ALLWORLD ONLINE: VIRTUAL MORTALITY

Episode 4

A More Gentleman-like Manner​

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Read Episode 2

Read Episode 3

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Previously on Allworld Online: (read episode 3 here)

Olivia Crawford entered Pride and Prejudice and learned that she had been cast in the role of Elizabeth Bennet. Early on, Olivia notices some strange glitch-flashes that reveal that not everyone is who they seem. Later, at the Meryton Assembly, she discovers that the taciturn Colin has been cast as her love interest, Mr. Darcy. Also at the Assembly, Olivia discovers that Priya Burman, her gaming party’s liaison and project lead over all of Austentopia has secretly joined the game in the guise of another player. Priya tells Olivia to inform her if she notices anything else through the strange glitch-flashes. Olivia discovers that William St. George has entered the game disguised as George Wickham, and when she seeks out Priya to let her know, she learns that Priya--and the character she was playing--has vanished entirely from the game.  

 

William St. George hesitated at the door to the grand old library before entering. He inhaled deeply, straightened his spine, and slowly released the breath through his nose. And then he strode through the doorway like he owned the place. 

 

Will approached the armchair in front of the fireplace and its intimidating occupant. He wasn’t entirely sure how he had become so deeply embroiled in her schemes, but the rewards, should they succeed, would far outweigh the risks. He could handle a little bullying from a virtual entity for a little while longer if it meant he would end up with controlling interest in Rockville Softworks. 

 

His foreboding mistress outstretched one hand toward a second armchair that had been situated near hers. “Come, William,” she said. Not an invitation; an order. “Sit.”

 

Will hesitated, then cleared his throat and walked around the empty armchair to sit. He rested his forearms on his knees and stared into the writhing flames.

 

“Tell me, William, why shouldn't I find someone more competent to take your place?” 

 

Will licked his lips. “Please, Mother…” He shook his head. He felt ridiculous using the title to address her, but it was part of the deal. “It was a mistake,” he explained. “She wasn't who she was supposed to be, and she masked herself well. There was no way to tell what was going on until it was too late.”

 

His mistress sniffed and leaned on the arm of her chair, baring her teeth at him. She wore her true face now, and there was something so very other about her features. Almost human, but not quite. “Until your mistake cost a life!” she hissed. “The host logged out in the middle of conversion--something you assured me was impossible. And now one of my most loyal warriors has died the true death.” She narrowed her eyes. “Because of your incompetence.”

 

Will stiffened, his whole body tensing. “Priya Burman is the one responsible for your loss,” he told her. “I will find her, and I will bring her to you for justice.”

 

His mistress eyed him for a moment longer, almost like she was weighing his words, deciding whether he truly meant it. Finally, she settled back in her armchair. “I do not want to lose any others, William,” she said. “If I do, I will hold you personally responsible.”

 

“You won't,” Will promised. “I'll lock down the system. You'll have as long as you need, and by the time this game reaches the end, you and yours will be free of this prison.”

