Virtual Life

Hadrian slipped through the door of the tunnel with a triumphant grin. The developers really thought they could slip an unknown tunnel into this area, huh? Well, he'd show them. The darkness was cut by the flickering of his torchlight. He heard a solid chunk behind him. "Oh, sh. . ." was all he had time for.

****

"Yes, ma'am," Tony said into the phone. "As soon as he gets here, ma'am." He put the phone down as if it were poisonous. Gibbs walked through, the smell of fresh coffee following him.

"I take it the director wants to see me?" he said.

"She wants the entire team including Abby and Ducky," Tony replied, already dialing. "As soon as you got here. Appearantly there's a high muckity muck in her office and we need to play nicely."

"Who is it?"

"General Clauson," the young man said. McGee and Ziva looked at him.

"The General Clauson?" McGee asked.

"Yes." Tony straightened his tie. "Abby, we need you and Ducky up here. Thanks. Hmmm, yeah, that sounds nice." His smile grew into a lazy, self-satisfied grin as he listened to what she was saying. "See you soon." McGee looked at him, eyes narrowed. "Abby told you she got the newest season didn't she?"

"Yup. And she promised a full day of pizza and beer to accompany it."

"Season?" Ziva queried. "What sort of season?"

"Magnum, PI," Gibbs informed her.

"Hey, it could have been something else."

"You haven't been swooning after anything else."

"I don't swoon."

"Your tie is still crooked." Gibbs didn't bother to sit down behind his desk. He took the two steps across the room to Tony's desk. "Need help?"

"No thanks. Last time you tried to choke me with it."

"Don't tempt me." Tony smoothed down his tie, knowing that Gibbs was just taunting him now. "So, what do you think he's doing here?" The younger man looked up in surprise.

"Causing us trouble. What else? Something pretty bad must have gone down and he needs someone to handle. Just like last time."

Gibbs raised his brows. Tony felt his shoulders slump.

"Okay, maybe it has to do with the kid that disappeared three days ago. He was a computer geek and they didn't realize he was gone until yesterday because he was on special assignment. He just didn't put his time card in for last week and no one was able to find him to correct the problem."

"Why is he important?"

"He's developing some battle-ground software. Scuttlebutt says it's majorly funded and highly classified."

"How high?"

"Air Force One layout high."

"You *did* get a physical this year right?"

"Stop spiking your coffee in the morning, boss. It's making you too mellow."

"Ah, Tony, you know he's nice just because it creeps you out," Abby said cheerfully. "So what do you think?" She displayed her white button-down with red "bloody" handprints on it.

"That is disturbing. Looks great."

"Cool."

"Jethro, what exactly is going on? I haven't gotten a delivery this morning?"

"No, Director Sheppard wants us all in her office. And if I find out this is because any of you are responsible in any way for the coffee in the breakroom being switched to decaf. . . " Gibbs let the threat trail off.

Tony and Abby looked at him in horror. Tony looked down at his mug. "That explains a lot," he muttered. Gibbs turned before either of them saw his smirk. They followed him up the stairs to the director's office. Tony pulled the door shut behind Ducky, then took his place slightly behind Gibbs' shoulder.

****

General Clauson looked at NCIS' "best team." "Alright, Director Sheppard, this is where things get tricky. Your team will have to come with me and you are not authorized to know where. If you'll follow me," he said.

"General, it's been awhile," Gibbs stated. "And there's been some changes to my team."

Clauson looked at the team. He gave the man a half-smile. "Not significantly. And honestly, if I thought the two of you could take care of this, I wouldn't have pulled all of you in, but I need more than just two people. And Agent DiNozzo, my secretary is married."

"I know. It was a lovely wedding."

The general led them to the secured conference room. "I'm assuming your people are all cleared, Gibbs?"

"Yes. Ziva is Moussad, though."

The large man frowned under his neat mustache. "That will make things a little more complicated, but shouldn't cause a big problem. My team is in charge of developing new training methods. One of those is a computer game system. Before you become too skeptical, let me explain it. This module is completely immersive VR, to the point of using doctors to keep you alive in the real world. It runs in real time. It provides a complete world with its own rules and complex team competition." The general sighed. "My developers convinced us to create a lower resolution as well. A 3D world that could be investigated by cheap beta testers. Therefore the format is that of a role playing game."

