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As Ken opened his apartment door, the electronic horn red-shifted as its train left the nearby Lake Merritt BART station in Oakland. A huge cardboard box the size of a bookcase blocked the doorway. He dragged it in.

A week and a half ago, after hearing the announcement of The White Imperium's very first quest, he'd ordered the fully functional package. Odd. He ordered one websuit, but two had come. He pushed the box with the smaller one in it to the side of the room to return later.

The instructions said that it was an immersive bubble, the Websuit International CVRG (collapsible VR gaming) sphere. He imagined himself floundering around the apartment like an indoor bubble soccer player. He laughed to himself wondering who would help him if he ended up on his head with his legs flailing about in the air.

He flipped back to the table of contents, scanned it, and found what he was looking for: Campaigns. So far, all he'd been able to do was roam around the medieval training town and have mock battles, but now he'd actually be able to go on adventures. Once logged in through the new websuit-CVRG interface, he would have to calibrate it in a training arena before being assigned to the first tutorial campaign. He could do a hard reset on the websuit if he needed to recalibrate.

He went back to the CVRG section. He was supposed to play the game inside the sphere. Inside were two cameras, front and rear, and it was eight feet in diameter, just like it was rumored. It was freaking huge! He pushed the coffee table and couch into the breakfast nook and wedged them in between the kitchen table and the wall.

Folded in the box was the sphere, which consisted of a strong, tear- and puncture-proof polymer fabric encased in snap-in geodesic clear polymer triangular tiles. The semi-transparent fabric looked like the pool lining of an above-ground pool. It was even the same bright blue color. The fabric itself was actually two layers. In between the two layers was a thick oil, but it was an electrorheological fluid and its viscosity, and hence its coefficient of friction, could be varied by the application of an electrical field. In this way, the sphere could freely rotate in three dimensions and could emulate traversing difficult terrain in a game like a mountain trail, deep snow, or even climbing a sheer cliff.

The tiles on the outside were smooth and the ones on the inside were lined with a spongy material. He unfolded the fabric and tiles and spread it out over the floor in the middle of the living room. He snapped several two-foot-high semicircular plastic pieces together into a ring, which formed the base of the sphere, and then in turn snapped the ring onto the tiles.

Now, he was supposed to raise the top of the sphere to the ceiling. He had to screw a metal plate with several bolts into the ceiling studs. Then he'd need to raise the sphere with its corresponding plate and it would snap in place. Well, he didn't have a ladder or screwdriver.

Ken walked down to the end of the block and was about to knock on the door when the building manager Valentino opened it. They shook hands, but Valentino didn't let go of Ken's hand and Ken couldn't break free. Valentino's face broke into a broad smile and then all of a sudden he yanked Ken down and into his body and simultaneously reached his other thick arm behind and around Ken's neck.

Ken elbowed Valentino in his solar plexus.

After Valentino caught his breath, they both laughed.

"I told you," Ken said and looked up into Valentino's ruddy face. "Take that jujustu class."

"It's your fault." Valentino shook his head. "You never tell Mr. Hashimoto to let his weekend security off early."

They both guffawed. Even if Ken was Mas's boss, Ken could never tell Mas how to run his department.

"Hey," Ken said. "I have to mount my new flatscreen TV on the wall."

"No problem, I can do it for you."

"It's okay, can you just give me a power screwdriver and a ladder?"

"Sorry, my friend, liability."

They walked back to Ken's apartment.

"What the hell is that?" Valentino stared at the geodesic sphere spread out all over the bare concrete floor of the living room. "That sure ain't no flat screen TV."

Ken sighed and scratched his chin. "Uh, it's a new kind of tent."

"I don't think we allow them."

"Oh c'mon, Valentino, didn't I give you my old PS5 for Javier? Doesn't he love it?"

"Yeah man, you really didn't do me any favors." Valentino shook his finger at Ken. "I had to take it away from him on Wednesday. He wasn't doing his homework."

Ken grimaced.

He was about to apologize when Valentino slugged him in the shoulder. "But he does love it, my friend. You know I was trying to save up for his birthday, but Maria was against it and it's nearly impossible to hide it from Mrs. Penny Pincher. She can tell a dollar bill's missing from her purse just by looking at it."

After Valentino screwed the metal plate into the ceiling, he asked Ken, "My friend, what is this really?"

"It's the latest MMORPG, Quantum Katana—"

"Hey, I got an invite for it yesterday."

