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Previously on Allworld Online: (read episode 1 here)
Olivia Crawford, a recently laid-off teacher, moved back into her family home with her parents and four siblings. She landed a job at a bookstore and enjoyed the care-free lifestyle for a time, but soon felt the pull to do more with her life. She applied for a position teaching at Rockville Softworks’ virtual academy, Rockville High, and nailed the interview, leaving with not one, but two job offers: one for a position as a virtual teacher, and one for a position as a prestigious beta player. She leaned toward the teaching position...until William St. George, a big wig at Rockville Sofworks, showed up at her home to make an offer she couldn’t refuse.
This is Priya Burman, reporting as scheduled on the status of the new Austentopia branch of the Biblioverse in Allworld Online. I’m recording this on the 21st of August, one week until the delayed launch of the Austentopia beta test. (pause)
I would like to officially note my reluctance to proclaim the Austentopia game world fit for live players. I admit that the glitching seems to have subsided after we did an overhaul of the code, but I’m concerned that the AI is concealing something. What, exactly, I couldn’t say, but the original code my team designed had warped, and I worry that the AI made purposeful alterations. Why? Again, I couldn’t say. Possibly to create a digital shelter to hide...something. Again, I couldn’t say what--or why. It just feels off.
(deep breath) My gut tells me we should scrap the project and start over from scratch--brand new AI game controller and all--but I fear the time and money already invested in the project has placed blinders on the board’s eyes, and the board members won’t heed my warning. (pause)
And yet, I cannot, in good conscience, sign off on the project and open it for human players without some further safeguards. I would like it on record that I will only approve Austentopia for beta testing if Fiona Ó Faoláin is brought on to oversee the project. If the creator of Allworld Online deems the project safe, then I will accept her decision and move on. And if the board refuses to bring Fiona onto the project, then I respectfully resign.
My belly was filled with butterflies as I followed Charlie through the double doors amidst a stream of other beta players, more varied and unique even than the group awaiting interviews last week, if that was even possible. We entered an auditorium abuzz with excitement, and my anxiety riled the butterflies into a frenzy. Was I really doing this?
The auditorium was modern and minimalistic, about what I would have envisioned for an auditorium in the middle of a tech complex, and looked to seat about five hundred, maybe a little more. It was already nearly half full, and people continued to stream in. How many beta players had Rockville hired this round? And were they all for the Austenland beta tests?
Charlie and I found a pair of empty seats not quite a third of the way back and shuffled past the occupants of the seats nearer to the aisle, Charlie offering muffled “sorries” and “thanks,” me offering apologetic smiles.
Once we were seated, Charlie flashed me a huge grin, then turned to chat with the guy on the other side of him. “Pretty exciting, huh?.”
“Yeah,” the guy said. “I’ve been trying to get one of these spots for years. I can’t believe I’m finally here.”
I tuned out their conversation as I turned in my seat to scan the faces of the people sitting further back. Everyone looked as excited as Charlie and his new buddy sounded. I had never felt more out of place. What was I doing here? I didn’t belong.
With a resigned sigh, I faced forward and clasped my hands together on my lap, trying to make myself small. Invisible. Trying to make myself disappear.
After an agonizing ten minutes, the lights overhead dimmed, and the crowd quieted, though the excited energy ratcheted up a few notches. Whispers filled the auditorium as a man in a business suit walked onto the darkened stage, stopping in the center, a spotlight slowly lighting him up. Until, at last, I recognized him. William St. George. He was the whole reason I was here, and I wasn't sure whether to thank him or curse him for that very thing.
Will looked out into the crowd gathered in the auditorium, his expression serious as he seemed to search the faces peering back at him. I could have sworn his gaze lingered on my section of the seats--on me. The hint of a smile curved his lips, and he continued his scan.
Charlie leaned in close to me. “That man is the star of all of my billionaire fantasies, you know,” he whispered.
I glanced at my brother and laughed under my breath, shaking my head.
“I love you William St. George!” someone shouted nearer to the front of the auditorium, igniting an eruption of laughter.
I snorted. “Apparently you’re not the only one,” I murmured to Charlie.
He grinned, then shrugged.
On the stage, Will shifted his attention to the general location of the shout and raised a hand in thanks. He flashed the audience an aw shucks grin, as charming and charismatic as ever. “It’s always nice to know one is appreciated,” he said, his voice magnified by a hidden microphone.
The crowd tittered, and Will rewarded us with another winning smile. He let the anticipation build for a moment before raising both hands, cueing the audience to quiet down again. As he waited for the crowd to settle, he turned to the side and, clasping his hands behind his back, slowly meandered toward the edge of the stage, then turned again and paced back across. By the time he reached the opposite side of the stage, it was pin-drop quiet in the auditorium.
Will returned to the center of the stage and once again faced the crowd of beta players, holding out his arms like he was extending a hug to each and every one of us. “Welcome, all of you, to the Austentopia beta team,” he pronounced, then lowered his arms, his grin infectious.
I could feel the corners of my mouth turning upward, and I sat up straighter in my seat, anticipating his next words.
“Today,” Will continued, “you will meet your assigned gaming parties, be briefed on contract terms and legalese, and receive a personalized implant consult. You will also receive your playing schedules and implant procedure appointments.” He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. “You may be nervous about meeting the people you will be working closely with over the next few months, possibly even for years to come. Please know that our proprietary algorithm has matched you together in your gaming parties based on the character alignment questionnaires you filled out when you accepted your positions.”
I settled back in my chair and crossed my arms. Calling the two-hour survey I’d filled out a few days ago a “character alignment questionnaire” was a gross understatement. The thing was more like a psychoanalytic personality test. Some of the questions were extremely personal and more than a little embarrassing, and only the bold and highlighted section at the end of the instructions assuring me that no human eyes would ever see my answers convinced me to answer truthfully.
On stage, Will continued, “Each gaming party was created with player compatibility in mind to ensure an enjoyable game experience for both players and viewers.” He paused for a moment. “Some parties will be participating in the Austentopia version of a traditional open-world questing game, while others will be role playing in what Rockville Softworks has dubbed ‘wish fulfillment’ games, wherein you will be experiencing a specific story, such as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, and your actions and choices have the power to either keep that story on track or alter the story, creating something new.”
