Saturday, March 5, 2011

Catacomb (Part 1 of 5)

© 1985 by Henry Melton
First published in Dragon #97
This is my most popular short fiction with fan letters and emails arriving even today. Pardon the anachronisms.  This was written back when both the Mac and the IBM PC were new and years before the web.  This was before everyone knew to click a mouse or knew that underlined text was a hyperlink.

Lunae, assassin for the Witch Queen of the Hinterlands, paused in silence before the large stone door.  <LISTEN, SMELL>  There was no sound beyond the latched opening, but she had learned to distrust silence in this place. The walls were cubits thick. The door, though balanced to open with a light shove, was itself more than a foot thick and, when closed, was sealed nearly airtight. Sound never traveled far in this twisty, dusty place, but the smells that the men and the beasts left behind had proved especially trustworthy to her.
She moved her torch to her left hand and leaned closer to the edge of the door, where she might catch a whiff of the scents within. There was, as always, a faint man-scent and the musty tang of some beast that must frequent this set of corridors. She hoped never to meet that one in the flesh. There was something ... compelling about that scent. She feared it. But now, there seemed to creep from behind the door a new scent, the smell of spice!
If there was any chance of a man behind the door, she had better be ready for a fight. The catacombs were more wild and dangerous than any other place she had been. There was gold here, and of course, there was greed.  Strike first! had proved themselves sure words of wisdom in the seemingly endless time she had spent in the dark, dusty halls. Lunae took stock of herself. She had eaten hours ago, and she was in fighting trim. The tools of her trade were ready to her fingers. It was a momentary temptation to pass by this door, but she had no idea if this corridor would provide another exit soon enough to avoid the creature with the musty scent. There was no reason to delay. Her torch was more than half gone. Going back was out of the question.
<OPEN THE DOOR> The latch worked smoothly, but the hinges did not. The door moved unevenly with the popping grind of a stone pivot.
<LOOK> Glowstone lit the roomy chamber with its cool blue light. <PUT OUT TORCH> There were signs of travelers. A torn leather sack lay on a large, flat boulder next to a trickling spring. The rivulet barely parted the dust on the floor before vanishing into a fault-line crack. That dust was well stirred by prints of man and beast. The hoofprints amazed her. Lead a pack animal down into the catacombs? The scents alone in this place would spook it.
Two other stone doors faced her. This was a crossroads, if that term could be used in these underground passages. She quickly moved to check them. <LISTEN AT DOORWAYS> There was never too much caution in this place.
There were no sounds, and the smells of this oft-used waystop masked anything that might be beyond them.  A set of conveniently placed boulders were at hand, so she blocked all three entrances.
"Thank you." It was a man's voice.
She spun into a crouch, ready to throw her knife as soon as she spotted a target. Though it wasn't terribly bright, the glowstone light shone evenly enough to wash out shadows. A man could hide in two or three places among the jumble of boulders where the spring was sourced. Lunae was painfully aware that she was without the smallest boulder to protect her from any thrown weapon. She shifted her stance to give her better mobility. Stupid! I've spent too much time getting this far into the catacombs to be killed by some clever thief.  There was nowhere to run. The doors were tightly wedged by the boulders she'd so carefully moved into place!
"Nervous one, aren't you? You could at least say 'hello'".
She had his hiding place located now. There was a crack between the stones through which he watched her. He was shielded from her knife, but if she could reach the brass vial of contact poison in her pack ...  
He had not attacked even though he had an obvious tactical advantage. Perhaps she could reach ...
He spoke. "I would appreciate it if you stayed right where you are!" She froze, her mind in high gear. He could have a nocked arrow aimed her way. If so, the aim would be hampered by the very rocks that protected him; no other weapon would have a better chance. He was either stupid or bluffing.
<DIVE INTO A ROLL. GRAB MY PACK.  USE MY PACK AS A SHIELD . GET THE BOTTLE OF POISON> She felt the embossed bottle in her pack just as the stinging bite of a dart found her arm.  Lunae fought for consciousness as a wave of buzzing darkness rushed over her.
Judith Cere stared morosely at her screen.  Fat chance her treasure would be there when she checked back. Even money that Mr. Hide- and-Seek would kill her and she'd have to create another character. She bunched her right hand into a fist and hit the desktop. A stack of papers slithered off the desk and landed on the floor with a fluid plop.
"Judith?" her father's voice called from his office room down the hall. "Is anything wrong?"
Her finger stabbed the PAGE CLEAR key, and she called back, "No, Daddy. I just transposed a field. No problem." Her voice shook a little and her hand hurt.  She didn't need to lose her temper. CATACOMB was proving to be a harder way to make money than she had hoped.
Her gaze rested guiltily on the scattered pile of handwritten invoices that she needed to key into a file as her task for the day. Best get to it. Father wasn't one to let the kids slide on their chores. Even if she was seventeen, he could make her feel like her brother Georgie caught with forbidden cookie crumbs all over his face.  Maybe he wouldn't mind her CATACOMB adventures, but play before work was against the house rules.
She picked up the first paper and invoked the home database. Get the file built, then check on Lunae again.
Thief!  Well, at least he left her alive.
She cleared the screen and plopped down on her bed.  Her flute case, half buried among books and cosmetics on her dressing table, was a black reminder of her problems. It was not going as she had planned. The ruby stolen from Lunae wasn't worth much in real money, but she'd counted on it to cover part of her time charges for playing the game until she could find more treasure. The three hundred dollars was due in two weeks. To be twelve dollars in the hole was not only depressing, it was embarrassing. She shouldn't have told Diana about her plan.
With a whoop, Barry skidded into her room and was followed by Jay, his friend from the house down the hill. A pair of suction-cup darts crossed in the air, one of them bouncing off the mirror of her dressing table.
"Barry, get out of my room this instant! You're messing up everything." She picked up the expended plastic dart and tossed it out the doorway.
"Hey! That's my dart!"
"Then go get it, brat!"
From down the hall, her father's voice silenced them both, "You kids be quiet. It's work time. Barry, do you want some file maintenance? Judith, are your invoices done?"
They both knew silence was the safest course. Barry gave her a silent sneer as his brotherly token of disrespect and waved Jay out with him. If there had been a silent way of murdering her brother ....


