It was raining out. A regular dark and stormy night. I didn't mind the rain so much; I was perpetually dressed for it. Long black oil-cloth slicker. Battered fedora, the brim just long enough to keep my cigarette dry so long as the wind didn't kick up too much. Beneath the coat was a white shirt in need of laundering, a half unknotted tie around the neck.
It was late, but I usually worked late. In my coat I had a handful of screen-shots, proving to an angry wife that her husband was seeing a brothel-avatar on the side. The sort of work every gumshoe has to do, and the sort that every gumshoe hates.
I went up the stairs of my building; this was a low-rent district; they were pixellating around the edges. Maybe someday, I'd be able to afford enough processing to anti-alias them properly, but that was hardly a priority. My door was good enough, a graphic I had Photoshopped together very, very carefully. Torn from the pages of Dashiel Hammet, there was faded gold lettering detailing my name and player class, "David Crane, Private Eye".
I didn't need to key the door, it recognized me. The front part of my office was neat and clean, with a healthy looking potted plant off to one side. That was all courtesy of the NPC secretary I used during business hours. There was no reason for me to keep her running all of the time; again, it was expensive in processor time, and I could barely keep the rent on this place as it was.
I walked through the door in the partition, and entered my office, which was as disheveled as outside was neat. Most of the mess was window dressing. But it reflected the file structure underneath, the actual space on the server where I stored my files. I was fairly lazy, and just dropped everything into the root directory, without using a nice folder system. Still, there was a reason to it; and I could find things when I needed them, and if I couldn't, my secretary could, though she'd complain like the dickens. So would my bill for processor usage.
I dropped the screenshots onto my desk; to me, they looked like black and white photographs. As they landed, all of the data on them was saved to my share of disk space on the server. A red aura flashed around them, warning me that my quota was almost full. I made a note to have my secretary delete anything untouched for two years, and archive everything that hand't been handled in six months.
Wasted from another night tailing some game-addicted loser through the city for a few hundred Clams, I collapsed into my chair. Through the window, I looked outside, at the glowing cityscape that was Metro-City.
Metro-City was an MMORPG, a Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Roleplaying-G
It was an elegant solution, and solved the biggest problem that had been plaguing MMORPGs since they were born: leeches. Leeches were people like me, that saw MMORPGs as a way to make _real_ money. Some games were all but destroyed by controversy as things like brothels started to appear, and people turned real-world profits on them. Is cybersex for cybermoney that can be exchanged for real money prostitution?
Dale Torrins' company, Electric Artistry, didn't care. If someone decided that it was prostitution and wanted to prosecute, they charged the people running the brothel. There was some legal grey area, but Electric Artistry had good lawyers.
I whipped around in my chair, ready to call the "Draw Weapon" command. Mentally, I kicked myself for not locking the door. There were at least a dozen people who wanted to see me dead, and all it took was one high level hitman, and I'd loose a few thousand experience points, and all the equipment on my person. Plus, if they had a reshak script, they could loot my office.
Instead, I was staring at a leggy female avatar. And busty. And well... your standard female avatar in a computer game. She was definitely in town from one of the Fantasy Provinces of Metro-City. Not many other places will you see someone wearing a leather bikini and have them showing an armor class of fifteen.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to startle you."
I leaned back in my chair, but kept the "Draw Weapon" command ready. "No, don't worry. I just wasn't expecting anyone. Please, have a seat."
The avatar's head whipped around and the body spun full circle. The player was checking behind her. Expecting someone. It's hard to tell if that means nervous or they're just habituated to slaughtering some wandering monster whenever one pops up. I've seen players that can't stop twitching, looking for something to kill. "I can't really stay."
"Why not?" Most likely, mom or dad was going to kick them offgame for hogging bandwith.
"I need your help."
"I would assume so; I can't see any other reason to be here, except for my smashing good looks."
"I need you to investigate a murder. My husband, Aikenhal has been killed."
I frowned out-of-character. Murders were almost as disdainful as suspicious wives. "Listen, I don't do murders. You and the victim should just go and hire a bounty hunter after the victim respawns. I mean, I can find the killer, but what then? I'm an investigator, not a killer."
"Please? Will you accept this quest?"
That didn't sound right. "What's your name?"
"Will you accept this quest?"
I thought for a moment. "My fee is a hundred Clams a day, plus expenses."
"Your reward will be one hundred Gold a day, plus expenses."
I hesitated longer. Something didn't sit right. I ran a finger command on her. It's the sort of thing I avoided; it's an illegal script. The first business in Metro-City was game-hacking scripts. The second business was the Hack-Hunters, or more euphemistically the Jackboots. They busted hacker's heads open until they stopped hacking. That aside, most players will get an alert when you try that, and it's just plain rude.
The results came back. "Elf1705513lvl17:Forestshire".
"I'll take your case."
"Thank you, and may the Lord of Elvenkind guide you."
She turned and walked away, while I brooded. Trying to stop her to pump more information was pointless. Only one group in Metro-City had names like that; Non-Player Characters. NPCs. But there were a few things wrong with that.
One: NPCs don't leave their province. She was a Forestshire elf. Which meant she should be in Forestshire, sucking up Forestshire processor resources. She should only interact with players in Forestshire.
Two: NPCs don't actively approach you. NPCs are just to add some color and background to the game, not be players in their own right. A few years back there was a craze for Interactive AI NPCs, but it sucked processor resources. There were enough players in the game that you could have plenty of action and adventure without ever needing an NPC to add "color".
Three: NPCs don't exhibit player behaviors, like the hokey-pokey dance she did when she came in. They're essentially robots following a script.
That meant someone had hacked the NPC.
I picked up my usage bill for the month off of my desk. It was updated every minute, and sure enough, there was a hefty charge for running a "Level 17 Forestshire Elf NPC". Figures; this case was already costing me money. However, I already had recieved the first hundred Clams, so at least I knew I'd be getting paid. The bill I had received was in Clams, so I added that fee to my client's bill under expenses. I was curious to see if an NPC could pay those fees.