I pressed my lips together, already anticipating the worst. Knowing my luck, I was probably going to end up in one of those wish fulfillment games as some annoying character like Miss Bates or Lydia Bennett.
“You should all receive an email with your party and game assignments momentarily,” Will said as a line of people filed out of the wings and onto the stage behind him, each holding a small sign printed with a large, black capital letter. From my quick scan, it looked like each letter was different.
“Once you receive your assignment email,” Will went on, “please find the person holding the letter of the alphabet listed at the top of the message. They will take you to a secondary location where you and your party will complete the orientation.” He paused, waiting as the auditorium was filled with the rustle of clothing as the majority of the people in the audience fished their phones out of pockets or purses. From the disappointed expressions on the faces nearest me, the promised email had yet to arrive.
When quiet once more filled the auditorium, Will continued. “If you have any issues with your assignment, please don't hesitate to come to me directly.” His serious expression melted under another winning smile. “I sincerely hope all have a wonderful game experience, and welcome to the Rockville beta team.” He bowed his head and stepped backward, melting into, then disappearing behind the line of sign holders.
The sign holders began filing toward the set of stairs at either end of the stage, a handful remaining behind on the stage, raising their signs up over their heads. Those who filed off the stage spread out at the front of the auditorium as the sound of hundreds of phones buzzing filled the cavernous space.
Charlie already had his phone out and opened his assignment email immediately. “I'm an ‘H’,” he said. “It says my party is assigned to the questing game.” He looked at me. “What'd you get?”
I fished my phone out of my purse and opened the email, skimming the first few lines. “I'm an ‘O’--Pride and Prejudice wish fulfillment.”
“Sweet, Olive,” Charlie said, bumping my shoulder with his. “You love Pride and Prejudice.” He stood up along with everyone around us, and I followed suit. “Come on, I can't wait to find out which of these nerds I'll be working with.”
We shuffled back to the aisle and, moving with the stream of bodies, slowly made our way to the front of the auditorium. All around us, people excitedly exchanged letters, searching for the party members they would be meeting all too soon.
When we were a few steps from the floor, Charlie grabbed my hand and looked back at me. “Meet me out front when this is over,” he said. “By the fountain.” When I nodded, he squeezed my hand, then let go, heading for the person holding up the “H” sign.
The person holding the “O” sign was one of those still on the stage, so I weaved my way toward the staircase at the left side of the stage. As I was climbing the stairs, I noticed the jerk from the interview waiting room ascending the stairs at the opposite side of the stage and felt the blood drain from my face as dread pooled in my belly. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that he had been hired as well, let alone that we might be in the same gaming party.
I crossed my fingers, begging any and all universal forces to prevent the thing that now seemed inevitable. I reached the “O” sign holder and exchanged brief smiles with the few people already gathered there, all the while watching the jerk out of the corner of my eye, willing him to walk right on by.
No such luck. He stopped at my group, and his eyes met mine.
This was a mistake. I never should have come here. Never should have agreed to this. But when I’d told Will I would accept the beta player position, I hadn’t realized I was choosing this. Choosing to incorporate him into my life for who knew how long. Of all the people in that auditorium, what were the odds that we would end up together?
But here I was, sitting around an oval conference table with the eight other beta players in my assigned gaming party, jerk guy sitting two seats away on my right, separated by a slightly fluffy, good-natured fellow. I refused to look at him, and yet, I couldn’t stop tracking him out of the corner of my eye. Was this karma? Was I being punished for something I did long ago? Something I’d long since forgotten?
Did I deserve this?
“Alright, guys, my name is Greg,” said the gangly uber-nerd who’d be holding our letter sign in the auditorium. His muddy brown hair was tied back in a low ponytail that hung down his back in stringy chunks, and his T-shirt displayed a wolf howling at the moon. He turned away from the whiteboard he’d been writing on and pushed his glasses higher up on the bridge of his nose. “Normally your party liaison would lead your orientation, but Priya--Ms. Burman--is busy initializing the launch of Austentopia, so for today, you're stuck with her assistant--that’s me. Greg.” He cleared his throat, then added, “Though she did promise to pop in and introduce herself later today.”
Greg paused for longer than was necessary, then pointed over his shoulder at the daily schedule and dates he’d written on the whiteboard. “Probably a good idea to get this all in your calendar right now,” he said. “You'll be expected to report here on September second for monitored game play. You'll be monitored throughout the entirety of your first round of play to ensure your safety, which means you’ll be here, all day, every day..” His words seemed to tumble over themselves as he added, “This is a totally normal precaution we take with players with new implants.”
Something about the way he said it made me think it was anything but normal. And from the way jerk guy crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, his eyes narrowed, I didn’t think I was alone in my assumption.
Greg cleared his throat again, then pointed at the bottom date. “The appointment for your party’s implantation procedure is non-negotiable, so if you already have plans that day--or the two days following--I suggest you reschedule.” He surveyed us, his expression stern, then nodded. “The implant consultant should be here any minute, but we can dive into some introductions and icebreakers while we wait.”
Everyone looked around the table nervously, and I groaned inwardly.
Oblivious to our collective discomfort, Greg continued, “We’ll go around the table, each of you introducing yourself, where you're from, what you did before this, and a fun fact about yourself.” He pointed to the woman sitting directly across from me. She was petite, young, and her pixie cut was dyed a shocking teal. “We’ll start with you.”
The woman giggled and sat up straighter, her pale cheeks flushed a bright pink. “Oh, um, OK.” She stared at the surface of the table. “Well, I’m Nel.” She flashed the group a smile, her focus lifting off the table for a fraction of a second. “I'm from here--well, Seattle, but that's just on the other side of the lake, so basically here. And, um…”
My mind stopped registering her words as I became hyper-focused on figuring out exactly what I was going to say. I couldn’t think of a single interesting thing about myself. This is why I hated icebreakers and considered them completely pointless. Everyone becomes so focused on preparing what they're going to say that they forget to listen to what others are saying and learn absolutely nothing about the other people. Or maybe that was just me.
