PROLOGUE

“All that we see or seem, is but a dream within a dream.” ~Edgar Allan Poe

The last hour of Iniya Kintala’s life went like this.

***

Her party had recently finished clearing the third and final level of the Temple of Xyurn, which was supposed to be house a significant clue to the location of the artifact The Fellowship of Wood and Silence had been seeking for the past three months, the object of the world quest: the Shadow Lance. This last chamber was the throne room, and the clue should have been here, according to her sage Tolman.

But there was no sign of any clues. None at all. No scrolls, no journals, nothing etched into a wall, not even a gargoyle with a riddle.

“Check again,” Iniya said.

Tolman shook his head. “I checked my notes three times. This is the spot. It has to be. This is the only freaking throne room in here.”

“I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to Wainwright.”

The scout had been wiping his short sword clean on a tapestry. But now he looked up. “You want me to inspect the whole room again?”

“Yes.”

“That will take another hour,” he whined.

“You have someplace else you’d rather be?”

“Matter of fact, yes. The Scarlet Pig is supposed to unveil its new brew tonight.”

Iniya sighed. “You guys think this is another dead end?”

“Seems like it.” Andi prodded the corpse of the gigantic centaur boss they had just dispatched. Black blood pooled around the corpse and reflected the light of their torches.

“What about the rest of you?” Iniya looked over at Callum, her enchanter, and Mariel, her healer who were lounging around, sitting on their backpacks. “Are we wasting our time here?”

They didn’t respond, and Iniya wondered if she was coming off as too much of a bitch. The memory of her last performance review from Lazarus was still fresh. He hadn’t described it as ‘bitchiness’ per se, but still…

“I never said we were wasting our time,” Wainwright muttered. “I just think your information might be wrong.”

Tolman’s eyes flashed. “It’s not. And I’m not. There should be something here. A treasure room with the next clues. My lore’s at 211.”

“So you keep reminding us,” Wainwright said.

“You have any skill over 200, bro? Huh?”

Andi walked over to the sage. Iniya knew she and Wainwright were pretty close and the big warrior was kind of protective. She gave Tolman a playful shove. “My asshole detection is at 250 and it’s pinging like hell right now.”

“Knock it off, guys,” Iniya said. “Executive decision. We search for thirty more minutes. All of us.”

Everyone grumbled, but they all reluctantly got to their feet.

The throne room was made of carved stone and was easily forty feet by forty feet. The only way in or out was through the double doors to the south. Close to the north wall was a dais upon which stood the throne itself, a blocky oversized seat made of metal that looked like it had come from a meteorite. It was square and tall with all sorts of sharp angles.

Andi called over to Callum. “Yo, perhaps you could light us up, so we’re not having to juggle torches while we look.”

“Uh, sure.” The enchanter looked around the room for a suitable target for his illuminationspell. “What about on that pillar?”

“Whatever, dude.”

Callum spoke the incantation and gestured at the top of one of the half dozen floor-to-ceiling carved stone pillars that ringed the dais. A glowing sphere of light the size of a softball winked into existence and then floated through the air and attached itself to the top of one of the pillars. Callum spoke another word and glowing sphere grew to the size of a basketball and became so bright it was hard to look at.

“Better,” Andi said.

Everyone extinguished their torches and Mariel collected them all and wrapped them in a leather bundle. In addition to being their healer, she was the party’s torch-bearer, a job that no one ever wanted.

“Uh, do we want to keep these?” Mariel asked in her low, gravelly voice which never ceased to irritate Iniya. Vocal fry, it was called. Ugh. How could anyone talk like that?

Now that there was some better light, they all spread out to search the room properly, although Iniya knew that Wainwright was the only one who had a decent inspect skill. The chances of anyone else finding anything were slim.

Suddenly, Iniya felt the floor rumble beneath her. A deep muffled sound echoed throughout the throne room, like some ancient creaking machinery set in motion.

