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The Turning Point

 

Pork bones simmered in a huge stock pot on the gas stove. At the kitchen table, Chie edited another mathematics paper. This time it was for a symposium. She watched Ken in his white apron hobble over to the other side of the stove and slide a carving knife out of the block. Even though Hayden stood on a stepping stool, his chin only barely crested the countertop. The four-pound raw pork butt on the counter stared the two of them in their faces. Ken cut it into four parts. "Now cover them with the salt."

Hayden shook the salt shaker.

"Do the same with the pepper, coriander, and cumin."

The cumin top fell off and half the bottle poured over the meat before Hayden stopped it. "I'm sorry!"

Hayden looked like he was about to cry.

"It's okay, Hayden, you have to make mistakes to learn and make as many of them as you can when you're young and get them all out of your system. So you don't make them when you're older and the problems bigger."

Hayden still didn't look quite convinced.

"All right then, now let's massage the pig's butt."

Hayden laughed.

They gripped and rubbed, twisted and pinched the pig's muscular hindquarters.

"The pig loves it," Ken said. "Can you hear it oinking?"

"Dad," Hayden giggled. "I'm not that little anymore, I know it's dead."

Chie laughed too, but not at Hayden's innocence. Her thoughts were elsewhere. She appraised the smooth arc of Ken's muscular butt framed by the apron.

"Ha!" Ken reached over to rustle Hayden's hair, but then stopped. He showed his hands to Chie. They were caked with spices and raw pork juices.

She smiled. They grow so fast. It's a blessing in disguise. Ken hadn't taken a vacation since his promotion six months ago.

"Dad?" Hayden tugged on Ken's sleeve. "Do pigs have shirikodama?"

Chie's eyes met Ken's. They had talked about it. Hayden's nightmares. It had been her fault and she hadn't had the nerve to tell Ken about the quest. Even though she was sure he knew why she'd gone in. After all, what did he expect her to do after telling her about the challenge.

Ken pinched the stubble on his chin. "Insofar as a soul goes, being that I'm agnostic, I'd have to say that I don't know. But, you know, if we understand a soul to be some kind of insubstantial spirit, then it's impossible to have a soul exist in that digital environment. Therefore, it's impossible to have a shirikodama stolen in-game."

"But Mrs. Dun said the neurons in the brain and the nerves use electro... chemical pulses. And games are powered by electricity. So, couldn't a shirikodama exist in a game?"

"Well..." Ken glanced over at Chie. "That's true, but I would think that a soul needs organic material."

"Oh, like pesticide-free food?"

"No, something alive."

"The kappa was alive, well, more alive than in any other game, I mean it was more alive than—" Hayden looked over at his mother and then pulled his father down and whispered in his ear, "More alive than... the eighteen-plus we were in."

"Kappa?" Ken looked over at her and raised his eyebrows.

She smiled and nodded back at him.

Ken nodded. "I see, but it wasn't really alive because it was all electricity and bits and bytes—not flesh and bones and—" Ken pinched Hayden's shoulder.

"Ow!" Hayden said.

"—it can't feel pain or..." Ken tickled Hayden's stomach. "Tickling!"

"Dad, stop! I'm serious."

"Oh sorry," Ken raised his eyebrows. "Let's continue with our Socratic discussion."

"When Grandma and Grandpa took me to church, Reverend Asakawa said the soul might be made up of quan...quantum energy."

"Reverend Asakawa is quite the studious one. I wonder if quantum theory is alluded to in the Lotus or Diamond sutras?" He stared off into space. "Quantum energy. Could be, could be..." He nodded his head up and down.

All the while massaging the pork butt with one small hand, Hayden looked up at his father waiting for him to continue.

After almost a minute, Chie said, "Ken?"

"Oh right. Quantum energy. The thing is that even if the soul were made of quantum energy, it's all locked up inside of subatomic particles—"

"Subatomic—"

"Like electrons in electricity. So, it's doubtful that your quantum soul could be transmitted via the VR helmet to the game. Because the quantum energy in the subatomic particles can't get out and be directly transferred." Ken looked down at Hayden.

