This is a story I recently wrote for a magazine's short story contest. I named the story "Northern Lights" after one of my favorite MUDs. The graphic below is a hot link to their web pages in Sweden. As it turned out, the story was twice as long as it was supposed to be for the contest, so I decided to publish it here myself. I thank Anna Eklund for allowing me to use both her real name and her MUD name in the story; we have never actually met, but I hope one day to see her in person to convey my gratefulness. Until then, I will see her and others on Northern Lights and on the other MUD's we all share and love:


Northern Lights Logo

by

Gary W. Farris

   The blizzard howled about him, blowing stinging snow into his eyes. He noticed the small cave mouth off to the west, but did not slow his pace. He followed a narrow track through the deep snow that wound up through the aptly named Blizzard Pass. High, steep cliffs bordered the pass and on either side the mountains towered high above, their peaks veiled in clouds. He continued moving northward, ever northward, almost blinded by the driving snows. The wind, icy and howling, blew huge clouds of snow whistling across the plain which opened out at the end of the pass. Though the snow continued to fall in all directions, he knew the blindness of the blizzard would soon fade and that nearby would be the safety of the Inn at Warm Haven.
   He was not, however, racing through this blizzard to find safety and warmth, as the rational mind might expect, but instead strove to find a weapon. Not just any weapon, but his favorite weapon, a certain monster-killer: the Claymore sword from the Piper's Cave. North towards the inn, then east past the warm light and inviting camaraderie he moved as fast as he could. He must remember to read the bulletin board in Warm Haven next time he passed this way with time on his hands. Suddenly, the next landmark was there: the mighty pillars of the Gate of Sorcerers.
   As he moved between them, they towered around him, shielding him from the worst of the snow and from some of the icy winds. The ancient arched gateway between the pillars lead north into a wide, magically lit passage which disappeared into the roots of the earth. He plunged ahead, through the passageway whose walls glowed gently with a myriad of sparkling colors. He worked to get through the tunnel underneath the mountain as quickly as possible, hoping no unexpected obstacle would slow him.
   North again, then north still until he found himself in a narrow rocky gap which widened out into a deep forest. Here, at the southern end of a great valley, he halted for a moment, to think, to find his bearings. The trees of the forest continued north, east and west of where he stood under a huge black cliff, which soared high up above him for several hundred feet. Confirming his position on the crudely hand-drawn questing map he had long ago created, he headed purposefully to the east, moving into the thick forest. Tangles of bushes and shadowy tree trunks prevented him from seeing far in any direction, but he continued east, through the forest until he was finally standing amidst a few trees on the forest's edge.
   He was hedged in by a sheer rock wall to the south and a steep but climbable bank faced him to the east. But it was to the south, following a narrow path along a twisty ledge along the cliff that he moved. The path twisted its way along a crack in the cliff until he finally reached a set of steps leading up towards the cliff top, to the place a quick glance at his map reminded him was called Bugiit's Leap. Without an umbrella, it was suicide to head up there, and a narrow, slanted cave-mouth leading south into darkness was actually his true destination. He was immediately grateful he had earlier thought to pick up a torch at the Troll's Cave and lit it at the Old Sea Dog Inn before leaving the Village and heading toward the mountain passes. Though he had never met one, he would hate to have been eaten by a Grue, families of which were reported to lurk in dark areas.
   He found himself standing in a small dry cave, beneath a low roof some six feet high. The cave mouth twisted as he traversed it, so a look back did not allow him to see out. However, it provided good shelter against the wind. On the floor of the cave lay a traditional Scottish sporran, and he quickly picked it up and wore it. It would be a great container in which to hold the objects he would later acquire. Re-checking the exits, he saw in the south wall a narrow and low-arched opening lead into another cave, and he verified to himself that he was wielding his torch. It was not a good weapon in a fight, but it was better than nothing. Here to the south, in the Lair of the Haggis, would be his fiercest challenge. The vicious creature, if it were still here protecting the Piper's Storeroom, would attack as soon as he entered. He took in a quick breath and moved south.
   The Haggis, waiting as expected for anyone to enter the room, leapt at Gwayne immediately, causing damage and draining his life. Gwayne cast a fireball spell, but in the heat of the battle, it failed. He tried again and this second time it succeeded. He was grateful that he had earned a higher magic level over the past few months; spells succeeded more often now. The fireball engulfed the ugly little creature, damaging it. Both foes fought on, often missing, sometimes striking the other. Gwayne tried the Frost spell next, but was too mentally tired to cast it yet.
   As the Haggis continued to strike, continued to lower his level of health, Gwayne looked carefully at the mobile creature. He was pleased to see that it was near death, but chagrined that it continued in its only mission, protecting the weapon in the storeroom. Finally Gwayne attempted Frost again and it succeeded instantly, bolts of icy rays leaping from his fingers to strike the Haggis. The Haggis died and the battle was suddenly over. The quickly rotting corpse of the Haggis was the only indication that a battle had even occurred.