“I just touched it…” Mariel said. She was backing away from the throne which trembled, shedding dust and shards of black stone. The rumbling got louder as the throne sunk into the ground.

They all crowded around the hole in the middle of the dais. It was more of a pit or a shaft, six feet wide, and pitch black inside. Callum’s illumination spell didn’t light up more than a few feet down.

“Good one, Mariel,” Iniya said.

Wainwright got down on his hands and knees and felt around the perimeter of the pit.

“I’m not detecting any traps. This could be it.” He looked up at Tolman.

The sage just shrugged. “I told you guys.”

“Callum, throw some light down there,” Iniya said. “We’re going down, kids.”

The enchanter cast another illumination spell. This time the glowing ball floated down the shaft.

Wainwright squinted, following the orb’s progress. Iniya knew that he had the best vision of all of them.

“Twenty five… thirty five…”

“That’s one deep mo-fo,” Andi said.

“I think I see spikes,” Wainwright said. “Yeah. Definitely spikes. At the bottom.”

“Makes sense,” Tolman said. “Typical argish construction.”

“Where did the throne go?” asked Mariel.

Wainwright said, “There’s a passage down there. The throne must have slid to one side.”

“Pretty intricate,” Callum said. “I can float you down if you want. I’ve got a little spell power left.”

Wainwright looked over at Iniya for his orders.

She shrugged at him. “Go ahead take a look. But rope up. Just in case there’s an anti-magic plate down there. I don’t want to have to pick your guts off of those spikes.”

“That makes two of us.”

“And don’t touch anything.”

“I never do. Not in my job description.”

Andi helped secure a hundred-foot silken line around Wainwright’s waist and then she tied the other end around one of the pillars.

“I’ll feed your line,” she said.

“Ready?” Callum asked.

“Let’s do this,” Wainwright said.

As Iniya watched, the enchanter cast his float spell on Wainwright who grinned like an idiot, saluted her, then stepped off the edge of the shaft. The spell allowed the scout to drift down into the shaft at a safe rate, like he was falling in slow motion.

“Wuss,” Andi called after him. “In the old days you would have climbed down yourself. Blindfolded.” She fed out the line as he sunk lower into the shaft.

A minute later, Wainwright called up. “I’m in!”

“What do you see?” Iniya called.

“Just as I thought. East/west passage. Throne’s blocking the west. East is clear for as far as I can see—which isn’t far.”

“Ok. Don’t move. We’re all coming down.”

“I’ll spike the rope.”

The sound of clanging and banging echoed up from the depths of the shaft. It went on for what seemed like ten minutes. Finally, Wainwright announced that the rope was secure at his end.

“Do I have to go?” Mariel asked, in her Mariel voice. “My climbing skill, uh, sucks.”

“I have enough for one more float,” Callum said. “But then I’ll be totally tapped out. How long are we going to be hanging out here?”

Iniya glared at him. “Until we find the freaking clue, Callum. You okay with that?”

“Just asking.”

“No floating. Mariel you stay. But keep your eyes open for wanderers.”

“What about me?” Tolman asked. “I don’t have great climbing either.”

“Well, then be careful. We need you down there to identify crap.”

Andi said, “You can follow me. That way if you fall I can grab you. Maybe.” She laughed.

One by one they roped up and made their way down the shaft. Iniya first, then Andi, Tolman, and then finally Callum.

They all huddled in the passage way while Wainwright fished in his bag for some glowstones. Stupidly, they forgot to bring down the torches. The scout offered to climb back up, but Iniya was eager to get going. She could tell everyone was kind of worn out.

“Let’s do this. Standard order,” Iniya said.

They all got in position. Wainwright up front, checking for traps. Iniya next with a few glowstones looped to her staff for light. Then Callum, Tolman, and Andi bringing up the rear.

The passage was narrower than all the other ones in this dungeon, maybe just six feet wide and six feet tall, but the walls and floor and ceiling were perfectly smooth, like they had been polished. It reminded Iniya of something, but she didn’t know what.

