ALLWORLD ONLINE: VIRTUAL MORTALITY

Episode 5

An Unhappy Alternative​

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Previously on Allworld Online: (read episode 4 here)

Olivia receives some strange messages written in tea stains, which only further set her on edge. During the next appointed logout window, she attempts to track down Priya Burman, only to discover that Priya has been “reassigned” to another project. Olivia isn’t sure she buys this story, and says as much to Colin. Now that she has nobody else to talk to about the weirdness she’s been experiencing in the game, she shares everything with him. Back in the game, Olivia visits Grace’s character in Hunsford, where she learns that Charles Bingley has vanished, meaning Holden is the next player to vanish. Olivia shares her fears with Colin, taking comfort in his presence and agreeing to logout--for good--as soon as she meets up with Nel and warns her of the danger as well. But just as Olivia is leaving Hunsford, she learns that Grace, too, has vanished. 

(memo from Fiona Ó Faoláin to the Rockville Softworks board of directors)

 

All players have been immediately pulled from the beta tests of all Austentopia game worlds and the VCIA has been informed of the Pride and Prejudice situation. From player feeds within Pride and Prejudice, it appears that a few of the players are aware of the logout issue, but as the game world has been locked down from within, we are unable to extricate or even communicate with the players. 

 

Two player feeds have gone dark--in addition to Priya Burman’s feed. Though both players’ physical bodies remain in stable condition, their brain activity is erratic, as though multiple mental signatures are present, and as we have been unable to wake them for four and two days respectively, we are preparing for the worst. 

 

We were able to remove two players from the Pride and Prejudice game world--Jade Smith and Ben Cho--but as the board is already aware, they were unknowingly placed in a mirror instance of the game and were thus not caught up in the current situation.

 

All employees and players involved in the Austentopia beta tests are on lockdown within the testing facility. Unaffected teams have been transitioned to the gamma tests for GrimmWorld to keep them occupied. I suggest the board put together a reparations team to prepare for informing player families, should the worst happen.

