A cowboy materialized inside a virtual world of neon lights and broken dreams. The cowboy took his bearings. He stood on the edge of a crowded grey street, shrouded in an ankle-deep fog. His eyes, shrouded beneath dark goggles, darted up and down the Art Deco skyscrapers and closed storefronts on either side as the multiplayer augmented reality game of New Babylon came to life around him.
He had a wide-brimmed hat and wore a leather jacket, gloves and boots, all black. An assortment of gears and hoses came out of his coat and connected to the gloves. He had enough weaponry to put down a small army: bandoleers of bullets, a scoped Winchester rifle across his back, a pair of Colt revolvers on belt holsters and a Bowie knife in his boot.
The cowboy trudged confidently down the street. Frank Sinatra's song 'This Town' played from some unseen speaker system in the sky. Whatever he might be in the real world, it meant nothing here in the city of New Babylon. On the digital frontier, the cowboy knew this was a place he could be his own man. He scrutinized the other citizens of New Babylon who passed him by. A cigarette smoking man in a trench coat and fedora hat loitered beneath a nearby electric street light, holding a violin case. A clunky robot covered in vacuum tubes and light bulbs patrolled to the end of the street and back. Above a spandex-clad superhero jumped between buildings before taking flight. Two little green men with blunderbuss-shaped ray guns rounded one corner and vanished around another.
A number of grey pedestrians in suits and dresses filled the space between them, appearing and vanishing as the simulation demanded. Golden halos floated above the heads of the avatars by human players. This place was realistic. Besides the fantasy clothing and the muted sepia tone that smothered everything, there was little to tell apart the appearance of the people to those found in reality. New Babylon felt more like walking through an ancient detective film than a game. At an intersection the cowboy gracefully jumped left to dodge a bullet-shaped car which rounded the bend, blasting Tommy guns at some unseen enemy.
Around the bend the cowboy arrived outside a building with a larger group of avatars lurking outside as if waiting for someone to come out and invite them in. A neon sign above the front door read: 'Le Salon Blue'.
The little crowd stirred and murmured to one another. "That's Calamity Clyde!" It was always like this, a constant turnover of petitioners and groupies trying to hang out with the Triad.
One of the avatars, a thin man wearing a trench coat and kepi approached too close to the cowboy for his comfort. The cowboy noted his halo which indicated his newbie status.
"You're one of the White Dawn Triad!" said the man in the kepi. He reached for a knife inside his trench-coat. "And in a PVP zone! Let's duel!"
Calamity Clyde quick drew a Colt revolver from its holster and fired off two shots at the hapless amateur. The man with the kepi fell to the ground and derezzed, leaving only a small puddle of blood on the pavement to mark his existence.
"Better believe it, partner."
The crowd cautiously moved back and let the cowboy unlock the front door with a big brass key and close the door again on them.
Big band swing music blared at the cowboy walked into Le Salon Bleu, the private server of the notorious White Dawn Triad. It resembled an upscale bar from an archaic hotel conjured forward from the beginning of the twentieth century. Streamlined brass and wood appliances dominated every corner of the room. The lights were dim and surrounded by blue glass, giving the place an aquamarine glow. A small fountain and fish tank rested in the corner, and a neon sign announced the place's name on the opposite wall next to a shelf of libations. The furniture was covered by light blue colours, making the entire place seem it was some a well preserved remnant of the previous century.
There were several female avatars with halos above lounging around the place. This could mean only one thing. Leaning on the bar and sipping a martini was Lord Wilde, a swarthy man wearing a white tuxedo with a red carnation in his lapel. This campy secret agent stereotype was surrounded by two brunette women in elegant evening gowns. He was laughing with them when he noticed the cowboy. In a cool motion he planted his drink on the bar and straightened up.
"Just the man I want to see," said the spy. His accent was Australian and didn't fit the image.
"You're finally back," said the cowboy.
"You know of the Clockwork Cowboy," the spy said to his companions.