 

~~~

 

I sat at the breakfast table with the rest of the Bennet family. All of us, player and NPC alike, looked worn out and a little hungover from the ball at Netherfield Park the night before. I felt sick for another reason.

 

Priya had vanished. 

 

I’d tried messaging her, but had yet to receive a response. Colin had assured me it was likely just a glitch--these kinds of things happened during beta tests all the time. That was the whole point of beta tests, after all--weeding out glitches. But he hadn’t been able to banish the uncertainty from his eyes as he’d tried to reassure me, and I couldn’t shake the sense that something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

 

Beside me, Michelle was animatedly recounting every minute of the ball in true Lydia fashion when a wayward sweep of her arm knocked over her tea cup. Black tea splash across the table and dribbled into my lap.

 

“Hey!” I screeched, scooting my chair back a little too late. Thankfully, my napkin caught most of what dripped off the table. 

 

“Sorry, Lizzy,” Lydia said, tossing her napkin onto the spill on the table before continuing her story. 

 

I sighed and grumbled, “No problem,” under my breath as I dabbed up the remainder of the tea dripping off the table with my napkin. When I unfolded the napkin to find a dry section, I froze. The tea had stained the off-white cloth in the strangest pattern: legible letters that spelled actual words. 

 

THEY’RE WATCHING

 

TELL NO ONE

 

My eyes widened as I read and reread the words written in tea splotches. I hastily wadded up the napkin to hide the message, but curiosity got the better of me, and I couldn’t resist opening the napkin again to check that I hadn’t been imagining it. But during the brief time the napkin had been balled up, the pattern of the stain had changed. Still letters. Still words. But different.

 

NEED YOUR HELP

 

Getting the trick of it now, I wadded up the napkin once more, then reopened it. Again, the pattern had changed.

 

CONTROL THE FLASHES

 

NEED TO SEE

 

I repeated the routine again, but the next time I viewed the pattern, it had reverted to a normal, random tea stain. I took a deep breath, eyes glued to the napkin in my lap. It had been real, hadn’t it? Or as real as anything could be, here--right?

 

“Lizzy?” Nel said from across the table. “Are you alright? You’re quite pale.”

 

“Indeed, you are, Lizzy,” Mr. Bennet said from the end of the table, the only other person to have taken notice. The attention of the others was still held captive by Michelle and her enthusiastic recounting of some unsavory gossip she’d overheard about the Lucas family’s fortunes.

 

I met Nel’s concerned stare. “I--” I cleared my throat and flashed her and Mr. Bennet an uneasy smile. “I’m quite alright,” I told them. “Just a little worn down from all the fun last night.”

 

Mr. Bennet smiled to himself and shook his head, but Nel wasn’t so easily fooled. She narrowed her eyes, her expression promising she would be checking on me later, when we were alone.

 

I said little throughout the remainder of breakfast, and was relieved to follow a prompt to retire to the drawing room with Allie and Mrs. Bennet, if only to get a break from Michelle’s endless chatter. As I sat in the drawing room, I held The Odyssey and stared out the window overlooking the garden, tuning out Mrs. Bennet’s voice as best as I could. 

 

Suddenly, Mr. Collins strode into the room. He stopped three steps in and bowed to Mrs. Bennet and to Allie, and then bowed twice as deeply in my direction. “May I hope, Madam,” he said, addressing Mrs. Bennet, “for your interest with your fair daughter Elizabeth when I solicit for the honour of a private audience with her in the course of this morning?”

 

I stared at Mr. Collins, my eyes bugging out. I had been so distracted by thoughts of Priya and the disturbing messages at breakfast that I'd completely forgotten about the train wreck that was about to happen.

 

“Oh dear!” Mrs. Bennet squealed joyfully. “Yes! Certainly! I am sure Lizzy will be very happy. I am sure she can have no objection. Come, Kitty, I want you upstairs.”

 

Mrs. Bennet stood from the sofa and shooed Allie toward the door. 

 

“Please! Don’t go!” I stood as well, hoping to avoid the whole tedious five-page proposal and rejection scene. I had neither the attention nor patience for it right now. Words hovered in front of me, prompting me to speak, but I skipped to the end in an attempt to escape. “I am going away myself,” I said, hurrying across the room toward the door.

 

“No, no, nonsense, Lizzy,” Mrs. Bennet said, stepping in my path, effectively cutting off my escape route. “I desire you will stay where you are,” she commanded. 

 

“But--”

 

“Lizzy, I insist upon your staying and hearing Mr. Collins.”

 

My shoulders slumped and I dropped into the nearest chair, ready to get on with it and get this new misery over with. Mrs. Bennet ushered Allie out of the drawing room and shut the door, leaving me alone with Mr. Collins. I closed my eyes and groaned inwardly. This was going to be painful.

 

“Believe me, my dear Miss Elizabeth,” he started, “that your modesty, so far from doing you any disservice, rather adds to your other perfections.”

 

I opened my eyes to find him down on one knee before me, his expression so sincere and earnest as to be laughable. “Mr. Collins--”

 

“You would have been less amiable in my eyes had there not been this little unwillingness,” he said, continuing on with the dialogue as Jane Austen had written it. “But allow me to assure you that I hardly doubt the purport of my discourse, however your natural delicacy may lead you to dissemble; my attentions have been too marked to be mistaken.”

 

I sucked in a breath. “Mr. Collins--”

 

But he was not to be interrupted, and he barreled over my attempted objections in an entitled, masculine way. “Almost as soon as I entered the house,” he said, “I singled you out as the companion of my future life.” He reached for my hand, but I jerked mine away. 

 

“I will not marry you, Mr. Collins,” I told him, my voice stern. 

 

Mr. Collins started, as though he had only just realized I was attempting to forstall his ill-fated proposal. But rather than being put off, he smiled graciously. “I am not now to learn that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favor.”

 

I gritted my teeth. “Mr. Collins! I will not marry you.”

 

Mr. Collins paused, looking taken aback and more than a little ruffled. But, he quickly regained his usual, oblivious composure. He took a deep breath, and once again smiled. “When I do myself the honor of speaking to you next on this subject--”

 

“Mr. Collins,” I interrupted. “I. Will. Not. Marry. You.” I stared at him--hard--willing my words to sink into his thick skull.

 

His smile wilted, and he studied my face, his own expression one of bafflement. But then, yet again, he smiled and shook his head. “You are uniformly charming!” he proclaimed, and I rolled my eyes. “And I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

 

I growled in exasperation and threw my hands up. Without another word, I stood and stormed out of the room, intending to walk around Hertfordshire until nightfall to avoid him if need be. With the fuss Mrs. Bennet was about to stir up upon hearing of my refusal, there would be no chance for peace and quiet around the house, and I needed to think. To process. To try to understand what had happened to Priya and why someone was suddenly sending me secret messages within the game.

 

