The Garentin colony ship floats in an endless sea of black space, surrounded by the flickering specks of color from distant stars. What started as an ambitious mission spanning generations now drifts empty of life.
But not without soul.
It has been three weeks since the colony was digitized to survive, if only in data. They now live in a new world known as Eternal Fantasy Online.
Entin plopped down on one of the cushions the market vendors had near their booths for Runners. He let out a breath and wiped a trickle of sweat from his forehead.
The market buzzed with people bartering and shopping and doing their best to accept this new reality. It was sort of an unspoken agreement to not mention their past lives in the colony ship or question whether or not this was real, this fantasy world that was meant to be a game and became so much more.
Music twirled itself around the commotion and sunlit apparel. No one played the music; it simply existed in the fabric of reality. Where there was a market, there was music, a happy, lively tune.
Entin hadn’t seen Dantic all day, which was odd considering how much the kid begged and begged to be shown the ropes from a true Runner. Even after yesterday’s grueling set of Runs, the kid walked with an air of fulfillment, not a kid anymore, a working member of society.
And now he was gone.
Maybe Entin wasn’t the best judge of what people were thinking or feeling. He had never been so great at it, but it still felt a little strange.
It is what it is.
And with that, he reached out his index and middle finger until they pressed against an invisible sheet of cold glass. He slid his fingers upward, trailing a blue shimmer of pixels, then shapes coalesced from the air and materialized into his game screen, outlined in silver.
A simplified—almost cartoonish—Entin-mini avatar stood at the side of a map that filled the entire screen. He waved and grinned and crossed his arms, waiting expectantly to offer any assistance.
He was quite the little charmer and very unlike how real-Entin felt. Sure, they got the details right, down to his gray eyes with flakes of gold beneath a mess of blond hair. But the real him didn’t exude confidence with such flair.
A dotted line on the map depicted his last Run to the southern district, the slums. What a stupid thing to call their little paradise where all the buildings were perfect and clean, surrounded by manicured gardens. Nevertheless, the people were poor, the housing cheap, and—perhaps most notable to a Runner—few restaurants.
Entin’s Stamina was down to 34 points. His Current Max sat at 78 out of the full 110. He’d need to sleep to recover all of his Stamina for the day, but relaxing on large embroidered pillows had a similar, if not slower, effect.
He took a deep breath, dismissed his screen, and leaned against a cold stone wall. The day was inching to a close, which meant the crowds would be forming at restaurants, restaurants in need of food, food in need of delivery.
Not more than twenty feet away, guarded by black wrought iron fences, was a burbling canal that cut through the market, sprouting up stone bridges throughout. It was a touch of fantasy in a fantasy city, adding to the ambiance.
Beyond the rush of water, beyond the metal fences and green shrubs, and mixed with the sounds of bartering and hawkers calling out their wares, was the sweet laughter of a party of girls.
Eizel stood at the center, her assembly of excited friends paying her apt attention. Brunette hair curled down the center of her back, held at the top by a red bow.
She summoned her game screen, and the air distorted before filling with fragments of crimson light. A moment later, and in a flurry of pixels, her outfit changed to reveal the new fashion of the week: a skirt that ran down to mid-thigh, alternating different shades of gray, the ends tipped red.
When she spun, the girls awed and oohed and giggled. All and all, it was just a fancy pleated skirt. But on Eizel? It looked exuberant, captivating. When she turned, the ends lifted up her thighs just a bit higher—
Entin diverted his eyes, not wanting to be that type of guy. He had a sort of honor he held to, one passed down from his father—
Shattered glass. Floating corpses in space. . . .
Something crashed next to him. He jerked back to the present, to the now, to this reality and not the one that haunted his dreams of lost friends and family. He knocked his head against the wall, and a -17 in red text floated skyward before fading, revealing damage taken.
“What’cha lookin’ at?” Bailey asked.
Entin scowled at her. She had a mirthful smile and pink nose, cupped by a bob of chin-length blonde hair. “You always do that!”
“Hmm? Catch ya creepin’ on Eizel?”
“I’m not creeping!”
Bailey pressed her lips to the side, then laughed. “Yer hopeless. Check out what I found on my last Run.”
She angled her head to reveal a flower tucked above her left ear. The petals were corkscrew-shaped, spiraling out from a white center, each carrying a rainbow of pigments.