Tolman ran his fingers along the wall. He noticed something too.

“Good thing we don’t have torches,” he said. “I think this is oil.”

“Fire trap?” she asked Wainwright.

The scout took a few tentative steps forward. “I don’t think so. There would be more combustibles.”

“Are we moving or what?” Andi called from the back. “I’m getting claustrophobic.”

“Yeah, hang on a sec…” Something was definitely off here, Iniya thought.

And then she felt the rumbling again. And an image popped into her head: the barrel of her father’s shotgun.

“Run!” she screamed.

She didn’t get more than a few steps before the massive metal throne slammed into her like a locomotive.

And then everything went black.

CHAPTER 1

Justin Boone woke up.

Well, that wasn’t exactly right. He was still asleep; he knew that. Dreaming.

But now he was conscious. Consciously dreaming.

He saw the ceiling above his head. White. Textured paint. It smelled freshly painted.

He heard the low hum of air conditioning. Felt the sheets against his skin. They were cool and smooth. Expensive, probably.

But simulated.

That’s something else he knew. Everything here was simulated. The room, the sheets, the air conditioning, the new paint smell, even he himself was simulated by a building full of OmniWorld’s computers.

It was a bizarre feeling to know that. Really bizarre.

Slowly, gradually, Justin sat up in the bed.

In the real world, he might have experienced some dizziness sitting up too quickly. That had happened a bunch of times with him. Could they simulate that? A momentary loss of blood pressure? He had read that the BerylBlue mega-qubit processors OmniWorld ran on could simulate just about anything. Why not body sensations?

He looked around.

He was sitting in a bed in what looked like your generic hotel room. Nothing too fancy. There was one window with the curtains drawn. A loveseat, a coffee table, and a nightstand. Carpeting on the floor and some unremarkable paintings on the wall. All in all, pretty underwhelming in real life.

But this wasn’t real life.

At least, he didn’t think it was.

For one thing, the last thing he remembered was leaving his room at the Loneskum-Alexander campus and being escorted to a hospital room where he got his first glimpse of the stim-pod that he’d be spending the next year of his life in. There were nearly two hours of final tests and calibration and then they sealed him in.

When he awoke he was here. Inside OmniWorld. Or a janky hotel room. He wasn’t sure which yet.

A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. Without thinking, Justin swung his legs out of the bed and got up.

Then he realized that he was standing in the simulation. For the first time. He also noticed that he was wearing soft cotton shorts and a blank t-shirt. Beneath his feet he felt the low-pile carpet, and he scrunched his toes up, taking in all the sensations.

This was pretty incredible.

Another polite knock.

Maybe it was room service.

He walked to the door and noticed that, unlike old school hotel doors, there was no peephole or video screen. And no lock.

So he pulled the door open.

Standing in the hallway was a guy about his own age. He had a pleasant face and was dressed in jeans and an untucked button-down shirt.

“What’s up?” The guy smiled at him. “You acclimated yet?”

“I just woke up,” Justin said.

“Cool. Well, my name is Wyatt and I’m supposed to take you down to the testing lounge.”

“Wait, we’re inside OmniWorld, right?”

“We are.”

“And are you, like, an NPC?”

Wyatt made a face. “Rule #1. Don’t refer to anyone as an NPC. I work here.”

“But you’re an NPC?”

“I’m an intern.”

“Are you human? A player?”

“You’re getting kind of personal, aren’t you?”

Justin felt a flush of anger. “I command you to answer me!”

Wyatt laughed. “Take it easy. It doesn’t work like that. Remember your briefing sessions?”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. That’s what the testing lounge is for.”

Wyatt led him down the corridor and into an elevator. Then he told it to take them to the lobby.

“Are we the only ones in this hotel?” Justin asked.