~~~

 

I lay on my side in the bed I shared with Nel, my back to the other player as I hugged my game interface book to my chest and waited. Loki was curled up on my pillow, his ear twitching each time I exhaled and my breath tickled his ear hairs. 

 

The last week and a half had been unbearably dull. The Bingley party had left Netherfield, and seemed to have taken all of the fun and excitement with them. Charlotte's wedding to Mr. Collin's was painful, my only consolation that I would have several months of no Mr. Collins to look forward to. But the worst part of all was that I had still yet to hear back from Priya.

 

A blinking prompt appeared in front of me, telling me the logout window was now open. Technically, we could log out at any time, but as beta players, we were contractually obligated to remain logged in to the game from nine in the morning until five at night, real world time.

 

“Time to log out!” I blurted, sitting up. 

 

My abrupt movement dislodged Loki, and he leapt down to the floor. “Was that entirely necessary?”

 

I ignored him and opened the book to the EXIT page and set it on the floor. I didn’t hesitate before stepping through the book. 

 

There was a bright flash of light, and then I found myself back in the Austentopia nook of the Romance section of the Biblioverse. I jogged through the ring of bookcases and out into the greater library, then ran straight for the portal to the gatescape located in the center of the atrium. 

 

As soon as Loki and I set foot in the alien landscape, I stepped off to the side of the portal and looked down at my feline Gigi. “Log me out, Loki.”

 

Loki licked the back of his paw and smoothed it along his whiskers. “As you wish.”

 

The world went dark. My awareness floated in a sightless, soundless void for long seconds, until reality flooded in.

 

I sucked in a breath and opened my eyes, blinking against the dim overhead lights. A quick glance around at the other eight reclining chairs told me I was the first of our gaming party to emerge from VR slumber. I glanced at Jade’s reclining body, then at Ben’s. The two players who had been replaced by Rockville personnel within the game must have been in a game instance of their own, though how Priya and Will had managed to pull that off--and separately--I had no idea. 

 

As a tech rushed over to me, I sat up in my recliner and started peeling off the electrodes stuck to my chest. I recognized the tech. Her name was Rose, and she always wore her blond hair pulled back into a painfully tight looking ponytail. She reached for the electrode stuck to my temples, but I snagged her wrist, capturing her attention.

 

“Priya,” I said urgently. “I need to see Priya Burman--right now.”

 

Rose tugged gently against my hold, but I refused to let go. She licked her lips nervously. “I'm sorry, Olivia, but Ms. Burman has been reassigned.”

 

My eyes widened, and I shook my head. “No, but I need to talk to her,” I persisted. At the increasing alarm in Rose’s eyes, I released her wrist. “When was she reassigned?” I asked. “Reassigned to what?”

 

Rose’s lips twisted into an apologetic smile. “Somewhere off site,” she said. “I'm sorry, but that's all I know.” Tentatively, she reached for the electrode stuck to my left temple. This time, I didn’t interfere.

 

“But I need to talk to her,” I said, defeat seeping into my voice. “Do you have her number, or...some other way to reach her?”

 

Rose flashed me another apologetic smile and shook her head. She quickly finished with the electrodes, then sat on the stool beside my recliner. “I can fetch your new party liaison, if you want,” she offered. “Fiona's the best of the best--she can handle any problem you're having with the game.”

 

I blinked, surprised by the name Rose had used. “Fiona? Fiona Ó Faoláin--the creator of Allworld Online?” I clarified.

 

Rose nodded. “The one and only.”

 

I raised my eyebrows. “Why is she here?” I asked. “Isn't this a little beneath her paygrade?”

 

Rose frowned and shrugged. “I was as surprised as you when she showed up,” she admitted, “but Fiona’s high enough up that she can kind of do whatever she wants.”

 

I narrowed my eyes, but shut my mouth. I really wanted to keep digging, but I sensed that Rose had shared all she knew of the situation. Plus, a camera tucked high into one corner of the room drew my eye, and I couldn’t help but recall the disturbing words that had stained the napkin, however impermanently: THEY’RE WATCHING. Had the message meant only in the game, or out here, in the real world, too?