 

~~~

 

As soon as I was through the front door of the Gardiners’ home, I made excuses about feeling weary from the journey to London and wanting to wash up. I grabbed Nel’s wrist and dragged her upstairs, where we retreated with our Gigis into the bedroom we would be sharing during my short stay here. 

 

I released Nel and shut the door, then hurried to the bed to sit. Nel followed, perching on the edge of the mattress. I scooted back, pulling my legs up and tucking my skirt under my feet, and set my game interface book on the quilt between us. Nel set her book down beside mine, and we all stared at them dubiously--Nel, me, and both of the Gigis. Loki stared at the books from the desk by the window, and Max from the nightstand. 

 

“Something is very wrong with this game,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper. 

 

Nel drew her bottom lip between her teeth, her eyebrows bunched together. “It’s definitely strange,” she said, then added, “I mean, I’ve never encountered anything like this before.” She pursed her lips. “But…”

 

I scoffed, my eyes bulging as I leaned closer to her. “But?” I squawked, then glanced at the door and lowered my voice. “But what?”

 

Nel was quiet for a moment, back to chewing on her lip. “But,” she finally said, “maybe it's part of the game.” She inhaled deeply, then barreled onward. “I mean, they told us it was a straight-up Pride and Prejudice reenactment game, but there’s nothing in our contracts that says they have to be honest and upfront about the games we’ll be testing. What if they wanted our genuine reactions to some warped mystery spin on Pride and Prejudice?”

 

I frowned, my eyes narrowing as I considered what she was suggesting. “What?” I said. “Like a Jane Austin-Agatha Christie mashup?”

 

Nel shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe?” she said, not sounding all that certain. “I think a lot of this wouldn't be so alarming if you weren't able to see through the game like you can. That kind of throws an unexpected wrench into everything.”

 

I was already shaking my head before she was done speaking. “But it shouldn't have been unexpected at all,” I told her. “Either they knew I was like this, or they somehow overlooked it. It just doesn't make any sense.” I was quiet for a moment. “And what about Priya and Will being in the game? And those strange women hiding inside some of the NPCs? Or the weird tea stain messages? If I couldn't ‘see through the game’ then we would never know about any of that. All we would know is that some players' characters have mysteriously been written out of the story.” I was quiet for a moment, then added, “And Priya made it very clear that the imposter NPCs issue is very much not supposed to be happening.”

 

Nel went back to chewing on her bottom lip. “I don’t know, Liv…what if it’s all part of the game? What if Priya was never really here? What if your ability to ‘see’ isn’t even real, but just something the game is making you think you can do? I mean, it’s virtual reality--virtually anything can happen here.”

 

“Including being trapped in the game?” I said, my voice growing urgent. I couldn’t argue against the questions she posed. It was like asking me to prove that God didn’t exist or that magic wasn’t real or that there were no such things as unicorns. I just couldn’t. “Is being unable to log out ever a part of a game?”

 

Nel narrowed her eyes. “Well...have you actually tried to log out early before?” she posed. “Maybe the logout function is always unavailable outside of the logout window. I’ve never been a beta player for Rockville before so, I don’t know, maybe it’s standard operating procedure for them?”

 

“But they said we could log out whenever,” I countered. Acting on a hunch, I looked at Loki. “Was the logout function always available before?” I asked the Gigi. “Or was it disabled outside of the logout windows?”

 

Loki’s electric gaze met mine, his stare growing momentarily distant. He refocused on me a second later and said, “The logout function was active until approximately one hour ago, real world time.”

 

I gave Nel a pointed look. 

 

“OK…” She inhaled and exhaled slowly. “But maybe--”

 

I didn’t need to hear any more--I could tell from the way she said “maybe” that she was going to continue her role as the voice of reason. I pressed my lips together in a thin, flat line, already dismissing whatever she was about to say.

 

“Just hear me out,” Nel said, raising one hand. “Maybe the logout being disabled is just a glitch. Could be fixed in five minutes. And maybe the NPC thing--and Priya, if she really was here and wasn’t just a figment of the game--are unrelated to this. And maybe William St. George just really likes Pride and Prejudice. It’s not necessarily a big conspiracy, you know?”

 

I could see now that there was nothing I could say that would make her feel the same fear I felt. That would make her take this as seriously as I was. To her, it was all just a part of the game. 

 

“But what about the disappearing players?” I said, voicing my last-ditch effort.

 

Nel sucked in a breath, then hesitated. “Maybe they're being yanked from the game to see how the storyline adapts to their sudden, permanent absence?” she said. “I mean, it is a beta test. When I was a beta player for Good Guy Games, I saw some weird stuff in-game--NPCs acting crazy, scenes changing right before my eyes, players accidentally teleporting from one location to another. You name it, there's a glitch for it, Liv.”

 

I quirked my mouth to the side and stared at my game interface book. There was still one piece of information I hadn't shared with Nel--Colin's true identity and purpose for being here. While her dissection of the problem did shed doubt on my absolute certainty that we were in serious danger, I couldn't help but think she would view everything in a different light if she knew the VCIA was investigating the game.

 

I opened my game interface book to the logout page. It was still blank. No surprises there. 

 

Nel reached out and wrapped her fingers around my hand. “I know you're worried,” she said, her voice filled with compassion, “but please, at least wait until the logout window tomorrow to assume the worst.” She gave my hand a squeeze, then let go. “It could be nothing.”

 

I stared at the blank page for a moment longer, then raised my eyes to meet Nel’s. “Fine,” I said, exhaling a sigh. “But if we get to the logout window and are still trapped in here, I reserve the right to have a full-on freak out.”

 

Nel laughed, the sound just a little too shrill. “If we're still not able to log out,” she said, “then I'll freak out with you.”

 

I smiled, laughing softly, but my good humor was short-lived. “Promise me something?” 

 

Nel’s answering smile was genuine. “Anything.”

 

“We stick together,” I said. “We do everything we can to not be separated by the game. If something is disappearing players, I think it'll be a lot harder to do when we're together. At least, so far it’s only happened when players were alone.”

 

Nel nodded. “Deal.”

 

I blew out a breath, suddenly feeling truly exhausted, and turned the page in my game interface book. I wanted to send a quick message to Colin to confirm that he was experiencing the logout lock out, as well. 

 

But the messaging page was as blank as the last, and fear took hold of my heart and squeezed. Colin didn’t have any other players around him--both Priya and Holden were gone. And now he couldn’t communicate with the rest of us at all. He was totally isolated. Totally alone. 

 

And our paths weren’t due to cross in the game for another three months. The only light giving me hope was that Mr. Darcy was an integral character to the story--without him, the plot would unravel and the game would have little purpose. My gut told me Colin’s character and mine would be the last to go. I just hoped my gut was right.

 

~~~

 

Those three months passed in game--five missed logouts--and finally I was mere days away from my reunion with Colin. Assuming he was even still in the game. But as much as I wanted to see him and know that he was OK, the price was too high. To see him, I had to leave Longbourn--and Nel--behind.

 

Gnawing on my thumbnail, I paced up and down the hallway outside of the library at Longbourn, going over my arguments in my head. Mr. Bennett was a reasonable NPC, and he had a built-in soft spot for his beloved Lizzy. He would see reason. He had to.

 

I stopped in front of the door to the library, took a deep breath, and raised my fist to knock.

 

“Come in,” Mr. Bennett called.

 

I opened the door and walked into the library. 

 

“Ah, Lizzy, my dear,” Mr. Bennett said from the chair behind the desk, “so it is you who has been wearing a path in the floorboards this past half hour.” 

 

I paused in shutting the door and smiled sheepishly at him over my shoulder. “You could hear me out there?”

 

He nodded. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

 

I shut the door the rest of the way and turned, crossing the room to stand in front of the picture window. I gazed out at the garden, going over what I would say in my head. “I have a request, Papa,” I finally said, “and it’s really, really important to me.” I turned my back to the window, facing him.

 

Mr. Bennett was now leaning back in his chair, his joined hands resting on his belly. “This sounds serious, Lizzy,” he said. “Has yet another misguided suitor made an unwelcome proposal?”

