ALLWORLD ONLINE: VIRTUAL MORTALITY
An Accomplished Woman
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Previously on Allworld Online: (read episode 2 here)
Olivia Crawford attended the orientation for new Rockville beta players and met her gaming party, which unfortunately included the jerk from the interview waiting room. Olivia’s doubts surface as she learns more about the dangers of the VR implants, and she starts to search for a way out of the deal she’s made. To help her decide what to do, she explores Allworld Online using her brother’s VR headset, emerging more confused than ever. In the end, a heartfelt gift from her brother pushes her over the edge, and she commits to going through with the VR implant procedure and becoming a beta player. After the procedure, she awakens into the hyper-realistic virtual world and meets her Gigi, a black cat named Loki, who ushers her into Allworld Online.
The world watches eagerly as Rockville Softworks launches the beta test of their newest game world within Allworld Online. Austentopia, a long-awaited branch of the Biblioverse, will allow players to enter some of the most beloved stories of all time--those written by Jane Austen.
The beta round officially launched this morning and is expected to take about a month, with Austentopia being released to the public upon the completion of the beta tests. A press release from Rockville Softworks claims that the gaming giant hopes Austentopia will draw in an audience their revolutionary virtual world has yet to reach. Only time will tell, but I can say for certain that this Jane Austen fan can’t wait to dive in.
I walked through the crowd of players filling the atrium at the heart of the Biblioverse, Loki strolling along at my feet, his tail held high. The members of my gaming party were spread out around me, some ahead, some behind, all of us dressed in the street clothes we’d been wearing just moments ago in the real world. Most had dog Gigis--only Nel and I had ended up with cats, though Nel’s Gigi had a snowy white coat compared to Loki’s onyx fur.
This was our first day officially on the job, and all of our bodies were in a high tech room together, stretched out on reclining chairs, electrodes stuck to various parts of our bodies to monitor our vitals and reactions throughout the initial round of game play. It seemed excessive to me, but what did I know about beta testing VR games?
As Loki and I neared the archway labeled ROMANCE, some of the other members of my party veered away, heading for a nearby archway labeled CLASSIC LITERATURE. I peered through the other archway. It looked like a gorgeous old library, like it had been pulled straight out of Beauty and the Beast.
“Are you sure we're going to the right place?” I asked Loki as Holden, the doughy guy with kind eyes, passed through the CLASSIC LITERATURE archway and vanished from sight.
“Indeed,” Loki said. “The primary location of Austenropia is in the Romance section of the Biblioverse, but it can also be reached through the Classic Literature section, as well as the Comedy section. The access point is entirely dependent upon the player’s view of Jane Austen and what they find most appealing about her work.”
I frowned, wondering what that said about me. I had engaged in more than a few scholarly debates to persuade others that Jane Austen’s stories were more than the romances that formed the heart and soul of each of her books. They were filled with social commentary and satire, humor, irony, and even bits of philosophy. But based on our trajectory--making a bee line to the Romance section--even to me, they were romances first.
When Loki and I passed through the archway, all of the players around us disappeared, leaving us to enter the Romance section of the Biblioverse in peaceful solitude as Allworld Online created a private instance of the room, just for me. Like in the Apocalyptic & Dystopian section of the Biblioverse, this section consisted of a ring of bookcases surrounding an open area covered by a glass dome ceiling. But there the resemblance ended.
The bookcases here were polished mahogany with intricate, carved flourishes along the edges and only the slightest patina of age. The central area was park-like, with lush green grass surrounding a fountain featuring Rodin’s the kiss, and blooming cherry blossom trees scattered about. Golden sunlight streamed in through the pristine glass dome high over head, and tiny nightingales sang and flitted from tree to tree and branch to branch.
Loki led me between a pair of bookcases to the central area, and as I stepped onto the grass, I raised my face, basking in the gentle kiss of sunlight on my skin. Loki padded along, crossing the park-like setting without even acknowledging the taunting birds or tantalizing sunlight. The cat was on a mission.
We crossed the expanse of grass and passed between another pair of bookcases, and Loki headed straight for a nook set into the outer wall. A cozy fireplace dominated the space, and a single oversized armchair, a fuzzy throw blanket draped over one arm of the chair, and delicate side table were the only other features of the nook. There were no bookcases or shelves in this part of the virtual library, merely a line of a dozen or so vibrant leather-bound books on the mantle, propped up by bronze bookends shaped like peacocks with elegantly swooping tail feathers. As I stepped into the nook, soft Regency era music tickled my ears.
Loki leaped up onto the arm of the chair, and then onto the mantel, where he sat primly, his tail curled around his paws. “Second book from the left,” he said, glancing lazily at the books occupying the center of the mantel.
I skirted around the armchair and tilted my head to the side to study the spines. All seven of Jane’s completed works were there, along with Sanditon and The Fosters, her two known incomplete novels, the latter of which Austen had abandoned shortly after starting it. There was also a book titled The Jane Austen Experience. I assumed that was the open world MMORPG game Charlie was beta testing.
“How did they make games out of Sanditon and The Fosters?” I asked, skimming my fingers over the spines of the two unfinished books.
“Sanditon is a tycoon game,” Loki explained, meaning it was a business simulation game, I assumed where players built up the resort town of Sanditon. “And The Fosters,” Loki continued, “is an open world sandbox.” Meaning players could pretty much go anywhere and do anything with little or no direction.
“Oh, interesting,” I said, fingers now skimming the sapphire-blue spine of Pride and Prejudice. The title was written in shiny gold lettering, and when I pulled the book from the mantel, my breath caught in my throat. The cover was emblazoned with gold peacock feathers that shimmered in the firelight. Gingerly, I ran my fingertips over the cover. “It's the 1894 peacock edition,” I murmured.
“Your favorite, yes,” Loki said, licking one of his front paws and looking bored.
My brows bunched together. “How--” I shook my head.
Loki sighed and replaced his paw on the mantle. “Throughout much of Allworld Online,” he said, “especially the common areas, the base structure of the virtual world is designed by the makers and cannot be changed, but the aesthetic is tailored to the players unique tastes as pulled from their subconscious minds.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the Romance section at large. “So not everyone would see it like this?” I asked.
“In truth,” Loki said, “nobody else would see it like this, save for those you invite to your private instance or those watching your live feed. The customization is more detailed and intensive for those with the VR implants, though headset players do experience it to a lesser degree.”
Absently, I touched the back of my neck, feeling for the bandage covering the healing incision at the base of my skull. The bandage was there, despite this not being my real, physical body, and I winced at the slight tenderness.
“It's getting harder and harder to remind myself that this version of reality isn't actually real,” I told Loki. Who was a cat. Who could speak. I wondered if the architects of this too-real virtual world had included that element on purpose, with the hopes that it would remind players that there was still a real world out there, where cats didn’t speak and actions had real consequences.
