BASE Status: Online Chapter 1-5

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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.

 

I. Departure

 

 

1. Ordinary World

*You are now logged into Destruction of Elysium*

The message appeared in the middle of Willow’s line of sight as the world around her started to materialise. The low houses gave the feeling that they were about to burst out a whole family of ghosts and a dense fog fuzzied the edges of her surroundings, making the lights at the end of the street look creepy and haunted.

Willow’s ‘low sensory’ settings muted all of the voice announcements in the game, instead showing them as notifications in the middle of her view. It also influenced the background music, keeping it fairly quiet, the light effects, dampening their brightness a tad, and even her experiences of scent and taste in the virtual world. She always thought it was one of the best inventions ever, being able to decide on your own world settings and not having to deal with the harshness of sensory experiences that others seemed to have no problems with.

As she walked down the street, it occurred to her, not for the first time, that the real world would be a much better place for her to live in if they could get the sensory settings in augmented reality as advanced as they were in virtual reality.

The thing was, the muting option in AR was just an imperfect rendering of what they already had running in VR. Since it was just not as easy to mute impulses inside a brain as it was when they could just send her brain a lower setting in the first place. Though, she hoped that the AR settings would get more advanced soon. There were places outside of the building she lived in that she’d love to visit for real, like the beach or going skiing in the mountains, but for now, she just couldn’t. It would send her into sensory overload and probably trigger a panic attack. Bummer.

Willow looked around, quickly locating where she was as she saw the name of the city listed over the almost translucent map in the top right side of her vision. Araepolis, city of the cursed spirits, and she was in the residential district.

Okay, good. She quickly tried to recall what she had been up to before she’d logged off yesterday.

A red exclamation mark slowly pulsed in the lower right edge of her view. She moved her eyes in that direction and a screen popped up in front of her.

Notifications

√ 300 XP for daily logging in

√ New message from Violet

√ Update on Guild Ship Items List

√ Quest update for 1 quest

√ 150 items have been sold in the marketplace

As she read the list, the top message’s faint glow disappeared, and the XP message slowly faded away, the others moving up a row.

She focused on the update of her items list, and a new list appeared.

Guild Ship Item List

Gather:

□ Cedar Wood: 490/500

√ Linseeds: 250/250

□ Ghost Leaves: 189/200

□ Juicy Olives: 276/300

√ Titanic Cassava: 100/100

Craft:

□ Cedar Lumber: 75/100

□ Titanic Varnish: 37/50

The numbers for cedar lumber and titanic varnish glowed as the game registered her most recent crafting attempts as successful, even though she hadn’t actually collected them yet.

Her guild was building a guild trading ship so that they could directly trade with other guilds, cutting out the fees of the marketplace, but it also allowed trade of rarer items that couldn’t be sold through the regular market. If they completed it before Helheim Fallen Online came out, and used it to run a couple of trading missions, it could give them a significant boost in in-game income which meant that buying the new game would be a lot easier.

Willow switched back to the notifications list, the items list update row now also gone. She ignored the message from the marketplace. There was no use checking that until she was actually going to invest time in it and could set up new items to sell, which probably wouldn’t be until later.

She took a quick peek at the updated quest log, but it was only for the quest to open a new raid. The dungeon she’d finished last night had finally registered at the main quest registry, and now she just had to do three more dungeons until she could enter the new raid. She didn’t know why the updates on dungeons had to be so slow to register, though it probably had something to do with giving people enough time to recover from doing a dungeon or event before going onto the new one. Dungeons and raids were pretty exhausting, mostly mentally, so there were certain barriers in place to make sure people didn’t overdo it.

Then she focused on the notification of a message from Violet, and a new screen showed up.

Hi Willow,

Good morning!

Did you hear it yet? They’re sending out the new batch of beta keys for Helheim Fallen today.

I’m so excited.

I sooo hope we both get one, but if only one of us gets it, we have to tell the other what it’s like.

Promise me!

Okay. Off to bed.

Night!

Love, Violet

Most people these days would send voice or video messages, but Willow preferred to do things old school, just typed notes. She liked it better because it was calmer and quieter, voice or video messages just tended to be loud and obnoxious.

A keyboard appeared in the air in front of her, and she quickly typed a message back to Violet. They sometimes missed each other when they were both on different sleep schedules, though it didn’t matter much. Time had become almost meaningless these days.

The economy, the games, it all ran 24/7. Day and night had become merely words referencing to it being light or dark outside, nothing more.

About twenty years ago, before Willow had even been born, a device called a BASE unit, Bioelectrical Augmented Synapse Enhancement unit, had been invented. This small device was implanted at the base of the skull and could read but also create and send neuro-electrical pulses to the brain. The BASE unit was able to adjust pulses from different parts of the body and this way it could create a very realistic augmented reality experience. The BASE unit also came with its own software platform called the BASE platform, which did away with most people’s needs for old school computers as it could directly interface the internet with their brain. The most popular use of the BASE platform was the virtual reality option where people could walk around a game, or any virtual world, like they were really there.

When almost everyone in the world switched to the BASE implant and lived their lives either in AR or VR, it opened up a world of possibilities. For example, it allowed Willow to set her own sensory setting for things like volume or light, which was such a blessing to her because those were the main areas she had problems with because of her autism. But it also allowed the world to run 24/7. The BASE platform would read people’s ‘biological clock’ and then notify them when they should go to sleep, or get something to eat and things like that. Because no matter how realistic BASE was, those bodily functions still needed to happen in the real world.

There had even been reports of people getting suspended from the BASE platform for hours or days at a time when they ignored the BASE messages for too long. And if that kept going on, they could even get visits from a doctor and be sent to a specialised hospital unit that would teach them to take better care of their bodily needs. Scary.

The BASE unit used to be this big dangerous thing and people would warn against, giving companies such easy access to their brains. But these days, most kids had it implanted within a couple of months of being born. It was a normal procedure. That, and the battery of tests that would determine so much of a kid’s future.

When kids got their implant, doctors would also use that time to test how they responded to sensory stimulation, how well they reacted to social interactions, if their body had any physical deformities or if their build could potentially make them athletic stars. There was a whole list of tests. And in the end, all the results were ranked almost like they were ‘stats’ about a human being.

Or, that’s how Willow imagined it anyway, that there was a stats sheet on her on some system or in some drawer like she had for her character in DoE.

Intelligence: Average

Social Skills: Very low

Physical Skills: Average

Sensory Processing: Problematic

Class: Autistic

The tests were what got her an autism diagnosis, and that had influenced the rest of her life since. From going to a tiny preschool class, to private lessons at primary and secondary school, to the ‘low sensory housing’ she lived in right now.

Or, as she liked to call it, ‘the rollercoaster of going absolutely nowhere in life’. She was autistic, so she’d been put into a system that was basically designed to keep her busy and somewhat healthy until the day she died. Because she was never expected to amount to anything anyway, so why bother?

Through the BASE implant, the AR side enhanced daily life around the house. From things like ordering groceries or anything else a person needed right from where they were standing, to being read a story, or even calling friends. It was all done in the BASE’s AR system, right there through the BASE unit in their brain.

And when someone wanted to go to the virtual world, they’d put on a VR headset and be transported to the BASE platform, from where they could choose from any game or program they owned or browse new games and programs. The BASE platform worked all around the world, so no matter where someone logged on they would always be connected to the same system. When playing multiplayer games, they could be playing with someone from the other side of the world and not even know.

Willow moved her head slowly side to side, letting her eyes go over the empty windows of the houses around her, trying to decide if she wanted to dive into a dungeon or if it would be better to get to crafting the items for the guild boat first. Crafting, probably, especially if they were going to get the guild boat done before Helheim Fallen Online, the new VRMMORPG, came out.

A message popped up in the chat box on the lower left side of her vision.

Sage: Where are you at?

Willow smiled. Sage was another one of her friends from the guild. It wasn’t a big guild, but they’d all been friends for years and had gotten to know each other pretty well.

Willow: Just logged on, going to set up the next round of items for the boat, and then going to queue for a dungeon. I’d like to open the next raid before the weekend. Get it out of the way and stuff.

Her fingers flew over the projected keyboard. She’d seen real keyboards when she was little, and since she preferred to play in mostly quiet or silence, this was actually a great way to communicate with others.

Sage: Cool. I’m about 80% done with my part. Do you have some flax in your inventory?

Oops!

Willow: Sold it last night. Sorry!

Sage: No problem, can go grab it myself. You need the money more than me anyway.

That was true. Willow lived on benefits because she was deemed ‘unemployable’ because of her ‘autism issue’ and the money she got each month was… well… not that much. ‘Experts’ said it was enough to live on, but that was only if you never bought any new games or wanted to drink more than water all day. It totally depended on your definition of ‘living’.

