6. Missing information
Willow leaned her back against the building, turning her BASE settings off, letting the normal sounds surround her. Letting in the real world around her, as much as it was really real…
Her eyes burned and her throat felt almost closed up. She needed to talk to someone but didn’t have anyone she could reach out to right now. She needed someone to comfort her. She needed someone to hold her, touch her, but didn’t know where to do that.
On impulse, she opened her contacts lists, it was only a short list, and then called her mum. If she couldn’t get a hug, she could at least hear a comforting voice now, someone she could feel more connected to.
“Willow?” Mum’s voice sounded slow and sleepy, and a little surprised too.
“Mum, did I wake you?” She already felt guilty. She hadn’t really considered the time or at what part of the day her mum could be right now. And now she woke her mum up with her selfish request even though she’d been trying not to disturb people. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t…” She disturbed someone and shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t right.
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?” Mum sounded more awake now, more alert too. “Are you okay?”
“I’m…” She was lonely, but how did she explain that to her mum?
How did she explain her loneliness to someone who believed the ‘experts’ when they said that because Willow was autistic, she’d never be able to make real emotional connections with friends or family and that any show of it would be Willow mimicking what she saw around her. Just because she had a hard time communicating with people didn’t mean she wasn’t making social or emotional connections with people, she just had a harder time expressing them.
“I’m okay. I just wanted to know how you were doing.” Mimicking, pretending… Those were the words people used to describe autistics in social situations, totally ignoring that autistics often had the exact same social and emotional needs as people who weren’t autistic, they just showed it differently. And right now, she needed connections, she needed her mum, she needed someone to talk to.
“I’m doing well. The company is growing fast, we just opened another office in the city, and your dad got a promotion at work too. And he’s hoping that they’ll have another promotion lined up for him soon, something about a new development department that they’re going to open. How is the apartment? Are they taking good care of you?”
If there was anything Willow knew how to spot, it was disinterest hidden behind questions that looked like actual interest, like her mum was doing now. It often made her wonder who the one without the ability to make real emotional connections actually was.
How was it that Willow was accused of being the one who didn’t have empathy, when people treated her horribly because of perceived notions of what she could and couldn’t do. Notions based on ‘evidence’ from ‘experts’ who had no real living experience with autistic life, just horrid flawed tests based around their own idea of what ‘normal’ looked like. Just because Willow’s ‘normal’ was different didn’t mean it was wrong.
“They’re really good to us. The food is good too.” That’s what her mum wanted to hear, right? She wasn’t interested in hearing about how the food was bland and uninspired, that would show that Willow didn’t actually enjoy how strict this place was… Which was what her parents liked so much about it.
“And are you still taking classes?” Polite chit-chat, no real connection. Distanced words from someone who had no idea how to really connect with someone as ‘different’ as Willow, because she’d never really tried, always believing the ‘experts’ because they knew best, supposedly.
Classes… Right. Because if Willow couldn’t work, the government still wanted her to do something ‘useful’, so they shoved classes at her to keep her busy. ‘Self-improvement’ classes they were called, like learning how to pay her bills on time, even though that was already taken care of for her by the system, or how to cook, even though they made all her meals for her. She’d not really paid much attention to the classes, they weren’t that useful. They even made her take one on how to do job interviews, even though she had a 0% chance of ever being invited to one because the system listed her as ‘autistic and in care’ which automatically meant ‘unemployable’. It was ridiculous on so many levels.
“Classes are going well. I’m learning how to cook.” That was actually the class she enjoyed the most, even though it wasn’t useful. There was just something about the idea of being able to make cakes or pies herself someday, even though most of it was currently in the VR space only…
“Oh.” That surprised her mum, Willow could hear the slight change in pitch in her voice at the short word. “That’s… interesting. They said that they’d prepare all your meals for you, they still do that, right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she quickly answered, not wanting to worry her mum. Willow didn’t need her to go and complain with the people who oversaw this place.
“So, learning to cook is just for fun?” Her mum sounded relieved.
“Yes, just for fun. They’re teaching us how to make pies and cakes and things like that.” And pasta and actual normal dinner food, but right now, she thought that it may not actually comfort her mum if she found out what they were teaching her exactly. Keeping it to ‘fun’ food things was always safer. ‘Self-improvement’ classes were not very useful in the situation she was in right now, but realistically, they could be useful if they ever let her out of here. Even if the chance of that was minuscule, she still hoped somewhere that they would let her out.
“Oh, how fun.” Yeah, definitely disinterest from her mum. That strange voice pitch was only reserved when she really thought she should be excited about something.
Then she remembered something, something the Rotnem person had mentioned in the chat. “Mum, do you remember that old computer I had for a while? Do you know what happened to it? Or the books I had to learn how to code?”
Her mum was quiet for a bit, probably thinking. “I don’t know, you’re going to have to ask your dad. He helped you clean out your room back then. If he didn’t sell it off, it’s probably in the attic. Do you want me to ask him?”
“Yes, please.” Even if she didn’t know if she should trust or believe Rotnem, that didn’t mean that she couldn’t get back to her hobby.
Coding had always been fun back in the day, it was a way to escape the restrictions put on her. Although she didn’t know if she could get the old computer to work at her apartment, if there were connection sockets for it to connect it to the net or any of the other things she was going to need for it. But the idea still excited her, having her old trusty computer back felt comforting somehow, even just the idea of it. And if she did need cables and such, well, she could probably find those online.
Getting back into coding, that would actually be fun, even to just make time pass by faster. Coding had always made sense to her, if she put the words and operators in the right order, then everything just fell into place and would work. If it didn’t work, she probably hadn’t done it right.
“Willow?” Her mum pulled her from her thoughts. “Was there something else you needed?”
“No, thanks. I just…” She shrugged, admitting to needing to hear her mother’s voice wouldn’t get her anywhere. It would just make things more complicated. “Thanks. I’m sorry if I woke you up.” Because of the different biological clocks for everyone, which were based on calculations of brain chemistry and things like that, it wasn’t always easy to know when someone was supposed to be asleep or awake. This was even truer when not everyone seemed to make the same hours of asleep and awake and stuff like that.
“It’s okay. I had to get up anyway, time to get to work. Have a good evening. Bye.”
“Bye.” But her mum had already disconnected the line. Of course. No gooey ‘love you’ or ‘take good care of yourself’ because they’d given up on doing that years ago.
Willow should go to bed though, she really should. But everything that happened today kept going through her head, spinning and twisting, and she had no idea what to even expect tomorrow when she woke up again.
Would her friends still be here? Would Violet be back?
She opened the guild chat screen. Everyone had left a couple of messages, just joking stuff, but Violet’s account still hadn’t connected to it. Her chest tightened, and she closed the screen.
She had to try.
Willow opened her contact list again, this time scrolling to Violet’s name and calling her. The connection tune kept going and going, until a message appeared in her view.
*This account is not currently connected to the BASE call system, contact the user another way or call the operator if you think this is in error*
What?! What the…?
That had never happened to Willow before.
Where was Violet? Where did she go? Was she really gone?
* * *
It had been a full day since Violet got the Helheim Fallen Online beta key and went into the game, a full day without any contact from her at all.
The net was now full of people talking about the ‘blitzed’ person in DoE, though nobody knew the name of the person yet, and there had been two more reports of people going missing after getting Helheim Fallen Online beta keys. But even as there were more and more reports of missing friends, others were still treating it like nothing was wrong, like this was normal, like people’s accounts not being reachable through the BASE system, like not being able to contact them at all, was normal…
Willow didn’t know what world those people lived in, but friends going missing was definitely not normal to her.
