Ch. 1 - Submerge
Virtual Reality. Noun. A realistic simulation of an environment, including three-dimensional graphics, by a computer system using interactive software and hardware.
In the ever advancing realm of electronic entertainment, Virtual Reality is usually regarded as something of a 'Holy Grail.' To allow a user to not only see whole new worlds, but fully experience them has been something of a pipe-dream in the world of computer development.
Early attempts at this technology became capable of fooling human eyes, finally surmounting what had long been called 'The Uncanny Valley' that had long plagued traditional entertainment media. A laudable first effort... However, depending on whom you ask, humans have anywhere between five and twenty-one different senses which they use to experience the world around them.
A Virtual Reality that only fooled one specific sense could not truly be called a 'Reality.'
A single rust-colored cat idly walked forward. It strode forward with a sense of calm grace, as though he'd walked this way hundreds of times before. However, any onlooker could never be so sure.
Why? Because the world in which this cat walked lacked any definition. There was nothingness and an infinitely white void. This was a world that existed, and did not exist. What came before had not yet come to be. What came after had not yet been.
But the paradox of his existence did not seem to bother this peculiar cat. After all... This was -his- world. For him, it was no paradox at all.
"Humans truly are... terribly strange, aren't they?"
Technology is said to move forward at a break-neck pace, and so was the case with 'Virtual Reality.' The first crude attempts to fool the sense of sight became more and more refined. Soon new work started on just how to fool the myriad of other senses that Humans used to understand and interact with the world around them.
For a -True- Virtual Reality is one in which a person has no way to know just how artificial the world around them is. Senses of sight and smell and taste... Senses of weight and balance and even time.
The work to 'perfect' a 'True' Virtual Reality came under the leadership of a powerful media corporation named Alterra Technologies. And it was through the bright minds that they cultivated that a whole new kind of technology was brought forth.
They called it 'The Submerge System.'
"Terribly strange, indeed!"
The rust colored cat continued forward at a steady pace and, as he did so, images of another world flashed around him.
The world of humans. Of creatures who both -built- vast cities and also destroyed them. Of creatures who both sought peace and waged great wars.
"And here..." The cat stopped and peered at a particular image. As his eyes came to rest on it, the image started moving, as if it was truly a window into another world. "They would even seek to wield ignorance in the pursuit of knowledge."
The 'window' in question beheld a strange spectacle. A man dressed in ornate leather armor, adorned with furs and bones of strange beasts, wielded a a long spear whilst fighting another figure. His opponent, strangely enough, was dressed in strange metallic armor that seemed to glow and in his hand was a strange gun-like weapon with a blade attached to the end of it.
"Terribly... Terribly strange, indeed."
The Submerge System... Alterra Technologies master-work... their golden egg... their veritable Ninth Symphony. A set of systems that was finally capable of completely fooling human senses. It allowed for the creation of 'True' Virtual Realities. Digital worlds in which human users could physically interact with their surroundings.
And the world around Alterra went crazy for this 'new' form of entertainment. Everything from simple tours of foreign lands, to video games that took place in far-off imaginary worlds came to the fore-front.
And the first, and most popular of these new diversions was a game. A massively multiplayer game, hosting several tens of thousands of players. Valhalla Online. Alterra's flagship game for their new Submerge system.
It utilized several concepts from the games of older generations that preceded it. Role-playing games, adventure games, and in particular, fighting games.
For that's what Valhalla Online truly prided itself on being. After all, it even subtitled itself as 'The World of Warriors.' The worlds first fighting game where the players themselves did the fighting, not an avatar that they controlled.
"And Wu The Saber lands an excellent 6 hit combo!" A man dressed in a fancy pin-striped suit excitedly yelled into a microphone. "He's -still- in the fight, folks!"
The figured dressed in glowing metallic armor smirked under his helmet as his lance-wielding foe landed on the ground with a thud. However, in the literal blink of an eye, the Lancer was back on his feet, with his lance at the ready.
"The Commando-Class can be really annoying to fight." A larger, brutish-looking man sat beside the first man, who appeared to be the announcer of this fight. "They've got great zoning capabilities. Though... I seriously gotta wonder about a gunner with 'Saber' in his name... Hah!"
Although he had just taken damage, the Lancer peered calmly through his skull-shaped helmet toward his foe. The Commando had put up a better fight than he'd expected. But he'd already become able to see his opponents attack patterns.
As the Commando lunged forward, ready to attack, The Lancer merely smirked. He could see the wind-up from a mile away...
