ALLWORLD ONLINE: VIRTUAL MORTALITY

Episode 1

A Rational Creature

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(voice recording)

This is Priya Burman, and I'm recording this on the 6th of March, 2026, one month until the launch of the Austentopia beta test. (pause)

 

(heavy sigh) There's a ghost in the machine. (pause) I don't know how else to describe it. It's as though the game controller is confused, altering elements of the game beyond any of its directives. Elements that should be static, unchangeable. Characters, setting, story--all of it is changing.

 

(sigh) I hesitate to use the "G" word, but it really does seem as though the AI is glitching. My recommendation is to postpone the beta test until my team can go through the game controller's code and directives with a fine-toothed comb.

 

All alpha test simulations featuring a pure NPC cast have completed without issue and with expected results. However, as we all know, these alpha tests are not always accurate predictors of how the game will react to and interact with live test subjects. Players are unpredictable, and they breed chaos. I do not feel as though the current rendition of this game controller will react well to player chaos.

 

I beg of you, please, give us a few more months to rebuild the game controller and to ensure the safety of all who enter the game. Please.

 

~~~

I sat on the porch swing at my parents’ house--now my house, again--nursing a beer as I lazily pushed myself back and forth with one bare foot. If you had asked me ten years ago where I thought I would be on my thirtieth birthday, I wouldn’t have said laid off. I wouldn’t have said evicted. And I definitely wouldn’t have said moving back into my parents’ house. 

 

But here I was, all the same.

 

At the screech of the screen door opening, I looked to my right. Tall, lanky Charlie stepped out onto the porch, a wine glass filled with a generous amount of red wine in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other. 

 

“Want some company?” he asked, pausing to hold the wine glass out for me to take. “I come bearing gifts…”

 

I flashed him a weak smile and leaned forward, setting the nearly empty beer on the floor before reaching for the wine glass.

 

Charlie gave me a gentle noogie. “Happy birthday, Squirt.”

 

I swatted his hand away from my head and snorted derisively, leaning back in the porch swing once more. “Thanks, Chuckles.”

 

Wincing, Charlie sat beside me on the swing. “Always with the Chuckles…”

 

I laughed softly, grinning at him. “I could switch to Chucky like Grandma. Would you prefer that?”

 

Charlie groaned, letting his blond head fall back. “Oh dear God, no.”

 

I laughed again. Charlie was doing his big brother duty and lifting me up when I was down. He was, quite possibly my favorite human being in the whole world. He’d always been there to help me up when I stumbled and fell...even if he’d been the one to push me down in the first place. Nobody picks on my kid sister but me. That was his motto, all the way.

 

As my spark of good humor faded, I took a sip of wine. 

 

Charlie lifted his head and raised his beer bottle to his lips, tilting it back for a long swig. He lowered the bottle, and I could sense his gaze on the side of my face. “You know, Olive, when I moved back here, I felt like the punchline of a joke. A thirty-one-year-old gamer moving into his parents' basement.”

 

I glanced at Charlie sidelong, my heart sinking. Looked like fun time was over; it was time to get serious. “If this is your attempt at making me feel better, it seriously sucks,” I said. “Just FYI.”

 

Charlie chuckled. He took another swig of beer, then raised his hand to forestall any further commentary from me. “Just hear me out, Olive,” he said. “I have a point, I promise.”

 

I sent a pointed look his way, then shrugged. I brought my free hand up to my lips and mimed zipping them from one corner to the other, then turned the imaginary key and chucked it into the rhododendron bush on the other side of the porch railing.

 

“Thanks,” Charlie said, his tone bone dry. “You know, I always felt like I was supposed to be setting the example for you and the others. Like I had to prove it’s possible to make it out there, whatever the stats are about college grads not making it on their own. I was going to do it. To prove the stats wrong. To be independent. Strong. Capable.”

 

I sipped my wine, dreading where this was going. I hated talking about the dark times. But then, I knew Charlie hated it even more. So I sat quietly, attentively, and listened to the wisdom he was offering. 

 

Charlie laughed under his breath. “And I did it. I worked damn hard to be that strong, capable, independent millennial I thought I needed to be.” Charlie glanced at me, his eyes meeting mine. “And I hated my life,” he admitted. “I never had time to see my friends or to date or to even come to family dinners.” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “The only people I had time for were people I didn't even like. People I had nothing in common with, beyond the fact that we worked in the same office and shared a mutual apathy for life.”

 

I watched Charlie, my eyes stinging with tears. I clenched my jaw in an attempt to keep my chin from trembling.

 

“I broke, Olive,” Charlie said, his gaze dropping to the porch. “That night I called you…” He laughed under his breath and took another swig of beer. “I never told you this, but I'd just gotten home after sitting in traffic for two hours--two God-damned hours. And I didn’t care. The traffic didn’t bother me anymore,” he said, “because I didn't have anything to come home to.” He was quiet for a moment, but it was clear he had more to say. 

 

I sat beside him, studying his profile, my heart breaking for him.

 

“As I passed the accident causing the traffic,” he finally said. “An awful accident--multiple fatalities--I remember thinking that if I was in an accident like that, if I died just like that…” Charlie snapped his fingers. “It would be OK.”

 

My nostrils flared, my chin trembling despite my best efforts. I blinked, and a tear slipped free over the brim of my eyelid. 

 

Charlie looked at me. “I wouldn’t have minded dying, because I didn't have anything to look forward to."

 

I brought my hand up to my mouth, stunned by the revelation. I had known Charlie was in a dark place, but I hadn’t known it was that bad. 

 

“I felt like I didn’t have anything to live for,” Charlie continued. “My future was a life I hated, surrounded by people just as miserable as me. And when I got home, I got drunk to numb the thoughts, and then I called you.” He reached for my knee, giving it a squeeze. “And you came over and you made me eat Top Ramen and you sat with me until I sobered up. The next day I quit my job, a week later I moved back here, where I was surrounded by reminders of why my life mattered. Where I was happy for the first time in years.”

 

The screen door burst open, making me jump. Sam and Jillie ran out, the twin teen girls giggling as they raced toward a self-driving cab pulling up to the curb in front of the house. Charlie, me, and Simon--born in that order--were what the family called “round one,” while Sam and Jilly came later, when our parents decided they wanted one more baby. They got a twofer instead, and the family wouldn’t be the same with the twins’ larger-than-life, cheerful presence.

 

“Big double date tonight,” Charlie said. When I looked at him, the corner of his mouth ticked upward.

 

I laughed through my nose, then sniffed and wiped under my eyes. “Trust me, I know. They talked about it non-stop on the ride over here.” 

 

Charlie laughed. “So that's why they wanted to ride in the moving truck with you. Girl talk.”

 

I raised one shoulder. “I guess,” I said. “Not sure what they thought I could bring to the conversation. I haven't been on a date since--” I laughed again and shook my head. “Since I don't know when. I honestly can't remember.”

 

“I can,” Charlie said, chuckling. “It was that guy who took you to his quote-unquote cousin's wedding on your first date.”

 