I looked at the book in my hand. In real life, this copy of Pride and Prejudice would have been worth thousands of dollars. “So is it the same as before?” I asked Loki. “Just open the book and set it on the floor and…”
Loki slow blinked. “Exactly so.”
“Well, alright,” I said and took a deep breath. “Here goes nothing.” I opened the book and set it on the floor, then stepped into the story.
The world flashed white, and when the light faded, I found myself standing in the corner of an old fashioned bedroom. There was a four-poster bed near me, with white linens and a pair of simple square tables as nightstands on either side. A fireplace occupied the wall opposite the foot of the bed, flanked by a pair of doors, and a small, delicate vanity was set against the wall on this side of the bed, offset from another door. Two large windows cut through the wall on the far side of the bed, both open and letting in sunlight and fresh air, as well as the sound of birds chirping.
I stood in the corner of the room near the vanity, taking it all in. I hoped beyond hope that this was Longbourn, Elizabeth Bennet’s family home. I supposed it could have been Lucas Lodge, as Charlotte Lucas was another significant character and likely playable. But...to stand in Longbourn. What a dream come true!
Loki brushed against my leg before leaping onto the vanity and perching on the corner, his tail dangling over the edge. Another peacock edition of Pride and Prejudice sat on the table top beside him.
“This mirror will facilitate your character creation,” he said, his whiskers twitching as his gaze slid past me.
“What mirror?” I looked around, following the line of sight of Loki’s unnatural electric-blue eyes. A full-length standing mirror stood in the corner behind me. “Oh,” I said, slightly disappointed in my reflection. I looked exactly the same as I had when I left the house this morning, jeans, T-shirt, sneakers, and all.
“You may alter your physical appearance,” Loki explained, “as well as select your starting attire.”
As he spoke, an overlay appeared on the surface of the mirror, glowing lines and lettering indicating all of the areas of my body that could be altered. From the looks of it, I could change pretty much anything. But the question was, did I want to? Maybe it was vanity, but I'd always been one of those people who tried to make their game avatars look as much like themselves as possible. I didn't actually want to change anything about my appearance. Doing so would have deflated the sense of me being here.
I frowned and touched my shoulder-length hair. It would be difficult to style into the fancy updos of this era at this length.
“Maybe make this longer?” I said as I ran my fingers through my hair. It was a dark, raven-brown color with a slight wave, and as my fingers neared the ends, it lengthened, right before my eyes. I grinned and murmured, “Very cool.”
I scanned the rest of myself and shrugged, then glanced at Loki. “How do I move on to the clothing selection?” Because that was what I was most excited about.
“Swipe your hand up the mirror,” the cat said.
I did as instructed, and suddenly my reflection wore a periwinkle long-sleeve, floor-length gown with the empire waist the Regency era was known for. The fabric appeared lightweight, like cotton or linen. A name hovered above my reflection in elegant, glowing letters: ELIZABETH BENNET.
My mouth fell open, and I stared at the name, absolutely stunned. As I processed what this meant, my heart beat faster, and a slow smile spread across my face.
“I get to be Elizabeth?” I said, my voice little more than a breathy whisper. My eyes stung with happy tears, and I giggled, covering my mouth with my hands.
Elizabeth Bennet wasn’t just the heroine of Pride and Prejudice; she was my hero. She was strong and stood her ground in a time when quite the opposite was expected of young ladies. She refused to settle, to sacrifice her happiness for the whims and desires of others, and yet she would do anything for her nearest and dearest--namely, her beloved sister, Jane. She was steadfast and loyal, headstrong and stubborn. She knew her mind, but was able to change when presented with a compelling reason to do so. She was everything I wanted to be. And everything I now could be.
“Apparently the casting algorithm deemed you the best fit for the character of Elizabeth Bennet from those amongst your gaming party,” Loki informed me.
Unable to hold in my excitement, I squealed and stomped my feet in a ridiculous little happy dance.
Loki stood, disturbed by my abrupt movement.
“Best. Day. Ever,” I said, calming myself and studying my reflection in the mirror.
Loki cleared his throat and resettled on the corner of the vanity. “Is that what you would like to wear to start the game?” he asked, giving me a pointed look.
I glanced down at myself, noting that I was still wearing my jeans and T-shirt, then returned to studying my reflection, dressed in a periwinkle gown. “This is nice, but how do I see the other options?” Because there was no way I wasn’t going to browse through every single one before deciding.
“Swipe your hand across the mirror, right to left or left to right,” Loki said. “The mirror will cycle through the handful of available beginner options. More options will unlock as you progress in the game, dependent upon the development of your character attributes.”
I swiped left across the face of the mirror, and the periwinkle gown gave way to a white gown with a sage green roller print running in vertical stripes. I swiped again, and the dress changed to white muslin. Again, and the dress changed to a russet linen. Again, and the gown changed to white cotton printed with tiny lilac flowers. My next swipe brought me back to the periwinkle option.
“I think this one might actually be my favorite,” I said, twisting my body from side to side and watching the skirt swish in the mirror. “It’s quite nice.” I glanced at Loki. “What do you think?”
“Lovely,” he said, though he couldn’t have sounded less interested. “Is that your final selection?”
I pursed my lips and quirked my mouth to the side, head tilting slightly as I studied my reflection. Just to be absolutely certain, I quickly swiped through the other gowns only to return to the periwinkle cotton. “Yep,” I said. “This is definitely my favorite.”
“Very well,” Loki intoned. “Swipe up to confirm your selection.”
I did as instructed, and as soon as I pulled my hand from the mirror, I could feel the constriction of the short corset, like a really sturdy, really hefty bra wrapped snug around my ribs and pushing my boobs up into “heaving bosom” status, probably for the first time in my life. The gown itself was fairly lightweight, the thin periwinkle cotton conforming to my body from the bust up and hanging loose down to just past my ankles.
For shoes, I wore flat-soled brown leather booties that laced up the front. Certainly not anything the ladies in London would be wearing, but I supposed us country folk needed sturdier footwear. Especially Elizabeth Bennet, who was known for her long walks about the countryside and to and from Meryton with her sisters. My sisters, for the time being.
I ran my hands down the front of the dress, then turned to examine my new outfit from the side. “It’s more comfortable than I thought it would be,” I murmured, grateful that full-on whalebone corsets had fallen out of style during this period. I was kind of a fan of breathing.
“You are, of course, welcome to remove any or all of your attire,” Loki said, “but be warned that doing so will impact your character development and may even alter the direction of the story as a whole.”
I raised my eyebrows. “My character development?” I asked. “I thought this was a straight-up reenactment.”
“The game can be played as such,” Loki said, “or the trajectory of the storyline and characters' lives may be altered by player choices.” He batted at the copy of Pride and Prejudice lying on the vanity beside him, pushing it closer to the edge.
I narrowed my eyes, watching the book teeter on the edge.
“You may see your starting character attributes in this book,” Loki said, “which functions as your game interface. Within, you can track your character's development and see the results of your chosen actions, as well as your accuracy score, progress meter, and real-world popularity. The book also functions as your game log and your access portal, should you need to message others outside of the game and/or step out of the game entirely.” With one final bat of his paw, he pushed the book off the vanity. It landed on the floor with a thump.