Luckily, she could make some extra money by selling items in the marketplace in games. The exchange rate from game-currency to real world-credits in DoE was crap, but that didn’t really matter. Some games, like most RTS games or hardcore puzzle games, had a better exchange rate, but she didn’t enjoy those as much, and there was little use playing them against her own preference when she would enjoy DoE much more. Right now, she was saving up for buy Helheim Fallen Online, which would set her savings back quite a bit.

She opened the game menu with a swipe of her hand and scrolled through the locations she could transport to until she hit ‘Guild House’. She clicked on the button and a new screen popped up.

Are you sure you want to teleport to Guild House?

‘Yeah, yeah,’ she thought, and the system interpreted it.

The next moment she felt the insistent pull on her whole body as she was transported to the housing area, spawning in the middle of her own room in the guild house. The room was filled with plush toys, cute trinkets she’d collected and everything that made her happy. Plus, of course, two crafting benches, one for alchemy and one for carpentering.

Willow opened a chest near the crafting tables and grabbed the supplies she needed. Then she went over to the alchemy table and collected the bottle of titanic varnish from it.

You have collected Titanic Varnish.

Alchemy +250 XP

Then she put an empty bottle at the end of the distiller and grabbed the three other ingredients she needed from her inventory, juicy olives, ghost leaves and titanic cassava. She first carefully peeled the cassava root, making sure to take all the skin off, as this was the base of the varnish and leaving any of the skin on would mean certain failure of the recipe. Then she cut up the cassava root into small pieces and put it in the bowl at the start of the distiller.

Cooking +10 XP

Then she finely tore up the ghost leaves. They were meant to stabilise the mixture, before throwing them into the bowl too.

Cooking +1 XP

Finally, she took the juicy olives, throwing them into the small centrifuge Violet had made her, before throwing in a couple of marbles and closing the lid.

She turned the lever, spinning the centrifuge, and the oil from the olives collected in the outside bowl, slowly seeping into a beaker at the base of the centrifuge. When no more oil came out, she stopped, catching her breath for a moment. That thing really needed an improvement or something, it was still too much of a hassle to handle.

Cooking +25 XP

She poured the oil into the bowl at the start of the distiller and with a flick of her wrist put a fire under the bowl, the upside of being an elemental mage. She was mostly specialised in nature and some ice magic, but that one skill point into firebolt came in really handy for cooking and a range of other uses.

She kept a close look on the mixture as it was starting to heat up, the root slowly dissolving and, as she saw the first of the leaves shrivel as they browned, she put the top of the bowl on and opened the distiller valve.

Alchemy +100 XP

Now the recipe was set up, and she just had to wait. The game would turn the fire off automatically when the recipe was done and she didn’t have to wait around for it. Titanic varnish took about two to three hours to finish. There were better things she could do with that time.

She went over to the carpenter table and took the cedar lumber from it.

Carpentry +300 XP

Then she took the cedar wood from her inventory. It was always funny how these big items could fit in her inventory all tiny and still become this huge thing when it hit the table or when she crafted with it. Game mechanics, right?

She placed the cedar wood on the table and grabbed the small bag of linseeds. Then she slowly poured the linseeds into the funnel on top of the machine. The addition of the linseeds meant that there was a greater chance of the end product being of extra high quality. Which would mean a better boat once it was finished.

It wasn’t useful on all the items they were using, but it was good to try and get extra quality where it wouldn’t add extra time or money. Getting the best quality while staying sensible about time and cost constraints was always the best.

She turned the machine on and watched the wood slowly go towards the rotating saws.

Carpentry +100 XP

The best thing about doing this in VR? She didn’t have to worry about the noise or the dust that would normally go everywhere with one of these machines. It was nice and quiet and clean.

Willow quickly took another look at the varnish in the distiller and then left her room, walking into the rest of the house.

She loved having a house with the guild, it was cosy and she felt at home here, much more so than the place she actually lived in.

They were only a small guild, five people in total, her, Violet, Sage, Juniper and Opal. Enough for queueing up for dungeons and as a small part of a bigger group when doing raids, but not much else. Which was fine with her, they didn’t need much else.

They just needed each other.

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2. Nature and Biology

Willow walked down the stairs, finding Sage in the living room on the couch.

“Morning.” She sat down next to Sage, pulling up her inventory and taking a plush hippogriff toy from it, hugging it close. She had the exact same one in the real world, a birthday gift from Violet.

“Morn,” Sage yawned. “Anything interesting going on today?”

“Hoping to do some dungeons and get some more items for the boat. And, of course, Violet is excited about the Helheim Fallen Online beta keys being handed out today. What are you up to?” Willow didn’t really feel like moving though, she’d rather veg out on the couch than go do anything. Luckily, she could.

“I should be getting some items for the boat too.” Sage shrugged. “But I’ve got to get to work in three hours…” They looked around the place. “Do you want to run a quick dungeon together?”

Willow shrugged too, a little too comfortable where she was. “We could just go do some gathering.” Right now, that would probably be better spending of her time. She wasn’t as far along with the gathering of the items she needed for her crafting as the others were. Not that she could really do things any faster, since she only had the crafting tables in her room to use most of the time. “Hey.” She looked at Sage, at their odd eyes and their weathered skin. Sage was a satyr, a wood and mountain creature of Greek mythology, who were known for their close connection to nature and their love of drinking and parties.

Willow had always found it so interesting, the different races that a player could choose from and how it related to who they were. She was a dryad herself, a forest nymph with flowers for hair, green-tinted skin and gear that looked like plants had just grown around her. It fit the type of mage she usually played, someone who was more connected to the lighter sides of nature and who got most of their powers from being surrounded by trees. Violet was a Naiad, a water nymph. Which she explained was because it was cool to play and somehow the race perks made her a better rogue, but Willow always suspected it was because Violet liked looking at herself in every reflective surface she passed and the race kind of… They were beautiful and didn’t wear too much.

“Yes?” Sage smiled, reaching up to tap the tip of her nose. “You got distracted again.”

“Eh. Yes.” Willow blinked, coming back to this world. “I’m going to set up the crafting tables in the basement, if there are any empty right now. Do you want to go gather some things from the garden after that?” She wasn’t up for doing anything big yet, but gathering was fun and didn’t require too much of her energy.

Sage pulled a face. “You’re going to have to wait. Violet and Juniper filled them up this morning before they logged off.”

“I guessed as much.” Willow sat up more, putting the plush hippogriff back into her inventory. “Was worth a try, though.” Even in their basement they only had a limited number of crafting tables since the house was so small.

“True,” Sage said as they stood up. “You want to go out back now?”

“Yeah.” Willow also stood up. The guild house also had its own garden, and they’d been farming a lot of things that were either great for selling off or were used in making the boat. Or, at least, the items that wouldn’t take too long to grow. Trees for the wood for the boat were too much of a hassle, they took two weeks just to fully mature and then they had to be lucky that they were of a high enough quality. But the flax only took 48 hours, so they’d been planting them in 6-hour increments so that they could often harvest a couple of them at a time.

As soon as Willow stepped out the door, Mira was pushing her beak against her leg. Willow grinned and petted the small hippogriff, ruffling her feathers. “Hi, sweetie. Did Violet lock you out of the house again?”

Violet tended to do that. Since the coding for baby creatures, especially hippogriffs, actually included strings of code that allowed them to ‘eat’ things they found around them or ‘trample’ it which would break items. It had been fun when Mira was still in her baby phase, but she was now in her third stage, almost getting to juvenile, and the skills she’d unlocked had been… a little bit more annoying sometimes.

Willow pulled up Mira’s stats screen.

Name: Mira

Creature: Hippogriff

Age: 4 weeks

Stage: Child

Time to next stage: 56 hours

Attack: 10

Toughness: 8

Sleep: Low

Hunger: High

Parents: Violet & Willow

“Ah, you just woke up, didn’t you?” Willow reached into her inventory and pulled out a piece of raw rabbit meat. How these things didn’t go bad in her inventory… She didn’t question it. “Time for breakfast!”

Mira stepped back a little, her head bobbed up and down, her eyes on the piece of meat, her beak wide open, but her screeching quieted because of Willow’s settings.

Then Willow threw the piece as far as she could. It made a nice arch, but Mira caught it easily, happily munching. Willow and Violet were both ‘parents’ to Mira. They’d raised her together from when she was an egg and once Mira was big enough, they’d be able to fly her together. Which was awesome. More than awesome, really. There weren’t many hippogriff parents in Destruction of Elysium, as taking care of the egg before it hatched was such a hard job. But between the two of them, they’d managed it.

