Friday Night Dragon Adventure
This week, Neon Yang’s ”Friday Night Dragon Adventure” will enthrall you when an augmented reality character decides to make a break for the good life. ~ Julian and Fran, May 14, 2023
Friday Night Dragon Adventure
By Neon Yang
It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. As with humans living on the moon, it was a given, a certainty shared by pundits, science fiction authors, and mouthy relatives with opinions. Augmented reality was everywhere and AI was constantly getting smarter, better, more complex. Beyond the bounds of human comprehension or control. Sooner or later, something was going to escape containment. Lia knew this, working for a games company that dealt heartily with both, yet she found herself put out to be spending her Friday night hunting for transport into the Financial District while Stanley, her boss, sent angry texts every four minutes asking where she was. It was an emergency, was she aware of that? What did she have going on that was more important? Nothing. She was dropping the ball, like she always did. Lia didn’t need to hear the same sentiment twice, thrice, or seventeen times. She got it. A raid boss from their most popular title had decided it was tired of getting beat up by adventurers six times an hour, and had taken up new residence atop the headquarters of a large international bank. It was a bad look, a series of disastrous headlines at best, lengthy and expensive civil lawsuits at the not-so-good. They had to do damage control or they were all going to lose their jobs.
Lia had to explain all this to the inquisitive cabby she hired in desperation, since the autocab apps were clogged by the party crowd. The cabby had two school-aged nieces obsessed with Dragon’s Domain, so she didn’t have to explain the concept of an augmented-reality MOBA to him, at least. Students twelve to sixteen were their biggest demographic, a surprising number of whales among them. Kids with access to mummy’s credit card. Or an indulgent cabby uncle’s, in this case.
The concept of a raid boss breaking out-of-bounds to command a bank’s headquarters, however, he found more perplexing. “Escaped? How does a video game character escape?”
“Well, you see, it’s AI, and it decided it didn’t want to be in the arena any longer.” Oh, to live in a reality where a dragon could get out of its cage like a zoo animal. Little Lia, who picked archery in school and spent a couple of years learning Sindarin, would be thrilled. Or would she be disappointed with the banality of it all, the gleam not of dragonmail but filthy lucre? Grown-up Lia certainly was.
The area around the Chase building had been cordoned off by the city. Beyond the glowing blockade stood the white bulk of news vans and emergency services, turning the area into a disco of red and blue. A flock of busybodies clumped by it, pointing upward. The on-duty cop shooed them off like pigeons, but like pigeons, more always showed up. The cab drew to a stop and the cabby, in a parting shot, cheerfully wished her good luck with slaying the dragon. Lia smiled back, but the expression felt empty, duct-taped over her real face. She was the least heroic person in the world. Like the cabby, she, too, was a peasant, feet of clay and eyes to the ground. Maybe that’s why he laughed, the solidarity.
It had rained an hour before and the streets were still wet. The night’s humid breath whipped over Lia as she looked at the skyline. Drones cruised by and the uneven tops of buildings bit into the clouds. No dragon. Without glasses revealing the virtual elements stamped over the city, it looked like a night like any other, some ordinary crime having occurred. Lia coughed and felt her age descend upon her, like the world had slipped by her and left her in the rut of antiquated ideas around what was normal. For a glorious, feral moment she considered turning around and walking away. Fuck this dragon, fuck work emergencies on Friday nights, and fuck Stanley in particular. The shoreline was only a few blocks away. She could run to the ocean, ditch her shoes, and walk on the beach like a wild animal, toes splayed.
The cop was in her face. “Ma’am, you can’t be here. You have to turn around.”
Embarrassment flooded her. “No, no. I’m Velinor staff, I’m supposed to be here.” Lia grappled with the detritus in her bag—lip balm, hand sanitizer, glasses case. “Just hang on, I have my work pass—”
“LIA! OVER HERE!” An arm waved from behind the barrier. Faizal, calling. Relieved, she pointed. “That’s my colleague.” The cop frowned, but waved her through.
Faizal squeezed past the temp barriers and figures in reflective vests. Scooped her into a half hug and started pushing her forward, like a warm, gentle shovel. Faizal was young, still full of promise and energy. “Girl, you made it. Stan’s been asking where you were.”