I eyed the book pointedly, and then the cat, in turn. “Just couldn't help yourself?”
“What can I say?” Loki said, looking away. “I’m a cat.”
I snorted not so delicately and bent to pick up the book. I straightened and opened it, revealing a page with three large meter bars filling the top half, each looking to have been hand drawn in black ink, and six smaller meter bars filling the bottom half of the page. The larger bars were labeled PROGRESS METER, ACCURACY METER, and POPULARITY METER. The first and last were empty, while the accuracy meter was marked by a thick line in the middle, with the right side of the bar labeled with a plus sign and the left side labeled with a minus sign.
The smaller bars were labeled INTELLIGENCE, REPUTATION, CHARISMA, NATURE, FASHIONABILITY, and ATTRACTION. Each of these bars was also marked by a thick line in the middle, signalling that my actions and interactions in the game would influence whether those attributes increased or decreased and would likely impact what I could do--and get away with--in this world. I noted that there were no free attribute points to assign to influence my character’s development and said as much to Loki.
“Quite so,” the cat said. “Your character attributes cannot be artificially increased--or decreased. Only your actions within the game can impact the development of your character.”
“Hmmm...interesting.” I studied the page for a moment longer. “And why is the popularity bar grayed out?” I asked, glancing at Loki.
“As this is merely a beta round,” he said, “and players cannot live stream--all viewers are beta watchers and thus not a reflection of how engaging you are in this role. As such, the feature has been temporarily deactivated.”
I frowned and turned the page, finding a too-modern pen tucked into a recess cut into the pages of the book near the spine. The remainder of the page was blank. “This must be for messaging?” I asked, once again glancing at Loki.
“And for recording log entries, should you desire to do so,” he said.
I turned the page again, revealing a single word written in large, bold type: EXIT. I assumed this meant that I would leave the game the same way I came in--by stepping through a book. Another page turn, and I was skimming over a table of contents of what appeared to be an encyclopedia of all things Regency England and Jane Austen. I quickly flipped through the pages, then snapped the book shut and looked at Loki.
“OK,” I said, “Now what?
“Now, you start the game.” And with that, Loki jumped off the vanity and padded toward the nearest door.
I followed him, and when I opened the door, I was startled to find a fine-boned blonde woman standing in the hallway on the other side, a white cat at her feet and one hand raised to knock on the door. I blinked, and the woman’s appearance glitched, flashing to a more recognizable form with pixie features and shocking teal hair for a few seconds before returning to the pretty blonde.
Nel’s lips curved into a giddy grin. “I knew you would be Lizzy!” she said in a rush. “I got Jane. I mean, my character is Jane, obviously.”
I was immensely relieved to hear her speaking with her usual American accent. Much as Merina and I might amuse ourselves by slipping into terrible British accents when we've had a bit too much wine, I wasn't excited about the prospect of having to consciously pay attention not just to what I was saying, but how I was saying it.
“I was a little bummed,” Nel continued on. “I mean, who wouldn’t want to be Elizabeth--you're so lucky--but Jane's second best, I suppose. Besides Darcy, I mean, but I don't feel like he has all that much fun throughout the story. At least I'll get to go to London.” She grinned. “Regency London--won't that be something to see?”
I nodded. “I’m sure it will.”
The sound of raised voices floated up from downstairs, increasing until the words became clear.
“Mr. Bennet,” a woman screeched, and all I could do was grin. This was it. It was starting. “How can you abuse your own children in such a way?” Mrs. Bennet continued, her voice shriller by the second. “You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear,” a man said--Mr. Bennet--his voice low and filled with the rumble of age. “I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.”
“Ah!” Mrs. Bennet shrieked. “You do not know what I suffer.”
Nel reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze. My eyes met hers, my grin matching hers, and she pulled me out into the hallway. Together, we hurried downstairs to start the game.
The carriage ride to Meryton was bumpier than I had expected for riding on a well-traveled road. Loki lay curled up on my lap, and I stroked his fur as I stared out the small window in the carriage cover, reflecting on my time in this magical place. I’d been in the game for a little over two weeks, with my gaming party’s first logout scheduled for midnight tonight, in-game. Time compression was a funny thing, and it was almost impossible for my mind to comprehend that while it felt like 16 days had passed, I had really only been logged in to Allworld Online since this morning, at least in real-world time.
This world felt just as real, and I had settled into Elizabeth Bennet’s life with no trouble at all. Life here felt slower, easier, calmer. Lizzy’s problems were limited to deciding where to walk and what to read and to picking out which gown to wear to the assembly tonight. I had no problem sticking to the script during the relatively rare from-the-page scenes and improvising in true Elizabeth Bennet fashion the rest of the time. My accuracy meter had been inching steadily to the right since the game started, though my progress meter had only shaded in five or six percent.
The carriage slowed to a stop, and I exchanged a look with Nel, who was sitting opposite me, squished to the edge by Lydia and Kitty, who had been revealed to me as two more players--Allie and Michelle--by another couple of those unsettling glitch-flashes. I hadn’t hit it off with Allie or Michelle the way I had with Nel, but maybe that was to be expected with the AI algorithm selecting us for each role based on our relative compatibility. Jane and Lizzy were more than sisters--they were best friends--and my friendship with Nel grew deeper with each passing in-game day.
Our in-game mother, a moderately ridiculous woman only ever known as Mrs. Bennet, sat beside me, and Mary, the final Bennet sister, sat on her other side. Both were NPCs--non player characters--completely unaltered by the rare glitch-flashes.
Once we had all unloaded from the carriage, Nel hooked her arm through mine and we headed for the open doors to the assembly hall. “I wonder which of the guys will be playing Mr. Bingley,” she mused, speaking of the wealthy bachelor who had recently rented out Netherfield Park and was destined to be her happy ending. “And I hope he's a good dancer. Because I'm hopeless. My accuracy score is going to plummet.”
I laughed and hugged her arm closer. “I'm sure you'll do just fine.”
But her words brought to life a charm of butterflies flitting around in my belly. Who would be playing Mr. Bingley? And more importantly, who would be playing Mr. Darcy? Our gaming party consisted of five women and three men, and while I knew Allworld Online wasn't opposed to bending genders, I suspected that this first beta round would try to match us as closely as possible to the characters we were playing, from personalities down to anatomical parts.
There was no way the algorithm would have selected Colin for the role of Charles Bingley. Bingley was far to open and good natured--basically the opposite of Colin's personality. Which only left a few other potential roles. Obviously one of the guys would be cast as Mr. Darcy, but which other male fictional character would receive a player? I could only think of two possibilities--Mr. Collins, and Mr. Wickham. And no matter how I tried to bend my understanding of Colin to fit one of those characters, I feared I already knew which role he would be perfect for--Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth’s love interest.
I gulped. My love interest.