As Mira was eating, and tumbling around, playing, Willow turned to the fenced-off patch of garden. They’d put the fence in after Mira destroyed part of their crops one night.

Sage was already looking at the flax, running their fingers through the tops as it waved in the computer-generated wind. They looked her way. “How much do you need?”

Willow checked her list. “No more linseeds, but I do need olives.” She pointed to the trees at the back. She had to pick out just the right ones. Not all the olives would be ‘juicy’ ones, no matter how much she’d helped the trees grow as strong as possible. It had been a hassle, growing a high-quality tree from nothing. But it was definitely worth it over having to go out into the woods and search for olives in the wild, surrounded by mobs.

“Cool. I’ll just get these done then.” Sage pulled a big fork-like tool out of their bag and started pushing it into the ground to loosen the flax roots for harvesting.

Willow went over to the olive trees, running her fingers over the leaves, letting them play against her skin. She loved trees and the feeling of leaves and flowers. It was one of her ‘things’.

She reached up, putting her fingers around an olive and pulled carefully. The ring around the olive turned yellow, and a status bar appeared over it.

Almost ready.

Do you want to harvest it?

She let the olive go, it was a little too early for that one. She’d still get the XP for harvesting it, but it wasn’t worth it if she wouldn’t be able to get the right items from it.

She reached out to another one, this time, as she wrapped her hand around it, it blinked green for a moment and then fell into her hand.

You have collected Olive

Herbalism +5 XP

Farming +5 XP

Olive

Ingredient which can be used in food or can be turned into oil for a range of uses.

Bummer. She really needed the high-quality juicy olives for this the recipe, or it would be too much of a hassle to make the olive oil.

She reached out to another olive, with her other hand this time. It also blinked green, and then fell into her hand. Another regular olive. With the quality of the trees and her skill level, she could get a juicy olive about one in five or six gathering attempts. And it was really worth it. But that still meant she had a lot of normal olives in her inventory too.

Willow harvested another twenty olives, getting four juicy olives from it. The tree now no longer had any ripe olives on it, so she could try again in six to seven hours and there would hopefully be new ones ready by then.

That put her at 280 juicy olives gathered for the titanic varnish. She was almost there now.

She looked around and found Sage planting new flax in the patch, the space empty after their harvest. The guild had a pretty good system going here, planting, gathering, making sure to always have stock to sell while they also had enough items to use themselves.

She walked up to Sage, who looked up.

“Do you want to go into the forest for a while? I need to get some pelts and a few other items for the boat.” Sage cleaned their hands on their shirt as they stood up.

Willow looked out over the area behind the house and the garden, there was a forest not too far off, and she didn’t have anything else to do right now. “Sure. Let’s go.”

“Cool.” Sage swapped out their gear, going from a farming specialised gear set to an ‘adventuring’ gear set, which had a couple of attack skills but mostly had good stats for gathering items.

Willow also swapped out her gear. DoE made it really easy to keep multiple gear sets on them at the same time and that way they didn’t have to sacrifice stats for convenience.

They took off to the forest out back, it was only a short walk. The guild house was built in a mid-level zone, so while they were definitely overpowered for the creatures roaming here, that didn’t mean that the loot they dropped wasn’t useful.

By mid-level, most people would have already specialised their crafting and gathering skills, choosing just a handful of them to focus on. Trying to get all the skills levelled up at the same time was not only time-consuming but also not very practical. So, instead, people either focussed on keeping three to four skills up high enough to gather and craft everything themselves, or they would be dependent on the marketplace.

And that’s where players like Willow, Sage and Violet came in. Their gathering skills were the highest level skills they had, because that allowed them to sell stuff off. Their crafting skills always lagged behind the rest because crafting often cost more than they could make selling items off, especially at the lower levels. Which is why Willow was only now getting close to the max level for alchemy.

As they walked into the forest, most mobs and critters didn’t even seem to realise that they were there. Their coding told them that attacking players who were so much stronger than them would be a stupid choice. Which made these trips a lot simpler, really.

Then they spotted a clearing with some rabbits hopping around in it and at the edges were blackberries that Willow had her eyes on.

Sage grabbed their bow and seconds after they aimed it at one of the rabbits, an arrow flew out, and the rabbit was killed instantly. Then Sage shot a handful of other rabbits in quick succession, aiming the bow and the attack happened almost automatically, just by activating the skill.

Then Sage walked up to the first rabbit, took out their butchering knife, and as soon as the knife touched the rabbit it fell apart into rabbit meat, rabbit pelt and some sinews. The butchering left behind an almost clean carcass that would fade away in a couple of seconds.

Willow walked up to some of the bushes with the blackberries and reached out to them, tugging on them carefully, waiting for the indicators go blink green before harvesting. Blackberries sold pretty well on the marketplace because they were used for some strength and speed potions and in some food that enhanced speed, HP and strength, perfect for warrior type classes and even some tanks, depending on setup.

You have collected 2 Blackberries

Gathering +4 XP

Then, Willow saw a deer from the corner of her eyes, it seemed to have a golden glow around it, making her heart beat faster. If that was what she thought it was… It would be a very rare mob. Mythical deer barely ever spawned. Their fur and meat would definitely get her some nice coins.

She held out her hand to the deer, palm forward, and her hand started to glow, a notification of the ability to use one of her attacks blinked before she ‘pushed’ and the firebolt flew from the palm of her hand towards the deer.

You hit Mythical Deer for 658 damage

+40 XP

It was dead instantly, a forty level difference did that.

She walked up to the deer, pulling out her butchering knife, and as she touched it to the dead animal, it automatically triggered the butchering skill and the deer fell apart.

You have collected 1 Mythical Venison

You have collected 2 Mythical Hide

You have collected 1 Mythical Bone

“Lucky,” Sage said from behind her. “I haven’t seen one of those in months.”

Willow turned around, winking. “Well, it’s good that I did see it, then.”

They strolled back to the clearing. Some of the rabbits had already respawned, so Sage killed them off again swiftly for their drops. And Willow gathered more blackberries, getting a good stack of them to sell.

This was simple and easy, but game economy depended on it and so did her own finances. It was mindnumbing work, but that often meant that it was even more rewarding than if it had been too easy.

After a while, Willow stood up straight and stretched her in-game muscles, even in the game you could move wrong for too long and get stiff. Then she looked over to Sage. “I’m going to log off for a bit. I think I need some more sleep.” She’d been up quite late last night, searching guides on how to complete the final quests she was still working on for DoE and looking at pre-release footage for Helheim Fallen Online.

Sage smiled at her. “I guessed as much. I’ll be off soon too.” Sage reached out and a trade screen popped up in front of Willow.

She accepted the trade invite and a whole bag of linseed and a stack of raw rabbit meat appeared in front of her.

“I don’t need all of this. I’ve got all the seeds for the boat and I’ve got enough meat for Mira too.” She felt bad to just take items and not give anything back.

“These are left over from today and I don’t need all of them myself. They’re of more use to you, for cooking or selling.” Sage shrugged, still smiling.

“Thanks.” Willow smiled back. “I really don’t have anything to trade though.”

“No problem. These are just for you.”

“Okay.” Willow accepted the trade and the linseed and rabbit meat appeared in her inventory. That would make her some money. Even if it weren’t that much, anything helped. Then she turned back to the house. “I’m logging off. See you later!”

“Later,” Sage called after her.

Willow went back to the guild house, going up to her room. This was a better place to log off, and she wouldn’t be as disoriented when she logged back in than she was this morning.

She quickly pulled up her character screen, letting her eyes skim over the stats until she found what she needed.

She was almost another level up for her alchemy. That was good, because it would unlock the final recipes, which included a health potion that could make her quite a lot of money. The recipe required a lot of hard to find ingredients, but she’d been collecting those for weeks already, so it would definitely be worth it. Not everyone could be bothered to get their alchemy skill up this high, because it took a lot of mind-numbing work, but working on the guild boat really helped with levelling the skill slowly but steadily and she didn’t even have to spend extra time on it.

And after they’d finished the boat, she could sell the potions at a much higher price directly to other guilds with their trade boat. Which would make all the work with it.

Time to log off.

Willow pulled up the gaming menu and hit the very last button on the popup.

*You are now logged out of Destruction of Elysium*

Two blinks later, Willow opened her eyes to the white ceiling of her room. She took the VR headset off and stretched her arms and legs, rolling her shoulders. She put the headset on the table next to her bed, and stood up.

Her bedroom was… pastel coloured. Pastel green, pastel blue… The ‘experts’ on sensory overload issues insisted that pastel colours in the bedroom was the highest level of ‘stimulation’ that people with sensory issues should be exposed to when they woke up. It was this or white, and Willow really didn’t want white walls to go with the white ceiling and the white chair and the white bedside table. It was… too hospital-like.