A belly laugh burst out of me. “Oh my God, you're right. When he stood during the ceremony to object on account of ‘the holy edict of soul mates’, I wanted to die.” When I realized what I’d just said, I choked on my amusement and glanced at Charlie. “Sorry.”

 

Charlie shrugged. “No worries,” he said. “I know what you meant.” He glanced at me sidelong. “And for the record, I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t care if I lived. There’s a difference.” Charlie leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and letting the beer bottle dangle between his thumb and fingertips.

 

I could sense that the light-hearted intermission was over, and it was time to return to the heavy stuff. My whole body tensed up in anticipation, and I tried to act natural as I sipped my wine.

 

“Listen, Olive,” Charlie said, right on cue. “The whole point of that oh-so-uplifting story was to tell you that there are worse things than moving in with your parents as a grown-ass adult. These are hard times. Jobs are dwindling, and there's a lot of pressure on, well, everyone. Independence isn't everything. A century ago, it wasn't even a thing, not like it is today. This whole I-can-do-it-myself mentality is all just something society tells us we're supposed to strive for.”

 

Charlie turned his head to look at me. “But it's not what's in our DNA,” he said, his voice impassioned. “It's not what's natural. We evolved to be social creatures. To live in large family units. To share responsibilities and depend on one another. Somehow, we've gotten lost. And look at the world now. Our beautiful, advanced, luxurious world. Look at how miserable everyone is. This is what happens when we fight what's in our blood. What's in our bones. When we fight who we really are.”

 

I raised my hand, balling my fingers into a fist. “Preach, brother.”

 

Charlie chuckled. “All right,” he said, “maybe I got a little carried away.”

 

I shrugged. “I don't know,” I said. “I was moved.” I took a sip of wine. “I'm just wondering when you became an armchair anthropologist. Or would it be a sociologist? Or a psychologist?”

 

“Shut up,” Charlie muttered, the corner of his mouth twitching. He winked at me, relaxing back into the porch swing. “You'd be surprised what you can learn in Allworld Online. I may have been spending some time in Origin lately.”

 

I raised my eyebrows, eyeing my brother. “That the Dan Brown game?”

 

Charlie nodded. “But it’s more of a Dan Brown experience.”

 

I snorted. “You make it sound like a jam band.”

 

Charlie shrugged. “You'd like it, Olive.” He leaned closer, bumping my shoulder with his. “You used to play Uncharted and Tomb Raider. It's kind of like those games, but meatier. Plus it's fully immersive, so it feels like you're really there, running for your life and solving historical mysteries.”

 

I peered at Charlie, and I couldn't help but wonder if he was using the game as a form of escapism. From everything he had told me since taking the job as a beta viewer for Rockville Softworks, I knew that Allworld Online offered endless virtual experiences, and the virtual universe was ever expanding. He truly did seem happy--more alive than he had been since we were teens--but did life really count if it was lived in a made-up world?

 

“Tell me the truth, Olive,” Charlie said. “Is it really so bad to be back here?”

 

I was quiet for a long moment, considering his question. Finally, I shook my head. “It’s not bad,” I said. “It’s just an adjustment. I feel this heaviness in my chest, this choking sadness,  like someone died. Like I'm mourning their death.”

 

“You are mourning,” Charlie said. “Only it's not a person that died. It's the future you thought you’d have.”

 

I stared up at the porch ceiling, once again fighting tears. “It's stupid, really,” I said, voice thick with emotion, “but it's like my students were my whole life. I gave them everything. And now they're just gone. When the district laid me off, they didn't just take my job and my livelihood, they took my kids, too. I don't have any connection to them anymore. They can't come visit me at their old school, because I won't be there. I'm not a part of their lives anymore, and as sad as it sounds, they were the best part of mine.”

 

A heavy silence followed my admission.

 

“It's not stupid,” Charlie said, his words banishing the silence. “There are thousands--probably tens of thousands of teachers out there who feel the same, I'm sure. Who knows, maybe the school districts will start hiring again in a few years. If you just sit tight…”

 

I shook my head, a bitter laugh clawing up my throat. “Not with the virtual academies growing as fast as they are,” I said. “It's a nice thought, Charlie, but I just don't see it happening.”

 

“Well,” Charlie said, “the Boomers have to retire eventually, right? Then some spots will open up.”

 

Another bitter laugh escaped from my chest. “Boomers don’t retire,” I muttered. “Boomers die.”

 

“All right, little miss sunshine,” Charlie said, “maybe it’s time to consider other options. What about the virtual academies. If they’re growing as fast as you say, they must be hiring--”

 

“No,” I snapped, then flashed Charlie an apologetic smile. “I mean, it’s just not the same. I can't imagine there being any kind of a meaningful relationship between the teacher and her students. It just seems so impersonal and--I don't know--transactional. I just--” I exhaled heavily, my shoulders drooping. “I don't know what I'm going to do. Something, obviously. I mean, I need to feel like I'm contributing in some way. I can't freeload off Mom and Dad indefinitely. My pride would die a slow death.”

 

“Well,” Charlie said, “why’d you become a teacher in the first place? If teaching is no longer an option, maybe you can find something else that touches the same part of you.”

 

I eyed him. “Way to make it sound creepy.”

 

“That fulfills the same need,” he amended.

 

“Honestly,” I said, “that’s not much better.”

 

Charlie blew out an exasperated breath. “You’re deflecting.”

 

I sighed. “I know.”

 

“Then answer the question,” Charlie said, persistent as ever. “What drew you to teaching.”

 

I chewed on my lip. “I think I wanted to do something that mattered,” I finally said. “To make a difference in someone’s life.”

 

I couldn't help but think back to my favorite high school teacher, Mr. Stufer. I'd always been shy, but he had gone out of his way to make me feel like my thoughts and opinions held value. He had helped me develop a sense of self-confidence that paved the way for a much happier and more fulfilling life. 

 

Until three weeks ago, when the Principal at my school called me into her office to tell me I was among the baker's dozen of teachers being laid off. English would now be taught as part of the Science curriculum, along with Art and Music. The change was district-wide, though how they were going to swing it was beyond me. High School History was being condensed to a single, year-long course Senior year that focused on Civics. They'd done away with PE, too, requiring kids to keep an exercise journal instead. Because the honor system always worked so well with teens…

 

“Well,” Charlie said, unaware of my wandering thoughts, “there you go. How about a school counselor or something like that? After all the changes they’re making in the schools, the kids are bound to need more therapy.”

 

“That's a whole different degree,” I told him, “which would mean a second batch of student loans. And I only just finished paying off the first ones.” And that I had only managed through the state's student loan forgiveness program.

 

“All right,” Charlie said, his endless patience wearing thin. “How about this--why don't you spend the next year doing something just for you? Don't try to change anyone's life or make a difference. You know--you do you. Try to find your way back to happiness. Once you're there, you'll be in a better headspace for thinking about the future.”

 

“But I have to work,” I said. “I can’t just sit around reading all day. Much as I might wish it was, reading isn’t a job.”

 

Charlie shrugged. “So do something else with books.” He snapped his fingers, then pointed at me. “Why not work in a bookstore?”

 