"Awesome!" Ken said and clapped him on the shoulder. "Have you played in the Three Kingdoms before?"

"Nope," Valentino said.

"Oh really, I thought it was only for Three Kingdoms players."

Valentino shrugged his shoulders. "What's your handle?"

"Yamabushi Rock."

"Mine is 'Xiuhtecuhtli'." Valentino stuck his hand out. "Let's make a pact to be friends and work together. There's strength in numbers."

Ken pinched the stubble on his chin. Valentino was definitely a newbie and he didn't want a newbie slowing him down. But then again, sometimes you needed loyal friends and the best ones were from real life.

Ken grabbed Valentino's hand and they squeezed each other's until Ken cried uncle.

❄ ❄ ❄

The front door deadbolt clicked open. Chie walked in and then slipped off her tennis shoes.

Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in the middle of the living room, Ken faced a huge box as though it were an altar. He glanced at her once and then went back to reading something on his phone. He held the VR helmet in his lap. "Start, my name is Yamabushi Rock, let's play, show stats..."

Carrying a bag of groceries, she padded into the kitchenette. The inner pot of a Presto all-one cooker was soaking in the sink. Bloated rice grains like maggots floated in the water. She opened the refrigerator. It was bare except for a few cans of beer, a half a bag of carrots, leftover pork butt, leftover rice, and two packages of Japanese curry. At least he's eating okay.

After unloading the groceries, she tossed baby spinach, dried cranberries, arugala, and tomatoes in a salad bowl, and set it on the folding table along with a bottle of blue cheese dressing. Then, she unwrapped, rinsed and dried the pink salmon fillet. She bought a belly cut for the extra fat. Dipping it in a lightly scrambled egg in a white plate, she coated it thoroughly, and then moved it to another plate filled with a layer of panko. She flipped it from one side to the other to coat it evenly.

After the sunflower oil heated up in the pan, she fried the fillet to a perfect golden brown on both sides.

"Dinner's ready," Chie said as she placed the salmon and large bowl of microwaved brown rice in the middle of the table.

"Five minutes," Ken said.

She walked to the edge of the living room and crossed her arms.

Ken had looped fishing line, which had come in the package, through small holes in both of the metal plates. He pulled on the fishing line and raised the center of the geodesic sphere. As it rose, each triangular piece snapped into place with the other three surrounding triangles. They made snapping sounds like crab claws clicking. With a resounding clunk, clamps on a heavy metal plate in the center of the ceiling locked onto a sister place at the top of the sphere.

It formed a heavily tinted rigid sphere, a temple to some unborn god.

As Chie took a bite of rice and salmon, she glanced over at Ken to see if he was looking at her. Hoping. Then she glanced at the geodesic sphere. A vertical zipper sliced it in half from top to bottom like the sealed lips of a shark. Next to it, lay Ken's websuit. She wanted to reach out and touch it. To feel its smooth latex and rubber. No, I don't. It would pull me under like the undertow and then sweep me out into the infinite ocean of the simulacrum.

The crunch of the panko contrasted with the soft flesh inside. I crush the bones of my opponents into dust. Their warm fat like sweet slime bursts in my mouth.

"What're you smiling about?" Ken asked.

Broken out of her reverie, her face placid again, she put her chopsticks and rice bowl down and heaped more salad onto her plate.

"I know you want it, to play. That's why you came here."

Yes, that's the real reason, the same voice in Chie's head said.

"No, I—" she reached across the table and laid her hand on his. "I want to apologize, I shouldn't have told you to leave just because you wanted to play."

"Maybe it was for the best..."

"No, no, come back." Tears started to come to her eyes. "Hayden misses you. I miss you. Please?"

"Well, I don't want to set it all back up at the house..." he massaged his neck. "Hey, I know, why don't we all have a game here?"

"What's wrong with you? You've changed."

"Changed?" His voice rose. "Maybe you're the one who's changed. I mean, don't you get it? What I'm trying to achieve here. For me, for you, for us? The mobotacts."

"What? Are you still stuck on that?"

He slammed his fist down on the table and started up out of his chair.

She jumped. "Ken! Your dad called. You don't even return calls from your parents. Aren't you worried about them? They were interviewed by the FBI two days ago."

His face softened. "I—I'm sorry." He walked around the table. She stood up and he hugged her. "Are they okay?"

"Yes, but you need to—" On his neck were numerous scabbed-over pinpricks like a patchwork quilt.