She opened the guild chat, though it had been quiet for the last couple of hours. Violet’s account was still not connected to it.
Willow: I’m starting to get worried about Violet.
She had to share her bad feeling with someone, had to.
Sage: Yeah, it’s not like her.
Willow: I tried calling her.
Willow: Her account is not connected to the call system anymore.
Opal: Really? That’s definitely not right.
Tears formed in her eyes, she was tired, she was so tired of being scared, of not being able to contact her best friend. Violet was always at her side, just a click away, but now she only felt this loss, this emptiness.
Sage: Have you sent her a message?
Willow: Yeah, it’s not been delivered yet.
The chat fell quiet, and she tried to come up with something else to say, but it was all a blur in her head. She had no idea what to do next.
Willow: I’m going into my VRHome.
She stood up from her couch, going over to her bed, and grabbed the VR headset.
Then her eyes fell on a different notification from the chat, and curiosity got the better of her. It wasn’t the guild chat, she could see it from the notification colour, it was the one with the person who asked if she could help.
*Rotnem joined the chat*
Rotnem: A second person in DoE has been blitzed.
They hadn’t left the chat yet, probably waiting for her answer.
Willow: I don’t know how I can help you.
Willow: You’re better off contacting someone who actually knows about these things, someone from BASE or DoE.
Willow: Or the police.
She hit a couple of buttons.
*You have left the chat*
Now she didn’t have to worry about that anymore.
It wasn’t like she could help them. Finding people who hacked accounts and things like that was the job of the police, not just some random girl who wasn’t even able to have a normal life. It really wasn’t up to her or random strangers on the net.
She put on her VR headset and immediately went to the VRHome, curling up on the couch there, a much more comfortable couch than the one she had in her real apartment.
Sage came into the room soon after her, their face serious. Then they came over to the couch, putting a hand on her shoulder, carefully touching her. One advantage of VR, they could touch each other, and it triggered the exact same things in her brain as touch in real life did.
“I can’t find her.” Willow’s voice was rough, almost hollow, she was just so tired.
“I know.” Sage nodded, kneeling to her level.
“This has never happened before.” She couldn’t remember a time where Violet, Sage, Juniper and Opal weren’t just a click away.
“I know.” Sage came closer, carefully wrapping their arms around Willow, holding her. “I’ve tried too, I tried to call Violet. I got the same message as you did. She’s not connected anymore.”
“Where is she?” Willow tried to come up with a different way to contact Violet, but for all she knew Violet lived on the other side of the world. It was entirely possible that Violet wasn’t even anywhere near her time zone, just that their sleeping patterns sort of matched up on a regular basis.
Sage rocked her side to side slowly. “I have no idea. I wish I knew. I wish.” They shook their head, sighing. “It’s only been a day, officially she’s not even ‘missing’ yet. She could just have an issue with her BASE device, or she got locked out of the system for pushing her limits too far.” Both of which had happened before.
But they also knew that even if that was the case, they should still be able to connect to Violet’s account, it should give them a ‘timeout’ message, not a ‘not connected’ message.
What were they going to do if something serious was going on? If this was really as bad as Willow was starting to suspect?
“She’ll be back. She won’t leave you all alone. Especially not with Mira going into her next stage just over a day away.” But Willow could hear how Sage didn’t even believe their own words.
They were right about one thing though, Violet wouldn’t want to miss Mira’s growing up for the world. She loved Mira, even if she was a pet in a videogame, not an actual real-life one, but Violet loved Mira just the same. She wouldn’t not be there when Mira reached the juvenile stage, just one stage away from becoming a proper two person mount. But there was no sign that Violet would be able to get into DoE on time. That she’d somehow be able to be there, if she wasn’t even connected to the BASE platform right now.
“Violet wouldn’t want to miss it.” Willow nodded. But not wanting to not be there and actually showing up were two different things and right now, it seemed like they both had the same result, no Violet.
“Did you do your crafting for the boat yet today?” Sage moved, but kept holding her close.
Willow shook her head. “I should probably check in.”
“You should.” There was a smile in Sage’s voice that she didn’t quite understand.
“What did you do?” Sage sounded like they were up to something again.
“Nothing much, but if my calculations are right, we should be able to have all the supplies and craft the boat in the next few days. And then the waters will be wide open for us, we’ll be able to actually do better trades in just a couple of days time. I do hope you stocked up on things to trade.” Their voice was full of mischief now.
“A little.” She smiled too. Better trades, more money. And right in time to be able to buy Helheim Fallen Online at full price on release instead of having to depend on the beta keys to be able to play the game. “At least that’s good news.”
“Yes, but it requires you to finish your items for the boat too.” Sage frowned a little. It wasn’t just Willow who needed to finish her items, Violet too.
Unless they wanted to source the final items some other way, which would probably require a lot of extra money, they needed Violet’s items, and they had no way to contact her right now…
And like that, her mood fell again.
They needed Violet, not just in the guild, but as a friend. It wasn’t the same without her.
They all needed her.
They needed to find her.
7. Meeting the Mentor
Willow walked over to the delivery box near her door, the green light for a new delivery was on, but she couldn’t see anything inside the box. Probably a blip or something. Even in a world so advanced, bugs and hiccups of code still happened.
She’d mention it to one of the people who ran this place if it was still on tomorrow. It was a little annoying, but it wasn’t like the light was very obvious, and it wouldn’t interfere with her receiving any deliveries either, so it was pretty low on the list of priorities.
She walked around her apartment, running her fingers over each surface, trying to calm herself down with the familiar structures.
She shouldn’t freak out over Violet not responding to messages yet. There was no use in freaking out when she couldn’t actually do anything, so why did her brain go over everything she’d seen and read on the net over and over again?
The messages from people saying that their friends had gone missing after getting a beta key for Helheim Fallen Online, the video of the blitzed person in DoE, and now Violet not responding to any messages sent her way… It didn’t have to be connected, though it seemed less and less likely that it wasn’t.
It felt connected, and that wasn’t a good thing. Someone was messing with people’s accounts, and she had no idea why they did it or how she could protect herself, or her friends.
Willow opened the chat screen from Rotnem, but apart from the messages she’d already received there wasn’t anything else in it that could tell her how much this person knew about her or who they were. Even a quick query of their information didn’t give anything. It actually gave her literally nothing. Just the name the account was using and that was it.
Could she trust this person?
Just then, a call came in, overtaking her view and breaking her chain of thought, it was her dad.
Willow connected the call, a little surprised. “Hi, Dad.”
“Hi, sweetie. How are you?” He sounded upbeat, happy, she thought.
“I’m good. How are you?”
“I’m good too. Your mum told me that you asked for your old computer?”
“Yeah. I’d like to play around with it a little. Do you still have it?” It was her dad’s old computer, technically. He was a software engineer back in the day, before everything went onto the BASE platform and creating software and games became something much simpler. He now worked for the BASE platform main company, overseeing the department that worked on office apps and general use apps and things like that. It was kind of cool, in a nerdy way.
“It should be in the attic. Why do you want it? Do you want to get back into coding?” Unlike her mum, her dad did sound interested, as long as it was something he knew about, like computers or coding. He’d actually show genuine interest from time to time.
“Yeah, I was thinking of doing that. Spending some time doing something interesting instead of just playing videogames.” Sort of, close enough.
“Smart. Yeah. I’m pretty sure it’s up here somewhere. Do you also want the books with it?”
“Yes, please. There aren’t that many tutorials around anymore, not with BASE and stuff, and constantly looking things up online isn’t always so simple.” Very few people had an interest in the more complicated and ‘old school’ coding languages when they could create anything with just a couple of simple building blocks from one of the hundreds of program or gaming engines these days.