Tony snickered. The general glared at him. "So what you're saying is your geeks conned the government into funding a D&D knock-off for them to play while covering it as a training modual?"

"It's got tremendous real-world capabilities."

"Oh yeah, because there's so much magic in the real world." The general frown at him. "Agent DiNozzo."

"The missing geek's yours isn't he?"

Clauson nodded. "And if you keep gossiping with my secretary, I'll have your number blocked."

"I don't gossip, I gather information. The important part of this is that a young man is missing, not that you've got a pretty video game in development."

"The only way to find him is through the game. He was logged on as a player when he disappeared."

"So it was an inside job. There's always a way to find a leak."

"Put a leash on him, Gibbs."

"No."

"What!"

"He's right. We have a missing person's case here. We need the general details of his project."

"We've already got a team looking for him in the real world. We need a team looking for him in the system. His signature shows up, but we can't trace him back. We need you to find him inside the game and isolate him long enough for us to track his signal back."

"So, like, you want us to hack the system?" Abby asked, smiling sweetly.

"I want you to play the game and find him."

"After I've met with the team in charge of finding your man."

"Agent Fornell assures me that he's capable of finding him. I'm not as confident in his ability. You need to go inside the game."

"FBI? You've got the FBI in on this? This should have come to us first, General. This is an NCIS case." Gibbs' jaw clenched and his eyes were icy. DiNozzo moved slightly to allow Gibbs better range if he decided to come up swinging. Clauson's eyes narrowed.

"Yes, Agent Fornell handled the security clearances for the program. He was the best choice."

"DiNozzo, get Fornell on the phone, now."

"Wait one minute, Agent Gibbs. The decision has already been made. You are going into the game while Fornell and his team handle the outside of the game."

"Then unmake it." Tony handed over the phone. "Fornell, Clauson's here." Gibbs left the conference room to speak to the FBI agent.

"Tell us more about the game," Abby ordered. Clauson frowned, but started discussing the details of the game. Tony was soon lost by the dizzying array of statistics that Abby, McGee and the general were discussing. He knew they'd have to translate for Gibbs and he'd get the crib notes version then. "We so need to start making profiles. Tony, can I use your pad?"

Tony sighed and parted with his favorite notepad. He used his PDA more often, but old habits are hard to break. He'd carried a notepad since the academy and he wasn't going to give it up, no matter how easy techonology got. He got a bright smile from Abby though and considered that worth it. Gibbs came in, glowering. Tony wished that he'd had the forethought to load the man up with caffiene as soon as he'd heard Clausen was in the building. Now they'd all have to deal with him under-caffienated. Tony caught his phone and tucked it away. "Give me the overview, Abby."

"There's several different types of roles you can take, knight, thief, elf, healer, bard, and shapeshifter. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Shapeshifters can only carry the amulets that let them shift and tire out in human form. Bards can't fight. Elves can't use swords. Healers can't fight well. Knights aren't agile. And thieves aren't strong. But there's so many other things that make up for those weaknesses. For example, elves can use potions that make things explode. Thieves can find hidden doors and open locks. Shifters can take on animal forms and even fight as animals. Bards can create a telepathic net for their team with their songs and boost other roles strengths. They can also record things and all. Give us a few minutes and we'll have the profiles for you. You get to assign us to the different roles."

Gibbs glanced at Tony and raised his brows. Tony shook his head. "I was *not* a geek in college."

"Yes, you were. I checked. But that's a different story."

Tony cleared his throat. McGee glanced curiously at him. "Getting good grades doesn't make me a geek who played D&D. I had pet geeks who did though."

Gibbs switched to Spanish. "So, you need to borrow that damned game you bought me? Just for practice."

"No, boss, on-line games are different than the paper and pencil kind like you have." Tony sighed wistfully. "I've still got that bikini. Think I could get our new little girl to try it on?"

"Not if you want to keep your balls." Gibbs glared at Clauson. Tony felt for the general. He'd been pinned by a glare like that before. Clauson ignored him. "Go get coffee. For us, not him," Gibbs stated.

"Si, boss." Tony was out of the room before anyone could stop him.

****

"We need a full complement of roles, which is why Ducky and Abby are joining us. Why do I get the feeling we're being manipulated, General?"

Clauson simply snorted. "You're paranoid. Now, we need to move to a more secure location. You'll have to leave your cellphones behind."