The extreme popularity of the Submerge System would come to have a profound effect on the entertainment industry all around the world. In order to accommodate the surge, hotel-like 'Arcades' started dotting the cityscapes of the world.
A cross between traditional video game arcades and fitness centers, these large multi-story buildings came to be common hangouts for the millions of people who had taken to 'Submerged Gaming.'
And the effects of popularity didn't stop there. Within the span of five years, came the birth of a whole new professional sport. Since 'Submerged Gaming' required true physical movement, the top players of many games ended up with physiques similar to those of the top players of any traditional physical sport.
And snowballing on all this was the most popular 'submerged game,' Valhalla Online. With its competitive atmosphere and fights that evoked images of the Colosseum of old, Its top players practically became famous stars in their own right.
And at the 'top' of this grand international pyramid was Valhalla Online's greatest fighter, a man heralded as 'The God of War.'
The skull-masked Lancer dodged the Commando's first attack by a hairs breadth, slamming the butt of his lance into his enemy's gut. He twisted his lance and jumped backwards, slicing into his opponent. And he didn't stop there. One... two... three hits later, he brought his lance crashing into the Commando once more, knocking the gunner high up into the air.
Putting strength into his legs, the Lancer jumped up into the air after his prey. Once there, his onslaught continued... Four hits... Five hits... Six... Seven. And finally an eighth hit launched the Commando even higher.
Almost as though he was floating, the Lancer turned in the air, holding his large spear like a throwing javelin. However, he had not taken aim at his prey, whose momentum only now started dragging him back to the earth below. No, he was aiming where the Commando would fall in precisely... 1.2 seconds.
When he'd first started holding his lance like a javelin, the weapon had started glowing green... after a few short moments, the glow turned yellow. And just as the Commando was about to hit the ground, the lance started glowing red. At that -very- instant... The lancer threw his weapon with every ounce of his remaining strength.
The over-charged weapon struck the poor gunner -just- before he hit the ground and the resulting strike cleaved away all that remained of his health.
"U-Unbelievable... A nine-hit combo ending in a 'Dragon-Fire Destroyer.' Now -there's- something you -don't- see everyday!" The announcer turned to his burly compatriot for backup.
Soundlessly, and with no small amount of grace, the fur-clad Lancer landed back on solid ground. The spear he'd just thrown appeared in his hands in a flash of yellow light.
"The 'Dragon-Fire Destroyer' is one of the least-used Lancer-class abilities..." The burly man sounded more than a little surprised himself. "The charge-up on that thing is huge!"
"Well... there you have it folks!" The announcer stood up and started speaking excitedly again. "Once again, your undefeated 'God of War' proves exactly why he's got that title...."
"The winner of this match is..." The burly man beside the announcer also stood, pointing toward the Skull-Masked Lancer. "... without a doubt, -Kael- -Feyrbrandt-!!"
And the crowd that had gathered in the Colosseum-like arena went wild with celebration.
"Hehe... Very well then..."
The rust-colored cat looked somehow... pleased with itself. It turned away from the 'window' that it had been watching and started slowly padding forward again.
The world around him still lacked any sort of definition. An endless white void with no forward or backward. And yet, the rust-colored cat seemed as though he was definitely headed somewhere specific.
"Let us see just how well this 'God of War' does... when presented with a very different kind of battlefield."
Ever so slowly...
The rust-colored cat faded away... melting into the endless white void as if he never existed.
Kael stretched idly as he walked down the stone corridor. You could still hear the dull hum of the crowd outside. He idly swiped downward with his right hand and, as he did so, a holographic display popped up, showing him his 'player inventory.'
Being the completionist he was, of course, meant that his inventory always had scores of items and equipment sets ready to be subbed in and out as necessary. With a large yawn, he quickly selected a set of equipment he'd prepared previously.
The armor he wore began to glow with a soft yellow light and, as it receded, he was wearing what passed for 'casual' clothing in the online fantasy world that was Valhalla Online. An embroidered blue tunic and simple gray pants.
"Ahh..." He gave himself a wry smirk. One downside of full sensory-illusion was that he even felt the weight of his own armor when he wore it. "Well... that was a good workout."
"Hmm?" A voice drew his attention to a woman casually leaning against the wall at the very entrance to the corridor he was walking through. Framed in white robes that vaguely reminded Kael of a Geisha, was a woman with long black hair that had been tied off at the end with an ornate ribbon. "Ouka."
"Wu didn't even take a single round from you..." The woman named Ouka gave Kael a casual half-lidded stare. It was almost as though she was amused simply by looking at him. "There's no way a guy at -that- level would even make a good warm up for you."
