ALLWORLD ONLINE: VIRTUAL MORTALITY

Episode 6

A Natural Defect

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Read Episode 5

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Previously on Allworld Online: (read episode 5 here)

Olivia and Nel discuss the logout issue and vow to stick together to prevent either one of them from vanishing like some of the other players. Their pact, however, is challenged when Olivia is faced with Elizabeth Bennett’s plotted trip to Derbyshire. Olivia manages to convince Mr. Bennett to allow Nel to come with her on the trip, but watches in horror as Mr. Bennett is replaced by an imposter right before her eyes, and Nel is forced to remain behind. Feeling doomed, Olivia leaves Longbourn with her in-game aunt and uncle (who have also been replaced by imposters), her only solace that she will soon be reunited with Colin--assuming he’s still in the game. Colin and Olivia do reunite and Pemberley, and they agree to a wild and wacky plan that just might ensure their safety by preventing the game and the imposters from separating them ever again--they run off to Gretna Green and get married.

(news story)

 

I’m here on the scene at the Rockville Softworks campus in Redmond, Washington, where anti-VR and human-first activists have gathered in protest in the wake of the disappearance of Priya Burman. The company, the world’s leading game developer, has issued a statement saying they are as concerned as everyone else about Ms. Burman’s disappearance and are working closely with the VCIA to find her. The protests started shortly after an anonymous source within Rockville Softworks leaked a recording of Priya voicing her concerns about the safety of the upcoming game world, Austentopia. Players and activists across the globe are crying foul play. 

 

As you can see behind me, thousands have gathered in the streets to voice their outrage in what they see as a pivotal moment in human history. The leader of the activist group Absolute Reality has issued a counter statement: Priya Burman is all of all of us. She is you, and she is me. If we let virtual reality take over our lives, we, too, will all disappear. Virtual mortality will be the fate of all of mankind.

