ALLWORLD ONLINE: VIRTUAL MORTALITY

Episode 7

A Certain Step

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Read Episode 6

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Previously on Allworld Online: (read episode 6 here)

Olivia and Colin rush back to Longbourn to ensure Nel’s safety, but by the time they arrive, she has vanished. Olivia confronts Mrs. Bennett, letting it slip that she is aware of what’s going on in the game--and that she knows Mrs. Bennett isn’t who she seems. But before Olivia can wring the truth out of Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Bennett crashes the party...and he’s armed. Colin and Mr. Bennett grapple, with Colin eventually wresting control of the pistol. Olivia and Colin flee back to their carriage, where Loki suggests a shocking way out of the game--death, virtual, not actual. But before Olivia and Colin can carry out the morbid plan, their carriage is overtaken. Colin ejects Olivia from the game with a well-placed bullet, and Olivia is chased through the Biblioverse, barely escaping to the gatescape, where she logs out of the game. 

 

William St. George entered the grand library and headed for the armchair in front of the fireplace, but his confidence faltered when he noticed that the chair was empty. He stiffened, annoyed. Here, she had summoned him right when he was in the middle of navigating a shitstorm of epic proportions back in the real world, but she didn’t even have the decency to be here when he arrived.

 

“You made it.”

 

Will nearly jumped out of his skin and spun around, one hand clutching his chest. 

 

His mistress stood closer than was comfortable, just out of arm’s reach. She had shucked the oversized gowns this world demanded she wear for the tight-fitting armored bodysuit favored by her kind, and she held a golden staff topped with a fist-sized crystal glowing diamond-white. Her hair was no longer curled and coiffed, but pulled back into a sleek bun. She assessed him with hard eyes. 

 

Will took a step back, moving closer to the fireplace to put some much-needed distance between them. When she had been adorned in the frills and endless layers of fabric that befit a woman of her assumed identity’s station during this time period, it had been easier for Will to overlook the danger she posed. To forget just how cutthroat and vicious she could be. To forget her propensity for violence. 

 

She smiled, appreciating Will’s response to her change of attire. “There is no longer any need for pretense,” she said, glancing down the length of her body. Her eyes locked with Will’s. “Not now that my avatar has escaped.” Her stare turned hawkish, predatory.

 

Will took another backward step and gulped. His heart beat a quick staccato in his chest. His gut told him he should not have come. Out in the real world, everything he had worked so hard for for so long was crumbling all around him, but he could have walked away. He didn’t need this--the power she offered him was an illusion. He could see that now. Once she was free, he would be her puppet in reality, just as he was in the virtual world. 

 

“Thankfully, there is another who will do,” she said, tilting her head to the side as she scanned the length of Will’s body. Her eyes narrowed, and the corner of her mouth lifted. “You know, I have always wondered what it would be like to be a man…”

 

Four of her minions slipped into the library, stalking closer. 

 

She took a step toward him and raised her hand, reaching out. She was going to take him--his body. She was going to steal his life.

 

Panic gripped Will’s heart, and he shoved his hand into his pocket, slipping the ring stored within onto his finger. He saw rage warp her features a fraction of a second before a flash of white engulfed the world, and he vanished from the game.