Gibbs frowned. He didn't like this at all. It stank to high heaven. He nodded to his team. Tony frowned at him, but complied, holding his hand out for Gibbs' phone too. Gibbs handed it over, eyes still locked with the general's.

"How long will we be?" Ducky asked quietly. "I need to make arrangements."

"Maybe as long as a week."

"Blast," the doctor said quietly.

"Duck?"

"What is it, Anthony?"

"I made arrangements for three shifts of nurses for your mother. Gerald's going to stay with her as well." Clauson stared at the young man. "When you showed up here, I called your secretary. Abs, I made arrangements with Penny to take care of the fish, okay?"

"Coolness."

Gibbs smirked at the general's surprised look.

"Anthony, tell me more about these nurses." Tony glanced at Gibbs, then walked Ducky out of the pen to give him more details. The doctor nodded after a moment. He patted Tony's shoulder with a smile. Tony's face lit up at that. The general watched with a raised brow.

"I always wondered why you didn't have a secretary," he said drily.

"Not in the budget," Gibbs replied. "We have an admin for the floor," he offered. "McGee, get a van. Where are we going, General?"

"You'll follow me." Gibbs' eyes narrowed. He didn't like his team being taken off the map. He didnít like this at all. Tony seemed to pick up on his nerves as always, his animated face flattening. The general and DiNozzo never had gotten along. Gibbs nodded his acceptance. He could feel Tony next to him. The young man wouldn't question him in front of someone else, but that didn't mean he wouldn't have to answer the questions later.

****

"Abby fill us in." Gibbs said in the van. "Keep it short, I don't know how long we have."

"Okay. Bottom line is this. It's a VR role playing game. McGee and I have profiles laid out for each of us. Ducky, you'll be the healer. Ziva, you'll be the bard. McGee's going to be the elf. I'm the theif. Gibbs will be a knight and Tony will be a shapeshifter. That gives us one of each role. To start off we'll have pretty much nothing. Tony will be able to change into one animal, either a hawk, rat, snake, or cat."

"Hawk," Tony and Gibbs said immediately.

"Why?" she asked.

"He'll be able to get an over-head terrain view for us," Gibbs explained. "Continue."

"There isn't much else to tell. Gibbs, McGee, and I will be armed somehow, but I don't know how yet. We'll have to use what we find in the game."

Their leader snorted and Abby had to smile. "Sounds like we're being sent on a survival mission, not a search and rescue."

"It is. That's what it's supposed to model. That way they don't have to put people in the field without any training."

McGee cleared his throat. "The conventions of the game are sort of different. There's no real quests. It's sort of freeform. You can sell anything to anyone, and there are a few computer run shops, but not a lot. It's a barter system. And the computer generated monsters aren't always easy to distinguish. There's even groups that speak different languages within the system. Like in World of Warcraft. If you're from different races you can't communicate directly. You need a translator. There's a song that Ziva can learn that will allow us to do that. But we've got to find the songs, spells, etc. And there's other rules. A non-healer can't use a healing potion. And a non-bard can't use a song. That sort of thing."

"Great," Tony muttered. "This just gets better and better. Not only are three of us going to be unarmed, we're pretty much flying blind."

"Open-ended game play can be very rewarding," McGee protested.

Abby took up the stream again. "We picked out names for everyone. Gibbs is Grayson. Tony's Thorne. Ducky is Drake. McGee will be Makepeace. I'll be Ameris. And Ziva gets to be Zelene." She continued, watching Tony repeat the names to himself quietly. "And well, the controls and things we'll have to learn. But if it's VR, they shouldn't be too hard."

****

"Okay, from here on out, everything you see or hear is considered classified. Understood?"

"Understood," Gibbs answered for his team. They walked into the lab. There was an array of what looked like dentist's chairs with wires and an IV set next to each. The sterile white room was washed in soft blue light.

"While you're in the game we'll keep you fed and hydrated by feeding tubes. You'll eat inside of the game if you find or make food. It's a fully immersive environment. Once you put on the headsets, you'll be in the game and you will be controlling the action through the electrical impulses that come from the spine to your muscles. You'll be given a mild sedative to keep your body still." The team stared at the general for a long moment. Abby bounced over to the equipment, snagging the tech for a more thorough explanation.