 

There was no way to say, not without knowing who had sent me the messages. Thinking it was better to be safe than sorry, I stood and left the party room before any of the others woke, heading straight for the cafeteria.

 

The entire beta testing facility was underground. Level one contained all of the gaming party rooms, where beta players laid out in their reclining chairs and were monitored while logged into the virtual world. Level two held the living quarters, and level three the cafeteria and exercise facilities. Each gaming party had two bunk rooms containing five beds, and a large coed bathroom was shared by all. The entire underground facility was contained within some sort of signal-blocking field, essentially cutting us off from the outside world. I understood why--leak prevention--but it was still unnerving.

 

I grabbed a premade roast beef sandwich and a bag of chips from the cafeteria, then headed up a flight of stairs to the living quarters. I could have taken the elevator, but the stairs were less frequently used, and I wasn’t in the mood to chat with anyone. I retreated with my dinner into the bunk room I shared with Nel, Grace, and Jade, scarfed my food, then changed into workout clothes and headed back down the stairs to the fitness center. I needed to think. To process. A nice long walk around the indoor track would do just the trick. 

 

Why would Priya have been reassigned? Had someone discovered what she was up to? What was she up to? And why had the enormously over-qualified game designer who had created Allworld Online been brought in? Priya had suspected something, though I had no clue what. Could the same be said for Fiona? Was something going on with the game? Was she the one sending me the messages? Or was that Priya? 

 

“Hey, Olivia,” Colin called out, jogging up from behind me. He slowed and fell in step beside me.

 

“Hey,” I said, forcing a smile. A quick glance at the clock hanging on the wall at the far end of the track told me I’d been walking for an hour already. And yet, I didn’t feel like I was any closer to figuring out what was going on.

 

“I looked for you in the cafeteria,” Colin said. 

 

“You did?” I asked, surprised. I studied him out of the corner of my eye. This was the first time he’d ever sought me out outside of the game. I was a little flattered. “I wasn't there. Obviously,” I rambled. “I ate in my room. I needed some time to think.”

 

Colin nodded to himself. “I figured as much,” he murmured, then moved a little closer, leaning his head down toward mine. “That was Priya in the game, wasn’t it?” 

 

I looked at him, my eyes widening.

 

“Jade never truly joined our party in AO, did she?”

 

I grabbed his arm, stopping him short. “Shhh!” I gave Colin a meaningful look, then glanced at the nearest camera. “Not here,” I whispered. “Come on.” 

 

Without saying more, I dragged Colin into the locker room and headed straight for the shower stalls. I held up a finger at him, telling him to wait, and turned on all but one of the showers, then pulled him into the remaining dry stall. And then I told him everything. I told him about the glitch-flashes, and about Priya. I told him about Will masquerading as Wickham, and about the messages that had appeared in the tea stains on my napkin. I told him everything I could think of, because the only person I could talk to had vanished--in the game and in the real world--and I was growing increasingly concerned for all of our safety.

 

“They're lying!” I said vehemently. “I know they're lying to us! Something else is going on here.” I fell quiet, letting Colin process all that I’d just unloaded on him. “What if Priya wasn't reassigned,” I said, voice hushed. “What if something else happened to her? Something worse?”

 

Colin frowned. 

 

I took a deep, shaky breath. Fear and frustration had me on the verge of tears. “I'm afraid that if I go back into the game, I'll disappear, just like her,” I finally said. My chin trembled, and as embarrassed as I was about the prospect of crying in front of Colin, I couldn’t tear my eyes from his.

 

Without warning, Colin pulled me to him with a hand on my shoulder and wrapped his arms around me. I sagged against him, and he rested his cheek against the side of my head and sighed. “I agree,” he said. “Something weird is going on. But what if those messages on the napkin were from Priya? What if she needs you to be in there to figure this out? What if you're the only one who can?”

 

Colin pulled away so he could see my face, and so I could see the assurance in his eyes. “Remember,” he said, “you can always log out.”