She took a deep breath and went to the window, putting her fingers to the ‘glass’ in front of her. Currently, it was showing a beautifully rendered image of a sun coming up, since her biological clock assumed that it was morning.

Tapping on the window twice, the glass turned into a menu, showing her all the different ‘safe’ options she had that she could turn the window to. But she scrolled all the way down, hitting the very last button, unlocking the ‘unsafe’ options with her fingerprint, and then scrolled all the way down again, past storms and lava and space stations, until she found the setting she was looking for.

Turn window projection off

She clicked on it.

Are you sure?

‘Yes.’

This will turn off the safety settings on your account

Are you sure?

‘Yes.’ What was it with all the stupid questions about things she’d already decided on? Sometimes it felt like the system wasn’t helping her, instead, it felt like it was trying to keep her locked in a box. A box called ‘safety’. ‘Sensory safe’ or ‘autistic specialised’ software or settings or even food. It was ridiculous. Like she hadn’t lived in a mostly ‘normal’ world for sixteen years when she lived with her parents.

But this was the world she lived in now. As soon as she turned sixteen, ‘experts’ had insisted that she move her out of her parents’ house and into this ‘sensory low’ building. All the people living here had different levels of ‘sensory issues’, and the whole building was set up to support them so that they could be ‘the best they could be’. Basically, it meant constant check-ins and the system coddling them. Not just that, everyone was in their own little apartment and from the start she’d felt like she was discouraged from even talking to the other people living here.

It was ridiculous. For all the cool things the world had gotten because of the BASE implant and the globally connected system… They were still hiding people away who they felt were ‘different’ and instead of trying to understand them, ‘experts’ insisted that they always knew better. And parents always seemed to fall for it.

The window in front of Willow faded dark and then slowly came to life again. Even when she turned the ‘safe’ options off, some were just too hardcoded, like the fading in and out thing.

In front of her, the world was illuminated in grey, the sky in the east was lighter than in the west. From her room, she could see over the wall surrounding the building and glance at the streets and neighbourhoods beyond it. They were was mostly stupid grey blocks lined up, all nice and neat, with windows on them that never actually showed what was going on behind them. The ‘real’ world had become unreal and impersonal now everyone lived in VR or used AR when they were out and about.

It was right before sunrise. She loved this time of day best. Maybe because her biological clock worked like that, or just because it was the most serene moment of the day.

Would it be warm enough outside to go check it out?

Temperature -2˚C

Okay, that was cold.

Willow went to her closet and put on warmer jeans and a sweater and then grabbed her thick jacket. Cold or warm, she just had to go outside.

She had to go outside to greet the rising of the sun.

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3. Call to Adventure

Willow’s breath came out in small puffs, like the breathing of a dragon, as she stepped out the front doors of the building into the walled-off garden. The world around her illuminated in grey, it felt almost ethereal, unreal, like it didn’t really belong in this world.

She slowly turned down the settings on her BASE unit, letting the real world take over. The sounds around her grew louder. The humming from the AC units on the outside of the building. The water running through pipes somewhere not too far off. And there was the sounds of birds, awakening at dawn, singing as they started their day. She hadn’t heard the songs of real birds in a very long time. Although, standing in this walled-off garden, the birds could just as well be simulated too, to give the place some extra ‘authenticity of nature’.

She walked over to the fountain, which stood in front of the building, all nice and attractive for visitors. Now, in the winter, it wasn’t turned on, but that didn’t take away from how magnificent it was. The fountain was made out of a white stone, which would almost glitter in rainbow colours in the sun, and it portrayed two dolphins spraying water into the air. It could have looked tacky, but, instead, it looked serene.

Willow sat down on the edge, letting her eyes go over the rest of the garden. The trees, lining the sides, hiding most of the wall, the grass, so soft in the summer that it made for a great place to fall asleep, the park benches, scattered around in a way to appear almost random, but in reality made for easy visibility for the cameras that kept an eye on them. This was all designed to be as ‘safe’ as possible. To be as ‘calming’ and ‘comforting’ as possible.

Those weren’t her own descriptions. She’d read the leaflet that her parents got before she was taken here. This place was described as the ‘perfect oasis’ in the ‘overwhelming’ and ‘fear-inducing’ outside world, a place to ‘encourage the best out of autistic minds’. In reality, it was a prison more than anything. In the months since she’d moved in here, she’d not been outside the walls again… She was locked in here, by design, her freedom taken from her, supposedly to ‘protect’ her, but more so that the rest of society didn’t have to deal with her ‘peculiarities’.

She didn’t know why, but the ways in which people, especially ‘experts’, dealt with her felt so fake. Everything supposedly ‘good’ coming out of their mouths sounded more like it should have sarcasm quotes around it. So much of it was just hiding the truth behind pretty words.

‘Serene’, the lack of original details and design of the building and the surroundings made into a virtue instead of a flaw or a failing. ‘Calm’, nothing ever happened. ‘Encourage the best out of overwhelmed autistic minds’, put them into their own box, read: apartment, and only give them enough stimulation that the company can’t be sued for neglect. ‘Teach new kills to encourage independence’, put people into VR classes that only superficially appear useful, even though there is no plan to ever let them out of the system again.

Of course, there were actual people who helped them out with things on a more daily base. There were the people who delivered her food. The woman who would check if she kept her apartment clean enough. The man who picked up dirty dishes and laundry. But they all looked at her with that same pity in their eyes. Every last one of them.

She took a deep breath and stood up again, walking over to the bare trees. The winter rid them of their beautiful leaves, the trees and the ground below all totally bare and frozen solid. She played with her fingers over the bark, touching every tree, enjoying the differences in structure. Until a slight blinking on the lower right side of her view told her that something or someone wanted her attention.

The next moment, as she focused on it, a message popped up in front of her.

New results for search: Helheim Fallen, Helheim Fallen Online

Oh, of course, it was Sunday, did they send out the new batch of beta codes yet?

Willow opened the notification, but it wasn’t exactly what she’d expected to find, it was a topic from the HF forums.

My friend logged onto the beta for Helheim Fallen a week ago, they haven’t responded to any messages since.

This wasn’t the first time she’s seen a message like this, this wasn’t even the first time she’d heard of people closing themselves off from their friends like that either. But, like always, the replies to the topic were a lot of people laughing at the original poster, telling them it was probably because the friend enjoyed the game more than their company. People didn’t take it seriously.

But, really, it was getting a little strange. In all the years she’d been playing online games, she’d not heard about not being able to reach friends at all, at least not this often. And definitely not that all the instances of this happening were connected to a single game. Sure, people ‘disappeared’ from time to time, usually because they logged out or took a break ‘from all the digital in the world’. You know, the usual stuff. But this was more odd, that people would get a beta key and then suddenly go radio silent to all their friends for a week or more? That wasn’t normal.

Then her eyes fell on one of the replies.

The same happened to my friend, two weeks ago.

The reply was timestamped an hour ago, but it seemed like the account of the person who posted it was now wiped, or at least empty. Again… not strange, per se. Sometimes people made fake accounts just to post ridiculous lies, but it was a little unsettling that someone would post something like that and then they’d have an empty account not even an hour later. Especially since it wasn’t the first time she’d seen this happen.

In the other replies, the original poster was accused of lying and of trying to spread fear, and that they must be working for a company who wanted to bring Helheim Fallen Online down before it could be released. All the usual obsessed fan accusations, really.

Willow closed all the messages, a strange feeling in her stomach. The first few times she’d seen the messages, she tended to agree with some of what the posters had said, ‘it must be a cry for attention,’ or ‘just someone trying to make a new company look bad’. But she’d started to doubt that lately, especially now there were more and more of them showing up. It had started to become too strange for it to just be a hoax anymore.

Willow turned around, ready to go back inside, into the warmth, until she saw someone at the gates, looking through the reinforced glass doors, staring right at her. A shiver went down her spine. She didn’t know how visible she was right now, the garden didn’t really have any lights, but the sky was already getting lighter and everything around her became more visible.

But as she looked at the person at the gates again, they turned around and walked away.

Strange, really strange.

She shook her head, some people just had weird hobbies, or something.

If the person at the gates had any bad intentions, the gate security would have captured who they were and the security was directly linked to the police system. So it wasn’t like she had anything to worry about. This place was safe, secure.

And a prison…

Yeah…

Upsides and downsides, sometimes they were the exact same thing…

* * *

Willow leaned back onto her couch, her VR headset snug, and dove into her memories, playing them like movies.

She especially liked the memory from Destruction of Elysium where she was together with Violet as their hippogriff Mira hatched from her egg a couple of weeks ago. It was so adorable to watch, and she felt such a rush as Mira broke away the shell and stepped out of the confinement she’d been in for so long.