“A Chenenber! I showed ya this one last week.”
“Well, that was a whole week ago.”
“Remember it this time: Chen-en-ber. They only grow in Mrs. Masel’s flower garden, eh . . . probably in the Wilds, too. How do I look?”
Eizel leaned back against the wrought iron fence, talking and pointing as she did. The group of girls laughed at the same time, then tapped their own game screens, changing into identical skirts. Some of the girls spun on the cobblestones, faces lit up with smiles.
“Ugh. You look fine, alright?”
Bailey let out a huff and leaned back next to him, the warmth of her arm against his. She summoned her game screen, tapped a few times, and two vials of water materialized.
Entin took one and drank. It had an immediate effect, a sort of energy that spiderwebbed its way out from his core, twisting down his arms and legs.
His Stamina increased by 10 points, and he received the Hydrated buff, which did two things: it increased Stamina regeneration by 50% and prevented him from triggering the effect again for 5 minutes.
He took Bailey’s empty vial, accepting that it was his turn to run to the fountain, and found a slot in his inventory. The vials faded from reality, and he swiped his screen away.
“Boy . . . Boy!” Hendrick yelled from his vendor booth. He was a big man with a big voice, tall, bald, and skin the color of dark steel like he was formed from a super-soldier mold and given an attitude to match. “Got a timed Run for you.”
“Wait, already?” Entin said. “I just got back from my last Run.”
“Part of the job. Do you want the money or not?”
Entin sighed and stood. It was the life of a Runner to always be at the edge of exhausting his Stamina.
Bailey was staring at the party of girls, chewing the inside of her cheek. She always seemed to go out of her way to avoid them, then glowered whenever they were in sight.
Hendrick placed a contract paper on his table and summoned four chyps: small triangle copper pieces with a reverse triangle punched out of their centers. “Take this delivery to Mrs. Lenmon’s place.”
“That’s clear on the Upper West Bench,” Entin said, eyeing the four chyps. “I’ll do it for ten.”
Hendrick pressed his meaty fists against the table, leaning forward. “This ain’t a negotiation, boy!”
“How much time?”
Entin crossed his arms and waited.
“Time is ticking!” Hendrick said, his voice belying a tinge of hysteria.
The man pushed Entin aside and yelled down to Bailey. “Girl! New job.”
“No Stamina,” Bailey said without looking up.
“Fine! Eight chyps and no more, you cogging dulick. But if you don’t make it, the late fee comes out of your pocket!” Hendrick summoned the extra chyps, and they melted into the contract.
“Yeah, yeah.” Entin placed his thumb on the paper and pressed the Accept button when the confirmation window appeared. “Where’s the package then?”
Hendrick tapped his game screen. An enclosed wooden box materialized in the air before slamming onto the tabletop. It had a symbol on each side indicating the type of items it contained: potatoes. Of course they were potatoes! They were practically the heaviest ingredient to transport.
With a sigh, Entin summoned his Runner’s pack and placed it on the table. It had two straps on one side and a solid L shape on the back to hold boxes.
As he moved to grab the box, Hendrick tapped his screen again. Another box of potatoes slammed against the table next to the first.
“Pay attention to the contract next time. Got eleven minutes, boy.”
Entin cussed, then strapped both of the boxes to his pack before pulling the armbands over his shoulders. The weight shifted, and he took two steps back to balance it.
This is going to be one hell of a Run. . . .
“And don’t be like that idiot boy,” Hendrick said. “Kid transferred the package to his inventory and screwed up the ownership record. The whole purchase order got canceled! More hassle than he was worth, which is why he’s not around anymore.”
The man stared, hard-faced, but even so, the side of his lip lifted just a hair. Smug bastard. Dantic was just a kid starting out. He did Runs practically for free.
Entin turned, committed to not giving the taskmaster any satisfaction. He opened his map, letting the screen hover out in front.
The contract gleamed at the top left corner next to a clock that was now ticking down from ten minutes. A solid white line curved through the city from the market plaza to the Upper West Bench.
His Stamina ticked up to 48.
Entin took a deep breath, triggered Sprint, and 10 Stamina drained away. He ran, fastest darn Runner in the market. He wouldn’t let the time on his contract expire.