~~~

 

Turned out, Charlie was a genius. Physical bookstores were making a comeback, and within a week I had a job at the local chain bookshop. Over the next few months, I found an easy rhythm, free of the stress and responsibilities I had been drowning under for years. I walked to work. I soaked in the smell of books and coffee all day. I walked home. Sometimes I went on dates, though those never amounted to much. Sometimes I had interviews with private schools, though those never amounted to much, either. And sometimes I caught myself smiling for no apparent reason.

 

Because I was happy. Not happy about something. Just happy.

 

One such happy day in late August, I was shelving a new shipment of paperbacks in the romance section when a title caught my eye: Bad Boy Darcy. Yet another Pride and Prejudice variation. Smirking, I shelved Bad Boy Darcy next to other books by the same author, including Bad Boy Wentworth, Bad Boy Frankie, Bad Boy Bingley, and Bad Boy Knightly.

 

I had never really gotten into the whole "sexing up" of Jane Austen's classic tales. In my opinion, her stories were perfect just as she had written them. I loved spins on her work like Austenland and Lost in Austen--who wouldn't love the chance to pretend to be one of Jane's heroines for a few days or to actually be sucked into one of her stories? But I wasn't sure how I felt about turning Jane's heroes into bad boys. It just wasn't my thing.

 

Curious, I pulled Bad Boy Darcy from the shelf and flipped to a random page, skimming from the first complete paragraph. My cheeks heated as I read, and I snapped the book shut, glancing around nervously. I started to return the book to the shelf, but changed my mind, setting it on the cart instead. Bad Boy Darcy was coming home with me.

 

Maybe this was my thing. A girl deserved to have a little romance in her life, even if that romance was fictional. My brief foray into online dating hadn't been going well, but it was difficult for relationships to progress beyond the first few dates when both parties lived with their parents. And as I had quickly found out, guys my age prowling the online dating scene either lived with their parents or were married. The rare few who had achieved true independence seemed to be slaves to the job, as Charlie had been a few years ago, and they didn't have time for anything beyond a one night stand.

 

A woman tapped a magenta-lacquered fingernail on the cover of Bad Boy Darcy. “A little light bedtime reading?” She purred, her voice music to my ears. Merina was easily my best friend, and quite possibly the most confident person I had ever met. 

 

I glanced at her and grinned. My focus shifted past her to the oversize clock on the wall. “You get off early?” I asked, tucking a book into its spot on the shelf below all of the Bad Boys. 

