Elonka Dunin glances into the conference room of the Simutronics Corporation as she passes by, nodding to five glazed young men huddled over a new game's glitches. She pauses again outside the gray computer room, cold as a meat locker, with enough information pulsing through its tangle of colored wires to run a small country.
The power in that small room never fails to thrill her.
But today, the frisson slides halfway down her spine and stops, caught on a hook of memory.
Back in her office, she keys a string of commands, her fingers moving so fast that they look as if they're not moving at all. Characters stream onto the monitor. The screen flashes, its white light glowing brighter -- almost -- than the sun.
One eyelid flickers; she's absorbed the data. She types another line and hits enter -- hard, with the authority of a headmaster's slap.
The screen obeys.
"We're in," she says quietly, and begins to scan the game.
One of Simutronics' most popular multiplayer Internet games, DragonRealms is a high-tech medieval fantasy peopled with thieves, clerics, warrior mages and traders.
Today, Dunin's looking for anyone who knew one of the most powerful warriors of all: a longtime player named Bloodwrath.
He rocked their community by using September 11 to stage his own virtual death.
She caught him.
In a game of cowboys and Indians, playing dead only adds to the fun. But in a virtual world created by the consensus of thousands of players' imaginations, deceit snaps the strings that suspend disbelief.
And a darker reality falls.
As general manager of Simutronics, Dunin spends her days in an airy corner office in the corporation's unlikely headquarters, a low-rise office building in St. Charles that belies its Inc. magazine designation as one of the nation's 500 fastest-growing private companies. Dunin spends her time managing Simutronics' vast online community of customers, delving deep into industry politics, researching shifts in technology.
But to find the truth about Bloodwrath, she had to re-enter the gameworld she discovered years ago as a player.
Luckily, it hadn't changed much.
Simutronics creates "persistent worlds" -- complex game environments that host thousands of players at any given moment. These worlds evolve as the material world does, incorporating every game move. If a player lowers a drawbridge, it stays down until somebody raises it. Players discover traps and rewards, forge alliances and make enemies as they watch their interactions reshape the universe.
Over time, the gameworld accumulates its own reality. Yet the drawbridge -- and the drooling swamp trolls, and the thieves who snag velvet gem pouches -- exist only in the mind's eye. With the exception of one 3-D combat game, Simutronics games are pure text, using strings of words to set the scenes, describe the characters and record every action.
Their power comes straight from the imagination.
Players call their real-world identities their "other-world selves" and strenuously avoid going out of character by hinting at their real lives.
Today, Dunin intends to break the OOC rule. She wants to ask players how Bloodwrath's deceit affected them.
Because it still haunts her.
On September 11, Simutronics staffers sat in front of the TV watching footage that looked more virtual than their 3-D combat game. Some wondered whether they should temporarily shut down, out of respect. Dunin thought their players needed the continuity of the gameworld, the reassurance of their online relationships.
So she found ways to connect the two worlds.
She set up an online crisis-information center with directions for donating blood or money and ways to report a member of the game community safe or missing. Soon the list of names scrolled twelve pages long.
At the top: Bloodwrath, in Ohio.
Dunin had received an e-mail from someone claiming to be Bloodwrath's wife, saying he'd been lost in the World Trade Center and requesting prayers for their young sons.
The community responded.
A real-world sailor in the U.S. Navy vowed that if he were sent overseas, he'd write Bloodwrath's name "on the first bomb loaded into one of our jets." A cleric with the power to raise others from the dead -- in game -- wrote:
"What I wouldn't do to have that ability now, to be able to return him to you."
In her next e-mail, Bloodwrath's widow said he was dead and asked to play his character in his memory.
It was all very moving -- but Dunin, puzzle-solver and cryptographer, couldn't sleep. Something wasn't right. She tossed, punched a hot pillow. Bloodwrath was a powerful high-level warrior -- what if someone was trying to gain control of his character?
She suspected a ruse, and she hated herself for it.
She was used to grief players -- SNERTS, "stupid nonsensical egotistical ranting twits" whose idea of fun was to disrupt the game. The community knew how to apply its own pressure, socialize the SNERTS.
But this was something new.
She started checking casualty lists. She e-mailed the widow and asked about a death certificate. A hysterical reply came back; the widow hadn't even thought about that.
"Either it's suspicious," thought Dunin, "or I've just traumatized a grieving widow one more time."
Finally she cracked the hoax: She found Bloodwrath alive and well in Cleveland, working as a waiter in a strip-mall restaurant.
When she talked to him, they decided that someone must have stolen his identity.