Runners made so little as it were that missing a timed delivery was the difference between eating and not, and since Runners needed their Stamina to be effective, food was their most prized possession.
He swerved around the comings and goings of various people and took the stairs two steps at a time. The boxes crushed against his back, threatening to stomp him into the cobblestones. He grunted, slid his hands under the straps, and pushed on.
“Coming through!” he yelled at a crowd near the Blue Bird restaurant. The people quickly moved, turning to blurs to either side.
His map indicated a right turn here at the alleyway, though that was slower, easier but slower. Besides, he needed to hit the fountain if he was going to have enough Stamina.
The white line on the map blinked red as he ran past the alleyway. [Recalculating. . . . Recalculating.] It snapped to a new route, twisting through busy streets.
At four minutes left on the contract, he hit the fountain, drank, and refilled his vials. The buff immediately increased his Stamina to 28, flooding his chest with renewed energy.
The fountain sat at the midpoint of the central plaza. Four wide streets ran in the major directions. He hitched his pack and took the west street that curved upward at a gradual slope.
Two men crossed the street ahead, following a third and much shorter man, likely returning from some exciting adventure out where monsters roamed.
“Coming through!” Entin shouted. He really needed to get a darn bell or something, or . . . maybe petition the government for Runner lanes, not that the government actually did anything.
The man in the back yelled, and the man at the center—a real juggernaut of a guy, at least a head taller than any normal person, with warm sepia-colored skin and a total lack of hair—spun. He carried a glistening, ornate polearm, and it spun as well.
Entin ducked as the weapon whooshed overhead. Something tugged at his back, making him lighter.
“Jantonon, you idiot!” a man yelled.
Entin turned. His second box of potatoes had been flung nearly ten feet off the ground.
The other men were yelling something and pointing. A fall from that height would undoubtedly destroy the box. Hell, a fall from only a few feet onto a corner could blast the contents into pixels.
Entin pressed his index finger against his thumb, triggering Dash and paying 10 Stamina. Everything blurred for a split second, leaving him ten feet forward. As soon as the ability finished, he swung his pack around to the front and triggered the second variant of Roll, a skill that cost 5 Stamina.
His body moved on its own, diving to the cobblestone street, landing a shoulder at the perfect angle to roll so that he ended up facing the opposite direction at the end of the movement.
The box of potatoes fell—hard—slamming its full weight down onto the other box, dealing 19 durability damage in white.
The impact nearly flattened him, digging the edges of his backpack into his thighs. He grunted, stood, and checked to find his Stamina had drained to . . . 9? Dagnabbit!
He slid the straps over his shoulders and managed to look back at the adventurers, meaning to give them a glare. The short stalky fellow, the one leading the party, stared with an open mouth.
Ugh, there wasn’t any time to chew them out. Time— Cogs! The contract timer hit one minute and eighteen seconds.
Entin swerved off the street and took a shadowed alleyway. Little balconies jutted from the sides of tan stone buildings. Potted plants hung from balcony roofs, spilling over vines, leaves, flowers, and vegetables of unusual colors. Apparently, these plants didn’t need sunlight. Then again, did any in this game world?
People walked between buildings here, carrying all manner of items from food to decorations to an exotic bird in an exotic golden cage. The alleyway was a path between a place for servants and a place for the wealthy.
Entin’s Stamina hit 0.
A new icon materialized above his map: Exhaustion. His body grew heavy. His lungs burned with a sudden need for air. And yet, the route line on the map swerved around two more buildings before ending at Mrs. Lenmon’s restaurant.
He had hit Exhaustion a hundred times before. It was an impossible thing to get used to. The game screamed at him to stop moving, screamed through every muscle: Take a break; Get some water; Stop running!
But . . . no! He needed to make the delivery. To fail would rob a chunk of his earnings. Who wanted to work all day long—grinding down their Stamina—for practically nothing?
His tongue and mouth grew sticky, a dryness that spread down his throat and lungs. He panted, feeling each breath insufficient.
It’s just code, programs he could ignore, could push through. Exhaustion couldn’t actually hurt him. It just did its best to make his life miserable.
He ran across a small road and through another alleyway. At the end of it, he turned, and there it was, the back door of Mrs. Lenmon’s restaurant, marked in a dashed outline of yellow. The dashes rotated around the door, flashing, growing smaller.