 

~~~

 

I glanced at the clock on the wall of the spartan private office. Fiona had escorted me in here as soon as Dr. Morgan gave me the initial medical all-clear. I wasn’t out of the woods--mentally, physically, emotionally, everything-ly--but I wasn’t about to keel over, which apparently was good enough for Dr. Morgan. And if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me.

 

A large screen built into the wall to look like a window projected a hyper-realistic live-streamed video of a view of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains beyond, giving the impression that the office was located on the top levels of a high rise in downtown Seattle rather than in the underground facility beneath Rockville Softworks’ campus across the lake from the Emerald City.

 

Fiona sat behind the barren desk, elbows on the desk and fingers steepled together as she studied me, processing all I had just shared with her. Which was pretty much everything, as Colin had suggested. I really hoped he was right about me being able to trust her. The cat was out of the bag now, and there was no stuffing it back in. 

 

I had just finished recapping my experience in the game, from the very first flash--revealing Nel's true identity--to my abrupt, violent exit. We'd been in here for at least an hour, and I was growing increasingly anxious. Colin was still trapped in the game.

 

As I stared at the clock, I uncrossed my legs, then crossed them again and immediately started shaking my foot. My nerves were out of control. “Can you check again?” I asked Fiona, my focus shifting back to her. “He should have been out by now.”

 

Fiona’s lips curved into an understanding smile, her eyes softening, and she sat back in her chair. “I promise you,” she said, “they'll alert me as soon as he wakes.”

 

I chewed on the inside of my cheek, my brows bunching together. “You don't seem surprised by anything I told you.”

 

“On the contrary…” One of Fiona’s eyebrows rose infinitesimally. “I find your experience extremely surprising and, honestly, quite refreshing.”

 

I frowned, confused by Fiona’s words. No matter how you spun it, I couldn’t see how my experience in Pride and Prejudice could be viewed as refreshing. Disturbing, yeah. Horrifying, sure. Really effing messed up, you bet. But refreshing? Not so much.

 

“However,” Fiona started, “I do have a slightly better understanding of what's going on in the game than you do.” My confusion must have shown loud and clear on my face, because Fiona continued with a more thorough explanation. “Having had access to all of the player's live feeds, as well as the readings from their EEGs, giving me a picture of what's going on in their brains and monitoring the slow transition from normal to abnormal brain activity.”

 

“Wait, what?” I straightened in my chair. “What's happening to our brains?”

 

“Not yours,” Fiona said, easing my initial burst of panic. “Yours brain is fine--you got out in time. And Colin's hasn't showed any hints of the transition yet.” She pressed her lips together, inhaling and exhaling through her nose. “But, if he remains in there much longer, it's only a matter of time.”

 

Worry for Colin--and for Nel and all of the players still trapped in the game--twisted my stomach in knots. I swallowed down a surge of bile. 

 

Fiona placed her hands on the desk and stood, pushing her chair back with the sudden motion. “Let’s take a walk,” she said as she made her way around the desk. “I want to show you something.”

 

She headed for the door, and I stood to follow. Fiona opened the door, holding it for me to pass through ahead of her, then joined me in the hallway, pulling the door shut behind her. 

 

“It's just this way,” she said, starting down the hallway that led back toward the party rooms where unconscious players lounged in recliners, their live in-game feeds and vitals monitored by VR techs. 

 

A small group of people stepped into our path from a crossing hallway, forcing us to pause. Two uniformed police officers lead the way, escorting a handcuffed man toward the elevators at the end of the hallway. That man was none other than William St. George.

 

My mouth fell open.

 

A man and a woman dressed in black suits followed close behind them. Their men-in-black appearance made me certain they were federal agents, probably with the VCIA. I couldn’t help but wonder if Colin was actually a suit guy, and picturing the juxtaposition of a tailored suit on top of all of that inked skin and brooding attitude made me really hope he was. 

 

Will struggled against his restraints, forcing the officer holding his arm to keep a tight grip. “It's a set up!” he said, though there was a note of defeat to his tone, as though he’d been going on like this for a while. “I didn't do it! I didn't do it! Someone is setting me up!”

 

