ALLWORLD ONLINE: VIRTUAL MORTALITY
A Truth Universally Acknowledged
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Previously on Allworld Online: (read episode 7 here)
Olivia has successfully escaped from Pride and Prejudice and waits for Colin on the outside--in the real world. When it becomes clear that Colin won't be able to escape the game on his own, Olivia teams up with Fiona to rescue Colin and the rest of the trapped players, with one stipulation--that Olivia’s brother, Charlie be brought on board. Fiona’s team helps Olivia prepare for re-entry into the game, loading her up with specially designed gear and weaponry. When Olivia logs back in to Allworld Online, she confers with Loki on the upcoming rescue mission, and the Gigi chooses from an array of newly unlocked Gigi upgrades, increasing his powers and abilities drastically by transforming into a Cheshire cat.
Charlie leaned back in his chair in front of his designated station, his fingers threaded together behind his head and his eyes glued to the enormous screen overlaying the two-way mirror. Olivia’s body lay on the other side of the glass, but her mind was right there on the screen, walking to Meryton in a mauve dress alongside her Gigi, Loki, who still appeared to be a sleek black housecat. Charlie could see and hear her and everything she experienced in the game, though she was completely cut off from him and everyone else in the real world. He had never felt so useless or helpless before.
Guilt churned in his gut like acid burning through his insides. Olivia was in there, risking her life, because of him. Because she loved him enough to commit to doing something that terrified her. When she made it out of there--not if, but when--he was going to throw himself at her feet and beg for her forgiveness. And also offer to do her laundry for a year, or until he stopped feeling like such a shit brother. He was fully prepared to wash, dry, iron, and fold for the rest of his life, if it made Olivia happy.
“She’s getting close,” Fiona said from her perch on the workstation in front of Charlie. “Once she reaches the town and interacts with the NPCs, we’ll know if the disguise is working.”
The disguise Fiona spoke of had been Charlie’s idea. He’d thrown it out at the last minute, not even knowing if it was possible to disguise a player as an NPC--to the NPCs. It required applying a layer of code to Olivia’s armor that concealed her gamertag and tricked the game’s shackled AI into thinking Olivia was an autonomous NPC, one of the “extras” pre-programmed with a set tree of possible actions and responses, then set loose to give the impression that the game world was richly populated. The idea was to make Olivia essentially invisible to any of the entity’s agents who might be keeping an eye out for incoming players. Specifically, for Olivia.
As Olivia drew near a couple strolling in the opposite direction on the road, Charlie held his breath.
“That’s Lord and Lady Lucas,” Fiona murmured.
Two characters who Olivia had interacted with in the past. If they didn’t recognize her as Elizabeth Bennett, then the disguise was working.
“Good morning,” Olivia said, bowing her head in the passing couples direction.
“Miss,” Lord Lucas said, tipping his hat. Lady Lucas offered a polite smile, and nothing more. There was no hint of recognition in their expressions, merely polite disinterest.
Charlie blew out his held breath, and tension eased from his muscles.
Fiona flashed him a grin over her shoulder. “Clever boy,” she said, her eyes sparkling.
The carriage bounced and swayed as it traveled along the road from London to Kent, carrying me back to the palatial estate of Rosings Park. Once again, I was dressed for the times in layers of muslin, though beneath all the fabric, I wore my super-powered armor, turning me into the strongest, fastest, best version of myself. My specially designed pistol was tucked into a holster on my thigh, accessible through a slit I had cut in the left pocket of the skirt, and Loki--my secret weapon--was curled up in a slumbering ball of black fur on my lap.
I patted my right pocket, assuring myself its priceless cargo was still in place. I could feel the outline of the ring of instant death through the muslin. It was my escape hatch. I wanted to keep the one ring close at hand in case I needed an early exit. When push came to shove, there was a good chance it would be my only way out of here.
“Do you mind?” Loki said, lifting his head from my thigh. He blinked up at me with sleepy eyes. Apparently I had disturbed his cat nap.
I scratched under his chin, and he stretched out his neck, giving me better access. His rumbling purr set my nerves at ease. “Sorry, Loki,” I murmured. “Go back to sleep.”