“It’s not really a hotel, although everyone calls it that. Its official name is the ‘transition zone.’ It’s supposed to make you feel like you’re in a familiar environment. We didn’t want you waking up in a starship or a saloon or on in a foxhole. Too jarring.”

“I’m going to Greystrand,” Justin said.

He had the choice to spend his first OmniWorld life in one of several game worlds: Star Rim Empire, Spurshot, Eagle’s Bridge, Highland Moor, Mosaica, and a few others he couldn’t remember. Each one was a different milieu, from sci-fi to superhero to western. There was even an old school cyberpunk world and a 18th century Scottish world. But he would choose Greystrand, the medieval fantasy world.

“Yeah, that’s the one most people go for,” Wyatt said. “But I heard that Spurshot’s pretty cool. Old West. Gunfights. They’ve been doing a lot of work on the story lines there and their putting in an old steam train.”

“I’m not really into cowboys and Indians.”

“You’re more of a knights and dragons type, huh? That’s cool.”

Justin had read that Loneskum-Alexander bought the IP for the old Caves & Beasts pen and paper role-playing game from the 1970s and based Greystrand on that.

His dad had played C&B in high school and at various times when Justin was growing up, his dad had tried to get Justin into it, but the game seemed way too complex and boring.

Now he kind of wished that he had given C&B a try. Might have given him a leg up here.

The elevator arrived at its destination and they walked out into another corridor which looked similar to the one where Justin’s room was.

“Slight detour,” Wyatt said. “I didn’t have breakfast this morning.”

He led Justin through a pair of double doors into a small lounge set up with tables and chairs and a counter with breakfast stuff.

“Continental breakfast is included?” Justin smirked.

“Don’t laugh. The cinnamon buns are awesome. And this might just be the last decent food you get for a while. I hope you like gruel.”

Wyatt got himself a coffee and a cinnamon bun, but Justin chose a banana instead.

“So we have a sense of taste here?” Justin asked. “I was wondering about that.”

“Give it a try.”

Justin peeled the banana part way and held it up to his nose. It certainly smelled real. He broke off a bit and popped it into his mouth. It tasted just like a normal banana although one that was perfectly ripe.

“Amazing,” he said.

“You like?”

“How does it simulate all those thousands of taste buds?”

Wyatt shook his head. “You forget. This is all you.”

He was right, of course. Justin had forgotten for a second. The breakthrough Loneskum-Alexander had made was being able to stimulate the brain’s sensory areas and then orchestrate those sensations between different players. That’s what the quantum computers were for. And the stim-pods: brain-to-computer interfaces. So really, it was Justin’s own brain that was interpreting the taste of the banana.

“Mind blown,” he said.

Wyatt laughed. “Yeah, don’t try to think about it too much. The good news is that we’re almost done with the testing.”

“What? I thought we were supposed to be going to some ‘testing lounge,’ right?”

“I kind of lied. This whole thing has been the testing lounge. And calibration of all your senses. We just did taste, so there’s only two more tests.”

Justin thought about it. Since he woke up, he had seen, heard, felt, smelled, and now tasted. He wasn’t exactly sure what the other tests might be.

“This one is actually another mind blower,” Wyatt said. “So in the paracosm there’s one more sense. They told you about this, right?”

“Game sense?”

“Yeah, we call it ‘the data overlay’ or just ‘overlay’ for short. It’s the additional sense that enables the gaming aspect of OmniWorld. Ready to check it out?”

“Yeah, let’s do this.”

“So what you want to do is focus on something—like the banana…”

“Just stare at it?”

“Yeah, you can stare but you can also say the name of the thing to yourself. That kind of helps when you’re learning how to overlay.”

“Ok, I’m staring at the banana and thinking about it. Nothing’s happening.”

“Now kind of roll your eyes up without moving your head. I know it sounds weird, but that’s the trigger they came up with.”

Justin stared at the banana, said the word ‘banana’ to himself, and tried to roll his eyes up.

“Still nothing.”