 

~~~

 

I trudged up the inn stairs to the second floor, Colin and the Gigis trailing close behind me. We needed to be gone, in a carriage and on the road to start the long journey from Gretna Green to Longbourn, not heading up to a room at the inn to catch a few winks. Nel was in danger--she was alone--and there was no saying how much time she had left. But we also needed rest. That was the downside of hyper-realistic virtual reality. Thanks to the in-game time compression, to our minds, we had really been up for two days straight, and our virtual bodies, linked to our very real minds, needed sleep.

 

I made my way to the door at the end of the hallway and fit the key into the lock. The adrenaline rush from Nel’s letters had worn off, and that combined with all of the wine had left me thoroughly exhausted. I needed to sleep off my wedding day buzz and return to the game with a clear head. 

 

I pushed open the door and stepped into the room. And stopped dead. 

 

The room contained a single bed, along with a fireplace and an armchair beyond the foot of the bed, a pair of nightstands, and a small chest of drawers set against the wall on the far side of the room. One bed. I hadn’t thought this far ahead. One bed for two people. It didn’t take my wine-soaked brain long to do the math. 

 

We'd set our driver up with a room as well and sent him off to rest with the request that he have the carriage out in front of the inn and ready to go as soon as the sun was down. Between him and us, we’d let the last two rooms available, which meant Colin and I were stuck together until the innkeeper came up and knocked on our door at sunset, as requested. Logically, I knew it was safer for us to sleep in the same room, but...one bed.

 

Behind me, Colin slipped into the room and approached the armchair. He gripped the top of the chairback and faced me. “I'll take the chair, and--”

 

I scoffed and waved a hand dismissively, trying to play it cool when I felt anything but about the prospect of sharing a bed with Colin--even just to sleep in the virtual world. All of a sudden, my heartbeat was quick and erratic, and my whole body felt flushed.

 

“Don't be ridiculous,” I said, my focus sliding from Colin back to the bed. “You'll sleep better on the bed, and it's plenty big for both of us.” To illustrate my resolve on the issue, I strode to the side of the bed and sat on the edge, bending over to remove my boots. Once they were off, I scooted backward on top of the quilt and stiffly laid on my back, my head propped up on a pair of pillows and my hands folded together over my middle. 

 

Loki leaped onto the nightstand and took up his usual gargoyle pose on the far corner, facing the door. “Truly, it would be wise for you both to sleep,” he said, not looking at either of us. “You have a long journey ahead of you, and you'll need your wits about you if you're going to fix the issue.” The tip of his tail ticked, and his whiskers twitched. “Francine and I will stand watch.”

 

My lips curved into a small smile, and I propped myself up on my elbows and leaned across the nightstand to scratch Loki under his chin. “I knew you cared, you big softy.”

 

Loki stretched out his neck so I could scratch him in just the right spot and let out a low, rumbling purr.

 

Francine laid down in front of the door, and I could feel Colin’s keen stare on Loki and me. “Your Gigi's AI is remarkably well-developed,” Colin said as I grew increasingly uncomfortable. 

 

I pulled my hand away from Loki, much to the Gigi’s disappointment, and looked at Colin. I glanced at Loki once more--the bored black cat looking the same as ever--then returned my attention to Colin, my brows bunched together. “What do you mean?”

 

Loki definitely had his own personality--or cat-onality--but he didn't seem all that different from Francine or from Scarlet, Charlie's Gigi. They seemed just as unique and animated--and real--as my Gigi. 

 

Colin bent to take off his boots before responding. “Gigis start out very generic, their AI developing depth and complexity over time,” he said. “Surely you must have noticed that the other Gigis in our party rarely speak or interact with their players...or do much of anything at all.”

 

I frowned, thinking of Nel’s Gigi, who I’d taken to be the strong, silent type with all of his sitting and staring and not talking. Colin kind of had a point. 

 

Colin set his boots neatly on the floor beside the armchair, then shrugged out of his coat and draped it over the back of the chair. “As is standard practice in beta tests, each player was assigned a temp Gigi to accompany them through this game world,” he explained, then held up one finger to forestall any response from me. “Each player except for me.” He nodded to Francine. “With Priya's help, I was able to transport my permanent Gigi into the game world.” 

 

I narrowed my eyes and looked at Loki. “But Loki was with me when I first woke up in AO,” I said. “After the implant procedure, I mean.” Since I had never created my own AO account before, Loki was my first ever Gigi.

 

Standing at the foot of the bed, Colin crossed his arms over his chest, studying Loki. “Are you sure it wasn't merely another black cat Gigi? They’re fairly common for both starter accounts and generics...”

 

I snorted a laugh and shook my head. “Nope, it was definitely him,” I said. “There's no mistaking that sparkling personality.”

 

Loki looked at me and slow blinked, clearly unamused.

 

“Huh,” Colin said. “You must have somehow pulled your permanent Gigi into the game world.” He narrowed his eyes in thought. “I wonder if it has something to do with your neural anomaly.”

 

My eyebrows rose. “I’m sorry--my what?”

 

“The same structural difference in your brain that allows you to see through the illusions created within the game,” Colin said. He was quiet for a moment, then added, “Once we've found a way out of this situation, I would love to bring you in to the VCIA to meet my superiors. Someone with your particular talents could be very useful to our team.”

 

I blinked in surprise. “Did you just offer me a job?”

 

The corner of Colin’s mouth lifted in a half-smile. “Consider this your interview,” he said. “If we can figure a way out of this mess, you'll have more than earned yourself a place on my team.”

 

I blanched at the reminder of our dire situation, and I suddenly felt a little queasy. I looked to the window and chewed on the inside of my cheek, losing myself to worrying thoughts. 

 

Colin walked around to my side of the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. “I’m sorry, Olivia. I didn't think through how that would sound,” he said, his voice a low murmur. “Remember when I said I was bad with people?” When I looked at him, he raised his eyebrows. “Well, here's your proof.”

 

My chest shook with a silent, humorless laugh. 

 

Colin took my hand in his, his thumb rubbing a slow line back and forth across my knuckles. “We'll figure this out,” he promised, then gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “Now, scoot over.”

 

My eyes widened. “Excuse me?”

 

Colin pointed with his chin to the far side of the bed. “Scoot over,” he said, then glanced at the door. “If anyone comes in while we're asleep, I'd rather they encounter me first. You have minimal combat experience in the virtual world, and I’ve had more than my fair share.” He pressed his lips together. “Besides, it's my fault you're trapped in here. If I hadn't convinced you to reenter the game…”

 

I studied Colin’s face for a long moment, considering offering up some reassurance that I didn’t blame him--that it wasn’t his fault. Except, it was. So, I kept my mouth shut and scooted over, leaning forward to drag the skirt of my dress the rest of the way. I laid down as Colin stretched out on his back beside me. 

 

After a moment, I turned onto my side to face Colin. “Tell me the truth,” I said, “is this the worst situation you've ever been in?”

 

Colin folded one arm behind his head, propping himself higher on the pillows, and eyed me sidelong. “Trapped in a virtual version of Regency England with you?” he said. Once again, the corner of his mouth raised in a half-smile. “Not even close.” The skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled as his lips curved the rest of the way into a full, close-mouthed smile. “Now, this one time,” he started, “I was tracking the local cell of a virtual terrorist group in Tanzania, and…”

 

I listened as Colin regaled me with tale after harrowing tale of his adventures and misadventures in policing the ever-expanding virtual world. And eventually, I drifted off to sleep.

 