“Of course. Yes, I can imagine that guides and help aren’t that easy to find, not like back in the day.” She heard him move some things around. “I think I just found it. Do you want me to send everything over? I think it should fit in a box.”
‘Send them over’… Of course, he wasn’t going to bring them over himself. Everything could be delivered in no-time, and this way he didn’t have to go out of his way, this way he didn’t have to take the time to see his daughter… This way he didn’t have to see her… Her heart sank, reality kicking in.
These thoughts weren’t going to help her.
“Sure. Just send them over.” Because how important was personal contact anyway, you know? It’s not like she hadn’t seen him in months, maybe even over a year. It’s not like that mattered, because she was autistic, so personal interactions was something that scared her, not comforted her, according to ‘experts’ anyway.
“Will do. I’m glad to see you taking up something useful again, maybe this will help you get ahead. Do something productive with your days.” He sounded so upbeat when he said it. Like he wasn’t insulting her or diminishing all the hard work she was putting into simply staying alive and not turning into a depressed mess. Which wasn’t easy with the way everything around her was built to hold any ambitions she may have had back, to make sure that she would never be able to get out of this system.
Her throat closed up with tears, and she shook her head, she had to go now. “Thanks. Talk to you soon.” She quickly disconnected the line, before he’d hear her tears. Before he found out she was crying because she wanted to see her father. But actually asking to see her parents would go against everything her parents had been taught about her autism and would make them ask ridiculous questions about where she’d learned about how to model emotional behaviours towards her parents.
It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before.
She’d been eight or nine years old, and after her parents had both been away from home for work for over a week, she’d been so happy to see them return. She’d missed them so much. She’d cried, she’d wanted to hug them. She needed to be close to them, feel them and make sure they really were back. And they’d looked at her like she was an alien and had asked her where she’d ‘mirrored’ that response from, where she’d learned to behave like that. That it wasn’t ‘normal’ for her to miss them, or for her to need their touch or physical contact so much.
Of course she’d missed them, she’d not seen them for over a week. And the only response she’d gotten was that her behaviour was ‘not right for an autistic, too emotional’, that she ‘was just feeling happy because her routine would be back to normal, that it didn’t have anything to do with them’ and that she ‘should behave normally for her and not try to copy what she saw in the media, because that wasn’t her’. It broke her heart, she’d felt so lost, so lonely, and she’d still been so young.
That was the moment she learned that her parents only saw her as her autism, not as a person, and it was also the moment that she learned that if she wanted any connection to her parents, it had to be in what they saw as ‘autistic appropriate’ ways. She had to mask her real feelings, her real personality, and show them what they wanted to see, what they’d expected from her and nothing more than that. As long as she behaved in ‘appropriate’ ways, they would be happy with her and would be happy for her, but that meant not showing who she really way, not to her parents or the therapists or the ‘experts’ in any way.
So, to try and get a closer connection with her dad, she decided to learn how to code, which delighted him. And she was finally able to have some relationship with her father, which she needed so much.
Not long after that, she’d met Sage online, immediately getting along well with them. Sage understood her, they got her, and they were there for her when her parents couldn’t or wouldn’t be. Sage was her first friend, her very first friend.
It said something about the way she was brought up that the first time she remembered having more than a fleeting social connection with someone around her age was when she was about nine years old. That she’d had no friends before that time, no way to even learn how to do it, because her parents had raised her so sheltered, even though she’d often craved more social relationships than she had.
Her second friend had been Violet. Who had saved her when she was just a DoE noobie and had gotten herself in trouble in some dungeon. Violet came in, all swords and arrows and killing everything in her path until she’d reached Willow. Violet had been her second friend, her saviour and the person she told her darkest thoughts, her deepest secrets and her most painful memories. Violet had always been there for her.
And now Violet was in trouble.
Willow berated herself. What was she doing?
She knew what she had to do. She already knew. There was no doubt in her mind, just fear of the unknown.
Willow wasn’t going to get Violet back by hiding, by ignoring all the things going on. All the little connections, no matter how fleeting, they mattered, and they were going to show where to go.
Violet saved her when she was little, Violet had always been there to save her. And now Willow had to save Violet.
When Willow had realised that her parents weren’t going to come to her birthday a couple of weeks ago, Violet had sent her a plush toy of their DoE pet Mira. She’d sent her a beautiful plush hippogriff that she could always hug and hold close. It had been the sweetest thing, straight from her heart.
Violet had always been there for Willow and now she needed to be there for Violet. Because no matter what, something bad was going on and she had to do something about it.
She opened the chat with Rotnem and looked through it again. To get in touch with them, she had to find Ilana in the first BASE game she’d ever played.
The first game she’d played on the full BASE platform had been a long time ago, but it was pretty easy to remember what the game was. The first game she’d played without her parents sitting at her side the whole time, or the system not letting her interact with other players, was actually DoE.
Telling her to go to the first game that she’d played had been a very simple and maybe even a little lazy clue. Willow had been a fan of DoE from the start and she’d always played it. As soon as she was old enough, she’d gotten herself an account and she’d started playing.
Willow went over to her bed and put on the VR headset.
Then she logged on.
*You are now logged into Destruction of Elysium*
She spawned in the middle of the garden next to the guild house. Mira quickly came over to her, pushing her head to Willow’s hand.
“I know. You miss your other mummy too. I know.” She ruffled her fingers through the feathers on Mira’s head. “I’m going to try and find her. I promise.”
Mira let out squawking sounds, running around her a few times before she leaned against Willow.
“I know. I’ll be back. I promise.” She leaned in, kissing Mira’s beak. “I’ll be back.”
Then she pulled up a player search and put in the name Ilana.
There weren’t many Ilanas, but she found one who was just level one and was still in the starter area.
She didn’t know why, but it felt like that was probably the right player. Something about the first game she played and this Ilana being in the starter zone made sense, also, it was the easiest player to reach.
Instead of sending a message, she transported to the zone. It was strange, being back here, none of the mobs paid any attention to her.
She walked around until she found the Ilana player near a pond, not doing anything, just staring into nothingness.
“Hi?” She stepped in front of Ilana.
Instead of speaking, a message appeared in the chat.
Ilana: You came.
Ilana: Why? What made you decide?
Willow: I don’t know.
What was the harm? This was just some person, and it wasn’t like they probably didn’t know everything about her already. They could probably get into other parts of her account too if they could get into her chat.
Willow: My best friend is missing. She logged onto HF and her account can’t be reached anymore.
Ilana: I was afraid that was the case. I’m sorry.
Ilana: I’ll be outside the Metropolis Dome in two hours. Meet me there if you really want to help and solve this.
Willow: Metropolis Dome?
Ilana: You know where it is. If you’re serious, meet me there. We can’t discuss this digitally.
Meeting someone outside the game. Heck, going outside the walls… That was definitely stupid behaviour according to Sage’s ‘stay safe’ rules, so why was she considering it? Why was she considering going?
But before she could give an answer, Ilana logged out and when Willow searched for her again, the whole avatar didn’t exist. It was like she’d never even been there. That was definitely strange.
Was she going to meet this person? Was she really going?
That wasn’t really a question.
The Metropolis Dome. It was about twenty minutes by bus to get there. It was one of the few places in the city where you couldn’t use the BASE platform. It was a ‘BASE-free’ zone, as they called it. They didn’t disconnect it or anything, and the platform still collected your vitals and things like that, but AR wasn’t possible, and neither was logging into VR there. They built this beautiful park just so people could experience the ‘real world’ but in a safe way. It was built inside a dome, and it was always good weather there. Depending on the area you went to, you could experience all the different seasons as much as you wanted.