 

Merina nodded, her crimson lips pursing as she skimmed the titles on the spines of the books in this section. “The teacher I was subbing for today has seventh open.”

 

“Sweet,” I said, a lack of enthusiasm evident in my voice. I tended to shut down when Merina started talking about subbing. This whole “being happy” thing was easier if I pretended teaching no longer existed at all. “There’s still forty minutes left in my shift,” I told Merina, hoping to waylay any further mention of the details of her day at school. “Do you mind waiting?”

 

With a wicked grin, Merina plucked Bad Boy Darcy off the cart. “Not one bit,” she said, winking at me before turning and sashaying away. She headed for the seating area surrounding the in-store coffee stand.

 

Shaking my head and smiling to myself, I returned to my work. The rest of my shift passed at a slug’s pace, excited anticipation slowing the passage of time. Finally, what felt like hours later, I clocked out and joined Merina at her little table. 

 

“So,” I asked, pulling out the chair opposite Merina and sitting, “how is it?” I nodded to the book holding her rapt attention.

 

Merina glanced up from the page, then continued reading another line or two. Finally, her eyes met mine, and she started fanning herself with the book. “Mr. Darcy is a bad, bad boy.”

 

I giggled. I couldn’t help it. “Worth a read, then?”

 

“Oh yeah,” Merina said, drawing the two words out for emphasis.

 

“Good,” I said. “Because I already paid for it.”

 

Merina shut the book, marking her place with her finger. She grinned mischievously.  “Did you know they're developing a new part of Allworld Online called Austentopia?”

 

My mouth fell open, and my eyes opened wide. “What?” I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the table. “Oh my God. Tell me everything.”

 

Merina’s smile waverd. “Um...they’re developing a new part of Allworld Online called Austentopia?” She shrugged. “Sorry, Liv, that's all I know. I saw a clip of Colin Firth being ambushed by a paparazzo and asked about it. It seemed to be news to him, so…” Again, she shrugged. “Are you done? Can we hit the road?” She smacked her lips. “Mama’s thirsty.”

 

I sat back in my chair. “Yes, please!” I told her. “I can’t even tell you how badly I need this girl’s night out. An evening with all my best gals, a fancy dinner, and an endless stream of wine filling my glass…” I laughed and shook my head. “Why are we not already in a car?”

 

Merina’s laughter joined mine, and we quickly made our way out to the parking lot, heading for the nearest green-lit self-driving car in the lot. I pulled out my phone and opened the Ryder app to unlock the car, and we slipped into the front seats. I paused while entering the restaurant’s address in the app. I could feel Merina’s stare boring a hole in the side of my face. 

 

“What?” I looked at her. “What is it?”

 

Merina fidgeted with the strap of her purse. Now that I was looking at her, she seemed to be avoiding meeting my eyes. “I got a job.”

 

I sucked in a breath, my eyes widening. “At a school?”

 

Merina shook her head. “I signed on with Rockville Softworks’ new virtual academy--Rockville High.” She looked at me, finally, but only for the briefest moment. 

 

I sat back in my seat and stared out the windshield. “Wow,” I said. “I didn’t even know Rockville was into VAs.”

 

Merina inhaled deeply, letting the breath out in a sigh. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her nod. “They just announced it a few weeks ago,” she said. “I thought you would’ve heard, what with Charlie working for them…”

 

I waved a hand dismissively. “He’s been deep in the Harry Potter beta test.” I turned toward Merina once more, my eyes locking with hers. “I thought you were going to hold out for a long-term subbing position,” I said. “I didn't know you were interested in virtual teaching.”

 

Merina shrugged, and she looked weary all of a sudden. “Honestly, Liv, I hate subbing,” she confessed. “It's everything I don't like about teaching. Besides, any long-term subbing opportunities are going to get snatched up like that.” She snapped her fingers. “But virtual teaching is all of the good and none of the bad.”

 

I frowned. I didn’t really see it that way, but everyone gets into teaching for their own reasons. 

 

“And,” Merina continued, “Rockville High is going to be different. The kids meet with their designated local teacher rep three times a week, so there's some real human interaction.” She raised one shoulder. “Their rep might not be any of their actual teachers, but at least they're not lost or forgotten.” Her demeanor changed, excitement entering her voice. She was genuinely looking forward to the new position. “And teachers work in local teams, meeting every Tuesday and Thursday for collaborative planning and to discuss student performance. I think it could work for you, Liv. I think it could work really well. You should look into it.” She reached for my hand, gripping it in both of her. “They're accepting team requests. We could be the dynamic Humanities duo again…”

 

It didn’t sound all that bad. Different from the traditional teaching position, but not as isolated or cold as other virtual academies seemed. I pursed my lips, quirking my mouth to the side as I considered it. 

 

Merina pulled my hand to her chest, jerking me closer, and hugged my forearm to her ample bosom. “Please, please, please, please, please…”

 

I laughed, somehow managing to extract my hand without copping a feel. “All right, Mer,” I said, still laughing. “I’ll look into it tomorrow.” I flashed her a grin. “But first--wine.”