Allie and Michelle ran ahead, giggling in true Kitty and Lydia fashion as they melted into the crowd gathered within the hall, and dear, silly Mrs. Bennet hurried after them. Behind me, I could hear Mary grumbling about decorum and respectability. And then Nel and I stepped into the assembly hall and were immediately swept up by the excited energy.
I heard Mr. Bingley’s name uttered over and over as the ladies and gentlemen gossipped about the large party of fine people he was supposed to be bringing with him to the assembly tonight. He was the county’s newest, richest, and most eligible bachelor, and every mother of a young lady wanted to lay claim on him to secure her daughter’s future, Mrs. Bennet chief among them. I felt a little bad for the guy, the way everyone talked about him like he was prize stag and we were all the hunters.
A plain but graceful woman approached, and another glitch-flash revealed her to be not just another NPC. This was a player--Grace, as Charlotte Lucas, from the looks of it. Grace was, in reality, strikingly beautiful, but she had downplayed her looks to better fit the role of Elizibeth’s sensible but plain dear friend. I had yet to meet her in game and figured the initial two weeks that had already passed must have been for players to grow acclimated to the game environment, and now the real fun was to begin.
“Those flashes are really weird,” I murmured to Nel before Grace reached us. Grace had started to glow, the game's way of signalling to me that I was supposed to pay attention to her, and ghostly words drifted across the lower half of my vision, directing me to greet Charlotte Lucas.
Nel looked at me, her brows drawn together, clearly confused. “What flashes?”
Now it was my turn to be confused. But before I could say more, Grace reached us, and I tucked away the glitch-flashes to dissect another time.
Grace extended her arms out toward me, and I had little choice but to take her hands in mine. “Charlotte,” I said, smiling warmly, “it’s been too long! Where have you been the last two weeks?”
And so the first part of the evening passed in merriment and buzzing anticipation. I danced with a couple NPCs when asked for my hand, and I was just taking a break from the dance floor to chat with Nel when a hush fell over the assembly hall and all eyes turned to the entrance.
A distinguished party of three men and two women had just entered the hall and stood at the entrance, scanning the packed room. Their clothes were of a finer cut and cloth than those of anyone else here, and an air of haughty refinement hovered around them. This was the much anticipated Mr. Bingley, and among his party were his sisters Miss Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, the latter’s husband, Mr. Hurst, and of course standing at Bingley’s side, Mr. Darcy.
Otherwise known as Colin. His appearance was remarkably unaltered, save for no hint of any ink peeking out from his high-collared shirt or the sleeves of his waistcoat. He was the stormclouds to his golden-haired companion’s sunshine, and there was no doubt in my mind that he had, indeed, been cast as my proud and brooding counterpart.
“I like the look of Mr. Bingley very much,” Nel said, drawing closer to my side.
“Very handsome,” I murmured and narrowed my eyes, unable to match him to any of the players in our gaming party.
A moment later, a glitch-flash struck the assembly hall, revealing the true identities of two more players among the five newcomers--Mr. Bingley was kind-eyed Holden, and Caroline Bingley was none other than our party liaison and the project lead, Priya Burman.
I glanced at Nel sidelong. “You really didn’t see that?”
“I see a couple of hunks,” Nel said. “At least if you fall for Colin in the game, you know he looks the same IRL.”
An unladylike laugh exploded from me, sending a spray of spit flying, and I slapped a hand over my mouth, hoping none of the NPCs noticed. “I can one-hundred-percent guarantee that that won’t happen,” I told Nel.
She eyed me skeptically, but said nothing more on the matter.
Soon enough, Nel was dancing with Holden, her good-natured Mr. Bingley, and Colin was dancing with Priya. I chatted with Charlotte and some of the NPCs, and I danced when invited, but all the while, I kept one eye on Colin. I couldn’t help it. He embodied the description of Mr. Darcy so perfectly, putting on a good show of being the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world.
Shortly after completing a dance with a cheerful young man, I spotted a glowing chair nearby. A prompt for me to sit, no doubt. I could ignore it. I always had that choice. But I was proud of my climbing accuracy score, and it had become a personal goal of mine to play the most perfect game possible. Why not set the bar high for all who followed?
With a sigh, I sat in the chair. My feet ached from dancing all evening in what had to be the world’s--or the virtual world’s--most uncomfortable shoes. I watched the next dance, contentment thrumming through my veins, and only when it ended and Colin and Holden meandered my way did dread swell in my belly. How had I forgotten? My muscles vibrated with tension as the two men took up a position near enough for me to overhear their conversation.
I slouched down in the chair, wishing I could disappear.
“Come, Darcy,” Holden said, pulling off a not-too-shabby British accent. “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”
My heart was pounding, and I held my breath as I listened, watching them out of the corner of my eye.
“I certainly shall not,” Colin said, sounding completely and utterly like himself. “You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this, it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”
Warmth crept up my neck and cheeks.
“I would not be so fastidious as you are for a kingdom,” Holden cried out. “Upon my honor, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.”
“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” Colin replied.
“Oh!” Holden exclaimed. “She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say, very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”
“Which do you mean?” Colin asked, sounding genuinely curious. Either he was a damn good actor, or he had no idea what was about to happen. What he was about to do.
At Holden’s direction, Colin turned partway to look at me. His stare lingered, assessing, making me feel like I had been stripped naked, right there in front of him.
I gripped the edges of the seat, my nails digging into the wood, but I refused to look at him.
“She is tolerable,” he said, turning back to Holden. “But not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
My cheeks flamed. I stood abruptly and hurried away, needing to escape from this stifling hall. I headed for the open doors, but stopped when a woman stepped in front of me, blocking my way.
“Enjoying yourself?” Priya asked.
I forced a smile. This conversation between Elizabeth and Caroline wasn’t a part of the story, so there were no prompts to guide me, leaving me feeling flustered. “I’m having a lovely time,” I told her, then narrowed my eyes as I studied her unfamiliar face. “I didn't realize you would be in here with us,” I admitted.
Priya’s lips parted, and her eyes opened wide with surprise. “I'm sorry? Why wouldn't I be here?” She flashed me a friendly smile. “I’m Jade, remember? I'm a part of your gaming party…”
I shook my head. “No,” I said slowly, uncertainty making me draw out the word. “You’re Priya, our--”
Priya’s eyes opened even wider, and she sucked in a breath. “How--” She grabbed my arm and all but dragged me outside. She scanned the darkness around us to make sure we were alone, then leaned in close, keeping her voice low. “How do you know who I really am?”
I blinked, taken aback by her reaction. Why was she trying to hide the fact that she was here? “I saw you,” I told her. “I mean, the real you--during one of those weird glitchy reveal flashes.”
Priya shook her head. “What reveal flashes?”
I pulled back a little. “You know,” I started, “the way the players' real identity overlays their character when we're first introduced.” As her eyes narrowed, I pulled back further. “Or is that not a thing?”