“How mad is he?”
He grimaced. “Depends who you ask.”
Down the road, in front of the Chase building, a makeshift booth had been set up next to a piss-yellow kei van she recognized as one of theirs. On a foldout plastic table, alongside laptops and a travel router, lay the sad remains of suppers. Sandwich wrappers and crumbs of breading in a paper tray.
Stan’s expression darkened when he saw her. “An hour and a half,” he said, tapping his watch.
“I’m sorry. The traffic was bad. I had to get a manned cab.” With all the surcharge fees, too. She already knew Stan would find some reason to deny her reimbursement; she would have to eat the cost.
“One hour,” he said again, “and a half.”
“It really takes that long,” Faizal murmured, stepping in. “Especially on Friday nights, when the autocabs take over the lanes. They can trap you at intersections for hours.”
“Lame excuses. Where are your glasses?”
“Right here.” Lia plunged a hand into her bag and thank god, she found them immediately. Fumbled them out of the soft case, as proof.
Stan walked off with the air of a disappointed parent. No instructions, nothing. Her punishment for missing the group briefing. Made idle while the rest of the team busied themselves, as if to prove: See, we don’t need you at all, actually. Lia allowed herself a brief jolt of fury: Stan knew how far she lived out of the city. He knew she got motion sickness wearing the glasses in cars. It was Friday night. And now this.
She turned to Faizal. “What did I miss?”
“Not much. But I could still use a hand with something, Lia. Over here.”
She was, as ever, immensely grateful for Faizal’s presence. Lia always imagined that they could be friends outside of work, even if they never actually hung out. There wasn’t time, and also Faizal was big on keeping work and life separate. Lia was fine with this. She spent so much time at work that it was almost like having a real friend. She followed him to a table stacked with giveaway kitsch pulled from their storeroom: T-shirts and clicky pens and lanyards emblazoned with Velinor’s logo.
“Okay,” Faizal said. “We’re making gift bags for the press. Stan decided that we should give them something for their trouble. Help me put them together. The bags are over here.”
She looked at the array of semi-useful things laid out on the table. “One each?”
Lia rubbed one palm over her hips, thinking, This was Stan’s emergency? “Why aren’t we talking to press? I saw a dozen vans on the way in. They must have a million questions.”
“That’s because we aren’t allowed to. HQ is holding a presser in an hour and wants no other messaging to go out besides that. We told them to wait, set up the tech for the stream, and that was it. We were done in twenty minutes.”
“Stan must be pissed.”
“Yeah. I’m sure he had a grand plan for what to do, but one call from HQ blew it all up. Speaking of which, you should probably put your glasses on.”
“Right.” She’d still had them clutched in her other hand. Stan was very down on employees not having them on every second they were awake. Reflects badly on the product, he’d say. How could you work for a company making AR games and not be into AR yourself? Lia gently perched the glasses on her face and blinked through the transition. It was jarring every time. The world sharpened and brightened. Colors developed into more vivid versions of themselves. The muddy colors of the kei van became the vibrant, Pantone-accurate shade that the company had registered. The pop-in ads reflected in puddles of rain. It was a jauntier, more put-together world.
The Chase building was behind them, a twist of sculpted white fifty stories tall. There had been significant resistance to its construction, with its windowless facade and undulating surface. The year it was completed, it won both international architectural awards and the citywide contest for ugliest building in existence. Its scalloped texture was a magnet for advertisers and avant-garde artists, both groups liking its whiteness, its blankness. Lia craned her neck all the way up: There it was. The cause of all their problems.
The dragon sat calmly, dark and sharp and glistening upon the pale stone it had claimed as its new home. The boss was named Moloch, after Moloch horridus, the real-life desert creature it had been modeled after. It was appropriately crowned with a pair of massive bony horns, which cut a dramatic silhouette against the night sky. A pair of batlike wings sprouted where its false head would be. As a game mechanic, the dragon was covered with breakable thorns, which gave you a bonus if you managed to snap them off. It had been grooming itself atop the building, and the street below was covered in enormous white clippings. Who coded that, she wondered. It was such a specific interaction.
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