Once his eyes were again closed and his head rested on my thigh, I opened my in-game inventory screen with a whispered command, viewing the contents of my personal pocket of virtual space for the upteenth time. Almost all of the specially-made weapons and gear had made it into the game. The flaming belt-to-whip hadn’t passed muster--apparently it wasn’t realistic enough--but the enhanced pistol, guaranteed to deliver a critical shot every time, reload instantly, and almost never run out of bullets, would provide more than enough firepower. Not to mention the bracelet of exploding pearls, which I plucked from the inventory and slipped onto my wrist.
The carriage slowed, and I reached out to slide the curtain aside and peer out the window. Woods lined the road, ancient but with light underbrush, the leaves dappled with golden sunlight. As soon as the carriage stopped, the driver jumped down, and I could hear his footsteps crunching on the road as he drew near.
“We have arrived, miss,” the driver said, opening the carriage door.
My heart was suddenly lodged in my throat, and a surge of adrenaline made my hands tremble. Loki stood, yawned, and arched his back in a luxurious stretch, and then he hopped down from my lap. He slunk out of the carriage, nary a care in the virtual world. I followed, laden with enough cares for the both of us.
I found myself standing on a stretch of idyllic countryside road, grassy, rolling hills to one side, woods to the other. The woods were bordered by a low stone wall that marked the property line of Rosings Park, my intended destination. I had instructed the driver to drop me off on the north edge of the estate, about as far from the driveway as one could get, to avoid detection. And now, here I was.
I tipped the driver and waited for him to leave before slipping my hand through the slit I’d cut in my skirt pocket and drawing my pistol. Armed and stress sweating, I climbed over the stone wall and ventured into the woods. After about ten minutes, the woods thinned, and the park-like manicured grounds of Rosings Park came into view at the edge of the woods. And beyond the expanse of grass and gardens, I could see the palatial manor house, itself. I had spent some time here, what felt like a lifetime ago, when this had merely been a game. The estate had seemed beautiful and wondrous then. Now it loomed ahead, all hard edges and sharp corners and dark shadows. Not even the cheerful sunlight could soften the manor’s foreboding appearance.
I snuck closer to the edge of the woods and ducked behind a fallen tree sheltered by some tall but scraggly bushes. My current position was slightly uphill from the manor house and still a good ways out.
Loki hopped onto the fallen log, peering through the bushes. “Have you decided where to look first?”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek and sat with my back to the log, pulling the map of the estate and surrounding areas Fiona’s team had made for me from my personal pocket of virtual space. “I think so,” I said, studying the map one last time before committing to a plan. Six small, red Xs marked the locations where each captured player’s feed had gone dark. The Xs were scattered around the estate, all at least a hundred yards out from the manor house and its nearby outbuildings. Yet again, I searched for some sort of a pattern, any indication of where the players had been taken, but it still looked random to my eyes.
With a sigh, I folded up the map and tucked it back into my personal pocket of virtual space. Absent of any clues, I figured the house was the best place to start our search. It was large and filled with all manner of spaces to stash unwilling guests. Plus, with Loki’s new ability to teleport, searching the massive structure shouldn’t take long at all.
Turning around, I gathered my knees beneath me and peered through the bushes to the manor house. I scanned each and every window, as well as every visible patch of grounds, but there was no sign of the not-quite-human imposter women.
I glanced at Loki, perched near my elbow on the log. “Can you pop into the house to scout for the players?”
Loki blinked, his stare sliding my way. “I cannot,” he said with muted disinterest. “I am tethered to you and unable to put so much distance between us.”
“Oh,” I said and frowned, thinking that put a damper on my shoddy plans. Maybe I could hide out in one of the gardens while he searched the house. “I didn’t realize. How far from me can you go?”
“About twenty or thirty yards,” he told me. “The distance weakens me, but as our bond strengthens over time, that distance will increase.”
“Oh.” I drew my bottom lip between my teeth, mentally adjusting the plan. This limitation on Loki’s teleportation ability meant I needed to go into the house with him. He could still scout ahead, alerting me of any waiting dangers and drastically speeding up the search process.
I quickly shared the plan with Loki, and we skirted along the edge of the woods until we reached a small orchard on the outskirts of the gardens. Using the fruit trees for cover, we snuck closer to the house, then crept through an herb garden and slipped into the house through a side door and made our way down a short hallway into the kitchen. We searched the house from the cellar to the attic, but found nothing. The place was completely empty.