Priya pursed her lips, inhaling and exhaling through her nose. “No, it most certainly is not a thing.” She cocked her head to the side, studying my face, then frowned. “But some players' brains are naturally less susceptible to deception. Some can even accidentally rewrite the code. Sort of like Neo in the Matrix, minus the messiah complex. The algorithm usually weeds out such people from our beta teams. It's highly unusual that you made it through.” A moment later, she added, “Though people like you do make excellent Game Wardens.”
I sucked in a breath to ask her what a “Game Warden” was, but before I could, another glitch-flash struck, and Priya’s appearance wavered.
“It just happened again, didn’t it?” she said, her keen-eyed stare locked on me.
I hesitated only for a moment before nodding. It took me a few seconds, but I finally worked up the courage to ask, “Is this going to be a problem?”
“Maybe,” Priya said, staring off into the darkness. “Especially now that you're aware of it. It’s probably going to start happening more frequently, and you may even be able to control it.” She blew out a breath. “What a cluster.”
A weak smile curved my lips. “Sorry?”
Priya dismissed the apology with a wave of her hand. “What’s done is done.” Her stare fixed on me. “If you can, keep track of when and how often it happens. If it starts happening with more than just other players, or if the world around you starts to unravel, let me know. We may need to pull you from the test.”
“Oh,” I said, sadness seeping into my virtual body. Maybe I hadn’t been all that gung ho about becoming a beta player, but now that I was here, I didn’t want to give it up.
“And please don't reveal who I really am to anyone,” she added. “So far as the others know, I'm Jade.”
“You're not supposed to be here, are you?” I said, studying her face in the darkness.
She shook her head.
“So why are you here?” I asked.
Priya shrugged one shoulder. “Call it a hunch.”
I stood in the middle of the road out in front of Longbourn, watching Nel ride off on horseback, heading out to dine at Netherfield with Bingley’s sisters. Loki sat at my feet, a silent observer. Dark clouds stewed in the sky, blotting out the sun. I was not looking forward to the evening without Nel. It would be the first time I would be without her in the game, and I felt like a kid learning to ride a bike with training wheels.
I trudged back to the house, Loki following close behind me, already planning to call it an early night and head up to my room right after dinner. Lydia, Kitty, and Mrs. Bennet were amusing enough on the page, but in real life, they were downright annoying. Since the Meryton assembly, Mrs. Bennet hadn’t once ceased her endless string of musings about her sweet Jane’s future with Mr. Bingley. I understood now why Mr. Bennet spent nearly all of his time in his study.
That being said, I did feel bad for the woman. Her obsession with marrying her daughters off--and marrying them off well--was understandable. Thanks to some messy and misogynistic old laws, the family estate of Longbourn was entailed to a distant male cousin, which meant her daughters would be left with little once Mr. Bennet was gone. They could be turned out of house and home, and then their chances of marrying well--or at all--would decrease dramatically. Mrs. Bennet was afraid for her daughters--terrified, really--and I could hardly blame her for her diligence. Especially not when her husband did little more than sit back and make sarcastic comments about the situation. But really, despite the crummy circumstance, she didn’t need to be so vocal about her singular pursuit.
Another glitch-flash struck during dinner, and much to my surprise, it wasn’t just Lydia and Kitty who changed. For the first time ever, an NPC’s appearance changed, too. Where serious and sullen Mary had been, sat an older woman wearing a dark, skin-tight bodysuit with glowing channels of neon light running along the arms and bodice. Her auburn hair was twisted up in a tight bun. I tried not to stare, but I was so shocked, it was hard not to. I was left feeling unsettled for the remainder of dinner, and couldn’t retire soon enough.
As soon as I was alone in the bedroom I shared with Nel, I quickly noted the glitch-flash in my game log and then readied for bed. I had a big day tomorrow, joining Nel at Netherfield, and I was more eager than ever to be reunited with Nel--and to relay this latest glitch-flash to Priya. I laid down and closed my eyes, willing sleep to come and sweep me away.
Sleep was funny in AO--and necessary each game night, even with the time compression making it so not even an hour of real-world time had passed. To my mind, it was as though a true day had passed, and my brain--my body--needed rest. But tonight, sleep was fitful and I was plagued by dreams dredged up by my subconscious. Dreams of glitch-flashes and virtual body snatchers. Dreams of being kicked out of the game. And dreams of Colin.
I had seen Colin a handful of times since the Meryton assembly, but always in large groups and found it easy to avoid him. Our encounters over the coming days would be far more intimate and, some might say, even flirtatious. We would be building the foundation of Darcy’s infatuation with Elizabeth. I was usually so flustered and frustrated around the guy that I had a hard time forming coherent sentences, but being clever and unintentionally flirty, as Elizabeth was written--I wasn't sure I could do it. Not around him.
I was just finishing up my piece of toast at breakfast the next morning when a servant from Netherfield arrived, delivering a note from Nel. As expected, she had been caught in the rainstorm during the tail end of her ride to Netherfield Park the previous evening, and the cold had seeped into her bones, leaving her fevered and bedridden.
“Well, my dear,” Mr. Bennet said from the head of the table, “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness, if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Bennet groused. “I am not at all afraid of her dying. People do not die of little trifling colds. She will be taken good care of. As long as she stays there, it is all very well. I would go and see her, if I could have the carriage.”
“I am afraid not, my dear,” Mr. Bennet said. “The horses are needed in the fields.”
I straightened in my chair as a transparent prompt appeared in front of me, telling me it was my turn to speak. “I'll go,” I volunteered. “I'll walk. It's no trouble.”
“How can you be so silly as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. “You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.”
“I shall be very fit to see Ne--Jane,” I corrected, “which is all I want.”
Mrs. Bennet went on for a time, but I tuned her out, a skill I was growing more and more proficient at. Soon enough, I was on my way to Netherfield Park, Loki stalking along at my feet. The rain the night before had left the ground a soggy mess, and by the time I reached Netherfield, an impressive manor house with lovely and extensive manicured grounds, my boots were soaked through with mud, and despite my best efforts, the hem of my russet dress was visibly soiled.
I did my best to wipe off my boots before entering the great house, but it was impossible to clean them fully, and the wooden soles squelched against the polished marble floor of the entry hall with each step. With Loki as my ever-present shadow, I was shown into the breakfast parlor, where the entire Netherfield party was lounging after a late breakfast, though Nel was nowhere to be seen.
Colin, Holden, and Mr. Hurst stood as I entered. Priya and Mrs. Hurst remained seated, a slight bow of the head the only acknowledgement of my arrival. Holden greeted me warmly, a cheerful smile lighting up his face, Colin simply stood there and stared, and Mr. Hurst flopped back into his seat to continue sipping his tea.
Once again, I wondered how familiar Colin was with the story, and if he had known this time together was coming. Truth be told, he looked slightly stunned to see me.
“My lord, Miss Bennet, your skirt!” Mrs. Hurst exclaimed. “Did you walk here? In the mud?” She made a bad show of stifling a laugh and exchanged a look with Priya, who rolled her eyes. Apparently the game designer wasn’t too worried about her accuracy score.