Willow had never felt closer to another person than she did that day. She’d never felt closer to Violet or anyone in the world before that moment. Sharing such an intimate but at the same time amazing experience, it had warmed her up inside, made her feel more welcome and loved than she’d ever felt.

And it was all real, the feelings were anyway. It didn’t matter that it happened in VR. Though, these days, most people lived in VR almost full-time, so it wasn’t exactly strange to experience new things for the first time in VR. But she never thought that she’d ever feel so close to another person, ever. It had been somewhat of a magical experience.

Although, maybe she enjoyed watching old movies too much and that clouded her idea of what was real and what was magical. Movies from back when people lived in the ‘real world’, as some people call it now, when augmentation was just a dream and VR was still this strange happening and something only people who were really into computers even did anything with. But the experience had almost been romantic, in an old-school kind of way.

A purple notification started to blink at the edge of her view. Violet! She focused on it and a message appeared.

Violet: You okay for a voice chat? My brain and body aren’t into typing yet.

Willow laughed, her fingers going over her augmented keyboard.

Willow: Sure.

The next moment, a phone sign appeared in front of her and after she’d accepted the call, Violet’s voice rang out like she was sitting right across from Willow on the couch, though she wasn’t actually there. There was a possibility to add video to the calls, but no matter how advanced it was, it just never felt right to Willow.

“Hey,” Violet yawned. “Morning.”

“Morning.” Willow let out a laugh and curled up on the couch. She smiled as she wrapped her arms around the hippogriff plushie, the same one as she had in DoE, just real this time.

“Done anything interesting yet?” Violet still sounded a little sleepy, her voice a bit rough. Willow imagined that she was probably still in bed, just having woken up.

“Crafted and gathered in DoE, and then went outside for a while. Watched the sky come to life. Just normal stuff, you know?” She loved their easy banter, it always made her feel so much better.

Violet laughed deeply. “Sounds like you. Why’d you even go outside? It’s like… crazy cold right now, right?”

Willow shrugged. “It’s not that cold. I was wearing warm clothes. It’s just… the air is so fresh when the sun is almost coming up. The coldest time of the night, all clean and stuff.” It made sense in her head.

She could still hear Violet’s joy. “Yeah, not around here that doesn’t happen. That’s just because they keep the air so clean in your little bubble and all.” Violet always said things like that, she always mentioned how Willow lived in a bubble, how lucky she was. But it didn’t feel like that, it felt smothering, what she’d heard of Violet’s life sounded so much more interesting.

“Okay, so… tell me something.” Willow glared at nothing in particular in the room, since she couldn’t glare at Violet.

“Hmm?” That got Violet’s attention. “What do you want to know, bubble-girl?”

“If I live in this clean bubble, then where do you live?” She’d asked this before, but Violet somehow never answered, always changing the subject. And Willow didn’t expect today to be any different, but she still asked because she really wanted to know. “If I’m bubble-girl, then who are you?”

Violet stayed quiet for a while, Willow almost expected her not to answer today either. “Do you really want to know?” There was something different about Violet’s voice.

“Yeah.” Willow needed to know. Maybe it was the rumours of people going missing, or just feeling extra lonely, but she had to know.

“Okay.” She could hear Violet take a breath. “If you’re bubble-girl, I’m mud-girl. Sewer-girl.”

“Vio—”

“No, let me explain.” Violet was serious, something Willow didn’t hear often. “You grew up well. Loving parents, always protecting you, always trying to do what’s best for you. Enough money to live on. A good education. You said so yourself. You may hate living in that bubble, and I don’t envy you for that, but you’re protected, sheltered from the real bad things. And that’s important.” Something was off about Violet’s voice. “That’s really important to remember.”

“Violet.” Willow’s heart was beating like crazy, tears in her eyes. Had Violet really grown up that unsafe? She hated thinking of her friend as being unsafe and unloved. Violet was such a friendly and loving person, to think that her past wasn’t happy made her sad.

“I’m the middle kid, out of five. My parents worked two full-time jobs, just to make sure we were able to have a roof over our head and to keep us online and…” She stopped for a while. “It wasn’t easy. Growing up wasn’t easy. And when I got caught stealing food out of the garbage from a store for my younger brother when he was really ill… He just had to have something with vitamins in it, fresh fruit. He needed it so badly. My parents couldn’t afford to take him to the hospital.”

Willow was quiet, not sure what to say.

“I don’t live with my parents anymore. After I got caught and everything… I got sent to one of those ‘deserted kids’ places. I still live there. I just…” Violet let out a deep breath. “Don’t pity me.” Her voice harsher now. “I’m strong. I’m getting out of here. I promise you. But if you’re bubble-girl, I’m sewers-girl. I live in the filth and waste of society.”

Willow shook her head, trying to process what she’d just heard. “No. No, you’re not. You’re fighter-girl. You’re…” She didn’t know how to word it. She could feel what she wanted to say, but couldn’t find the right words to express it. “You’re like metal, you bend. You’re strong, but you don’t break. You’re metal-girl.”

Violet burst out laughing, the sound surprising. “That makes me sound like I should be in some kind of band or something. With black and white faces, wearing old ratty band shirts and screaming at people all the time.”

Willow smiled too, glad to have her friend laughing again. “Maybe you should be. Maybe we should both be in a band. Metal and bubble girl, taking over the world.”

“Mebugi, metal-bubble girls. We rock your world and do it quietly from behind our VR systems because we’re too scared to show up at venues.” Violet’s voice still sounded like she was smiling, though she’d calmed down again.

“Maybe we should. It sounds like a cool idea.” Even though Willow had no idea how to play an instrument or how to even start a band.

“Could make us money too, you know. Probably more than we make right now, if we become popular enough.” Violet still sounded happy, but there was an edge to it again. Something strange was going on with her today, something really strange.

“Probably.” It wasn’t hard to make more money than they did now. She knew Violet worked some dead-end data-computing job, but like Willow, she also mostly made extra money by buying and selling things on the marketplace in DoE or some of the other games she played.

“Okay, we’ve been serious enough. I didn’t mean to make it all strange like that.” Willow could almost feel, more than hear, that Violet had started to move around. “I just… I don’t know. I guess I wanted you to know.”

“Why?” The word was barely above a whisper, and for a while she thought that Violet hadn’t heard it.

“Because…” Violet stopped. “Because it matters. Who we are matters. And I wanted you to know about me. I wanted to be honest with you.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t expect me to talk about my crappy life more though. I’m playing to get away from that, not to talk about it even more.” There was the fierceness in Violet that she knew.

“I wouldn’t expect you to.” Violet sharing this much had been a surprise in and of itself. But now she knew just a little bit more about her friend, just a little bit more.

“Change of topic.” Violet got excited again. “Did you see the countdown on the Helheim Fallen Online website? They’re sending out new keys in a couple of hours.”

“Really?” That was new. They hadn’t done that with previous batches. Maybe it was because the release date of the game was so close now. Willow blinked, then pulled up the website, wanting to see it for herself.

There, in the middle of the page was a timer.

2:03:46 until the new beta keys are sent

The seconds kept going down, counting until the new batch would be released into the world.

“Cool. I so hope we’ll both get one.” Willow grinned.

She really wanted to try the game. She hadn’t seen much of the gameplay yet, apart from what the creators had shared in videos and press releases. And of course some illegal short clips and screenshots that people who already had beta keys were sharing online. Mostly in private spaces because they weren’t allowed to actually share anything.

But what she’d seen had looked so cool. Helheim Fallen Online was a Norse mythology based game where players fought off invasions of monsters that were trying to take over the world of Helheim, one of the realms existing on the world tree Yggdrasil.

The starter zone was all frozen over, and players had to fight wolves and other creatures to get to the next zone. It was promised as ‘the next generation in full immersion VR gaming’ with ‘hyper-realistic gameplay’. It sounded really cool, especially since Willow had been playing DoE for so long and she was ready for a new VRMMORPG in a fantasy setting.

The realistic gameplay sounded interesting and had her intrigued. No more hitting buttons or skills to get stuff done, but actually interacting with the world. She could only imagine what that would feel like.

But as she thought about the game, her mind also went to the messages from this morning.

Cool and interesting, sure, but apparently also dangerous for some people…

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4. Beta Keys

Willow wandered around her apartment, trying to kill some time before the new beta keys were sent out for Helheim Fallen Online. She looked in her fridge, finding some cheese and sausages, but not something to make a full meal with. Not that she really needed to worry about that. She’d get some food dropped off at her door soon enough, it was getting close to one of the ‘meal times’, but she’d just like a snack. Another one of those strange things that they did here in the building, private dinner times based on each person’s biological clock. While it made sense, she imagined that it could be annoying too, especially for the people who made the meals, or those who delivered them.

