Chapter 1: The Shop

Slaves, we are all slaves. I am 2244, a name given to me by The System. In fact everything about me was chosen by The System. The System is the reason I’m human, it’s the reason I’m a woman, it’s the reason I have olive skin, it’s the reason I’m slightly plump, it’s the reason I have brown hair and light brown eyes. The only thing The System didn’t choose for me is my mind; this is and will always be mine. That said, I cannot choose my fate, the ever-watchful eyes of The System make me follow its will. If I try to do anything that The System deems unacceptable I am punished, sometimes in extreme ways. So today I find myself standing behind the counter of the item shop that The System has chosen for me, just like I do every day. This has been my fate for the last 15 years, I am never allowed to do anything that doesn’t fit within the confines of operating and maintaining said shop. This is my hell.

The cuckoo clock that sits on the far wall makes a loud ticking sound with every swing of the pendulum. I glare at the clock, that sound has become a form of torment, the damn thing reminding me of every second The System and this world has stolen from me. I want to break the damn thing, but the last time I tried it felt like hot needles were being pushed into the back of my eyes. So instead I just continue to glare at the thing. Eventually, my eyes move from the clock to the window next to it. It’s starting to get dark, I watch as an N walks down the street lighting the lamps on the cobblestone streets. The hustle and bustle of the Ns and players that were there during the day beginning to thin and eventually empty. This street is the main road that runs down the center of Sunhook City of the Allied Nations. I watch as the other Ns close up their shops and return to their homes, but my shop has remained open for the last 15 years and I, the keeper, have stayed here the entire time. Never sleeping, never doing anything that doesn’t have to do with the shop. I hate these Ns who are allowed some semblance of normalcy. They are still slaves, but slaves with a small chance of happiness. These are Class 3 Non-Player Characters better known as N3s, they are meant to blend into the background, just be a part of the crowd, those who don’t often interact with the players and have the most autonomy from The System. I’m a class N2, one with frequent interactions with the players so The System watches me more closely and I have more rules placed on me so the players get the best gaming experience possible.

The fruit vendor in the stall opposite to me finishes breaking down his cart and putting the leftovers in a wagon pulled by a large bird. He looks up from his business and seems to notice me watching. He gives me a wave and a half-smile, and I return the gesture, well, the wave anyway. I don’t smile much anymore unless dealing with a player. Our eyes stay locked for a minute before his attention moves slightly down the street. His look lingers on whatever is down the street for a moment before he looks back to me and touches his thumb to his pinky and gives a slight nod. The meaning of the gesture is immediately understood; this is what us Ns do for each other whenever we wish to warn the other about approaching players. It’s a way for us to get mentally prepared for the possible interaction. I gave a quick nod, thanking him for the warning, and just like that he turns to walk away, slapping the big, green bird’s side, getting it to move down the street.

Seconds later my shop door opens, there is a jingle of the bell as it swings. Two male humans and a female Lamorea enter, chatting loudly. The first human is huge, taller than two meters, he is wide across the chest and shoulders and is covered in huge muscles. The other human is dressed in heavy armor that was well constructed and probably magical. The Lamorea is short and skinny with oversized breasts, her orange fur was covered in black stripes, her cat-like ears adorned with numerous earrings.

I forced a smile and spoke to the three, “Welcome to my shop. What can I do for you today?”

“We’re looking to get some greater healing potions,” the armored human said, only half looking at me and giving a dismissive wave of the hand.

“Yes, of course, how many would you like?” I replied, going through the motions. I have had this conversation a million times before during the 15 years trapped in here.

“However many this will get us.” He held out a bag of coin and I eyed it. The System displayed a number for me to see, ‘23,456 Gold / 450 GH potions = 52 items.’ I took the coin and gave a nod, “Right away, my good sir.” I placed the coin in my money box, most of the coin disappearing into nothingness, the few coins that were left was the change for the player. I then took the remainder and handed it back to the man. “Here you-” I started to say, but the man just snatched up the money and ignored my words and started chatting with his comrades again. I was about to give him a nasty look but The System reminded me to stay nice by making my foot tingle, to let me know if I did something out of line my foot would be the thing to feel pain. I forced a smile and went to the shelves to get the potions they had bought.

As I started picking up the items and placing them in a box I overheard some of the conversation the three were having, “So I hear Burning World is going to change a lot of this continent’s map,” the armored one said, more loudly than was necessary.