"Howdy," said the cowboy but with disinterest. "Do you mind? We have to conduct some business."
The spy seemed annoyed but agreed. "I'm sorry girls, let's chat later on."
The cowboy drew his Colt and fire wildly into the air. The music stopped. All the girls derezzed and were shoved back on to the street which was a public hub server. The room was now silent but for bubbles in the fish tank.
"You need to stop letting trash in off the street," barked the cowboy as he took a stool at the bar.
"You're a real buzz kill sometimes, you know that right?" complained the spy. "If you had your way only hardcore gamers would be allowed in here."
"I don't see the problem with that."
"You just kicked out twins who live just a two hour drive from me. Fit twins too! Great tits, here I'll show you some of the pictures they sent-"
On a settee in a hidden corner of the room was a dark skinned sorceress avatar wearing a blue robe that left little imagination when it came to the avatar's exaggerated cleavage. Once the avatar Sayyida al-Hurra Alhazred slinked to a place on the opposite side of the bar the White Dawn Triad was complete.
The White Dawn Triad, originally a randomly assigned team of strangers who had created accounts in the New Babylon game at the same time, was now an experienced and highly successful online tactical unit. Each player had originally selected an archetype, and each team consisted of at least one player of each style.
"Did you miss me, Hawwa?" the spy asked.
The trio had played this game together for almost a year and so knew bits and pieces of each others' real lives. Hawwa was a girl from somewhere in Indonesia but her English was good enough to get around in the game.
"It's good to have you back, Nick. Now how are my favourite bules?"
"Bool-ays," Nick aka Lord Wilde tried to repeat the word. "What does that mean?"
"Albino. It's what Indonesians call westerners."
The cowboy avatar grimaced. "Charming."
Nick's spy avatar poked a thumb at the cowboy. "I sense Jake is busting to shoot something."
"When was the last time we were all together?" asked Hawwa.
"Over a month," replied Jake, the cowboy.
"Well I had to graduate and go on my schoolies week to the beach," said Nick. "So what have I missed?"
"We've got some money issues," announced Jake, his voice no longer sounding like a John Wayne stereotype but a nasally American teen. "If we want to maintain Hawwa's membership and keep running this nice encrypted private server, we're going to need more venture credits. I can't bum any more from my parents' credit card, so we'll have to go on some higher level raids. No respawning. If we die there, our characters are deleted for good."
"How many venturos do we need to convert to pay her subscription?" asked Nick.
"At least ten million a month. So by high level raid, I mean really high."
"I've been thinking," said Hawwa. "I don't think it's worth it. Missions this high are too risky, you fail and you'll lose all your status and have start from the beginning again. I can't let you guys risk that for me."
"Nonsense, we look after our own," said Nick.
"Agreed," said Jake. "It costs money for Hawwa to get online there, and she doesn't have the time to level up like we do."
Nick laughed. "Look on the bright side, Jake. If we fail there won't be any girls trying to get in here anymore!"
"Huh. I found a few missions that would give our group plenty of working capital."
Jake, aka Calamity Clyde, pointed to the bar. A flat, static image of a rickety rope bridge over a frost-covered valley appeared. The title "Himalayan Expedition" appeared beneath it. A second image appeared beside it, several gangsters in fedora hats holding Tommy guns and bags of cash with dollar signs on them titled "Downtown Bank Heist." Another image, showing glowing red eyes beneath a sewer grate appeared entitled "The Sewer Beasts."
"I think the Bank Heist is the one is worth the White Dawn Triad's time," added Jake.
"Whatever brings in the dough," Nick mused.
"Some crime certainly sounds fun," Hawwa continued.
"Okay, then Bank Heist it is," Jake's avatar nodded.
Jake's avatar headed for the front door, Nick followed him, and Hawwa prepared to leave their private server through the digital portal.
"This is either going to be the coolest or the stupidest thing we've ever done," said Nick, his avatar unbuttoning his tuxedo and reaching for the pistol in his underarm holster.
