Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Catacomb (Part 5 of 5)

© 1985 by Henry Melton


Judith stared at the screen. It was almost midnight, and the house was silent and dark, except for those glowing green letters on her screen.
Defeated twice in one day! This was supposed to be entertainment? She was feeling depressed.
Another hour and a half. Could she manage to stay awake long enough to log back on then? It was her only chance to turn the tables. Tomorrow would be a busy day with no time for this.
The treasure bonus puzzled her. <RUN 53>
CATEGORY 53 TREASURES ARE GENERALLY MAGICAL IN NATURE AND ARE WORTHLESS UNLESS PROPERLY USED. THEY CANNOT BE SOLD TO THE WIZARD OF THE GATE, SINCE HE WOULD TAKE THEM WITHOUT PAYING FOR THEM. THE VALUE SHOWN IS ONLY AN ESTIMATE OF THE TRADE VALUE OF THE ITEM.
Strange. There is no value shown. What does that mean? Is it the arm band? If so, I should have seen that message before.
Judith tapped a key that disconnected her terminal with the tieline. Then <RESPOOL, $.1800-2000> Back across the screen scrolled everything she'd seen or done on the screen between six and eight that evening.
There it is! I must have missed it trying to get down to supper. It has to be the arm band.
With that resolved, she put on her muffs, plugged them into the terminal, and keyed a wake-up.
###
Lunae woke to yellow light and the smell of bacon and fresh trail bread. As she tried to lift her head, her whole body shook from hunger, fatigue, and the residual effects of the drug.
"Ah, good. I was hoping you wouldn't be out very long. Here." Her thief handed her a trail sandwich.  She had no heart to protest. It vanished quickly.
The thief was even bigger than she remembered, now that she was on the ground and he was standing.
"Not too bad looking," he commented, echoing her own thoughts, "even with some very sharp looking teeth." He sat down on a rock next to her and handed her a bottle. While she made its contents vanish as well, he rambled on, "Of course, in this world, all you see are beautiful specimens or characters who like to make themselves deliberately horrifying. But most opt for beauty and strength, when they have any choice in the matter."
Lunae handed him the bottle. <SAY: "THERE WAS SAND IN THE BOTTOM. BUT THANKS. I LOST MY SUPPLIES.">
"I noticed that." He took her bottle and put it back among his things, even turning his back on her. By reflex, she reached for her knives and found them properly sheathed. He turned back to her. "I knew you would be out for a while--what with two doses of the dart in one day--so I tried to find your supplies. The sword was close, but all bent up. I backtracked to the Blue Chamber and saw your stuff. Frankly, from what I saw, I am very surprised you are still here. What got after you?"
<SAY:"A TOR BEAST.", TRY TO SIT UP AGAIN.> She made it this time.
He saw her effort and offered her a hand to a more comfortable seat on a water-smoothed boulder. "Maybe it's a good thing I didn't kill you. It might be handy to know someone who can survive a Tor beast attack. How'd you do it?"
<SAY:"I KILLED IT.">
"That, I don't believe. But tell me the tale anyway.  You wouldn't believe how lonely this job is."
And so she did. The whole thing. Maybe Lunae wouldn't have divulged everything without taking some advantage in trade, but it was late at night and Judith was a bit lonely herself. Her thief made an appreciative audience, commenting appropriately during the telling.
<SAY:"AND I WANT TO THANK YOU FOR NOT KILLING ME, TWICE.">
"You did the same for me. I didn't come to until you were halfway through with the bandaging. I appreciate it. Surviving another day here pays the grocery bill off-line."
<SAY:"YOU MEAN YOU REALLY MAKE A LIVING AT THIS?">
"This life of crime, you mean?"
<SAY:"WELL,YES.">                                         
"You have it in a nutshell: I live on-line. What I make from CATACOMB  has to be enough to pay for my bread and access charges, or I go hungry.  Thievery is just a matter of the odds. I tried searching for treasure in every cubbyhole, but it turned out that I made more by surviving attacks from other characters and pocketing their findings than I could make on my own. When I bought the blowpipe and turned thief professionally,  it even had some moral advantages. My victims usually survived. I'm really quite good at it.  Rumor back at the Gate has it that the Phantom Thief is a native of CATACOMB and can't ever be caught or killed."
<SAY:"I STILL DON'T KNOW WHETHER I COULD BE A THIEF, EVEN AS AN ON-LINE CHARACTER.">
"Didn't you say you were an assassin?"
<SAY: "YES, BUT">
"Yes, but what?"
<SAY:"I DON'T KNOW. YOU'VE GOT ME CONFUSED. LET'S GO BACK TO TALKING ABOUT YOUR SINS. WHY CAN'T YOU WORK FOR A LIVING OFF-LINE.">
For a moment there was no response. Then, "Don't laugh, but there is a very good reason. Denver's child wage laws keep employers from hiring people of my age. Next year I'll be nineteen, and I won't have that excuse. You'll have to wait until then to tell whether I'm a sociopath or just a bright kid beating the system."
<SAY:"FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, I'M SEVENTEEN, AND I DON'T THINK AUSTIN HAS THAT KIND OF LAW. BUT WHY ARE YOU HAVING TO MAKE A LIVING.  I'LL STILL BE IN SCHOOL AT YOUR AGE.">
"That, my sweet, is the fate of everyone who's unlucky enough to be missing a set of parents and too cantankerous to abide by the whims of the state juvenile system. As long as I'm not arrested for an off-line crime, the people here will let me make my own way.  And to tell the truth, if I must be a thief, I'd much rather be one in a world like CATACOMB, where such behavior is expected.
"And now for your sins. What is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"
Judith told her whole plan. She spoke of her goals of making enough money to attend the music camp and to win a first-chair position. By taking her out of the public-school system and away from her friends and by putting her in the academy, she wanted to show her parents that they would be depriving her of her true vocation.
"Whew! Angel, you make me feel old. I'm not going to discourage you by telling you what I think of your chances, but I must say I have every respect for your ambitions. If I had a spare $300, I'd share it with you.  But ... "
The dollar sign on the screen triggered a memory, and for a moment Lunae considered how to get the arm band back from her thief and how to learn its secrets. Then Judith spilled the beans. She filled him in on the unusual logoff message she'd received, even replaying it and the condition code description back from her terminal's local memory. Afterward, she explained her theory about the arm band.
"Angel, this is not how you're supposed to play this game. I'm supposed to kill you; you're supposed to kill me; and we're both supposed to steal each other's treasures."