Willow had been there a couple of times. Not a lot of people went there anymore after the novelty had worn off, so it was always nice and quiet, and it allowed her to relax in ways that she just couldn’t do at home or in the VR.
She was going, there was no question about it. If Ilana or Rotnem or whoever turned out to be some creep, she could always leave.
But if they knew something about what was going on, if they knew something about Violet going missing… She had to take this chance.
She had to save Violet.
* * *
Willow got off the bus. She hated going out into the world, even with her BASE system muting as much of the surroundings as possible, there were always advertisements and things rushing around her, always trying to sell her new things. It was too much on her senses, so she rather stayed within the walls of the building she lived. Even now, after just a short bus ride, she felt raw from all the impulses that being out in the world gave her and she really wanted to curl up in a quiet place as soon as possible. But she had to stay strong, there were more important things going on.
She looked up at the huge dome in front of her. It always looked spectacular, even in the middle of winter. It was late in the day, and it was already getting dark, but there was enough light to see that there were a handful of people milling around outside. Some were talking to each other, others were just standing there, probably waiting on someone.
A notification showed for a moment, and then the chat opened.
*You are in a chat with Rotnem*
Rotnem: By the door, I’m standing on the left side of the doors.
Willow looked up, spotting a figure in the shadows near the doors. She carefully walked over, her heart beating loudly and she didn’t know what she’d do when she finally met this mysterious person. But she had to hear them out, if they could help her with finding Violet, she’d do anything. Maybe. Mostly. Within reason.
But as she came closer, she realised that the person waiting for her was a girl. Well, more a woman. She was probably a couple of years older than Willow, and she was wearing fancy shoes, a pencil skirt and was hiding most of the rest of herself inside a much too big, dark hoodie. She was also carrying a small, nondescript briefcase.
She looked… Willow looked the woman over again. She somehow looked familiar, not just like Willow had seen this woman before but also like this was probably how Willow would dress if she had to show up in nice clothes for her job.
If she’d ever get a job, or a normal life.
“Let’s get inside,” Rotnem/Ilana spoke.
8. Accepting the Quest
Willow followed Rotnem/Ilana into the Metropolis Dome, the system registering them both and a message flashed in front of her.
*All BASE functions like AR and social contacts are disabled after this point*
Even if she wanted to contact anyone, she couldn’t. That was a scary thought.
On the other hand, it would be hard to spy on them through the BASE system here. Someone had to actually get really close to them if they wanted to listen in on what they were saying. It made for a pretty safe place to meet up if you didn’t want people to overhear you.
And who would look twice at two young women meeting up in the Metropolis Dome?
“What is your favourite season?” Rotnem/Ilana turned to Willow, taking off her hoodie and revealing a woman who probably wouldn’t stand out in the corporate culture. Her dark brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, she was wearing some light eyeshadow that matched her grey-blue eyes and she smiled in a non-descript way.
Willow thought for a moment. “Summer.” It wasn’t technically her favourite season, but the summer area in the Dome was one of the best ones. It had a sloping hill and projected mountains and fields around the outside. It was calm and beautiful, exactly what she needed right now.
“Good choice.” Rotnem/Ilana smiled. “I could use some warmth right about now.” She nodded to one of the hallways deeper into the building. “Let’s go there so we can talk.” She started walking again and Willow followed her.
Willow felt so small, so young, so unknowing next to Rotnem/Ilana. The woman looked like she really knew things, like she’d been out there in the world and knew everything about it, while Willow had been locked in her bubble all this time.
But then she remembered the way Ilana could make her whole avatar in DoE disappear into nothing, and she got a little nervous. She may be a worldly woman, but she was a worldly woman with a high level of technological knowledge.
Rotnem/Ilana opened the door to the summer area and they stepped inside. As Willow followed her, R/I grabbed a picnic basket and a blanket from the pile next to the door and walked on, going up the slope. Then she looked around.
“Where would you like to sit?” R/I seemed genuinely interested in making Willow feel comfortable.
Willow pointed to the top of the hill, next to a tree, the area covered in flowers.
R/I walked to it and put the basket and her briefcase down before spreading the blanket out. Then she took her shoes off and sat down on the blanket, looking up at Willow. “Are you joining me?”
Willow nodded, taking off her own shoes and sitting down too, on the other side of the blanket from R/I.
R/I looked at her hands. “I know that you have no reason to trust me. I know that there are many reasons as to why you shouldn’t trust me at all, especially right now, but I’m here because I need you. I need your skills.”
“Why? I’m just an autistic girl with no future.” Wasn’t that what everyone had been trying to teach her her whole life? So why was this woman so interested in her suddenly?
R/I jolted a little, looking up, her eyes filled with some pain that Willow didn’t know how to understand. “Don’t think of yourself like that. Please… Don’t. Just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re broken or bad. Or that you won’t have a better future.”
Willow didn’t know what to say. R/I’s words touched something inside her. Something she’d always been trying to squash, or that others had been trying to squash for her, but ignoring that feeling had always been her safest option. “Why me?”
“Do you know how many people can program in C++ in this world?” R/I opened her briefcase, pulling out some papers and pens.
“No idea.” Why would she? There had never been a reason to wonder something like that. Coding wasn’t for everyone, and with BASE there had been even less of a reason to learn it. She could do it, and her father could, but outside of them, she had no clue.
“I know that you can.” R/I looked up. “And I can count the others in this country that can at the level that you are able to on two hands. At least, those are the ones that I know of, there may be some underground hackers who can, but just the ones that are known and in some cases registered… There are very few of them. There will, of course, be more in the whole wide world, but people who can program in C++ are rare these days.” She spread the papers out between them. “Take a look.”
R/I had spread pages and pages of code between them. It was written in C++, and Willow quickly recognised pieces of the code. Some were variables for things like settings that influenced AR opacity for menus, others were code that influenced how for example the BASE platform connected with a social media application for sending messages back and forth. They were just small pieces of code, nothing major.
But as her eyes fell on a different page, she stopped and got a bad feeling in her stomach. The code didn’t look like the rest of the official code of the BASE platform itself. It looked off, like it was created by someone or something that shouldn’t have been messing with the code.
She picked up the page.
It was a code sequence that let a program read out someone’s personal ID, but something wasn’t right with it. It wasn’t meant for the BASE platform mainframe, it was meant for some other program. A program which likely wasn’t supposed to use those variables, a program which wasn’t supposed to have access to someone’s personal ID.
“What is this?” She held out the page to R/I.
“That’s why I need you.” R/I took the page, looking troubled. “I found this piece of code in a program that shouldn’t have it. I caught it and took it out, but I know they’ve been popping up more recently.” Then she looked up for a moment. “I know that you saw the ‘blitzed’ avatar in DoE.”
“How?” There it was again, R/I knowing things about Willow that nobody else was supposed to know.
R/I closed her eyes for a moment. “I was there in DoE. I saw you come into the area when your friend called you over. I know that that boy showed you his memory. I was there when the account got blitzed.” Her eyes were filled with pain, her voice rough. “I saw the avatar go down, I saw him disappear. And when you came into the area… I knew it was meant to be.”
“Who are you?” Willow now really had to know, she couldn’t keep doing this without knowing the identity of who was asking for her help.
R/I licked her lips. “I’m Soleil. We’ve met once before. Just once.”
“When?” Why would she remember meeting Soleil? But more importantly, why would Soleil remember her?
“You were really young. You came to work with your father one day. I was an intern back then. A ‘child genius’ working at BASE, in the same department as your father. He taught me a lot, but not too long after, I was moved onto another department where my skills were ‘better suited’ for the work they were doing there. At least, that is what they kept telling me.”
