Steel Soul is out for pre-order! Release date is the 16th. Here is the first chapter:
I couldn’t get over the smell of it. The world seemed slightly stale to me, like a gym locker.
I definitely was not in a gym locker. In fact, it looked like an old Dutch village, before cars took over the world. The little white houses with bare timbers were complete with tulips in every yard. Just beyond the town to the north lay a thick brooding forest right out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.
I marveled at the sounds of my shoes on the cobblestones, or the squish of the grass when I strayed from the path. Though tiny, with just a single road and a few scattered houses, the town itself felt charming. If I hadn’t put on the NerveGear I would have suspected I was back in the real world. Except for the smell.
Shouldn’t it smell like a spring day? Maybe the headset couldn’t produce the correct olfactory signal, I’d have to get it checked.
On my third pass around the area, another figure materialized, their back to me. The faint glow of immunity shimmered over them as it did with anyone just entering the game in a safe zone.
I squinted to read the blue letters hovering just over their head.
Level 1 rogue 18/18 HP
She was not exactly what I expected, but far be it from me to choose someone else’s avatar for them.
“Cas!” I called.
Startled, she turned around, and jumped back another foot, her hands raised to defend herself. Definitely a rogue with that move.
“Who goes there?” she asked, daggers ready.
“Really? Like you can’t see me,” I said. The armor was lighter than I thought it would be, and the spiked shoulders only impinged on my vision a little. “Cas, it’s me.”
“Freddy?” Cas asked.
“No real names,” I admonished her. “I’m Jupiter here, remember? And you’re Cas. Who else would it be? Come on, we spawned in together.”
“How would I know?” She stood, looking around us with wide eyes. “This place is huge! Someone else could have spawned in at the same time.”
“With the same name?”
She leaned to the side putting a hand on her hip, the dusky skin of her avatar shimmering in the sunlight. Her face actually blushed. Bloody hell, but the graphics were good.
“I didn’t think to look at your avatar name,” she said, sheepishly.
“Ah, well just focus just above my head a bit. You’ll see it there.”
Her eyes moved to the spot above my head and unfocused. She would see my own stats and health, also level one, but as a fighter I had almost twice as many hit points.
Level 1 fighter 29/29 HP
“Now stop fooling around,” I said, giving her another smile. “We’re in spawn, we can’t hurt each other here, anyway.”
She relaxed, and I took a moment to look over her avatar. Willowy, with long black hair streaked with blue dye. Her skin glowed in the sunlight, and she wore a triangular mask that covered her mouth and nose, but left her cheeks visible. There were stylized shark’s teeth emblazoned across the mask.
“I thought for sure you’d be an elf or something,” I said.
“Humans get more perks available at higher levels.”
“Already min-maxing? I should have known.”
“The NerveGear might be new but leveling in an RPG is definitely not. I can’t say I’m surprised you took dwarf, though.” She shook her head at me. “You and your obsession with beards.”
All too true. We grew up on role playing games together, on and offline. It was the NerveGear’s ability to link users together in a realistic virtual world that really set it apart from all other virtual reality gaming devices. Previous systems had lower resolution, and the sounds weren’t as crisp. You could not produce the same immersion on the old VR that I now felt inside Yevelia. The NerveGear had a direct connection to the users brain waves, using REM sleep to produce the realistic shared dream. As far as our minds were concerned, we were there. No other VR system could compete.
“It is pretty glorious, isn’t it?” I stroked the beard in question. All the information was being transmitted into my brain back in my bed, but I could feel the rough, bristly hairs and the thick braids on either side of my mouth. I couldn’t grow a beard in real life, just tiny scraggly stubble that looked more like a rabid bear rug than a beard, thanks to my mixed genetics. But here I could be anything, so of course I went with the beard.
“What are those?” She pointed at my shoulder pieces.
I turned from side to side, showing off the evil-looking spikes.
“Like them? They’re Dadron’s Blessed Shoulders, a pre-order perk. It doesn’t look like much, and it has crap for armor, but it levels with you so you never have to get another pair of shoulders again. The added armor might be the thing that keeps me from dying in a battle.”
“You pre-ordered?” Her avatar’s eyes grew wide, her chin dropping a bit in a good illusion of shock.
“The first mmorpg on an NerveGear Virtual Reality system? You bet your sweet blades I did.”
“But it’s been out for almost six months. Why didn’t you play until now?”
I hesitated, like I’d been caught red-handed. “I…um…I didn’t have a NerveGear.”
“You pre-ordered the game but not the headset?”
“Come on, Cas. I’m a student on basic income. I don’t have a job like you do. You know I had to save for it.”
She had the decency to look a little ashamed of herself. She knew my living situation. Automation hadn’t taken her livelihood away from her yet, but she had been to the slums where those living off subsidies, like me, lived. She knew what basic income got you in the city. A sardine had more room than I did.