 

I laughed under my breath and shook my head. “No, no, nothing like that,” I said, making my way to the armchair opposite his. With a sigh, I sank into the chair, perching on the edge. “As you know,” I started, “my aunt and uncle are due to arrive this afternoon, and I will be leaving with them tomorrow to tour Derbyshire for a few weeks. I would very much like it if Jane were to accompany me along with my aunt and uncle on our trip.”

 

Mr. Bennett’s eyebrows rose, and he inhaled deeply, but before he could voice any protests, I continued on.

 

“Kitty would still be here,” I rushed to say, “and she is perfectly capable of taking care of my cousins with Mama's help.” I leaned forward. “I know it sounds silly, but Jane really wants to come, and it is really, really important to me.”

 

I felt a little bad choosing Nel over Allie, but there was no way I would be able to pull off bringing both with me, not with the Gardiners’ four children due to stay at Longbourn while I was touring Derbyshire with their parents.

 

Mr. Bennett steepled his fingers as he studied me. “Let me think on it, Lizzy,” he said, smiling mysteriously. “I cannot, at present, think of any objection, but I must mention it to Mrs. Bennett, who is a better judge of your sisters' child-minding capabilities.”

 

Relief flooded me, and I smiled gratefully at Mr. Bennett. “Thank you, Papa.” I stood and left the library, hopeful, if not certain, of my victory.

 

Later that day, I was in my bedroom, packing for the trip, when I heard Mrs. Bennett’s shrill voice raised downstairs. 

 

“Absolutely not!” she practically shrieked. “It is quite impossible.”

 

I froze, then set down the dress I was folding and slowly moved into the hallway, following the sound of her voice.  

 

“Jane must remain here to watch the children, as she is their particular favorite,” Mrs. Bennett went on. “And you know how my nerves are. I cannot possibly manage four young children with only Kitty's help! I should never recover!”

 

“My dear,” Mr. Bennett said, his voice filled with calm and personal exhaustion. “You have raised our five daughters admirably well. I have the utmost faith in your ability to manage four children for little more than a fortnight.”

 

I reached the cracked open library door and held my breath.

 

“Jane shall go with Lizzy,” Mr. Bennett said, “and that will be that.”

 

Mrs. Bennett growled in frustration. “I do not think so, Mr. Bennett,” she said, an ominous note to her words.

 

I peeked into the library through the crack between the door and the frame. Mr. Bennett sat at his desk, as usual, while Mrs. Bennett stood beside him, her hand resting on his shoulder. 

 

Suddenly, Mr. Bennet’s face twisted in agony, and he doubled over in his chair, his forehead nearly cracking against the edge of the desk. He clutched his chest, and clawed at his face.

 

Eyes opened wide, I forced a flash. 

 

Mr. Bennett’s true appearance flickered in and out of view, alternating with that of one of those strange not-quite-human women. I watched, horrified and fascinated, as he was replaced, right before my eyes. Soon the flickering stopped, and all that remained was the imposter. 

 

I blinked, and the truth visible through the flash vanished. The NPC that had been Mr. Bennett appeared to be him once more, his expression placid. But I knew the truth. Mr. Bennett was gone.

 

“As you say, my dear,” the NPC formerly known as Mr. Bennett said to his imposter wife, “Jane shall stay home while Lizzy travels with the Gardiners.”

 

Panic clutched at my heart, and I burst into the room. “Then I won't go,” I told them. “I'll stay here with Jane. Kitty can go with the Gardiners!”

 

My imposter parents stared at me. Mrs. Bennett narrowed her eyes, and Mr. Bennett’s calm now seemed somehow menacing. 

 

“Impossible!” Mrs. Bennett said. “Kitty is too young to appreciate the great houses of Derbyshire. The trip would be wasted on her. Either you or Jane must remain behind to tend to the children.”

 

I had the sinking suspicion that this was not the game resisting a change to the storyline, but rather the imposter NPCs trying to separate Jane and me. This only reinforced my theory that, for whatever reason, they needed players to be alone to do whatever they did that made us disappear. If I left Longbourn--alone--it would be the beginning of the end. I felt certain of it.

 

I backed up a step, needing to be away from them. Would they force me to go? Would they physically drag me into the carriage? Or maybe steal me away in the middle of the night? I turned toward the open doorway.

 

“They’re here!” Allie exclaimed from the front of the house. Her footsteps thundered up the hallway, and she poked her head into the library, grinning broadly. “They’re here,” she repeated, a little breathless. 

 

I followed Allie to the front doorway, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett trailing behind me. Knowing they were there, watching me, scheming, sent shivers cascading down my spine. I rushed out through the front door to stand beside Nel, linking my arm with hers. 

 

Nel eyed me, her smile uncertain. “Well?” she asked, her voice hushed.

 

I shook my head and swallowed roughly. My mouth was suddenly a desert. “I’m sorry,” I told her as I watched the hope melt from her expression. “I tried.”

 

Nel blinked, then forced a wooden smile and returned her attention to the carriage pulling to a stop in the driveway. 

 

I did the same, keenly aware of Mr. and Mrs. Bennetts’ watchful eyes. As soon as the Gardiners and their four children were out of the carriage, I forced another flash to verify that they were still them. 

 

My heart dropped into my stomach. Both Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had been replaced by imposters.  