“I did,” I said, following the floating prompt, and forced a smile, my cheeks heating at Mrs. Hurst’s mocking scrutiny. “May I see my sister?”
Priya popped up from her chair. “Yes, of course!” she said in a rush. “I'll take you to her. I was just about to head up there to check on her myself.” Priya made her way around the table with quick footsteps and, when she reached me, hooked her arm through mine.
“Have you experienced any more of those flashes?” she asked as soon as we were out of the room, her voice lowered to little more than a whisper.
“Just one,” I admitted as we crossed the entry hall. “Last night, with the other sisters.”
“Lydia and Kitty,” Priya clarified, guiding me up a grand staircase.
I was quiet for a moment and met Priya’s expectant stare. “And Mary,” I finally added.
Priya stopped halfway up the staircase and faced me. “Are you certain it affected the NPC?”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek and nodded.
“What did you see?” Priya asked.
I pursed my lips, my brows drawing together as I recalled Mary’s strange alter-appearance. “The woman I saw--she was older than Mary, in her thirties--and wore a black bodysuit lit up by neon piping,” I said. “Oh, and she had auburn hair, twisted up into a tight bun.” I touched the crown of my head, signalling the bun’s placement.
Priya narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Hmmm…” She wondered aloud. “I wonder if we have a stowaway. A curious hacker or a corporate spy. That might explain…” She shook her head. “Nevermind,” she said sharply, her gaze sliding off me. “Come on, let's get you up to Nel so I can log out and speak with the architect.”
I wondered who she meant by “the architect” and wanted to ask, but before I could, she was practically dragging me the rest of the way up the stairs. She unceremoniously dropped me off in the guest room where Nel was propped up in bed.
“I'll be back by dinner,” Priya promised, then lowered her voice to a faint whisper so Nel wouldn’t overhear. “We can't afford to have anyone else figuring out who I really am.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Prepare yourself, Olivia--we may have to replace you. I'm sorry, but sometimes these things happen. I should have a definite answer when I return.” She turned and strode away, vanishing between one step and the next, leaving me staring at the place where she had been only a moment ago.
“Everything OK?” Nel asked from the bed.
I laughed and shook my head, then shut the door and made my way over to her. I sat on the edge of the mattress, sinking into the lush bedding, my shoulders slumping. “I honestly have no idea.”
I sat with Nel the remainder of the day, fretting about Priya’s return. Nel complained that virtual colds were as bad if not worse than the real thing, but it was still better than listening to Mrs. Bennet prattle on about the plight of her daughters. The midday meal was brought up to us, and Mr. Bingley and Mrs. Hurst visited in turns, and soon enough, I was being summoned for dinner.
Dinner was a tense affair, for me at least. Priya had yet to return, despite her promise--Mrs. Hurst claimed her “sister” had a headache and was resting--and I had scarcely set down my dessert spoon when the game prompted me to head back upstairs and check on Nel.
I ascended the stairs, a bundle of nerves. For some reason, the prospect of getting booted from the game--for reasons that were no fault of my own--made me that much more determined to maintain my high accuracy score. Maybe if I did a good enough job, they would overlook the weird way my brain was interacting with the virtual world. For someone who hadn’t really wanted to be here in the first place, I really didn’t want to leave.
“What’s wrong, Olivia?” Nel asked as I stared out one of the large windows in her room, able to see little more than darkness. “And don't tell me nothing,,” she added, “because I'm not blind.”
I sighed and turned toward her, wishing I could tell Nel about the glitch-flashes and the situation with Priya and my fears about getting kicked out. But I couldn’t, so I plucked the next most bothersome thought from my mind. “Colin makes me nervous,” I told her, perching on the window sill.
“Like, good nervous or bad nervous?” Nel asked.
“I don't know,” I said and worried my bottom lip. “We had this moment before the game--during interviews.”
Nel raised her eyebrows, and a slow smile crept across her face. “A moment, huh?”
“Not that kind of moment,” I clarified in a rush. “It was just in passing. He said something dickish, and when he tried to apologize, I said something dickish. It's silly, really.” I looked down at my hands, picking at a hangnail, and laughed under my breath. “I could easily forgive his pride,” I said, quoting Pride and Prejudice, “if he had not mortified mine.”
“Wow,” Nel said, a small, secretive smile curving her lips.
I looked at her, tilting my head to the side, just a little. “What?”
“I now totally understand the casting choices for Elizabeth and Darcy,” she said, “and I fully support it. You and Colin are perfect--for the roles, and for each other.”
I blanched and spluttered, attempting to come up with a response. To tell her she was grossly mistaken. But before I could formulate anything resembling words, the bedroom door started to glow, telling me it was time for me to rejoin to the others downstairs. With a sigh, I stood and headed for the door.
“Have fun,” Nel called after me as I followed the prompt and left the room.
I didn’t know why I cared so much about my accuracy score. Maybe it was the perfectionist in me, or the remnants of the teen girl who would cry when she received any grade lower than an A. It seemed so pointless now that I was probably about to get kicked out of the game--out of the beta player program. Once again, I would be out of work. A failure.
The descent down the stairs felt like a march to my own execution, and when I reached the drawing room, I immediately sought out Priya’s disguised face, wanting to get this over with. It was time to rip off the bandaid.
Thankfully, she had returned. I found her sitting at a table with the others, engaged in a game of cards.
Eyes locked with hers, I raised my eyebrows, silently asking if I was getting the ax.
She shook her head minutely, and relief flooded me. Floating with the feeling, I politely declined an offer to join the game and sat on the sofa with a book instead.
“Do you prefer reading to cards?” Mr. Hurst asked, judgement coating his words.
“Miss Eliza Bennet despises cards,” Priya said, for once sticking to the script. “She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else.”
Appreciating the reprieve from the wilder aspects of the game, I said right on cue, “I deserve neither such praise nor such censure. I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”
The conversation continued, littered with subtle verbal jabs--mostly at my character--and I remained sitting until a glowing path appeared on the floor, directing me to stand and join the others at the card table.
I was nearly there when flash-glitch halted me mid-step, and not just Colin, Priya, and Holden appeared as their true selves for a few seconds. Mrs. Hurst had gained an alternate appearance, as well. It was strikingly similar to Mary’s, only Mrs. Hurst’s alternate had honey colored hair.
“All this she must possess,” Colin said, continuing on with the dialogue as it had been written by Jane Austen herself, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
An expectant hush fell over the room and transparent words floated across the lower half of my field of vision, but all I could do was stare at Mrs. Hurst, recalling what I had just seen. Recalling the hint of savagery, of violence, sparkling in her stare.
“Miss Bennet,” Colin said, “surely you must have an opinion on the matter.”
Again, those transparent words floated in front of me. I tore my stare from Mrs. Hurst and looked at Colin. A hint of concern shone in his eyes. “I--” My voice caught in my throat, and finding myself at a loss for words, I shook my head.