She let out a sigh, grabbing a slice of cheese and nibbling on it as she got back to her bedroom, to the VR system. She didn’t really want to get away from the system, just in case she may actually get a key. But she also couldn’t seem to focus on anything else, just on the possibility that she could get the key… Her brain wouldn’t let the ‘maybe key soon’ idea go.

And as soon as she got the key, she could then download the game and log on. HF couldn’t be pre-downloaded, it could only be downloaded by someone who already had a key. A form of protection or something like that. Annoying.

She flopped onto her bed, putting the VR headset on, logging onto VRHome, which was basically a digital living room. In her VRHome she had a few soft and plush couches, a couple of windows, all showing different areas that she loved in DoE, and shelves all around with toys and other cool items she’d collected and found in a variation of games. It was a hundred times more ‘her’ than her actual apartment.

A couple of moments later, Violet also came in. They both looked like their DoE characters, probably their favourite characters to play.

“You nervous yet?” Violet grinned, then she pulled the website countdown from a viewer in front of her onto the wall. The wall was now basically one big screen showing the numbers slowly going down, way too slow.

0:02:34 until new beta keys are sent

They had a couple of minutes left, and Willow’s stomach was all in knots.

“Of course.” Willow grinned a little, letting out a tense breath. “What are you going to play as? Have you thought about it yet?”

Violet shrugged, appearing much calmer, but Willow could still see the excitement in her eyes. “Something rogue or hunter like or something. That probably works best in HF. You?”

“I’m thinking about getting a mage again. Something that makes things go boom.” She put her hands together and moved them as if she was mimicking an explosion and then grinned. Helheim Fallen Online had been handing out beta keys every week for the last two months. The release date was only ten days away now, and everyone was getting excited to play it. Like, really excited. The net was full of people talking about it, trying to find out extra information or simply trying to speculate what the game could be like. Because the creators of HF were not showing a lot, they were ‘keeping it all a surprise’.

Willow and Violet had been trying not to get too invested in it all, especially since they were still playing DoE and still hadn’t finished all of the end-game content. Plus, they knew that HF probably wouldn’t be better than what DoE was now, especially since the game was so new and nobody had really heard of the people who were creating it. But now that the hype was getting so high everywhere, it was hard to stay neutral about it. Especially when the things that were coming out, official and illegal screenshots and videos, looked so cool.

0:01:45 until new beta keys are sent

“Almost.” Violet grinned as she stared at the wall with the countdown.

Willow’s stomach was trying to eat itself, not from hunger, just from nerves. What would she do if she got a key but Violet didn’t get one? Or what would happen if Violet did get one, but Willow didn’t get one?

Why were her final thoughts while waiting on the counter such negative ones? The biggest chance was that they both wouldn’t get it anyway.

0:00:29 until new beta keys are sent

Willow crossed her fingers, locking her jaw down way too hard, but she was just too focused, bouncing her leg up and down at high speed, the sound almost like a motor.

0:00:01 until new beta keys are sent

They looked at each other, before the text on the screen changed.

Beta keys are sent! See you next week for the final batch!

She waited, hoping for a sign or anything. Hoping that there would be something to tell her that she got one. But nothing happened.

“Whoa!” Violet’s mouth dropped open as she stared at Willow before moving her hand in front of her, sharing whatever she was seeing. “I got one.” Violet’s voice was barely audible. “I got one.”

Congratulations Violet!

You have won a beta key for Helheim Fallen Online!

You can find the key in your BASE platform inbox when you reach the store.

Happy exploring!

Daryl Hill

Creator of Helheim Fallen Online

Willow’s stomach dropped, disappointment overtaking her for a moment. Disappointment about not getting in, disappointment for being left behind. The largest chance would have been neither of them getting it, but just one of them had always been a possibility too.

“Willow.” Violet reached out to her and Willow took her hands, squeezing a little.

“Congrats.” She tried to smile, but she knew that Violet could see right through it. They’d known each other too long to not know how to easily read each other.

“Thanks. And don’t worry. I’ll send you private pictures as soon as I can, maybe even videos. Maybe I can live stream it.” Violet’s eyes grew, her grin getting bigger. “I promise. I’ll share as much as I can. And I’m not staying there all the time,  I’ll be back later today. We still need to finish the guild boat. I’m not going to leave you guys hanging on that one.”

Willow hugged Violet. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” She knew that Violet could get so wrapped up in a game that she’d lose all sense of time and then reappear two days later, totally obsessed with a new game and having no idea how long she’d been gone at all.

“I know.” Violet hugged her tighter. “They really don’t allow live streaming there though, people have tried. Sorry.”

Willow laughed. Of course, there was that part too. “Just tell me everything when you get back, will you? I’m going to live vicariously through you until I get in myself. Promise me?”

“I promise.” Violet tightened her arms around Willow, then let her go. “Now, I’m going to have to jump. I want to download the game and then quickly do some stuff in DoE before I get into HF, making sure that I keep crafting for that boat of ours.”

“Go. Go.” Willow smiled, enjoying her friend’s excitement. “I’m happy you got the key. Just, don’t do anything stupid.”

“I won’t.” Violet smiled back. “You, don’t go sulking around. Mira won’t like that, and I’m pretty sure you’re behind the rest of us with your parts for the boat. Maybe you can now get ahead of me.”

“I know, I know.” Willow shrugged. “I’ll get on it.” She would. It wasn’t like there was much else she could do right now. It wasn’t like she didn’t have a whole list of things to do in DoE before she could start playing HF, especially things that would mean she’d be able to afford to play HF in the first place. “See you later.”

“Later.” Violet waved at her and her character dissolved into digital glitter as she left the room.

Willow sighed. She was happy for her friend, but it was also kind of disappointing that she didn’t get a beta key too. They’d signed up at the same time. But there wasn’t anything she could do about it now, not apart from waiting for the new batch that would be sent out next week.

It was probably a good idea if she would go play DoE right now, at least that would distract her from sulking too much.

Probably. Maybe?

* * *

You’re selling 99 Flax for 339 coins each, 33.561 coins in total

Willow was going through her inventory as she checked out the marketplace, trying to see what she could sell at a profit right now.

You’re selling 99 Flax for 339 coins each, 33.561 coins in total

Currently, the lowest selling stack of 99 flax was 342 coins per item, but smaller stacks of 1 to 15 flax were selling as low as 325 coins per item. Only, there weren’t enough small stacks to get almost a hundred items in one go. So selling them just a few coins lower than the cheapest large stack would make her the most profit. Just a few days ago, the best price for a large stack was closer to 319 coins each, so this was definitely an improvement.

Also, selling in stacks of 99 items made things easier to move around. It was a lot of flax, while at the same time not too much that the stack would seem too expensive to buy for most players. The game of buying and selling in the marketplace, knowing when to buy and when to sell, it was something that she loved doing.

The repetitiveness of the task made it comfortable, but it also made her feel good when she knew that she was making a higher profit than other players. Of course, there would always be new people who would underprice from her pricing, but that was the chance everyone who did this always took.

She searched the marketplace for regular olives, since she had a lot of them from harvesting for the juicy olives. They weren’t selling for much, the lowest stack was just 189 coins each for 24 olives, but it was also the cheapest stack by far. The next cheapest stack was 274 coins per olive and was a large 99 item stack, and the next cheapest after that was 281 coins per item.

She could chance that, 274 coins was pretty low for olives in the marketplace anyway, so she could sell it up.

She quickly bought both the stacks of olives and they appeared in her inventory, adding to what she already had.

773 olives

She created a stack of 99 olives and put it into the marketplace system screen. Then she priced it at 279, just two coins under the lowest one currently selling. This was two fold, because people perceived a price ending in 9 to be much lower than the next round number, so it was more attractive, but it also meant that, without pulling down the price too much, she’d still be the best option to buy.

You’re selling 99 Olives for 279 coins each, 27.621 coins in total

Then she put up a second stack.

You’re selling 99 Olives for 279 coins each, 27.621 coins in total

Willow checked the time. By now, Violet had been in Helheim Fallen for four hours. She’d not heard from her yet, but that wasn’t too unexpected, Violet was probably just having a good time.

She put another 99 olive stack in the marketplace, this time pricing at 299 coins each, if the lower stacks sold out, then she’d be making a little bit more money from these stacks than the lowest price she was pricing at, and it cleared out space in her inventory. The only reason she didn’t just throw the regular olives away was because this was more profitable.