“Keep focusing on the banana. And the eye roll thing is real gentle—”

All of a sudden a translucent panel appeared over the banana—kind of like a dialog bubble in a comic book. It read:

:::::. Banana (fruit). Edible .:::::

“I see it!”

“You do? Cool. Now blink to get rid of it.”

Justin blinked, and the overlay faded away.

“Now let’s try something a bit more fun,” Wyatt said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out something the size of a walnut. When he placed it on the counter, Justin saw that it was a some sort of necklace, a piece of crystal with a hole bored into it. The crystal was strung on to a length of leather cord.

“What is it?”

“You tell me.”

Justin nodded. He stared at the crystal and told himself ‘crystal’ and then did the little eye roll thing. The overlay popped up:

:::::. Glowstone (magical item). Provides a glow of light in a 10’ radius. Usable .:::::

This was amazing!

“Glowstone!” Justin said.

“Your first magic item.”

“Can I keep it?”

“Unfortunately, no. Everything here is for demonstration purposes only. Except the banana. You can actually eat that.”

“What’s next?”

“Well, you were curious about me, right? Overlay me. I don’t mind.”

Justin focused on Wyatt and triggered the overlay. This was getting easier.

:::::. Wyatt. (NPC-Admin). Friendly .:::::

“I knew it! You are an NPC.”

“Busted.”

They both laughed.

“That’s freaking awesome.”

“Yeah, it is. Now if I was a player, you’d see some more info and if we were grouped, you could see even more. Health. Spell effects. Stuff like that.”

“Cool.”

“Okay, last one. This time do yourself.”

“How do I do that?”

“Same way. Just focus on yourself and trigger. You can say ‘me’ if you want. Easy.”

Justin thought about himself, rolled his eyes, and then found himself staring at a new overlay:

:::::. Justin Boone. (Undefined). Level: undefined. Profession: undefined. Health: undefined. Combat action: undefined. Combat opposition: undefined. Magic action: undefined. Magic opposition: undefined. Experience: undefined .:::::

“It all says ‘undefined’—”

“Yup. Working as intended. According to the game, you’re undefined. But we’ll take care of that in a bit.”

“I’m also not crazy about the UI. It’s just a big list.”

“Yeah, there are a lot of fields for player records. But you can filter the display once you get more up to speed on overlaying. For example, you could just filter for skills and then the overlay would just show your skills. If you had any, of course. That make sense?”

“I guess.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to practice. We’ve got one last test here and then we’ll go discover which profession you are. Cool?”

“Sure.”

Wyatt walked closer and looked Justin right in the eye. “This is actually my favorite test. Pain calibration.”

“Pain, what—?”

Before Justin could finish his thought, Wyatt’s fist smashed into his face. He felt his nose crunch and a sharp pain exploded between his eyes.

Then he blacked out.

***

When he woke up, he was sprawled on a cool stone floor in some sort of large chamber. He sat up and felt his face. Sucker-punched by that asshole Wyatt.

But his face wasn’t sore at all. He gingerly touched his nose. No pain. No broken bones. Okay. Not bad.

Justin stood up and looked around. This was some sort of ceremonial hall with statues and pillars and tapestries. It almost looked like a medieval cathedral in here.

“Behold the Hall of Choosing!” a deep voice called from behind him.

Justin whipped around to see an old man wearing robes, and a cloak, and a satin skullcap. The man had long white hair and a long white beard. It was all a bit much.

“Who are you supposed to be? Dumbledore? Gandalf? Obi-Wan?”

“Didn’t you just learn how to overlay?” the old man asked.

Justin stared at him. Old man. Eye roll. Boom.

:::::. Wyatt, Magister of the Choosing (NPC). Friendly .:::::

“Wyatt? That you?” Justin moved closer and examined the man’s face. It looked like Wyatt’s face, but about fifty years older.

“Freaky, huh? I get to play the Magister sometimes. Hey, sorry about the pain test. They make me do that. No hard feelings, huh?”