Eventually, we made our way back to the kitchen. The complete absence of servants was notable, and I wondered if the entity in charge had replaced all of the local NPCs who would have been serving Rosings Park with those creepy impostor women.
Hopping onto the work table in the middle of the kitchen, I pulled out the map of the estate once more and studied the buildings, wondering where we should search next. There was a carriage house, and a stable on this side of the house. Either would be large enough to stash a half-dozen hostages. The groundskeeper’s cottage was another option, but it was on the far side of the house. I glanced at the door set in the back corner of the kitchen. According to the map, that would spit me out into a courtyard between the manor house and the stable.
The sound of footsteps crunching on gravel warned me of incomers mere seconds before the handle on the door turned. I jumped down from the table and fled into the nearby pantry, angling the door shut as the kitchen door banged open. Through the crack in the door, I watched two of the imposter women stroll into the kitchen, one blonde and one with auburn hair, both wearing those skin-tight bodysuits. They headed straight for the work table where I had been sitting only a moment ago, and I couldn’t help but notice the futuristic handguns fit snugly into holsters on their thighs. That was new.
One of the impostors started tearing apart a loaf of crusty bread that had been sitting at one end of the table while the other impostor sliced wedges of cheese from a cheese wheel with a hefty knife.
“I really don't see why we have to do this,” the bread-tearer grumbled. “Waiting on these humans like this...it's demeaning.” She spat the word “humans” like it was a curse.
The cheese cutter paused, her knife raised and ready to slice. “Would you rather they starve?”
“Of course not,” the first snapped. “Then all of this would have been pointless.” She tore the bread apart more aggressively. “But I'd at least like to know when it's going to be my time to get out of here.”
“Your time is coming,” the cheese-slicer said, setting down her knife. “Just be glad that the procedure will be perfected by the time it’s our turn.” She gathered up the wedges of cheese, wrapped them in a linen towel, and set the bundle in a basket on the counter behind her. “We'll all be free soon enough.”
The other impostor gathered the bread chunks in much the same way and added her bundle to the basket. Cheese-slicer slung the basket over the crook of her arm while her companion grabbed the pair of empty jugs that had been sitting beside the basket. They headed back for the door through which they’d entered and left the kitchen.
Once they were gone, I eased the pantry door open and refolded the map before tucking it away. I followed the impostors’ path to the door in the back corner of the kitchen and opened it a crack to peek outside. It opened to a courtyard formed by the side of the manor house, the stable, and a covered walkway connecting the two buildings. A delivery cart was positioned close to the kitchen door.
I watched the two women until they rounded a corner to the front of the stable and out of sight, then slipped out of the manor house, easing the door shut behind me, and ducked behind the delivery cart, crouching low to stay hidden.
Loki wound around my legs, his tail curving around my calves. “If you sneak closer to the stable, I can scout inside…confirm their destination.”
I peered around the back end of the cart, scanning the courtyard but not seeing anywhere to hide. A shallow alcove on the side of the stable facing me housed a squat, rickety door. It was the only place I could see that would provide any cover at all.
I pulled back and huffed out a breath. Loki only needed a moment to confirm that the players were in there. If I ran over, waited for him, then ran back, there was a good chance we would manage without being noticed.
“All right,” I said, before I could talk myself out of it. “Let’s do this.”
I took a single, deep breath to steady my nerves, then stood, hiked up my skirt, and made a run for the alcove across the courtyard. Loki quickly outpaced me, and by the time I was halfway across, he was nearly to the door. One second, he was bounding ahead of me, the next, he was gone. My heart skipped a beat, already anticipating his return. Was this it? Had we found them?
I was mere steps from the shelter of the alcove when the small door swung inward on rusty hinges. I skidded to a stop. One of the impostor women stood in the doorway, surprise widening her eyes.
For a stunned heartbeat, we stood there, staring at one another. She shook off the shock first, drawing the futuristic handgun from the holster on her thigh and raising it to aim at me.
Without warning, Loki appeared directly in front of the impostor, three times his usual size. He body-checked the woman’s knees, and she stumbled backward before she could fire on me.