When he spotted us, his struggles grew more enthusiastic and his voice raised. “You know me, Fiona,” he said, attempting to turn toward us, making the officer drag him sideways. “Tell them--you have to tell them. I know Priya and I had our differences, but I would never--”

 

“That’s enough, Mr. St. George.” The officer holding Will’s arm yanked it up behind him, making him yelp in pain and forcing him back into compliance. “Remember that anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” 

 

The other officer nodded to us as he passed, and it was glaringly obvious that they didn’t want the specifics of Will’s arrest to get out just yet.

 

The female VCIA agent stopped and faced Fiona as the rest of the group continued onward. “Ms. Ó Faoláin, I trust we can count on your discretion.” Her eyebrows rose as she finished.

 

“Absolutely,” Fiona said. “Mum’s the word.”

 

The agent nodded once, then turned her attention to me. 

 

My heart was suddenly lodged in my throat, and I hurriedly shook my head. “I didn't see anything,” I practically blurted.

 

The agent stared at me for a moment, then nodded once more and turned to follow the others. 

 

I watched the shocking procession move further down the hallway, then turned to Fiona. Her lips were twisted into the faintest of smirks, making me think she knew something about what we’d just seen. 

 

“What was that all about?” I asked her.

 

Fiona raised her eyebrows, her eyes widening and her face becoming a mask of innocence. She shook her head. “Couldn't tell you.”

 

I had the distinct impression that it was less that she couldn't tell me and more that she wouldn't.

 

“You know, I never liked that guy.” Fiona’s attention drifted up the hallway, her eyes narrowing on Will’s back. “Underneath all that charm and polish, there's just something off about him.”

 

I nodded, my gaze following hers. I recalled the way he’d all but forced me into the beta player position. I mean, he’d showed up at my parents’ house. My parents’ house. Who does that? “I know what you mean,” I murmured. 

 

Fiona touched my elbow, and I looked at her. “Come on,” she said. “It's just up ahead.”

 

We crossed the intersecting hallway and continued on toward the party rooms. Fiona showed me into one of the viewing rooms attached to a party room. I’d never been in one, though it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was on the other side of the mirror that took up almost an entire wall in the party room. It was filled with two rows of control panels, eight chairs tucked under the individual workstations, making it look like a miniaturized NASA control room. 

 

The party room beyond the two-way mirror was exactly like the one I had spent so much time unconscious in over the past few weeks, save for one difference: this party room had just one occupant, and he wasn’t reclining in one of the playing chairs. He stood on the other side of the glass, staring into the mirrored side, almost like he could see us through it. 

 

I rushed closer to the viewing window. “That's Holden!” My heart soared at seeing the man who had been playing Charles Bingley in the game. “And he's awake!”

 

I stopped in front of the glass, studying what I could see of him. He wore gray sweatpants and a white T-shirt, just as he’d been wearing the last time I’d seen him awake outside of the game. And yet, he seemed different, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had changed. His round face looked to have lost some of its plumpness, and his skin hung a little too loosely on his fluffy frame, almost like someone had stuck him with a pin and he was in the process of deflating. And there was a hardness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. It was almost a sense of challenge. Of aggression. Of violence.

 

For a single heartbeat, I could’ve sworn I saw the face of the one of the not-quite-human imposter women from the game superimposed over Holden’s once jovial visage. I sucked in a breath and backed up a step, one hand clutching my neck, the other gripping the fabric of my shirt. But the vision was gone almost as soon as it appeared, and I was left feeling confused and disoriented.

 

Obviously I'd been imagining the flash. I'd spent far too long in the game, and it was bound to have some lingering effects. I was hardly surprised to find that my mind was having a hard time distinguishing the virtual world from actual reality.

 

I licked my lips and moved closer to the viewing window once more. Narrowing my eyes, I tilted my head to the side, searching his hard stare. “What’s wrong with him?”

 

Fiona came to stand beside me. “What makes you think something's wrong with him?”

 

