As Willow appeared in her VRHome she immediately realised she wasn’t alone. Opal and Juniper were sitting on the couch and Sage was walking from one end of the room to the other, looking really worried.
It was good to see her friends all here, but the look in their eyes made that feeling disappear quickly.
“Willow!” Juniper stood up, going over to her, but then she frowned. “What’s wrong?” Juniper reached up and Willow could feel Juniper’s soft touch on her cheeks.
“I always forget tears even appear in VR.” Willow wiped at her cheeks, hoping to dry her tears, but it didn’t help the way her chest was hurting. “Opal and Sage told me to come here. What’s going on?” She cleared her throat, the tears making her voice sound strange.
Sage came over too, their face worried. “We couldn’t get a hold of you, you were ignoring our messages.”
“I was just... too focused on a game. Sorry. Lost track of time.” The others apparently couldn’t see that she’d been in Helheim Fallen, unlike when other players were in there game. Interesting, and good, for now. “Why?”
“Have you seen the news?” Sage looked at her.
“I’ve heard some stuff.” Soleil had told her a few things but Willow wasn’t sure how much her friends knew about what was really going on.
Sage nodded. “The police found someone whose account was blitzed. They don’t know who it is yet. But...” Sage shook their head, and Willow could see the tears appearing in their eyes. “The person they found couldn’t get back into their house because the door lock couldn’t recognise their ID. This is... scary stuff. Being locked out of your own home, not able to get back in or contact anyone…”
“Where is Violet?” Opal’s voice was harsh, and when Willow looked at him, his eyes on her were hard. “Where is she?”
Could she lie? Could she lie to her friends, after news like that? But the look on everyone’s faces made her go against Violet’s wishes, because their friends deserved to know the truth, at least part of it. “She can’t get into BASE.”
“Why not?” Opal’s voice was angry. “Why?”
Willow felt her tears come back. She couldn’t do this. She really couldn’t.
“Violet has been blitzed?” Sage sounded surprised, and a little scared.
Willow didn’t want to say anything more, she couldn’t find the words anyway.
“That’s why you were crying. You think Violet...” Juniper stared at her, her face paling. “It may have been Violet they found?”
Willow nodded, pulling her sleeves over her hands and covering her face. Her breathing hitched, her shoulders tightening.
“Are you sure?” That was Sage, wrapping their arms around her.
She shook her head. Then she focused and started mentally sounding out words for the chat. She couldn’t talk now, her voice wouldn’t work, her body shutting down. But her head still made words and she needed to tell them things, she couldn’t wait until she’d calmed down again.
Willow: They found a young woman in the slums. That’s where Violet lives. And she was outside yesterday afternoon.
Sage: How do you know?
Willow: She was at my place, gave me a message. She was out there, in the cold.
In the freezing cold, the weather having turned pretty bad in the last couple of days.
Willow: It could be her.
Opal: How do you know that it was a young woman they found and where they found her? The news just said a person, somewhere.
Soleil had told her, but if that hadn’t been officially on the news, then Soleil must have found out some other way. And that meant that Soleil was getting her information from a lot of interesting places.
Willow: Someone said it online. I saw it before I logged on here.
Sage: But you think it could be Violet?
It was strange, feeling Sage’s arms around her while talking in the chat. But it was also good, she needed it, she needed the comfort. She was falling apart inside and Sage was keeping her together, for now.
Willow: Could be.
Willow: I don’t know. I’m just scared.
She felt Juniper coming closer too, wrapping her arms around them. “I can’t believe it. I don’t want to.”
“I know.” Willow’s voice was a whisper. “I don’t want it either. But it’s just...” It’s too coincidental to ignore. And she had no way to get in contact with Violet right now. Until Violet contacted her again, she wouldn’t know if Violet was safe or not.
Opal: Did you read the other parts of the articles too?
Willow: Other parts?
Opal: They’re saying that it’s connected to HF. This wasn’t the first person who’d disappeared when going into HF.
Willow: If they don’t know who they found, how do they know that it’s connected to HF?
He wasn’t wrong, but she needed to know how much was actually out there.
Opal: It’s just conjecture. They found the messages that people are going missing in HF and combined it with the reports of people in other games getting blitzed.
Juniper: But they haven’t found any blitzed people in HF, people would tell. If they saw a blitzed account in HF, they would tell, wouldn’t they?
Juniper: Especially now?
Opal: Maybe. I don’t know. Just, word out there is that it’s connected to HF.
Sage: Why would it be?
Opal: They’re saying it started after the HF beta codes were getting sent out and it’s gotten worse leading up to the release of the game.
Sage: ‘They’re saying’? Maybe don’t pay as much attention to conjecture. Right, Willow?
What they were saying wasn’t wrong, and they were the exact questions she’d been wondering about herself, and had asked Soleil. But to see her friends worry about this, these things, it made it all too real.
She’d gotten a little lost in her own head, trying to stay calm, storing everything she knew about what was going on and trying to find more connections. But like Opal said, and Soleil too, so many of these connections led directly to HF and their beta codes, no matter what way you turned it.
Willow: I have to go. I need to sleep. The system will start bugging me soon.
Sage: Right. Don’t worry too much, I bet Violet is out there, nothing wrong.
That hit her brain wrong, fury sparking in moments, tears back in her eyes, her chest tight.
Willow: Everything is wrong if Violet can’t use her BASE account.
Willow: No way to buy food, to pay her rent, to open the security in her home.
Willow: She got blitzed. That much I know for sure. They may or may not have found Violet’s body, but that doesn’t take away that someone who got blitzed was found, frozen to death. Someone died because someone else blitzed their account.
Willow: Do you not even care about that?
She couldn’t do this. All the emotions inside her were getting too strong. She logged out of her VRHome, getting out of the VR system. No, she couldn’t keep doing this.