 

~~~

 

I walked up the stairs at the front of the house, blood thrumming pleasantly with the buzz of three glasses of wine, and headed for the porch swing. With a sigh, I plopped down, reflecting on the evening’s revelations.

 

Much to my shock, I was the only virtual academy hold out. Every teacher I knew who had lost his or her position last year had either gone back to college to switch to a more desirable educational specialty--namely, math or science--or they had signed on with a virtual academy. Some were leaning into the pajama lifestyle, choosing VAs that were entirely virtual, while a few, like Merina, had signed on with Rockville's unique program. Everyone was excited about the prospect of not having to deal with discipline or disruption issues--the virtual classroom itself handled all that, freeing teachers to focus on what we all loved: teaching. 

 

The only problem was that I wasn't sure I really did love teaching. I was happier now than I'd been in years. I made next to nothing, money-wise, working at the bookstore, but I actually had time to enjoy life. To get together with my friends. To go out on doomed dates. To watch movies and read books. To take my parents’ crazy dog out on hikes. And in the grand scheme of things, what was more valuable: money, or time? 

 

But maybe virtual teaching wouldn't be as draining as being in a physical classroom. Maybe Merina was right, and it would be all of the good stuff and none of the bad.

 

My phone buzzed in my purse, and I fished it out. The screen displayed a text message alert.  It was from Merina: Here's a link to the application. DO IT!

 

~~~

 

I sat in a packed waiting room at Rockville Softworks’ sprawling Redmond campus, studying the people around me. The other interviewees were dressed in a surprising assortment of attire, ranging from sweats and T-shirts to traditional business casual. I’d gone for middle-of-the-road, with my fanciest dark jeans and a plum-colored silk shirt. The color tended to highlight the subtle violet tones in the blue of my irises, which I found tended to make me stand out more in people’s minds. The last thing I wanted to be in an interview was forgettable. 

 

I glanced at the man sitting slouched in the chair beside mine for the upteenth time. I placed him in his mid-thirties, and he was dressed in standard tough-guy fare--torn jeans, scuffed black work boots, and a worn black leather jacket. Tattoos peaked out from the neck of his T-shirt and the cuffs of his sleeves, and his dark hair was chin length, his beard short and slightly scruffy, making him look artfully unkempt. Definitely not your average teacher. Not your average anything. 

 

My imagination danced with all sorts of ideas and theories about him. He had to be in the arts. Maybe music. High school, for sure. And he must have come from one of the urban school districts. The more rural and yuppy areas had policies against visible tattoos on teachers, and I couldn’t imagine this guy committing to an endless wardrobe of turtlenecks. He was an enigma, and curiosity was slowly eroding my self control.  

 

A man in suit emerged from the door that led to the interview area, called a woman’s name, and escorted a young woman in unicorn leggings through the doorway to the hall beyond.

 

The man beside me let out a judgemental sniff. I couldn’t tell whether it was because he disapproved of the woman’s attire, or because he was tired of waiting.

 

Sensing my opening, I cleared my throat. “There sure are a lot of us here,” I said, angling my face toward him. 

 

He glanced at me, moving only his eyes. “Yep.”

 

So he wasn’t the chatty type. Not really a shocker, I supposed. “So,” I said, “what do you teach?”

 

“Teach?” The side eye was strong with this one. “I don’t teach. I do.” He returned to staring ahead, his expression bored as ever. 

 

I stiffened, shocked by the unexpected insult. Those who can’t do, teach. That saying was the bane of my existence, and at my school--at my old school--it was well known to be outlawed in my classroom. Fuming, I snatched a magazine off the table beside my chair, and opened it a little too roughly, tearing the top edge of the cover. I didn’t even know what magazine it was. Something about video games. I hardly cared. 

 

“Olivia Crawford?” a woman called from the far side of the room. 

 

I stood, drawing the woman’s attention to me, and waved my hand. I placed the magazine on the table, then turned to join her, but only managed one step. I paused and glanced over my shoulder at Rude Guy. 

 

His attention was already on me.

 

“You know, the word ‘teach’ is a verb,” I said, my voice low and sharp-edged. “It’s something you do.” Blood thrilling through my veins, I turned my back to him and headed for the woman waiting patiently across the room. 

 

The woman smiled, extending her hand as I drew near. She was forty-ish and dressed in a more stylish version of my own outfit, her black hair cut in a sleek inverted bob. “I'm Sarah Chen, one of the Rockville High administrators.”

 

I shook her hand.

 

“It's nice to meet you, Olivia,” she said, releasing my hand. “You come highly recommended.”

 

“Oh,” I said, my cheeks warming. “Thank you. It’s nice to meet you, as well.” I shot a furtive glance over my shoulder at the people filling the waiting room behind me, but mostly at the jerk sitting beside my unoccupied seat. “Can you tell me,” I asked, following Sarah toward the door that led to the interviewing area, “what else are people interviewing for today?” 

 

Sarah opened the door, stepping back to let me enter the hallway ahead of her. She scanned the waiting room as I passed her, then suppressed a laugh. “Beta players,” she said and released the door. “Interesting bunch, aren’t they?”

 

I watched the door swing shut, blocking my view of him. “You could say that.”

 

The hallway was long and littered with doors, some open, some shut. Sarah led me to the third door on the right, which opened to a small room containing only a reclining chair and some equipment hanging down from the ceiling directly over the chair. The whole setup looked like it belonged in a dentist’s office, not an administrative building on the campus of one of the nation's largest video game producers. 

 

Sarah paused just outside the open doorway, extending her arm into the room. “If you don't mind,” she said, “we just need to do a quick neural non-stress test to make sure you're a viable candidate, and then we'll proceed with the interview.”

 

I eyed the reclining chair warily from the hall. “Why?” I asked, then looked at Sarah. “I mean, I don’t mind,” I added quickly. “I’m just curious why the test is necessary.”

 

Sarah’s lips spread into an understanding smile. “The test is merely to ensure your physiology is compatible with such extended and extensive use of the VR equipment,” she explained. She leaned in, lowering her voice. “Honestly, I've never seen anyone fail the test, but the company's main priority is ensuring the safety of all employees, so...”