Soleil? Willow could remember something about going to work with her dad once, but it was mostly a blur. The place had been way too busy for her to feel comfortable. People everywhere, screens blinking, people projecting AR things all over the place. It had been loud, smelly and she’d felt really overwhelmed.
“You had your first try at coding while you were sitting in my lap, behind my computer, and pecking at the keys one by one. You loved it, and your father was glad that you’d found something to do while he went into a meeting. I’ve kept my eyes on you ever since. Your hyperfocus as you were learning a new skill, it intrigued me. And…” Soleil shrugged. “I was on the boards you frequented when you were learning to code, I saw it all.”
“Why?” This sounded insane. Someone would find her that interesting that she’d keep track of her? Yeah. Definitely sounded insane. “Why would you do that?”
“Autism doesn’t have to be bad. I wish I could have shown you that when you were little, when you were growing up.” Were those tears in Soleil’s eyes? She met Willow’s eyes fully, but then looked away. “I’m autistic. It’s not in my medical files, my parents were very careful to keep that out of my files. But I still am. I’m no ‘child genius’, I’ve just got an obsessive knowledge of some programming languages. And when I saw you that first time, I knew that you were like me. I knew it.”
“I don’t get it. Why would you…” Something bubbled up inside her, and she didn’t know how to handle it, it was too strong. Her hands started to shake, and she had to do something with them or she’d start to try and pluck at every imperfection on her hands.
“Here.” Soleil handed her a small toy. It had different types of fabrics and surfaces, and Willow’s fingers automatically found the smooth ribbon and ran it through her fingers a couple of times. It flowed so easily. Then she found the spot with a fluffy fabric and ran the top of her hand over it, it felt like a plush toy.
“Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you tell me who you were?” Maybe she would have felt less alone.
“I didn’t want to involve you in things if I didn’t have to. You were safe and you were well taken care of. But the things I kept doing, they weren’t safe. But now, bad things are happening right, and I can’t do this on my own. I need your help. I need you.”
“I need you to go into Helheim Fallen Online and find out what happens to the people who ‘disappear’. I need someone on the inside who can help out.” Soleil looked almost desperate now. “I can’t do this on my own, and I need someone on my side. I need someone who also knows about what I’m doing. Who also takes the missing people seriously.”
“Violet got a beta key to HF, and I can’t reach her anymore. Her BASE account seems like it’s gone or something.” Willow felt a panic come on, but she also felt a certain calm come over her. Maybe she could really save Violet? Maybe Soleil was how she was going to save Violet?
“I know.” Soleil nodded. “It’s the same as the other people who’ve gone missing. This is the same every time. They go in, and suddenly their account disappears. I think they get blitzed when they’re in there.”
“And you want to send me in there? You want me to get in danger for some idea you have about how to fix this?” Willow wasn’t entirely sure that she understood it right.
“Basically, yes. But you’re not going in without protection. If you decide to do this, I will give you an item that lets you control the world like a game developer can. It will let you strip back the VR and get right into the code behind it. You can see exactly what happens at any time.” Soleil sounded like she was so sure this would actually work.
“How sure are you that this is safe? How sure are you that Violet disappearing and the blitzing that happened in DoE and the other account disappearances are connected?” Willow wasn’t entirely sure herself.
“One-hundred percent.” Soleil looked at her with a steady gaze. “I know they are, I just don’t know how or why. Or how the victims are chosen.”
“And you want my help to figure it out?” Willow still felt like this was too much like a weird joke or a dream or something.
“Yes.” Soleil nodded. “You don’t have to decide right now. You can think it over. But I really need your help, it would really help me out.”
Willow nodded. “I’ll have to think about it.” Could she put herself in danger for the chance that it would help Violet? For the chance that it would help the other missing people? Could she really do that?
“Of course.” Soleil nodded, then handed her an envelope. “The information on how to contact me is in here. Plus some extra things. Please consider this carefully. There are risks to doing this, I can’t deny that, but there are people going missing and I think you can help out trying to find them. I think that you can help with figuring out what’s going on.”
Willow accepted the envelope, it was pretty heavy for looking so small.
She didn’t know if she could trust Soleil yet. She could just be lying to make Willow trust her. But after the story Soleil told, Willow remembered the moment she talked about. She remembered sitting behind that computer. It was how she got so interested in learning how to code in the first place. It was how her interest in it really got started. Her father had taken her to his office for some reason, she couldn’t remember exactly why anymore, but that first time doing some small coding and making things happen on the screen was what got her interested in it.
But was that enough to risk everything? As far as she knew, if she got blitzed herself, she would basically be wiped from this world. She would stop existing in the way she’d always known.
Was that risk worth it?
* * *
Willow closed the door to her apartment behind her, locking the icy weather outside as she took her jacket off. It had started to rain as she walked through the garden and it had made everything feel even more surreal. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been outside while it was raining. It felt strange. And she’d totally forgotten how bad near-freezing rain was too.
Her delivery box was still showing that she had a delivery and as she walked over to it, she saw a huge box sitting inside. Since it wasn’t yet time for dinner, it could be her father’s computer.
After talking to Soleil and remembering how she got into coding and why she got so interested in it in the first place, getting the computer now felt different. Willow had started coding to feel closer to her father, to have some relationship with him. But incidentally, she also made friends through it, friends she could rely on, friends who would always help her out. And, apparently, friends, or people, who were always trying to protect her. People like Soleil.
Willow pulled the big box out of the delivery box, slowly pushing it to her table, looking it over. She didn’t remember the computer to be this heavy.
Then something dark blue caught her eye. A dark blue square in front of the delivery box. It must have fallen out as she took the big box out of it.
She went over to it, picking it up.
On the front of the note was one word, ‘Mebugi’.
Willow’s heart started beating loudly. Mebugi. That was what Violet had called them. Mebugi, metal bubble girls.
Then she realised two things.
Firstly, there was only one other person who knew about that conversation, Violet.
Secondly, this note wasn’t addressed to anyone. It just had that one word on it. That meant that Violet had dropped this note into her delivery box by hand.
Violet was here.
Violet was here and had left her a note.
Violet was nearby!
And she was alive.
9. Crossing the Threshold
Willow opened the note, the handwriting on it strange and loopy. Then she remembered a conversation she’d had with Violet a few years back. Violet loved what she called ‘cursive’, a handwriting type that was practised a lot in the last century, but with everyone going digital and especially with how easy it was to just send voice messages these days, nobody used it anymore. It was rare enough to find someone with legible handwriting in this world, let alone finding someone who could write in something as special as cursive handwriting.
It took her a bit of focus, but she could decipher the message.
When you find this note, please don’t worry about me anymore and tell the others not to worry either.
Better yet, tell them that I’m fine, that I’m just playing HF and that I’m deep into the game or something.
That didn’t feel right. Why would Willow lie to their friends? Why would Violet ask her to lie?
I’m writing you this message to tell you that I’m safe, I’m okay. I’m not in any danger or harm.
I’ll contact you again soon.
There was nothing in the note that could help her figure out what had happened or where Violet was right now. Nothing.
Then she looked over the small note, trying to find any distinguishing marks. But there didn’t seem to be anything on the paper. It was simple dark blue paper, folded a couple of times, and then just dropped into her delivery box. No stained ink, no dirt flecks, nothing.
Wait! Her delivery box!
It had shown that she had a delivery earlier today, she just hadn’t seen anything in it at the time so she’d presumed that it was an error. But the note would have been too small to be visible from the top of the delivery box… How long had it been in there? How long ago had Violet been here?