<SAY:"AS GHOSTS, I SUPPOSE?">
"I wouldn't put it past us, in this world.
"In any case, you've hit me with a problem.  If your theory about the Tor teleportation magic and the arm band is correct, then I am just the person to make the best use of it. I've used many of the magic spells of this world, and I know how they work. After all, that's how I spotted your last attack. Also, I've been all over the catacombs, and I know where there are several treasures only a teleporter could get at. So, I should cut your heart out, steal your artifact, and go to it. Instead I'll have to trade you for it. All I've got is a busted blowpipe and treasure worth about fifty dollars in real money."
Judith thought about it for a moment. The Lunae in her clamored for a better deal, a percentage of the take.  But as it was past four in the morning, CATACOMB seemed far less real to her than a nice boy beating the system in Denver.
<SAY:"THROW IN A GOOD SAFE ROUTE BACK TO THE GATE AND IT'S A DEAL. I'VE BEEN LOST IN THIS MAZE FOR THREE DAYS NOW.">
###
The day was an ordeal because Judith never went to sleep, even after her thief shooed her off into a safety chamber and, thus, back into the off-line world.  She could barely drag herself through her chores.  And Barry was no help at all.  Deprived of his COMMANDER game, his second-best sport was sister-baiting.  She was grateful when Mother forced him out into the garden at spade point.  Therefore, Judith didn't mind at all that she was stuck with the job of making sure that Georgie didn't get into anything but harmless trouble.
The day passed, but she never got logged back onto CATACOMB. Alone, finally, after the evening meal, she fell asleep.
Morning brought a tempest. Barry rushed out of the house with Jay, and a call to Jay's mother brought the information that the pair had gone off to the mall to play COMMANDER.  The news of Barry's rebellion brought Father down from his office and put him into a black mood.  He picked up the cane he always used for walking in public, drafted Judith to be his scout, and left for the mall with her.
Judith thought her father looked very impressive, especially so when he was angry.  Though he limped and carried a cane in public, his image was of a man in control.  Walking beside him through the crowd, her Lunae perspective made her wonder just how handy a club his cane would make.  She headed for the arcade.
Barry was there, joking with some friends around a COMMANDER booth. The place was packed, mostly with boys Barry's age and older.  Today, they seemed much less threatening to her.  In an uncharacteristic burst of sympathy, she didn't report his location immediately to Father.
"Hello, Barry."
He was surprised to see her. "Hello, Sis."
"There's a man with a cane outside who has brought a message for you."
"Oh." His face paled a bit, but the light was low.  "Jay, I've gotta go.  See ya." And he was gone. His friends looked puzzled. Judith smiled sweetly and explained, "Business." Then she walked off.
Halfway to the door she overhead: "... played CATACOMB like never before. The Alien Worlds column said he made a mint."
There was an empty CATACOMB booth. She slid into the seat and fed the machine a pair of coins.
###
Lunae awoke in a bed near the noisy babble of the throng at the Wizard's Gate. Her pillow was large, lumpy, and hard.  Pinned to her sleeve was a note.
Dear Angel,
Sorry we didn't make this last connection.  It worked.  I've never had so much on-line fun since I started playing.  Once I got to the right places, I found more gold in this world than I dreamed.
I've fulfilled my part of our bargain, though this Lunae of yours fights like a devil when you're not inside her. I had to drug her again to get her back to the Gate. The bed is only rented for a week, since I figure you'll connect up before then.  This may be the last time we talk. I have a strong feeling they'll lock me out of this world when I go cash in my coins.
Kisses for my Angel, Your thief
Judith keyed the logoff.
YOU HAVE REACHED A SAFE PLACE.   YOU MAY NOW ADJUST YOUR ACCOUNT BALANCES.   YOUR ACCOUNT BALANCE IS:   $    0.05 FOR TODAY  $   18.34 FOR THE GAME  $  534.25 TREASURE BONUS  DO YOU WISH TO CASH IN YOUR TREASURE {Y/N}?   DO YOU WISH TO PAY YOUR GAME ACCOUNT {Y/N}?
###
Oh, Thief!  We only bargained for fifty. I don't even know your name. And you don't know mine.
Judith closed out her character and the game. Her bank account swelled nicely. There it is--all the money I needed, and more. How come I feel like I just lost the game? On the screen, her bank balance timed out and erased itself.
She sat back for a moment in the booth. They're waiting for me. I'd better go.  Her fingertips lightly tapped the keyboard. Then, on impulse, she typed:  <$USANET$.ALIEN WORLDS//>
The screen began scrolling the article.
ALIEN WORLDS BY OSRET CHUNER{1}
CATACOMB{2} HAS BECOME THE WORLD OF THE MOMENT SINCE YESTERDAY'S ANNOUNCEMENT {3} ABOUT A DENVER PLAYER{4} WHO CASHED IN AT A REPORTED $50,000. MANAGEMENT {5} OF CATACOMB, OF COURSE. MADE A BIG SPLASH OF IT. HOPING TO ATTRACT MORE PLAYERS. AND IT'S WORKING. IN SPITE OF MY WARNING
<RUN 4>
DENVER PLAYER CASHES IN BIG IN CATACOMB.{1} {DENVER POST}{2}
EARLY THIS MORNING{3}, THE MANAGEMENT {4} OF CATACOMB HELD A PRESS CONFERENCE.  AWARDING A CHECK FOR $50,355.75 AND A SPECIAL EMERITUS RANKING{5} TO AN UNNAMED DENVER PLAYER{6} FOR HIS FEAT OF LITERALLY BURYING THE WIZARD'S GATE{7} UNDER SACKS OF GOLD AND JEWELS.  IT WAS SAID BY PLAYERS
<RUN 6>
INTERVIEW WITH DENVER PLAYER POST: I HEARD YOU MENTION THAT YOU HAD HELP FROM AN ANGEL IN YOUR AMAZING WIN.  DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS TO OTHER CATACOMB PLAYERS FOR INVOKING ANGELS?
PLAYER: SORRY. BUT TO GET THAT CHECK. I HAD TO SIGN AN AGREEMENT THAT I WOULDN'T SAY ANYTHING TO ANYONE ABOUT CATACOMB.
POST: CAN YOU TELL US WHAT YOU INTEND TO DO WITH YOUR WINNINGS?
PLAYER: I THINK I'LL MOVE TO TEXAS. I HEAR AUSTIN IS A NICE TOWN.
###
At home, with Barry in the garden helping his mother, Judith again watched over Georgie. She played over in her mind all that her thief knew about her and all that she knew about him. Father, on the other hand, paced downstairs and never once went back up to his office.
Since he hovered around so long, Judith was finally prompted to say, "Daddy, don't worry so much about us kids. Barry wasn't being perverse. I noticed the expression on his face in the arcade when he realized his mistake. He was with his friends, and he just forgot about the gardening.
"As for me," she smiled, "I've been a pain about the new school. I'm sorry. I know it won't be as bad as I made it out to be. There will be plenty of new friends to make. And in fact, I can think of some advantages of being the only female flute player at Brentwood Academy." 