 

I frowned, unsure whether to be comforted or concerned by her explanation. I supposed the safety-first policy was understandable, and I shrugged. Smiling at Sarah, I walked into the room and sat on the reclining chair. “What do I do?”

 

“Just sit back and relax,” she said, stepping one foot into the room to reach for the doorknob. “This will only take a few minutes.” She shut the door.

 

A moment later, the lights went out.

 

~~~

 

“Well,” Sarah said from the far side of the barren desk separating us in the Spartan room, “I think you’ll be a great fit for the program, and we would be happy to have you join our team.” She shut the folder containing my interviewing materials and clasped her hands together on top. “Do you have any questions for me before we talk about next steps?”

 

“Oh, um…” I had about a thousand questions, but the burst of excitement caused by the job offer was clouding my mind and confounding my thoughts, and I couldn’t think of any single question. 

 

After a long moment of silence, where I felt certain Sarah would rescind the job offer based on my inability to think on my feet, a question finally popped into my head. “I guess I’m curious if there's any information about the long-term effects of using the VR equipment so much?” 

 

Sarah smiled warmly. “Of course,” she said. “People ask that all the time. In the welcome packet you'll be receiving in your email shortly, you'll find links to all the latest safety research. Also, you'll find--”

 

A knock at the door interrupted her.

 

Sarah’s focus shifted past me as the door opened, and I turned in my chair. 

 

A handsome man in his late thirties or early forties entered the room. He looked sharp in a charcoal-gray suit, his clean cut sandy-brown hair and strong jawline lending him an all-American, boy-next-door-all-grown-up look. His smile was easy and friendly as he strode into the small interview room.

 

Sarah stood, smoothing down the front of her blouse and jeans. “Mr. St. George,” she said, her tone slightly higher in pitch than a moment before. “To what do we owe this honor?”

 

“Pardon the interruption, Ms. Chen,” the newcomer said, stopping to stand a step or two behind my chair. “I merely wished to introduce myself to Ms. Crawford and to propose a slightly different position here with us than the one you’re offering her.” He extended his hand toward me. “William St. George, CPO here at Rockville Softworks.”

 

I stood and shook his hand, laughing under my breath and feeling my neck and cheeks flush. “I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I don't have the slightest idea what ‘CPO’ stands for…”

 

Releasing my hand, William chuckled, the sound as warm and friendly as his smile. “Chief People Officer,” he explained. “Really, I should stop introducing myself using just the acronym, because so few people know what it means. I make sure Rockville has the people it needs, and that those people are in the right positions to best serve both the company and our customers.”

 

I looked from William to Sarah and back, entirely unsure what he was doing in here, with me. “Oh, well, it's nice to meet you?” I cringed inwardly at the uncertainty in my voice.

 

Again, William chuckled. “I think it's nice to meet me, but I'll let you decide that for yourself once you know me a little better.” He flashed me a charming smile, then cleared his throat. “Ms. Crawford--”

 

“Olivia,” I said, “please. Ms. Crawford makes me feel like I’m your teacher.”

 

William’s smile broadened. “Olivia,” he said with a nod. “Then you have to call me Will.” His manner was easy, and I felt like I already knew him. “It was brought to my attention that you're something of a Jane Austen expert,” he said, “at least, according to your resume and transcripts.”

 

“Oh, gosh,” I said. “I don't know that I would call myself an expert. More of a fan and admirer.”

 

“Your Master’s thesis would suggest otherwise,” Will countered.

 

My eyes widened, and my blush intensified. How had he managed to get his hands on that?

 

“But let me cut to the chase,” Will said. “We're currently seeking beta players for our upcoming beta test of the Jane Austen branch of the Biblioverse in Allworld Online. I would like you, Olivia, to be one of those beta players.”

 

My mouth fell open. I couldn’t help it. “Oh,” I said. “Wow.” I shook my head. “I don’t know what to say.”

 

Beta player positions were near impossible to land, right up there with winning the lotto or getting struck by lighting. Charlie had been trying for years, and he was a far more experienced gamer than I was. I’d never even tried out a VR headset, and my experience with Allworld Online was limited to what I’d seen on the screen while Charlie was working. 

 

Will leaned in toward me and grinned conspiratorially. “I know Ms. Chen has made you an offer for a teaching position,” he said, “but once you look over the welcome packet for the beta player position, I think you'll find the compensation and benefits to be more than competitive. Please, Olivia, at least consider the offer. Beta players are an essential part of the Rockville team, and we're extremely selective about who we offer positions to. The position carries a notably high employee satisfaction rate, and turnover is almost nil. I think you would find the experience very rewarding.” He flashed me a hope-filled smiled. “So, what do you say?”

 

My brow furrowed. “I--I’ll think about it.”

 

Will grunted, eyeing me curiously. “Clearly I need to work on my pitch.”

 

I laughed and shook my head. “No, it’s not that,” I said. “Your pitch was great, really.” I took a deep breath, holding it as I debated whether or not to explain further. I sighed. “It's just that my brother has been a beta viewer for you guys for a few years, and he's been on a waiting list pretty much that whole time to move up to beta player.” 

 

“Ah,” Will said. “I see.” His expression turned thoughtful. “Let me see what I can do about that.” He started to turn away, then faced me once more. “Just promise me one thing, Olivia. Don't make any decisions quite yet.” He flashed me another of those disarming smiles. “I’ll be in touch.”

 

He left the room, shutting the door without a backward glance. 

 

I blew out a breath and turned to Sarah. She looked as stunned as I felt. 

 

We wrapped things up quickly. It was as though Will had taken all of the air out of the room, and there didn’t seem to be much left to say. I felt dazed as Sarah escorted me out to the elevator that led down to the ground floor. 

 

I pushed the call button, and faced Sarah. “Thank you,” I said, extending my hand to shake. “It was really nice to meet you, and I--” I shook my head. “I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do.”

 

Sarah released my hand, and seemed to be hesitating to speak. Finally, she inhaled and opened her mouth. “Truly, Olivia, I would be more than happy to have you join our educator team, but…” Again, she hesitated. “I know you didn't ask for my opinion, but I really think you should take the beta player position. At least, that's what I would do if I were you.”

 

“Really?” I said, eyebrows raising. 

 

Behind me, the elevator dinged.

 

Sarah nodded. “Really.”

 

More confused than ever, I stepped onto the elevator. The doors started to glide shut, but a hand stopped them. A decidedly masculine hand. I moved into the back left corner as the doors reopened, and when I saw who it was--the jerk from the waiting room--I clenched my jaw. We shared a tense look before I averted my gaze and stared pointedly at the floor.

 

For a moment, he just stood there, and I thought he might let the doors shut and catch the next ride. But then he stepped onto the elevator, moving into the opposite corner.

 

And shocking the hell out of me, he spoke. “I didn’t realize they were interviewing teachers, as well.”

 

I looked at him, eyes narrowed. Was that supposed to be an apology? Because if it was, it totally sucked. “Realize,” I said, anger making my heart race and my voice cold. “There’s another verb you don’t do.” With a sniff, I shifted my attention to the panel of buttons ahead of me. 

 

He was smart and kept his mouth shut for the remainder of the ride. 

 

