Willow walked over to her delivery box near her door, the light for a new delivery was on, but she couldn’t see anything inside the box. Probably a blip or something, even in a world so advanced, bugs and hiccups still happened. She’d mention it to one of the people who ran this place if it was still on tomorrow. It was a little annoying, but it wasn’t like the light was very obvious and it wouldn’t interfere with her receiving any deliveries either, so it was pretty low on the list of priorities.
She walked around her apartment, running her fingers over each surface, trying to calm herself down.
She shouldn’t freak out over Violet not responding to messages yet. There was no use in freaking out when she couldn’t actually do anything, so why did her brain go over everything she’d seen and read over and over again?
The messages from people saying that their friends had gone missing after getting a beta key for Helheim Fallen, the video of the blitzed person in DoE and now Violet not responding to any messages sent her way… It didn’t have to be connected, though it seemed less and less likely that it wasn’t.
Someone was messing with people’s accounts and she had no idea why or how she could protect herself, or her friends.
Willow opened the chat screen from Rotnem, but apart from the messages she’d already received there wasn’t anything else in it that could tell her how much this person knew about her or who they were.
Could she trust this person?
Just then, a call came in, it was her dad.
Willow connected the call, a little surprised. “Hi, Dad.”
“Hi, sweetie. How are you?” He sounded upbeat, happy, she thought.
“I’m good. How are you?”
“I’m good too. Your mum told me that you asked for your old computer?”
“Yeah. I’d like to play around with it a little. Do you still have it?” It was her dad’s old computer, technically. He was a software engineer back in the day, before everything went onto the BASE platform and creating software and games became something much simpler. He now worked for the BASE platform main company, overseeing the department that worked on office apps and general use apps and things like that. It was kind of cool, in a nerdy way.
“It should be in the attic. Why do you want it? Do you want to go back into coding?” She could hear that he was walking around.
“Yeah, I was thinking of doing that. Spend some time doing something interesting instead of just playing videogames.”
“Smart. Yeah. I’m pretty sure it’s up here somewhere. Do you also want the books with it?”
“Yes, please. Not that many tutorials around anymore, not with BASE and stuff.” Very few people had interest in the more complicated and ‘old school’ coding languages when you could create anything with just a couple of simple building blocks these days.
“Of course. Yes, I can imagine that guides and help aren’t that easy to find anymore, not like back in the day.” She heard him move some things around. “I think I just found it. Do you want me to send everything over? I think it should fit in a box.”
‘Send them over’... Of course he wasn’t going to bring them over himself. Everything could be delivered in no-time, and this way he didn’t have to go out of his way to do this, this way he didn’t have to take the time to see his daughter... This way he didn’t have to see her...
These thoughts weren’t going to help her.
“Sure. Just send them over.” Because how important was personal contact anyway, you know? It’s not like she hadn’t seen him for months, maybe even over a year.
“Will do. I’m glad to see you taking up something useful again, maybe this will help you get ahead. Do something productive with your days.” He sounded so upbeat as he said it, like he wasn’t insulting her or diminishing all the hard work she was putting into simply staying alive and not turning into a depressed mess for the way everything around her was built to hold any ambitions she may have had back…
Her throat closed up with tears and she shook her head. “Thanks. Talk to you soon.” She quickly disconnected the line, before he’d hear her tears. Before he found out she was crying because she wanted to see her father. But actually asking to see her parents would go against everything her parents had been taught about her autism and would make them ask ridiculous questions about where she’d read about acting like that. It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before.
She’s been eight or nine years old and after her parents had both been away from home for work for over a week, she’d been so happy to see them return. She’d cried, she’d wanted to hug them so much. She needed to be close to them, feel them and make sure they really were back. And they’d looked at her like she was an alien and had asked where she’d ‘mirrored’ that response from, where she’d learned to behave like that. That it wasn’t ‘normal’ for her to miss them or for her to need their touch or physical contact. She’d missed them so much, she’d not seen them for over a week, and the only response she’d gotten was that her behaviour was ‘not right for an autistic’ and that she ‘should behave normally for her and not try to copy what she saw in the media, because that wasn’t her’. It broke her heart, she’d felt so lost, so lonely.
That was the moment she learned that her parents only saw her as her autism, not as a person, and it was also the moment that she learned that if she wanted any connection to her parents it had to be in ‘autistic appropriate’ ways.
To try and get a closer connection with her dad, she decided to learn how to code, which delighted him.
Not long after that, she met Sage online, immediately getting along well with them. Sage understood her, they got her, and they were there for her when her parents couldn’t or wouldn’t be. Sage was her first friend, her very first friend.
It said something about the way she was brought up that the first time she remembered having more than a fleeting social connection with someone around her age was when she was about nine years old.
Her second friend had been Violet, who had saved her when she was just a DoE noobie and had gotten herself in trouble in some dungeon. Violet came in, all swords and arrows and killing everything in her path until she’d reached Willow. Violet had been her saviour.
And now Violet was in trouble.
Willow berated herself. What was she doing?
She knew what she had to do. She already knew. There was no doubt in her mind.
She’d tried to ignore this the whole time, she’d tried to run away, but what use was there?