"I can see directly in-game—"

"But that's through your eyes, not from the electrochemical impulses in your brain into the game."

"Oh!" Hayden's eyes brightened. "I get it!"

Chie gave Ken a thumbs up. Mission accomplished.

Ken and Hayden went back to creating their culinary delight. Ken browned the pork butt pieces in the Presto pressure cooker. Then he poured in a cup of water and rotated the cover to seal it. He pressed the pressure cook button and set the timer for fifty minutes.

After combining the flour and egg, Ken said to Hayden, "Now roll 'em flat like a steamroller."

They both made machine-like humming noises.

While Ken threaded the flat sheets through the pasta machine, Hayden turned its handle. Yellow linguine strands spun out the other end like threads of gold. He held them up to Chie. "Not quite ramen noodles, but you have to make do with what you've got and adapt."

"Mmm... looks tasty, oishi!"

She walked up behind them, stretched her arms out, grabbed their shoulders, and hugged them. "My two little chefs."

She rubbed her pelvis against his hip, kissed his ear, and whispered, "Let's do it later."

Roaring like a lion, Ken wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her in. He kissed her again and again, their lips making loud smacking noises.

The pressure cooker let out a wolf-whistle and shot out a geyser of steam. Then, its steam release pin clicked shut.

"Shh... Mommy, Daddy," Hayden put a finger to his lips. "The pig's enjoying its soak in the onsen."

Both Chie and Ken kissed Hayden on his cheeks.

Chie's phone rang.

"Hi, Mrs. Shibuyama. I'm Detective Rostov from the Berkeley Police Department."

"Oh, hi, Detective Rostov, can you hold on for just a minute, please." Chie rushed out of the kitchen and into the office. "Sorry about that, is this regarding the threat?"

"Right, I'm handling them. I just wanted to assure you that since there have been a number of attempted swattings over the past six months, we've taken extra precautions. We've placed your home address in Berkeley on our list of swatting threats."

She sighed in relief. "Thank you. Not to be a pain, but would you be able to start an investigation?"

"Unfortunately, Mrs. Shibuyama, I'm the only one managing swatting, in addition to my other cases, and an online game threat—"

"I mean, it didn't sound like an idle threat." She couldn't say it was from an NPC kappa.

"Didn't they say it would happen in twenty-four hours and wasn't that two weeks ago?"

She hadn't told him the twenty-four hour deadline was to sign up for the quest, but it would complicate matters if she told the police all that. She hadn't signed up and it was true that it had been two whole weeks since she'd been online. Nothing had happened. That was good news. It was all a bluff and there was no need to tell Ken. Still, they might try again and it couldn't hurt to ask the police to start an investigation. "But—"

"See? Plus, not being able to provide a real name makes it a very resource intensive investigation. To be honest, you're lucky to even get on the watch list. If it wasn't for the fact that someone over in San Mateo was swatted in a game also run by Websuit International last weekend, we never would have considered it."

The same company? Could the same kappa have swatted someone else? But an NPC can't call out of the game. Does it even have that much initiative? Maybe the Empress ordered it? That must be it! The Empress is really a player. "Oh, is that person okay?"

"You haven't heard? It's been all over the news. The JamminChat employee? No one was hurt, but after the swatting, he went missing. Turns out he was under suspicion of embezzlement. That reminds me now. This might be good news for you—and for me. As a result of this high profile case, an FBI agent is going to be assigned to our department for a few months. Boy, we're sure going to make some good headway through our backlog."

"What's his name? The FBI agent?" Chie said.

"Oh... Jim Nithyanandan. But please don't bother him, Mrs. Shibuyama, he's going to be extremely busy. I'll still be the one in charge and I'll be more than happy to answer any questions you might have. In fact, we'll be in touch and give you a status update if anything comes up, at least once a month."

She thanked the detective and hung up. She told herself that now with their address on the watch list, she had a good enough reason to avoid telling Ken about the swatting threat. Obviously, telling him would be way too much stress and interfere with his recovery.