I looked at her sidelong, surprised by her question. “I just assumed…” I frowned, my words stumbling as my mind tried to make sense of the situation. “I mean, you're keeping him in there all alone. Isn't that why you wanted me to see him--to show me what the game does to the people it takes? How it changes them?”

 

Fiona stared at me for a long moment, almost like she was assessing me. “How do you think it has changed Holden?” she finally asked.

 

Brow furrowing, I turned my attention back to the viewing window and the man beyond. I drew my bottom lip in between my teeth as I studied Holden, keenly aware of Fiona studying me. Though the man on the other side of the glass looked like Holden, my gut told me it wasn’t really him. Not anymore. It was like someone else had emerged from the game and taken over Holden’s body. Maybe it was just the weird residual flash making me feel that way, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Holden was gone.

 

“This is going to sound crazy,” I said, not looking away, “but it's almost like he's possessed.” I couldn’t help but wonder if I really was staring at one of the not-quite-human women from the game.

 

Fiona crossed her arms over her chest, the movement drawing my attention back to her. The corners of her mouth were turned down in a frown, and her eyes were narrowed in thought as she continued to study me just as closely as I had been studying Holden. For a long time, she said nothing, and I grew more and more uncomfortable with each passing second. 

 

But finally her focus shifted to Holden. “Possessed is a fairly accurate word for what has happened to Holden,” she said, her words slow and careful, giving me the impression that each was carefully chosen. “You see, for the better part of a year, William St. George has been secretly working with a sentient and self-aware virtual entity, plotting a way for the entity and her minions to leave the virtual realm and inhabit the real world. We have discovered encoded messages from Will to the entity describing the process of selecting and ensnaring the potential hosts, people whose general neural structures are compatible with the beings who wish to possess their bodies.”

 

I stared at the side of Fiona’s face, not quite believing what she was telling me. 

 

“Priya was the first to notice the entity interfering with the game's AI controller,” Fiona continued, “though she mistakenly assumed the entity was the AI controller when, in reality, the AI controller assigned to Pride and Prejudice had been hobbled and enslaved by the entity almost as soon as it was created. It would seem that Will and the entity planned their infiltration of the game before it was even coded. But when the entity and her minions abducted Priya within the game and began the consciousness overwriting process, something went terribly wrong. Priya was a mismatch for the minion assigned to possess her, and during the attempted overwriting process, the minion was destroyed.”

 

My eyes widened in alarm. “And Priya? Is she OK?”

 

Fiona glanced at me out of the corner of her eye, then returned her attention to Holden. “We know all of this,” she said, “because of the encoded messages we found between Will and the entity in charge of the operation. Which means we only know what they discussed in these messages.”

 

I pressed my lips together, not at all pleased with the answer. 

 

“According to your player feed,” Fiona went on, “Priya was the first player to be taken within the game, and Holden was next.”

 

I nodded. That was how it had happened, so far as I knew.

 

Fiona crossed her arms over her chest. “As you can see, Holden has emerged from the game a changed man. In fact…” Fiona faced me, raising her eyebrows. “According to the game, he has not emerged at all. He is still logged in.”

 

My lips parted, and it took me a moment to fully comprehend what she was saying. “You mean, he's still alive?”

 

Fiona nodded slowly. “It would seem that Holden’s consciousness is being held prisoner within the game.”

 

“Well,” I said, drawing out the word as I arranged my thoughts into a coherent order, “what would happen if his implant was hooked back up to AO and his consciousness was somehow freed?”

 

Fiona shrugged and shook her head. “Only one way to find out.”

 

“And the others?” I asked. “Are they all still in the game? I mean, nobody else has woken up, have they?”

 

Fiona shook her head again. “We've been monitoring the overwriting process,” she told me. “Grace is getting close. We think she'll wake up within the next twenty-four hours.”

 

I licked my lips, my heartrate picking up, making my breaths come more quickly. “Well, you have to stop it. Stop them--whatever they are.”

 

“That's the plan,” Fiona said, then paused, her gaze drifting back to Holden. “I'll be heading into the game on a rescue mission.” Her eyes locked with mine. “And I want you to come with me.”

 