"He had, like, one half decent combo, the entire match." She shrugged lightly, revealing her bared shoulders as she pushed off the wall. The clapping sound of her wooden sandals echoed out in the corridor. "You just look like a show-off if you try to be humble after a one-sided match like that."
"Well..." Kael simply chuckled. "If Valhalla's number three fighter says so...." He took a few steps forward... "Then I'll try to be a bit more of an ass after I win."
"On second thought..." Ouka merely rolled her eyes, the amusement clear on her face. "We don't need another Cedric on our hands..." As Kael came to stand next to her, she slid her arms around one of his, and the two proceeded forward.
"You should tell him that..." Kael chuckled as they neared the entrance... blinded by the afternoon light, it literally looked like a light at the end of a tunnel. "After you beat him and take the number two spot."
"That -is- the plan..."
Just as the two of them reached the doorway, a searing pain split Kael's head. "Ugh... Maybe I've been playing too long..." It was a rather common thing, in fact. Headaches due to extended playtime was a well documented phenomenon in the world of Submerged gaming.
But then the world around them flickered for a moment... and Kael blinked. "Ouka... did you... see that?" The so called 'God of War' rubbed his eyes. Glitches in the system were hardly an uncommon thing. Bugs were understandable when there were literally hundreds of billions of lines of code that went into the formation of a piece of software...
But graphical glitches were nearly unheard of within the Submersion System.
"Ouka?" The world flickered again and another wave of pain seared its way through Kael's skull... He grabbed his head and stumbled forward, through the doorway. Cradling his head for a moment, he found his bearings and looked up....
"Ouka?!" Only to find that he was -not- where he should be. "What the hell?!"
The corridor he and Ouka were walking through should have led out to the Warriors Plaza, a large plaza just outside the Colosseum crowned with a massive fountain. It was the literal heart of 'Arena City,' Valhalla's Capital.
Instead... he was standing in the middle of a field of flowers that had a large tree at its center. And while there were similar fields within the various areas of Valhalla Online, he didn't recognize this one.
He... who had been to virtually every area in the game... didn't recognize it. He bit his lip a moment. He'd experienced a few bugs in the game but... never anything even remotely like this.
He swiped his hand again, and in front of him popped up a holographic box like before. He went down the list, looking for the logout button. The usual 'quick-fix' for bugs was to log out and log back in.
However, as he hit the 'logout' button, he only received the usual sound effect that implied it didn't work. Once again, he hit the button. Once again, he received that distinct 'bzt' sound effect.
"Seriously... What the hell?" This was already way beyond any bug he'd ever heard of. "Computer. Admin Command. Force Program Termination." That vocal command was a hard-wired emergency shut-down command that was built into the very Submersion System itself.
"Computer! Admin Command! Force Program Termination!"
"I'm afraid... that won't work." A smooth voice, containing a small amount of amusement, echoed out behind him.
Kael turned rapidly, but didn't find anyone that could have been the source of the voice. The only other creature near him was a small rust-colored house-cat, sitting on a stone beneath the single tree.
"After all... There are no 'computers' in this world."
"Y-you....You're...." Those words... That sentence... had come straight from the cats own mouth. He was no stranger to talking animals, of course. Several games made use of them, Valhalla Online included... but... Somehow...a talking cat in -this- situation only served to make the already surreal situation seem even more off.
"I'm a cat, yes." The rust-colored cat gave what Kael could only call an amused smirk. "And yes, It's me speaking... to answer your unspoken question." He raised a paw and slowly started to lick it.
"You're... not an NPC, I take it." Kael raised a hand, running it through his white hair. There was no way a Non-Player Character, controlled by the computer itself, could speak so naturally with a human. They were usually only capable of one or two lines, unless they held some importance to a given storyline.
"No, I'm not." The cat stood and stretched casually. "I'm not one of the dolls from your so-called 'games.' And that's because, as I said, there are no 'computers' in this world."
"This... world...?" As if recognizing it for the first time, Kael realized... didn't like the sound of that phrase at all.
The cat smiled a smile that, had he been a larger animal, might have put a primal sort of fear in Kael. However, in the body of a house-cat, it merely looked amused.
"I welcome you... Kael Feyrbrandt... to Erwin. A world under my custody." Leaping off the stone, all the while keeping his amused smile, the cat began to slowly circle Kael's larger form.
Somehow, Kael suddenly knew what a mouse felt like... caught between the paws of a cat.
"You... can call me... Schrodinger."