~~~


 

I fingered the letter in my pocket as the carriage sped along the uneven road, jiggling and jostling. A third letter from Nel had found its way to me shortly after our arrival at Pemberley. Allie was gone--her character, Kitty, had vanished from the story, just like the others. Now the only players left were Colin, Nel, and me. And Nel was all alone. 

 

Colin sat across from me in the carriage, so I knew he was all right. Loki lay curled up on my lap, his soft purr reminding me that he was there, that he had my back. Francine lay stretched out on the bench beside Colin, her head resting on his thigh. Remotely, I wondered what shape she took outside of this game, or if she and Colin preferred for her to take a canine form. And was he worried about Daisy, his real-life elderly dog?

 

I stared out the window, watching the midnight landscape pass me by as these and other, more concerning thoughts plagued my mind. This was our second night in a row spent in the carriage. The previous night, we drove from Gretna Green to Pemberley, arriving in the early afternoon to rest for a few hours before heading out again. We left Pemberley in the early hours of the evening with a fresh driver--one I ensured was a genuine NPC by way of a quick flash--and were on our way to Longbourn. I wrote to Nel from Gretna Green before we left--then wrote to her again from Pemberley--letting her know we were on our way, but with how quickly we were moving, it was just as likely that we would beat the letters there.

 

The ride to Longbourn seemed to take an eternity, but eventually, the carriage slowed and we pulled into the gravel driveway. The landscape was shrouded in a mist that gave the countryside an eerie feel in the pale dawn light. 

 

Heart lodged in my throat, I pushed the carriage door open and jumped out, my boots hitting the gravel drive with a crunch. I ran toward the front door and barged into the house. “Nel?” I called out, scanning the entryway, then moving on to the sitting room. “Nel!” I called out her name as I searched the entire ground floor of the house, but found no sign of her. 

 

I startled a servant when I barreled into the kitchen, lured in by the sound of movement within. She was young, blonde, and pretty, but she wasn’t Nel. The servant clutched her chest with one hand and held a cleaver raised to chop through a whole chicken with the other. 

 

I reached for the woman’s arm and gripped tightly. She stared at me, her eyes widened by shock, and I forced a flash to find out if she was a true NPC or an imposter. I blew out a breath in relief at seeing that she was exactly who she appeared to be.

 

“Where’s Nel?” I asked, releasing her arm.

 

The servant’s brow furrowed, and she shook her head. Of course, she would know Nel’s real name. She would know her as Jane.

 

“Jane,” I blurted. “Where's Jane--Jane Bennett?”

 

But, again, the servant shook her head. “I'm very sorry, miss, but there is no Jane Bennett.”

 

Her words were a blow, and I stumbled back a few steps until I hit a solid, warm body. Hands gripped my arms, steadying me, and I knew without looking that it was Colin. 

 

“We’re too late,” I wailed, turning to face him. My chin trembled, and tears welled in my eyes. I sucked in a shaky breath. “She--she's already gone!” For the past two days, reaching Nel in time had been my driving force, the only thing keeping me going. But we were too late. I’d failed her.

 

Colin pulled me close against him and wrapped his arms around me as I gave in to the tears. 