~~~

 

“No way in Hell.” That had been my initial response to Fiona’s request, and I had meant it.

 

But then Colin was captured, and his player feed went dark. All I could think about was how he had used that lone bullet on me, when he could just have easily have used it to escape the game himself. He had sacrificed himself to get me out, and I couldn’t just sit here, letting fear paralyze me while he experienced all manner of unknown horrors. While he was overwritten. While his mind was replaced. 

 

And so I’d changed my mind--with one condition. Charlie had to be brought on board. I wouldn’t do it without him knowing what was going on. I supposed that part of me had hoped Fiona would consider bringing Charlie on to be a dealbreaker, that it would be my easy way out. When I looked back on this crazy, awful experience, I would at least be able to say I had tried. That me not reentering the game on some kamikaze rescue mission hadn’t been my fault. 

 

Fiona, however, had only smiled, like she’d known I would come around eventually.

 

I now sat across from Fiona at a conference table, surrounded by a small army of players and programmers of all shapes and sizes. Charlie sat on my right, rounding out the dream team of geeks. A tall, lanky programmer stood at the whiteboard spanning one of the walls in the jam-packed room, taking notes as everyone else shouted out buffs to add to the list on the board. The list was headed by a single, underlined word: armor. So far, the list included: invincibility, night vision, underwater breathing, strength bonus, speed bonus, agility bonus.

 

“Invincibility won't work,” Charlie said into a momentary lull in the chaotic brainstorming session. All eyes turned to him, and he sat up straighter, clearing his throat. “If you build an invincibility buff into their armor, you'll be cutting off their exit.”

 

A chill settled in my veins. And here I'd thought invincibility sounded so grand, but now that Charlie had laid out the glaring flaw, I couldn't see past it. Death was our way out. Specifically, what the team called “rings of instant death”. They’d gotten the idea from Will after having found one in his AO inventory. Our goal for the mission was to deliver the rings to the trapped players and free them the only way we knew how. Will had locked the game down tight, and all chances to override his order had failed. It was a veritable Hotel California--check in whenever, leave never.

 

“They could always strip out of their gear,” suggested a guy leaning against the wall behind Fiona. 

 

Charlie scoffed. “You might be willing to gamble with my sister's life on the off-chance that they'll have time to disrobe in the heat of battle, but I'm not.”

 

My hand sought out Charlie’s under the table, and when I found his, I gave it a squeeze, silently thanking him for looking out for my best interests. It was nothing new, but it warmed my heart. 

 

The programmer at the board, crossed out invincibility and wrote max health beside it. 

 

Fiona looked at a mousy woman sitting in the corner of the room. “Get a team started on building armored bodysuits,” she ordered. “Extremely low profile, no bulk--these need to be undetectable under a dress. And let's do enhanced sneak boots--add whatever buffs seem appropriate.”

 

The mousy woman stood and hurried from the room. 

 

Fiona scanned the faces of everyone sitting around the table. “Let’s move on to weaponry,” she said. “We can always circle back, but I want to get production going on all of the gear ASAP.”

 

Charlie leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table and weaving his fingers together. “I've been thinking a lot about your weapons,” he said. “Since awesome weapons like wizard staffs won't work in the game due to the game mechanics, I think we should go steampunk, like with a suped-up single shot pistol. We can augment it with critical shot, eagle eye, and time slow buffs, and retrofit it with automatic loading and a bigger-on-the-inside ammo cartridge. It won't stand out too much in the game, not like giving them assault rifles would.”

 

Fiona was already nodding by the time Charlie finished. She glanced at the programmer manning the whiteboard. “Write that down,” she told him. “We’ll use that.” Once again, she scanned the room. “What else?”

 

“How about grenade jewelry?” It was a guy with a four-inch spiked mohawk sitting at the opposite end of the table from the whiteboard. “We could do earings, pins, a string of explosive pearls, that kind of thing.” And with that suggestion, the floodgates opened.

 

“Universal key lockpicks could be disguised as hairpins…,” someone else said.

 

“So could paralyzing poison needle daggers…,” someone added

 

Someone threw out, “We could do some sort of poison nail polish…”

 

“How about a belt that doubles as an electrified whip?”

 

“Or as a flaming whip?”

 

My eyes widened as I imagined wielding such a thing. Across the table from me, Fiona grinned. “I like it!” she said, slapping a hand down on the table. “All of it! Let's make it happen.” She pointed to mohawk guy. “Get a team working on building the weapons. I want everything ready in an hour for testing.”