Mike G. said...

"one ill the flesh".

I'm guessing that should be "one in the flesh"?

Henry Melton said...

Fixed. Thanks for the pointer.

Nelson said...

Thanks for publishing this on your blog! Your story made a big impression on me when it was first published, when I was 13. It cemented the idea of virtual worlds for me, a topic I've since pursued both as a professional software guy and a gamer. The financial part of the article seems particularly prescient these days as online games move closer and closer to allowing real money trade. Blizzard recently announced that Diablo 3 will allow players to sell the items they find. Maybe they read your story too!

A few years back I tracked down your story to reread it and wrote some comments on my blog at

Henry Melton said...

Thanks for the comment, and I believe I remember seeing your blog back when I was running Google Alerts to flag me when certain key words came up on the Internet.

Unknown said...

This story had a huge effect on me when I read it at 13 in Dragon. I spent years thinking about it, imagining what such a game would be like. I loved, loved, loved text adventures. I finally played a game like this, one of the original MUDs, and it wasn't as great as your story, but still fascinating in its own way.

Reading it now as a game designer, your world is much harsher than our online games now. Nethack (which your world resembles in its complexity and mystery) is wonderfully randomly fatal, but the vast majority of people prefer games like Mass Effect that are incredibly difficult to "lose".

Richard Bartle wrote a paper about various kinds of online players: Your thief is a Club, a killer.

Thanks for posting this!

Henry Melton said...

Thanks for the comments. My experience when I wrote this was so much more limited than most of the readers. In my ignorance, I imagined what I thought it should be like. It amazes me how far real game designers have gone in implementing what I couldn't see.

Anonymous said...

Barry? Jay? Flash fan? :)

Henry Melton said...

Yes, since they were ten cents an issue, but honestly, I can't remember exactly why I chose those names. It was just too long ago.

Crystal said...

I'm not usually a fan of short stories they have so little time to really develop the characters. It was enjoyable.

Henry Melton said...

When I first started writing, it was all shorts, and over the years most of my work has been novels, just get room for more development, but I still love writing the short pieces.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this story Henry! It made a big impression on my when I originally read it in Dragon Magazine when I was 12. I recently read the novel "Ready Player One" which reminded me of this story and I finally hit the right combination of google keywords to find it.

Unknown said...

I've been searching for this story for years, vaguely remembering it from when it was first published, but unable to remember where I'd read it, or even in what magazine it was published. I'd mistakenly thought it was in an old video-game magazine from the '80s and had been scouring archives, ancient websites and even the nether-regions of the internet for it. Asking for guidance on gaming forums lead to nothing but silence. Then, by accident, I stumbled across your name and a brief description of what I knew was what I'd been looking for.

Thank you so much for keeping this visionary tale, the first account of massive-multiplayer online gaming of which I am aware, available for readers.

Unknown said...

This story literally gave me my career (and my company). I wrote my own catacomb game on the Apple IIe (Basic, Pascal), then on the IBM PC (TurboPascal, C) and really was the thing that pushed me to become a software developer. I can't thank you enough for writing it.

Jeff Heikkinen said...

Was just looking for this because of a discussion on Reddit about the treatment of computer games in fiction. In that light this seems like a remarkably prescient little work, for all the little details that might be off.

I was going to say this was in the first Dragon magazine I ever bought (#91), but it was in fact in one of the three that were tied for second (which I think were 92, 97, and either 96 or 98). Regardless, this was one of the highlights of those initial four issues that got me hooked on Dragon and made by far the biggest impression on me of any fiction I read there. (Eventually I just started skipping most of it, partly because this story set a bar that very little else they printed had a hope of reaching. I was mostly there for the RPG content anyway, not the fiction.)

Unknown said...

Add me to the list of people sending kudos your way. I used to read Dragon cover to cover - although by the time of 'Catacomb' I was in college and probably should have spent more time studying...

I remember much of what I read at least in passing, but this is the one that's stuck out over the years as exemplary. I suddenly got an itch to track it down; took me a while, well worth it.

Even though my career is programmer/IT/management nowadays & I enjoy nerding out over anything science-related, it's work like this that reminds me of my first love of gaming and what got me through those difficult early years. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Like the others that have commented, this story made a huge impression on my teenage mind. I never forgot it and have searched for it for years without remembering where I first read it. Tonight I finally found it and read it again. It is as good as I remember. Thanks!

Paul said...

All these years later I still remember this story, and often thought about it as MMORPGs developed, and was again reminded after reading Ready Player One.

Khaosx said...

Henry - thank you for for the story. I just found it again after reading it when it first appeared in Dragon way back in the long long ago when I was a kid. It completely captured my imagination and played a large part in my love of gaming, RPG, and sci-fi!

Dan said...

Are you kidding me!?! I was able to finally find this again!

I read this in Dragon back in 1985 and have often thought about how uncanny the modern online gaming world was predicted by this masterful story.

Thank you for your vision in creating this tale so long ago and thank you for publishing it here online so this old nerd can relive his youth.

David Leonard said...

This was by far my favourite story published in Dragon while I was still subscribed to it! I inhaled it. Thanks for posting it here. It's been a stroll down memory lane.
I've remarked to more than a few people ever since "Ready Player One" was published that you were likely the inspiration for it!

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