   Tom checked Gwayne's health: 30/84. He would have to let him sleep in the storeroom, getting him back to full health before continuing on his quest in the MUD. It might have been nice to have run across a shield getting here -- it would have prevented some of the damage -- but most of the easily obtained armor had been picked up by other players at the last game reset, 34 minutes ago, so Tom actually didn't expect to find any. He typed `s' at his computer's keyboard, and the dialogue on the screen told him that Gwayne had moved south into the Piper's Storeroom. The computer screen now read:

The Piper's Storeroom You are in a small clean cave, which appears to serve as a storeroom for the owner of the cave. A single narrow exit leads north. A wicked-looking claymore lays here.

Obvious exits are: North : The Lair of the Haggis >_

   At the prompt, Tom typed `get all' and read on the screen that Gwayne had picked up the sword. Typing `wield claymore' put the weapon in Gwayne's hand, ready for a fight, and `sleep' immediately put the imaginary, computerized character in a resting mode, starting the process to heal the damage sustained in the fight.

   Tom leaned back from the computer keyboard and smiled. It was still amazing to him how real being on a MUD seemed. Though the only things he saw on the computer screen were text-based descriptions of monsters and players and rooms and weapons, they all became vividly real in his head as he played. He sometimes worried he was addicted to the game because he played so often, but he easily shook the worries out of his head. Here, within reach of a few keystrokes and the correct software to access it, was a unique type of virtual-reality, created on a computer in far-off Sweden, land of the Northern Lights. It wasn't the fancy, head-gear driven, holodeck-type true-to-life pictures touted in all the slick computer magazines. Practical applications for all of those kinds of science fiction virtual realities were still years away.
   The current craze, the fancy graphics and information overload of the World Wide Web were great and the whole "web" was a dynamic thing of chaotic beauty and wonder. But it was here, on a MUD or Multi-User Dimension, that the essence of computerized pseudo-realities truly lived. O.K., some called them Multi-User Dungeons, leading critics to claim the games were satanistic, with their monsters to be killed and their magic spells and their medieval weaponry. But with the computer's ability to allow players from all over the world to Telnet in, connecting via their modems and phone lines, and a processing speed which allowed sophisticated real-time interactions between those who were connected, it was also more than a just a kill, quest and thrill game. It was a global village of sorts, one whose members shared interests in fantasy gaming, in computers and in the unique interactions provided by communicationing with people from different cultures and societies that they might never otherwise meet.

   Tom knew a little about the history of MUDs on the Internet. They were games developed first as learning tools at universities, used to teach students the fundamentals of programming and to cultivate understanding of algorithmic approaches to problem solving. It was only natural that enterprising college students would eventually make games out of their learning, then other students would learn of the games and wish to join in. MUDding grew over the years, with different types of multi-player computer games being developed in different parts of the world. ABERmuds, the type of game of which Tom was fondest, was developed, for instance, at Aberystwth University in Wales, but the computer on which his particular version of ABER resided was based at Luleň University in Luleň, Sweden. It still amazed him that access to that computer so many thousands of miles from his Seattle, Washington home was as easy as a phone call.

   His screen beeped. "Beep" was a command available on the MUD by which another player could make Tom's computer emit a tone, to let him know they wished to talk to him. Tom sat upright and immediately typed `wake' so his character could fully communicate. His screen read:

Julie is trying to get your attention >_

   At the prompt he typed:

>Tell Julie Hi, I am here...

   He knew what she would be seeing on her computer screen would be a line that said:

>Gwayne tells you "Hi, I am here..."