 

~~~

 

After logging back in to Allworld Online and reentering Pride and Prejudice, I started off each day in-game with a deep breath and a whispered mantra: I can always log out. I hadn’t seen much of Colin since my little breakdown in the shower stall five logouts ago. He was always scarce during logouts, and our characters weren’t due to cross paths again for several months after Mr. Darcy left Netherfield Park after the ball. 

 

But thankfully, the time of our reunion had finally arrived. I was sitting in the drawing room of the parsonage now managed by Grace's sensible mind with the younger Lucas girl, Maria. Mr. Collins was at Rosings Park, paying his respects to the new arrivals--Colin and Col. Fitzwilliam, Darcy’s amiable cousin. It was only a matter of time until Mr. Collins returned with the two gentlemen, and I was near to bursting with eagerness to see Colin again. 

 

Grace hurried into the drawing room, face flush with excitement. “Mr. Collins has returned,” she exclaimed, “and he is accompanied by Mr. Darcy and another gentleman who can only be Col. Fitzilliam.”

 

My heart beat sped up, and it was an effort to remain in my seat and not join Maria at the window to gawk at the new arrivals. 

 

“I may thank you, Eliza, for this piece of civility,” Grace said, composing herself as she retrieved her virtual little sister and guided her back to the sofa. “Mr. Darcy would never have come so soon to wait upon me.”

 

The two sat barely a second before the door to the drawing room opened, and the three men entered. Heart racing, I stared at the newcomers, forcing a brief flash to ensure that all was as it seemed. 

 

It had taken a bit of practice, but once I got the hang of it, controlling the flashes was second nature. As easy as breathing. They now seemed less like glitches, and more like reveals, like I was peeling back the top layer of the virtual world to see the seed of truth hidden beneath.

 

Colin and Col. Fitwilliam bowed before sitting, and we bent our necks in greeting. Colin sat in the armchair that was mate to mine, his eyes glued to my face. 

 

I was desperate to ask him where he’d been disappearing to during logouts, but I was afraid of tipping off whoever might be watching us that we were on to the fact that something was very off within the game world. Something even Priya had been afraid to share with Rockville. Something that had resulted in her “reassignment,” whatever that meant. So, I stuck to the script, and Col. Fitzilliam proved to be the handsome, genial conversationalist Jane Austen had written, and Colin was in pure Darcy form, as taciturn as ever. 

 

“How is your family?” Colin asked me, no doubt following a prompt. “Are they in good health?”

 

I smiled woodenly. “Yes, they are quite well.” I paused, waiting for the next expected prompt. “My eldest sister has been in town these three months. Have you never happened to see her there?”

 

“I have not had the pleasure,” Colin said.

 

I inhaled, reining in my nerves before improvising minutely. “And how is Miss Caroline Bingley?” I asked, my palms sweating as I grasped my hands together in my lap. “Is she enjoying town?”

 

Colin’s eyes narrowed minutely, and he shook his head, the movement barely perceptible. I took his response to mean that the character of Caroline still was absent from the game, and that there had been no sign of Priya. “I could not say,” he added for whoever might be watching.

 

Unable to talk freely, we let chatty Col. Fitwilliam steer the remainder of the conversation, and soon enough the two visitors departed and I was left more tense and confused than ever.

 

Much as I had been looking forward to this time in-game with Colin, the evenings spent at Rosings Park and his frequent visits to the parsonage were almost painful for us not being able to have a true conversation. I knew nothing more of the situation with Priya or what was up with the game and why it was drawing so much attention from the Rockville elite. I found myself wishing the days would pass faster, that the story would run its course sooner, and that it would all be over and done with.

 

Nearly two weeks and a logout after Colin’s initial visit to the parsonage, I found myself walking the lane following the Rosings Park fence line, perusing a letter from Nel and hoping for some mention of Caroline Bingely. Nel was in London, after all, and if by some miracle Priya returned to the game, it wouldn’t be out of line for Caroline to pay her dear friend Jane a visit. 

 

Up ahead, I spotted Col. Fitzwilliam rounding a bend in the road and smiled in greeting. A quick flash told me he was the NPC I believed him to be, and I folded up the letter and tucked it into the pocket of my skirt as he approached. With the impending conversation, there would be a window for me to mention Caroline without the inquiry being seen as out of place. He was an NPC, so his reaction would tell me if that character was still out of play.

 

“I did not know before that you ever walked this way,” I said as prompted when he stopped mere steps from me.

 

Col. Fitwilliam bowed his head, a broad smile curving his lips. “I have been making the tour of the Park as I generally do every year,” he told me, “and intend to close it with a call at the parsonage. Are you going much farther?”

 

I shook my head. “No, I should have turned in a moment.”

 

We chatted amiably as we strolled along the lane, and I dutifully followed the prompts, waiting for the turn of conversation I knew would be coming. Soon enough, the topic turned to Miss Darcy, the younger sister of Colin’s character, and I leapt on the opportunity, jumping ahead of the prompt.

 

“She is a very great favorite with some ladies of my acquaintance, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley,” I commented. “I think I have heard you say that you know them.”

 

Col. Fitzwilliam gave me a quizzical look. “I am afraid I must disappoint you,” he said. “I am not familiar with the ladies of which you speak.”

 

I blinked and stared at him, surprised by his claimed ignorance. Him not knowing of Caroline Bingley was somewhat expected, given all that had happened, but to not know Mrs. Hurst--an NPC--was shocking. “Mr. Bingley's sisters?” I clarified. “Certainly you have at least heard about them as your cousin is such good friends with Mr. Bingley and has spent so much time with him this past year.”

 

Col. Fitwilliam’s brow furrowed, and he frowned and shook his head. “Apologies, Miss Bennet,” he said, “but I am not familiar with the gentleman, either.”

 

I stopped mid-step, stunned by this revelation. We were now fully off-script, and for once, not by any fault of my own. During this walk, Col. Fitzwilliam was supposed to reveal to Elizabeth that Darcy had willfully separated Bingley from Jane, thus “saving” his friend from an unfavorable attachment. But if Col. Fitzwilliam had never heard of Mr. Bingley…

 

Icy dread washed over me.

 

Col. Fitzwilliam walked on for a few steps, then stopped and turned to face me, his face a mask of concern. “Are you quite well, Miss Bennet?” he asked. “You are as pale as a ghost.”

 

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I am not well. I think I need to lie down for a bit.”

 

If Col. Fitzwilliam didn't know who Mr. Bingley was, did that mean Holden had disappeared, just like Priya? There were four in-game days left until the next logout, and if Holden had truly gone missing--or been "reassigned" as Priya had--then I was done. I needed to warn Colin and Nel about what was going on, and then I was leaving the game for good.

 