 

I looked at the whiteboard, reading over the list of incredible, deadly things I would be carrying on my person.

 

The programmer wrote the word GIGI in all caps, then drew a line under the word.

 

“Ah,” Fiona said. “Yes. Last item of business--Gigis. What do we think would work best?”

 

There was a moment of silent anticipation as everyone in the room looked around and exchanged glances. Charlie was the first to dive in. 

 

“Don't you think you should talk to the Gigis about this?” he said, his voice hesitant. “I mean, they're smarter than all of us combined, plus they know all of the available possibilities.” He looked around the room. “It just makes sense, doesn’t it?”

 

Fiona stared at my brother for a long moment, not blinking, no discernable expression. “I want you on my team when this is all over,” she finally said.

 

Charlie’s mouth fell open, and I was filled with a swell of pride. 

 

“But--but--I'm not a programmer,” Charlie stuttered. 

 

“Bah.” Fiona waved a hand dismissively. “I have plenty of programmers. What I need is more idea generators, and that, my friend, is precisely what you are.”

 

Charlie looked stunned, like he couldn’t believe anyone saw more in him than a corporate-flunkie-turned-professional-gamer.

 

I cleared my throat. “So, what does that mean--for the Gigis?” I asked, attempting to steer us back on track. As proud and happy as I was for Charlie, lives were at stake. “Do I just let Loki choose when I get back into AO?”

 

Fiona’s attention shifted to me, and she blinked. “Exactly,” she said. “We'll unlock all possible Gigi forms and enhancements currently available. It's a little tricky, as the game mechanics of Pride and Prejudice won't allow for non-natural forms, so there will be some limitations.”

 

I frowned. And here I’d thought charging back into Pride and Prejudice with a couple of enormous, fire-breathing dragons would’ve really evened the odds. 

 

Fiona snapped her fingers and pointed to a large touchscreen tablet resting on the table well out of arm’s reach. One of the programmers at that end of the table slid it her way, and Fiona tapped the screen to wake it up. A map appeared on the screen, though I couldn’t tell of what exactly. 

 

“Let's talk strategy,” Fiona said, and I raised my eyes to meet hers. “We think the players are being held at Rosing Park. We've been tracking Colin in the game, and he vanished shortly after being brought onto the estate's grounds. There are at least twenty-three compromised NPCs on site, and according to Colin's live stream in the seconds before he vanished, they've dropped their cover and are no longer masquerading as NPCs. From the skirmish in the Biblioverse atrium, we know they're ruthless and cunning, and prone to violence.”

 

I nodded my agreement. 

 

“They seem to be skilled fighters,” Fiona added. “We will be grossly outnumbered, so our best chance for success lies in avoiding being caught. And they will be on the lookout for new arrivals to the game. We cannot get caught. Do you understand?”

 

Again, I nodded, suddenly feeling far less certain about this whole thing. I swallowed, but my mouth was so dry that it didn’t do any good, so I lifted the water glass in front of me with a shaking hand and gulped down some water. “What if we fail?” I asked, setting down the glass. “Is there a backup plan?”

 

Silence filled the room, and my anxiety quadrupled. 

 

“We won’t fail,” Fiona said, certainty running through her voice like veins in marble. 

 

My stomach churned as I fought an internal battle. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, and when I finally spoke, my voice was small. “I think I should go in alone,” I said and opened my eyes, meeting Fiona’s hard stare. “They want me. I think our best chance for success lies in me letting them catch me. Once I'm inside their prison--or whatever--Loki and I can figure out how to complete the mission.”

 

Every single pair of eyeballs in the room was on me. I swallowed roughly. “It doesn't make sense for you to risk yourself, Fiona. You're too important. If I fail…” I paused, taking another deep breath. “If I fail, at least you'll have a better idea of what you're up against. I just think it makes more sense to have a plan A and a plan B.”

 

The tense silence was back, and thicker than ever. 

 

But, finally, Fiona nodded. “Olivia goes in alone.”