Colin stood slowly. “Are you unwell?” he asked, moving around the table to stand near me. He gripped my elbow, his hold strong and sturdy, and leaned in close to murmur softly, “You look like you're about to pass out.” Colin raised his voice to say, “I'll escort you upstairs to your room.”
Priya pushed back her chair. “How scandalous!” she said, standing. “I'll escort Miss Bennet up to her room.” She rounded the table and linked her arm with mine, wasting no time in guiding me out of the drawing room.
“Well,” I grumbled, “There goes my perfect accuracy score…”
Priya waved a hand dismissively. “It's good to test the system out,” she said. “To see what variations it will develop in the story.”
I frowned. “But I figured I was brought on as a beta player to play a perfect game,” I said, voicing something I hadn’t fully realized myself until this very moment. “I mean, why else would you guys care if I had any knowledge of Jane Austen at all?”
Priya eyed me as we ascended the stairs. “We wouldn't care,” she said. “Who told you we would?”
I licked my lips, suddenly unsure of pretty much everything. “Will,” I told her. “William St. George.”
Priya narrowed her eyes. “Well, I don't know why Will was feeding you that line, but he's full of it.” She snorted derisively. “Probably just trying to get into your pants.”
I didn’t say that I doubted a guy like him needed to pull tricks like this to get into almost anyone’s pants.
“Tell me exactly how you ended up here,” Priya ordered.
Thinking back, I recounted my experience at the virtual academy interview, and then Will’s unexpected visit to my house as well as his job offer to both me and Charlie. By the time I finished, we were standing in front of the door to my room.
“The neural scan would have picked up on your anomalous nature,” Priya thought aloud.
“You know,” Priya said with the wave of her hand, “that you're one of the ones--you know, who can see through some virtual illusions.” She pursed her lips. “All I can think is that that's why he wants you here.” She paused, tapping one finger against her lips. “But why?”
I wandered around the Netherfield grounds, the sun shining through a break in the clouds and Loki stalking the critters rustling the shrubbery. I rounded a slightly overgrown hedge and nearly ran into Colin.
“Oh!” I exclaimed, stumbling back a couple steps and clapping a hand over my racing heart. “I didn't see you there.”
Colin bowed. “Miss Bennet.”
I lowered my hand, suppressing a quiet smile. “I don’t think side conversations between players impact our accuracy scores--so long as they don’t interrupt a scene,” I said, meaning, one of the prompt-heavy interactions taken straight from the page of Pride and Prejudice. At least, none of my many conversations with Nel seemed to have hurt my score. It hadn’t lowered until that disastrous performance last night.
Colin stepped closer, his brow furrowed. His Gigi, a wolfish dog with a wagging tail, sniffed a disinterested Loki. “You haven’t seemed yourself all day,” Colin said. “I came out here to check on you.”
My eyebrows shot up. “You did?”
Colin leaned in a little, his eyes searching mine, his warm brown irises like glowing amber in the sunlight. “You looked as though you'd seen a ghost.”
“I--” I swallowed roughly and averted my gaze. “I can’t--” I cleared my throat. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Oh.” Colin straightened and took a step backward. “Well, I’ll just leave you to--”
“No,” I blurted, my eyes snapping up to meet his. My cheeks warmed immediately. “Wait,” I said. “Just...wait.” I gestured toward the wending path between the hedges. “Walk with me? I'd appreciate the company.”
Colin stared at me for a moment longer, then fell in step beside me.
“I hope I didn't screw up your accuracy score too much last night,” I told him.
Colin shrugged. “I'm not too worried about it.”
I flashed him a grateful smile. “Are you having fun?” I asked. “You don't strike me as the Jane Austen type.”
Colin regarded me quietly as we walked. “Oh?”
“I didn't mean anything bad by it,” I rushed to say. “You just seem more like a John Wick kind of guy. Or maybe Quentin Tarantino. More action and danger than Masterpiece Theater.”
“Sounds like you've given the matter a lot of thought,” Colin commented.
My cheeks burned. “I, well--” I turned my face away from him, pretending to study the horizon. “Not exactly.” Feeling his eyes on me, I risked a glance his way. “I mean, maybe a little.”
Colin chuckled, and I was so startled that I nearly tripped over my own foot. “Listen, Olivia--”
I looked at him, unable to resist. I was pretty sure that was the first time he’d ever said my name.
“I was a dick,” he continued, unable or unwilling to meet my eyes, “that day in the waiting room. I didn't want to be there, and I took it out on you, and I--” He blew out a breath. “I'm sorry.”
“Wow,” I said without thinking. “I think that's the most I've ever heard you say.”
Colin glanced at me, looking extremely uncomfortable.
“I appreciate you saying that, though,” I added. “What you said that day--it struck a nerve.”
Colin made a soft grunting sound. It was weirdly attractive. “I could tell,” he said, then sighed. “I’ve never been good with people,” he admitted. “Computers, I get. Dogs, I get. But people…” He stared off in the distance. “People are hard.”
I studied the side of his face, his strong, handsome profile. “You really are perfect for the role of Darcy, you know?”
Colin shook his head, casting me a sidelong glance. “I--I'm honestly not really familiar with the story.”
I snorted. “Of course you aren’t,” I said, shaking my head and laughing under my breath. “So you don't know what's going to happen?”
Colin shook his head. “Are you going to tell me?”
I grinned, suddenly filled with wicked excitement. “Nope,” I told him, then leaned in and lowered my voice. “I'll let it be a fun surprise.”
The remainder of the extended stay at Netherfield was easy. No more glitch-flashes. No more anxiety about being booted from the game. And no more tension around Colin--at least, not the bad kind of tension. A new tension was simmering, though--a slow burn building with each interaction. It hung in the air around us, drawing the attention of other players our way. And it made the game a whole hell of a lot more fun.
I had logged out all of three times and passed three real world nights in a Rockville bunk room, but nearly two months had passed in game. I felt like I had bought extra time, like my life expectancy had just increased tenfold. How much more would I be able to experience through Allworld Online than I would have been able to experience out in the real world? And because it felt like I spent so much more time in the virtual world than in the real world, reality was starting to feel like a dream.
It was mid November in game as I walked with Nel and the other Bennet sisters to Meryton, Mr. Collins, our ridiculous and annoying distant cousin--the very same one who was to inherit Longbourn--in tow. We had just entered the town when Lydia spotted an officer she’d been stalking, Mr Denny, and plotted to ensure our path intersected with his.
Mr. Denny and his companion, a handsome young man I took to be none other than the infamous George Wickham, had little choice but to acknowledge the gaggle of young women heading straight for them. The officer and the rouge masquerading as a gentleman bowed, we curtsied, and Lydia fawned. Mr. Collins droned on about the merits of military training and civil duty, going so far as to liken himself to a soldier of the lord.
Some things truly were more entertaining--and less tiresome--when dolled out in small doses on the page. I wasn’t sure who was worse, Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins.