She went over to the delivery box and a menu showed up in her AR vision.
Last Received Deliveries
She hovered her eyes over the ‘Last Received Deliveries’ option and it gave her a list.
Last Received Deliveries
From ‘Dad’: ‘42 – 03 – 24 18:32
From ‘ ’: ‘42 – 03 – 24 12:12
From ‘Management’: ‘42 – 03 – 24 09:45
From ‘Management’: ‘42 – 03 – 23 17:45
From ‘Management’: ‘42 – 03 – 23 09:46
Willow checked the time. It was just past nine in the evening now, so that meant that Violet had left her the message nine hours ago…
Nine hours, and she hadn’t had a clue. She’d just presumed that the machine was malfunctioning instead of really checking it out. If she’d actually paid attention, maybe she could have found the message sooner and could have met Violet…
Although… The delivery came from an unknown account, while a message from Violet should have come from her account. But if Violet really delivered it herself and her account really was disconnected from the BASE platform… It would make sense.
Willow’s head spun. This was crazy. This was not right. How did things get even more confusing? How did it get all so messy?
She opened the envelope from Soleil. If she couldn’t get in touch with Violet via the BASE platform and Violet didn’t want her to tell any of their friends that she may be in trouble… There was only one other person Willow could reach out to right now. Only one other person who knew about blitzing and that Violet’s account was gone.
Inside the envelope was a small plastic stick, square in shape and with a cap on one end. The off-white plastic had some remnants of paint on it, but it wasn’t enough to see what logo or message had originally been on it. When she pulled the cap off, a rectangular metal computer plug became visible. A USB Type A drive? It’d been years since she last saw one of these… They were proper old-school technology. Wow.
Then she found the note in the envelope.
Plug the USB into your computer, you’ll find important files there. Don’t connect the computer to the net when you do, and don’t save anything from it onto your computer.
There is also a list of websites on it, you’ll find cables and things to connect your computer to the net there, if there aren’t any with your computer, or if they don’t work at your place.
With everything going on, Willow still smiled a little. It was like Soleil really did know her dad. Or maybe Willow getting her old computer back and needing the supplies for it was just an obvious thing for her to do. If Soleil really had been keeping an eye on her for so long, that could easily be true too.
If you want to talk privately, pull up a command prompt on your AR and put in the code below. That will open a secure link to me and we can chat there privately.
Thank you for helping out!
That was quite a big leap to make for Soleil, to just assume that Willow would be able to do these things, especially since Soleil had put this together before they’d even met face to face. To assume that Willow would know how to get to the command prompt in the BASE platform in AR and be able to put in the code, was a pretty big leap. Not that she couldn’t. But Soleil probably expected at least some level of competence from the people she worked with…
Willow read the code at the bottom, it was fairly straightforward. Then she pulled up a command prompt, something she wasn’t supposed to be able to reach this easily just as a normal user, but with the number of times she overrode her ‘low sensory protection protocol’ settings, it was almost a reflex by now.
*You are now in a chat with Rotnem*
No invitations that were being sent. Just a direct chat to someone without any questions or hurdles or privacy protections. Interesting.
Willow: What happens when an account is blitzed?
She looked at the chat, waiting for an answer, almost holding her breath.
Rotnem: The ID is scrambled, all your data is basically unusable.
She knew that part. Sage had already explained that part of it.
Willow: But what if you’re supposed to be clocked by a system? What would you show up as?
Rotnem: Show up as?
Willow: The name or account, what would show?
Rotnem: I have no idea. Sorry.
Rotnem: Do you have an idea?
An idea was a little too much for the small inkling that she had, but at least she now knew that there was very little known about what happened when people had blitzed accounts. And that there wasn’t a standard way to find out if the blitzes had taken place or not. She only suspected that Violet’s account had been blitzed. With everything she knew right now, that seemed to be the simplest explanation.
Willow: Maybe. I don’t know yet for sure.
Willow: My missing friend delivered a note to my place, and the delivery box didn’t register a name. Literally, no name.
Rotnem: Okay. Interesting.
Rotnem: I’ve not been able to talk to someone who’s been in contact with someone who’s been blitzed. At least not in a way where I could get information about their accounts showing up in the system.
Rotnem: I’ve been having to rely on assumptions about the BASE platform code and how things should and would work within it.
Rotnem: But this is interesting and new…
Willow looked over at the box with her old computer. Trying to decide if she should set it up now.
Then a notification blinked at her, and her heart jumped. Was she now really going to get jumpy at every notification she got?
It opened without her input, that only happened when the system thought the notification was too important to ignore for her.
New Results for Search: Helheim Fallen + missing: New Results for Search: Destruction of Elysium + blitzed
Oh, no. Not good.
She selected the first search and a short list of topics opened. In the last couple of hours, three more people had posted about friends going missing, all of them got beta keys at the same time as Violet and all of their accounts had become unreachable immediately. This could be three different people talking about a single friend or three people talking about three totally different friends. Still… Some people, like Violet, went into HF and their accounts were gone soon after, that much was obvious.
Violet had gone into HF, all happy, her account fully intact, and now her whole BASE account seemed to be missing. It took moments for it to happen, but would impact them a lot. The connection between the codes being sent out, people logging on, and then a handful of them going missing was… alarming.
Then she opened the second search and there were ten topics talking about people being blitzed in DoE. Though, it wasn’t exactly obvious how many different people had been blitzed or if they were just asking and worrying about the same two or three people constantly. It was obvious that they were much more worried about the openly blitzed accounts in DoE than the people disappearing when they logged onto HF…
Willow: How many DoE blitzes have been reported?
Rotnem: From just the videos and screenshots I’ve seen… Three at least. I’m not sure about the fourth yet.
Wow. No way. That was definitely adding up.
Rotnem: And I’ve also seen videos and screenshots of at least two more blitzed accounts in Bullet Pack Online and another three in Biome Defender IV in the last three days.
Crap. What the hell? Those were the three largest multiplayer games in BASE, Destruction of Elysium, Bullet Pack Online and Biome Defender IV. So there definitely would have been more people who got hit by blitzing, they just wouldn’t be found if they mostly played single player games or when it happened in smaller games where fewer people hung out.
Willow: You think that HF is at the heart of this?
Because this was hitting a lot of games at the same time.
Rotnem: Yes. It didn’t start happening until after they started sending out more beta keys for HF, and every player hit by the blitzing had been on the beta key waiting list.
Willow didn’t even want to know how Soleil knew that.
Rotnem: Also, we don’t exactly know what happens in HF to the people who go missing.
Rotnem: We’re assuming that they’re also blitzed but we’re not so sure.
Rotnem: You can’t reach those accounts anymore. There isn’t a way to contact them. And any posts on the HF forums about this are getting deleted and accounts banned and otherwise preventing people from talking about this.
Rotnem: So whatever is happening, people in HF don’t want the players to find out.
Willow: Could it be a bug or accident?
Because thinking that something on this scale was intentional was scary. Accidentally messing something up was one thing, but purposefully ruin people’s lives like this… that was a whole other level of evil.
Rotnem: Even if it’s a bug, we kind of need to find out what the bug is so that we can fix it, you know?
Yeah… That was kind of important. They couldn’t fix this or help people when they had no idea what was actually going on.
Rotnem: I know I’m asking a lot of you. But I really believe that you would be the right person. You’re also in a very unusual situation which can really help me.
Rotnem: Don’t get angry, yeah?
Rotnem: You being officially diagnosed as autistic means that people don’t pay attention to you. You’re smart, you know a lot of things about coding and nobody is looking at you. You don’t have a job to show up at, you don’t have to worry about people wondering where you are or what you’re doing most of the time.