 

“Well, well, well…” The new voice was snide and shrill and all too recognizable. “If it isn’t my spoiled brat of a daughter.”

 

I stiffened as Mrs. Bennett entered the kitchen behind me. She must have come in through the door to the garden.

 

“First,” Mrs. Bennett went on, “I receive the most troubling letter from my own brother, Mr. Gardiner, and now, I am to find my eldest daughter locked in lewd embrace in my own home. What are the neighbors to think of us? No man will marry you now, Lizzy, and you will be ruined!” Her voice rose as she spoke, until she was practically shrieking. “Mr. Bennett! Lizzy has returned, and she has brought with her that horrid man!”

 

I pulled away from Colin and took a step back, turning to face the thing pretending to be my in-game mother. At some point during Mrs. Bennett’s tirade, the servant had scurried off, leaving the three of us alone in the kitchen. 

 

My cheeks were still wet with tears, but I grinned victoriously nonetheless. “But don't you see, Mama?” I extended my left hand toward her, palm down, so she could get a good look at the massive sapphire adorning my ring finger. “It doesn't matter if no other man will have me, because I'm already married.” I exchanged a look with Colin, who nodded once. “To Mr. Darcy.”

 

Mrs. Bennett gasped and steadied herself with a hand on the counter. 

 

I took a step toward her. “And now you have no power over me,” I told her. “I can say and do whatever I please, and I shall remain by Mr. Darcy’s side every second of every day, because he is my husband, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

 

Fear flashed across Mrs. Bennett’s face. Looked like I was right. They did need to get us alone to abduct us--or to do whatever it was they did to players that disappeared.

 

I took another step toward Mrs. Bennett. 

 

She turned to flee back out the open door to the outside, but Loki leaped into her path, his back arched and his tail puffed out. He hissed, inching closer to Mrs. Bennett.

 

“Where's Nel?” I asked. Demanded.

 

Mrs. Bennett tore her stare from my Gigi to look at me, her eyes alight with panic. “Nel?” she said, shaking her head.

 

Losing my patience, I forced a flash and held it in place, so I was no longer staring at Mrs. Bennett, but at the strange, inhuman woman pretending to be her. “Jane!” I yelled, grabbing the cleaver from the butcher block and raising it, threatening the cowering imposter. “Where is Jane? And don't tell me you don't know who I'm talking about, because I know you do.”

 

The imposter froze, and then she straightened, shedding her fearful act like a molting snake. She stared at me, a challenge gleaming in her luminous eyes. 

 

“Where is she?” I repeated.

 

The imposter grinned, and the click of a pistol hammer a short ways behind me made my heart stutter. I lost my grip on the flash and once again faced down plump Mrs. Bennett. I stepped back and turned partway to see Mr. Bennett standing in the doorway to the rest of the house, a pistol in his hand, aimed at my chest. 

 

For a long moment, the four of us just stood there, locked in this strange tableau, staring at one another. Coming to grips with the new situation. And in my case, trying not to freak out. 

 

Without warning, Francine lunged at Mr. Bennett, sinking her teeth into his knee, and Colin acted fast, tackling Mr. Bennett into the wall. For long seconds, both men gripped the pistol, the gun waving around this way and that, forcing Mrs. Bennett and me to bob up and around to avoid its trajectory, should it go off.

 

But finally, Colin yanked the pistol from Mr. Bennett’s grasp, and shoved the older man into the kitchen island. Mr. Bennett toppled over the island, sending the half-butchered chicken flying.

 

Taking advantage of the distraction, I gripped the cleaver with both hands and swung it like a baseball bat at Mrs. Bennett’s head. I wacked the thing pretending to be my in-game mother in the side of the head with the flat of the blade. She dropped to her knees, momentarily stunned. 

 

The cleaver slipped from my hands. I knew Mrs. Bennett wasn’t real--she wasn’t even an NPC, a string of code. She was something else. Something evil. But it still felt like I’d just whollopped a middle-aged woman upside the head with a meat cleaver. 