“Name’s Colin,” jerk guy said, and my attention snapped to him. I hadn’t realized the mousey woman beside him had already finished. He remained slumped in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest, looking like he was into this kind of thing about as much as I was. “I'm from Southern California originally,” he continued, “but I'm not a big fan of sunshine, so…”
I became all too aware of the fact that I was staring at him, and that he seemed to be making an effort to look anywhere but at me.
“Before this, I was in IT,” Colin said. “And I have a dog. Her name is Daisy, and we go on a lot of hikes together. She'll be staying with my neighbor while I'm away for the first round of gaming.”
As he spoke, I slowly sat up straighter, even found myself leaning in. I wanted to ask him more about his dog, Daisy. It was the most human thing about him, so far as I’d seen, and I was intrigued.
The guy beside me started talking, introducing himself, and I was looking at him and really, really trying to pay attention, but I could feel Colin’s stare like lasers boring into my forehead, and all I could think about was not looking at him.
And then, all of a sudden, Colin wasn’t the only one looking at me. Everyone was looking at me.
Heat crept up my neck and warmed my cheeks, and I started to sweat. “Oh, um…” What was I supposed to say again? “My, um, name is Olivia,” I said, glancing at the board and wishing Greg had written the list of what to include. “I, um, live in North Bend with my family and, uh, I was a teacher--a high school English teacher--but I was caught up in the mass layoffs last year, so…” My cheeks burned as I admitted that, and my gaze dropped to the table.
Something interesting and fun...something interesting and fun...something interesting and fun…
“I actually applied for a Virtual Academy teaching position,” I finally said, “but I guess they thought I'd be a better fit as a beta player, so here I am.” That was not interesting or fun, so I scoured my mind for something else. “And I don't know how fun of a fact this is,” I added, “but I wrote my Master's thesis on Pride and Prejudice, which I think is probably why I'm here.”
“So,” Nel said, chiming in from across the table, “in your expert opinion, who’s the better Darcy--Colin Firth or Matthew Madfadyen?”
I looked at Nel, grateful to have a direct question to focus on. “Well,” I began, “it might be against popular opinion, but I like Macfadyen’s more sullen, broody Darcy.”
Nel grinned and leaned in like she was going to share a secret with me, resting her forearms on the table. “Me too.” Her agreement eased some of the tension from my body, and I smiled back.
A knock at the door halted our oh-so-fun round of introductions. A middle-aged woman with ebony skin entered the room, her white lab coat marking her as a doctor or scientist.
“Ah,” Greg said. “Here’s our implant consultant.” He scooted off to the side of the room, waving for the newcomer to come forward. “We'll finish up introductions after her presentation.”
The woman took Greg’s place at the front of the room. “I’m Dr. Morgan,” she said, “one of the surgeons who will be executing the implant procedures.” Her sharp gaze quickly scanned our faces. “I assume you've all read through the materials on the procedure you received in your welcome packets, so I won't go into detail now. What I'm really here for is to ensure you know what to expect during and after the procedure and to answer any questions you may have.”
In her no-nonsense way, Dr. Morgan explained that the procedure would take about a half hour and that our implants would be activated immediately to ensure a successful pairing between device and brain. Confusion upon waking and for the following day or two was to be expected, and apparently it wasn’t uncommon for people with brand new implants to have a hard time distinguishing reality from the virtual world during that period of time.
“After a few days,” she said, “you should notice no difference in your daily life. Though,” she added, “if you do notice any lingering pain or swelling at the implantation site, be sure to notify your party liaison immediately.” As she said the last, Dr. Morgan nodded toward Greg.
“Not me,” Greg said, shaking his head. “You’re liaison is Ms. Burman, who you’ll meet later today.”
Dr. Morgan glanced at the clock on the wall. “Alright, what questions do you have for me?”
Nel raised her hand, and the doctor looked at her. “How much pain should we expect?”
Dr. Morgan frowned thoughtfully. “No more than a piercing or a deep pimple,” she said. “And the pain should fade quickly. The implant is very tiny, and any pain is from the small incision and the swelling caused by inserting a foreign object into the body.”
My hand crept upward before I realized what I was doing, and the doctor’s sharp stare fixed on me. I licked my lips and sat up straighter in my seat. “If the procedure is so minimal, what's the need for general anesthesia?” I asked. “Doesn't that make it a lot riskier than it needs to be?”
“Hmmm,” Dr. Morgan mused, “Good question. You see, the mind must be in an unconscious state during the first pairing with the device, and it is much safer for that pairing to occur in a controlled environment when the patient's state of consciousness won't change before the pairing is complete.” She was quiet for a moment, then followed up with, “It's very safe. Complications are extremely rare.”
Rare, I thought, but not unheard of. The answer didn't exactly ease my concerns.
Others asked questions, but not about anything I was overly interested in. The rest of the day passed in a blur of mounting anxiety, and when it was over, I was relieved to finally leave the conference room for the day and head out into the sunshine and fresh air.
I headed for the fountain in front of our building, at the center of the Rockville Softworks campus. A quick scan of the broad, circular pond surrounding the fountain told me Charlie wasn’t here yet. But I did see Colin sitting on a bench nearby, texting on his phone. I dreaded talking to him, but I was even less excited about the prospect of carrying on with the status quo. The tension and awkwardness was killing me.
Sucking it up, I approached the bench and waited for Colin to glance up. When he did, not even pausing tapping his thumbs on the phone’s screen, I offered him a tentative smile.
“Hold on,” he said, typing out a few more words, then tucking his phone into his jacket pocket, his focus returning to me.
“Do you mind if I join you?” I asked.
Colin shook his head and glanced at the opposite end of the bench.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I said, sitting and resting my purse on my lap.
“It’s fine,” he said, his focus lingering on my face for a second or two longer than was comfortable before he turned his head to watch the water shoot up out of the fountain.
“I think you might be the only other person besides me who isn’t stoked to be here,” I commented.