"I assume Jake has a plan?" added Hawwa.
"Of course," said the cowboy smoothly, patting the gun in his holster. "Saddle up."
The trio wandered back through the street and travelled several blocks until they found him. Leaning against a lamppost in front of the group was a non-player character in a trench coat and fedora hat, smoking a cigarette. He was illuminated in a subtle golden glow, indicating he was the main quest contact. No other groups had joined them for the raid, so the Triad would get the full reward.
"So, yah want in on the heist?" the snarky contact NPC asked. "Bugsy says you're in, so as far as I care, you're golden. Ain't no one there but hired guns, since they're movin' dirty dough."
"The Triad'll get the job done." Jake introduced himself in character.
The figure produced a Tommy gun from his trenchcoat. "The job's real simple. They're unloading an armoured car at the bank. You go in, ventilate anyone who gets between you and the bread, and you bring it back here. I'll cover ya."
A small golden box appeared at the end of the street, indicating a target zone. The contact NPC leaned back down, returning to taking a long drag from his cigarette. Jake looked towards the end of the street and saw a group of men with fedoras, shaded faces, and trenchcoats loading cash out of an old styled armoured car. The car was parked in front of a bank superficially resembling a classical styled building. With marble columns, an arched roof, and a tall staircase, the "New Babylon Downtown Bank" was designed to appear as a temple to plutocrats and kleptocrats. The mission seemed to be a standard enough snatch and grab one, based on getting to the bank vault and back out.
"Nick, flank left and sneak attack," Jake gestured. "Hawwa, come in behind me."
"What are you doing?" Hawwa prepared to cast some offensive spells.
"Frontal assault," Jake replied. "Watch this!"
Jake charged forwards, his avatar feverishly working his lever-action rifle as he picked off some of the enemy guards. The enemies answered with a barrage of Tommy gun fire in their direction. Jake rolled out of the way as Hawwa raised one hand at them, as if signalling them to stop. A burst of energy flew out of her hand, dispersing into smaller bursts of energy as it split out to strike different targets. Enemy gunfire hit her avatar, knocking her health down a few notches. Jake turned to see an enemy guard about to open fire at him when a silent cough took him down. The enemy guard crumpled as if his spine had given out. Behind him was Nick's avatar, standing confidently as he selected another target to pick off. Two more guards fell, and the front of the bank was cleared.
Nick and Jake climbed into the back of the armoured car, seeing virtual bags of cash and stacks of gold bullion. Jake stuck out his hand, making the loot disappear into their inventory. It was a substantial amount, but not the objective.
"Okay, everyone, upstairs and into the bank," Jake ordered. "We have to get back into the vault, boss fight, then flee from the cops back out here."
"Jeez, you make it sound so simple," Nick muttered.
"Okay, the bank's going to be full of hostiles, so we're going in guns blazing," Jake pulled out his revolvers. "Hawwa, cast some new shields for us. I've got a smokescreen that makes it harder to hit us."
Jake stepped out of the armoured car and up the steps, and twirled a small gear on his clockwork-covered form. A thick cloud of vapour came out, covering him and his two party members. Hawwa chanted and waved her avatar's arms, causing her useful defensive spell. With a revolver in each hand, he kicked open the front doors of the New Babylon Downtown Bank. "This is a stick up!" he had a gun in each hand. "Reach for the skies!" Behind him, Hawwa held a fireball she was read to toss and Nick had his pistol ready to fire.
The inside of the bank was a generic pre-fab set that was repeated in banks all across the virtual cityscape. This time, it was just another battleground to fight through. There was an ornate checkerboard pattern of white and black marble tiles, with classical columns and streamlined tables. A set of steel bars separated the patrons from the tellers, and the players from access downstairs. The centre of the floor was full of guards loading gold into crates and bags of cash onto plates to move downstairs. Jake thought it resembled interrupting a robbery already in progress.