 

Colin grabbed my wrist before I could dive too deep into the pit of what-have-I-done and pulled me toward the door to the garden. We fled from the house, Loki and Francine close on our heels, the imposter Bennetts still struggling to regain their bearings in the kitchen. When we reached the carriage at the front of the house, Colin yanked the door open and pushed me up the steps, then dove in himself. 

 

“Drive!” Colin shouted, yanking the door shut.

 

I collapsed backward onto the forward-facing bench, slumping into the corner as I gripped the edge of the seat with one hand and splayed the fingers of my other hand against the wall. My breaths came in quick, heavy pants, and I stared at the far wall, not really seeing it. 

 

Colin perched on the edge of the bench, hunching down to watch out the window as the carriage rattled along, the stolen pistol resting across his thigh. “They’re just coming out of the house now,” he murmured. “Looks like you gave Mrs. Bennett a good cracking…”

 

“I’m sorry,” I blurted, gasping for breath. “I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have said that!” I shook my head, silently repeating the words I’d shouted at Mrs. Bennett. 

 

Where is Jane? And don't tell me you don't know who I'm talking about, because I know you do.

 

I’d shown my hand. “Now they know,” I said. “They know that I know.”

 

Colin scooted backward on the bench and angled his knees toward me. 

 

I continued to stare at the far wall, lungs working too fast, unable to catch my breath. “We're never getting out of here, are we?” My breaths came ever faster, my panic spiraling higher and higher. “We're going to die in here--or out there. We're going to get stuck in here and never be able to return to our bodies, and our bodies are going to die, and this is going to be it. My family...my brother...this will kill him. He'll--he'll--”

 

“Olivia,” Colin said, his voice hard and urgent. He grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Olivia, look at me.”

 

It took everything in me to comply, and ever so slowly, I turned my head to look at him. My breaths were too quick, too shallow, and black spots danced around the edges of my vision.

 

“You're hyperventilating,” Colin said, his voice calm but firm. “You're going to pass out.” He reached his arm behind me, sliding it between my back and the carriage wall, and pushed me away from the wall. “I need you to lean forward,” he said, applying more pressure on my back, just below my shoulder blades. “We don’t have a paper bag handy, so I'm going to use your skirt instead. I’m going to lift the fabric and drape it over your head to increase your CO2 intake.”

 

I could barely process his words with the way the black spots were closing in. As Colin increased the pressure on my back, I recalled that he had told me to lean forward. So, that’s what I did. I felt him lift the fabric of my skirt and petticoat and drape both over my head, and the world darkened. But, thankfully, not because I’d passed out. 

 

My breathing gradually slowed as he rubbed my back. After some time, the panic abated, and my mind was increasingly occupied by thoughts of how ridiculous I must look with my skirt flipped up over my head. I sat up, pushing the skirt off of my head and settling it back over my legs, and rested my elbows on my thighs, breathing in the fresher air. 

 

“Thanks,” I said, glancing at Colin and smiling sheepishly. “I guess I kind of lost it for a minute there.” I sat up straighter and raised my hands, attempting to smooth down my hair. “I used to have panic attacks when I was a teenager, but it hasn't happened in…” I shook my head and laughed under my breath. “God, at least a decade, maybe longer. I didn't know that kind of thing could happen in here.”

 

“Hyper-realistic virtual reality is filled with a myriad of wonders,” Colin said dryly, “along with a few terrible downsides.”

 

“You don’t say,” I muttered.

 

Colin curled his arm around my shoulders and pulled me against the side of his body. He pressed his cheek against the top of my head, and I sniffled. “We'll find a way out, Olivia,” he said. “I swear it.”

 

“I may have an idea,” Loki said from the opposite bench. “Have you considered dying?”

 

I looked at the black cat Gigi, my eyes bulging. “I’m sorry--what?”

 

“What do you mean?” Colin asked.

 

“I have considered all of your options,” Loki said, “and assuming the logout function is permanently disabled, I believe that death may be your only way to eject your consciousness from the prison of this game world.”

 

I blinked, then looked at Colin, whose expression displayed dawning understanding. “I don’t understand,” I said, looking from Colin to Loki and back, hoping one of them would fill me in, sooner rather than later.

 

Colin's arm slipped from my shoulders, and his lips spread into a slow smile. “Cat, you’re a genius.” 

 

“Can someone please explain this to me?” I urged.