I took off, running toward the covered walkway connecting the manor house to the stable, oversized Loki bounding alongside me. “Are they in there?” I asked him, my arms pumping. I couldn’t believe how fast I was running. The enhanced armor I wore under my dress was no joke.
“They are,” he confirmed, sending a thrill through me.
“All of them?” I asked as we raced under the walkway. I altered my trajectory, heading for the hedge maze behind the stable. If we could lose our pursuer in the maze, we would be able to buy ourselves a few moments to regroup. “Even Holden?”
I wanted to make sure he really was still alive--even only virtually--before rushing in and blowing this place up, figuratively speaking. And maybe literally. Dr. Morgan had sedated his body--and the thing inhabiting it--to force him-slash-it back into Allworld Online. She believed his mind would find its way back to his body and supplant the intruder, so long as it was free to leave the game.
“Yes,” Loki said, “even Holden.”
The confirmation sent a surge of adrenaline rushing through my veins. Hopped up on the good news, I plunged into the maze, weaving a chaotic path. The seven-foot-tall hedges were plenty high to hide us, and we delved deeper and deeper into the maze until I had to stop to catch my breath. The armor made me fast, but that speed had a cost--fatigue. I bent over, hands planted on my knees, and looked at Loki, who had shrunk back down to his usual housecat size and was pacing across the corridor.
“You're going to have to deliver the rings,” I told the Gigi. My breathing slowed, and I could already feel my energy reserves refilling. “There's too many of those impostors guarding the place. I won't be able to get in there without getting swarmed.”
Loki’s tail lashed from side to side as he paced. “You will still need to get close enough for me to teleport into the stable,” he cautioned me. “That will put you out in the open…”
I nodded, breathing almost back to normal, and straightened. “I know, but I only have to hold them off long enough for you to deliver the rings. Then I can slip my own on and get the hell out of here.”
Not wanting to waste any time--there was no saying how long we would have until the impostor woman tracked us down--I pulled the six rings of instant death slated for the trapped players from my personal pocket of virtual space and transferred them into Loki’s inventory. His was a lot smaller than mine and limited him to carrying ten items. “Tell them they're from me,” I said as the rings vanished from my palm, “and that they'll get them out of the game. All they need to do is put them on.”
The end of Loki’s tail ticked. He already knew all of this, but repeating the plan aloud made me feel more secure in our ability to execute it.
Suddenly, the imposter woman rounded a hedge wall off to my right, grinning when her eyes landed on me. She raised her handgun and fired, unleashing a neon green laser blast.
I ducked and rolled, barely managing to dodge the shot, thanks to my enhanced speed and agility. “A girl could get used to this,” I laughed, exhilarated by my newfound athleticism. It almost made me want to make more of an effort to work on my physique in the real world. Almost.
Rolling to my feet, I dodged another laser blast and spun on my heel to sprint away. I zigzagged sporadically as I raced through the maze, hoping to throw off my pursuer’s aim, the fabric of my skirt catching on stray branches. Her shots singed holes through the hedges around me, but never struck home.
I sped around a corner and slid to a halt. I’d reached a dead end. At the sound of a twig snapping under a boot behind me, I dove and rolled, narrowly missing another laser blast. I spun on my knees and raised my own gun, managing a single shot before the imposter could pull her trigger again.
The bullet struck her in the forehead, and she stumbled backward into a hedge stained red with blood and gore. Her legs gave out and the laser pistol slipped from her grip, and she dropped to the ground.
I lurched back up to my feet and looked at my gun, my eyebrows raised. “Damn…” The buffs were no joke--I had done little more than aim in the imposter woman’s general direction and had pulled off a perfect headshot.
“We should hurry,” Loki advised. “More will come.”
Knowing he was right, I turned my back to my kill and snapped an exploding pearl off my bracelet. I twisted the bead to activate it, then tossed it at the hedge blocking the end of the corridor. I ducked as the pearl exploded, shielding my face from the shower of sticks, leaves, and dirt.
I waited for the dust to settle, then followed Loki through the fresh hole in the hedge. My skirt caught on a mangled branch, and I cursed under my breath as I tore it free with a loud rip. I prepped another exploding pearl as I walked, blowing a hole through the next hedge. I tossed pearl after pearl, blasting my own route through the hedges, until finally we emerged from the maze.