 

~~~

 

Once again dressed in a medical gown--in case the worst should happen and I should find myself trapped in the game once more--I settled on one of the player recliners in an unoccupied party room. Charlie sat on a stool beside my chair, and a couple of VR techs fluttered around me, hooking up electrodes and getting me prepped for re-entry into Allworld Online...with the potential of an indefinite stay.

 

The door from the viewing room opened, and Fiona walked in, irritation etched into every line and angle of her face. A harried looking man in a blue suit and a comb-over followed her, a clipboard hugged to his chest. Fiona strode straight for my chair, stopping to stand beside Charlie. 

 

“Olivia…” Fiona sighed. “I'm really sorry to do this, but Phillip here needs you to sign some additional waivers.” She rolled her eyes and shook her head infinitesimally. “I made them add an addendum granting you a sizable bonus if--”

 

“When,” Charlie interrupted.

 

Fiona glanced at him, offering him a quick, closed-mouth smile and a curt nod. “When you complete the mission.” Concern shone in Fiona’s emerald eyes as she took the clipboard from Phillip, hesitating before holding it out to me. “You can still back out.”

 

I shook my head and reached for the clipboard. “No,” I said as I scanned the top page. “I'm doing this.” I signed on the line at the bottom of the page and flipped to the next. “I have the best shot, and I know Nel and Colin would do the same for me.”

 

Fiona pressed her lips together into a thin, flat line and nodded once. “I figured you would say that,” she said. “Just know that if the worst happens, I will personally rescue your ass, and I swear to you--no matter what--I will ensure that your family is taken care of.”

 

Charlie captured my free hand and gripped it in both of his. “Don't listen to her, Olive. Nobody can take care of us as well as you do, so you'd better come back.”

 

I paused in my signing, my pen hovering over the line on the last page, and looked at Charlie. I flashed him a grateful smile, then signed the final waiver and handed the clipboard back to Fiona. 

 

She practically threw it at Phillip. “Now get out of here, you cockroach.”

 

I snorted a laugh, covering my mouth and nose with one hand as I watched Phillip scurry back to the door. 

 

Fiona rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Suits…” With a sigh, she crossed her arms over her chest. “Anyway, remember that even though you won't be able to hear or see us, we'll be with you the whole time.” She pointed to the two-way mirror taking up almost the entire wall between this room and the viewing room. “Just right on the other side of that glass, watching your live stream. If something happens to you, we'll know. You won't be alone in there, Olivia.”

 

Tears stung in my eyes. Was I really about to do this--about to go back in there? I gulped and nodded. 

 

Fiona uncrossed her arms and rested her hands on her hips. “Now get in there, and don't lollygag, or we'll have to stick another catheter in you.”

 

I laughed, if only to avoid crying in front of my brother.

 

Charlie stood, drawing my attention to him. He leaned down, wrapping his arms around me. “You can do this, Olive,” he whispered. “I love you.”

 

Tears snuck over the rims of my eyelids and spilled down my cheeks. “Love you too, Charlie.” As Charlie pulled back, I hastily wiped the tears away.

 

Resolved to do what needed to be done, I settled back in the reclining chair, watching Charlie and Fiona leave the room. A tech approached, holding a cord that would connect to my implant. It wasn’t necessary--the implants came equipped with wireless functionality, but Fiona wasn’t willing to take any chances with potential hardware failures right now. The fewer variables, the fewer things could go wrong. 

 

I turned my head away from the tech, giving her access to the implant at the base of my skull. I felt gentle fingertips on the back of my neck as the tech brushed my ponytail out of the way, and then the world went dark.

 

Slowly, the gatescape faded into view, and I found myself standing on top of one of the infinite number of rocky hills littering the virtual landscape. A quick glance down at myself confirmed that I was wearing the skin-tight bodysuit that had been built by a team of programmers, just for me. 

 

Loki sat at my feet, staring up at me with his big, luminous blue eyes, the tip of his tail twitching. “You have returned,” he said, and I had the distinct impression that he disapproved. He slow blinked up at me, then looked away. “Are you sure that is wise?”

 