 

I had a choice, then. I could either remain behind with the imposters posing as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, but have the comfort of knowing Allie was with me while Jane traveled with the Gardiners. Or, I could leave with the imposters posing as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, where I would spend a couple weeks alone with them before I was due to run into Colin at Pemberley mid-trip--if he was even still in the game. I feared that whoever left with the Gardiners would never return. Either I would vanish, or Nel would. But Nel didn't have any way to distinguish friendly NPC from foe. I couldn't send her out on her own like that. I could never be so cruel.

 

After the Gardiners had been greeted and the children sent out back to the lawn to run around under Jane’s watchful eye, I made my way back to the library.

 

“Come in,” Mr. Bennett called when I knocked.

 

I pushed the door open and entered the now ominous seeming room. “I'll go,” I told him. And without another word, I turned and left. 

 

The next morning, when my trunk was loaded onto the carriage and the Gardiners were waiting for me to join them within, I hugged Nel tight, tears stinging my eyes. I was afraid this was the last time I would ever see her. 

 

“Promise me you'll stay close to Allie,” I whispered, my words quiet and urgent. “No matter what happens to me.” I pulled back and looked into her eyes, gripping her upper arms. “Promise me.”

 

~~~

 

I sat in the carriage opposite Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and stared out the window, watching the Derbyshire countryside pass by outside. Loki lay on my lap, purring as I anxiously stroked his smooth fur. The moment of truth was fast approaching. In a few hours, I would find out if Colin was still in the game. 

 

If I hadn't known Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were imposters, I never would have guessed. Everything they said and did was exactly as I would have expected based on the story I knew so well. The only sense of something being off came from within me, from the secret knowledge that I had. Which made me wonder--who exactly were these imposters? And what did they want?

 

If their purpose had merely been to isolate me and abduct me, well then, that could have happened the second we left Longbourn. If they did have nefarious intentions, then why wait so long to act. Was it because Elizabeth Bennett was the main character and thus would be difficult to extricate from the story? Or was Nel right? Was this all part of the game? I might have been swayed to her way of thinking if not for the logout and messaging issues. Even Nel agreed that that was worrisome.

 

“Ah,” Mrs. Gardiner said, looking out the opposite window, “there it is--Pemberley. It’s just as I remember it.”

 

I shifted my attention to that window and gazed outside, my heart beating faster. Though I could see the estate clearly and my brain told me Pemberley House was a large, handsome stone building--just as Jane Austen had described it--I could barely focus on what I was seeing. All I could think about was Colin. I couldn't wait to see him. I had so much to tell him. So much to ask him. But more than anything, I just wanted to see him to know that he was all right. To know that he was still here.

 

I gripped my skirt in tight fists, swallowing down the dread attempting to claw its way up my throat. What if Colin didn’t show up when he was supposed to? What if he was gone? And what if Nel and the others were already gone? What if I was the only one left? What was going to happen to me? When was I going to be taken, too?

 

I felt numb to the world outside the carriage as we slowed, then stopped. I didn’t want to be here. Didn’t want to find out what I felt so sure I was about to discover.

 

Mr. Gardiner exited the carriage first, then helped his wife out. Once she was standing on the driveway, he held his hand into the carriage for me to take. I accepted it. What choice did I have?

 

A respectable-looking older woman--Mrs. Reynolds, Pemberley’s housekeeper, I assumed--was already on her way down the stairs leading up to the front door of the manor house by the time my boot soles touched the gravel of the driveway. I listened, numb inside, as Mr. Gardiner inquired about a tour of the house and grounds.

 

“Aye,” Mrs. Reynolds said, giving the three of us a measuring look. “My master is away, but we expect him tomorrow, with a large party of friends. Your timing is good. Were you but a day later, and I would have to turn you away.” 

 

I perked up and focused on Mrs. Reynolds. Those words of expectation and of the party her master would be bringing with him were straight from the book. A little early, but Jane Austen had written that piece of dialogue verbatim. It gave me hope that she was speaking of Colin’s character, Mr. Darcy, and that he was still in the game. Because if he had been taken like Priya, Holden, and Grace, then the story would have been revised to exclude his character, just as had been done with Caroline Bingley, Charles Bingley, and Charlotte Lucas. 

 

Before I could ask a tactical question aimed at revealing the identity of Mrs. Reynold’s master, the sound of hooves on gravel drew my attention, and I turned to see a rider galloping up the long, tree-lined driveway. I took a step toward the driveway, raising my hand to shield my eyes from the sun. I wasn’t positive, but I thought the rider might be Colin.

 

“Ah,” said Mrs. Reynolds, a note of apology in her tone. “My master has returned early. I do apologize, but a tour will no longer be possible.”

 

I tuned out her words, my heart soaring as the rider drew nearer. It was Colin. 

 

Suddenly he was right there, his horse almost on top of me. He reined in his mount beside the carriage and leapt off, striding straight toward me. He stopped abruptly, just out of arm’s reach, and bowed to me. “Miss Bennett,” he said, his eyes locking with mine.

 

Aware of the audience behind me, I curtsied and greeted him appropriately. “Mr. Darcy.” My heart thundered in my chest. 

 