After stuffing themselves with ramen, Ken and Chie put Hayden to bed.

❄ ❄ ❄

In their own bed, Ken caressed Chie's hair and then slid his hand under the covers to rest on her shoulders. She rolled over on her side and kissed him. As he moved his leg with the cast to rest on top of the other, he winced at the tightness in the hip. It was amazing that only one leg was broken. Well, he'd had a concussion too. Four weeks to be healed completely and two weeks had already passed.

"It's okay, I'll do it," she said. She rolled him onto his back. He reached over and opened the nightstand drawer, but she told him not to bother. Her period had ended yesterday. She climbed on top of him and they made love.

Afterwards, Chie held Ken's hand underneath the sheets and pink silk quilt. She kissed his adam's apple and his stubble scratched the tip of her nose. She laughed, lifted her head up, and touched the scab on his cheekbone.

"I was afraid," she said. She laid her head on his chest and pulled at the hairs around his nipples.

"Stop it." He smiled.

She wrapped herself in her bathrobe to get glasses of water.

While filling up the glasses in the kitchen, her phone rang. "Hi, Mom."

"Are you guys, okay? I mean all of you, Ken and Hayden?" Chie's mother said.

"Well, nothing's changed since we saw you Sunday when you picked Hayden up," Chie said.

"Did your phone get hacked?" her mother said.

"No, well not that I know of. Why? Yours did?"

"Yes, both mine and your dad's and the FBI came and confiscated them."

"What? Today?" Chie almost dropped the glass of water. She turned off the faucet.

"They left an hour ago."

"But why?" Chie said.

"They asked a lot of questions about you," Chie's mother said.

"Me?"

"And Ken and Hayden and... about your involvement in the Three Kingdoms."

"But they just can't barge in," Chie said.

"They had a warrant. It was so exhausting, and at our age. You know, honey, your father and I are proud of you." Her mother paused.

Here, it was coming, the lecture, Chie could feel it in her mother's tone. She cinched her bathrobe belt around her already tightened abdominal muscles.

"And what you do with your time is your own but we thought you'd given up on those, what do you call them, e-sports?"

She ignored her mother's rhetorical question. There were more important questions, more important facts to verify. "By any chance, the name of any of the FBI agents wasn't Jim Nithyanandan, was it?"

"How in the world did you know?" her mother said and then continued to tell Chie how last night at the church's meditation session, the phones of many of her mother's friends had also been hacked, but none had been visited by the FBI yet. Her mother prattled on about the virtues of the spiritual life which was antithetical to online fighting games, but by then Chie had tuned her mother out. Right before they said their goodbyes, her mother said that she and Chie's father would come over on Thursday and make nabe hotpot.

On her way back, she opened Hayden's door a crack. He was still sleeping. He wasn't tossing and turning and he wasn't waking up in the middle of the night anymore. And, of course, with Ken back into his master chef role with Hayden as his sous-chef, the family was back into their usual rhythm, like before his promotion.

Chie handed Ken his glass and she slipped back under the sheets, her back resting against the headboard.

"Mom called, they're coming over on Thursday to make nabe," Chie said and then guzzled down her entire glass.

Ken said yum and rubbed his stomach. "Nabe's so good when the cold weather starts to settle in."

"The FBI interviewed them today," Chie said.

He jerked his head back and hit it on the headboard.

She told him about the conversation with her mother but omitted that she knew the FBI agent's name.

❄ ❄ ❄

"It has nothing to do with you going back into the Three Kingdoms," Ken said, massaging her shoulders. "It's just a coincidence." He wasn't sure why she'd been avoiding talking about what happened to her in the Three Kingdoms, but he thought it had something to do with letting Hayden into the eighteen-plus environment. But now that Hayden was starting to talk about his traumatic experience and he hadn't had a nightmare in a week, it was probably okay. Besides, Ken's curiosity was killing him.

He hugged her. "Talking about the Three Kingdoms, did you ever find him? Prokreashun?"