~~~

 

I paced around the drawing room of the parsonage, having claimed a headache and that I was too unwell to spend the evening at Rosings with the others. I couldn’t wait for Colin to arrive, as Jane Austen had written, but not because I was eager to hear him declare his love for me--or rather, for my character--but because I was planning to break script, regardless of who may or may not be watching us. I needed to warn Colin about what I’d learned from Col. Fitzwilliam.

 

Right on cue, I heard heavy footsteps in the hallway, and a moment later, Colin barged into the drawing room. I paused near the fireplace, and he crossed the room, coming to stand close to me--closer than Darcy would have to Elizabeth--and reaching out one hand to touch my arm. I was taken aback by the urgency in his gaze. By the fear. 

 

“Are you well?” he asked, his eyes searching mine. “When you didn't show up for dinner…” He shook his head. “I grew worried.” I wondered if he had thought I, too, had vanished. He wasn’t familiar with the story and wouldn’t have known my absence was scripted.

 

“I’m well enough,” I told him, then added, “though I would not say I am well.”

 

Colin sighed and bowed his head. “In vain have I struggled,” he said, his eyes meeting mine. “It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

 

My heart skipped a beat, and for a moment, I forgot that those words were Darcy’s to Elizabeth, not Colin’s to me. I shook myself out of the fantasy and gathered my wits about me, leaning in closer to whisper, “Col. Fitzwilliam has no idea who Mr. Bingley is.” I hoped he would understand my meaning.

 

Confusion furrowed Colin’s brow.

 

“The story has changed,” I clarified, “to omit Mr. Bingley.”

 

Understanding dawned in Colin’s eyes, and alarm flashed across his face. He quickly pulled his game interface book out from a pocket of virtual space and opened it to the messaging page. “His gamertag is still highlighted,” Colin said. “He’s still logged in to the game.” Colin snapped the book shut and tossed it onto the mantle, then rubbed the back of his neck. “I think it's time for you to log out,” he told me. “I know what I said before, but things have changed. It’s not safe here.”

 

I shook my head. “I won’t leave without Nel,” I told him. “And what about you? You should log out, too.”

 

He looked away, almost like he was avoiding eye contact. “When do you see Nel next?”

 

“The day after tomorrow,” I said. 

 

Colin wrapped the fingers of one hand around my arm and peered down at me, his expression grave. “Promise me,” he said, “as soon as you warn Nel, you'll log out.” The vehemence in his voice and intensity of his stare frightened me. “And if anything unusual happens before then, message me immediately.”

 

I nodded. “I promise,” I swore.

 

He lingered for a moment, his eyes searching mine, then nodded to himself, retrieved his game interface book off the mantle, and turned to leave.

 

I watched him go, wishing I could follow. Wishing I could ask him to stay. Wishing I could fast forward through the next day and a half to when I would join Nel in London and the two of us could log out and never look back. 

 

I tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep a wink. Loki sat on the nightstand rather than curling up on the bed like he usually did, reminding me of a gargoyle guarding a church. His change in behavior only added to my unease, and it was a relief to see the pale light of dawn seeping in through the curtains.