“Does the young lady know Mr. Darcy?” Mrs. Reynolds asked the Gardiners.

 

But it was Colin who answered. “Indeed,” he said, “we are well acquainted.” Colin tore his attention from me just long enough to bow to Mr and Mrs. Gardiner. 

 

“Oh, um,” I started, stumbling over my words. “This is my uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner.”

 

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Colin said, then shifted his focus to Mrs. Reynolds. “Please show them around the estate,” he told her. “I must speak with Elizabeth, and I will return with her shortly to rejoin you all.”

 

I held my breath as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner exchanged looks. I feared they would protest. 

 

But Colin offered me his arm before they could say anything at all, and together, we strode away from them, trailed by their curious--and suspicious--stares. 

 

Colin guided me to a copse of trees, where we might find a bit of cover from their noticeable scrutiny. “Something is very wrong with the game,” he said, releasing my arm and turning to face me.

 

I blew out a breath. “And here I was hoping you would tell me it was nothing to worry about,” I admitted. 

 

Colin shook his head. “A game with a malfunctioning logout function never should have made it to the human beta testing phase,” he said, starting to pace. “Such a thing would destroy Rockville Softworks if it were ever exposed. Either the development team was extremely negligent, or someone purposely disabled the logout function.”

 

I licked my lips nervously. “But, it could just be a glitch, right?”

 

“Could be,” Colin said. “But we've already missed five logout windows. That means our bodies have been logged into the game for more than five days.”

 

I gulped, almost afraid to ask, “What does that mean for our bodies?”

 

“We will have been hooked up to feeding tubes and catheters since the first missed log out,” he explained. “We're essentially in an induced coma, and the longer we remain in this state, the less likely it is we'll ever wake.”

 

Frightened, I hugged my middle. “What's the longest that anyone has ever stayed in AO?” I asked.

 

“And emerged?” Colin clarified.

 

I nodded.

 

“Three weeks,” he said. “When the system was first being tested, the FDA was the organization regulating the tech. They gave one hundred prisoners facing life sentences without parole the option to live out their lives in the virtual world rather than in a prison. Twenty-three took the offer. The scientists running the program logged out the prisoners for five minutes every three days. After twelve days, only twenty could be successfully logged out. After fifteen days, only sixteen. After eighteen days, only eleven. And after twenty-four days, none could be logged out.”

 

My mouth fell open. “How many are still in here?” I asked. 

 

“Twenty,” Colin told me.

 

I was almost afraid to ask, but I couldn’t resist. “Did the other three return to the prisons?” I said.

 

Colin skewered me with a meaningful look, then shook his head. “They died when the scientists attempted to disconnect them from the system,” he explained. “Brain dead, like their minds had been severed from their bodies.”

 

The revelation knocked me off balance, and I stumbled backward, steadying myself against a tree trunk. I looked at Colin and cleared my throat. “But everyone was still able to log out after nine days?”

 

Colin nodded.

 

“So we should have at least four more real world days to find a way out of here,” I said, processing out loud.

 

Colin approached me, reaching out to rest a hand on my upper arm. His touch felt solid and reassuring. He peered down at me, his eyes searching mine. “We’ll find a way out of this,” he vowed. “Together.”

 

I nodded robotically, and a slightly hysterical laugh escaped from my lips. “Nel and I tried to stick together,” I told him, “but the imposter NPCs wouldn't let us. They want us separated. Isolated. I think they need us to be alone to do whatever it is they do to us when we vanish.” After a moment, I added, “Both Mr. and Mrs. Bennett as well as the Gardiners have been replaced.”

 

“And Mrs. Reynolds?” Colin asked, glancing past me to the house. Of course he would want to know that--he would be around her frequently during his stay at Pemberley. 

 

I shook my head. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “I didn’t check. But…” I bit my lip, my eyes narrowing as I recalled what I had seen in the library at Longbourn, when Mr. Bennett had been replaced. “I think one of the imposters has to be touching the other NPC to replace them, so it’s likely that Mrs. Reynolds will be replaced if she hasn’t been already.”

 

Colin was quiet for a moment, staring off at the distant, wooded foothills. “There must be some way for us to stay together,” he mused. “We can just refuse to leave one another. Would they forcibly separate us?”

 

I inhaled and exhaled deeply, then shook my head. “They could use the rules of this world--this time--against us,” I said. “They could arrest you for kidnapping. As a young woman in this time period, my parents have final say over where I go and what I do.” A woman of this time couldn't even marry who she wanted without parental permission until she turned twenty-one, and as of March, Elizabeth Bennett was only twenty.

 

A thought struck me, and my eyes opened wider, my lips parting.

 

“You have an idea,” Colin said. “What is it?”

 

“Gretna Green,” I murmured, my eyes snapping to meet Colin’s. “It’s just across the Scottish border. If we travel fast, we could get there tomorrow.” I pushed away from the tree to pace as I worked through the forming plan out loud. “I'd have to sneak out of the inn after the Gardiners retire for the night,” I said. “But if you had a carriage waiting, we would have a big enough lead by the time they woke up and noticed I was gone.” A smile teased my lips. “They'll never catch us in time stop us.”

 

“To stop us from doing what?” Colin said.

 

I halted mid-step and faced him. “From getting married.”

 