“Humph, about time. This area has been here since day one and it’s boring!” the Lamorea responded, making a childish face as she did so. “I mean, if this wasn’t a good place to farm for Allorn Slime I wouldn’t even come here anymore.”

“I watched the dev release video today and they said Callenbary, Rivercrest and this town are going to fall under the control of the Red Prince! Some of the concept art was amazing!” the muscle man said in a voice that was too high pitched for the huge man. I stopped what I was doing as I heard their conversation. My eyes darted to the three and my heart started pounding hard. The Red Prince’s army was going to be coming here?! “Huh,” the Lamorea chimed in, “I’ll need to watch it when I log off. I don’t often watch those dev videos but if it’s about Burning World I’ll give it a look.” 

“Hey, what’s taking you so long?!” shouted the man in armor.

“Sorry!” I grabbed the last of the vials of red liquid, placed them in the box, and handed them to the three. Without another word, the armored man snatched the box. As he took it, it disappeared, automatically adding to his inventory. The three turned on their heels and walked out, the bell making a jingling sound as they exited. I felt a stab in the palm of my hand like a knife was thrusting into it. I pulled the hurt hand close to my breast instinctually as a message flashed across my vision reminding me to thank people for shopping at the shop, The System once again thrusting its will on me. As quickly as the pain had happened it stopped, I held my hand close to me for a few minutes, contemplating what I just overheard.

The Red Prince is coming here! What did this mean? What was going to happen to me? I took a deep breath and looked back to the ticking cuckoo clock. I hoped beyond hope that the coming of the Red Prince would do one thing for me, give me freedom. I would also accept death. The street was now dark outside and there was no one to be seen. I walked back to the window and looked at the sky. At the very least something would finally change in my life.

The days continued to move by, the clock loudly announcing the passing of each moment. It was the same as always, I watched people go by on the street outside my shop as I cleaned the windows. Window cleaning was one of the 57 idle tasks I was allowed to do if there were no player interactions at the time. This kind of thing was ordered by The System so the world of Another Online, or AO as most people called it, would be more immersive for players that spent their time here. I liked this task more than any of the other 56 because it let me watch the world outside of my prison. I could watch the N3s do their thing; talk to each other, laugh, shop and just be normal. It was the closest thing I had to entertainment here in AO. But today I wasn’t focusing on anything in particular, my mind was reeling from the information I had learned from the players a few days before. The Red Prince was a demon lord who was the rare class N zero. N0s had total autonomy within AO, they could do whatever they wanted in the world as long as it fits within the story parameters. That meant they were important and could shape the world of AO within reason. Most of the time these Ns were created by copying the consciousness from actors or something, people who would be good at improvising with players and other Ns to make up the bulk of AO’s story. I was not copied from one of those kinds of people, in fact, I was a random teenage girl who was asked if I wanted some money to participate in a noninvasive brain scan for a videogame test. I accepted because I wanted some spending money before I went to university. If I had known what that brain scan actually was, and that in fact, I was going to get copied, not to mention what my copy would go through, I would have spit in that Gearsoft employee’s face.

I had been mulling over the idea of what it meant if the Red Prince and his minions came here- that would mean a complete overhaul of this area and those who lived here. There wouldn’t be any shops for the player to go into anymore seeing as it would be a combat zone, thus making me no longer needed in my current role as a shopkeeper. Would I be dropped to an N3, or moved to another shop, or removed from AO altogether? My mind flooded with possibilities. I got lost in my thoughts, my imagination going wild with ideas and what-ifs. I suddenly felt a small pain in my hand like a needle poking into my muscle. A message from The System also popped up in my vision, reminding me that I needed to change to one of my other 56 idle actions. Apparently, I had spent too much time on the window. I quickly moved away from the window and grabbed the broom and started to push it around the shop. The act of sweeping made me remember my first days here in AO, seeing as it was the first idle action I was taught to do.

Those Alpha testing days were the worst I had ever experienced. The System was very harsh about punishments back then, grooming all Ns to follow orders. Every time I tried to break character or talk out of line I was harshly punished. The System would administer simulated pain in all varieties. It did this so the Ns wouldn’t get used to one type of pain and make us numb to that particular kind of punishment. It would do everything from the feeling of drowning, to burning alive, to disembowelment. I quickly fell into line like the other Ns who had been brought here. Those who couldn’t comply and were defiant to The System were changed from humans to the game’s monsters, unable to speak or break the rules. They would be killed by the players over and over again in a never-ending torment that the players reveled in. I felt pity for those Ns-now-turned-monster, but I was also happy that I wasn’t one of them. This prison I was stuck in was a living hell, but it was nothing compared to the monsters.