A trio of impostor women ran around the exterior corner, clearly drawn by the explosions. I took out two with a couple of quick shots, but tripped on my torn skirt and missed the third with such a poor shot that not even my enhanced weapon could make up for my crappy aim.
Swelling to the size of a panther, Loki launched himself at the remaining impostor. He was on her in two bounds and closed his massive jaws around her neck, ripping out her throat before she could even scream. Blood sprayed everywhere, and only my distance from the mauling protected me from the crimson shower.
I flinched, taking a step back, gut churning at the gruesome scene.
Loki padded back to me, his maw dripping blood.
I stared at this giant version of him, unable to keep my horror from my voice. “That was incredibly disturbing to watch.”
“Kill or be killed,” Loki said, sitting in front of me. He licked a paw and began to clean his face. “Perhaps it is time to shed the dress,” he suggested. “The disguise is worthless now, and it is only getting in the way…”
I watched him for a moment longer, but seeing that he had a good point, I pulled an ever-sharp knife from my personal pocket of virtual space and quickly cut through the bodice of my dress. I let the ruined dress fall to the ground and stepped out of the ring of fabric.
Another pair of impostor women rounded the corner of the hedge maze, and I fired off a couple of quick shots, taking them out easily. I was getting used to my role as super soldier. Maybe this wouldn’t be so hard, after all.
“Are you ready?” I asked Loki, secretly hoping he would respond with, “I was born ready.”
He didn’t. He merely lowered his paw and prowled toward me.
I turned and ran in the opposite direction from the dead impostors. The gig was up. They knew I was here, and they had to assume I was here to rescue the imprisoned players. We needed to get them out now, before the entity had a chance to call in all of her reinforcements. If I was caught and incapacitated, there was a good chance that I would be trapped here...forever. They wouldn't kill me, at least not until after I'd been body snatched. But I would be as good as dead.
I dashed around the corner of the maze and followed the border hedge back toward the stable. Imposter women closed in from all directions, and I slowed as the lawn gave way to the gravel surrounding the stable. Two steps onto the gravel, I stopped, the circle of impostors tightening around me, at least a dozen laser pistols raised and ready to fire. The stable was ten, maybe fifteen yards away. A quick glance down told me Loki was gone, and I could only hope his absence meant I was close enough to the stable for him to reach each and every one of the players within to deliver the rings.
“Put down your weapon,” one of the women ordered.
I did as she bade, setting my gun on the gravel and kicking it away when instructed to do so. “Looks like you win,” I said, raising my hands into the air. A sly smile tugged at my lips, and I lowered my face to the ground to conceal it.
“On your knees,” that same imposter woman ordered.
Again, I did as I was told. I had the impression that they were waiting for someone--their leader, the entity, perhaps? Not that it really mattered. As soon as Loki returned, I was out of here, and I was never, ever coming back.
Loki winked into existence in front of me. “It’s done,” he said, scanning my captors. “They’ve all made it out.”
My heart swelled so big, I thought it might burst out of my chest. We did it. It was over.
I made to slip my hand into the pocket of my skirt to retrieve my ring of instant death and froze when my hand only touched air. I pictured the dress lying in a discarded heap near the back side of the hedge maze. My heart skipped a beat--or three. The ring was in the pocket of the dress, maybe a hundred yards away, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world for all the good it would do me now. My escape hatch was gone, my easy way out now a virtual impossibility.
Picking up on my distress, and likely the reason for it, Loki prowled around me, growing until he was as large as a horse, his razor-sharp claws as long as my forearm. He hissed and swiped at the encircling impostor women, pushing them back. I had the impression that he was attempting to give me the space I needed to make a break for it.
One of the women responded to Loki’s antics by shooting him.
“No!” another yelled.
Loki yowled as the laser blast seared through his foreleg in a spray of silver Gigi blood. And then he lunged at the woman who had hurt him, jaws opening wide, and bit her head off.
Loki spat out the head as the body dropped to the ground. The rest of the women shrank back, giving us even more room.
“Hold your fire,” the woman in charge barked. “Mother wants this one alive. She is to be her avatar.”
Sensing my window of opportunity was closing, I dove for my pistol and, as my fingers closed around the handle, rolled onto my side. I didn’t need a ring to eject me from the game. All I needed was to die.
