Being a non-player character in someone else's virtual world can be a pain — especially when some of the monsters won't stay dead. Tobias Buckell's story "A Game of Rats and Dragon," published in Lightspeed Magazine, takes a lot of the cliches of augmented reality and virtual gaming, and adds a really neat spin — what if people became attached to their virtual sidekicks, in a kind of owner/pet relationship? And who's to say that a virtual creature can't be a better friend and companion than most people?

Overton is an NPC who hunts "rats," or leftover bits of malicious code, inside a steampunk MMARG — and it turns out that the rats are getting smarter and tougher to kill. Here's the beginning of "A Game of Rats and Dragon," based on Cordwainer Smith's classic story "A Game of Rat and Dragon":

Moonlighting as a non-player character was a hell of a way to earn a living. Never made much sense to spend all that time garbing up in a virtual uniform that matched gamespace, but Overton took pride in the details. So getting punched in the stomach by someone so caught up in an augmented reality fantasy they couldn't tell real from script, that left him in a foul mood. All the man had to do was ask the right questions, get Overton's responses, and move on.

He tagged the asshole with some negative karma, checked his own account balance, and wandered back off into his own preferred world.

Ignore the gray sidewalks of a hot Manhattan summer day. Walk around the tourists on top of the dikes in Lower Manhattan. Ease through Battery Park. Once on Broadway he turned on the silvered contacts riding his eyeballs, the inner-earphones, and it all melted away.

The Clockwork Empire squatted around most of the old Financial District. Gearhouses chugging away with clouds of dark smoke. Overton swept the wet tails of his coat back with a flourish, doffed a cap at someone involved in the gamespace hurrying by on a mission of his own, and set out to find a hearty stew somewhere.


Read the rest over at Lightspeed, or in Buckell's new book Mitigated Futures.