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Willow curled up in bed, totally exhausted, but her head just wouldn’t slow down, thoughts still rushing through it, one after another after another. When she’d returned home, Soleil changed the notification on her BASE notification system back and now it insisted that she really had to go sleep. But how could she? How could she sleep like this? How could she sleep knowing all that she knew now?

She opened the chat with the others in the guild.

Willow: Violet is safe, I saw her. She’s doing okay. She told me to tell you not to worry.

Then she closed the chat, the others were probably asleep and she should too. But she had no idea how she even could.

She took a deep breath and put on the VR headset. Maybe playing some memory videos would help her get to sleep, maybe that would calm her brain down a little.

She opened the part of the BASE platform where her memories were stored. From one of the first days she had gotten the BASE implant and her excitement at the AR options, to going to school, for the few days they’d put her in a small VR classroom before deciding to give her private classes anyway, to playing games with her friends and even when Mira had been born in DoE. But tonight she was looking for a very specific memory.

She pulled it up, this one was from when she was quite young still. It was from the first time she’d been part of a raid, with Violet, Juniper, Sage and Opal at her side. They’d been such noobs, but it had been so exciting and scary at the same time.

Willow let out a long breath as she played the video from the start, from right when they appeared inside the raid dungeon. There were people all around them, she remembered there maybe being fifty or so people at once, which was a huge amount of people for her at the time. Then she relaxed as she let the memory flood over her, let the past make her forget her present.

Her own memories of the time were a little different from what the BASE platform actually recorded, but the two combined were probably the best experience ever.

She dozed off, finally calming down enough after days of worrying about Violet. But now she knew where Violet was, now she knew that Violet was safe, somewhat, and that she was going to try to get her back into the digital world by giving Violet her old computer. Now she could finally let that worry go. She had a plan, she had something to focus on, and that had rarely ever felt this good.

When she woke up again, the memory had stopped playing. The VR world around her was dark, but as it registered her waking up, there was a message in front of her.

*It’s unhealthy to fall asleep with the VR headset on. Please take it off and rest.*

She shrugged. Well, she was going to do that anyway, but more because her neck felt strange from the way she’d been asleep. The VR headset was designed to be comfortable to wear in bed, but you had to be on your back, it wasn’t really designed to be comfortable when you were on your side, which is how Willow preferred to sleep.

As she sat up in her bed, she checked the chats. Her friends had woken up earlier and there were some messages, most of them happy about knowing Violet was okay, but nothing that required her immediate attention.

So instead she went on the hunt for her breakfast, which should have arrived by now. It was ten in the morning, and she hadn’t slept that much, she’d come back into the house between four and five, but if she didn’t get up now, she would probably sleep for the rest of the day, which was a bad idea.

“Time to get to work,” she whispered to herself.

She grabbed the breakfast box from her delivery box, and this time she saw the note that Violet had left behind for her as it fluttered to the floor. She put the box on the floor and took the note. The paper was different this time, white and not as strong, it was even a little dirty.

She folded it open.

Dear Willow,

I hope you’re okay and safe.

I wanted to let you know that I’m still here, I’m alive. The woman you heard about on the news is not me.

I’m sorry I can’t write a longer note, I’ll try to leave another one soon.

Please, take care of yourself. I’m doing good.

Love,

Violet

It was just a short note, but it felt good to hold it, making sure that last night really happened, that it wasn’t a dream.

Violet was safe. She’d been blitzed, but she was alive and well, and that was the most important part of all of this. She smiled a little. At least it made her feel a little better, knowing that Violet was well. Although, knowing where Violet lived made her worry in other ways, but those were things she could focus on next, it wasn’t an immediate danger.

Willow put the note in her pocket and picked up the box with breakfast, putting it on the table and opened it. Just some bread and things to put on it. Not very fancy, but nothing really was fancy here anyway.

She sat down, folding down the sides of the box and spreading everything around, trying to decide what to put on her bread first when a red notification started blinking fast in the corner of her view.

As her attention was pulled to it, a message popped up in the middle of her view.

*Daryl Hill, Helheim Fallen Online’s creator, speaks out about accusations levelled against the company about people going missing on their watch.*

What?!

Was this real? Had she just walked into an alternate reality or something?

She accepted the invite to open the video stream and then opened the chat she had with her friends and the one with Soleil.

Sage: Are you all seeing this?

They’d posted it just a moment ago, right as Willow had gotten the notification too.

Willow: Yeah. Unreal.

Then she switched to the chat with Soleil.

Willow: What happened? What are they doing?

The video stream didn’t show much right now. They were standing in a large room in some fancy building. There were reporters everywhere, just milling about. On one side of the room there was a large stage, the backdrop to it the Helheim Fallen Online logo and a simple stand at the front. There wasn’t anyone from the company there yet.

Rotnem: I have no idea, nobody knew about this. Everyone at work is watching too.

Rotnem: Nobody had any idea this would happen.

That didn’t sound very comforting. If even the people at BASE, the main company that designed the whole platform that games like HF were played on had no idea, then who did? Was this something HF’s company had planned, or was this impromptu? Because both would be a bad sign.

She switched to the other chat.

Opal: Is this because of the articles about the blitzed accounts?

Willow: Probably.

