Abrama's Endgame by David Shultz
David is this month’s winner of $352.50 for his story that manages to be both science fiction and fantasy, a rare treat. There is some strong language in this story, so reader beware. All I can say is that the harsh language used is indicative of the people represented.
David F. Shultz writes from Toronto, Canada, where he organizes the 1000-member Toronto Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. David has received five honorable mentions from Writers of the Future, and was voted Best eZine Editor in 2020 in the Critters Writers Annual Readers Poll for his work as Lead Editor at Speculative North. His 80+ publications are featured through publishers such as Augur, Diabolical Plots, and Abyss & Apex. He can be found at davidfshultz.com or on Twitter with the handle @davidfshultz.
Without further ado, “Abrama's Endgame” by David Shultz.
Abrama had been summoned to the Grand Temple by one of the more fascinating outsiders, the paladin Sir Gödel. Between stone pillars, the crowd bustled with the trailing cloaks of shadow elves, the glimmering pauldrons of paladins, the broad shoulders of her orc brethren, and the small skittering bodies of goblins.
Abrama always watched carefully. Even now, she recognized the difference between the natives and the outsiders, physically identical, but nonetheless altogether different beings. An elf popped into view, moved erratically, then disappeared—all typical behaviors of the outsiders, and more-or-less exclusive to them—back to whichever world from which they had come. None of the other natives seemed to notice. They never did.
Abrama wasn't like them. She had the understanding of the outsiders, and could converse with them in their alien tongue, which she had learned by listening. But, like the natives, this was her only world; she had never left it, had never seen that realm from which the outsiders came, appearing and disappearing from her world at will. She longed to understand who these beings were, really, and where they came from. Now, summoned by Sir Gödel, she felt she may finally have an opportunity.
Gödel emerged from the crowd, gleaming sheen across his enchanted armor. He had been powerful and accomplished since she had met him, on the day of her birth. Then, she had stood before him as a novice, perhaps accomplished as a huntress, but not yet in the secret knowledge she now contained of the outerworld—of his world.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"For what I have to tell you now."
"And what is that?"
She listened while he delivered the bad news. It's not every day you find out your world is going to end. Abrama thought she was taking it pretty well.
"I'm sorry," Gödel said, again. "It's out of my control. Please forgive me."
"No," Abrama said. "No, I don't forgive you." Now, if ever, was the time to be direct. "You owe me an explanation. I have so many questions."
"What do you want to know?"
"Why have you watched me since I was born? Why have you never explained who you are? Who are the outsiders? Where do you come from? Why am I different from the other natives?"
"I suppose I can answer your questions," Gödel said. "It doesn't matter now, anyway. You've figured out there's a difference between the natives and the outsiders. There's no easy way to say this, Abrama. We, the outsiders, created your world. As a game. A place where we could play. But now we have to end it."
"So we are just playthings for you?"
"Not for me," Gödel said. "I wasn't here to just play a game."
"What do you mean?"
"I am a researcher in my world. I create minds. Your world was a place to test my creations. And you, Abrama—"
"I am one of your creations."
In one swoop she had met her creator, learned the reason for her creation, and that her world was coming to an end. Or perhaps it was. Because the outsiders, although something like gods, were not omnipotent. Gödel, of course, was limited. He was constrained by his own people. Their society, like her own, functioned by a balance of power. And so, that balance could perhaps be tilted. Perhaps Gödel, her outsider creator, was resigned to the fate of her world. But Abrama was not.
Ben Cooke loosened his tie, wiped a bead of sweat from his head, and stared back at the dozens of suits staring in his direction. A congressional hearing, and he was in the hot seat. There were a lot of problems he anticipated when he started his video game company, but being accused of running an illegal black market and money-laundering operation was not among them.
Congressman Stephen Simons leaned into his microphone.
"You are the CEO of Maelstrom Entertainment, is that right?"
"Yes," Ben Cooke said.
"Your company created the Land of Legends computer game."
"Your video game world has a marketplace which has an exchange with US dollars, is that correct?"
"That is correct."
Congressman Simons looked at a paper on his desk.
"The GDP of Land of Legends is one-point-two billion USD. Is that correct?"
"I don't know the exact figure, congressman—if it even makes sense to speak of such a thing. Evaluations of a market are complex, based on a lot of competing assumptions and different data."
"Okay, Mister Cooke. Is the figure of one-point-two billion in the approximate range of a reasonable estimate, as far as you are aware?"
"I don't think I am qualified to answer that," Cooke said. "You should ask an economist."
Simons almost let out an exasperated huff. Almost.
"Your game has a currency called GP, or gold points. This can be exchanged, anonymously, with US dollars, at an exchange rate of 1000GP per seven dollars USD. Is that correct?"
"I am not aware of the current exchange rate."
"Is the exchange rate I just quoted, 1000GP per seven dollars USD, within the range of exchange rates in recent history?"
"I suppose it is."