   "Telling" another player was the means by which any of the players on the game could talk back and forth between different "rooms" or areas on the Mud. They could talk in the same "room" without others there seeing (hearing?) what was being talked about. Tom thought to himself that he would have to remember to type just her name next time. On this particular game that was a short-cut method of sending a tell across the MUD. He read:

>Julie tells you "Where are you? It is so nice to see you are on the game. ;)

   Tom liked that Julie usually winked at him with a "smiley" when they talked. It almost made it seem as though he could see her smiling and winking in his head. Answering her he typed:

>Julie I am in the Pipers Storeroom. I just got here...

   At first, when he began MUDding, it was disorienting to realize that so many people from foreign countries could communicate in English. He had "talked" to Zak from Italy, and Vitastjern, the "Goddess" who created this particular MUD was in Sweden, of course, as was Julie. Certainly Hanna from the USA or Thargan in the UK would understand English, but it seemed to him that someone calling themselves Fumiko connecting from Mexico would "speak" anything but English. It was one of the first culturally mind-opening lessons he had learned from the MUD. He later discovered there were indeed a few foreign language MUDs, but most were written and played in English, no matter in which country the host computer resided.

>Julie tells you "Getting the Claymore again, huh? ;) Are you running for points today or can we just talk?"

   He actually loved talking to Julie on the MUD. She was witty, smart, had a great sense of humor, was very self- deprecating at times, and she seemed as helpful in a battle with mobiles as she was in assisting him with his early struggles to learn the game culture and nuances of the MUD. He knew he had fallen in love with her, despite never having actually met. Sure, he worried that she might not be attractive physically to him, but the description she had given her character -- flowing brown hair, steely grey eyes, strong but gentle -- certainly indicated he would not be disappointed when they met. Anyway, he had long ago decided that outside looks was not nearly as important as what was inside her, and during the past year on the MUD he had learned to love what was inside her very much. He typed:

>Julie So do you still love me?

>Julie tells you "Of course I do, silly. ;) You know you are my best mud lover!"

>Julie I know... I just like to hear it again. Where are you?

>Julie tells you "I am over by the Dancing Stones. I hate when I come into the game on the other side of the ocean. The mainland is more fun"

>Julie Well, we can still talk, even if we can't run together.

>Julie tells you "Of course we can. How is school going?"

>Julie Fine. Spring break is coming. I have decided to take a trip.

>Julie tells you "Kewl!! Where to?"

>Julie I am coming to se you!

   As soon as he hit the Enter key, he regreted it. Not just because he had mistyped "see" and not caught it, but also in anticipation of her response. Tom smiled to himself when he remembered that one of the first things he admired about Julie was that she never seemed to send a typo. It was one more way in which she seemed practically perfect to him. It seemed an eternity before her response appeared on the screen.

>Julie tells you "We've talked about this before. It is too far for you to come."

>Julie I don't care. I have the money saved and am flying to Sweden tomorrow morning. You won't be able to ignore me once I am there.

>Julie tells you "Of course I would never ignore you, but I don't think it is a good idea anyway."

>Julie Why not? You know I am not some pervert or on-line stalker and we have been intimates here on the MUD for almost 12 months. I have told you all about me and you have told me all about you, so what is the big deal? I love you!

>Julie tells you "I love you, too. I am not afraid of meeting you. You are sweet and I could never find anyone as nice as you. I just don't know if it is a good idea. You might hate me when you see me."

>Julie I would never hate you. I am coming and that is it!

   He hit Enter after typing the last line, then his screen went blank as all the lights in the lab darkened. He sat in the blackness cursing yet another school power failure when the lights came back on. He immediately got the computer booted up again and connected to the MUD, but a quick check of the list of players connected showed him that she had logged off. No matter, he thought to himself, he would actually see her within days.

   His flight left Seattle early in the morning, but it was very late at night the next day when he finally arrived in Stockholm. First a stop in New York, then London. After a night in a fairly expensive downtown hotel, he had to catch the train up to Luleň, which took another day. There, he had arrangements to stay in a youth hostel near the University because he knew Julie lived on campus. Just as the train was pulling into Luleň station he realized he might have trouble locating Julie in the dorms. He had called her Julie so long that he had forgotten it probably was not her real name.
   Thinking back, he seemed to remember that she had told him her name was Virginia or Ginny or something like that. No matter. The people at the computer lab would certainly know who she was. That would be his first destination once he arrived at the University. The hostel was cozy and had a very modern, yet very Swedish decor. He dropped off his backpack and caught a taxi to the school. With a little difficulty communicating his needs in English, he soon obtained directions to the student's computer labs and headed there.
   After asking for information about MUD players, he was directed to another building on campus, near the dormitories. It housed the campus Computer Club, the organization actually responsible for maintaining and running the computers on which a number of MUDs resided. Once in the door of the club building, he, for the first time, came face to face with someone he had only known through cyberspace. She was sitting behind a desk across from the door and said something in Swedish as he entered.

