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Willow leaned against the building, turning the sound of her BASE settings all the way up, letting the normal sounds surround her. Letting all the normal sounds in.

She felt like crying and didn’t have anyone to talk to. She needed someone to talk to right now. She needed someone to comfort her.

On impulse, she opened her contacts lists, it was only a short list, and then called her mum. She needed to hear a comforting voice right now.

“Willow?” Mum sounded so surprised, and a little sleepy.

“Mum, did I wake you?” She already felt guilty. She woke her mum up with her selfish request. “I’m sorry. I should...” She disturbed someone and shouldn’t have done that.

“Sweetie, what’s wrong?” Mum sounded more awake now, worried too. “Are you okay?”

“I’m...” She was lonely, but how did she explain that to her mum?

How did she explain her loneliness to someone who believed the ‘experts’ when they said that because Willow was autistic, she’d never be able to make real social connections and that any show of it would be Willow mimicking what she saw around her.

“I’m okay. I just wanted to know how you were doing.” Mimicking, pretending... Those were the words people used to describe autistics in social situations, totally ignoring that autistics often had the exact same social needs as people who weren’t autistic, they just showed it differently. And she needed her mum now, she needed someone to talk to.

“I’m doing well. The company is growing fast, and your dad just got a promotion at work. He’s hoping that they’ll have another promotion lined up for him soon. How is the apartment? Are they taking good care of you?”

If there was anything Willow knew how to spot, it was disinterest, like her mum was showing now. It often made her wonder who the one without the ability to make real social connections actually was? How was it that Willow was accused of being the one not able to do things, when people treated her horribly because of perceived notions of what she could and couldn’t do, based on ‘evidence’ from ‘experts’ who had no real living experience with autistic life.

“They’re really good to us. The food is good.” That’s what her mum wanted to hear, right?

“And are you still taking classes?”

Classes... right. Because if Willow couldn’t work, at least they could keep shoving ‘classes’ at her. ‘Self-improvement’ classes, like how to pay her bills on time, even though that was already taken care of for her by the system, or how to cook, even though they made all her meals for her. She’d not really paid much attention to the classes. They even made her take one on how to do job interviews, even though she had a 0% chance of ever being invited to one because the system listed her as ‘autistic and in care’ which automatically meant ‘unemployable’. It was ridiculous.

“Classes are going well. I’m learning how to cook.”

“Oh.” That surprised her mum. “That’s... interesting. They said that they’d prepare all your meals for you, they still do that, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she quickly answered, not wanting to worry her mum.

“So, learning to cook is just for fun?” Her mum sounded relieved.

“Yes, just for fun. They’re teaching us how to make pies and cakes and things like that.” And pasta and actual normal dinner food, but right now, she thought that it may not actually comfort her mum if she found out what they were teaching her here. ‘Self-improvement’ classes were not very useful in the situation she was in right now, but realistically, they could be useful if they ever let her out of here. Even if the chance of that was minuscule, she still hoped somewhere that they would let her out.

“Oh, how fun.” Yeah, definitely disinterest from her mum.

Then she remembered something. “Mum, do you remember that old computer I had for a while? Do you know what happened to it? Or the books I had with it?”

Her mum was quiet for a bit, probably thinking. “I don’t know, you’re going to have to ask your dad. He helped you clean out your room back then. If he didn’t sell it off, it’s probably in the attic. Do you want me to ask?”

“Yes, please.” Even if she didn’t believe the person who messaged her earlier, that didn’t mean that she couldn’t get back to her hobby.

Coding had been fun back in the day, though she didn’t know how useful an old computer would be in her apartment or if there was even a connection for the computer to connect to the internet in this building. But she could get cables and stuff for that, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Getting back into coding, that would actually be fun, even to just make time pass by faster.

“Willow?” Mum pulled her from her thoughts. “Was there something else you needed?”

“No, thanks. I just...” She shrugged, admitting to needing to hear her mother’s voice wouldn’t get her anywhere. “Thanks. I’m sorry if I woke you up.” Because of the different biological clocks for everyone, it wasn’t always easy to know when someone was supposed to be asleep or awake.

“It’s okay. I had to get up anyway. Have a good evening. Bye.”

“Bye.” But her mum had already disconnected the line. Of course.

Willow should go to bed, she really should. But everything that happened today kept going through her head and she had no idea what to even expect tomorrow.

Would her friends still be here? Would Violet be back?

Violet!

She opened the guild chat screen. Everyone had left a couple of messages, just joking stuff, but Violet’s account still hadn’t connected to it. Her chest tightened and she closed the screen.

She had to try.

Willow opened her contact list again, this time scrolling to Violet’s name and called her. The calling tune kept going and going, until a message appeared in her view.

This account is not currently connected to the call system, contact the user another way or call the operator if you think this is in error

What?! What the...?

That had never happened to Willow before.

Where was Violet? Where did she go?

What was going on?

***

It was a full day since Violet got the Helheim Fallen invite and went into the game, a full day without any contact at all.