She put two more stacks in the marketplace and then left the rest in her inventory. It wasn’t like she really needed to sell everything off in one go. If she put up too much too soon, she’d be flooding the market, which would lead to lower prices, which was bad. And if the price of the flax or olives changed in the next couple of days, she could make more profits by keeping a couple of stacks at hand to sell then.

Willow checked her other offers on the marketplace, changing the pricing on some of them when they were too far above the current optimal pricing for the items, and then closed the window. Enough of that.

It had been a really good sales day. Just her marketplace sales got her at least 100 credits into her BASE account. Which wasn’t much considering most games cost about 2400 to 4000 credits, lower price for games which had been out a while and higher price for new games, and getting actual nice food delivered to her place, okay, junk food, but it was often still nicer than most meals she got, cost her 200 credits every time. It was 250 credits for a pizza, just one medium pizza, and not even a fancy one.

Anything she wanted that was ‘above basic’, as decided by the government department that oversaw food and other regulations for people who didn’t have income or high enough income, she had to pay for herself. And selling things in the game was the easiest way to do that, for her anyway.

She went over to her crafting tables, the titanic varnish and the cedar lumber were going to take at least another thirty minutes before she could make the next items.

Waiting around sucked.

She opened a new message.

Hi Violet!

Hope you’re having fun!

Send me some screenshots!

Love,

Willow

Okay, so, maybe she was just bored because she really didn’t know what to do when Violet was off doing something cool and she was just here waiting. Violet being at work was one thing, but waiting on Violet when she was playing a new game that Willow also would like to play, that was something else.

A notification told her that she had a new message. For a moment, she hoped it was from Violet, but it was from Opal instead.

Willow!

Come to the minotaur dungeon entrance.

I have something really strange to show you!

Opal

She blinked. What would Opal want to show her? Although, maybe he was just trying to distract her, which was a possibility.

Sure, on my way.

Willow

She sent the message back. Opal could have said something in the guild chat, but somehow, he sent it through the message system instead, which would have also given her a notification of the message if she hadn’t been in DoE.

Willow pulled up the transportation screen and transported herself to the hub nearest to the minotaur dungeon. From here, it would take her a couple of minutes of walking to actually get to the dungeon entrance, but she couldn’t get any closer. This was one of those times that having a flying pet like Mira would have come in handy.

She opened a private chat with Opal.

Willow: What did you want to show me?

She was getting a little curious now. Especially since there were a lot of players around her, lots of people heading to the same dungeon. That wasn’t normal. What was going on?

Opal: You’ll just have to see it.

There was nothing around her that gave any clues to what was going on. And as far as she knew, there wasn’t a special event in the game either.

She turned her volume of DoE up a little, maybe she could catch something in the chatter from players around her. First the sounds were little more than mumbling, but as she raised the volume more and more, she could understand actual words.

“I heard they caught someone who stole an account.”

“I heard that they got someone to talk about Helheim Fallen.”

“It’s about the beta keys.”

“It’s about cheating players.”

Apparently, nobody had any clue about what was going on.

Well, that wasn’t unexpected. She turned the sound lower again, she didn’t need to keep hearing random people talk.

But no matter what, something big was going on, that was for sure. She hadn’t been the only one called here, and that made her feel out of the loop once again.

When they got to the minotaur dungeon entrance, she looked around, trying to find Opal. When she spotted him, she walked over to him.

“What’s going on?” She opened a private voice chat with him.

Opal blinked for a moment, then he frowned. “We don’t know exactly what it is. But… it’s strange. I thought you may want to see it, it’s over there.”

People were crowding in the area that Opal pointed at, but she didn’t feel like being all pushy-pushy with them. “Can you show me?”

The BASE platform had built in ‘memory’ systems, most of it was saved gameplay from the last couple of hours. If someone wanted, they could save certain bits to their account, if not it would be wiped after seven hours. The best part was that saved memories could be shared with other people.

“Sure. Just… don’t freak out.” Opal didn’t look too happy.

“Why?” This kind of started to scare Willow.

“Just… Whatever, I’ll show you.”

An invite popped up in her view and she accepted it. The next moment, a video started playing in front of her, seeing exactly what Opal had seen. This was probably from earlier, though there weren’t many people around back then.

The video was only short, it showed Opal walking into the area before he suddenly looked from side to side, and then focused on a single… thing.

“There was an actual player there, just seconds before. Play it back.” Opal sounded almost scared.

She did as he asked, going back to the start of the video. He was right. At the start of the video, someone was mining a node at a rock formation, and just seconds later, that same player lay on the floor, their avatar… bleached almost. It looked strange, more unreal than anything in this game, almost cartoonish. And before her eyes, the player turned into a blob of black and white, strings of code running through it, like something broke the graphics of the game or something. Like she could see into the code instead of the graphics that would normally be a person.

Like the outside of the character was stripped, their insides all reduced to nothing and having turned into a blob of goo, deposited right there on the ground. Their digital insides visible, their code visible.

A bad feeling settled in Willow’s stomach. This was bad, this was really really bad.

It almost looked like a player got erased, right as they were playing. Like they were there one moment and then disappeared the next. Gone.

What was going on? Who did this?

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5. Refusal of the Call

Willow still couldn’t believe what she just saw in Opal’s video. Did a player really just disappear from the game?

“Do we know who it is?” Her voice didn’t even sound like her own, almost ghostly.

“No.” Opal’s voice was tense. “No idea. Looking back through the video, their name was already gone before I even noticed that they were there, that something was wrong. I know it was there before, I think anyway. But when you look at it again, it’s gone. It’s not in the video, or my memory.”

Willow nodded. “Let’s go.” She didn’t want to stay here. It was getting really crowded in the area in front of the minotaur dungeon and it wasn’t like other people had any more idea about what happened than she did. It was only triggering her anxiety to see so many people so close together. People who were worried or panicked tended to act in irrational and unpredictable ways, she hated that.

“Where are we going to go? Do you have any idea what just happened?” Opal stared at her, like she had the answers. Like she somehow had more answers than he did.

“Someone disappeared.” Willow tried to come up with more than that, but her hands were shaking and she felt a little sick. “Someone just got wiped from the game, or something. I don’t know.”

Opal nodded, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know if I want to be in DoE right now.” Opal wasn’t wrong, it didn’t feel safe here.

“Let’s go to my VRHome room.” VRHome was an app that was part of the standard software of the BASE platform. That had to be safer than a 3rd party game, right?

“Okay.” Opal nodded, and then disappeared from the game.

Willow took one last look at the people huddling around the where someone had just disappeared. Everyone looked confused and scared. Nobody had any idea what they’d just seen, nobody. And that scared her even more.

What had just happened?

* * *

“Blitzing,” Sage said, their eyes serious as they looked at each person in the room. “It looks like blitzing.”

“What’s blitzing?” Willow had never heard the term before, and she did tend to hang out in tech places that she shouldn’t…

“Blitzing is just a hoax. An urban legend.” Juniper shook her head, scowling. “It doesn’t exist.”

They’d all come to Willow’s VRHome, all of them, apart from Violet. Violet still hadn’t replied to any messages Willow had sent her.

“Hush.” Opal glared at Juniper. “I want to hear this. Urban legend or not, a player just disappearing and their avatar being reduced to code… that’s not normal.”

“Blitzing is when someone scrambles the connection between your personal and your BASE ID, usually all but destroying your BASE ID data. When I say all your data, I mean all of it, from your saved memories, to your games, to being able to call someone. So you basically lose your account. You won’t be able to log onto it anymore, or use it.” Sage looked really serious. “And without a BASE ID, you can’t connect to the BASE unit to the BASE platform. So you’re locked out of everything you know.”

“What?” Willow felt sick. That wasn’t possible. Without their BASE IDs, they couldn’t do anything in BASE but if it even broke the connection with the personal ID… How would people even know how to get their data back? Everything was connected to their personal ID.

It was like a fingerprint, or like… an old-school IP address for computers. Their personal ID was connected to their bank account, to their BASE platform, to their… their everything. It was how everyone was identified in the world. And within the BASE platform, the BASE ID took that same role.

The BASE ID was what allowed players to have a single login for games but could have multiple characters. That way they weren’t stuck with just one name and could choose their own name in games and such if they wanted to. And outside games but within the BASE platform they weren’t just stuck with the name their parents gave them at birth, they could choose any name that they wanted.

But losing connection to their personal ID… Yeah… That was a lot more important, that was the one thing that kept all of their information gathered in one place. Doctors used the personal ID of people, government agencies used it, banks used it, all the important stuff. But nobody knew their own personal ID, at least, most people didn’t. So if they were locked out of their BASE ID and didn’t know their personal ID… how would they be able to do things?

Willow didn’t want to think about the implications of that.