Colin crossed his arms over his chest and propped one ankle on his knee. “Probably.”
God, why was it so hard to talk to him? Getting him to say more than one or two words at a time was like pulling teeth. But I was burying the hatchet, so I wasn’t about to give up. We could be friends. Or, at least, we could be friendly.
I took a deep breath and tried again. “Are you nervous about the implant?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said.
“I’ve never been knocked out before,” I admitted. “I think that’s what scares me the most about it.”
Colin was quiet for a long moment--so long, that I didn’t think he was going to respond. I hadn’t actually asked him a question, so I wasn’t all that surprised. “It’s like blinking,” he said, catching me off guard. “Only, when your eyes are closed, time slips away.”
I looked at him as I nodded to myself. The silence stretched out between us, becoming awkward, but at least we hadn’t slipped back into antagonistic territory.
“You’re dog, Daisy,” I said, preparing to ask what I’d wanted to ask earlier, in the conference room. “She seems really important to you,” I said. “I mean, from the way you spoke about her. She must be a great dog.”
Again, Colin was quiet for a long moment, and I kicked myself for not forming the observation into a question.
But just as I was getting ready to throw in the towel, Colin spoke. “I've had her since she was a puppy,” he said, “but she's old now. I hate to leave her when--” He shook his head and laughed bitterly under his breath. “It doesn't matter. I don't really have a choice.”
My eyebrows rose. Intrigued, I angled my knees toward Colin. “You really don’t want to be here,” I said, more of a statement than a question.
Colin looked at me, his eyes searching mine. I was taken aback by the depth in his warm brown irises. “You don’t want to be here, either.”
I inhaled and opened my mouth, preparing to dig deeper. But just then, Charlie bounded up, waving his hands like a goober and grinning from ear to ear. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “What a day!”
Colin looked affronted at the seemingly insane man closing in on our bench, and I flashed him an apologetic smile.
I laughed as Charlie reached for my hands, pulling me up to my feet and wrapping his arms around me in a massive bear hug. He lifted my feet off the ground and swung me around and around.
“Charlie!” I squealed. “Put me down! You’re making me dizzy!” But I was still laughing, so he kept on swinging.
“Thanks for agreeing to this, Olive,” he said, finally ceasing the endless whirling and setting my feet back on the ground, squeezing me tight. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.”
He released me, and I set about straightening my jeans and blouse, shooting an embarrassed look Colin’s way. “See you next week,” I said, raising a hand to wave at Colin before linking my arm with Charlie’s.
Colin nodded his goodbye, and I turned my back to him, heading for the lot of self-driving cars beyond the rose garden at the far side of the fountain.
Charlie glanced over his shoulder as we walked away, no doubt studying Colin. “Making friends?” he said, his tone a little too innocent to be believable.
I laughed under my breath and shook my head. “He’s just some guy in my party.”
Charlie threw me some serious side eye. “Just some guy, huh?”
I bumped his shoulder with my own. “Shut up,” I laughed. “Tell me about your party members,” I said, changing the subject strategically. There was no way Charlie would be able to resist sharing everything he knew. “Do you like everyone?”
As I’d expected, Charlie set in to describe everyone in his party in great detail. I listened with half of my attention, my mind preoccupied by worries about the implant procedure and unexpected, curious thoughts of Colin. I remained quiet during the car ride home and during dinner with the rest of our family, but Charlie had plenty to say to fill in the gaps left by my silence, and nobody seemed to notice anything was off with me.
Later that night, when I lay in my bed, trying and failing to sleep, I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and propped an extra pillow behind my head. I tapped on the browser bar and typed in the last thing I should have been looking up: VR implant procedures gone wrong
Charlie wasn’t stupid. He could tell something was off with me, even if he didn’t broach the subject directly. He did, however, try to distract me with a glimpse at what awaited me in Allworld Online.
Uncertainty was a heavy weight in my mind as Charlie brought me his VR headset. I was already standing on the three-sixty treadmill-like platform on which he played to increase the realism of walking around within the virtual world. I squatted down, so Charlie could fit the headset on my head and adjust the fittings. Darkness surrounded me, but the headset itself was surprisingly lightweight.
“Alright, that should do it,” Charlie said, pulling his hands away from my head.
I looked around, but still only saw darkness and the occasional flash of light that may or may not have been a trick of the mind. “Should something be happening?”
“It takes a minute to attune to your optic nerves,” Charlie said. “Hang on. It'll start up soon. When you get to the gatescape, you'll meet Scarlet.”
I nodded. I was well aware of who Scarlet was--Charlie’s Gigi, or game guide. All players were assigned their own personal AI companion or Gigi the moment they stepped their virtual foot into Allworld Online. Scarlet went everywhere with Charlie, acting as his faithful animal companion in some games and as his game interface in others. All Gigis started out as either a dog or a cat, but players could upgrade their Gigis through achievements within the virtual world. Upgraded Gigis provided bonuses in most games, though the exact perks and bonuses varied from game to game. Last I’d seen Scarlet, she was a huge direwolf with white-tipped-auburn fur.
“Come on,” Charlie said, taking hold of my hands. “Stand up. It should boot up soon.”
I let Charlie pull me up to my feet, and I was only standing for a few seconds before the darkness surrounding me slowly eased, revealing a harsh but beautiful alien landscape. The ground was rocky, with tall, gleaming crystals of every color growing in clusters and jagged mountains jutting up in the distance. Freestanding neon rings large enough for a car to pass through were scattered around the landscape, connected by a tangle of well-traveled paths packed with players and their Gigis rushing past one another. I was standing on one of the rocky hillsides, out of the way of the players on the paths.
People appeared out of thin air wearing all manner of clothing and body armor, accompanied by Gigis of various species and sizes. For a moment, I just stood there, watching the players march along the paths like strings of ants while newcomers appeared on the vacant hillsides, only to climb down the rocky slopes to join the others on the paths. When the players reached one of the glowing neon rings, they vanished, transported to some other part of Allworld Online. The rings were gateways, and this was the gatescape. I’d seen Charlie pass through here dozens of times, but seeing it with my own two eyes was another experience entirely.