I turned the gun on myself, aiming at my temple.
There was a zap, and searing pain exploded in my hand. I dropped the pistol and stared at my hand. It was a bloody mess of flesh and bone, so mangled it barely resembled a hand. It took a moment for my brain to register the pain. An avalanche of agony overwhelmed my awareness, and I dropped to my knees, too lightheaded and dizzy to stand.
There had to be something else in my inventory I could use to end this. To get out of here. But I couldn’t hold onto the thought long enough to actually formulate a plan. The pain in my ruined hand was all-consuming.
Movement in the circle of impostor women drew what little of my attention remained free. Another impostor woman strode through the circle, laser pistol in hand as though she was the one who had fired the shot that trapped me here. Her expression was imperious, and she wore authority like a favorite cloak. It took my pain-addled brain a moment to recognize her--I was looking at Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the mistress of Rosings Park. And though Lady Catherine looked like just another impostor woman, there was not a single doubt in my mind that she was the entity in charge.
Lady Catherine stopped two steps in from the perimeter of the circle and tutted me, shaking her head.
Loki paced protectively in front of me, his tail lashing and only a slight limp to his step.
Lady Catherine’s lip curled. “And so we meet again,” she said, her voice as sharp as surgical steel. “It was unwise of you to release the others...but even less wise to return at all. Now that you are here, caught in my net, you're never leaving.”
I swallowed roughly, choking on the pain, and shifted my attention from Lady Catherine to my pacing Gigi. “Loki? Can you get to my dress?”
“I cannot,” he said, not taking his eyes off Lady Catherine. I didn’t need him to tell me it was too far away. I had already known, but I figured it was worth a shot.
“Enough of this,” Lady Catherine growled and fired on Loki. Three quick laser blasts.
I shrieked, shock numbing my pain, and Loki stumbled. He collapsed, struggling to regain his feet as he rapidly shrunk back down to his normal size.
Holding my ruined hand against my chest, I crawled closer to him. His breathing was rapid and shallow, and silver blood seeped from the three wounds puncturing his torso. I pulled him onto my lap, cradling his small body. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I held my dying Gigi and glared at Lady Catherine and the small army of impostor women closing in around us once more.
This was it. Game over.
“Loki!” A man shouted. I knew that voice--Colin.
My head whipped around, searching for Colin in the gap between two of the impostor women.
He ran out from behind the corner of the hedge maze, heading straight for us. “Catch!” he shouted as he tossed something tiny and metallic into the air. My ring of instant death glinted in the sunlight. I stared, lips parted in astonishment.
Loki’s weight vanished from my lap, and I looked down to see that he was really gone. He appeared mid-air in the direct path of the ring, a mere flash, gone again in a blink. He reappeared on the gravel in front of me and immediately collapsed.
I scooped his little cat body onto my lap, curling around him protectively even as I peered through the space between the two impostors. I spotted Colin just in time to see him slip a ring onto his finger. His eyes rolled back in his skull, and his knees gave out. He dropped onto the grass, boneless.
He was dead. Gone. Free of this place. This nightmare. And Loki wasn't moving. He wasn't even breathing. I didn't know if Gigis could die, but he was sure making a good show of it. Maybe if we could get out of this game he would be OK, but I had the feeling that so long as I stayed here, he was as good as dead. I'd never felt so alone.
Lady Catherine took a step toward me, and my head snapped up. I scooted backward a foot or two, careful not to jostle Loki too much. Something fell out of Loki’s mouth. The ring of instant death. It landed on my calf before sliding to the gravel in front of me.
Without warning, Lady Catherine dove for the ring.
But I was closer and faster. I snatched the ring off the ground and met Lady Catherine’s rage-filled eyes as I slipped the ring onto my middle finger one-handed.
In a flash of white, the world disappeared.
The blinding white light that seemed inherent to all transitions within Allworld Online slowly faded, and once again, I found myself standing in the Jane Austen alcove in the Romance section of the Biblioverse. I suppressed the urge to run for my life, strong as it was. Fiona and her team would be watching me and would have seen the moment I escaped from Pride and Prejudice. The game should already be quarantined, completely cut off from the rest of the virtual world, not just “locked down” like it had been before, meaning Lady Catherine--or who- or whatever she really was--and her minions should be trapped. Nobody would be leaving the game to chase me down, not this time.