She threw off the sheets and slipped her legs over the edge of the mattress.

"Sorry," he said, kissing her on the cheek. "It's not your fault. I was the one who let Hayden into the eighteen-plus environment in the first place. It couldn't have been that anyways. The real shocker was when he saw me in the ICU. That affected him way more than some virtual environment, right?"

"It was a kappa," Chie said.

He hugged her tighter. "How was Prokreashun able to change his character to a cute little kappa NPC?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

He nestled his nose and moist lips on her neck. "Did you get him to bow?" he said, kissing the nape of her neck.

She shivered and then snorted a laugh.

He tickled her side.

She grabbed his fingers and twisted them.

He grabbed her waist with both hands and pulled her down. His hip throbbed some, but the sex had loosened it up a little. He looked down into her honey-brown eyes and he kissed them both. Each one had a soft ridge of skin underneath like the first rise of bread dough. He had seen those eyes for the first time in first semester physics. Her stiff and straight bob cut boxed in her eyes. No other girl wore such unfashionable hair. And after almost two decades, she still wore the same cut. But those eyes, those wide, deep, dark eyes, hinted at an intelligence far beyond his own. And they were more than adequate to get him all the way through his undergrad physics requirement for computer science.

He squeezed her tight and gave her a quick peck on the lips. The Three Kingdoms was much improved from seven years ago and he was sure she'd had quite a shock. But the new system in Quantum Katana Online would be even worse for her. But now having experienced the Three Kingdoms, the way for her into Quantum Katana Online: The White Imperium had been eased. It'll be exactly like the good old days.

He bit his lower lip. He'd manipulated her by telling her about Prokreashun. He could've ignored Prokreashun's email just like he'd conveniently ignored the fact that he knew she'd go in and try to find her old nemesis. He regretted doing it, but after they'd argued about the stealth startup, this was really the only way. Besides, she really wanted to dive again. She had that competitive nature, the drive to reach her utmost potential in whatever field she chose. That's why he loved her.

Now that Hayden's better, I just know she'll be willing to give The White Imperium a go. Then I could tell her I registered for it. The alpha test websuit is going to be coming real soon too, maybe even today. He stared into her eyes again and looked for a sign showing she could handle the immersion, but he knew the eyes were not the windows to a person's soul.

❄ ❄ ❄

Chie had taken a small step towards telling him all about the quest, but then he'd tell her to take it and in fact he'd want to join up as well. She hadn't told him about having been in the actual White Imperium. Hayden had been too traumatized with the kappa envoy to say anything about it either, plus seeing Ken all bandaged up, but now the cat was out of the bag.

She broke away from his gaze.

"I bet you beat him to a pulp." Ken said.

"I logged off."

"What? Why?"

"Hayden," she said.

"Oh, right."

"What were you thinking?" She pushed herself up onto her hands. "Did you think I backed down?"

"There's nothing to be embarrassed about." He grabbed her hand.

"Embarrassed?" She bolted upright, sitting as straight as the stave of a naginata. "Rose Crow never backs down."

"Okay, okay, calm down." He tugged on her hand. "It's only a game."

With her lips thinned to a grim line across her face, she stared at him. He smiled back. Reflected in the mirror behind him, she saw her steel-eyed gaze and she realized just how silly she was being. She looked down at their entwined fingers. "The graphics. The quality was photorealistic. Not to mention the environmental sounds."

"Wow, I heard the graphics chips on the new helmets are going to be upgraded, but I didn't know the software upgrade on the old ones would already be that good."

Her face relaxed. "But it could never have this level of reality." Desperate to prove to herself how much the real world meant to her, she grasped his cheeks in both of her hands and kissed him full on the mouth, sliding her lips all over his. She let them linger together for several long seconds and then released him.

He reached around her waist to pull her back into another kiss, but she leaned back, away from him. Was it really right for her to keep the quest from him? Didn't they share everyhing? "It offered me a quest, but I refused it. From the Empress of The White Imperium."

Ken's eyes lit up. "An empress! No one's ever said anything about an empress!" Then he knitted his brow. "But you were in the Three Kingdoms..."