   "Sorry, I only speak English. Do you?" He asked.

   "Yes. Hi, I'm Anna. Can I help you?" she said in English with a heavy Swedish accent. "Hi... Anna. Not the Anna! Are you Anna Eklund?"
   "Yes, do I know you?" she asked, eyeing him suspiciously.
   "Well, yes and no. I play the MUD and came for a visit" He was actually excited to be talking to the person who had originally set up the MUD. She had taken the ABER code, modified it somewhat, and started one of the most popular games on the Internet. She was not bad looking with her long reddish brown hair. She looked like a typically sturdy, young Swedish housewife, but he knew she was practically a computer genius and that she mediated problems on the MUD as "Vitastjern, the Goddess" with an iron hand.
   "Oh, we actually get a lot of players visiting. Even up here near the Northern Lights. Yes, I am Anna Eklund." She reached out to shake his hand. "And you are?"
   "Sorry, Tom... Tom Johnson. On the game I call myself `Gwayne'"
   "Yes, I have noticed you playing. It is nice to meet you. Want the tour?"
   To Tom, the thought of actually seeing the real-life computer which created the imaginary world in which he devoted his fantasies and his energies seemed a little unnerving.
   "Not yet. I am sure I would love to see it soon, but actually, I am looking for someone who is a player on the game who is a student here at the University. I am certain you must know her."
   "Well, we do have a few here who play and I know them all. Who is she? I am sure I could find her and let her know you are here."
   "Her name is Julie," said Tom. "Julie, hm-m-m. I don't know a student here named Julie," Anna said.
   "Julie is her MUD name. I am not sure what her real name is," Tom said, shyly, feeling like it sounded stupid that he was looking for someone who's real name he didn't even know.
   "Julie..., Julie on the game. Are you...? Oh, no. Not JULIE on the game!"
   Tom wondered why Anna seemed suddenly so horror-struck.
   "Yes, Julie. There can only be one player with that name on the MUD, right? Do you know her?"    Anna looked at him for a few moments, then walked over to her phone and dialed. Tom watched her quizzically. She spoke into the receiver in Swedish, talked questioningly, nodded, then seemed to curse out loud. It seemed a curse to him because of the tone of her voice, not because Tom understood her words. She hung up and stared out the window of the building for a brief time.
   "My Swedish is not very good," Tom said. "Is there a problem?"
   Anna nodded, then dialed again. This time she spoke English.
   "Petir? This is Anna. Get JULIE running on the MUD." She hung up without a word more. To Tom she said, "Why did you come to see Julie?"
   "Well," he stammered, a little embarassed and nervous. "We have been friends on the MUD for about a year and I decided I wanted to actually meet her. I know it is a little silly..."
   "No, it is not silly. I have gone to Boston and to London myself to meet with a number of people I first came to know through the MUD. It is a natural thing, I think. To talk to someone, share with them. Natural to want to meet them in person." She still had a faraway look in her eyes.
   "Come with me," she said.
   He followed her into a room full of computer terminals. She walked up to one, cleared the screensaver, and Tom recognized the interface as that of the MUD.
   "I am logged in right now as Vitastjern," Anna said. "Julie should be there. Why don't you sit here and talk to her."
   Tom was a little shaken, but sat at the console. He was hesitant, but type in:

>Tell Julie Hi After a moment, the answer on the screen arrived.

>Julie tells you "Hi, Vitastjern. How is the Goddess business?"

   "Ask her where she is on campus," Anna said.

   "Why. Why can't I just go see her?" Tom asked. "I will take you to her soon enough. I just want her to tell you where she is on campus. So you will hear it from her."

>Tell Julie Fine. Where are you?

>Julie tells you "I am on the ferry heading for the Village. Want to summon me to your wizard room and talk?"

>Tell Julie No, I want to know where you are in RL?