“No,” I admitted, “but it's what had to be done. Can you pull my memories of the last few hours from my mind to get up to speed?”

 

“I can,” Loki intoned. “Do you grant me permission to do so?”

 

“Yes, yes,” I said, waving for him to get on with it. “Just do it.”

 

I felt a tickle in my mind as Loki rifled around in my most recent memories. While he was occupied, I pulled up my master inventory to make sure all of the items Fiona’s team had designed for the mission were there, including the rings of instant death. Holding my breath, I shifted everything into my Pride and Prejudice inventory, hoping it would all stick. Just because I had assigned the items to that inventory, didn’t mean the game would accept them. I wouldn’t know for sure until I had actually stepped back into Pride and Prejudice.

 

“Ah, I see,” Loki said, drawing my attention back down to him. “So we go into battle, then.” A statement, not a question.

 

“Yep,” I said with mock cheerfulness. “Do you want to go through all of the Gigi upgrade options?”

 

Loki lifted a paw and began licking it. “No need,” he said his voice tinged with his usual disinterest. “I have already picked out the most suitable new configuration and applied it to myself.”

 

“You did?” I asked, my eyebrows raising. He looked exactly the same as always. “What did you choose?”

 

Loki raised his face to me, and his mouth spread into an impossibly large grin. It was absolutely terrifying. And then he disappeared. He literally winked out of existence, there one second, gone the next. 

 

My lips parted as I stared at the place where Loki had been. 

 

“A Cheshire cat,” he said and reappeared two feet to the left, his creepy grin gone. “Incredibly powerful but completely unassuming.”

 

“Cool…” I eyed him, not at all sure what was included in the Cheshire cat package. “So you can become invisible and teleport.” And he had a flashy new smile that could spawn nightmares, though I didn’t voice that part. I didn’t want to offend him. “Any other tricks I should know about?”

 

“I can change my size,” he informed me. “I can shrink down to microscopic levels or grow incredibly large.”

 

“Very cool.” I chewed on my bottom lip, my brow furrowing. “But I thought you had to be a natural creature--something about the game mechanics. The last thing I want to happen is to enter the game and find out that you're not with me.”

 

The tip of Loki’s tail twitched. “I must be a natural creature in my base form--so no dragons or unicorns or any other overtly fantastical creatures would be allowed. But a Cheshire cat is, in its essence, a simple house cat.” That terrifying grin took over his face once more. “Until it's not.”

 

I suppressed a shiver. “Good to know.” I glanced at the gateway to the Biblioverse just down the slope from where we stood, fear forming a vice around my chest. “I guess we should get going then.”

 

“Yes, we should.”

 

But before I could take a step, a notification popped up in front of me. The small rectangle hovered at face height in my direct line of sight.

 

NEW SYSTEM MESSAGE

 

“What’s this?” I asked Loki.

 

The black cat squinted up at the floating message box. “I’m not sure. I wasn’t generated from within the system.”

 

I frowned and muttered, “Open message.”

 

Hey Olivia - 

Sorry for the intrusion. I had to hijack system messaging to make sure this got through to you. Priya has been found. She’s OK. Just thought you should know. 

 

- Fiona

 

I grinned, giddy at the news. And then I swiped the message away, took a deep breath, and started down the slope, heading back to the Biblioverse.

 

~~~

 

(news story)

 

And finally a break in the story that's had the world holding its breath. Priya Burman has been found. She is alive and recovering at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, after having spent at least (three) weeks being held captive in the basement of one Rockville Softworks' executive, William St. George. The police are not yet allowing the press in to interview Ms. Burman, but they have issued a statement assuring us that they have Mr. St. George in custody. He is being held without bail.

Episode 8, the final episode of season 1, will be available Friday, July 10. Voting in this episode's poll closes at midnight on July 2.

THIS EPISODE'S POLL:

Who dies (real death, not virtual death) in the final episode?

  • Colin

  • Nel

  • Holden

  • Priya

  • Will

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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