"Your neck." She knew he wasn't, but what other explanation was there? "You're not doing drugs, are you?"

"Of course not. See?" He held up his arms. "No tracks." He let his arms fall back down to his side.

"It's the VR helmet. It's still rubbing me the wrong way. A new one came with the VR sphere. I'm sure it'll fit better."

He kissed her on the lips. "C'mon..."

His moist lips. It had been a long time. She closed her eyes and kissed him back.

He tugged on her arm and she followed him to the sphere, a sacrificial chamber.

"You give it the first go," Ken said and pulled a websuit out of a box. Its skin was as black and smooth as a killer whale's.

"Is this a new one?" she said. Did Ken know the real reason for her coming here? Even better than she knew herself?

"Right, in addition to tracking your movements and coverage of the major areas with nano-sensors, coverage is now extended to all parts of the body touched by the websuit, including the fingertips." He held up a pair of gloves and its fingers wiggled like eels. "And instead of a sensor every few inches, the detail is down to the square millimeter." Then, like a salesman, he held the jacket up to her and moved his palm in circles on the front of the jacket like he was waxing a car.

"But don't you have to calibrate it to your own body?" Chie said.

"It's okay, I'll just recalibrate it back to—" He slapped his forehead. "What a dummy?" He walked over to the corner of the living room, carried back another box, and dropped it on the floor in front of her. He opened it up and pulled out another vacuum-sealed websuit. This one was smaller. "Here, this one is extra small. They sent two by accident."

Just once. For a little while. There's no harm in it, her black voice said.

Is this what Ken wanted from her? Had this been his plan all along? The spare apartment key wrapped up in the note on the kitchen table. How long was he planning to stay here? Doesn't he miss me and Hayden? Surely, he does. It's my fault. It's because I drove him away. The game, it's such a small thing. He just needs time to recover from getting fired.

She took his hand. "You'll come home, right? After we play?"

He looked her in the eyes and then dropped his gaze to his socked feet. He massaged his neck on the side with the scabs. "Sure, I could break down the sphere in a couple of hours."

She undressed down to her bra and undies and then slipped on the websuit top. It felt cool on her bare skin.

"It's a thermoactive polymer, which is activated by your body heat. It molds itself to your body."

She gasped as it clung to her arms and then her breasts and torso like thousands of writhing sticky gecko feet. "It feels like frogs are crawling all over me." She squirmed and grabbed Ken's arm with both her hands.

"It's okay, it's okay," Ken said. He held her close and caressed her hair. "I've always been there for you. Remember, at your final competition?"

She nodded.

"From then on, we always played together."

She wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tighter.

He kissed her forehead. "I'm your tank and your my mage. And I need your whip-smart brain. You're the fastest mage in the West."

She laughed and her face flushed.

"I'm serious. It was because of your quick thinking we were able to escape the Blood Tengu boss's Hurricane Strike and that's not to mention the trajectory calculations you'd do in your head. You'd be done before anyone's assistant came online." He locked his eyes on hers. "And this time is no different."

"What do you mean?" she said.

"I'll be a fly on the wall." He tapped his old helmet. "It's interfaced with the new one. They allow you to bring in a companion for trial purposes. You don't have to use the CVRG sphere. We'll just log in to the usual training town and take in the sights, okay?"

She grinned like a little girl. We'll be together, just like old times.

She pulled up the pants and donned the helmet, but with the suit touching her bare skin, she still felt naked.

"Wow, a perfect fit." Ken raised his eyebrows and wrapped her in his arms. "What a coincidence." He released her. "Start," he said. "I already trained it to my voice."

The VR HUD darkened.

"User account credentials, please, honey," said a sultry yet somehow too-perfect voice.

"That's not a real person, is it?" Chie said. No game had one for a simple login procedure, but it sounded so real, like a J-pop singer.

"You don't recognize it?" Ken chuckled.

She shook her head.

"Hatsune Miku." He laughed that carefree laugh of his. "They probably have a deep manly vocaloid voice for the women, right?"

Hey, I love your hair style echoed in her memory. It was the same automated welcome message that greeted her. But didn't it also sound like someone she knew? Hadn't someone said that to her before? Someone who wasn't Ken. Oh that's right, he worked with Ken. He was married, to Audrey. I'd kissed him before. Back in college, before I'd met Ken—before Mas had introduced Ken and I. Why am I thinking of Mas now? In the back of my mind, I've been thinking of him, of his voice for a week and a half already, after talking to him over the phone about Ken moving out. But I'm back with Ken now and the old feelings are back too.