~~~

 

I retired early that evening, retreating to my room at the inn in Lambton to anxiously await my escape. I sat on the bed, flipping through my game interface book while Loki perched on the desk by the window, lazily bathing himself. I skimmed over the parts in the Austontopia encyclopedia about marriage laws during Jane Austen’s time, confirming that a Gretna Green marriage was legally binding in England--despite the ceremony taking place in Scotland. Elizabeth’s family would have to honor the union, which meant that Colin and I would be free to spend as much time as possible together investigating what could very well turn out to be a fatal flaw in the game. 

 

At the sound of a soft, metallic clicking, I looked at Loki, then at the door. “Did you hear that?”

 

Loki licked his furry chest one more time, then looked at me. “The sound of a key turning in a lock?” He raised a paw to his mouth to continue his bath. “Yes, I heard it,” he said between licks.

 

I sat frozen on the mattress and stared at the door. Ever so slowly, I rose from the bed and approached the door. I reached out to grip the doorknob, held my breath, and twisted the handle. But the door wouldn’t open. I’d been locked in.

 

“Damn it!” I hissed, pacing away from the door as my thoughts whirled. 

 

They had never locked me in. I had been sleeping using the age-old chair-lodged-under-the-door-handle trick because the key to my room had been lost. Or so I'd been told. Did this mean they were planning on taking me tonight? How was I supposed to escape if I was locked in my room?

 

I looked at the window, then moved closer, leaning over the desk to assess the drop. I was on the second floor of the inn, my window overlooking an alleyway. If I hung from the window sill, then dropped, I thought I might be able to land without breaking my legs. At least the ground below was compacted dirt rather than stone.

 

I straightened and looked at Loki. “How realistic are injuries in this game?” I asked the cat.

 

“Very realistic,” he said, his voice bored as he continued his bath.

 

“And pain?” I asked.

 

Loki lowered his paw, blinked once, and finally looked at me. “In a non-combat game such as this,” he said, “a player's pain setting is automatically set to one hundred percent.”

 

I chewed on the inside of my cheek. Even if I broke both of my ankles in the fall, it would be worth it. I would be away from this place--and from these imposters.

 

~~~

 

Standing off to the side of the open window, I stared out into the night from the dark room. I had heard movement outside my door twice since being locked in, but thankfully neither had resulted in anyone actually coming into the room. 

 

A carriage pulled up in the road at the mouth of the alley, and a hand emerged from the open window, displaying a cheerful thumbs up. It was Colin. That was our agreed upon signal. 

 

Heart suddenly racing, I tucked my game interface book into the pocket of virtual space that followed me everywhere within this game. I took a deep breath, and another, and then I raised my leg over the window sill and awkwardly climbed out. I was more out than in, balancing on one thigh, when it occurred to me that I probably should have done something with my skirt, like tying it together between my legs. Too late now. 

 

Loki watched me from the desk as my dangling foot scrambled for purchase on the stone wall of the inn. I finally found a crack in the mortar with the toe of my boot and dug in. Once I was fairly sure it would hold me, I carefully pulled my other leg over the sill. 

 

The mortar beneath my boot crumbled, and the foot supporting me slid out of the crack. My stomach lurched into my throat as I dangled from the window sill, my fingers slowly slipping. 

 

“Gah!” I cried out as my grip failed and I dropped from the window sill. I landed with an ungraceful roll onto my side, and my hip and shoulder took as much of the impact as my feet and ankles. It hurt, but more like bruises than broken bones. 

 

With a groan, I rolled onto my hands and knees as Loki landed on the ground nearby. The cat padded up the alleyway toward the carriage, leaving me to scrabble up to my feet. 

 

Colin must have finally realized that the thing that had dropped from the window had been me, because he was suddenly out of the carriage and jogging down the alley. I hobbled toward him, and when he reached me, he looped an arm around my waist, helping me move along more quickly. He pushed me into the carriage ahead of him, then climbed in himself, pulling the door shut behind him. 

 

I sat on the forward-facing bench seat, rubbing my sore shoulder.

 

Colin joined me on the bench, lips twisted into a wry smile as he eyed me. “The window, huh?”

 

I let out a breathy laugh. The carriage started moving, and my shoulder smacked the wall behind me. I winced. “I didn’t have much of a choice,” I told him, shifting my weight to put less pressure on my tender hip. Loki had been right--injuries and pain were very realistic in this game, and I had no doubt that my virtual body was going to be covered in a patchwork of livid bruises soon enough.

 

Colin raised his eyebrows, clearly curious.

 

“They locked me in,” I explained. 

 

“Ah,” he said, nodding to himself. “Then we might not have as much of a lead as we had hoped for...especially if they come to check on you and find you gone.”

 

I sighed and rested my head against the side of the carriage, staring out the window at the sleepy village. “It’ll be good enough,” I said softly. It had to be. 

 

We rode in silence for a long time, both staring out our respective windows, too tired to talk but too wired to sleep. 

 

“It all feels so real,” I murmured, breaking the long silence. “The fear, the danger…” I shook my head, wondering how I’d gotten myself into this mess. I’d done it for Charlie, and once he found out what had happened to me--if he didn’t already know--he would blame himself. I could only imagine what that would do to him. It would destroy him.

 

“The danger is real,” Colin said. “If we don't find a way out, we'll never leave and this will be our only reality.”

 

I turned my face toward him, only to find that he was already watching me. I flashed him a weak smile. “Thanks for agreeing to marry me in what may soon become your only reality.”

 

Colin returned my smile and found my hand in the darkness. “No problem.”

 

Once again, we settled into a heavy silence and returned to staring out the windows. But my hand was still snug in his. And after some time, my eyelids grew heavy, and I fell asleep.

 