Right… So far, that was true, even if depressing to think about in these terms.
Rotnem: We can use that to our advantage. You’re invisible in the best way possible.
Willow: You’re sure-sure that going into HF is the only way that we can figure this out?
Rotnem: Yes. Nobody but the developers know what’s really going on in there. Nobody seems to be able to get into the code of the game from the outside.
Rotnem: I can’t even get in from the outside as a BASE developer and we can get into almost everything. They’ve been really strict about closing the game off. The only way in is by the front door.
Rotnem: You need to go into the game itself as a player to see what’s going on.
Willow: You can’t do it yourself?
Because trusting her with such a task seemed kinda silly with Soleil’s expertise.
Rotnem: No. They know my account, they won’t let me in.
That sounded strange, and didn’t make her feel any safer.
Rotnem: I’ve had a run in with some of their developers in the past. They’ve got a search out for my BASE account.
Willow: But I can get in safely?
Rotnem: Yes. I promise. I’ve…
Rotnem: Someone else is helping us out and they got us in. I just can’t do it myself because of the flag on my account and you’re the only one I know who has the right expertise to pull this off. To get us the information that we need.
Did Willow want to put herself in danger? For people who were basically strangers? Was that going to be worth it? And wouldn’t she be putting her own account in danger too?
But she couldn’t help herself. The messages about people going missing tugged at her. She could imagine the fear the posters were going through, their missing friends, not being able to reach them. It really sucked. And also, there was the fear of the people who’d gotten blitzed, who were now without friends or family, or a way to get in touch with other people. They were all alone, no way to get to their finances or anything like that. That was even more scary.
Willow had to do this. If there was one feeling she knew well, it was loneliness. Loneliness and fear of being alone all the time.
There was no other thing she could do, she had to do this.
Willow: I’ll do it. What do you need from me?
Rotnem: Thanks. Thank you so much!
Willow: What do I need to do?
Rotnem: If you log onto your VR system, you should see a code in your store cart soon. That code gets you into HF, there will be an item in your inventory which will help you to see through the game and into the code behind it, letting you explore what’s really happening.
Rotnem: But as soon as you’re in, you’re on your own.
Rotnem: I won’t be able to contact you anymore because of the rules set into place by the HF creators, you’re going to have to abide by the same rules as the beta players.
Right. She’d be on her own until she logged back out.
If she’d be able to log out and didn’t get blitzed when she stepped into the game instead.
Willow: If I don’t log back out and check in with you in twelve hours, meet me at the Dome at noon tomorrow.
That way she’d at least be able to get in touch with Soleil somehow, even if stuff went wrong. Safety first and all… Although, this was far from safe. This was definitely a ‘nope’ when it came to safety.
Rotnem: Will do.
Willow sat down on her bed, taking a deep breath.
Willow: I’m going in.
She closed the chat window and pulled the VR headset on, then she let herself fall back on her bed and checked into the BASE platform store.
The world around her changed, and she was standing in the store area of the platform, the white nothingness spreading to all sides, the games and programs she owned spinning slowly around her.
Then she opened the store menu and Soleil had been right, there was a code in her cart, giving her access to Helheim Fallen Online.
She accepted the ‘purchase’ of the game and watched it download. It was pretty fast, but then again, the connection in her apartment was really good.
The icon for Helheim Fallen Online appeared in front of her and she took another breath.
Now or never.
She hit the button and was sucked into the game’s icon.
The world around her went dark, until a small light in front of her appeared, growing bigger.
“Helheim is the realm of the underworld, of the darkness, underground. It is ruled over by the goddess Hel, daughter of Loki, but where once this world was hidden, now the veil between worlds has thinned and the creatures of other worlds are invading it. Hel begs every person to help her protect her world from falling any further.”
10. Character Creation
Willow blinked again and again as the fully immersive video ended and she actually formed in the game, the disjoint between the two disorienting. The intro video to Helheim Fallen Online showed her shown her frozen fields with creatures fighting for survival, dark dungeons where monsters were hiding out and creatures all over trying to stay alive. The final scene had been a closeup of a beautiful woman in a dark throne room, Hel, the Norse Goddess and ruler of Helheim, furious about the other worlds invading hers.
Now, Willow was standing in a room which was more of a wooden hut, really. The lights in here were muted, although she couldn’t find an actual light source and it was sparsely decorated with a rack of weapons at her side and a mirror on the other side of the space.
*You are now logged into Helheim Fallen Online*
*This game is in beta and allows limited contact through outside chat systems*
The second message didn’t come as a surprise to her, she’d known that having contact with the BASE platform while inside HF was prohibited because the creators of the game feared that people would ‘spoil the surprise’ or something like that. But it also meant that she really couldn’t reach out to her friends while inside the game, or to Soleil, which wasn’t so good.
The creators of Helheim Fallen were really strict about how much of the game they were showing to the world before release. Being unable to make screenshots or videos in the game and the limited contact with the outside world helped with that.
Willow looked down at herself, or, where she expected to exist. But she had no physical body yet in the game. She could feel her hands as she moved them, she could feel the air as she moved her hands through it, but she couldn’t see any part of her body.
A window popped up in front of her.
This is the character creation room, you can choose your look at the mirror and your first choice of weapon at the weapon rack.
Okay, simple enough, right?
Also, first choice of weapon? That’s an interesting choice of words. But, since she didn’t see any real way to interact with the game around her without a physical body, she turned to the mirror.
As she stepped in front of the mirror, a human female appeared, who looked quite similar to what Willow looked like in real life. She was wearing a set of a simple top and trousers from a rough fabric in some dull brown-ish colour. Hmm… Yeah, no. Not to her taste at all.
As she looked to the top of the mirror, she saw five symbols appear, and as she looked at each one of them a word appeared under it.
The first races were easy enough to understand, those were the most basic races that appeared in nearly any fantasy game. As she looked at the symbols closer, she first turned into a short and blocky version of herself as a dwarf and then a slightly taller version of herself with much skinnier limbs as an elf. But the last two races she didn’t recognise.
As she focused on the Jötunn she went back to her normal size, but her features distorted and she was suddenly hunched over. It reminded her of what trolls were supposed to look like in stories she’d seen as a kid. Kind of an interesting choice to add to the game, but not her thing.
Then she focused on the Draugr and stumbled back in surprise.
She’d suddenly turned skeletal thin, her face like all the life had been sucked out of it and she was sure that some of her skin was missing in places. Undead. Cool. Really cool.
Okay, while not exactly one of her usual choices, this was definitely odd and strange enough to get her interest. When she could look like this, she didn’t care about potential stat boosts or whatever, she just cared about looking awesome.
You have chosen to be a Draugr.
Do you confirm this choice?
‘Yes,’ she thought. The game would interpret her thoughts as easily as it would interpret if she’d actually spoken the word.
The mirror in front of her changed, some menus appeared along the edges, and she could now choose the basic options like hair colour and select facial and body features. But most interesting of all, she could select the level of ‘undead’ look she had. Though none of the options were very outrageous, as BASE liked to keep some of the player’s looks in the avatar they played, giving them more ‘human’ features, that apparently would improve the connection that people would feel towards each other in the game.
Willow didn’t want to look too decayed, she liked having some physical body for her character, so she chose a middle stage between ‘decaying and bloated a couple of days after death’ and ‘flesh almost fully fallen from the bones’. That would do.
She didn’t really feel like changing much else about her avatar. The game was pretty good at mixing what Willow looked like in the real world with this fantasy race that she now played. She didn’t need to do much else.