"It was weird. The kappa claimed we were logged into The White Imperium test server, and there were new stats." She told him about the Chi attribute and the universe property.

"Then, it was The White Imperium."

Chie shrugged. "I guess, but it was just a clearing in a forest. Nothing special. A tsuchigumo attacked me, but I dispatched it quickly."

"You were logged in to the wild? Not a town?"

"Yeah, I know, definitely not a safe zone, come to think of it."

His mouth was agape. "The alpha hadn't even been opened yet. How could you be—how about the quest? What was the quest about?"

The private message describing the quest had made her heart do backflips. The Mirror of Truth. She had seen hand-crafted replicas of ancient Japanese bronze mirrors many times on the mantle in the church foyer. "To be honest, it was kind of boring..."

"Really? What was it? A dungeon crawl? Escort mission? Rescue?" He was like a dog straining at the leash to chase a cat.

The quest for the shards of the Mirror of Truth. "No, nothing like that, it's kind of like your typical adventurer party on a scavenger hunt—"

The doorbell rang. The alarm clock displayed 2313. Ken threw on shorts and a t-shirt.

"What, you're going to get it at this time of night?"

He smiled. "I'm expecting something."

She followed him to the front door.

He turned on the porch light, peeked through the peep hole and then opened the door.

"Good evening, Sir," A delivery man in a purple and yellow uniform said. "Are you Mr. Kenji Shibuyama?" Websuit International was emblazoned in bright white letters across the front of his black cap. His gloved hand rested on a handtruck which held a large packing box.

"Yes," Ken said. "You're sure out late."

"Overtime," the delivery man said as he handed Ken the digital delivery recorder to sign. "Plus a hefty bonus directly from the customer." He tipped brim of his cap.

After signing, Ken opened the box in the living room. Inside was a lifeless black wetsuit wrapped in vacuum-sealed plastic.

After having heard Hayden describe it, she knew what it was right away and crossed her arms. "I won't allow that thing in here."

"You know what—"

"Of course," Chie said. "Your son is more forthcoming than his own father."

"I was going to tell you, but the time just didn't seem right." His smile looked like a painted-on clown's.

She glared at him.

"Get your VR headset. You can wear it and get a feel for it. You'll get a real kick out of it." He held it up to show her.

"That? It's too big. Was it custom-made for you?"

"Yeah, they asked me to take a 3D, three-hundred sixty degree video. Just wear the pants. We can roll up the cuffs."

"No way." She backed up and put her hands up in front of her. "I'm not going to put on a form-fitting body bag."

Ken cut open the vacuum bag and laid the cuff of one of the pantlegs in Chie's hand.

She rubbed the polymer between her fingers and shuddered. It repulsed her. It was cool and smooth like the burnished wood of a coffin. She tossed it back at him. "It's only an alpha, anyways. It's bound to have tons of bugs."

"I heard they're restricting the initial period to a training town to work out the basic bugs and the websuit doesn't have all the bells and whistles, in fact, it's pretty bare bones. Sensitivity's hardcoded at the min level." He held out the pants to her. "Just put it on and it'll automatically calibrate to you body upon login."

"It doesn't feel right. Hayden said that it translates your actual physical movements into the game and it stimulates your nerves. What exactly does that mean?"

Ken gave her the exact explanation he'd given Mas and she had the same reaction.

"Who the hell wants to feel pain in a game?" She wrapped her arms around herself in a hug.

"It's going to be totally immersive!" he said.

"Not on my watch. What if Hayden tries to use it?"

"What're you talking about?" He held the jacket up by its sleeves. Spread out, it looked like a baby manta ray. "It's way too big."

"I don't care, send it back." If it made the game more immersive than what she'd experienced so far, she didn't want anything to do with it. She turned her back on him and walked out of the living room and into the kitchen.