The occupants of the bank, however, predictably did not surrender to the party. Instead, an alarm began to sound and all of the non-player characters within the bank pulled out weapons of their own. Gunfire exploded as Tommy guns, revolvers, and pistols unloaded at the party, they retorted with their own attacks.
"Nick, flank 'em," Jake ordered. The Australian's superspy avatar became translucent as he entered stealth mode, and moved around a pillar to the side. "Hawwa, heal us and keep casting!"
Arcane fireballs and bullets filled the room, and enemies fell and faded away, the experience points and loot they left being the only traces they had existed. Scorch marks on the walls and bullet holes left scars, which quickly faded as the building textures refreshed. Jake darted around the room, shooting everyone in sight. "Yee-haw!" he shouted.
"Jake! Quiet down in there!" What sounded like someone knocking on a wooden door and the vengeful, distorted voice of God thundered down Jake's speakers and throughout the bank. "Stop playing that damn video game and go to bed!"
The shooting subsided for an awkwardly silent second then Jake opened up again to restore the tension. With the smokescreen and defensive spell buffing them, the fight went like clockwork. Jake attacked from the front, falling back to let Hawwa patch him up when necessary. Nick was whittling down enemy numbers from the shadows, performing hit-and-run raids. They followed the formula that had given them success countless times before. Eventually, the room was cleared, and they began looting.
"We did it!" Hawwa cheered.
Nick's avatar opened the door that went behind the tellers' desk, gesturing to a stairway down. Jake led the way, guns drawn and ready to fire. He was first down the stairwell, coming to a massive steel vault at the bottom. The door was wide opened, and several piles of gold bullion and money bags were left unattended and unguarded. Nick was about to move forward when Jake pulled him back.
"I read a cheat guide for this mission. There's some traps," he warned. "And a boss battle after we clean it out."
"Sure thing," Nick's avatar glowed a subtle green, indicating he was searching his environs for traps. He moved around the room, disarming trigger mechanisms and clearing the floor. The gunslinger and sorceress followed him across the cleared path, grabbing the virtual gold bullion and cash bags.
"I'm just glad we don't have to carry this stuff out like you would in real life," Jake muttered. "It would weigh a ton."
"What is this boss supposed to be, anyway?" Nick asked, reaching for the last of the virtual cash.
"Nothing special," Jake shook his head. "Just repeat our standard tactics."
Nick reached for the last cash bag, and the screen began to shake. The haptic vibrators within their wearable electronics began to sway back and forth with their vision onscreen, as if an earthquake had struck. Instinctively, Hawwa's avatar ducked and covered her head, as if preparing for the real thing.
In the hallway leading back up the stairs, the floor cracked like a hammer had struck it. A metal drill bit penetrated the floor, and a light emerged from the hole as the machine pulled itself out of the ground. The boss was a vaguely humanoid robot with electric lights for eyes, pincer hands with wrist mounted Tesla coils, a rusty bear-trap for jaws, and powerful claw-like feet. On the centre of its cylindrical torso was a red insignia showing three interlocking letter "Ms" done to resemble fanged jaws.
"The Mole Master Machine demands the cash you have taken!" the robot said in a monotone voice, electricity arcing between its claws. "Probability of your victory is approximately zero percent!"
"Our cash now!" Jake unloaded on the drill robot with his revolvers.
Hawwa and Nick opened fire behind him, filling the air with fireballs and lead. Their barrage hit the evil robot, who unleashed an electric shockwave from his pincers. Jake felt his wearables shake as he took damage. Hawwa's avatar was blasted clean back, and Nick took a solid hit. He used a healing pack from his inventory. He targeted the robot, and fired as fast as he could.
Suddenly, the robot turned around, preparing some special attack.
"Flank him, Nick!" Jake ordered, noticing the robot's rear was exposed. Nick shot his enemy in the back reflexively, getting a stream of critical hits. The machine turned towards Nick and slashed at his avatar.
"A little help here?" he shouted as the robot carved him up.
Jake responded with a barrage of bullets from his guns at the machine. The robot, now near destruction, knelt down. The machine began ticking faster as Nick's avatar moved away from it.