~~~

 

I woke leaning against something warm and hard. A person. I raised my head from said person’s shoulder, only to find a generous patch of drool soaking the fabric of said person’s coat. Said person was Colin, and I was suddenly mortified. 

 

I dabbed at the drool spot with my sleeve, my cheeks on fire. “Sorry about that,” I murmured. 

 

Colin glanced at me, then down at his shoulder and grunted, nonplussed. 

 

I offered him an apologetic smile. “Please tell me I didn’t snore, too.”

 

His expression said it all.

 

I groaned and closed my eyes, my head falling back as I laughed in quiet misery. After a moment, I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. “How long was I out?” I asked.

 

“A few hours,” Colin told me. “You could stretch out on the other bench.” He nodded to the bench opposite ours, where our Gigis were snuggled up, fast asleep. “Might be more comfortable.”

 

I snorted a laugh. “Seat’s taken.” Yawning, I rubbed my eyes and then stretched, raising my arms over my head and arching my back. My shoulder and hip throbbed with the movement, and I winced. “I’m fine,” I said, as much to myself as to Colin. “All rested up. But you're more than welcome to drool on my shoulder, if you want.” I eyed him sidelong. “Fair is fair.”

 

Colin chuckled.

 

As my embarrassment faded, my wits returned, and I realized the carriage wasn't moving. I said as much to Colin.

 

“Driver's changing out the horses,” he told me. “For speed.”

 

“Oh,” I said. “I suppose that makes sense.” 

 

I peered out the window and spotted the driver standing nearby. I forced a quick flash and was relieved to see that the driver was still just a regular NPC. With a sigh, I settled back on the bench, and soon enough, the carriage was moving again. 

 

We changed out the horses twice more before crossing into Scotland. It was early afternoon the next day when we stopped for the final time, the driver letting us know we had reached Gretna Green. 

 

“Do we need to find a church?” Colin asked once we were both out of the carriage. His Gigi--Francine, I had learned during the ride--trotted around, sniffing the road and buildings nearest to us. Loki merely sat beside me, looking around with complete and utter disinterest. 

 

I shook my head. “No need for a church,” I told Colin. “Handfasting works just as well, here.” I glanced at the driver. “But what we do need is another witness.” We would need two to witness our vows to make the marriage official.

 

I scanned the buildings lining the street around us, and was pleased to discover that the driver had stopped directly in front of an inn. That would do nicely. I reached for Colin’s hand, and looked at the driver. “Both of you, follow me,” I said. 

 

I led them into the inn and stopped a few steps inside the doorway, looking around the common room. A short bar was situated against the back wall, and the tables and chairs spread about the space were mostly empty. A man who had been crouched, hidden behind the bar, stood. I released Colin’s hand, squared my shoulders, and marched across the common room, making a beeline for the bartender.

 

“Barkeep,” I said, leaning against the bar, “we would be very honored if you would agree to witness our marriage.”

 

The bartender eyed me dubiously, then eyed Colin and his fine clothes a little less dubiously.

 

Smiling to myself, I turned to Colin and waved for him to approach, then turned back to the bartender. “We can pay you for your time,” I told the man as Colin settled in beside me, the driver still hanging back a few steps. I shot Colin a meaningful look. “Right, my darling?”

 

“Of course,” Colin said smoothly, pulling a coin purse out of his personal pocket of virtual space. He counted out a few large silver coins and stacked them on the bar. 

 

The bartender eyed the coins, then reached out and slid them off the bar and into his pocket. He nodded. 

 

I grinned and grabbed Colin’s hand. “I am your wife, and you are my husband,” I said, not willing to risk wasting time on flowery words. “Now, you say it,” I told him with a smile and a nod. “Only reversed.”

 

Colin looked into my eyes, his stare deep and soulful. “I am your husband,” he said. “And you are my wife.” And much to my surprise, he pulled a ring out of his personal pocket of virtual space and slipped it onto the ring finger of my left hand. 

 

It was gorgeous--a massive sapphire surrounded by a swath of smaller diamonds. I stared at the ring, my lips parted and my breath caught in my throat. We hadn’t discussed a ring. I raised my eyes to meet Colin’s, and then I grinned. It was done. We were wed.

 

I exhaled in relief, my shoulders relaxing as the tension seeped out of me. 

 

“Is that it?” Colin asked.

 

I smirked. “Well, almost,” I said, leaning in and raising my face to his. My lips brushed against his, and his arms curved around my back. He deepened the kiss, until my cheeks were flushed and my toes curled. 

 

“Oh my,” I said when he finally broke the kiss. I took a couple steadying deep breaths, then smiled broadly. “Should we celebrate our victory with a drink?”