Entin pushed every muscle in his body to move, to sprint for that fading goal. The lines flashed, now mere feet away. With two more steps, he slammed his hand on the wooden door just as the lines blinked red.
The door swung open, revealing a rather plump woman. Her face was a mask of control as she glared down her nose. “You’re late. So my payment is twenty percent less.”
“By . . . one . . . second!” Entin rasped the words.
“Well, I didn’t make the rules, did I? You can drop the package there. Ames! The potatoes are here. Ames! Where has that boy gotten to?”
Entin twisted the boxes around himself, then lowered them to the street with shaking arms. The last one slipped through his fingers and crashed to the ground, taking fall damage.
“Hey!” Mrs. Lenmon yelled. “That’s expensive. Food prices are getting ridiculous, and you’re just going to throw it on the ground? Do you want a negative review? I should—”
A small voice called from behind the irate woman. She moved to the side to make room for an Analian boy, his skin of shadow, long black hair tied into braids, and two black triangles on his forehead. The boy was a few years younger than Entin, timid and small.
Mrs. Lenmon glared, then thrust a finger out toward the boxes. “Get these to Pinlo so he can make the main dish. Hurry now! We’ve got customers waiting.”
Entin took a step back and deposited his Runners’ pack into his inventory. He wiped his forehead and filled his lungs, taking deep breaths.
A twenty percent fee?
How much were the boxes worth?
A chime resonated within his head, and the contract symbol materialized before him. A green checkmark satisfied the terms, but a red line crossed through the payment of 8 chyps, showing a . . . negative 34 chyps?
The world spun. . . .
Entin staggered backward just to keep his feet under him. He gasped for air, only for it to burn in his lungs. Everything he had earned that day was pulled from his account.
He turned and meandered away, losing himself in the street’s foot traffic, allowing his Stamina to recover.
Random people moved about with their own errands in mind. Kids kicked some sort of ball made of hay. With each kick, the ball took damage, then suddenly burst on the last kid, prompting a fitful of laughter.
This world had turned into a juxtaposed war of ideas. One side—those who had accepted this new reality, embraced it, even—wore armor and weapons, adapting to life as it was. The other side wore slim suits, the proper clothing of a society now gone. Two worlds were clashing, vying for control.
“Hey!” someone yelled from afar.
Entin continued down the street. He kicked a loose pebble, then brought up his menu: 0 chyps. It would have been less if the System recognized negative currencies. It took everything it could from him and his bank account, leaving him with nothing.
Would Hendrick even give him another job? Ugh, of course he would. The man got exactly what he wanted, after all, profited off an absurdly timed Run and had it delivered for free.
Entin let out a resigned breath. Eizel was so impossibly out of his league. He couldn’t even succeed at being a Runner, and that was something he excelled at.
How did a loser attract the attention of a girl like her, a girl that was at the center of everyone’s affection?
Maybe it was beyond the bounds of reality. . . . Or maybe he just needed to stop this whiney downward spiral of thoughts and actually do something. Be the change you want to be.
The one certainty above all was that he wouldn’t slink back to Hendrick for more work. There had to be other vendors that needed a good Runner, a vendor that didn’t abuse their help.
He crossed to the middle of a stone bridge leading back to the central plaza and stopped. People lined both sides of the bridge, holding fishing poles, hoping to get lucky without hiking to the lake in the Wilds.
A decent fishing pole and bait probably cost more than a few scyl, the silver currency in this world. A hundred chyps made a scyl, a hundred scyl, made a gyl, and all of it was so darn hard to get.
He planted his elbows on the stone wall next to someone and looked out over the canal’s water. It rippled around a dozen fishing bobbers and reflected the pink and red sky of a day coming to a close.
Something gripped his shoulder.
Entin jumped. He spun to face a short, burly man with pale skin and black hair . . . the adventurer that had cost him his Run! The man held a finger up, then bent over, gasping for breath with hands on his knees.
The other adventurers that had been following this man were a ways behind. The juggernaut—still holding his polearm—jogged next to a lean red-headed man with long hair, pulled back into a ponytail of small braids.
“I . . . Oh, how I detest running,” the man said between huffs.
Entin ground his teeth. “Your group cost me my Run!”
“Well,” the man said, standing straight with a smile, “you’re probably eager for a better job then, right?”