Suddenly, a message from The System appeared in my vision, once again pulling me out of my head. ‘Prepare for additional support from N3s for expected user increase of the item shop by players.’ I gawked at the message, “support for an increase of players?” I mumbled to myself before I felt a sharp pain in my left eye. The System was giving me another reminder not to break character. I shook my head and walked to the counter, prepping for the warning The System had given me. The only time help was needed in the shop was when there was an event going on in-game. The System would temporarily make an N3 into an N2 so the players wouldn’t experience a slowdown in their shopping experience. Normally I would see this during the Christmas event that would happen here every year, but not randomly like what had just happened. So this could only mean one thing: the Burning World expansion the players were talking about must be happening soon! It was the only thing that made sense, The System wouldn’t do something so randomly.

The first N3 entered a few minutes later. She looked about 20 and had a girl-next-door quality, red hair and freckles all over her face and arms, and brown eyes with flecks of green in them. This was Amber, one of the two people I had known the longest in her time in AO. Truth be told I had a crush on Amber, but wouldn’t dare make a move on her, fearing what The System would do to her or me. Amber gave a nod and a wave. “Boss,” she said to me with that cute little smile she would give me.

“Amber, happy to be working with you again,” I replied. I took a risk and went to hug Amber. Apparently, The System found this acceptable and we embraced for a few seconds. Once we pulled apart I saw that Amber had a confused look on her face. I could tell Amber wanted to ask what was going on, but we both knew if we were to break character we would be severely punished. I glanced at the text floating above Amber’s head, ‘N3-2311, Amber Slone.’ This was shown to Ns when interacting with each other so the Ns could communicate with each other naturally and use names even if they couldn’t remember the other’s name. Most of the time Ns didn’t get names, The System only assigned a name if needed, if you had people you needed to interact with or if a player asked you for your name The System would automatically give you one. So far I had only needed to be called Boss because I ran the item shop with people working under me and in all the 15 years I had been operating here in AO no player had ever asked me if I had a name. But Amber, on the other hand, needed something for me to call her so she had a name. 

Eventually, Amber asked, “I take it I’m on money duty?” 

“Yeah, just like always.” I gave a short nod as I spoke and with that Amber walked to the counter and got ready to assist me by taking players’ money when the time came. Not long after Amber got to her position a young man with messy blond hair, blue eyes, and short stubble on his face entered. This was Leon. He walked with a bounce, waving his long gangly limbs swaying by his side. He gave me a nod and said with an uneasy smile, “Hi Boss, didn’t expect to see you again till Christmas.”

“Well, it’s always good to see you, Leon. Would you mind working the backroom and getting stock when we need it?”

“Yeah, I know the drill.” He gave a half-hearted wave as he walked by. I peeked at his text as he passed, ‘N3-1997, Leon Marks.’ Once he arrived at the back of the shop he began to carry the most commonly needed items to the counter and Amber and Leon began to chit-chat. Apparently these two spend a lot of time together out of the shop which made me extremely jealous; I would kill to spend more time with Amber. Leon gave a quick look around the shop, “I wonder why Boss needed us today?” As Leon said this he placed his hand behind his head and smiled.

“Oh, you know how it goes, when things get eventful we get called to action. But who knows?” Amber replied. There was a sub conversation happening here, Ns got good at talking indirectly with each other and adding subtext to the conversation, all the while staying in character so The System wouldn’t punish them. Basically, Leon asked, ‘What the hell is going on? Why are we here?’ and Amber had responded with, ‘There’s an event happening but I don’t know what kind.’ I walked over to my spot behind the counter, ready to interact with the players, giving the two a smile and added, “You know me, I get these gut feelings about when the shop is going to get a big crowd, and if I’m wrong I could use your help to change the store, you know, to move things around or what have you.” Translation, ‘Something big is happening today, and changes are coming’.

“Yes, Boss,” the two said simultaneously. Leon looked uneasy and it seemed like he wanted to ask more, but didn’t want to risk the wrath of The System, so he just got to business in the back of the shop. We worked together like a well-oiled machine. Leon and Amber were originally N2s like myself, and for the first five years we all worked the shop together, but that was back when the city was busy. In the world of AO, this was the second city the players would encounter once they left the starting city. So newcomers would often spend a lot of time here, getting their levels up and getting geared up, messing about with their friends, eventually leaving to find harder challenges in the higher levels of AO. Those who left would be replaced with new players. But the time where this was a bustling city was a thing of the past, once the first game expansion came out players could start their characters at level 20 so they could more easily get into the new story and play with their higher level friends. Some players would still do the grind and level here, but most didn’t. So with fewer people using the item shop in town, The System decided that Amber and Leon would be put to better use as N3s used to make the city feel more full and active, now that fewer players were filling the cobblestone streets of the city. I missed these two most of the year and looked forward to when they were needed during the events, but today was different, today everything would change.