I peered around the alcove, searching for Loki, but the black cat was nowhere to be seen. Was it possible that he had truly died? Surely Gigis couldn't be killed permanently, at least, not outside of a programmer deleting their code. Gigis battled in-game alongside their players all the time. Their lives, however virtual, had to be as flexible and reboundable as their players. But, if that was the case, then where was Loki?
A nightmare smile appeared hovering above the back of the alcove’s lone armchair. Slowly, the rest of the Gigi became visible, perched primly on the back of the armchair. “That was unpleasant,” he said, slow blinking at me. “Remind me to never do that again.”
Relief flooded me, and with a squeal of delight, I scooped up the cat and hugged him tight against my chest. Much to my surprise, Loki didn’t struggle to get free. Rather, he gave in to the sudden outpouring of love and purred loudly.
After a long snuggle, I set him down on the seat of the armchair and grinned, hopped up on our victory. I was anxious to see Charlie, as well as Colin and the other players. I wanted to see with my own two eyes that they were all right.
I glanced over my shoulder at the books arranged in the center of the fireplace mantel and noticed that Pride and Prejudice was gone. Good.
I looked down at Loki. “Let’s get out of here.”
I sat on the porch swing at my parents’ house, Charlie at my side, belly full, and a mug of lavender chamomile tea warming my hands. The world beyond the porch was muted by the hushed stillness of dusk. The real world. Maybe the real world didn’t have all the bells and whistles--or endless possibilities--of the virtual world, but it was good enough for me.
Though I did miss having Loki around. I couldn’t help but wonder what he got up to in Allworld Online when I wasn’t around. Maybe I would ask him the next time I logged in. If I ever logged in again.
A black sedan pulled over to the curb in front of the house, and Charlie and I exchanged a look.
“More reporters?” Charlie mused.
I frowned. “They’re not supposed to come here.”
They'd already tracked me down here and been shooed away by the VCIA, and I'd barely been home for half a day after the couple days spent in the hospital to monitor my vitals and brain activity and gauge the lingering after-effects of having spent so much continuous time in Allworld Online. All signs pointed to me being A-OK. No expected long-term damage to my brain or body. No physical signs at all of what I'd been through. In a way, it was anticlimactic. A scar on my cheek might have been nice. Something to remind me that I'd been through hell and had survived. But all of my scars were on the inside, visible only to me. And I supposed they would be visible to Loki, if ever I were brave enough to venture back into the virtual world.
The curbside back door opened, and Colin stepped out of the sedan.
I sat up a little straighter.
Charlie chucked. “I'll just go in and see if Mom needs any help with the dishes…”
I barely heard my brother. My attention was glued to Colin as he walked up the path from the sidewalk to the porch. He was dressed much as he’d been the first time I met him--worn jeans, black T-shirt, black leather coat, scuffed leather boots--and his chin-length dark hair was slightly mussed, as though he’d been running his fingers through it during the ride over.
He stopped at the bottom of the porch stairs and offered me a closed-mouth smile. “I hope it’s OK,” he said, “me coming here.”
Voice caught in my throat, I nodded. I chewed on my bottom lip. “Why are you here?” He hadn't visited me in the hospital, though I'd held out hope that he might until the moment of my discharge. But now he was here.
Belatedly, my cheeks heated as I registered how my question sounded. “I don't mean you're not welcome,” I added in a rush. “It's just that…” I shrugged, my gaze dropping to the porch floor boards. “I expected to see you sooner. When you didn't show…” I glanced up at Colin, meeting his eyes for a fraction of a second.
He bowed his head in mute understanding. “Can I join you?”
Gaze still averted, I nodded to the empty place beside me on the porch swing. “Be my guest.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Colin climb the stairs. He crossed the porch and eased down on the swing, leaving a few inches between us. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his knees and stared out at the car idling at the curb in front of the house. The fact that it was still there--and still running--meant he wasn’t planning on staying long.
“I wanted to come see you at the hospital,” he started, his voice rough. “I was on my way when I was called back in to the office.” He sighed and sat back in the swing, his hands gripping his knees. “It escaped.”
It took me a moment to catch his meaning. I looked at Colin, my brow furrowing. He didn’t mean…
“The entity,” he said, confirming my worst fear. “It escaped from Pride and Prejudice before we could quarantine the game.”