Justin felt his jaw tighten. Time for a little payback.

“Nope. None at all—”

Then Justin launched himself at Wyatt, slamming his fist into the old man’s furry face.

But it didn’t work.

Justin’s fist passed right through Wyatt’s face. It was like trying to punch a ghost.

Wyatt cackled, “Yeah, you can’t be doing that. No attacking of friendlies. The controller doesn’t allow it. We can spar if you want, but it has to be mutual.”

“Is that like dueling?”

“Yeah, but no dying and no real damage.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll initiate,” Wyatt said. “It’s a voice command. The trigger word is ‘spar’ and you just say the person’s name afterwards. Then you have to agree. Ready?”

Justin nodded.

Wyatt said, “Spar with Justin.”

Immediately an overlay popped up:

:::::. Wyatt has invited you to spar (first hit). Accept? .:::::

“It’s asking me if I want to accept,” Justin said. “How do I respond?”

“It’s all voice. Just say ‘yes.’ Unless you’ve chickened out.”

“What does ‘first hit’ mean?”

“It means the first one to land a hit wins.”

“Okay,” Justin said. Then a bit louder he said, “I accept the challenge.”

A glowing circle of light appeared on the ground. It was fifteen or twenty feet in diameter. Then Justin heard a disembodied voice count down “5…4…3…2…1… Begin!”

Wyatt stepped into the circle, his hands raised like a boxer. He was grinning like an old madman.

Justin couldn’t help smiling himself. This was super fun. He darted in and swung at Wyatt’s jaw.

In a blur of speed, Wyatt pivoted, evading Justin’s punch. He then spun and slammed his elbow into Justin’s temple. There was a blinding flash of pain and everything went black.

***

Some time later, Justin woke up. He was sprawled on the stone floor, in the same large chamber. Old man Wyatt was standing above him, reaching out to help him up.

“You’re oh for two, bro,” Wyatt said.

“Tell me about it.”

Wyatt clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. It was kind of a cheat. You’re still an undefined character, so you don’t have any combat skill.”

“Gee, thanks for that.”

“Well, we’re going to remedy that right now. It’s time to figure out what your profession is.” Wyatt led him to the far end of the hall where a line of seven marble statues stood.

“You’re still wanting to go to Greystrand, right?” Wyatt asked. “Because these are all keyed to that world.”

Justin nodded and moved closer to the first statue. It was of a brawny young man holding a battle axe and a shield. A polished gold plaque at the base of the statue read “guardian knight.”

Wyatt said, “You can overlay it if you want. There’s some basic info, but not a ton.”

Justin focused on the statue:

:::::. Guardian knight. Role: defense. Domain: combat .:::::

“I don’t think that either combat classes will pop for you. No offense, but no one’s going to mistake you for a linebacker, right?”

“What do you mean?”

Wyatt hesitated for a moment. “Didn’t they brief you on professions?”

Justin shook his head. He couldn’t remember any special briefing on professions. He knew that there were different character classes, of course. But not much beyond that. He told Wyatt so.

“Okay. Here’s the crash course. OmniWorld is a CGE. You know what that is?”

“No,” Justin said.

“It stands for ‘Cooperative Gaming Environment’ and it basically means that all the game worlds—not just Greystrand—are designed to promote the idea of players all working together. It’s all kind of touchy-feely: cooperation, not competition. But that’s what the psychologists believe works best.”

“But you can still solo, right?”

“Technically, every player has agency, so you can do whatever you want, but the reality of it is that the game controller wants players to work together. If you solo, you advance slower, have less fun, and are more likely to die. They did tell you about the death clause, right?”

Justin certainly remembered the death clause. They made a big deal of it during the briefings. Every player knew that they had unlimited deaths until they hit level five. Once you reached level five, it was three strikes and you’re out. Contract terminated. No million dollar payout. Plus every one of those three deaths after level five meant a character wipe. You had to start from scratch with no memories.