But when she mentioned exposing the thief, he sounded nervous.
Still restless, unwilling to leave the thief at large, Dunin worked her way backward through the Internet. She thought that if she could follow the widow's e-mails home, she could identify the thief.
So she traced them back to their source:
He'd staged his own death.
Dunin had thought nothing could surprise her.
Even at 44, wearing a sleek black leather miniskirt, she still looks like the smartest kid in class -- tall and round-shouldered, borrowing her big sister's clothes. Her parents were professors at UCLA. She gave up on acquiring charisma years ago; instead, she studied astronomy, digital electronics, programming and artificial intelligence.
She once glanced at all the ones and zeroes on a hacker T-shirt -- rows of hundreds to spell out the name of the conference -- and found a typo.
Lately she's been teaching FBI agents about cryptography.
And remembering how seductive a virtual world can be.
In the mid-'80s, Dunin spent mind-numbing days as a legal secretary in Los Angeles. After work, she rode the bus home, her skin brushing against strangers whose faces she never noticed. She had her house key out three stops early. By the time she stuck it in the lock, her hands were shaking.
With the grind and screech of the modem, her nerves stilled. She felt herself falling softly through a cloud layer, descending into the world of the game.
She spent $15,000 that year on computer time.
She knows the power a game can have.
Looking for a player to interview about Bloodwrath, Dunin happens onto Idora, a trader traveling with a caravan.
White letters cut into the black velvet of the screen:
"Idora appears in a flash of light, looking slightly disoriented."
Dunin keys a curtsey.
"Idora blushes a bright-red color."
Idora has more Intelligence (38 points) than Agility (21); she has only six Favors, and her Encumbrance is Overburdened.
"I'm quite poor in real life," she explains. "My online life is far, far more interesting than my real life. I'm a stay-at-home mom."
She says she plays DragonRealms at least seven hours a day. Dunin sneaks into another computer window to check.
"Yep," she murmurs. "She's pretty realistic about her use."
Idora, meanwhile, "pats her pockets" and describes their contents: A silvery spidersilk moneybelt studded with black opals and stitched with platinum thread. A white spidersilk moneybelt encrusted with sapphires. Both worth four times what she "paid" for them.
Eric Latham, DragonRealms' producer, steps into Dunin's office in time to catch this last exchange.
"The black market for DragonRealms alone is about $50,000 per month," he murmurs, adding that he also tracks the exchange rate with DragonRealms currency, now running "a little stronger than the Canadian dollar."
Dunin arches an eyebrow and returns to Idora.
Who says she's been offered $1,000 for her character.
"I'd never sell her, though," she keys. "She is too much me, and I am too much her."
Next Dunin interviews Minti, a female character who married in game.
She's married in real life, too. To somebody else.
"DragonRealms has changed my life," she keys, "the way I feel about myself and how I treat others. Before I found the game I was just a broken-down person; I would go into new places and be shy and embarrassed. Now I can go in and say to myself, hey, I trained a character to be respected."
For Minti, the two worlds fused and strengthened her. What about Bloodwrath, whose boundaries dissolved into a lie?
She's still furious at him.
To take that precious confidence, that ability to maneuver in different worlds, and use it to exploit a tragedy --
"How dare he?"
Avid gamers toggle back and forth between the real and virtual worlds. Some commission their characters' portraits and hang them over the sofa. Others ignore their sofas and design themselves chaises in Elanthia, mystical kingdom of DragonRealms.
They can control the colors.
And they never have to dust.
Where else can can a brilliant introvert live inside her head and have that reality affirmed by a community of thousands? Where else can she flirt without stammering, have adventures without packing a toothbrush?
Years of therapy taught Dunin to keep her balance, live in her body. She designed her office on the computer and noticed that she felt happier every time she dragged the desk rectangle closer to the window rectangle. So she moved the real wood in that direction and lined the sunny window with bird feeders.
She's traveled to every continent, been everywhere from Antarctica to Angkor Wat.
But for others, the gameworld is sufficient.
They forget that their needs will follow them in.
"Bloodwrath had been playing for a few years, maybe 80 or 100 hours a month," Dunin says slowly. "I think he got into that state of 'They'd miss me if I were gone' and moved from there to 'What would happen to my character?'"
When she stopped believing the e-mails and telephoned his real wife, Dunin learned that Bloodwrath had kept his computer padlocked and his online life secret. His wife had worried about how much time he spent in the game. She'd argued that he was wasting his talent as a classical pianist.
Remembering those words, Dunin feels her rage begin to soften.
"Maybe," she says slowly, "he wanted to die online."