❄ ❄ ❄

A week later at three-thirty AM on a Sunday morning, Chie woke up to go to the bathroom. Ken's side of the bed was empty. She wasn't surprised. In fact, she was used to it, but that didn't mean she had to like it. Since he'd gotten his cast off three days ago, he'd been playing almost non-stop—even in the middle of the night. They'd argued and since then they'd stopped talking. She walked down the hallway and heard his voice coming from downstairs. After descending the stairs, she turned the corner and opened the sliding door that opened into the living room. Ken was standing in his websuit in the center, swinging his arms and bokken around.

He was at it again. Her blood pressure started to rise. "Get off! Right now!"

He couldn't hear her through the noise-cancelling headphones of his VR helmet. The new one looked exactly like a full-face motorcycle helmet, its faceplate tinted black. He couldn't even see her.

"Retreat!" Ken said. "Teddy, protect the flank!"

He thrust his bokken in front of him. "I know right, did you hear about the prize money?"

He ran into the sofa chair against the wall. "Oh, shit!" he toppled over it. "That archer shot me out of nowhere! Guys, where's my screen of scouts?"

"All right, I'm respawning." He stood up and waited for two minutes.

Then he jumped and smacked into the wall. "Dammit! Ran into the wall again!"

As though fending off multiple attackers, he swept his bokken in wide arcs all around him. "When are we going to get the fully functional websuits? Next week, right? Cool. We'll be out of this lame-ass training town and be able to freely traverse the open world."

He stuck his arm straight out. "Fireball! Ha, fried his ass."

He waved his arms in the air. "All right, everyone, come over here. Let's huddle up and plan for the next battle." He stretched his arms out on both sides and let them hang in mid-air. "Stop talking shit, Ricardo, it's all idle speculation, no one knows anything more about the quest other than what was stated in the official rules, although even they're sketchy. Maybe they're still working out the details." He thrust his hands out in front of him and waved them up and down. "What the hell, you didn't read them? Okay, how many of you idiots haven't read the rules yet? Geez, guys, I know you all have careers and family stuff, but still..."

"All right, listen up, it's"—he pointed his finger—"yes, Ricardo? Yeah, yeah, you saw how immersive it is, right? The usual HUD, but you're right, you can't switch to the third-person view, and a single health bar... sure, you can bring up your stats, but in the heat of battle, rely on your health bar, got it? It's all intended to support full immersion."

He pointed his finger again. "Jamie." He scratched his nose. "That's true, the NPCs are supposed to be even more advanced in their natural language processing than the Three Kingdoms, but don't get tricked into thinking they're other players. Their scripts are still restricted to their roles and they don't respond to gaming terms."

He held his hand up. "Look guys, just read the FAQ, we gotta talk about the campaign. So, it's a full campaign"—he pointed his finger again—"no, Jamie, it doesn't say how many adventures are in the campaign, maybe it's open-ended, I don't know—so each adventure is centered around collecting unique legendary items. I know, totally boss, right?" He fist-bumped someone. "Get this, my wife called it a typical scavenger hunt. Well, no, no one knows what the items are exactly. Yep, as usual every player in the party shares equally in the win—and the campaign finally ends with the typical boss dungeon. The boss? Yeah, yeah, 'Berserker' something. It's not named in the rules but that's the current rumor."

She walked over and rapped her knuckles on his helmet.

He ignored her. She stomped out, crossed the entryway, and plodded into the kitchen. She sipped her water.

Calm down. What's your problem? said her black desire. Don't you want to play too?

Shut up. She walked over the office adjoining the living room and yanked the router plug out of the surge protector.

Ken's heavy footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor.

Holding the VR helmet in one hand, he stared at the cord in her hand. "Why'd you do that?"

She didn't say anything and started to cry. "Why?" she asked.

"Huh? Oh, they're going to announce the very first quest at 1200 UTC. 'Defeat the Berserker... Blizzard Berserker King', yeah, that's it!' That's, uh..." He peeked inside his helmet at the HUD. "In five minutes." He glared at her.

Blizzard Berserker King? It sounded familiar. She tried to think, but then her crying turned into sobs. "No... fired... why?" she asked. He had told her a few days ago, but that was it. No reason. And it hurt her, that he hadn't trusted her.