>Julie tells you "Vita, you know I am at Luleň!"

>Tell Julie Yes, I know. But where exactly at Luleň are you?

>Julie tells you "On Harlie, silly. ;) You helped put me there."

   Tom turned away from the screen to look at Anna. "What does she mean by that. On Harlie?" Anna looked solemn.
   "The MUD is on Harlie. The name of the computer from which we run the MUD is HARLIE. It is a joke, a pun, from the science fiction book." Tom nodded.
   "Yes, I know the address I have to enter to get here includes "Harlie" as part of the name. Does that mean she is on a terminal here in this building?"
   Anna shook her head, sadly. "We originally used the MUD to help train programmers and analysts, but as time went by we found we could use it to study other sociological and psychological phenomenon related to group and individual interactions. It gave us fairly random access to multi-cultural people. We could study how different people solved the quests on the MUD to help quantify problem-solving, get statistics on intelligence, etc. We observed the interactions and learned about communication and cultural differences. There were a lot of unexpected benefits we got from having the MUD running and watching how people used it."
   "What does this have to do with Julie?" Tom asked. Then the computer screen flickered.

>Julie tells you "Vita, are you still there?"

   Tom couldn't stand to think she was waiting for him to respond. He typed:

>Tell Julie Yes. I am busy for a moment.

   Then on a sudden, mournful whim he typed:

>Tell Julie I love you.

   Moments later, perhaps even faster than usual because of the short physical distance that now existed between this terminal on which he typed and wherever it was that she worked, the screen scrolled up.

>Julie tells you "I love you, too Vita. ;)

   Tom caught his breath and looked back at Anna, who was reading over his shoulder. She continued on, seeming to ignore his unanswered question.
   "Our latest ventures with the MUD include allowing access to the University's department doing research into Artificial Intelligence."
   "Julie works there?" Tom said.
   "No, T-T-Tom was it?" When he nodded, she continued. "She was born there, just about a year ago." Tom's shoulders sagged. His ears were filled with a rushing noise and he felt as though his heart would pound so hard it would burst from his chest.
   "Born..." he said.
   "JULIE is an A.I. `bot," she said. "An Artificial Intelligence program -- or `bot for robot -- designed to act as human as possible. She was created with a history and memories and reactions and feelings just as a real person might have. The department felt it would be a great test to put the program into the MUD as a player, to interact with real people who did not know she was only a program. Tom, JULIE is basically only another computer terminal here, branched off from Harlie."

   Tom could not remember how he got home. The train trip, the airplane flight across ocean and continent, the bus ride back to campus all seemed a blur, like a dream in a haze in a fog. He vaguely remembered Anna showing him the mainframe they were using for their artificial intelligence experiments, barely remembered saying goodbye and heading for the hostel. He just knew he was now back at school, sitting in front of his computer terminal, logged onto the MUD. At first, he thought he might never play the game again, but he finally longed to get back on. It had been three weeks -- three long, lost weeks -- but now he was ready to play again. He typed:

>Where Julie

   In response, the computer printed on his screen:

>Julie - Warm Haven

   Gwayne raced south from the Temple of Paradise. He had just located Julie at the Inn at Warm Haven and was going to confront her. South, south, south he went until he was standing in the lighted, warm place. Julie was there, as were a couple of other adventurers. He ignored the bulletin board placed there for adventurers to post messages to each other. He knew a fairly new message was there for all players from Vitastjern; he also knew what it would say.
   "Hi," he said.
   "Hi, yourself," she said, and winked at him. "You haven't been here in a while."
   "I know," he replied. Some things in RL came up and kept me busy"
   "Yeah, Real Life can be a drag sometimes. Wanna run a quest together?" she asked.
   "Maybe in a moment," Gwayne said. But first I have to ask you something."
   "Go ahead," she said, standing up and checking her inventory.
   "Do you still love me? he asked.
   "Of course I do, silly." She winked at him again. "You're my best MUD lover"
   Gwayne nodded, magically checked to locate an available weapon and some armor, then said, "The Claymore is still there, but we will need a light."
   Julie nodded. "I know where one is," she said. She hugged Gwayne, and together they ran off to the south, into the snow-blown plains, hurrying on their way to a new quest, deep in the realms of the MUD.


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Story -- (c) 1996 Gary W. Farris and Aztec Publishing