"I could do a man's voice," the sultry vocaloid voice said. "And more, if you prefer."

"What?" Ken said.

"Just kidding." The voice tittered. "User account credentials, please."

"Geez, those programmers sure like to yank your chain." He laughed to himself. "Handle: Yamabushi Rock. Passphrase: Rose Crow, my love," Ken said and then answered a few more questions.

Chie tapped the faceplate right in front of her nose. The voice didn't sound completely scripted; in fact, it was almost ad hoc.

"Voice ID confirmed, security questions confirmed," the voice said and then cleared its throat. "I see you're bringing a companion. Why the famed Yamabushi Rock would need a companion is beyond me, but the customer's always right. Handle, please."

"Rose Crow," Ken said.

"If you need any help, simply ping me, Aika."

"That's it? No qualifier like family name?"

"I'll have you know that no one is permitted to use a miko's name nor any portion of a miko's name as a handle. Login proceeding."

The HUD began to darken.

"Can't wait until we meet in-game, sexy boy."

The HUD gradually lit up. She was outside the entrance to a cave halfway up a white-capped mountain. The wind howled like wild wolves and blew snow all around her. Her stomach tightened up. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She was only wearing a light cloak, shirt, and pants. How could I feel this cold in the game? I'm freezing! She looked down. Her legs were buried up to her thighs in a snow drift. She tried to move, but she was stuck in place. Solid ice was hidden underneath the snow. Where was Ken? "Ken!"

"I'm coming! This blizzard—"

I don't have to stay here. "Log out."

"Companions cannot log out," a deep male voice said.

She stared into the cave.

Cradling a helmet under one arm, a warrior in full armor, all the way from his shin guards, to a lacquer-polished chest plate and kote-armored sleeves, walked out of the back of the cave and stopped a mere five feet from Chie.

"Help me!" She reached out to him with both hands.

He stared behind her at the frozen mountain range. "I'm inside of the barrier surrounding the Empress's stronghold." His body shimmered like a wave. Sometimes, if she caught him at the right angle, she could see through him into the darkness of the cave behind him.

Two swords like veteran fangs hung from his left hip. He unsheathed one of them, raised it over his head, stepped forward, and sliced down directly on her head.

She jerked her body to one side, but the blade still grazed her shoulder and cut through her cotton shirt like water. She gritted her teeth in pain and searched her body for some kind of weapon. Any kind.

He pulled his sword back again and made ready to strike her in a horizontal sweep. This time, she wouldn't be able to avoid it.

Hummingbird wings vibrated next to her ear. The warrior stumbled backwards into the cave, fell to the ground, and dropped his sword. An arrow with a clear glass shaft and white feathers stuck out of his shoulder. He groaned and yanked the arrow out. The transparent barbed tip ripped through his flesh and blood spurted out like a hose. He slammed the arrow down on the rock floor, but instead of breaking it, he lost his grip on it, and it slid across the ground like a skate.

Again, something vibrated near her ear and another arrow struck the man in the thigh. This time, he screamed. But through his pain, he was able to scowl at Chie. "We'll meet again, soon—and without those pesky miko."

Reaching out with his one good hand and finding purchase on the cave floor, his fingernails scraped through the gravel. Inching and squirming like a snake, he crawled to the back of the cave. His armor and then his body faded into the nothingness.

"Shit! Why don't I ever get logged into a safe zone?" She couldn't be sure that whoever it was who had shot the warrior wasn't going to shoot her too. She searched the forest behind her, but didn't see anyone. She had to get out of the game as soon as possible. Her shivering fingers fumbled for her helmet's chin strap. She jumped at a sudden yelping. There were wolves here and they were coming closer. She scanned the tree line behind her. Nothing moved except for the sharp points of pine needles rustling together. The tree branches scraped against each other like a surgeon's saw on raw bone.

At the very moment when a spot of light sparking on the peak of the tallest mountain caught her eye, a wolf darted from behind a tree and lunged at her neck. She blocked it with her forearm. Its jaws clamped onto her arm and ripped flesh from the bone. The wolf hung on and dragged her torso to the ground. Her back twisted as her arm and shoulder impacted the hard-packed snow. Her spine erupted in a tearing pain. This is it. At least, I'll be logged out and the pain will be gone.

