after our failed quest last week. He confided in me that he was about to propose to his girlfriend that night.”
“Nice. I’ll have to tease him about it when he logs back on.” Brad smirked.
“So this guild leader of yours…” Brittany chewed on a thought. “He won’t be upset I joined?”
“I doubt it. He’s pretty chill.” She shrugged. “Besides, I’m the leader until he shows his sorry face. My guild, my rules.”
“And your rules are?”
“I’m still considering all of them, but off the top of my head I think we should share our quests and inventories.”
Brittany’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious.”
“You’re about to find out.”
An alert popped up in Brittany’s augmented field of vision.
@BlondeWarrior has just accessed your inventory.
“Get your grubby hands out of there!”
“Ooh. You’ve got an AK-47?” Blondie cooed. “I think I’ll take that.”
Brittany watched in impotent rage as the control key for the weapon disappeared from her inventory, now rendering it a useless weight strapped to her back.
“You’ll pay for this!” she said through gritted teeth.
“You don’t intimidate me in the slightest, fellow Blonde.”
Brittany swung the strap of the AK-47 over her head and begrudgingly handed over the coveted weapon. “Just watch your back.”
“I see you’ve got three outstanding quests too.” Blondie scowled. “Care to share in the spoils?”
Brittany’s eyes narrowed. “Over my dead avatar.”
“Tsk, tsk. Now that’s no way to talk to your guild leader.”
@BlondeWarrior has just shared three quests with your guild.
“No way!” Brad stammered. “You actually found the legendary Tower of Babel?!”
“Yes.” Brittany seethed, “And you better keep it a secret or else I’ll destroy all of you.”