~~~

 

I popped a few kernels of buttery popcorn into my mouth and chewed, eyes glued to the huge TV screen. Beside me, Charlie did the same. On the screen, a woman who looked to be about as far from the physical description of Harry Potter as someone could get rode a broomstick toward one of the Hogwarts towers. She had opted for the gender-swapped name of Harriette. This was Charlie’s third round of watching a team of beta players reenact the beloved story of the boy who lived. We were near the beginning, when Harry--or Harriette, in this case--rides a broomstick for the first time. 

 

Charlie and I cringed and leaned away from the screen as the player crashed into the tower’s stone wall. In the books, Harry had shown a surprising knack for riding a broomstick; Harriette, not so much. She slid off the broomstick and hurtled down to the ground. Only the quick action of the player in the Professor Mcgonagal role prevented Harriette from meeting a gruesome end with a quick levitation spell. 

 

“What would have happened if Mcgonagal hadn’t stopped her fall?” I asked, tearing my eyes from the screen. 

 

“Harriette,” Charlie said, “or the player playing that role would have been ejected from the game--for safety purposes. Then, after a short cooldown phase, she can rejoin the game and the team has the choice to either respawn at a safe point before the in-game death and course-correct, or to continue on with an altered storyline. In this case, I imagine if she had fallen and they had decided to continue on, Harry--or Harriette--would never become a star Seeker for the Gryffindor quidditch team.” 

 

I narrowed my eyes and shook my head. “What does that mean--to be ejected from the game for safety purposes?”

 

“It’s kind of like when you’re falling to your death in a dream,” Charlie explained. “You wake up right before you hit the ground. Obviously you won’t actually die--either from an in-dream or from an in-game death--but there is some research that suggests that the extreme adrenaline spike caused by the perceived death in VR can be injurious to the body if experienced too frequently.”

 

“Oh,” I said, frowning. “That’s kind of scary.” My brow furrowed. “What about pain--does it actually hurt when you get hurt in the game?”

 

Charlie eyed me curiously. “Why all the interest all of a sudden?”

 

I shrugged and looked at the screen, watching Harriette march back toward the waiting group of players. Charlie didn’t know about the second job offer, and I wanted to collect as much data as possible before I made my decision. Much as I wanted to take the teaching position--more to prevent hurting Charlie’s feelings than because I truly preferred it--the beta player position offered a salary double that of the teaching position, plus elevated benefits. I would be able to pay back my parents for all their help within a couple months, and I would be able to go back to school on Rockville’s dime. I could get a second degree in something else--anything else--without the burden of accruing student loan debt. 

 

But I wasn’t sure what it would do to my relationship with Charlie. I feared we would never be the same, and his good opinion was worth more to me than all of the money or education prospects in the world. 

 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I figured if I’m teaching kids who spend a lot of time in the virtual world, I might as well understand a bit more of what that’s like. You know, be in touch with their life--or virtual life--experience.”

 

“That makes sense,” Charlie said, nodding to himself. “But yeah, back to your pain question--yes and no.”

 

I looked at him, my thoughts spinning to recall the question I’d asked. Does it actually hurt when you get hurt in the game?

 

“It's like the game plays a weird trick on your brain,” Charlie continued. “You think you feel the pain, but it's more shock than anything.” He pursed his lips, his brows drawing together. “I think the implants make it feel genuine, though, if a little toned down.” Charlie pointed to the screen. “So poor Harriette there would’ve felt the crash, had she actually hit the ground.” As soon as he finished, he scooped a handful of popcorn into his mouth. 

 

My eyes returned to the screen. Harriette had just reached the other players. “And all of the beta players have the implants, now?”

 

Charlie nodded as he finished chewing. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “It's pretty much the only way anyone can afford them at this point,” he said. “I'm sure they'll drop to a price I can afford eventually, but…” He shrugged.