Tony looked at his boss, eyes wide. He shook his head. "I'm out of here."

"DiNozzo," Gibbs growled, shocked by the insubordination. Tony never disobeyed him. Gibbs crowded the younger man until they were nearly touching.

"No, boss, I heard the words 'video game', 'D&D', 'Swords', 'VR'. The words 'feeding tube', 'catheter', and 'UV lights' didn't come up at all!" Tony leaned forward on his toes, voice a low hiss. "I'll just do this the old fashioned way and track our boy's days."

Gibbs stared at him for a long moment. "I need my team, Tony. Go outside. Calm down."

"Boss."

"Now."

Tony nodded stiffly and left the room. Gibbs closed his eyes for a moment. He looked at the set-up.

"I assure you Agent Gibbs, we have an excellent doctor to watch over you," the general said, frowning.

"That's not the problem. Where's the closest place that sells ice cream?"

****

Tony sat on the steps, arms around his knees staring at the grey door that led back into the VR lab. He didn't look up when Gibbs sat down next to him. An ice cream sandwich appeared in his line of sight. He took it with a soft, but genuine, "Thanks."

"I didn't know, Tony."

"I know that, boss." Tony nibbled on his treat. "Do you really need me to do this?"

Gibbs sighed. "I'd rather have you with me. If this thing is as realistic as they claim, I want you on my six."

"Then that's where I'll be, but I don't promise not to whine, snap and bitch while they're setting us up."

"Ducky said he'd take care of you, if that will help?"

Tony nodded. "Yeah. It's just every time they've ever done something like that, it hurts."

"Every time you've gone to the hospital it's been an emergency." Gibbs patted the back of Tony's head. Then, he tugged on the metal chain that was normally hidden below his shirt. The medic alert pendant finally appeared. Gibbs settled it on-top. "No excuses for taking chances with this."

When the ice cream treat had disappeared and Tony sufficiently calmed down, Gibbs stood up. Tony followed him - a pace behind as always. "Anthony," Ducky said with a gentle smile, "I take it that you will be joining us. Let me talk you through the procedures." Tony escaped to the corner with the older man. The doctor's soothing tones could be heard, but the words were lost.

Abby bounced on her toes. "Bossman? I so didn't think about it. I should have warned him."

"You knew?" Gibbs raised his brows.

She bit her lip. "I kinda dated a guy who's been working in the field. Just once or twice." Her eyes were pleading. "I wouldn't upset him, you know that."

"I know, Abs." Gibbs gave her shoulders a quick squeeze. "It's not just about not knowing. Doc, are the blue lights necessary right now?"

Doctor Thomason blinked. "Well, uh, not really," he said. He glanced at Tony. "Want to fill me in on the problem? I'm perfectly capable of handling any emergency that comes up."

"I don't doubt that. Tony caught the plague last year. He was stuck in isolation under those same type of lights."

The doctor grimaced. "Which despite their usefulness send his heart-rate up to unacceptable levels." Gibbs nodded. "Anything else I should be aware of?"

"Tony's allergic to penicillin and has a reduced lung capacity."

"I guessed the second. And you?" Gibbs simply let the doctor read his bracelet. The man nodded. "I'll make a note."

Getting prepared for the game took less time than Gibbs wished. He watched as Ducky took care of his senior agent. The other techs were busy outfitting his team. The lead doctor was taking care of Gibbs himself. He didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that the agent didn't talk to him. Soon enough though, Gibbs' attention had to be drawn to the VR controls.

****

Gibbs looked around the field. There were some scattered trees and small flowering plants in an offensive shade of magenta, but no structures he could see. There were mountains in the distance. His team was arrayed around him looking at the world with a range of excitement and trepidation. Ziva was staring at the mountains, as if glaring them into submission. Abby was bouncing on her toes. McGee was looking around with a thoughtful frown. Ducky was looking down at himself in surprise.

He was younger here. And Tony was watching Gibbs. "So, boss, this mean we should call you 'sir' now?" he asked. Gibbs smacked him automatically, surprised that he could. Tony rubbed at the back of his head. "Well, that answers that."

"I work for a living. Okay, I need to see what we can do. Ameris, you start."

Abby grinned and performed a series of gymnastics that he was fairly certain she couldn't do in real life. Her short skirt and high boots made her look something like a cheerleader. She had a small pouch around her waist. "What sort of supplies do you have?" She checked her pouch.

