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Willow’s breath came out in clouds as she stepped out the front doors of the building into the walled-off garden. The world around her was lit up in grey, it felt ethereal. But she liked it like that.

Willow slowly turned down the settings on her BASE, letting the real world take over instead of the world that BASE gave her. The sounds around her grew a little, humming from the AC units on the outside of the building, water running somewhere not too far off, and there were the sounds of birds. She hadn’t heard the sounds of real birds in a long time, although, standing in this walled-off garden, she didn’t know if the sounds were actually real birds or if they were simulated.

She walked over to the fountain. Now, in the middle of winter, they didn’t have it turned on, but it was still beautiful to look at. It was made out of a white stone which would almost glitter in rainbow colours when the sun shone on it. The shape of it was simple, but at the same time serene, somehow.

Willow sat down on the edge, letting her eyes go over the garden. The trees, the grass, the fountain, the small park with benches. This was all designed to be as ‘safe’ as possible. To be as ‘calming’ and ‘comforting’ as possible. She knew, because 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. In reality, it was a prison more than anything. In the months since she moved in here, she’d not been outside again... She was locked in here, by design, her freedom taken from her, supposedly to ‘protect’ her.

She didn’t know why, but the ways in which people, and especially ‘experts’, dealt with her, 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.

She took a deep breath and stood up again, walking over to the bare trees, the winter having rid them of their beautiful leaves. 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, a message popped up in her view.

New results for search: Helheim Fallen

Oh, 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.

[My friend logged onto the beta for Helheim Fallen seven hours ago, they haven’t responded to any messages since.]

This wasn’t the first time she read a message like this, this wasn’t the first time she heard of people disappearing like that either. But, like always, the replies were a lot of people laughing at the person who posted the message, telling them it was because the friend probably enjoyed the game more than their company. People didn’t take it seriously.

But, really, it was strange. In all the years she’d been playing online games, she’d not heard about people going missing before, at least not this often, and not just connected to a single game. Sure, people disappeared from time to time, usually because they logged out or ran away from home or something like that. You know, usual stuff. But it was never this often connected to a single game.

Then her eyes fell on one of the replies.

[The same happened to my friend, a week 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 lies, but it was a little strange that someone would post something like that and then have an empty account not even an hour later.

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

Willow closed all the messages, a strange feeling in her stomach, but it just wasn’t like she could do much about it. People sometimes went missing, that happened. People sometimes didn’t want to live the live they had, also happened. Some people even… ended things, permanently.

But no matter how bad she felt for the people left behind, it wasn’t like there was much she could do from here. She didn’t have any connections to Helheim Fallen or knew anyone who played it. She did know a lot of people who wanted to play it though... but that didn’t really count in the great scheme of things. It didn’t help others find their lost friends.

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 through her. 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. She headed back inside.

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, closing her eyes, diving into her memories and playing them back like movies.

She especially liked the one from Destruction of Elysium where she was with Violet as Mira hatched from her egg a couple of weeks ago. It was so adorable to watch and she felt such a rush as they were finally able to hatch the egg.

She’d never felt closer to another person than she did that day. She’d never felt closer to Violet or anyone in the world before then. 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 done before.

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

Although, maybe she enjoyed watching old movies too much. 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 it was almost 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 chatting? My brain isn’t into typing yet.

Willow laughed, her fingers going over her augmented keyboard.

Willow: Sure.

The next moment, a speaker sign appeared in the chat screen, and then Violet’s voice sounded like she was sitting right across from her on the couch, though she wasn’t there.

“Hey,” Violet yawned. “Morning.”

“Morning.” Willow laughed, curling up on the couch, smiling, her arms around a blanket as she took a deep breath.

“Done anything interesting yet?” Violet still sounded a little sleepy, her voice a little rough.

“Crafted and gathered in DoE, and then went outside for a while. Watched the sky come to life.”

Violet let out a laugh. “Sounds like you. Why’d you even go outside? It’s like... crazy cold, right?”

Willow shrugged. “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.”

Violet laughed again. “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, what she heard of Violet’s life sounded so much more interesting.

“Okay, so... tell me something.”

“Hmm?” She could still hear the smile in Violet’s voice. “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 topic. And Willow didn’t expect today to be any different, but she still asked. “If I’m bubble-girl, then who are you?”

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

“Yeah.” Willow needed to know. Today, she felt like she really needed to know. Maybe it was the rumours of people going missing, or just being 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 sounded really serious now. “You grew up. Loving parents, always protecting you, always trying to do what’s best for you. You said so yourself. You may hate living in the bubble, and I don’t envy you for that, but you’re protected. 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 almost in her eyes. Was Violet really that unsafe? She hated thinking of her friend as being unsafe and unloved.

“I’m the middle kid, out of five. My parents worked double 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 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... I got sent to one of those ‘deserted kids’ places. I still live there. I just...” Violet sighed. “Don’t pity me.” Her voice stronger now. “I’m strong, I’m getting out of here. I promise you. But if you’re bubble-girl, I’m sewers-girl.”

Willow shook her head, trying to process what she just heard. “No. You’re not. You’re fighter-girl. You’re...” She didn’t know how to word it. “You’re like metal, you bend. You’re strong, but you don’t break. You’re metal-girl.”

Violet burst out laughing. “That makes me sound like I should be in some band or something.”

Willow smiled too, glad to have her friend laughing again. “Maybe you should be. Maybe we should both be. 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 elsewhere.” Violet’s voice still sounded like she was smiling.

“Maybe we should. Sounds like a cool idea.” Even though Willow had no idea how to play an instrument or anything.

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

“Probably.” That wasn’t hard. She knew Violet worked some dead-end data-computing job, but like Willow, she also mostly tried to make extra money by buying and selling things on the market place inside DoE or some of the other games Violet played.

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

“Why?” Willow’s voice was very quiet, she almost thought Violet hadn’t heard it.

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

“Thank you.”

“Don’t expect me to talk all about my crappy life 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.” Willow hadn’t expected Violet to share this much in the first place. But now she knew just a little bit more about her friend, just a little bit more.

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

“Really?” 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 new beta keys are sent

The seconds kept going down, counting until the new batch would be sent out.

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

She really wanted to try the game. She hadn’t seen much of the game, apart from what the creators had shared in videos and things like that. And some illegal short clips and screenshots that people who already had beta keys were sharing online, mostly in private spaces.

But what she had seen looked so cool. A Norse mythology based game, the starter zone dropped you right in the middle of a freezing cold zone where you had to fight wolves and things like that. It was promoted as the ‘next generation in VR’ and she didn’t know what to expect from it. But what she’d heard, it was really cool and different.

But her brain also went back to the message she’d seen this morning.

It was cool and different and apparently dangerous for some people...

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