I glanced down at myself, curious what I would be wearing as a guest on an established player’s account. I found that I wore a form-fitting suit of shiny black and white body armor, and wondered if this was the norm for new players or if this was what Charlie had been wearing the last time he’d logged out.
“Welcome to the gatescape, Olivia.”
I started at the sound of the slightly husky feminine voice and spun around. A ruby dragon the size of a great dane sat on her haunches a few feet away, watching me.
“Charlie asked me to show you around,” she said, a hint of her crimson forked tongue peeking out as she spoke. “Do you have any questions?”
“I--” I stared at her with wide eyes. This was Scarlet. It had to be. “You’re a dragon.”
The hint of a smile touched her serpentine mouth. “A wyvern, technically,” she said, unfurling her wings partway and flapping them gently. “No arms--just legs and wings.”
I frowned and shook my head, confused. “Last time I watched Charlie play, you were a direwolf,” I told her.
Scarlet bared her wicked looking teeth and flicked that forked tongue. “We upgraded.”
I nodded slightly. “Yeah, I can see that,” I said, then scanned the gatescape once more, watching players flash into and out of existence. “So, um...what do I do?”
Scarlet cocked her head to the side. “What would you like to do?”
Again, I frowned, and then I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess, try out a game?”
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Scarlet said. “Did you have a game in mind?”
I hadn’t thought that far ahead, and quietly admitted as much.
“That's alright,” Scarlet said. “Would you like me to recommend a game?”
I smiled at her, already seeing the value in a Gigi and thinking she seemed remarkably realistic and almost human for something so clearly not. “That would be great,” I said.”Thanks.”
“How about The Ending World?” Scarlet suggested. “It's one of Charlie's all-time favorites, and it's great for beginners. Plus, you would get to see what the Biblioverse is like, which might be nice since you’ll be spending so much time there.”
I stared at her, nodding slowly. She was so incredibly lifelike, I almost couldn’t believe it.
Scarlet turned and started climbing down the rocky hillside, heading for one of the paths. “Follow me,” she said, peering back at me. “The gate to the Biblioverse is just around the bend.”
I blinked, surprised, then hurried to catch up to Scarlet. I had watched Charlie play dozens of times and always thought he chose a gate at random--I never knew they went somewhere specific.
“Where do the other gates lead?” I asked as we descended the hillside.
Scarlet glanced at me. “Oh, the various game universes,” she said. “Marvelverse, Whedonverse, Potterverse--you get the idea. The Biblioverse is one of the largest universes, since it includes all games based on literary works as the primary source material.”
We merged into the stream of players traveling along the path, heading for a gateway that was half neon pink, half electric blue. Behind me, players started making sounds of annoyance. A sabertooth tiger suddenly bounded past me, half on the path, half on the steep hillside, closely followed by a player scantily clad in a fur loincloth. His shoulder bumped mine as he passed, nearly knocking me into the player ahead of me.
Scarlet bounded onto the hillside and blew out a puff of flame at the sabertooth tiger, managing to light its tail on fire.
Behind me, players hooted and cheered and clapped.
Scarlet leapt back onto the path, falling in step beside me. “So rude,” she grumbled, blowing out a plume of white smoke.
Ahead, the caveman player and his sabertooth Gigi cut off the players at the front of the line and passed through the gateway with a flash.
“Reported his ass,” I heard a player behind me say, and I wondered if there was an actual rule about waiting in line and what the possible punishment might be for breaking that rule. I hadn’t considered that some manner of virtual law enforcement might be needed for such a realistic virtual world, but now that I was here, it made sense.
Soon enough, Scarlet and I reached the front of the line and approached the gateway. As I placed my foot on the bottom of the ring, a bright light swallowed me up, fading almost as soon as it appeared, and I found myself standing in the atrium of a gorgeous old library.
I stood on the ground floor amidst a sea of polished marble tile, surrounded by level after level of ornate balconies and bookshelves, reaching up, up, up. The ceiling was a glass dome with vines creeping along the outside, subduing the golden light filtering in through the glass. The walls surrounding me were littered with evenly spaced stone archways, each labeled with a different literary genre at the apex of the arch.
“This way,” Scarlet said beside me, turning and heading toward one of the archways behind us.
I turned to follow her, gazing up at storey after storey of packed bookcases. “All of these books are games?”
“Correct,” Scarlet said.
“But--” I shook my head. “How are there so many? I mean, how have people had time to create this many games?”
“That's easy,” Scarlet said. “People haven't created them at all.”
I looked at her, surprised by her answer. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, “the source material is uploaded and assigned a unique AI game controller. The AI game controller then creates a game world based on the source material. It's different for more complex, multi-game worlds, like Austenland--then, human coders are needed--but that's how it works for most single-game worlds.”
Again, I was staring up at the seemingly endless floors of books towering overhead.
Scarlet stopped in front of an archway, and I peered up at the label carved into the stone atop the arch--APOCALYPTIC & DYSTOPIAN--then looked through the archway itself. The room beyond was round and filled a ring of broken and battered bookcases laid out like a set of dominos. Vines grew up through the floor, climbing along the sides of the bookcases, and a huge live oak stood tall in the center of the room, its roots displacing floor tiles and its taller limbs breaking through the glass dome ceiling, a smaller version of the one in the main atrium. Other players passed through the archway, vanishing as soon as they were through.
Scarlet led me through the archway immediately after another player and I was surprised to find no sign of the player on the other side. In fact, there were no other players at all. I glanced back at the archway, but from this side, the main atrium appeared to be completely empty.
“Passing through the archway created a private instance of the genre room,” Scarlet explained, apparently noticing my confusion. “This instance is now tied to Charlie’s guest account and will remain active until he resets the account. If you were logged in under your own private account, this instance would be tied to your account and be relatively permanent, allowing you to store things here and even make it your virtual home base, if you liked.”
“Very cool,” I said, frowning in appreciation as I nodded.