Cold air blasted her face, the humming of wings mere inches away.

The wolf's head exploded as a transparent barbed arrowhead exited one of its eyes. Blood, small bone fragments, bloody gray goop, and matted fur sprayed her torso and face.

She didn't know how long she lay moaning in the freezing snow, but by the time she opened her eyes, it had stopped snowing. Off in the distance, the tallest of the white mountains loomed, monumental and majestic yet threatening. Near the peak, a dark spot pulsed like a growth on a neck. It grew. Another identical spot sprouted on the other side. The ground shook before she heard the low bass noise rumbling out of the mountain.

Having ceased their howling, the wolves had slunk away to the cover of the pine trees.

The two black growths erupted like dual volcanoes, spewing red magma and black clouds of ash into the sky. The ash lingered in the air and then spread out into ovals glowing red in the centers like the pupils of an oni. The clouds of smoke like lids snapped shut, obscuring both of the red pupils, and then opened again like naval signal lamp shutters. Did they just blink?

They're growing larger. No, not larger, they're getting closer. They're coming at me! Somehow she was able to stand up and she grabbed one of her legs with both hands and yanked it this way and that, but they were still frozen fast. I've got to get out of here! She grabbed her helmet with both hands. Even though she couldn't see it, it felt solid and reassuring in her grip. A reminder of reality.

Who are you? her black desire asked.

I—I'm... Chie—

Liar! Answer me again. Who do you want to be, at your core?

A—a mother, a mathemetician...

It laughed. Rose Crow. Don't you want to be Rose Crow? Don't you want to cleave clean through an enemy's flesh? Don't you want to live fully and fly and encircle your enemies from above and then descend upon them and rend their flesh and strip their bones clean? As you've done so many times before?

She winced and clapped her hand over her neck where something had stung her. She began to feel light-headed. Then she remembered the defining moment of her youth that had given her the competitive edge.

"You geeky gook. What you gonna do? Use your martial arts on me?" John laughed at her. She felt the mush of spaghetti sauce and noodles on her neck. She jumped up on top of the cafeteria table and started whaling on him with both fists. With one blow he swept her off. Her butt struck the bench and then she was on the concrete floor. Jumping up, she ran at him. But a yard duty grabbed her from behind, locking both arms to her sides.

She dropped her hand from her neck and then laughed. Rose Crow laughed, straight from her belly, and it rose all the way through her diaphragm, her chest, and out the flute of her throat, and it made her lips tremble like the reed of a clarinet.

She pulled herself up and thrust her hands up into the air. Adrenalin coursed through her veins.

"Equip wings!"

Like moles under a lawn, lumps of muscle rippled back and forth underneath the skin around her shoulder blades. She screamed and fell forwards onto her hands. Oh God, where's the max setting?

Her back and shoulder muscles burst out of her skin in a sudden explosion of growth. Cracking like concrete during an earthquake, skin ripped and bled. Rivulets of blood cascaded down her pants and dripped off the hem of her cloak.

Then it stopped. Her back and shoulders bulged like layers of rock.

She gulped air in loud gasps. Thank God, it's over. It was never like this. I can't handle much more.

Then her back erupted again. She howled in pain like wolves calling the pack for the hunt and then collapsed face down in the dirt. Saliva flowed out of her open mouth and mixed in with the snow and dirt. Gray slush coated her tongue and lips as she yelled and groveled before whatever it was that was causing her this pain. She was so paralyzed that she couldn't even lift her hands up to rip off her helmet.

Again, the back muscles rippled. Two parallel lines tore through her back from top to bottom. She twisted her head around. Blood squirted out in jets. A sudden gust of cold wind blew globs of mixed blood and slush onto her face. She coughed and licked her lips and tasted iron.

Twin spikes of white bone coated with her own blood rose up into the gray sky like spires on some deserted plain. With sharp knuckle-cracking noises, the bones snapped open in quick succession, spreading out into a series of interlocking blades. A tight weave of black feathers splashed with red fluttered within twin fans of bone.

Equipped: Blood Tengu Wings
Ability: Flight
Adj. STR = 67 (+20 buff)
Adj. DEX = 108 (+20 buff)
CHI COST = 1/15 min

Ashen eyes with purple pupils like scabs peered down at her from the overcast sky.

Exhausted, Chie could only close her eyes and surrender herself to the cold darkness of her unconscious to quell the fire raking across her back.

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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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