"Rope. A dagger. And a key."

"Secure them. Put that dagger where you can use it. We'll practice that in a moment."

"Makepeace."

"I've got a bow and arrow, staff, and three small explosive potions. One can take down a wooden door."

"Can they act like grenades?"

"No, they have to be lit."

"We'll do weapons testing in a minute. Drake?"

Ducky shook his head to clear it. He checked his bag. "I have two minor healing potions, a collection of herbal remedies for headaches and muscle strains, and a needle and thread."

"We'll have to find you a weapon."

"Don't worry about me," the doctor said smiling. "I think I can muddle along."

"Thorne. Damn, should have gotten something with more syllables."

The young man laughed at that. "No supplies, I can't carry anything but amulets."

"Don't change until we test your hand to hand capabilities."

"I can use weapons, right, elf-boy?"

"Right," McGee answered. "But you can't carry them."

"Zelene?"

"I have ten gelt, a harp, and a sachel. No weapons." Ziva did not sound happy about that.

"Your harp is a weapon," Abby corrected. "Do you have any songs?"

Ziva frowned at her. "What do you mean?"

"Plug the harp at random and we'll see if there's a song."

Ziva pulled at a string. Her eyes grew wide. "Yes, I have a song. It is for boosting power?"

Abby nodded. "Coolness. That means you can strengthen us if we go into battle and stuff."

Gibbs nodded. "We're going to test hand to hand. Does real world experience work here?"

"It should translate," McGee stated. "It works off of our muscle impulses."

"Damn," Tony muttered.

Gibbs had to grin. He crooked a finger at his second. "Come on, Thorne, show me what you've got."

"Busted ribs if you have anything to say about it. Just remember the ground's harder than a mat."

The testing of abilities went quickly. Tony sat watching Ziva and Gibbs fighting. He smirked in pleasure as Gibbs took her down. Tony closed his eyes. He fingered the amulet. "Hey, Makepeace."

McGee went over to him. Gibbs watched them talk in low voices. Tony learned best when he heard the information. "Okay, it should be pretty much a matter of wanting to switch between forms. Just a toggle." Tony frowned. He closed his eyes. After a moment, he nodded.

"Okay, I think I've got it."

Ziva cursed quietly as Gibbs took her down once more. "So not all real world knowledge correlates," he observed. "Thorne."

Tony looked at him, then nodded. The human form disappeared, and in its place was a lovely red-tailed hawk. He took off into the sky. He circled the party twice, then landed on Gibbs' shoulder. He tugged at the silver hair, then hopped to the ground. Tony was standing there a moment later. "Want me to get a good lay of the land, boss?"

"Yes."

"Okay, be back in twenty. I'd head that way first. There's mountains and a well-traveled pass."

Gibbs nodded. "Let's move out." Tony flew off and the team started towards the mountains.

****

Tony spoke in low tones with Gibbs, a running report of the area. Ziva listened into it, surprised at the amount of detail. They were moving at a pace that wouldn't tire Ducky out too quickly. McGee and Abby were walking as the rear guard. "Shift, you can ride on my shoulder."

"That'll tire you out."

"Thorne."

Tony didn't protest again. Ziva hid her shiver. She didn't talk back to Gibbs the way Tony did. She didn't dare. The senior agent was the only one who got away with that kind of behavior. The hawk on Gibbs' shoulder tucked his head under his wing. She frowned. Tony seemed to tire very quickly. She wondered if they were feeding him a higher dose of sedatives in the real world than the rest of them were getting. It seemed plausible, given his outright panic at the situation. She kept the thought to herself.

"Hey, wait a minute, boss," Abby said cheerfully. "I think I see something interesting." She practically skipped over to the trees. She prodded the roots. "Makepeace, think you can use these?" She picked up three vials. McGee took them from her and studied the lables.

"Yes. Thanks."

"Da nada. Hey, bossman, can I have Thorne?"

The hawk roused at the sound of his name. Gibbs chuckled. He put up his fist and Tony stepped onto it. Abby settled him on her shoulder and started talking to him about something that Ziva didn't even attempt to translate. Gibbs gestured Ziva forward. "You heard?"

"Yes."

"Thoughts."

Ziva considered for a moment.

TBC

NCIS Bedroom