Section 1: In which Kyle wakes up

Kyle woke up in a dungeon.

There’s a difference between a dungeon and a prison, as any RPG player could tell you. Prisons are well-kept places, meant to securely house reforming criminals. Dungeons are meant to house adventure, and so are usually dank and moldering; dark and neglected. This one was no exception. The room was illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight that lit the sparkling motes of dust in its wake. Moss grew on the floor, and Kyle could feel dampness seeping in through his clothes. There was a constant dripping sound coming from somewhere far-off, echoing from down the hallway. The place smelled of age and decay.

As Kyle pulled himself to his feet, he conceded that this particular dungeon could be mistaken for a prison. There were large iron bars separating the small cell he was in from a longer hallway. Some of these bars were set into a large doorframe, with a large lock sporting an iconic keyhole.

Kyle felt cold, but neither tired nor stiff, which was surprising given that he had just regained consciousness after lying on a stone floor. He had no idea why he was in a dungeon. He remembered signing a contract in the Virtuaverse retail store a few minutes prior. He clearly remembered being led by an employee into some sterile looking gray room. Then… he had woken up in a dungeon. It was disconcertingly sudden.

He had only wanted to join that E-sports tournament Virtuaverse had been advertising. Given that he was in an obvious dungeon, part of him wondered if he somehow already was in the tournament. The Virtuaverse employee at the building he went to said that the game would be played using some sort of “never before seen” interface, and that part of the competition was to see who could adapt to using it the most quickly.

He rubbed his arms to fight against the cold, and felt fabric far rougher than the nylon he thought he was wearing. He looked at his clothing, and found it was a creme-colored smock of some kind, with brown breeches as pants. Peasant clothing. Clean, aside from a few spots where it had gotten soiled from the slime on the floor. It seemed tougher and more durable than anything Kyle ever had a need to wear back in Cincinnati. Also stiffer than he’d like.

So. In a game, then. With starting equipment.

Kyle walked over and touched the wall. It was cold, the sort of cold that makes you think it’s damp until you take your hand away and find your fingers dry. He was obviously some in sort of virtual reality, but it had haptic and thermal feedback as well. Kyle had never trusted those “cutting edge” spinal jacks enough to install one, so there should be no way for such realistic sensations to reach his brain. He pawed at his face for a moment, but felt no goggles or headset, either. What the hell did they do to him? Drug him, surgically install a spine jack, and dump him into a virtual world? There was nothing in the contract that should have allowed them to do that. Kyle knew. He prided himself on reading contracts, if only to annoy the salespeople who handed them to him.

There was an alternate possibility. The cell he was in could be real. Although how Virtuaverse could get such a realistic decrepit, mouldering dungeon, Kyle had no idea. Also disturbing was the idea that a Virtuaverse employee would drug him, remove all his clothing, replace it with thematically appropriate peasant garb, and then dump him in a cell. There was nothing in the contract that would have allowed that, either.

Kyle felt like he should be panicking, but the tightness in his chest was missing. Kyle supposed he should be grateful he could be calm in a situation like this. It was clear he was in a game of some sort, meaning he was in the competition whether he liked it or not. Panicking wouldn’t help him win those five-million dollars. He walked to the gate-like barred-iron door separating his cell from the rest of the hallway, and gave it an experimental tug. It was indeed locked; that giant keyhole wasn’t just for show. The keyhole was large enough that he could see through it, implying that perhaps he could reach the mechanism if he tried. He knelt to examine the lock as his mind continued to race.

Kyle found it strange that his memory of his time at Virtuaverse ended so abruptly upon entering that gray room. The last thing he remembered was the employee asking “Stand here for a moment,” and motioning to a pair of footprints labelled in yellow on the ground. Then, bam. Dungeon. It was unbelievably abrupt. Perhaps whatever drugs knocked him out also affected his memory? He vaguely recalled hearing about drugs that affected one’s memory in Health class. That’s why you don’t take drinks from strangers, for instance. But he didn’t think drugs like that could be this… complete. Or abrupt. There should be some sort of foggy, hazy… something. Right? Kyle wasn’t sure. He’d never been drugged. To his knowledge.

There was always the possibility that he did agree to… whatever this was. At least, before his memories were (hypothetically) altered. Perhaps memory modification drugs were part of the game. Maybe waking up with no clue what was going on or memory of what you agreed to was important design-wise for some reason. But Kyle felt like he never would have agreed to such a thing.

The lock was made of a separate front and back plate, spaced about an inch apart with the lock mechanism sandwiched between them. There were matching keyholes in the center of both plates, so that somebody with a key could unlock it from either side. The keyhole was large enough that Kyle could stick his fingers in, but it was too dark to see anything between the plates. He stuck his finger in and groped around behind the plates, but didn’t feel the locking mechanism. He was getting frustrated.

At that moment, Kyle heard footsteps down the hall to his right. His first instinct was to retreat from the lock and pretend he wasn’t trying to escape. He decided against it. Trying to escape signaled his disapproval. Whoever was coming down the hallway could watch Kyle pick the lock, for all he cared.

He glanced up to see a man in a dark robe with a hood that obscured his upper face, walking down the hall towards Kyle. The man’s robe was so long it drug along the floor behind him, which made great thematic sense but seemed dumb in a dungeon with slimy floors. Kyle kept an eye on the man as he approached.

“Looking for this?” the man asked, producing a large metal key from his pocket.