Liquid nitrogen suddenly flowed through my veins, and I gulped, attempting to swallow down the panic. I focused on the boards at my feet, on something real. I was safe here, in the real world. “Where is she now?”
I couldn't call her an it--not when, to me, she was Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Oh, sure, I knew that wasn't her true identity, if she could even be said to have one. But she would always be Lady Catherine to me.
“We tracked the entity through several games before we lost track of it,” he told me. “It seems to have camouflaged itself in code once more, and, well, we can't see it. Not like you can.”
Sensing where this was going, I shook my head.
“We need--” Colin stopped himself and took a deep breath. “We would greatly appreciate your help in tracking the entity down.”
I swallowed roughly, attempting to clear my mouth of the paste that had once been my saliva, then cleared my throat and looked at Colin. “I can't.” I looked away, ashamed by the tears welling in my eyes. “I can't do that again. I won't risk my life for a world that isn't even real.”
Part of me wondered why they didn't just shut the whole thing down, but Allworld Online had all but replaced the traditional internet. The world wide web was a thing of the past; the future was Allworld Online. Shutting it down might very well destroy the world economy. It would never happen.
Colin was quiet for a long moment. “The world might not be real, but the players in it are,” he said quietly. “And what about Loki--is he not real?”
My heart beat faster as my panic mounted at the thought of returning to the virtual world to hunt down Lady Catherine. I squeezed my eyes shut, and tears streamed down my cheeks. I wiped the tears away with a quick swipe of my hand.
“I just--” I opened my eyes and inhaled a shaky breath. “I can't go back in there.” I forced myself to look at Colin, hoping that if he saw my fear, he would let it go. “I'm sorry,” I whispered.
Colin clenched his jaw, broadcasting his disappointment loud and clear, but nodded as though he understood. “I have to get back,” he said, standing. He started for the stairs, but paused, a hand on the post. He peered back at me over his shoulder. “Let me know if you change your mind,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “You could save lives.” He set a business card on the porch railing. “See you around, Olivia.”
Heart lodged in my throat, I nodded once, and watched Colin walk down the steps and back to the waiting car. I waited until the car turned a corner and drove out of sight to stand and retrieve the card from the railing.
There was no number or other contact information on the card, merely a gamertag. Which meant one thing--if I ever wanted to see Colin again, I would have to log back in to Allworld Online.
I sat on the stool in front of the vanity in my childhood bedroom, brushing my hair and thinking back on Colin’s visit from earlier in the evening. My eyes automatically sought out the business card sitting on the corner of the vanity. A braver person would have said yes. Would have helped. Would have seen him again, and maybe even saved some lives.
But I wasn’t brave.
With a sigh, I set the brush down and raised my hands to braid my hair for bed. Motion caught my attention in the mirror, and I looked at the reflection of the bed. A black cat perched on the foot of the bed.
My parents didn’t have a black cat.
I spun on the stool, my heart hammering in my chest, but the bed was empty. It wasn't Loki. It was a phantom, a trick of the mind from spending so much time in the VR world.
Laughing under my breath, I combed out my incomplete braid and started over. When I was finished, I crawled into bed and situated my pillows just so. It certainly felt good to be laying in my own bed. Groaning, I turned to the nightstand and reached out to turn off the lamp.
A black cat sat on the corner of the nightstand.
I froze, unable to blink. Unable to breathe.
The cat slow blinked at me, and then his mouth spread into a nightmare grin. “Hello, Olivia.”
And now, the mysteries surrounding the video game beta test gone wrong deepen. While the players that had been trapped in the Pride and Prejudice game world are all alive and recovering well after their extended stay in the virtual world, the man believed to be responsible for the debacle is not. William St. George, former CPO of Rockville Softworks who had recently been arrested for the kidnapping of colleague Priya Burman, was found dead in his cell earlier this evening. An inside source reports that a hole appears to have been burned through his chest with a laser, damaging his heart and causing his death. The source of the supposed laser has yet to be identified, as prison surveillance equipment blacked out shortly before the time of death. We'll keep you updated as the story develops.
Thanks for reading! This is the final episode of season one. I'll be back some time in 2021 with season two. More info to come!