Excerpt from NPC (#3)
A continuation of last week’s excerpt
Mount Cataclysm exploded.
Kurt didn’t hear about it right away. He had been around the Central Hub, taking a shift in helping new players with directions and what the game was all about when he noticed that a sudden abundance of players were respawning in the neutral zone. Most had Fire dragons, or at least Spirit hatchlings with the telltale red glow that signaled that Fire was their preferred element for evolving. Almost all of the players were as bewildered as the new players when they realized what had happened.
“The volcano erupted,” players were suddenly saying, and all of the garbles and gibberish that the crowd had generated turned into an excited buzz. Kurt wasn’t sure what was so exciting about a volcano erupting, but he excused himself from the new player he had been helping to soar with Noodles over to Mount Cataclysm.
If Mount Cataclysm had been scheduled to erupt, wouldn’t Animus or Gears have told the NPCs? Or was this an attempt to allow the players more action, more of a hero role rather than just as explorers?
Kurt had arrived in time to see Brent’s Foxtail emit a stream of flames at an engulfed boulder that had been heading their way. The Fire dragon’s efforts had succeeded in pushing the boulder away from them and the few players that they were with only to have it crush another pair of players. Kurt watched as they flickered out of existence, positive that they would respawn back in the Central Hub. The rest of the scene was just as chaotic.
Without too much of Kurt’s direction, Noodles blasted away at the spewing lava and rocks with her own streams of water. Other Water dragon masters, NPCs and players alike, slowly and steadily came over to the area once news of Mount Cataclysm’s eruption reached them. Earth dragons appeared to try to up heave the ground, to bury the flames and unruly rocks, while Wind dragons directed the airs in attempts to control where the lava and boulders fell. The Fire dragon masters could only do so much with their breaths only succeeding in furthering the flames.
“Brent,” Kurt called out, doing his best to have his voice carry over the cacophony of crashing boulders, sizzling flames, and hissing water. “Brent! Is there anyone in the mountain?”
“No idea,” Brent called back, pulling Foxtail away from the erupting site. “What, you suggesting that I go in and save any trapped avatars?”
“Your Fire dragons can resist the heat,” Kurt pointed out. “Why wouldn’t you go to see if they need help?”
“Would they help us if we got trapped?” Brent asked.
“Some would say that’s the point of being a player in a game like this,” Kurt said. “In most games, the players rescue the NPCs, not the other way around.”
“Yeah, well…” Brent took a deep breath. “In most games, NPCs don’t feel as much as we do. Kurt, have you ever gotten into such trouble that you had to respawn?”
Noodles took a sharp turn and Kurt nearly tumbled off of her back. His mind had been on the question, not on the scene around him. Eventually he answered, “No, no, I haven’t.”
“Do you know if you would respawn?” Brent asked. Kurt didn’t have an answer for that, and Brent shook his head. “I didn’t think you would. The players will be fine. If they get trapped, all they gotta do is walk through fire and burn enough to respawn and come back to life. As for us? I don’t know if we’d come back from the dead, and I’m not willing to try it out for a couple of avatars who aren’t even real in this world.”
“What are you, a coward?” Leslie was suddenly by their side, and Rosie grunted as she caught a boulder in the air and tossed it into the surrounding sea.
“For my life?” Brent shot back. “Yes!”
“To help the players is what we’re here for,” Leslie said. “It’s why we were created.”
“I’m all for helping,” Brent said, “you know, giving directions, doing easy delivery or rescue missions, but not for giving them my life.”
Noodles hung back, panting, and Kurt could only stroke what he could reach of her neck. Foxtail twisted to stretch in front of them and block an incoming flying sphere of lava.
“The moderators care too much about us to not let us respawn,” Kurt eventually said. “Why create us just to allow us to easily die?”
“I’m not as positive about our creators’ good virtues as you are,” Brent said. “I just don’t know if they could do that. If I was as sure that this program stretched to let us respawn as sure as I am a Fire dragon master, then, yeah, I’d be in that volcano doing search and rescue, but…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
As if on cue, all three of the NPCs’ wristwatches flashed red with messages from avatars trapped inside the mountain. They mentioned boulders blocking the path and how they didn’t know where lava was flowing down. One wrong break through the mountain’s walls, and they could send lava gushing inside the mountain.
Noodles wouldn’t be able to handle going through the volcano, not with how worn out she was with fighting the eruption from the outside. Kurt glanced from Brent to Leslie and back to Brent. Brent only moved to signal Foxtail to back off from the volcano.
Leslie glowered at Brent. “We’re NPCs,” she repeated, “here to help the avatars. I’m not going to go against my programming!”
She and Rosie dove toward the volcano, flying tightly and twisting whenever necessary to avoid the volcanic debris. With a roar, Rosie broke through the side of the mountain, making a dragon-shaped hole just big enough for them to lead a couple of trapped dragons and their masters out in single file.
Kurt didn’t have time to dwell on Leslie’s or the trapped avatars’ states. Instead, he directed Noodles to help the evacuation efforts around Mount Cataclysm’s base. Noodles still had to rebuild her reservoir of water powers, but she could still herd and hide players and Spirit hatchlings from tumbling debris. Brent eventually directed Foxtail to do the same, his Fire dragon’s bulk doing more blocking than anything.
A whistling from the mountain base’s shoreline stole Kurt’s attention, and he blinked at seeing the wide grin on Pyrobot’s face.
“Hey, everyone!” the player called out. “We got a couple of dragons that are free to tow players to the Central Hub! Come and grab a hold of Mustang and Clyde! Four players to a dragon, as long as you don’t mind getting wet.”
There was Pyrobot’s friend Hydroid helping other avatars to hold onto his and Pyrobot’s Spirit hatchlings, now having grown strong enough to allow a few players to hold on while they swam through the water to the neutral zone. Kurt had Noodles herd the avatars they had been harboring toward Hydroid, and Kurt shared a grateful nod to the player.
With the help of so many NPCs and players, Mount Cataclysm’s island was soon evacuated, and they were able the watch the last bits of the eruption come to a close from the Central Hub. Kurt had all but forgotten about Leslie and Rosie until he overheard a player speaking to another about “the Earth dragon and her master,” and Kurt eavesdropped long enough to know that Leslie had directed the players out of the mountain before getting trapped herself.
Kurt was soaring on Noodles back toward the volcano and they nearly crashed into Brent and Foxtail while trying to find the hole that Rosie had created into the mountain.
“She’s not here anymore,” Brent said even as Noodles and Kurt snaked their way into the found hole. Brent called after him, “Use your built-in scanner, Kurt! You can’t find Leslie!”
Kurt scoured the narrow pathway, finding nothing, no trace of Leslie or her Earth dragon. His code’s scanner couldn’t find her programming.
Brent’s last shouts echoed across the empty walls. “She’s gone, Kurt! Leslie’s gone and she’s never going to respawn! To the administrators, her programming was deleted. To us, she’s dead.”