Sage shrugged. “It’s just what I heard. I don’t know for sure. It’s just what’s been going around the net.” They looked really serious now. “I’ve never heard of someone actually being logged in and playing when it happened though… Usually, the stories are about how someone is hacked while they’re asleep…”

“Both are bad.” Willow shuddered. “How can someone… Why would…?” She didn’t get it. Why would someone do this?

“I don’t know.” Sage looked over to her, reaching out. “I really have no idea.”

Willow stepped into Sage’s embrace, their touch calming her down a little. “What else do you know?” She had to figure this out, or it would keep spinning through her head.

“Nothing. I’m sorry.” Sage looked so disappointed that she believed them. “I wish I knew more.”

Willow nodded. “What are we going to do?” They should be able to do something, right? Do something about this?

“Make sure you’re safe. Don’t go places you don’t trust, games or on the new. Don’t download things you don’t know are going to be totally safe. Just… you know, smart stuff.” Sage shrugged, pulling a face.

“And DoE?” Juniper looked up to them.

“I don’t know.”

Opal nodded, his eyes dark. “Is logging into DoE safe?”

“It should be. But like Juniper said… this is supposed to be an urban legend, not reality.” Sage shrugged. “If this is blitzing, it’s done on your BASE platform account, not on your DoE account. So it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing. They could always get to you.” That was not a comforting thought.

“Thanks for the pep talk.” Juniper rolled her eyes. “I’m just gonna… I’m gonna go offline for a while. Maybe I’ll feel safer there.” She had her arms wrapped around herself.

“Juniper.” Sage looked at her. “Can you… Can we all stay in a text chat? That way we’re sure nobody gets scrambled. At least…” They shrugged. At least they would see it happen, or something.

Juniper nodded, and the next moment Willow got a chat invite. She accepted it and saw just the four of them online. While an invite had been sent out to Violet, it didn’t automatically show her as connected to the BASE platform. Strange.

Juniper nodded. “I’m going. See you all later. I just need to… not be here.” And she disappeared.

“I’m out too.” Opal disappeared from where he was sitting.

Now it was just Willow and Sage left.

“Sage…” She didn’t know if she should ask them, but maybe sharing her worry would make it ease a little.

“Yeah?” Sage swayed side to side a little, soothing Willow as they held her.

“Have you heard from Violet yet?” She swallowed hard.

“No. She got an invite to HF, didn’t she?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s probably too busy playing.” Sage’s voice sounded mostly calming, but there was an edge to it too, and Willow knew that they were worried also.

“Probably.” Willow nodded. It would have just been easier if she’d been sure. If Violet would just respond to messages, or at least show up as ‘online’ in the chat. It wouldn’t make her so worried.

What was going on? First people saying their friends disappeared while playing Helheim Fallen Online, and now someone in DoE being ‘blitzed’?

What was going on?

* * *

Willow knew that she shouldn’t be doing this. She knew that she really shouldn’t be snooping around the Helheim Fallen Online forums like this. But she just had to see if there was a connection between everything going on in DoE and what had happened in HF and the HF forums were her only real source of information.

She didn’t really want to ask Sage where they got their knowledge about blitzing, Sage was a little bit more… advanced, when it came to computer stuff than she was.

Willow pulled up the thread she’d seen about the poster’s missing friend this morning. Checking the profile of the original poster, but it looked perfectly normal. It didn’t look like there was anything interesting on it and they didn’t seem like a troll or someone who was out for attention. Which made their plea for help seem at least more real.

Then she scrolled through the replies, trying to find the one from the empty profile she’d seen. But it wasn’t there anymore. The reply was gone. Though the responses to it were still intact, they were now responding to some stupid senseless comment that definitely wasn’t the one she’d seen before.

Did she remember it wrong? Or was there something else going on?

She scrolled down, trying to find more replies from others who had missing friends, but there weren’t any of them. She closed the topic and then went back to the main forums, trying to find older posts like this, people looking for their friends.

She knew there had been more of them. She’d seen them pop up before and was sure that she’d seen some with replies from others who were in the same situation. But even though she found the older threads, there were no replies from people whose friends had also gone missing. Right now, it just looked like a handful of random people ranting about their friends no longer liking them.

It was strange, uncanny.

But the video Opal showed her was still clear in her mind. No matter if people were calling the thread starters losers and crazy, she knew that something was going on, something serious. And maybe it wasn’t connected to just Helheim Fallen Online, but there was definitely something going wrong in the BASE platform or some of their games.

Willow pulled up a new screen, putting ‘Helheim Fallen blitzing’ into the search bar, and it immediately gave her some results. But, like the posts on the forums, they lacked any real information, just some people complaining about their friends not being online and others mocking them for being such lozers. This was no use.

She pulled up the guild chat screen, but Violet’s name was still showing as not having accepted the invitation, and all the messages she’d sent Violet were also unread.

It wasn’t strange for Violet to disappear for a couple of hours or days when she found a new game, that was pretty normal for her, but at least the messages would get through and the chat would connect to her account, even if she hadn’t accepted the invite yet.

With everything going on, Willow just wanted to know that Violet was safe. She just needed to know, no matter how needy it made her sound. They were friends, and she was worried. Violet could at least accept the guild chat invite, no matter how busy she was playing a new game.

A new chat tab opened out of nowhere. Willow hadn’t gotten an invite for it. And even though she remembered Sage’s warning about staying safe, she was also curious, too curious, and clicked on it.

*You are in a chat with Rotnem*

Rotnem: You’ve seen it, haven’t you?

Willow: Who are you?

Rotnem: You’ve seen the person in DoE, right?

Willow: I need to know who you are.

How would they know this? Who were they? And why were they talking to her?

The person stayed quiet for a while, and Willow almost closed the screen again. Probably just a prank.

Rotnem: Who I am is not important. It’s not about me.

Rotnem: You already know me, we’ve talked before. You were learning to code the old-school way.

‘The old-school way’, it rang a bell for her, especially the way this person was talking. But it was a fuzzy memory, from years ago.

She’d been interested in learning old-school coding, C++ specifically, mostly because she was bored and didn’t know what else to do with her time. She’d learned it from a paper book, one she’d found in her parents’ attic.

She’d loved doing it. But with the BASE platform being universal and big computers being totally out of fashion, it hadn’t been easy to find a way to properly code. Not the way they used to do it back in the day, anyway. So she’d found some online groups that could explain things better. Was this person from one of those groups?

Willow: Why are you talking to me?

Rotnem: You’ve seen it, right?

What was it with that question? What had she seen? The blitzing? She’d seen too much today, and she didn’t really know what the ‘it’ was that Rotnem referred to right now, though she could guess.

Willow: Why do you want to know?

Rotnem: I need your help. I need your skills, I can’t do this on my own.

Willow: Why me?

Rotnem: Because you can see through things. You can see things that nobody else sees.

Cryptic again… Great. This was getting annoying now.

Willow: How do I know I can trust you?

Rotnem: You don’t. Just like I don’t know if I can trust you.

She had to stay safe. She couldn’t just listen to some random stranger, no matter how interesting they sounded. No matter how much they seemed to know about her, it wasn’t exactly a secret that she’d dabbled in some old-school coding back in the day. It was on her list of ‘skills’ on her profile. They could have just gotten the information from there.

Willow: I can’t do this.

Rotnem: I’m sorry. I get it.

Rotnem: I would really like your help, but I get that you can’t just trust me.

Rotnem: You should keep yourself safe. That’s good.

Willow frowned at the screen, not sure exactly what to reply now.

Rotnem: If you want to talk to me, if you change your mind. Find me in the first game you played in BASE, look for Ilana.

*Rotnem left the chat*

What the…? What just happened? Was that someone who had real information for her, or were they just trying to get her to trust them with some stupid questions?

And how could her old coding skills be of any use to anyone? She’d not coded in years, at least not for anything more useful than making some quick calculators for market prices and selling points for items in DoE, but that didn’t really count.

And how did this person know where to find her? How did they know she’d seen anything at all? How were they able to get into her chat without an invite?

Was her system compromised?

Was her system already bugged? Was that how they knew?

Was that how they got to other people too? Was this how a person got blitzed? Try to get them to trust them and then steal and break their accounts?

Was this how they operated?

Willow quickly closed all the programs she had opened. Even though she couldn’t disconnect from the BASE platform itself, she could at least try to close as many open apps as possible, at least close as many programs that could be sending someone information on her that she didn’t want to share.

Then she grabbed her jacket and left the apartment, left the building. She stood in the gardens again, like this morning. Only, right now, it was dark, night had already fallen, and the air felt suffocating, not cleansing.

Like her brain, suffocating, scared.

What was going on?

 

That's the end of the first five chapters!!

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