A glitch-flash caught me by surprise, and once again, I was struck dumb by what I saw. Wickham was a player, as I had suspected, but not the one I had been expecting. There was one male player from my gaming party whose path I had yet to cross in the game--a friendly middle-eastern fellow named Ben--but it wasn’t his smiling bronze face I saw during the revealing flash. It was the Ken-doll golden boy, William St. George.
I couldn’t help a slight narrowing of my eyes as I studied Will’s disguised appearance. What was he doing here? And where was Ben? Only when my scrutiny caught Will’s eye did I think to school my features, replacing my sleuthing expression with an open, friendly smile. Elizabeth and Wickham were supposed to get pretty chummy, after all--at least, until he revealed his true nature as a first-rate scoundrel.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to pretend for long. Colin and Holden arrived on horseback, right on cue. They greeted the ladies, just as Jane Austen had written, and then Colin and Will engaged in the expected epic stare down, revealing that the two characters had a long and not-so-pleasant history.
I watched them both, but my stare kept returning to Will as I wondered why, exactly, he was here. First Priya, now him. Clearly something was up--but what?
For a week, I stewed on the knowledge that Will was in the game and struggled with not revealing it to Nel. To make matters worse, the glitch-flashes were happening more frequently, though thankfully they only happened when I was around other people, either players or NPCs. I could hardly wait to speak to Priya at the Netherfield ball. I spent as much time as I could out in the garden or walking around beautiful Hertfordshire, mulling over the things that only I could see. The things that only I knew.
Finally, the day of the ball arrived, and I was a bundle of nerves getting ready. Nel noticed, commenting that I was exceptionally quiet as she helped with my hair, and I passed it off as being nervous about the upcoming dance with Colin. Tonight was Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s tension-filled dance, and I wasn’t lying when I told Nel I was nervous. It was just that those nerves took second fiddle to the giant WTF hanging over the game.
As soon as I stepped through the front door at Netherfield Park, I immediately started searching the packed crowd for Priya, under the guise of looking for Wickham, as the game prompted me to do. I sent off Loki to search the upper floors, where my snooping wouldn’t be so welcome. I searched the entire first floor, but didn’t see Priya anywhere. I even used dancing as an opportunity to gain a different view of the ballroom, but still, nothing.
At the end of a dance with an officer, I spotted Grace standing off to the side of the dance floor with a few NPC women and headed her way. I reached out my hands in greeting as I approached. “Have you seen Jade?” I asked her, using Priya’s fake name as I leaned in, my voice raised to be heard over the din of the crowd.
Grace shook her head. “Has she missed a prompt?”
“Uh...yeah,” I said, taking the offered explanation and running with it. “I was supposed to talk to her between the last two dances, but I can’t find her.” Not true, but most people weren’t as intimately familiar with the minutiae of Pride and Prejudice as I was.
Again, Grace shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I haven’t seen her all night.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Colin approaching. He was taller than almost everyone else in the room, making him stand out. He stopped nearby and bowed.
Grace and I curtsied.
“Miss Bennet,” he said, clearly driven by a prompt, “might I have the pleasure of your hand for the next dance?”
My heartbeat quickened as I stared into his eyes. I’d been so distracted by my search for Priya that I’d forgotten this was coming. “I--” I cleared my throat. “Yes, of course.”
“I look forward to it,” Colin said, then bowed again and, without another word, turned and strode away.
I stared after him for a moment before making some lame excuse to Grace and resuming my search for Priya. It felt like no time had passed before a glowing pathway was directing me back toward the dance floor to meet with Colin.
Once the dance started, I did my best to follow the prompts and say what needed to be said. This was a notorious banter scene between Elizabeth and Darcy, after all, and it was killing me that I couldn’t simply sink in and enjoy it, but I was growing increasingly concerned for Priya. She had been so adamant about hiding her true identity that I couldn’t imagine what possibly could have made her duck out during such a significant scene.
“You seem distracted,” Colin said, breaking character as we stepped around each other, following the moves of the dance. “What’s wrong?”
“I haven’t seen Caroline all evening,” I told him. “Jade, I mean,” using her fake-real name. We parted, interweaving with another couple, then came back together. “When did you last see her?” I asked him.
Colin frowned. “I’m not sure,” he said. “At breakfast, I think.”
Suddenly, Colin froze.
Not just Colin. The whole room.
I looked around, finding myself surrounded by utter stillness, as though someone had hit the pause button on the virtual world. Here and there, people’s appearances flickered back and forth, both players and at least a dozen NPCs. While the NPCs themselves were both male and female, their alternate appearances were all female, and all wearing those same, strange neon-lined black bodysuits.
Just as suddenly, the game resumed, and panic fluttered in my chest. What was happening to me? To the game? I couldn’t make sense of it.
Colin grabbed my arms, ignoring the prompts as the dance continued around us. “Olivia, what is it?” His concern was palpable.
“I--” I swallowed roughly, then shook my head. “I can’t tell you, but I need to find Pr--Jade,” I told him, imploring him with my eyes. “Will you help me?”
“Of course,” he said, without a hint of hesitation.
Together, we moved about the first floor of the manor house, stopping to talk with any and all players or significant NPCs who crossed our path. Reactions to our inquiries ranged from mild confusion to flat-out noes.
“Ah!” I said, spotting Mrs. Hurst in the drawing room. I pointed in her direction “There’s Mrs. Hurst. I bet she’ll know where her sister is.”
Colin led the way, his hand finding mine as he made a path through the tight-packed milling bodies.
“Mrs. Hurst,” I said as we drew near.
She looked at us, her gaze assessing as she took in first me, then Colin, and then our joined hands. She raised an eyebrow, her expression clearly displaying that she didn’t approve of the pairing.
I ignored her cattiness. “Have you seen Caroline?” I asked her.
She sniffed and looked away. “Apologies,” she said, “but I am not acquainted with any Caroline present tonight.”
“Your sister,” I clarified. “Where is your sister?”
She looked at me like I had lost my mind. “I have no sister named Caroline.”
My heart sank into my stomach, and I turned to Colin, whose shock mirrored mine.
If Mrs. Hurst didn’t know who Caroline Bingley was--her own sister--then something had gone very wrong with the game.
And Priya was gone.
This just in. Priya Burman, the lead developer on Rockville Softworks upcoming Allworld Online addition, Austentopia, has gone missing. Ms. Burman’s loved ones report that she had been growing increasingly withdrawn over the past few months and was under an immense amount of stress. Police have yet to release a statement, but Ms. Burman’s friends and family have been very vocal in crying foul play. We’ll keep you updated as the story develops.
Episode 4 will be available Friday, May 15. Voting in this episode's poll closes at midnight on May 7.
What is Colin's secret?
He is a corporate spy from another video game company
He works for the CIA's virtual branch and is investigating someone/thing
He's an anti-VR hacker-activist
He's William St. George's long-lost secret half-brother
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