 

Colin turned his attention to me, his grin still in place and his eyes alight with excitement. “I can't believe I didn't think of it sooner,” he said, shaking his head slowly. “The death boot. It's built into AO--the entire system, not the individual game worlds--so it can't be overridden by what's going on in any single game.” 

 

Now I was shaking my head. “I still don’t get it,” I said. “Explain it to me like I’m an idiot.”

 

Colin cleared his throat and licked his lips, gesticulating as he explained further. “When you die in AO, you get kicked out of whatever game you're currently logged into and sent back to your log in point--it's called the 'death boot'. It's a safety measure to prevent the mind from sustaining trauma--to prevent VR PTSD.”

 

“Oh,” I said, nodding as I started to understand. I recalled Charlie mentioning something like that while we’d been watching a Harry Potter game. 

 

Colin glanced down at the pistol resting on his lap. It didn’t take a genius to guess the direction of his thoughts--the gun was our ticket out of here. “These old pistols only hold a single shot,” he said. “I'll take you out, and then I'll find a way to trigger the death boot for myself. There's bound to be a sword I can fall on or a cliff I can jump off…”

 

Unblinking, I stared at the pistol, my heart sinking into my stomach. He was talking about shooting me. Shooting me dead. In a game where the pain settings were hyper-realistic. I gulped.

 

“As soon as you're out of the game,” Colin continued, either unaware of or ignoring my extreme discomfort with this solution, “get to the gatescape and logout of AO. Find Fiona Ó Faoláin--she's the lead developer of Allworld Online. Since Priya's disappearance, I've been meeting with Fiona during logouts to work on the problem. Tell her what's happened. Tell her everything. You can trust her.” Colin paused, studying my face, his eyes searching mine. “I know this is a lot, Olivia,” he said. “Nod to let me know you understand.”

 

Remotely, robotically, I nodded.

 

“Good,” Colin said. Scooting back, he raised the pistol, aiming point blank at my forehead. 

 

My heart lodged in my throat, and I squeezed my eyes shut. 

 

But before Colin could pull the trigger, the carriage skidded to a halt. My eyes flew open as Colin was knocked off his seat. He rammed into the front edge of the opposite bench and cursed.

 

I peeked out the window on my side of the carriage to see another carriage blocking the way ahead. And if I wasn’t mistaken, it was the Gardiner’s carriage. I should know; I’d spent nearly two weeks traveling in it with them. And then I spotted Mr. and Mrs. Bennet charging toward my door from the back of the carriage. 

 

I barely had time to scoot away from the door before it was yanked open and Mr. Bennett reached in, grabbing my ankle and pulling me down to the floor. He dragged me out of the carriage before Colin could get a good grip on my arms. I clawed at the steps and kicked out at Mr. Bennett, but my struggles didn’t do any good. Soon enough, I was flailing on my back on the road, one of my ankles locked in Mr. Bennett’s iron grip.

 

Loki launched himself out of the carriage and at Mr. Bennett, landing on the imposter’s shoulder, but Mrs. Bennett tore the Gigi off and threw him yowling into the bushes. 

 

Colin stumbled out of the carriage, pistol in hand and Francine growling at his heels. He aimed the gun at Mr. Bennett. “Let her go,” he ordered. “Now!”

 

Mr. Bennett grinned maniacally and twisted my ankle painfully. “I think not.”

 

I yelped, renewing my struggles, if only to stop the pain.

 

Colin clenched his jaw, his nostrils flaring. “Calm down, Oliva,” he said, not taking his eyes off Mr. Bennett. “It's going to be all right. Just calm down.”

 

Understanding his true meaning--he only had one shot, and there was no room for error--I stopped struggling and went very, very still. Colin glanced down at me, his eyes locking with mine, and I nodded once. 

 

In a flash, Colin shifted the pistol, lowering it to aim at my head. “Run!” he said a fraction of a second before he pulled the trigger. 

 

There was a deafening bang, and then the world went white.