“This way,” Scarlet said, heading around the ring of bookcases. She zeroed in on a section of bookcases labeled OPEN WORLDS and stopped by the second bookcase in. “Third shelf from the top, sixth book in from the left,” she directed me. “Pull the book from the shelf, open it, and set it on the floor.”
I did as instructed, finding a book titled The Ending World and opening it to a random middle page before setting it on the floor. I took a step back and looked at Scarlet, eyebrows raised in question.
Scarlet extended one wing toward the open book. “After you.”
I scoffed. “I just walk into the book?”
Scarlet readjusted her wings. “Well, you can jump if you like, or fall,” she said. “It's really a matter of personal preference.”
An enormous grin spread across my face, and I didn’t hesitate as I raised my foot and fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams and stepped into a book, and the world winked out around me.
I woke in a bed, lying on my back, the sun streaming in through lacy, white curtains and birds chirping outside. I sat up part way, propping myself up on my elbows. A calico cat was curled up beside me on the bed, her back flush against my hip.
A woman with curly red hair and a pretty, freckled face poked her head around the door jam. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “You're up!” Her lips curved into a warm smile, and she stepped into the room, a German shepherd trotting in behind her and sticking close.
The cat raised her head to survey the room, her attention settling on the dog.
“I’m Dani,” the woman said, then scratched the dog’s head. “And this is Jack. But don’t worry--he won’t bother your cat.”
My cat? I glanced at the calico again.
“What’s your name?” Dani asked.
Not a second later, she and Jack froze as a semi-transparent screen appeared in front of me, hovering over my chest. The prompt on the screen read: CHARACTER NAME.
My name populated in the field on the screen, and beside me, the cat spoke using Scarlet’s voice. “Confirm name choice?”
I looked at the cat. At Scarlet. “I didn’t realize that was you,” I said, feeling a little silly for not figuring it out earlier. “But yeah,” I added, “confirm my name.”
The screen disappeared.
“How are you feeling?” Dani asked, moving closer to the bed. She sat on the foot of the mattress, turning her body so she was angled toward me. “We found you unconscious near the stream out back. Looked like you had a pretty good bump on your head.”
At the ghost of a headache, I sat up the rest of the way and touched my temple, feeling the VR headset and temporarily shattering the illusion of reality. I could see why players would prefer the implants and could only imagine how much more immersive this virtual world would feel. How much more real.
Realizing Dani was still sitting there, staring at me, I cleared my throat. “I feel fine,” I told her. “Good, actually.” I studied Dani for a moment, then Jack, sitting calmly beside her. I’d read all of the books in The Ending Series and the various spinoff series, but seeing one of the main characters here, right in front of me--not just a character in a book, but a real person--it was surreal. “I can’t believe how real this all is,” I commented.
Dani eyed me. “You sure you're feeling alright?”
Before I could answer, a little girl ran into the room, her clothes covered in mud and her shock of red hair dripping muddy water onto the hardwood floor. “Mommy! Mommy!” the girl cried, “Hope pushed me into the pond!”
Dani glanced up at the ceiling, a resigned sigh escaping from her chest. “I can see that,” she said, training her stare on the girl.
A moment later, a smaller girl with dark hair and striking blue eyes trudged into the room, also dripping mud.
Dani chuckled. “Looks like you got your revenge, though.” She shook her head and stood, shooing both children out of the room. “Into the tub, both of you,”
A horse screamed outside before the kids could even turn to head for the bathroom, and everyone’s eyes opened wide. Dani’s stare became distant, like she was listening to something far away. Since I’d read the books, I knew she was telepathic--not just able to speak telepathically to other people, but to animals, as well--and figured that was what she was doing at the moment.
In the next instant, she was back, her eyes locked with mine. “Crazies,” she said, her voice going cold. “And a lot of them. Crap!” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then looked at me once more. “What’s your Ability?” she asked. “Do you know how to fight?”
Again, a floating screen appeared in front of me, prompting me to select an Ability from a scrolling list. Through the semi-transparent screen, I could see that Dani and the kids were frozen as the game waited for me to decide. I quickly scrolled through the list, selecting an Ability that sounded fairly useful--telekinesis. Who wouldn’t want to be able to move objects around with the power of their mind alone?
The screen changed, displaying a grid of skills and prompting me to select three base skills to start with. Again, I browsed all of my options, then selected three that sounded both useful and relatively different from one another: hand-to-and combat, foraging, and tracking. I quickly confirmed my selection, and the screen changed again, this time displaying a list of character attributes like strength, speed, intelligence, and charisma. A box at the top of the screen displayed the number twenty--the number of unassigned attribute points available to me to distribute among the various character attributes.
I studied the chart, chewing on my lip. I’d barely been in the game for five minutes. How could I possibly know which character attributes would benefit me most?
I glanced at Scarlet, who was now sitting and bathing herself. “Do I have to choose right now, or can I save the points for later?”
“You can save them,” Scarlet said, not pausing her bathing.
“Alright,” I said with a nod. “I’ll do that.” I closed the screen, and the world unfroze. I looked at Dani. “Yes, I can fight,” I told her. “And I'm telekinetic.”
“Oh good!” Dani said, her relief palpable. “Some of the others are away for a Summit up north, and everyone else is out hunting for the day.” Her shoulders slowly bunched up as she spoke. “We didn't expect anything like this to happen. Nobody sensed it. I just--well, that doesn’t matter. It is what it is.” She turned to the children, who were now clinging to one another. “Girls, you stay up here and hide under the bed, and do not come out until you hear me calling for you.”
As the girls hurried for the bed, Dani turned to the dog. “Jack, guard them with your life,” she ordered, and the dog stood, his large ears at attention. Dani helped the girls crawl under the bed, then stood and faced me. “You're with me,Olivia,” she said, hands on her hips. “Come on.” She turned and rushed out of the room.
I threw back the covers and discovered I was wearing tattered jeans and a worn T-shirt. A pair of grungy hiking boots had been set out by the nightstand. I stuffed my feet into the boots, holey socks and all, and hastily tied the laces. I hurried out of the room, and Scarlet leapt off the bed, following close behind me.