2 comments:

Henry Melton said...

I'm going to make a comment on my own posting this time. There's something I wanted to get out here.

When the story was first accepted to Dragon magazine, the editor made a few little changes. I had read about a new thing coming in the future called hypertext, where links to other text were littered through the words. This was before the web appeared in all its glory, with underlined links that could be clicked. As I was writing this story, the world was made up of slow connections with pages of simple text that appeared so slowly that you could see the words and lines appear one by one.

So in my imagined hypertext, as Judith was reading the news articles, footnote like numbers appeared, and before waiting for the article to finish, she'd just tap a number key and the text would switch to the linked article.

The editor understood what I had written, but he or she probably thought it would be confusing to readers, so instead of a bare '5' in the text, it was changed throughout the manuscript to something like 'RUN 5'. I was a lowly author, so I made no objection. But it has annoyed me all these years. My version was so much more elegant, and actually closer to the web and its precursors like Gopher, that I finally decided to have my say.

Mark said...

It was such a treat when a friend found your story online - we had talked about it 30 years ago and were both inspired by the story. As someone who was actively playing text-based games in the late 70s (adventure), spent a few years living in MMOs - and now designing them for the last 20 years professionally; your story of a character that has its own life when you are not online was fascinating. Interesting to me is where my imagination added to your story - of the character when 'safed' in town worked a boring job at a blacksmith and other various details. Thanks for thirty years of enjoyment from your story, Henry!

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