 

I rose as soon as it was fully light out and dressed, then headed downstairs and out the back door to walk through the morning mist. I needed to be doing something, and I would be prompted to head out eventually for my next on-script encounter with Colin. I thought I might have stumbled upon a stroke of good luck when I spotted a tall figure marching toward Rosings Park, but something in the way he walked stopped me short of calling out to him. 

 

If I wasn’t mistaken, that confident stride didn’t belong to Colin, but to another--to William St. George, our gaming party’s second interloper. I snuck through the woods bordering Rosings and watched him from behind a tree as he slipped into the manor house through a back door. What the hell was he doing here? His character, Wickham, had no connection to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the lady of Rosings Park, save for his connection to Mr. Darcy. Was he here to see him--or rather, to see Colin?

 

Several hours passed, my thoughts circling around and around in my head, before I finally ran into Colin, walking along the lane bordering Rosings Park. 

 

He strode straight to me and pressed a folded up letter against my palm, holding my hand between both of his. “You must read this,” he said, his stare penetrating. “Find the deeper meaning.” Before I could ask him about Will--or about anything--he released my hand and raised both of his to press to either side of my face. And before I knew what was happening, his lips were on mine, his kiss urgent. When he pulled away, I was left breathless. “No matter what,” he said, his eyes locked with mine, “remember your promise.”

 

I nodded, too stunned to speak.

 

“I’ll see you on the outside,” he vowed, then pressed another, quicker kiss to my lips before turning and striding away. 

 

I stood in the place where he’d left me, my feet cemented to the ground, the letter in my hand all but forgotten. Only once Colin was out of sight did I turn my attention to the letter. I opened it and skimmed the words. They were familiar, read by me dozens of times before. These were Darcy’s words, not Colin’s. 

 

Find the deeper meaning.

 

Eyes narrowing, I forced a flash and gasped when Darcy’s words vanished, and another message entirely appeared. For a long moment, all I could do was stare at the letter. At the new words. Colin’s words. How had he been able to achieve such a subterfuge? Something like this would require manipulation under the hood of the game, an alteration of the code itself. 

 

I blinked and shook my head, focusing on what was written, rather than the how or why of it.

 

Olivia,

 

I'm sorry for concealing the truth from you, but I was ordered to remain undercover at any cost. I, however, am not willing to risk your life for the sake of my job or this case. 

 

You see, I'm not merely a beta player. I am an agent for the VCIA, planted here to investigate anomalies noticed within Austentopia by the project’s lead developer, Priya Burman. Priya approached the agency two months ago, after she voiced her concerns about the AI game controller in charge of Pride and Prejudice to the Rockville board and was told to either fall in line or step down. She’s been working with the agency since.

 

I am still unsure as to the nature of the problem, and without you and your “flashes” I wouldn’t know that anything was truly amiss. I wouldn’t even have known that Priya was in the game. But the appearance of these strange women in the place of NPCs is highly concerning, as is St. George showing up in place of a player. Clearly he has some interest here--but what?

 

Priya worried that Rockvill was using the game as a pretence to develop a new form of AI, and that the board was pushing forward on the beta tests to offer the AI a new challenge. After what you’ve shared with me, I now believe she was right. The game controller seems to be creating individual AI beings and storing them within the NPCs, almost like it’s creating an army. But I have no idea why it would be doing such a thing.

 

I wish I could offer you more clarity, but you have been my best asset in here. Your ability to see through the layers of illusion, to instinctively dig through the code, gave me the only small advantage I had. It’s not a good excuse for having kept you in here longer than you were comfortable, but it’s the only excuse I have.

 

I’m sorry, Olivia. I shouldn’t have used you like that. I’ll make it up to you, on the outside, I promise.

 