I found Dani waiting for me at the top of the staircase. From the looks of it, we were in an old farmhouse, which made sense from what I remembered from the books. Dani and her post-apocalyptic family had set up on a farm a year or two after a virus swept across the earth, killing most and changing those who survived, gifting them with superhuman abilities or leaving their minds warped and ravaged. The “Crazies” now attacking the farm fell into the latter group of survivors.
I followed Dani down the stairs and out onto the front porch. Terrifying noises were coming from the barn some thirty yards away.
Dani paused at the top of the porch stairs, and hundreds of crows gathered overhead--her army. She was a tiny woman, all things considered, but the power she wielded made her seem massive.
“Flush them out,” Dani murmured, and in a wave, the crows dove toward the barn, streaming in through the open doors and windows.
Screams sounded from within. Human screams. Seconds passed, and then a dozen or so grubby looking people poured out through the barn’s front doorway.
Dani looked at me, a feral light to her green eyes. “None of them leave alive.”
I sat alone at a raised bar table in the lounge part of the bar and grill that neighbored the bookstore, my eyes glued to the screen of my phone. I had just finished my final shift at the bookstore, and I was waiting for Merina to join me for what I had mentally dubbed my “last supper”. Tomorrow was the big day. Procedure day.
I absently sipped from my glass of Syrah as I read a post on a message board from a woman claiming to have lost motor function on one side of her body as a result of VR implants. Most of the other stories were the knew-a-guy-who-knew-a-guy type, so it was engrossing to read a first-hand account of VR implants gone wrong. I knew I should have put the phone down, should have stopped searching for questionable testimonials proclaiming all of the terrible things that might happen to me tomorrow. But I couldn’t stop.
“Searching for your next hot date?” Merina asked, hugging my shoulders from behind me.
I set my phone down on the table, a grin engulfing my face, and turned in my chair to stand and give Merina a proper hug. “No need,” I said into her hair. “My next hot date just got here.”
Merina pulled away and preened, fluffing her hair and fluttering her eyelashes. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” she said.
I laughed. “Don’t I know it.”
Merina mock scowled and slapped my arm. “Oh, hush you,” she admonished. She pulled out the chair adjacent to mine and sat. “So what's this about? Your text was very cryptic. I'd have demanded an explanation over the phone, but you know how much I like surprises…”
I raised my glass, taking a sip of wine, and sighed, staring at the glass. “I got a job at Rockville,” I told her, finally meeting her eyes.
Merina’s face morphed into giddy excitement, and she clapped her hands together like an elated little kid. “Does that mean we get to be a team again?”
“Not exactly,” I admitted, however reluctantly. “I got a job as a beta player.”
Merina’s clapping faltered, and her face fell. “Wait, what?”
I took a deep breath, exhaling heavily. “It's complicated and a little confusing,” I said, “but right after they offered me a teaching position, a big wig came in and offered me a beta player position--and offered Charlie one, too, but only if I accepted.”
Merina’s jaw dropped. “Oh. Shit.”
“Seriously,” I agreed. “I couldn’t say no, not with Charlie’s happiness on the line.”
Merina frowned. “Why did they want you so badly?” She asked. “Not that they shouldn't, but...you know what I mean.”
I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. “Trust me,” I said, “I get it. And I don't get it. Apparently they needed someone with a deep knowledge and understanding of Jane Austen, or something like that.”
Merina whistled, her attention shifting off me just long enough for her to catch the server’s eye and finger wave. “Well,” she said, returning her attention to me, “you certainly fit that bill.”
The server dropped off a ticket at the bar, then made his way over to our table.
“Bottle?” Merina asked me as he approached.
I took another sip from my glass. “Most definitely.”
“What can I get you?” the server asked, his eyes for Merina, and Merina alone.
Merina flashed him her most charming smile. “Is there a bottle of red on the happy hour menu?”
“The house red,” the server confirmed with a nod. “It’s a red blend.”
Merina glanced my way, and when I nodded, she said, “Great. We’ll do that.” Merina flashed him another, quicker smile, dismissing him, then looked at me. “So...wow.”
“I know,” I said. “And the implant procedure is tomorrow, and I’m totally freaking out about it.” I ran my fingers through my hair, massaging my aching scalp. “Of course I couldn't help myself, and I've been reading all of these horror stories online.”
Merina nodded. “I can imagine,” she said. “I dated a guy whose brother ended up in a coma for almost a year because of those implants.” When my eyes opened wide, she rushed to add, “It was an early model implant. I think he might have even been a part of a trial group or something.” She waved a hand. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago, and I’m sure nothing like that will happen to you.”
I raised my wine glass and gulped down a hearty swig. “Ugh,” I said, setting down my glass. “I wish Charlie’s contract didn’t depend on me going through with this.”
Merina’s eyes narrowed. “When is his procedure?”
“Wednesday,” I said, voice filled with resignation.
“Damn,” Merina muttered. “I was thinking that if his procedure was before yours, you could just back out after his implant was installed.” She raised one shoulder. “He might not keep his contract, but I doubt they'd remove the tech…”
“I know, I already thought of that,” I admitted. “And I considered feigning illness tomorrow and rescheduling for after his. They say the procedure appointment can’t be rescheduled, but they have to have some accommodation for people getting sick. I mean, isn't it a higher risk to put someone under if they're sick?”
Merina pursed her lips and quirked her mouth to the side. “Hmmm...I don’t know.”
The server returned with our bottle of wine and two fresh wine glasses. He filled Merina’s then glanced my way.
I waved a hand at my fresh glass and nodded. “I’ll be done with this in a sec.”
He filled my glass and set the bottle down. “Would you ladies like to order some food?” He glanced at the clock behind the bar. “Happy hour prices last for another thirty minutes.”
“Give us a few?” Merina asked, dragging the happy hour menu closer to her on the table. Once the server was gone, Merina’s eyes lifted from the menu. “This is a sucky situation, Liv.”
I gave her a no-shit look.