The net was now full of people talking about the ‘blitzed’ person in DoE, though nobody knew the name of the person yet, and there had been two more reports of people going missing after getting the Helheim Fallen beta-key. But people were still treating it like nothing was wrong, like this was normal, like people’s accounts going missing, like not being able to contact them at all was normal...

Willow didn’t know what world those people lived in, but friends going missing was definitely not normal.

She opened the guild chat, though it had been quiet in the last couple of hours. Violet’s account was still not connected to it.

Willow: I’m starting to get worried about Violet.

She had to share it with someone, had to.

Sage: Yeah, it’s not like her.
Willow: I tried calling her.
Willow: Her account is not connected to the call system anymore.
Opal: Really? That’s definitely not right.

Tears formed in her eyes, she was tired, she was so tired of being scared, of not being able to contact her best friend.

Sage: Have you sent her a message?
Willow: Yeah, it’s not been delivered yet.
Sage: Okay.

The chat fell quiet and she tried to come up with something else to say, but it was all a blur in her head and she had no idea what to do next.

Willow: I’m going into my VRHome.

She stood up from her couch, going over to her bed, and grabbed the VR headset.

Then her eye fell on a notification from the chat, and curiosity got the better of her. It wasn’t the guild chat, she could see it from the notification colour, it was the one with the person who asked if she could help.

Rotnem joined the chat
Rotnem: A second person in DoE has been blitzed.

They hadn’t left the chat yet, probably waiting for her answer.

Willow: I don’t know how I can help.
Willow: You’re better off contacting someone who actually knows about these things.
Willow: Or the police.

She hit a couple of buttons.

You have left the chat

Now she didn’t have to think about that anymore.

It wasn’t like she could help. Finding people who hacked accounts and things like that was the job of the police, not just some random girl who wasn’t even able to have a normal life. It really wasn’t up to her or random strangers on the net.

She put on her VR headset and immediately went to the VRHome, curling up on the couch there, a much more comfortable couch than the one she had in her actual apartment.

Sage came into the room soon after, their face serious. Then they came over to the couch, putting a hand on her shoulder, carefully touching her. One advantage of VR, they could touch each other, and it triggered the exact same things in her brain as touch in real life did.

“I can’t find her.” Willow’s voice was rough, almost hollow.

“I know.” Sage nodded.

“This has never happened before.” She couldn’t remember a time where Violet, Sage, Juniper and Opal weren’t just a click away.

“I know.” Sage came closer, carefully wrapping their arms around Willow, holding her. “I’ve tried too, I tried to call her. I got the same message as you did. She’s not connected anymore.”

“Where is she?” She tried to come up with a different way to contact Violet, but for all she knew Violet lived on the other side of the world. It was entirely possible that Violet wasn’t even anywhere near her time zone, just that their sleeping patterns sort of matched up on a regular basis.

Sage rocked her side to side slowly. “I have no idea. I wish I knew, I wish.” They shook their head, sighing. “It’s only been a day, officially she’s not even ‘missing’ yet. She could just have an issue with her BASE device or she got locked out of the system for pushing her limits too far.”

But they both knew that even if that happened, they should still be able to connect to Violet’s account, it should give them a ‘timeout’ message, not a ‘not connected’ message.

What were they going to do if this wasn’t solved soon? What would be their next step?

“She’ll be back. She won’t leave you all alone, especially not with Mira going into the next stage just over a day away.” But Willow could hear how Sage didn’t even believe their own words. They were right, Violet wouldn’t want to miss it for the world. She loved Mira, even if she was a pet in a videogame, not an actual real life one, but Violet loved Mira just the same. She wouldn’t not be there when Mira reached the juvenile stage, just one stage away from becoming a proper mount. But there was no proof that Violet would be able to get into DoE on time. That she’d somehow be able to be there, if she wasn’t even connected to the BASE platform right now.

“She wouldn’t want to miss that.” Willow nodded. But not wanting to and actually being there were two different reasons and right now, it seemed like they both had the same result.

“Did you do your crafting for the boat yet today?” Sage moved, but kept holding her close.

Willow shook her head. “I should probably check in.”

“You should.” There was a smile in Sage’s voice that she didn’t quite understand.

“What did you do?” Sage sounded like they were up to something again.

“Nothing much, but if my calculations are right, we should be able to craft the boat itself in the next days. And then the waters will be wide open for us, we’ll be able to actually do better trades in just a couple of days time. I hope you stocked up on things to trade.” Their voice was full of mischief now.

“A little.” She smiled too. Better trades, more money. And right in time to be able to buy Helheim Fallen at full price on release instead of having to depend on the beta keys to be able to play the game. That definitely sounded good. “At least that’s good news.”

“Yes, but it requires you to finish your items for the boat too.” Sage frowned a little. It wasn’t just Willow who needed to finish her items, Violet too.

Unless they wanted to source the final items some other way, which would probably require a lot of extra money, they needed Violet’s items, and they had no way to contact her right now...

And like that, her mood fell again.

They needed Violet, not just in the guild, but as a friend. It wasn’t the same without her.

They all needed her.

They needed to find her.

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