 

~~~

 

For a few seconds, that blinding white was everything. There was no sound, no feeling--no other senses at all--just me, floating in the ocean of white. But the white slowly faded, and as it did, my other senses returned. 

 

I found myself standing in the Austentopia alcove in the romance section of the great library that was the Biblioverse. The soft, regency era music teased my ears, mixing with the crackling of the logs burning in the fireplace. I looked around, taking in the armchair, the books lined up on the mantle, the ring of bookcases surrounding the lush, park-like green beyond the alcove, disoriented by the sudden shift in circumstance. It was so peaceful here. So calm and so normal.

 

I’d been lying on the road in Pride and Prejudice and Colin had shot me in the head--though I hadn’t felt it, thankfully--and now I was here. I glanced down at myself. I was still wearing the periwinkle dress from Pride and Prejudice. 

 

Something tickled the edge of my mind. Some sense of urgency. I was supposed to be doing something, but I was so lost to the surreality of the change in my situation that I couldn’t think of what.

 

Loki jumped onto the seat of the armchair, then leapt higher to the top of the chairback and sat, curling his tail around his feet. “Might I suggest running?” he said, the tip of his tail twitching. 

 

I looked at the cat, and a spark of remembered panic ignited my memory of my final moments in the game. Colin had said something just before he’d pulled the trigger: run.

 

Heart suddenly racing, I turned away from the fireplace, my muscles tensing to run. Two of those strange, not-quite-human women appeared just out of arm’s reach, standing between me and the rest of the library. 

 

I didn’t hesitate. My body was already committed. I charged the pair, ramming through them and sprinting between a couple of bookcases to the idyllic green in the center of the romance section. I pumped my arms and sucked in lungfuls of air, urging my legs to move faster even as I focused on not tripping over my skirt. I could hear the women close behind me--the thud of their boots hitting the grass and the rasp of their harsh breaths. The sounds only made me dig deeper, push harder, run faster. 

 

Moments after passing the fountain at the center of the green, I heard a shout and a splash. I glanced over my shoulder to see one of the women struggling to climb out of the water while Loki bounded off the rim of the fountain, chasing after me and my remaining pursuer. That glance cost me precious ground, and I returned my attention to the way ahead.

 

When I reached the far side of the green, I paused to push over one of the bookcases on the woman chasing me. She managed to backtrack just in time, avoiding the avalanche of books, and we both watched as the toppling bookcase slammed into the one next to it, pushing that one over, as well, and then the next, and then the next. The domino effect continued on around the ring of bookcases surrounding the green.

 

Loki leapt over the barrier, and I looked beyond him to see the woman who had taken a dip in the fountain racing toward us. My nearer pursuer started the awkward climb over the fallen bookcases, and I spun on my heel, heading straight for the doorway to the main part of the Biblioverse. 

 

The atrium was as crowded as ever, filled with players coming and going through the portal to the gatescape at the far side of the atrium to visit this or that section of the library. I weaved around players and Gigis alike, tossing back apologies any time I bumped into anyone. 

 

Shouts of outrage erupted behind me, and I didn’t need to look back to know that my pursuers had made it out of the romance section. Chaos spread throughout the atrium as the women chasing me shoved players out of their way, zero regard for the rules of the world.

 

“What the hell?” one player yelled.

 

“Hey, lady!” another shouted. “This is a non-combat zone!”

 

A quick glance over my shoulder told me the women were gaining on me. “Help!” I cried out as I continued to weave my way through the crowd. “Help me! Please!”

 

A deafening roar sounded behind me, followed by a burst of heat. Someone screamed. 

 

I turned around, continuing my movement backward, and faced an enormous golden dragon Gigi staring down a flaming, flailing pillar, black smoke drifting up from its nostrils. My steps faltered, then stopped completely as I realized that the flaming pillar was one of my pursuers. I stared, breathing hard, my mouth hanging open. 

 

A shout nearby drew my attention, and I spotted my other pursuer tossing a roly-poly Pokemaon Gigi at a player to get them both out of her way. She paused, her eyes locking with mine, her lips twisting into a wicked sneer. Violence shone in her stare, and she took a step toward me. 

 

Hammering hooves sounded from my left, and I glanced that way to see a gleaming silver unicorn charging toward the woman. She dove out of the way at the very last moment, barely avoiding being impaled. 

 

Seeing my chance for escape, I spun on my heel and shouted my thanks over my shoulder as I sprinted for the portal to the gatescape. The crowd of players parted ahead of me, letting me through. Some even cheered me on as I passed. 

 

Finally, I reached the portal and dove through. I stumbled down the stairs on the far side of the portal, and soon enough, the rocky ground of the gatescape crunched under my feet. I stopped and bent over, hands planted on my knees, and attempted to catch my breath. Loki wound around and between my ankles, his presence both protective and comforting.

 

“Loki,” I said, between gasping breaths, “Log me out.”

 

A hand grabbed my arm, and I looked up into the face of my remaining pursuer. She grinned, but she was too late. 

 

A bright, white light consumed the world, and the woman, Loki, and the entire gatescape faded away. 

 