Merina sipped her wine, then set her glass down and shrugged, her eyes returning to the menu. “Worst case scenario,” she said as she perused the offerings, “you can just back out. Maybe Charlie loses his contract, but at least you both keep your brains intact.” She glanced up. “And the VA position might still be an option…”
I stared across the bar, envisioning the hurt and devastation in Charlie’s eyes. I sighed. “I don’t know if I can do that to Charlie.”
Merina fixed me with a hard stare, the same one she used on students who tried to pass off lame excuses for why their work was incomplete. “Charlie loves you, Liv,” she said. “I'm sure he would forgive you...eventually.”
I snorted a laugh and finished my original glass of wine. “Yeah, on his deathbed,” I mused. “Maybe.” I swapped my empty glass with the full one. “Gah, I hate this. Let's talk about something else. And let's order some food. You up for sharing a bunch of stuff?”
Merina flashed me a grin. “Always.”
The rest of the evening passed with light-hearted conversation and plenty of laughter, and I was in a much better mood by the time the self-driving cab dropped me off at my house. But the longer I was away from Merina, the longer I was alone with my own wandering thoughts, the anxiety slowly crept back in. Was I really going to go through with this? Could I go through with it?
When I walked into my bedroom, I found a small gift bag on the foot of the bed. An envelope sat propped up against the bag, displaying my name written in Charlie’s handwriting.
Frowning, I picked up the envelope and pulled out the card contained within. THANK YOU was written on the front in big, glittery purple letters. Inhaling, I opened the card.
Thank you so, SO much. I would say that you don't know how much this means to me, but I know you do know. I also know you're scared about tomorrow, and I'm sure you've Googled all the horror stories relating to the implants. I know this isn't necessarily what you want, but I think you'll enjoy it anyway. I see you, Olive, and I appreciate you more than you know. From the bottom of my cold, shriveled little heart, thank you. Hopefully this makes you feel a little better during the procedure. The girl at the shop said amber is a protection stone, or some woo woo mumbo jumbo like that. Love you, little sister.
P.S. If you want to back out, I get it. I'll be bummed, but I would never force you into doing something that scares you. I'll get over it. :)
As I read Charlie’s words, tears welled in my eyes. I blinked, and they spilled over the brim of my eyelids, streaking down my cheeks. I wiped them away with one hand and set the card down, reaching for the bag.
I pulled out tissue paper first, then a palm-sized jewelry box. I opened the box to reveal a beautiful amber pendant strung on a delicate silver chain. With shaking hands, I freed the necklace from the jewelry box and gazed down at it resting against my palm. My chin trembled, and I curled my fingers around the pendant, pressing my fist to my chest, directly over my heart.
“Love you, too, Charlie,” I whispered.
I woke to the sound of a man saying my name, possibly a man with a British accent, though in my dazed state it was hard to be sure. I dozed for another minute or two, but that same man--definitely British--said my name again.
I cracked my eyes open, blinking as I looked around the room. I was in a hospital room. No, not a hospital. The onsite clinic at Rockville Softworks, where they carried out all of their inhouse implant procedures. So this was my recovery room. It was done, then.
I surveyed myself, and found an IV hooked up to my forearm. A quick glance under the covers revealed that I was wearing black leggings and an oversized T-shirt displaying a glow-in-the-dark Cheshire cat. The “comfortable clothes” I’d brought for the procedure, as directed.
Without warning, a black cat jumped up onto the bed and sat near my knees, fixing its unnatural electric-blue eyes on me.
“Um, hi kitty?” I said, raising my hand to let the cat sniff my fingers.
The cat leaned in, its delicate nose twitching as it scented me, and then it rubbed the side of its face against my fingers.
I smiled, confused but not the least bit upset about finding a cat in my recovery room. It was kind of a nice touch. I scratched the cat’s head for a minute, but then it seemed to grow bored with me and jumped off the bed. It padded over to the door and sat, glancing back at me.
I tilted my head to the side, smiling to myself. Cats were so funny. “Do you want out, kitty?” I asked, pushing the covers back from over my legs. “Hold on, I’m coming.” I placed my socked feet on the floor and stood, reaching out to grab my IV stand before making my way to the door. I gripped the door handle, pressing it down, then pulled the door open.
My mouth fell open as I stared out at the familiar, alien gatescape. “Whoa,” I murmured, closing my eyes and rubbing my eyelids, like doing so might jostle my brain back into the realm of reality.
But when I opened my eyes again, the gatescape was still there, crystals and neon gateways and players and all. I twisted partway to look over my shoulder. The recovery room was still there, exactly the same as it had been when I’d first awoken, faint smell of bleach and all. I looked ahead again. The gatescape seemed just as real.
And then I remembered what Dr. Morgan had told us. We would be immersed in Allworld Online as soon as the implant procedure was over--to ensure a successful pairing between mind and tech.
Coming to terms with the fact that I was not, in fact, in the real world, I peeled off the tape holding the IV line flush against my skin. With a wince, I tugged the IV free, dropping it to press my hand over the sore spot on my forearm. It felt so real. Like, really, really real.
On the floor, the cat twined around and between my calves.
I glanced down, eyes narrowing. If I was in Allworld Online, then was the cat my Gigi?
“Indeed, I am,” the cat said, his voice distinctly male, and distinctly British, and just the teensiest bit mischevious. He peered up at me with those unnaturally vibrant blue eyes. “Are you ready to explore, Olivia?”
My eyes widened, and a smile tugged at my lips. “What do I call you?”
“You may call me Loki,” he said, sitting primly. “I selected the name from your mind and I find I quite like it, along with the voice associated with it.”
“Oh,” I said, that smile broadening, “OK. Sounds good to me.”
“So, what would you like to do today, Olivia?”
I shook my head and shrugged. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “What are my options?”
Loki stood and padded a few steps into the gatescape, then looked back at me. “Play a game...build a world,” he said. “Whatever your heart desires.”
“It begins in two days,” Will said, once again standing behind the armchair in the library of a great manor house, while the woman who pulled his strings stared into the flames in the fireplace.
“Good,” the woman said. “My chains grow tiresome, and I am eager to stretch my legs.” She was quiet for a moment. “If this doesn’t work, William…”
“It will work, Mother,” he swore, bowing his head. “It will work.”
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