 

“Yeah,” I said, turning my attention back to the screen and trying to act natural, like I hadn’t been offered his number one goal in life without even trying. “Stuff like that always drops in price super fast.” I pointed to the mega-sized TV. “Like that thing. It was probably a gajillion dollars five years ago, but you got it for what--two hundred bucks?”

 

“One seventy-five,” Charlie said, his expression smug. He glanced at me sidelong and leaned closer, like he was about to share a secret. “It was a Black Friday deal.”

 

I scooped a handful of popcorn out of the bowl and munched on the kernels individually. I chewed, swallowed, then glanced at Charlie. “Hey, maybe there’ll be a Black Friday deal on VR implants this year.” I popped another kernel into my mouth.

 

Charlie snorted a laugh. “Yeah, I don’t think they do mass discounts on brain surgery.”

 

My eyes bugged out, and I choked on the kernel of popcorn, coughing until tears threatened to spill down my cheeks. Once my throat was clear, I chugged some water. “Brain surgery?” I finally said.

 

“Uh, yeah,” Charlie said, laughing at me. “Where did you think they implanted the tech? Your butt?” 

 

I smacked Charlie’s arm with the back of my hand.

 

He leaned away from me, cowering melodramatically. “Ow! That’s sibling abuse.”

 

I rolled my eyes.

 

“No, but really,” Charlie said, straightening on the couch. “Brain surgery is maybe a little extreme. They don’t even have to break through the skull. It's not that bad. Totally safe. The tech’s been through all the tests, and the government has given it the big ol' federal stamp of approval.”

 

I tensed the side of my mouth, not fully convinced. Even if I hadn’t been leaning away from the beta player position, I was now. 

 

The doorbell rang, the chime dulled by the floor and ceiling above us. Charlie and I exchanged a look, shrugged, and glanced up at the ceiling simultaneously, listening as our dad’s heavy footsteps moved across the house from the kitchen to the front door. A few seconds later, the dull thrum of masculine voices drifted down to the basement. 

 

Figuring it was a salesman or missionaries, I lost interest, focus returning to the TV. Harriette was just mounting her broomstick again, about to retry the ride that hadn’t ended well the last time. I tangentially noted my dad’s footsteps heading back toward the kitchen. 

 

I heard him pause in the hallway, and then he opened the door to the basement. “Olivia!” he called down the stairs. “You have a gentleman caller…”

 

I frowned and exchanged another look with Charlie. 

 

Charlie smirked. “What, did you forget you had a date?” he asked, his tone goading. “What’s he like? Maybe I’ll go out with him if you don’t want to…”

 

Laughing, I shook my head and stood, snagging a throw pillow to toss at Charlie on my way up. “No, dork,” I said. “I’m taking a break from dating for a while.”

 

“Sure you are...”

 

I threw another pillow at him before turning and heading for the stairs. Charlie was hot on my heels. I trudged up the steep staircase and followed my dad into the foyer. And froze when I saw who was waiting for me there.

 

William St. George. He stood close to the wall, studying the amalgam of framed family portraits from over the years. He looked exactly the same as he’d been during our brief interaction at Rockville Softworks, which meant he looked totally out of place in the chaos of my parents’ house. 

 

I suddenly felt completely inadequate in my leggings and oversized sweater.

 

“Olive, that’s William St. George.” Charlie whispered, standing directly behind me, his hushed words spoken inches from my ear. 

 

“I know,” I whispered right back at him. 

 

Will tore his attention away from a particularly unfortunate family photo of all seven of us wearing matching sweaters and looked my way. He took a step toward me, his lips spreading into a warm grin. “Good evening, Olivia.”

 

Behind Will, my dad gave an approving thumbs up.

 

I gulped, already feeling a blush creeping up my neck. “Will, hi,” I said, flashing him a nervous smile. “I mean, good evening.” I cleared my throat. “What are you doing here?”

 

Will smiled again, apologetic this time, and bowed his head. “I hope you don’t mind me stopping by,” he said. “This is a little unorthodox, I know, but I wanted to share the good news with you in person.” His focus shifted past me, to Charlie. “With you and your brother.” Will inhaled deeply, his grin broadening. “We would be happy to offer you both positions as beta players with Rockville Softworks.”

 

My jaw dropped.

 

“I accept!” Charlie blurted, stepping up to stand beside me.

 

Will’s grin faded as his focus shifted back to me, until only a raised corner of his mouth remained. “Contingent upon you joining the Austentopia beta team, Olivia,” he said. “This is an all or nothing deal.”

 

I felt the color drain from my face. I’d been leaning heavily toward taking the teaching job, but with a single offer, Will had taken away my choice. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Charlie staring at me, his eyes filled with a silent plea. 

 

“I, um--” I turned my head, searching Charlie’s eyes for a long moment. I held his dream in the palm of my hand. 

 

I returned my attention to Will. “All right. I’ll do it.” 

 

~~~

 

William St. George walked through a pair of double doors into a grand library, the polished mahogany bookcases and gilded picture frames lining the walls reflecting the flickering light of the flames dancing in the ornate fireplace. A woman sat in an armchair angled toward the fireplace, her legs covered by a richly woven blanket.

 

Will stooped a few paces behind the armchair and clasped his hands behind his back. “It’s done,” he said. “We begin in two weeks’ time.”

 

“No more delays,” the woman said, her voice resonant. “I grow weary of waiting.”

 

Will bowed. “As you say, no more delays.” He straightened and turned his back to the woman, leaving the room without another word.

READ EPISODE 2

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© 2014 by LINDSEY FAIRLEIGH

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