Right then, a group of people in expensive black suits came from a door on the left side of the room. They walked to the stage, a few sat down in two rows of chairs on either side of the stand, and one man walked up to the microphone on the stand. Finally, two broad guys stepped off the front of the stage and stayed there, looking impressive, probably bodyguards or something.

The man on the stage looked pretty young, maybe in his mid-twenties, but he had the charisma of someone who was used to using his words to get people to do his bidding. He looked over the room, patiently waiting until everyone had quieted down.

“Welcome, and I’m sorry that this is such a short notice. As most of you know, I’m Daryl Hill, the creator of the most anticipated VRMMORPG game of this decade.” He looked over the reporters, his eyes almost seeming to rest of every person here for just a couple of moments, the look in them was intense. “I wish that I could stand here and talk about the success leading up to the release of Helheim Fallen Online, which is coming out in just five days. Instead, I’m standing here because there have been some unsettling and persistent rumours about the game. And I would like to promise you that the game is perfectly safe and people shouldn’t be worrying about buying or playing it in the future.”

“Why do a press conference about the rumours when they’re not true?” someone a couple of seats over yelled the question before Daryl could even say more.

Daryl glared at the reporter for a moment, before taking a deep breath and turning to the whole audience again. “I’m standing here because I feel like I need to personally talk about this. Helheim Fallen Online is in no way connected to the ‘disappearance’ of our loved and law-abiding fellow humans. These are only rumours, spread by people who would like to see this game fail, or worse, to see the release of it cancelled. To my knowledge, the issue of people going missing is something that multiple games have been struggling with in these past weeks. I’ve not heard of any sightings of what some people are calling ‘blitzed’ accounts in Helheim Fallen Online. I have no idea why Helheim Fallen Online has been targeted specifically for these rumours, but I’m saddened by these people’s actions. And I want to extend my deepest regrets to the people who have lost their accounts or otherwise have not been able to play because they were targeted by malicious people.”

He looked so serious and honest, even though he was lying through his teeth. Willow knew that at least people inside the HF headquarters were aware of this issue within their own game, but that either hadn’t reached Daryl, which was unlikely, or he was forming his sentences really carefully as to not say things that weren’t true. Because, yeah, there hadn’t been any ‘sightings’ of blitzed people in HF reported, at least not on the forums, even though Willow had seen one blitzed account inside the game herself. The ‘no reports’ part was in a way true. And so was the fact that other games had been affected too, though, only after reports of people logging onto HF with a beta key and going missing started popping up, not before, as far as she knew.

“I’m sorry for people who have lost their friends and are convinced that Helheim Fallen Online has been the cause of the disappearances. There are always people struggling with their mental and emotional health. Changes, even good ones like getting accepted to play in the beta of a highly anticipated game, can trigger a stressful reaction for those people. But the choices that people make while they are stressed have nothing to do with our game. There is no risk for healthy and honest players to play Helheim Fallen Online. None. Helheim Fallen Online is still the biggest and most anticipated VRMMORPG of this decade, maybe even of this century, and it will not let itself be bullied into anything less than a spectacular release day.” Daryl inclined his head. “I won’t be taking any questions. Thank you.” And then he walked off the stage, the rest of the people in suits following him.

The room immediately got noisy and people seemed to be more confused now than they were before Daryl came onto the stage.

Willow stared at the empty stage until the live stream cut out and she was back in her apartment again.

No way. That was... No way.

The chat with Soleil blinked insistently.

Rotnem: Did you hear that?

Rotnem: He’s covering his ass.

Willow: Yeah.

She had to come back to herself for a moment. It was hard to believe that someone would be so... purposefully hurtful to people. It was hard to believe that this really just happened. But the language Daryl used gave her shivers and it just felt so wrong. So...

She didn’t know how to describe it.

She switched to the chat with the other people from the guild.

Willow: Meet me in VRHome.

Sure, she could talk to Soleil. Figure things out, try to understand things by talking to someone who was so much deeper into all of this. But right now she just needed her friends.

She went to her bedroom, her sandwich with ham abandoned on the table, and put the VR headset back on.

There was a notification about over-use of the VR headset, but she ignored it, swiping it away, and dove right into the VRHome.

When she arrived, Sage was already there, their eyes serious. “Hey.” They stood up, coming closer. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, the movement jerky as she was still so fizzy inside, bubbles of anger and frustration popping inside her. “Yeah.” Though even her voice didn’t sound right.

Moments later, both Opal and Juniper showed up too. All eyes were on her.

She took a deep breath. “I saw Violet last night. She’s safe. But...” She shook her head. How could she even explain it? How could she explain this bad feeling inside?

She turned a full circle, looking at everything she’d collected in this room over the years, everyone stayed quiet, waiting for her to talk again.

Willow: I think that HF’s release day is going to be dangerous for a lot of people.

She blinked, fear rushing through her now she’d said the words. There were things she could step back from, but this wasn’t one of those...

They were in real danger. People like Violet, but probably a lot more people, if Daryl’s words were anything to go by. His speech was as much about the things he hadn’t said as the things he had said. And the words he had used chilled her.

‘Law-abiding’, ‘struggling with mental and emotional health’, ‘healthy and honest players’. They already knew that the people who had gotten blitzed weren’t exactly ‘law-abiding’, so what would that mean for the other groups of people he spoke about?

For a game which promised to ‘change the gaming landscape forever’, those were some very dangerous words.

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