Willow wasn’t going to get Violet back by hiding, by ignoring all the things going on, all the little connections, no matter how fleeting.
Violet saved her when she was little, Violet had always been there to save her. And now Willow had to save Violet.
When Willow had realised that her parents weren’t going to come to her birthday a couple of weeks ago, Violet had sent her a plush toy of their DoE pet Mira. She’d sent her a beautiful plush toy that she could always hug and hold close. It was the sweetest thing.
Violet had always been there for her and now she needed to be there for Violet. Because no matter what, something bad was going on and she had to do something about it.
She opened the chat with Rotnem and looked through it again. To get in touch with them, she had to find Ilana in the first BASE game she’d ever played.
That had been a long time ago, but it was pretty easy to remember what the game was. The first game she played in BASE, the first game she officially played on the platform, without her parents sitting at her side the whole time, was actually DoE. It wasn’t that complicated to ask for her first game, she’d been a fan of DoE from the start and she’d always played it. As soon as she was old enough, she’d gotten herself an account and she’d started playing.
She went over to her bed and put on the VR headset.
Then she logged on.
She spawned in the middle of the garden next to the guild house. Mira quickly came over to her, pushing her head to Willow’s hand.
“I know. You miss your other mummy too. I know.” She ruffled her fingers through the feathers on Mira’s head. “I’m going to try and find her. I promise.”
Mira let out squawking sounds, running around her before she leaned against Willow.
“I know. I’ll be back. I promise.” She leaned in, kissing Mira’s beak. “I’ll be back.”
Then she pulled up a player search and put in the name Ilana.
There weren’t many Ilanas, but she found one who was just level one and was still in the starter area.
She didn’t know why, but it felt like that was probably the right player. Something about the first game she played and this Ilana being in the starter zone made sense.
Instead of sending a message, she transported to the zone. It was strange, being back here, none of the mobs paid any attention to her.
She walked around until she found the Ilana player near a pond, not doing anything, just staring into nothingness.
“Hi?” She stepped in front of Ilana.
Instead of speaking, a message appeared in the chat.
Ilana: You came.
Ilana: Why? What made you decide?
Willow: I don’t know.
What was the harm? This was just some person, and it wasn’t like they probably didn’t know already. They could probably get into her account too if they could get into her chat.
Willow: My best friend is missing. She logged onto HF and her account can’t be reached anymore.
Ilana: I was afraid that was the case. I’m sorry.
Ilana: I’ll be outside the Metropolis Dome in two hours. Meet me there if you really want to help and solve this.
Willow: Metropolis Dome?
Ilana: You know where it is. If you’re serious, meet me there. We can’t discuss this digitally.
Meeting someone outside the game. Heck, going outside the walls... That was definitely stupid behaviour according to Sage’s ‘stay safe’ rule, so why was she considering it? Why was she considering going?
But before she could give an answer, Ilana logged out and when Willow searched for her again, the whole avatar didn’t exist. It was like she’d never even been there. That was definitely strange.
Was she going to meet this person? Was she really going?
That wasn’t really a question.
The Metropolis Dome. It was about twenty minutes by bus to get there. It was one of the few places in the city where you couldn’t use the BASE platform. It was a ‘BASE-free’ zone, as they called it. They didn’t disconnect it or anything, and the platform still collected your vitals and things like that, but AR wasn’t possible and neither was logging into VR there. They built this beautiful park just so people could experience the ‘real world’ but in a safe way. It was built inside a dome and it was always good weather inside, depending on the area you went to, you could experience all the different seasons as much as you wanted...
Willow had been there a couple of times, not a lot of people went there anymore after the novelty had worn off, so it was always nice and quiet, and it allowed her to relax in ways that she just couldn’t at home or in the VR.
She was going, there was no question about it. If Ilana or Rotnem or whoever turned out to be some creep, she could always leave.
But if they knew something about what was going on, if they knew something about Violet going missing... she had to take this chance.
She had to save Violet.
Willow got off the bus, looking up at the huge dome in front of her. It always looked spectacular, even in the middle of winter. It was getting late in the day and it was already getting dark, but there was enough light around to see that there were a handful of people milling around outside.
Some were talking to each other, others were just standing there, probably waiting.
A notification showed for a moment and then the chat opened.
*You are in a chat with Rotnem*
Rotnem: By the door, I’m standing on the left side of the doors.
Willow looked up, spotting a figure in the shadows near the doors. She carefully walked over, her heart beating loudly and she didn’t know what she’d do when she finally met this mysterious person. But she had to hear them out, if they could help her with finding Violet, she’d do anything. Maybe. Mostly.
But as she came closer, she realised that the person waiting for her was a girl.
Well, more a woman, she was probably a couple of years older than Willow, and she was wearing nice shoes, a pencil skirt and was hiding most of the rest of herself inside a much too big, dark hoodie. She was also carrying a small nondescript briefcase.
She looked... Willow looked the woman over again. She somehow looked familiar, like this was probably how Willow would dress if she had to show up in nice clothes for her job.
If she’d ever get a job, or a normal life.
“Let’s get inside,” Rotnem/Ilana spoke.