My mother told me about life before everything was run by automation. You could get a job at a fast food restaurant or mall shop, something menial that even the unskilled could do. Then it became more cost effective to buy machines to do all of the work rather than pay for employees. Starvation lead to high crime and riots. The government came to the rescue with basic income alternatives.
It worked as well as any government program—oversight, corruption, implementation problems. Some survived, some barely got by.
It was the entertainment industry that kept everyone from rioting again. There was enough food, but cheap entertainment through books, movies, and games, kept the population from becoming hostile. Who cared where you lived if you could pop into a virtual world and have a mansion?
Cas turned her back on me to save us both from the conversation.
“Alright, alright,” she said, “I guess I can’t fault you for being excited for Yevelia, it does look pretty awesome. Come on, let’s go find a quest.”
Yevelia, like any other massive multiplayer online role playing game (mmorpg) of the age, made it simple to find the first quest. There was a non-player character (NPC) right next to the spawn point clad in the shiniest armor I had ever seen.
Every lacy scrawl on his breast piece and embroidered edges of his sleeves were rendered in exquisite detail. And yet all he did was walk back and forth on the cobblestone, his stride stiff and precise. It almost seemed excessive.
“Should we group before we go in?” Cas asked.
“Sure,” I said, “if you know the keys. I’m not quite sure how this all works, I just jumped in.”
“You pre-ordered but you didn’t learn the keys?”
“I may have been caught up in the lore of Yevelia.” I lied. The truth was I couldn’t look at the game for the longest time. Every time I did, I felt like an idiot for spending so much money on something I couldn’t even play. The first step into the world had been like a vindication for me. I could finally experience the thing I had been dreaming of for months. But I wasn’t about to admit that to anyone else.
“You call up the menu with a cupped hand moving from the left, like you’re pulling something,” she said, miming the action.
I tried it and a floating menu appeared. My name, Jupiter08, was written in neat blue script at the top.
Level 1 fighter, 29/29 HP
Strength – 6
Constitution – 3
Agility – 5
Endurance – 4
Intelligence – 3
Luck – 4
Resistance – none
Beneath my stats were several menus. Inventory, skills, friends, options, and a few others.
There was a soft ring in my ear, and an orange marker appeared next to friends. I tapped it and saw a request from Cas at the top.
“You’ve got this all figured out already?” I tapped the accept button.
“Only the basic controls. I read a few things, watched a let’s-play last night, and got the gist of it all. A lot of the basic controls are similar to any other NerveGear game, but this will be my first RPG in it.”
“You did all that, but couldn’t look up how to read avatar names?”
“Oh stop, I knew how, I just didn’t think of it.”
“Well, you’re elected group leader, then, oh wise one. I’ll follow your lead.”
She rolled her eyes at me again. Oddly it felt just like we were back on the college campus. She held the same simmering disdain for my witty humor.
“Who goes there?” asked the NPC as we walked up to him. Cas gave me a look as if to say “see, he gets it” before answering.
“Cassidaya Briefoot,” she said with a half bow.
“Jupiter Rocklore,” I said, bowing.
“And why are you here?” he asked.
I blinked at this. It was an NPC, a computer algorithm searching for keywords. We just had to say the right keywords to get it to give us the quest. Usually they had keywords buried in dialog for you to repeat, but this walking tank wasn’t giving us much to go on. What would this NPC react to? Greed? Altruism? An NPC of little words made finding the quest a little tougher.
“We’re adventurers seeking fame and fortune,” I said with a smile.
“Adventurers? Pah!” He spat on the ground.
Well, greed was out.
“You lot are the reason the town is in ruins!” The captain glared at us, and I could feel the anger rolling off of him.
I squinted above his head, looking for more information and saw his name light up in soft blue text.
Captain Thanas Lightbringer
Level 30 Guardian 850/850 hp
Captain of the once glorious elven village, Trelisa, now one of the sole survivors tasked with restoration.
Rebuilding a ravaged city didn’t seem like much of a quest. It probably involved fetching supplies, but at level one we couldn’t be that picky.
“Adventurers like us?” Cas asked. “What happened?”
Captain Thanas looked back over his shoulder at a tall building at the end of the plaza. It was the only three-story building in the village, and there was foul green smoke coming out of all the windows.
“I’m sure you can smell it.” He spat in our direction again before walking away from the plaza.
“Well, I think we know where to go,” I said.
Immediately a card popped up in front of me.
Quest Granted: Noxious Smells. Find out what caused the green fog in the Trelisa mayor’s office.
“The mayor’s office, huh?” Cas said. “I was wondering why it smelled like gym socks around here.”
“I thought I had a broken olfactory device.”
“Doesn’t look like it. Shall we go?”
I tightened my grip on my hand ax, the only weapon I had, and nodded.