 

Once again, Colin chuckled, and I thought it was quickly becoming one of my favorite sounds. “Why not?”

 

~~~

 

The door to the inn slammed open and everyone in the common room turned to look. Everyone, that was, except for me. Colin’s expression told me everything I needed to know. The Gardiners had arrived. 

 

I raised my wine glass to take another sip as the sound of their footsteps heralded their approach. We were well into our second bottle, and I was, for the first time in a long time, not remotely concerned about the current situation. Colin and I would deal with it tomorrow. Four more real-world days meant we had around sixty more days in-game to solve our little problem. And now that we were married, we were inseparable. Which--fingers crossed--meant we were untouchable. We wouldn’t vanish like the others. I hoped. 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner rounded the table and came into view. Mr. Gardiner’s expression was thunderous, Mrs. Gardiner’s wary. 

 

I raised my glass to them, grinning victoriously. “Aunt! Uncle!” I exclaimed. “Welcome!”

 

They glowered down at me. 

 

“I might have expected something like this from your younger sisters,” Mrs. Gardiner started, “but not from you, Elizabeth. I only pray that we are not too late.”

 

A small, gleeful laugh bubbled up from my chest, and I took another sip of wine. “Oh, but you are!” I told them. “You are much, much too late.” I held out my left hand so they could get a good look at the stunning ring. With that massive sapphire, it was impossible to miss. 

 

Colin pushed back his chair and stood, gesturing to me with one hand. “Might I present my wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy.”

 

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner stiffened, their expressions hard.

 

I stood as well, accepting his proffered hand, and curtsied to the imposters pretending to be my in-game relations. 

 

Colin looked at me, his lips curved into the faintest, sneakiest of smiles. “Now we shall never be parted again,” he said and raised his wine glass. 

 

I picked up my glass and clinked it against his, and we both drank. “Please,” I said, setting down my glass and sitting. I looked up at Mrs. Gardiner. “Join us. Help us celebrate this happy event.”

 

Colin also reclaimed his seat. 

 

“We shall not,” Mrs. Gardiner said stiffly. “We are weary from traveling such a long distance so unexpectedly and will retire to a room.” She reached into her embroidered drawstring purse and pulled out a couple of letters, tossing them onto the table. They landed near my wine glass. “These came for you after you left,” she said. And with a sniff, she turned and walked away, Mr. Gardiner following close behind her. 

 

I watched them go, then looked at Colin, my lips curving into a triumphant grin. “Well, I’d say that worked out beautifully.”

 

He agreed with a low, soft laugh. 

 

I reached for the letters and slid them closer on the table. I opened the thicker letter first, skimming over the first part, which was written word for word as Jane had written to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. But after the break in the letter, that all started to change.

 

Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of the most unexpected and serious nature; but I am afraid of alarming you--be assured that we are all well. What I have to say relates to poor Kitty.

 

“To Kitty?” I exclaimed quietly. I could feel Colin’s gaze on my face but couldn’t tear my eyes from the letter. From the words that were almost right, but implied that something was very, very wrong. 

 

Since you have been gone, Kitty has traveled to Brighton to stay with the Forsters.

 

I frowned and shook my head. “But what about Lydia?” I murmured. Lydia was the one who was supposed to go to Brighton and get into trouble there. 

 

An express came at twelve last night, just as we were all gone to bed, from Colonel Forster, to inform us that she was gone off to Scotland with one of his officers, to own the truth, with Wickham!--Imagine our surprise.

 

I stared at the letter, completely stunned. I skimmed the rest searching for other anomalies, but it read much as it should, only with Kitty in Lydia’s place of scandal. Cold dread washed over me, as I realized what this meant. 

 

“Lydia’s gone,” I said, setting down the letter with shaking hands and raising my eyes to meet Colin’s. “Written out of the story.” I swallowed, my saliva suddenly tacky, and cleared my throat. “Priya, Holden, Grace…and now Michelle. All that's left is you and me, Nel, and Allie. Four down, four to go.”

 

Colin was quiet, his stare thoughtful. I could practically see the gears turning in his head. 

 

I tore open the second letter. It was short, just a single line to the nearly two full pages Jane was supposed to have written according to the book. 

 

Lizzy--I'm frightened. Please come home.

 

Numbly, I handed the note to Colin. “Nel’s all alone,” I said, staring at the half-empty bottle of wine. “We have to leave.” I looked at Colin. “We have to leave now.”

 

~~~

 

(news story)

And now, for an update on the missing persons story that has held the world captive. It would appear that the VCIA--the branch of the CIA that polices and investigates online and virtual crimes--has been called in to assist the Redmond Police Department in the search for Priya Burman. Ms. Burman has been missing for over a week, but according to a spokesperson for the police, little headway has been made in the case. If you’re out there Ms. Burman, and if you’re watching, we’re all praying for your safe return.

Episode 6 will be available Friday, June 12. Voting in this episode's poll closes at midnight on June 4.

THIS EPISODE'S POLL:

Which player will vanish next?

  • Allie (Kitty)

  • Nel (Jane)

  • Colin (Mr. Darcy)

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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