It’s a different world inside Mammon. The only road through the realm is lined with mansions surrounded by gilded gates and well-tended lawns. Each of the homes is more ornate than the last, and they’re all covered in stucco that’s been mixed with diamonds so the walls sparkle in the sun. It seems the gems the cliff dwellers kill for are as common as dirt here. Everywhere I look I see royal palms, English ivy and topiary trees. But there don’t seem to be any avatars or animals. The realm is totally still. As we start down the road, it feels like we’re strolling through Beverly Hills just after the apocalypse.
Far ahead at the end of the road, a massive golden temple sits atop a hill. I’m guessing that’s where the Elemental of Mammon resides. The homes closest to it are practically palaces, but the temple itself seems to be the ultimate prize. If anyone’s alive in this part of the realm, I’d bet they’re striving to reach it. I’d love to know what they get if they do.
“We need to make our way to the temple,” I say. “If this is any- thing like Imra, the Elemental of Mammon will decide whether we can leave. And I’m betting that temple is where he or she lives.”
“If we’re going that far, I should probably stay invisible,” Carole says. “Give me your tools and weapons for safekeeping.”
“Again?” Gorog whines. “Why? There’s no one around.”
“Don’t be so sure. I stole the diamonds from one of the homes here. The entire yard was booby-trapped like you wouldn’t believe. There are definitely people around, and they aren’t any friendlier than the ones back in the canyon.”
“Okay, but what could these people possibly want from us?” Gorog’s irritated. “Look at these houses. They have everything. They’ve got it made.”
“You think that’s how it works?” Carole asks. “There are rich people in the real world who’d steal a jar of pennies from an orphan. That’s how most of them got rich in the first place. Can you imagine what the ones here are like?
“She’s right,” I tell the ogre. There’s something eerie about this place. I hand Carole my weapons.
“Whatever,” Gorog says. “Take my sword and my fire. But I’m keeping the slingshot. I like it.”
Carole rolls her eyes at the ogre before she pulls the hood over her head and disappears. I figure she must be lugging her weight in weapons.
We set off toward the temple on the hill. As we walk past the gates of the first mansion, a relatively humble Gothic pile, I hear a strange mechanical whir. It takes me a moment to figure out that it’s the sound of a hidden camera following our every move. Someone inside the building is watching us. We reach the second and then the third mansion and discover that their owners have taken security surveillance to even greater heights. Countless cameras are mounted on posts along the gates, and as we pass, drones buzz above our heads. Gorog flips them the bird. I feel strangely naked, like the cameras can see through my clothes and my skin. The dis- comfort makes me itch. It seems to make Gorog angry.
“We don’t want your stuff!” He shouts as one of the drones swoops down for a close-up of him.
We’re nearing the grounds of the fourth mansion, and I’m finally beginning to understand the paranoia. Two armies of NPCs are at war on the grounds. One group seems to be invading while the other desperately tries to fend off the attack. What was once lawn is now a muddy battlefield. The little grass left is red with blood. Several booby traps have been sprung, and I see invaders who’ve been immobilized by nets, riddled with arrows and impaled by spears. As I watch, two NPCs disappear into a hole in the lawn. I don’t know for sure what’s in the hole, but it wouldn’t be much of a trap without a few spikes at the bottom.
We move on quickly while the battle continues to rage. We don’t get far before we spot a roadblock up ahead, outside the next mansion.
“Now do you see why I needed to carry the weapons?” I hear Carole whisper.
I know what she’s saying, and she’s right. Any visible weapons would probably be confiscated. But I’d still feel a lot better if I had my dagger handy. As we draw closer, it becomes clear that the figures manning the roadblock are all identical NPCs.
The mansion’s owner definitely has a type—tall, dark and bland. They stand shoulder to shoulder in a line that stretches across the street. There’s no way around them.
“Relinquish your weapons,” one of the clones demands.
“I don’t have any,” I tell them. Thankfully, Gorog and I have a fully armed guardian angel watching over us.
“And you?” the clone asks Gorog.
Gorog looks at me and I shrug. He should have let Carole hold on to his slingshot. The ogre pulls the weapon out of his waist- band and reluctantly tosses it to the ground. Two of the other men step forward and frisk us.
“That’s it?” the clone asks, clearly surprised. “You survived the canyon with a slingshot?”
“We’re really fast runners,” I tell him.
Gorog nods. “As soon as we’re out of here, we’re trying out for the US Olympic team,” he adds.
The clone doesn’t blink. “Come with me,” he says humorlessly. We’re forced to leave the road to the temple. They surround us and we’re marched through the gates that encircle the mansion and then across its broad lawn.
I gotta say, the security here is truly exemplary. You can’t really tell from the street, but the place is a fortress. The mansion itself is a stucco-covered monstrosity that looks like the embassy of the world’s tackiest country. As we near the building, I see that the windows are barricaded with metal grates and the balconies are all adorned with razor wire. Several snipers are stationed on the roof, and a defensive wall made of sandbags surrounds the entire house. Whoever lives here doesn’t seem all that fond of visitors. My chest is starting to feel a bit tight, but I know I’d be feeling a hell of a lot worse right now if Carole weren’t right behind me.