Then she turned, her body now feeling different from before. It felt both heavier and lighter at the same time, like she was really strong but also kind of big, and every joint in her body appeared to creak. Strange and interesting, but she’d probably get used to it.
The weapon rack now had fewer weapon choices on it than before, probably because those other options weren’t available for her race. But, luckily, there was still a staff available, and that likely meant that she didn’t need any other options anyway. She really was at her best as a mage, or a caster in general. The other options were a large sword, a sword and shield and a huge axe.
Willow grabbed for the staff, her almost skeletal hands surprising her for a moment as they came into view, but then she wrapped her fingers around the weapon, and it started glowing with a blue tint.
Are you ready to cast fear into your enemies with a single look or raise trouble from the earth and elements around you? Then the Seidhr is the right choice for you.
Fight with the elements, illness, a companion or your own enhanced strength. The choice is yours.
A companion? Elemental magic? Yeah, that sounded right up her alley.
Willow didn’t even look at the other classes. What would be the use when this one sounded exactly like what she liked to play?
You chose the Seidhr as your first class.
Do you confirm this choice?
‘Yes.’ Again with those stupid confirmation questions.
Then the game changed, new elements showing up in her view. A map appeared at the top right of her vision, though it was black apart from the small hut she was in right now. A row of buttons under it, though they didn’t seem to be interactable right now. At the bottom of her view was now a long bar. There were a selection of slots in the middle of it, probably spell slots or things like that. On the right side of the slots was a tree, and when she looked at it a bar of text hovered over it.
XP to next level 0/400
On the other side of the bar was a darkened shape of an animal, a bear or something, but as she looked at that, nothing showed up. Probably something that would appear later.
She didn’t have any ‘spells’ yet and also couldn’t get to an inventory or anything. She was just in the character creation mode right now.
As she looked up, she saw a door she hadn’t realised was there before. Or maybe it hadn’t been there before at all. Had this only appeared after she’d chosen her race and class?
She walked over to it, touching the handle.
Are you ready to choose your name, leave the character creation room and start playing?
Please fill out your name below.
A screen popped up.
She smiled a little, it’d been a long time since she saw one of these short character breakdown screens in a game. Old school but interesting.
She pulled up a keyboard and typed her name.
That name has already been taken.
Please choose a different name.
Willow sighed, next try.
It was a little overboard, but she could try it.
No punctuation can be used in names. Only the Latin alphabet. Please choose a different name.
Frustrating, though, ‘\/\/1770\/\/’ would have been annoying anyway.
She tried to come up with another name. Most games didn’t care much about a unique character name, as every account had a unique identifier within the BASE platform anyway and that was what the system remembered, not just the name of a character.
It was the other name that her parents were thinking of giving her. And it was a little more uncommon as far as names went.
Are you sure you want to take the name ‘Meadow’?
If you are sure about your choices, touch the door handle again and you will be transported into the game.
Willow looked around one last time, not sure what would be waiting for her on the other side, but she couldn’t stay here. She had to find out what was going on and she needed to be in the actual game to do that.
She reached out to the door handle, touching it again.
It was all or nothing now.
* * *
The world around her came back into view. She was standing in the middle of a village. Although, it was more of an encampment kind of setting.
The huts around her looked similar to the one she was in during the character creation. The low walls were made of rough wooden beams. The roofs were made of branches and mud, some even had grass growing on them. Around her, in the streets, there were piles of snow, and everything had that blue tint that signalled ‘winter’ or ‘snowy setting’ in most games.
There was no question that she was in a game that took place in an old Norse setting. This definitely looked like the old pictures she’d seen in books about old Nose mythology.
The area she spawned in was quiet, very quiet. But that wasn’t unexpected, most people with beta keys would probably already have left this zone, since it’d been more than two days since the new batch of players had arrived here. Starter towns usually didn’t keep players there for more than a couple of hours, a day at most.
But that could potentially be a good thing. This way she could explore the area more easily, and not get all overwhelmed by all the other players and nobody would question her checking every little corner of the game.
A creature appeared at her side, like a ghost or helper or something. It looked a lot like a fairy, but not the ethereal type that was so common on other games, this one seemed more down to earth. It had wings like a dragonfly and the body of a tall almost goblin-like creature. Eek.
“Welcome hero, we are so glad that you have chosen to join us in our fight against the invasion.” The creature started blabbing at her about the village needing more heroes and things like that, but Willow zoned it out. Instead, she reached at her side where she suspected her ‘bag’ would be and her inventory appeared in front of her.
The inventory had sixteen slots, which was pretty common when it came to starter inventory sizes in most games. In her inventory she already had two health potions, two mana potions and a potato.
Soleil had said that she would get some item that she could use to get more in-depth access to the game. Where was it? Did she have to pull up another screen for it or something?
She grabbed the health potion, and the creepy creature started a new sequence about the use of health potions. That wasn’t it, obviously. Then she grabbed the mana potion, and again the creature changed tracks to explain the use of mana potions. Still not it.
Finally, she grabbed the potato and the creature shut up.
You better not eat this one, it doesn’t taste that nice.
Okay… She frowned, then interacted with it, and a menu appeared.
She focused on the X-ray Vision and a screen popped up in front of her. Not a screen like one where you can put text in, but more like a viewer, like it was doing an x-ray scan of the area around her as she looked through it.
Willow could see some of the code that controlled the creature in front of her. The helper was pretty limited in what it could do. Just a couple of set sequences of explanations and it would try to guide her to the first quests, at which point it would despawn. Neat.
This must be the item that Soleil talked about.
Then she put it back into her inventory. That was enough playing around. She probably wouldn’t be able to find anything in just the starter village, at least, there wasn’t anything around her that looked off.
And what was it with her skills bar? Why hadn’t she gotten any spells yet?
“If you’re ready for your first adventure, please follow me.” The creature floated up and down in the middle of her face, getting really annoying and she wished she could just reach out and break the code for it…
Well, it wasn’t like she had much of a choice but to follow what the creature wanted her to do.
Willow sighed and looked at the ugly creature. “Sure. Show me where I need to go.”
The creature slowly started floating ahead of her. “As a Seidhr, you control the elements and can use natural curses…”
Willow zoned out the voice of the creature again as she followed it. Why did this stupid game not have a setting to turn the spoken words into text pop-ups? And where was her normal settings menu?
What was it with this game? Why did it have to be so annoying and closed off?
She’d been looking forward to playing this ‘innovative’ and ‘revolutionary’ game, but right now, it felt more like a watered down version of basically any VRMMORPG fantasy game out there. And that wasn’t what she’d been promised…
Willow is ready to save the world, but will it be this easy?
Will she be able to find Violet again?
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Willow’s life hasn’t been easy. She’s autistic, living in a community closed off from the rest of the world ‘for her own safety’, and the only way she gets to interact with anyone is by logging in to the BASE (Bioelectrical Augmented Synapse Enhancement) platform and play videogames.
Her life revolves around playing VRMMORPGs with her close friends and making a little extra money on the side by trading items in the games so that she can buy pizza or new games when they come out.
The game she’s saving up for right now? Helheim Fallen Online, a Norse mythology inspired game, said to be changing the landscape of gaming forever.
Only, there are rumours going around that some people who get the beta invite for the game are going missing. It’s just a rumour, until her best friend Violet wins one of the beta keys and disappears, all traces of her gone, like she was never even there.
Now Willow is fighting against the clock to not only find out where Violet went, but why more people are going missing every day, and the only way to do that is by illegally getting into Helheim Fallen Online, play the game, and expose whoever is making people disappear.
And, above all, make sure she doesn’t get caught in the meantime and disappears herself.
She has ten days to pull it off.