~~~

 

I gasped awake and sat up, then coughed, choking. Machines beeped all around me, and something was lodged in my nose and tickled my throat. I raised my hands, feeling my face as people rushed to me, crowding in around me. Finding a tube coming out of my nose, I gripped it and pulled, gagging as it came free. 

 

Suddenly, hands were on me, holding me down. I fought to sit back up, but I was weak, no match for the hands. For the people surrounding me. Tubes and cords seemed to be attached to every part of my body, tangling with my flailing limbs.

 

A woman in green scrubs leaned over me, dark skin and close-cropped black hair, her face vaguely familiar. It took my panicked brain a moment, but I finally recognized her as the doctor who had met with my gaming party during orientation, though I could not, for the life of me, remember her name.

 

“Calm down, Olivia,” she said, her warm brown eyes exuding calm and confidence. “Calm down,” she repeated. “You're safe now. I’m Dr. Morgan, and I’ll be overseeing your transition back to reality.”

 

My heartbeat thundered, and my head pounded. I felt like my skull was about to crack open. I strained against the hands holding me down. I just wanted to sit up. To clear my head. To take a minute to just breathe and figure out what was going on. But I couldn’t with all of these people around me, keeping me down.

 

“Be calm, Olivia,” Dr. Morgan repeated, her face a mask of reassurance. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

 

I watched, panic rising, as a youngish man injected something into the IV line feeding into my arm, and almost instantaneously, a sense of calm slowly spread throughout my body.

 

“We've given you a mild sedative--just something to help you relax while you adjust to the sudden change in realities.” Dr. Morgan glanced over her shoulder, then returned her attention to me. “There’s someone here who would like to speak with you. I’ll be close by. If you need anything--anything at all--you only need to ask for me.” She smiled kindly. “Do you remember my name?”

 

I swallowed, my saliva feeling like glue. “Dr.--” My voice was raspy and barely audible. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Dr. Morgan,” I said. Then added, “Could I have some water, please?”

 

Again, she smiled, then nodded. “Of course. I’ll be right back with that.” 

 

Dr. Morgan stepped away, and a petite woman with porcelain skin and highlighter pink hair took her place. She peered down at me, her expression serious. “Welcome back, Olivia,” she said, a musical Irish lilt accenting her words. “My name is Fiona, and I'm here to help you and your fellow players. Now please, tell me--what happened in the game?”

 

~~~


(news story)

 

More excitement from the virtual world today as players within the Biblioverse--the literary quarter of Allworld Online--reported unforeseen violence and mayhem within the strictly combat-free zone of the Atrium. Players across the globe have been posting videos captured from their live streams of a female player fleeing from two hostile pursuers. The fleeing player has been identified as Olivia Crawford, one of the beta players for Rockville's upcoming Jane Austen-inspired game world, Austentopia. This is the same game world in which the still-missing developer, Priya Burman, was involved, and has recently drawn the eye of the VCIA. Rockville Softworks has yet to issue a statement on the incident, though social media is aflame with conspiracy theories, and the protestors filling the street in front of Rockville Softworks have already incorporated this incident into their narrative. We'll keep you posted as the story develops.

Episode 7 will be available Friday, June 26. Voting in this episode's poll closes at midnight on June 18.

THIS EPISODE'S POLL:

Which of these major events happens in Episode 7?

  • William St. George is caught and charged with Priya's disappearance and is tied to the game malfunctions

  • Priya is found (alive)

  • Priya is found (dead)

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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