The mansion’s doors open when we reach the porch, and I’m once again taken by surprise. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this is definitely not it. The interior is decorated in a style I’d call Baltic dictator. A forest of black marble columns topped with golden ornament holds up the ceiling. The floor tiles are a high- gloss leopard print, and the black ceiling is studded with tiny lights that form what I’d guess are astrological signs. But there’s no art on the walls or furniture to sit on. Mounds of black garbage bags are lined up along the perimeter, as if the mansion’s inhabit- ants just went nuts with spring cleaning.
“Hey there!” says a woman, and I spin around. Again—not what I was expecting. The avatar is your typical twentysomething Alpha female. Olive-skinned, with a long brown ponytail. Toned, but not too burly. Nice set of knockers. I would have expected the house’s occupant to be all blinged out, but if anything, her appearance is tastefully understated. She’s wearing what looks like a black yoga outfit and a pair of diamond studs in her ears. “I’m Gina.”
“Hi,” Gorog replies a little too enthusiastically. He should know better than to get all hot and bothered by an avatar. There’s probably some hairy-handed forty-year-old pervert behind it.
“So you guys have joined forces, have you?” Gina asks. “Most of the people in Mammon prefer to play solo. I guess we’re not the sort who like to share.” The word play echoes in my head. If she knows she’s in a game, she’s probably wearing a headset.
“We’re not here to play,” I tell her. “We’re just passing through.”
Gina laughs. “Passing through? I’ve never heard that before.” She gives us the once-over and rubs her hands together eagerly.
“What have you brought me?” she asks.
“I’m sorry, we didn’t realize you were having us over,” I say. “If we’d known, we would have purchased a hostess gift on our way to the party.”
“Hilarious!” the woman says. “It’s so good to hear a joke. As much fun as these NPCs can be, it’s nice to have a human around sometimes. Can you both open your mouths for me, please?”
“Excuse me?” I ask. I seriously didn’t think anything could surprise me anymore. “Your mouths?” She gestures to her servants, and two of them step forward and wrench our jaws apart. The woman takes a look and shakes her head. The servants let us go. “What was that about?” Gorog’s no longer in love.
“You’d never guess how many people trick out their avatars with fancy dental work,” she says. “I have a small fortune in grills.” She gestures to the guard. “Show them.”
The NPC picks up one of the black plastic bags and holds it open in front of us. Inside is a collection of gold and diamond- studded tooth-shaped jewelry. It makes me wonder what might be inside the other bags.
“You steal people’s teeth?” Gorog asks.
“Every little bit counts,” she says, then turns to one of the NPC servants. “What weapons did our visitors have on them?”
“Only this,” says the guard. He passes her the confiscated slingshot.
She examines it thoughtfully. “You made it through the can- yon with a slingshot? How impressive! It took me a hundred weapons and almost a week of constant play to work my way through the caves.”
“You used to be one of the cliff dwellers?” Gorog asks in astonishment.
“Clean up pretty nice, don’t I?” says the woman.
“Does that mean you ate people?” Gorog asks, managing to look both curious and queasy. “What did they taste like?”
“Taste like? How the hell would I know? It’s a game, dickweed,” the woman responds testily. She seems offended by Gorog’s squeamishness.
I’m actually glad Gorog brought up the subject of cannibal- ism. Gina’s response confirms my suspicions. If her taste buds aren’t working, she’s not part of the disk’s beta test. Somewhere in the United States (possibly Canada), a person wearing a headset is controlling her, and only a few of that person’s senses are engaged. I guess cannibalism isn’t quite as bad if you don’t have to taste or smell what you’re eating.
z“In case you haven’t noticed,” Gina is saying, “I’m kicking some serious ass here in Otherworld. I’ve got twenty-four kills and over three billion dollars in gems, weapons and other assorted goods.” “Oh, we’ve noticed,” I assure her. “You’re obviously good at this. So why are you still here in Mammon?”
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“I guess it just doesn’t seem like much fun to me. Do you enjoy stockpiling weapons and stealing teeth? Isn’t Otherworld all about living the life you always wanted? Why spend your time in a place where everyone’s afraid all the time?”
“Well, it’s a lot better than Everglades City. Spend too much time outside where I live and you’ll die of heatstroke or get eaten by gators.” So the person behind Gina is in Florida. Good to know. Only two thousand people were given access to the Otherworld headset app. There can’t be more than one of them in Everglades City. “Besides, I’m having a blast. I figure in a couple more weeks I’ll reach the golden temple.”
“And then what?” I ask.
“And then I’ll win!”
“Win what?” I ask. The question clearly annoys her. I don’t think she knows. “The game! Look, I’m getting sick of this conversation. I always forget how stupid people can be.” She turns to the NPCs. “Take them out of here. And make sure you get the invisible one, too.” “Invisible one?” I ask, managing to play it somewhat cool even though I’m freaking the hell out. “Do you think I made it this far by being stupid?” the woman sneers. “There’s no way you got through the canyon with a goddamn slingshot.”