“Okay, so I get the whole cooperative gaming thing,” Justin said. “But what does it have to do with choosing my character class?”

“That’s the thing. You don’t get to choose.”

“Well, that sucks!” Justin really wanted to be a battle mage, not some stupid cleric or thief.

“The game controller assigns you a profession—based on a bunch of things, including your physical and mental aptitude, your personality and psychological profiles, and profession supply and demand within the game world.”

Now that Wyatt explained that all, Justin had a vague recollection of hearing something about that. But the briefing sessions hadn’t been game-specific, so the whole idea about being assigned a character class hadn’t sunk in.

He sighed. “Well, let’s get this over with then. What do I have to do?”

“Nothing really. Just step in front of each statue and see which one pops for you.”

“Great.”

The next statue in the line was an enchanter.

:::::. Enchanter. Role: defense/utility. Domain: magic .:::::

He stood in front of it for a moment, but nothing happened.

“Keep going. If it pops, you’ll know it right away,” Wyatt said.

Another brawny-looking statue was next. This one had a longsword. The plaque read simply “warrior.” Pretty generic.

:::::. Warrior. Role: offense. Domain: combat .:::::

When Justin stepped in front of it, nothing happened. Probably for the best.

“Three down, four to go,” said Wyatt.

Glancing over at the next statue, Justin saw that it was obviously a magic-user, but not the typical lanky wizard type. The statue was of a tall, buff guy with an aggressive stance. He glared down at Justin like he was just about to blast him with a fireball. This is the class Justin wanted to be:

:::::. Battle mage. Role: offense. Domain: magic .:::::

Heart pounding, Justin forced himself to walk in front of the statue of the battle mage. He held his breath and… nothing.

“Crap!”

“You wanted battle mage?”

“Of course I wanted battle mage. Who wouldn’t?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Wyatt said. “Professions aren’t a real big deal in the long run.”

“I have a hard time believing that.”

“And I’ll let you in on a little behind-the-scenes secret. You want to hear it now or once we’re done here?”

“Is this secret a hack that will let me be a battle mage?”

“No, something better.”

“Whatever, then. Tell me now.”

“Well, now I’m not so sure that I should. You have a lot of anger in you…”

“Wyatt!”

“Okay, okay. I’ll tell you right after you step in front of the next statue. It’s the healer, and I have a good feeling about this.”

“No freaking way! I do not want to be a healer. I’ll commit suicide and re-roll.”

“Wouldn’t matter. The controller would probably assign you healer again. Unless, of course, we had a glut of healers for some reason.”

“This sucks. Have I mentioned that?”

Justin stomped over to the statue of the healer and didn’t even bother to overlay it. Thankfully, nothing happened. He was spared. Whew.

“Well, I guess I was wrong,” Wyatt said. “Funny, I would have bet my life that you were destined to be a healer.”

“Thank god for small miracles. Now tell me this behind-the-scenes secret. You promised.”

“Fair enough. So here’s the thing. The game controller wants you to be happy and have a good experience in the game world. Makes sense, right?”

“I guess so.” Everyone who applied to this first public beta of OmniWorld—all two million—had super high expectations. If there was bad word-of-mouth about the whole thing after this first group of a thousand beta testers got out, it could really hurt Loneskum-Alexander.

“So the little secret is that 99.9% of players end up loving the profession that’s chosen for them. That’s actual data, by the way. I’m not exaggerating.”

Justin sniffed. “I’m having a hard time believing that.”

“Believe what you want, but you’ll see. It might take a couple of weeks.”

“Everyone wants to decide their own fate,” Justin said. “It’s human nature.”

“You do get to decide your own fate, believe me. This is all about helping you realize your potential. But enough yakking. You’ve got two more possibilities.”

“You make it sound like Russian roulette,” Justin said. Then he stepped in front of the next statue.

There was a flash of light and a loud whooshing sound and Justin found himself on top of the pedestal.