The System was right about needing help at the store. Not long after the two arrived we were inundated with players getting geared up for the event, making the shop busier than it had ever been. Even with the help there was a line, not giving us any time alone together to talk. Even with the craziness of the day, I managed to learn a few things about the event from the snippets of conversations I heard from the players; first, the Red Prince invasion event would happen at sundown; second, the level cap was going up 20 levels, something that didn’t happen much in AO, so whenever this happened those players who were maxed level and stopped playing AO would come back; and last, it was unknown where the Red Prince himself would attack, but people were pretty sure that it was going to be here. Just about every guild and random player wanted a chance to take the Red Prince down, so they were here in this town ready for a fight. I kept an eye on Amber and Leon who were hearing about all this for the first time. The two were acting like they didn’t hear any conversations from the players about non-story topics, like the expansion, or real-world stuff. The System had trained us all well. If an N responded to or talked about something that wasn’t a part of AO, The System saw that as the worst kind of infraction and doing so would guarantee one of the harshest punishments. So the three of us just acted like nothing was going on and this was just another random day in AO.

We did this for hours, never getting a moment where it was just us. An hour before sunset, a message popped into my vision, a message I hadn’t seen in my entire 15 years here in AO, ‘Close the shop. Ask everyone politely to leave.’ I stood there dumbfounded for a second. It wasn’t until I started feeling the warnings of upcoming pain that I acted. I took a step up onto a stool behind the counter and spoke to the players who were in the shop in a loud, clear voice, “Um, everyone, I’m sorry but we’re closing! We’ll be open tomorrow to meet all your shopping needs.” Leon jerked his head to me and froze in place; Amber and I knew what was happening to him. Whenever an N was getting punished when players were around the N would freeze so the players wouldn’t know what was happening to them. Most players thought this was a bug that happened now and then, an annoying thing that happened to the Ns sometimes. Leon must have been very surprised about the shop closing because it seemed he was about to say something he wasn’t supposed to. There were some grumbles, but eventually, the store emptied and I locked the door behind the players. We stood there silently looking at each other. We each had so much we wanted to say to each other, but fear of breaking the rules kept us from saying much. Eventually Amber risked speaking, “We hardly ever close. I wonder-” Then she jerked her foot ever so slightly, a clear sign to any N she had just been punished. Leon and I gave a bit of a nod. I thought hard about what I could say. After a moment I added, “We only shut down every once in a blue moon, it feels like it never happens.” Translation, ‘this is it, this is the last time the shop will be open.’ Leon kept his mouth shut, that earlier punishment must have been a bad one, normally out of the three of us he was the most talkative.

A minute of silence passed by when I saw another message appear in my vision, ‘N2-2244 Boss, has been changed to: N3-2244, Boss. Please begin town free-roaming.’ My eyes dilated in excitement, I was going to get to leave the shop! Leon and Amber stared off into space for a second, it seemed they got similar messages, and like good slaves they followed orders and began to walk to the door. Amber gave me a smile before leaving, “Okay, Boss, I’m heading out… Hope I’ll see you again soon.”

But with zeal and excitement, I ran over to the door and put my hand on the handle. “You know what? I think I’ll head out with you!” I said this with an ear to ear smile. Amber and Leon seemed confused, why wouldn’t they be? For 15 years this shop was my prison and the idea of me being able to leave was unheard of. But realization hit their faces when they glanced over my head and they saw I was an N3 now. Amber gave me a huge smile and said, “Oh! Yeah, you are more than welcome to come with us!” I was about to open the door when I had an idea, it may end in pain, but it was worth a try. I reached out to the cuckoo clock that was between the door and the window and gave it a sturdy push. I watched in glee as the damn thing fell to the floor with a slam and broke into a million pieces. The System let me finally kill my tormentor of 15 years! This told me something important. It told me the item shop didn’t matter anymore and I would probably never need to return to it. Leon and Amber stood looking at the clock, shocked. I gave an evil little smile and simply said, “Oops… well, let’s head out.” I twisted the handle and took my first ever step out the door.