She put the VR headset to the side and changed into her sleeping clothes. When she crawled into bed, she opened the chat with Soleil again.
Willow: I want to meet tomorrow.
Rotnem: Sure. At 12?
Rotnem: I’ll be at the Metropolis Dome again.
Then she closed the chat and silenced the notifications. She had to sleep, she couldn’t deal with this anymore, she just couldn’t.
The world had become so much scarier and she didn’t know how to deal with that.
Willow dressed up warm as she left for the Dome. Mira would grow to her next stage right as she met up with Soleil, but she had more things to worry about than a creature in a game, no matter how attached she’d gotten to it. Important things like making sure Violet was alive and safe.
None of this was going to be worth it if Violet wasn’t there with her. All her friends should be there, including Violet. She couldn’t just let this go, she couldn’t let this happen anymore.
Willow’s notifications slowly began to blink red and she opened them as she looked around the area in front of the Dome.
Sage: Willow, are you okay?
The chat had been quiet all night after she left the VRHome, which was strange, but maybe she had been too harsh on them...
Willow: I’m okay.
Sage: You’re not in DoE? Mira is going to level up soon.
Willow: What’s the use when Violet isn’t there?
Willow: I’ll be going out of range for a while. I need to clear my head.
She couldn’t tell them that she was going to meet Soleil or what they were up to, but a warning that they wouldn’t be able to reach her was probably a good idea.
Sage: Okay. Stay safe, please.
Willow: I will.
Sage and their ‘stay safe’ line. She hadn’t been safe for days, none of them had been. And as much as she wanted to believe that things would be okay again, that was getting harder and harder to believe.
She spotted Soleil near the doors again and walked up to her. Soleil was dressed in jeans and a warm jacket this time, not dressed up all proper like last time. She looked younger like this, a lot less intimidating too.
“Hey.” Willow’s voice was rough, she hadn’t used it since last night and she always had a raspy voice after she cried.
“Hey.” Soleil looked at her, then stepped closer. “Do you want a hug?”
Tears sprung to her eyes as she nodded, and the next moment, Soleil took her into a tight hug, holding her close. Willow also reached out to Soleil and held her too. This felt good. With everything going on, this felt like it kept her grounded, even just a little.
Then Soleil let her go again. “Let’s go inside. Where do you want to go?”
“Autumn.” She didn’t want the winter area, but everything else felt like it would be too bright for her mood.
“Okay.” Soleil started walking and Willow followed her.
When they reached the autumn part of the park, they walked right through the trees to a clearing they apparently both knew how to find easily. They sat down on the fallen tree and were quiet for a while, then Soleil moved.
“I don’t have any news yet about the woman they found. I wish I had. For now, I don’t know if it’s your friend or not.”
“Violet.” Willow pulled a face, her voice was so rough and her throat hurt a little.
“Violet,” Soleil repeated the name. “I don’t know if it’s her. Sorry.”
Willow nodded. She didn’t really expect anything, though she had hoped that Soleil had known more by now. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this. It’s... too scary.”
“I know.” Soleil’s voice was quiet. “I know. I wish that I didn’t have to ask this of you. I know very well the dangers that I’m asking you to put yourself in. Very well.”
Willow looked at Soleil, something in her voice off, but Soleil was looking away from her. “Why?”
Soleil shook her head a little. “It’s not easy to explain. But I need you to be strong. I need you to keep going.”
“Why?” She knew that she kept asking the same things, but she hated that she didn’t know things and that she was working from nothing here, everything strange and unfamiliar.
Soleil sighed and then looked her way. “It’s the only way we can find out what happened. We need to find out why they’re doing this, how they’re doing this. How they’re choosing their victims.” Soleil looked around, her eyes scared. “What I’m about to tell you, you can’t tell anyone. Nobody. Promise.”
Her chest tightened and Willow acutely wondered how much danger Soleil was putting herself in by doing all this. How many chances Soleil was taking by being here, talking to Willow, trying to find out all these things. The one in the most danger here wasn’t Willow, it was Soleil. “I promise.”
Soleil leaned in closer, tugging on her shoulder until Soleil’s lips nearly touched Willow’s ear. “The person inside HF who is helping us out, they told me that the higher-ups in HF are aware of the blitzing and that they’re doing everything to hide this from the public. They’re scared. They’re really scared and they’re running around trying to do damage control. If it comes out that the blitzed people were all on the beta list for HF, that could ruin the game in an instant. They don’t want that.”
Willow nodded. The people in charge in HF had every reason to try to keep this quiet.
“They’re aware of it and instead of fixing whatever it is that’s going on, they’re trying to cover it up. They’re silencing anyone who even steps a little out of line. If they find out what you’re doing... What we’re doing.”
“They’ll come after me too,” Willow whispered.
Willow’s blood began to boil. “But they’re fine with people getting blitzed, as long as it doesn’t harm the reputation of the game. They’re fine with people going missing, with people dying, as long as it doesn’t harm their game.”
Every hero needed an enemy, someone or something to defeat. And covering up how their game was ruining the lives of ordinary people was a pretty evil plan and a pretty good motive for an enemy.
But Soleil was right, if she was going to find out what was happening, she needed to find others, she needed to progress in the game and find other players. She had to keep going, because if there was one thing she was good at, it was videogames, and with the tools Soleil had given her, she could defeat these people at their own game.
She may be a girl and autistic on top of that, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t find every player in this game and tell them what was going on. Not just that, she could ruin this game from the inside out, keeping going until she found out what was happening and solving the problem.
She had to do it. For Violet, for others like Violet, those who were blitzed and had no way to defend themselves. She had to be the one doing this.
Every hero needed an enemy and she had just found hers.