"Everyone clear out!" Jake shouted as the trio rapidly retreated.
Behind them, the robot exploded, destroying the vault and hallway behind them.
"Oh yeah, that's the money shot!" yelled Nick.
"Quit messing around!" Jake lead the group into the main room of the bank as sirens sounded outside. Hawwa began healing them, and Nick readied himself for another gunfight.
"How much more do we have to do?" Nick asked.
"Well, as soon as we open the front door, we've got a very simple mission," Jake replied. "All we have to do is run back to the starting area as fast as possible."
"That doesn't sound so bad," Nick mused.
"Just don't bother aiming if you have to shoot," Jake ordered. "Hawwa, shields, please!"
"Right," Hawwa cast her defensive spells and buffs.
With that, Jake opened the front door of the bank, and a hail of bullets greeted them. Police cars had surrounded the front stair well, and officers held Tommy guns, pistols, and other weapons. Behind them were trenchcoat and suit-clad G-men and cops with Tommy guns and a higher damage level than the standard police or guards. Jake moved his avatar forward as fast as he could, jogging in place to trigger the sprint function. Behind them, the police unleashed attack dogs, which were just palette swapped wolves. He fired blindly behind him, knowing that aiming was pointless.
The gunfire from the police was a constant drain on their health, but the dogs were the real problem. Jake turned and saw Hawwa's avatar taken down by one that bit her leg. Nick continued running while Jake shot the dog and reached for his friend's avatar. He reached out, gripping at thin air and moved forwards. His health was dropping fast, and the distance to the goal was decreasing with every instant. Luckily for Jake and Hawwa, the two reached a gold-highlighted rectangular goal, and saw a nonchalant Nick.
"Good work, fellahs. I'll take it from here," their NPC contact leaning against the lamppost said. He opened fire with his tommy gun, tossed a smoke bomb, and the scene began to fade out. Jake exhaled and felt his hands were all covered with his own sweat. He wondered if the others were holding their own wearables as tightly as he did.
The group travelled back to their private server to look over their spoils. Now in Le Salon Bleu, Jake began to relax as he looked over the victory summary screen.
"We did it!" cried Hawwa.
"Damn right," added Nick.
"Hmm… we did this time but can we keep it up regularly?" Jake began musing. "I know something that might help. There's some programs that allow you to automate a character in New Babylon, and allow them to level up endlessly in the lower level dungeons. Highly against the rules, though."
"Sounds like it beats the whole bloody point of playing the game," Nick added.
"It can also get a user more venture credits since they're doing more fighting and adventuring," Jake added. "Problem is, though, their patterns are too easy for the moderators to see. Someone who never logs off and only plays one or two dungeons is probably going to get banned soon."
"Could you modify it somehow?" Hawwa suggested. "I remember you said if you can download it, you can hack it."
"I may," Jake considered, his avatar standing nonchalantly. "I remember my neighbour saying what we learned in class for a passing grade or even fun now would be worth a patent back when he was our age."
Nick's avatar continued sitting at the bar, sipping a virtual martini. Jake figured he could double as a statue if he was this bored. "But it does mean more Venturos for all of us," he added. "Which can be converted to real cash. Not a lot of it, but enough to pay for our gaming habits."
"Good idea," Jake's avatar nodded his head.
"She works hard for the money!" sang Nick with a high-pitched voice.
"I'll see if I can work something out," continued Jake. "We just unlocked a more crime-based story missions with the bank heist, so all this cheating will help us become better virtual criminals."
"As long as we don't become real ones," Hawwa's avatar nodded in agreement.
"Well look at the time," exclaimed Nick. "I've got to get ready for another shitty night at work. So I'll log off and leave you cats to it."
"Lah! I have to get home soon too," said Hawwa.
"Okay, see you guys later," answered Jake.
Once they derezzed, the cowboy was alone left with his thoughts in his virtual bar. All in all, it had been a good day's work.