He looked down at his polyurethene-encased feet. "I already told you. I mean, how could they? Right after the doctor gave me the okay. Heartless, you know."

"The truth... I want the truth."

He walked over to her and embraced her.

"No, stop, please." She placed her hands on his chest and tried to push him away. "I don't want you to..." She didn't want to feel comforted. She didn't want to feel her own love for him, her trust in him. She didn't really want to know the truth. What she did want to know was what had hurt him, so she could be the one to comfort him. To tell him that it was okay. That he needn't feel ashamed in front of her.

But his firm chest touching her breasts, his hands caressing her back calmed her and her sobbing subsided. Then he hugged her tighter and she felt her love for him flare up in her chest. She reached up, cupped his cheeks in both of her hands, stood up on the balls of her feet, and kissed him. "Everyone makes mistakes," she said, still holding his face in her hands. She searched his eyes for his thoughts.

He plugged the power cord back in, took one of her hands, and walked her back to the living room.

After slipping her old VR helmet over her head, he put his new one on. Then he shared his HUD with her. She watched him log in first and that's when she saw the registration date. It was the exact same datetime stamp as the earthquake. "You were registering when the quake hit, didn't you?"

He looked down and fiddled with the zipper on the front of the websuit jacket.

She yanked off her helmet. It was just as Mas had said. Wasn't it an addiction? It's not like I hadn't seen it coming. But it wasn't simply an addiction to a game or even gaming in general. It was something more, something deeper, a dissatisfaction. With our family? With me?

The dark glass faceplate of his helmet hid his expression, but she knew it wasn't anger or rebellion. He slipped it off and dropped it to the floor. His eyes were wet. He touched her bare arm and held it. Her skin tingled. He held her close. Wrapping her arms around him, she felt the muscles of his back convulse as he cried.

"I'm sorry, I didn't want to make you worry. I'm so selfish."

She shook her head, rubbing her forehead against the stubble on his chin. "You could've been killed! And for what? A stupid game!"

He caressed her hair. "It's not just any game—"

"I know, it's the simulacrum." She sighed and pushed him away.

"That's right!" He smiled and wiped his eyes.

"But what does this have to do with being fired?" She stopped and then answered her own question. "Was it from inside the network? They found out, didn't they?"

"It was worse."

Chie furrowed her brow. What could be worse than the head of information security circumventing company policy and connecting to a game from within the corporate network? Oh. "Malware intrusion."

Ken bowed his head and told her about all the precautions he'd taken and how they hadn't been enough. "I feel like someone's targeting me. It's not just the credit reports, but also my college records, and even public school. Remember that?"

She nodded. "How did they catch it?"

"It wasn't too hard. Even though it was fast, it was also huge."

"How much damage?"

"It collected a whole slew of customer account data. Overwrote terabytes of apps and infrastructure, it was like just gobbling up disk space and rewriting it with its own encrypted code and gobs of data." He snapped his fingers. "Like training data for a neural network. I've got to tell Mas. Now that he's at the helm."

She pulled him into an embrace. They held each other for a long time.

Ken sighed. "I'm so relieved, now that I've told you."

"Let's go back to bed," Chie said.

"What? I'm training."

She caressed his cheek. She saw several red dots on the side of his neck. They looked like tiny punctures, needle marks. She touched them.

He jerked away. "It's tender."

She knew in her heart that Ken, the Ken she knew and loved, would never do drugs. "I'm sorry, what happened?"

"I don't know, stop being so damn nosy." He scowled at her.

Her body recoiled and she took a step back. What's wrong? He'd never been short with her or anyone. He was that happy-go-lucky kind of person. A people person, but not emotional.

"Sorry," he said. "Maybe the VR helmet's not fitting right, sometimes, I don't know how much time has passed or what was happening in-game. And then when I take a break, my neck's all sore."

"You're playing too much. Come back to reality, please?"

He threw up his hands. "To this fucked-up reality? They fired me. People talk. I'm virtually unemployable. I'll have to start from scratch or—maybe in another field."