"If we extrapolate from this rate, we can calculate a value of one-point-two billion GDP for the entire Land of Legends marketplace. What I want to know, what this is all really about, Mister Cooke, is how you control the transactions occuring within this marketplace, which is, in point of fact, larger than several countries."
"It's a video game," Cooke said. This was his trump card. Most people didn't really believe that a world that existed entirely within a video game should be taken seriously—and certainly shouldn't be assigned metrics like GDP alongside real, tangible markets. "Players use imaginary currency to buy imaginary goods. Magic swords and dragons. Tell me, congressman, what is the US dollar value of an ice dragon? How much should the US government tax imaginary creatures?"
Simons paused, apparently flustered. But he kept on going. A relentless, practiced politician.
"Here is a simple yes or no question, Mister Cooke—is it not true that your virtual market can be used to conduct transactions for real goods?"
"I understand your virtual marketplace uses an anonymous, encrypted protocol for all transactions. Is that correct—yes or no."
"That is correct, congressman."
"So you have no way of knowing, do you, who is trading money with whom?"
"Well, there are always ways to try to identify who is involved in a transaction, based on, for example, past behavior, or signature profiles, and so on."
"Yes, yes, but you're talking about an investigation based on pieces of evidence. What I want you to confirm is that there is no way for your company to know directly who is involved—that, in fact, your company has expressly designed the economy of Land of Legends to protect the identity of those involved in the marketplace. Yes or no, Mister Cooke, can you, for any given transaction, determine definitively who is exchanging what with whom?"
"Can the US government determine that with paper currency, congressman?"
"That's not what we're discussing today, Mister Cooke. We are discussing the operation of illicit blackmarkets using virtual currencies that are presently outlawed by the Cryptocurrency Efficient Commerce Act. Yes or no, Mister Cooke—can you effectively determine who is exchanging what with whom on your network?"
There was no way to obfuscate this, no way to deflect the issue. It was true. Not by design, of course. Land of Legends wasn't intended to function as a perfect digital black market, guaranteeing anonymity and a stable exchange rate and encrypted transactions. But, with its popularity, that had been the outcome. And that made the system illegal, technically. Well, this was it, then, he would admit it.
"No," Cooke said, "we can't."
So he would have to patch the system. Remove anonymity. It would mean wiping the current world, though. A lot of the players would revolt. It would cost a lot of money. But it wasn't the end of the world.
"Our world may come to an end," Queen Abrama said.
Assembled around the grand table were all the members of the Council of Secrets—those unique natives from around the world who, like her, were gifted with the capacity to learn and understand the language of the outsiders and comprehend that there was something more to their existence here. There was another world beyond their own. The world of the outsiders.
Jerodai, prince of the shadow elves, and her high commander; Kainazo, high elf of the Endless Forest; King Helmholz, fearless leader of the human kingdom. They had all risen through the ranks through their exceptional abilities, had become masters of their respective domains. But the Council of Secrets was not the cause of their success. Rather, it was the consequence of their special nature, which Abrama now understood to be a gift from the outsiders. They were created by a researcher, the paladin Sir Gödel, as experiments in a world that was created for the most trivial of purposes. They were tests, experiments in the creation of minds—an attempt to create smarter and better beings within their world. They had succeeded, insofar as Abrama and the others commanded vast wealth and armies and power. But their existence was meaningless—just a game.
Or was it? She existed now. That is what mattered. Her existence was the basic fact. The preconditions of her creation were a circumstantial tangent, irrelevant, except for perhaps academic interest. And for strategy.
"What did you discover?" Kainazo said, always the first to leap at knowledge and secrets.
"We've long suspected the outsiders to be a different class of being," Abrama said, "visitors from another plane. How they appear and disappear at will, how they move with mysterious purposes, and speak of incomprehensible things beyond our world. What I discovered, from one of the outsiders that we might have once mistakenly called a god, is that we were created, not for any noble or grand purpose, but as their playthings. And, for reasons that I am still struggling to comprehend, they are planning to destroy our world—to replace it with another that is more in accordance with their goals."
"What can be done?" Jerodai said. A man of action, her high commander.
"The outsiders are not gods," Abrama said. "They are people no different from ourselves, in their essence. They have limitations, and they must have weaknesses. I am not resigned to the fate they have decreed for us. I believe this world is worth saving. Our time is not done here. As you know, we are not constrained to acting wholly in our own world. Through our interactions in the market, with the outsiders, we can affect their world. We can provide gold and services and magical equipment from our world in exchange for services in theirs. We know they value these things—they spend their time here, they fight alongside us, and die alongside us. They will trade with us—even if we ask in exchange for them to act in their world, instead of ours. That is what we must do."
"What are we authorized to devote for this mission?"
"We are fighting for the survival of our world," Abrama said. "You have total authorization. All the kingdoms are at your disposal. All of our wealth. All of our soldiers. All of our magic. We will protect the Land of Legends, whatever it takes."