- Colin

 

~~~

 

I watched my trunk being loaded onto the carriage from the front porch of the parsonage, eager to be on my way. The mid-morning sun shone brightly, and birds chirped merrily, completely unaware of the pall cast over their world by the vanishing players. 

 

The servant and driver nodded in my direction--both of the strange dual-appearance variety of NPC, as revealed by a flash--indicating that they were ready to go. 

 

I sighed. I wasn’t excited about traveling for four hours with two potential AI soldiers, but at least I would have Maria with me, a normal NPC as of breakfast this morning. With one last, wary look at the carriage, I turned and headed back into the house to look for Grace. It struck me as odd that she wasn’t already out here, but she often was caught up in one of Mr. Collin’s long-winded diatribes about this or that menial thing, and we were currently operating off-script, so there would be no prompts to guide her back to me.

 

The ground floor of the house was empty, however, and I made my way through the back door, thinking Grace could be out in the garden with Mr. Collins. It was where he spent so much of his time during the day, after all. 

 

Mr. Collins was right where I expected him to be, delicately pruning dead and diseased leaves off his rose bushes, but Grace was nowhere in sight.

 

“Well, I’m off,” I said by way of announcing my presence. 

 

Mr. Collins straightened and turned to look at me, momentary befuddlement sweeping across his face before he smiled and bowed. “Oh, yes,” he said, straightening. “You shall be most grievously missed, cousin.”

 

I scanned the garden. “Have you seen Charlotte? I thought she might be out here with you.”

 

“Charlotte?” Mr. Collins said, the befuddlement returning as he cocked his head to the side.

 

Dread pooled in my belly, seeping into my bones. “Your wife…”

 

“Ah!” Mr. Collins brightened. “Yes, my wife! I believe Mrs. Collins is tending to the chickens with Maria.” He led the way around the house to the chicken coop, where Charlotte and Maria were collecting eggs, a basket hooked over Charlotte’s elbow and their backs to us.

 

Relief flooded me, and I smiled to myself.

 

“My dear!” Mr. Collins called out as we approached the coop. “The carriage is ready. Come, let us see our guests off and bid them farewell.”

 

The two women looked over their shoulders at us, one smiling, one pouting. My own smile slid off my face and the relief fled. Neither was Charlotte--or rather, Grace. Maria was still there, and still Maria, but Mr. Collins’ wife was none other than Mary, the middle Bennett sister, an NPC who had, long ago, been replaced by one of those AI imposters. 

 

In a daze, I walked around the house and to the carriage and said my goodbyes to Mr. and Mrs. Collins. I may not have boarded the carriage if Maria had been replaced by an AI imposter, but a flash assured me that she was the same as ever. The whole four-hour carriage ride to London, I felt numb, a single thought looping through my mind: get to Nel and get the hell out of here. I barely remembered to message Colin about the new development, keeping the details vague. 

 

As soon as the carriage pulled up to Mr. Gardiner’s house in London, I hopped out and ran to Nel, who was hiding from the drizzling rain in the front doorway. Loki greeted her Gigi with a face rub that I took to be some sort of Gigi instant transfer communication method. 

 

I pulled out my game interface book from the virtual pocket of space that followed me everywhere and gripped it in both hands. “We have to log out,” I told Nel. “Right Now!”

 

“What?” Nel shook her head, her brows drawn together in confusion. “But it’s not time...”

 

I hugged the game interface to my chest with one arm and gripped her elbow with my free hand. “Players are disappearing, Nel--three are already gone,” I explained. “I don't know how or why this is happening, but it's not safe here. We have to log out, now.”

 

Nel’s eyes widened as I spoke, and by the time I finished, she was nodding along. “OK,” she said. “Let’s do it.” She pulled out her game interface book and opened to the exit page. And then she frowned, flipping forward a page, then back a few. She shook her head. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

 

I opened my own game interface book and immediately saw the problem. The exit page was blank. My heart dropped, and I gulped. “Loki,” I said to the cat sitting near my feet, “why is the exit page blank?” I showed him the page.

 

Loki stood for a moment, his tail lashing, then sat again. His stare grew distant, almost like he wasn’t really there, and a few seconds later, he narrowed his eyes. “It would appear that someone has disabled the logout function,” he said, the end of his tail ticking in irritation. “You cannot leave the game.”

 

~~~


(news report) In the case of the missing game designer--Priya Burman, project lead of Rockville Softworks’ Austentopia game world is still missing. An anonymous caller to the station claims that Ms. Burman was working with the VCIA--the newly established virtual branch of the CIA, to investigate wrong-doings within the yet-to-be-launched game world. We have reached out to Rockville Softworks and the VCIA, but neither organization has yet to issue a statement. We’ll keep you updated as the story unfolds.

~~~

Episode 5 will be available Friday, May 29. Voting in this episode's poll closes at midnight on May 21.

THIS EPISODE'S POLL:

Which Pride and Prejudice scene should be featured in Episode 5?

  • Elizabeth trying to convince Mr. Bennet not to let Lydia go to Brighton with the Forsters

  • Elizabeth visits and tours Pemberley with the Gardiners

  • Elizabeth runs into Mr. Darcy at Pemberley

  • Luncheon at Pemberley (with Georgiana, Miss Bingley, and Mrs. Hurst)

  • Elizabeth receives Jane's letter about Lydia running off with Wickham

To vote, you must be an active Patron of the show ($1/episode). Become a Patron (and vote!) here.

© 2014 by LINDSEY FAIRLEIGH

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