"What are you talking about? You can do whatever you want. The money's not important. You know that on my job alone, we can have a modest retirement." She threw her arms around his neck and smiled at him. "You can do whatever you want. You already volunteer at the library's literacy program. You're a great teacher. How about running free privacy workshops?"

"You're right, I can do whatever I want. And now I've got my chance. Check this out. I chatted with the CEO two days ago. Sorry, I didn't tell you, but anyways he said whoever completes the quest first will get a full-time position on their development team! It's a dream come true!"

"Oh, that sounds... great." Her smile waned and she dropped her arms to her sides.

"Hey, I'm going to sell them on your mobotacts prototype. I mean, they weren't interested when I presented to the M&A guy, but when I'm in, they'll have to listen to me."

"You told them about that? It's so old and I don't even know where it is—in one of the boxes in the garage, I guess—but I'm sure they have their own projects and—"

"What're you talking about, it's an idea before its time!"

She had to stop him. The mobotacts just weren't worth it. And this dream job. She clutched his hands in hers. "You know, you're right, you should start a new job, but maybe something that won't take you away from the family so much. I didn't realize how much Hayden and I missed you after your promotion. How about you go back to programming or maybe a pentester? I'm sure some of your contacts would help."

His face drooped a little. "Don't you remember? Me and you and Mas? Our dream?"

"I do." She squeezed his hands.

His face brightened up.

She looked him straight in his eyes. "But I haven't changed my mind. We're in a different stage of our lives now..."

He broke eye contact, wriggled his hands out of hers, and picked up the helmet.

She wasn't getting through to him and she was starting to get desperate. "I know I said the money wasn't important—but we've gone through the interview process at a few private schools for Hayden and our savings—" The moment she said it, she knew she'd made a mistake.

Then his eyes lit up. "A million Ether!"

"Ether?" she asked.

"You know, the cryptocurrency."

"I know what it is, but what about it?" She remembered something about Ether.

"For winning the quest. There's only one hundred alpha testers competing. So, the odds are really good and Ether's been stable at one hundred dollars per unit for years now. We could send him to any private school and any college. And then there's the condo on Maui."

It's gambling. He's just not thinking straight. She should know after clawing her way up the gaming ranks. "Depends on who they are, if they're real good—"

"That's why I need you." He grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "Let's do it together. Each alpha tester can add on one family member. We'll kill the Blizzard Berserker boss at his mountain fortress before the other teams even make it out of their safe zones."

Clutching both of her hands to her chest, her elbows in, she remembered and drew her knees inwards like magnets. All of her muscles tensed. Oh my god, a million Ether, that's the prize that the Empress offered. And the white mountain fortress that never thawed. An eternal winter. It's the Empress's quest! "No, no, I can't go back." Didn't he understand? She couldn't go back into The White Imperium.

It was just a test node, it said. The real one will be safer.

She stared at Ken. "Did you say something?"

"What? Yeah, I said one family member can join."

"No, did you say it was safer?"

"Safer? Than what?" Ken touched the needle pricks on his neck. "But don't worry, they have max settings for sensorial input." He glanced at the clock on the wall. "Oh, I might be able to catch tail end of the announcement." Ken slipped on his helmet.

Chie grabbed his hand and clutched it to her chest.

"Hey," Ken said. "The CEO said the first quest is going to start in a week and half. So, you still have some time to think about it, okay?"

She squeezed his hand tighter.

"By the way, they're sending the collapsible sphere, so I'll need to clear the living room."

She shook her head and pushed his hand away. "No, we are not turning the living room into a gaming zone!"

He turned around and walked out of the kitchen. "It's about eight by eight, so I'll need to take down the chandelier. I'll have to turn off the breakers for the light switches and..."

She walked back to the bedroom and slipped back under the cold sheets. She couldn't sleep, alone and trembling until dawn.

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About the author

Alexs

  • San Francisco Bay Area
  • Quantum Katana

Bio: Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night

Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.

Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/asato

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