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The two ceiling lights blinded Chie. She lay on her back with her head on the floor and her legs straight up against the wall. Ken was shaking her shoulders.
"Thank God!" he said.
He helped her sit up and she leaned into him for support. Holding up a glass to her lips, he tipped it and she sipped cold water, soothing her raw throat.
"What happened?" he asked as he squeezed her in his arms.
"So much"—she coughed again and took a sip—"pain... wasn't the sensorial setting dialed down?"
"It was at its lowest." Ken's eyes brightened. "So, what happened? Was it a duel? I was logged in to the training town again and was ten miles away from you. I'd only made it two miles when we were kicked off the server. What did it feel like? I mean not the pain, of course, but the fight."
"I... just fell."
"You lost consciousness from a fall?"
"Down the mountainside, I slipped off the edge." If she told him about the warrior and the glass arrows, he'd get even more excited than he already was. "Must be a bug," she said, searching for the helmet, her gaze panned the room. Like a lost head waiting for its rider, the helmet sat on the floor next to the sphere.
"Well, we'd have to submit a bug report." He walked over, picked the helmet up and then used the phone app to check the settings.
While he fiddled with the phone app, she peeled off the websuit like a molting snake and chucked it into the bedroom. She shivered from the cold sweat, dried herself with a bathroom towel, and slipped on her jeans and t-shirt. She never wanted to see that abomination again.
"Yes, it's at 1," Ken said.
"Obviously, it's defective."
"Then I'll just have to give it a go myself." He grinned and started to lift it up over his head.
"No, Ken!" She twisted the helmet out of his hands. "I almost died in there."
"What're you talking about? No one's ever gonna die in a game. They'll just log out."
"I couldn't, companions can't log out. I tried to take off my helmet, but I"—she looked down at her feet—"I lost consciousness before I could."
"Well, I'm not going to lose consciousness from a stupid little fall." He tried to snatch it from her.
She held the helmet behind her back. He just wasn't getting it. After what she'd been through, she couldn't let him. "It was steep, I probably hit my head on a tree."
"It's a bug with companions. Don't worry, I
ll be logged into the safe zone again. Just give it back." He grabbed for it again. "It's mine."
She scuttled back against the wall. "It's dangerous."
"It's my life." He reached around her and was able to latch onto the strap with one hand, but she held on to it with a steel grip.
"I..." She tried to think about what she should do. "I'm going to file a report with the Consumer Protection Agency."
"The hell you will." Ken's face contorted as his other hand grabbed the bottom edge of the helmet.
"What's wrong with you!" She was losing her grip.
"All this week." Ken yanked hard. "There's no way," he grunted, "I'm going to give this up now that I've gotten a taste of the real game. After leaving the safe zone, I felt the freezing blizzard, the wind whipping around me, I mean feeling all of that, really feeling it on my skin, and then boom, here I am back in IRL. All these weeks, I've been stuck in the stupid training town and right away you're thrown into the open world! I've got to go back! And no one"—he pulled hard and dragged Chie, her bare feet sliding, across the carpet—"no one is going to stop me."
The doorbell rang.
His grip loosened for just a moment. She jerked the helmet out of his hand, ran to the door, and yanked it open.
"Hey!" Mas said and smiled at her.
"Mom!" Hayden said.
"What're you doing here?" Chie said.
"Didn't you get my text?" Mas asked.
Hayden rushed past her, ran over, and hugged Ken.
"Hi Hayden," Ken said and hugged him back. "I missed you!"
Hayden buried his face in Ken's stomach. "Are you coming home now? Uncle Mas said we're coming to get you." He looked up at Ken with wet eyes.
"Oh yeah, well, your mom and I were just talking about having a game here."
With his arms akimbo, Mas glared at Ken.
"No, Dad!" Hayden said. "Come now!" He grabbed Ken's hand and started pulling him towards the door.
"Okay, okay," Ken said. "Let me grab some stuff." He walked to the bedroom. Hayden didn't let go of his hand and trailed after him.
She turned to Mas. Right before he closed the door behind him, she saw a huge black van drive through the main intersection.
The helmet was torn from her hands.
Whirling around, she watched Ken disappear with the helmet into the bedroom.
"Dammit!" She charged after him.
Mas grabbed her upper arm. "Great, Ken's coming back," he said.
Chie stopped and turned back around.
He took his hand away.
She took a deep breath. "I had everything under control."
"I know you did."
She crossed her arms. "You shouldn't have brought Hayden."
"A little extra help never hurt, right?"
"I told you to take him to your place so he could play with Rob."
He shrugged his shoulders and gave her a big smile.
"Can't hide everything, kid's pick up—"
"It's not your family," she said.
Mas's jaw tightened. "I'm as good as—"
"You should've checked with me." She would've said no out of pride, but now she didn't have to handle Ken's addiction by herself.
"I texted you," he said.
"Whatever." She turned her back to him. She was angry. But not at Mas. She was angry at Ken, angry that she had let him convince her to go back in. But, no, not even that was completely true. If she were honest with herself, she'd admit that she was angry at herself, for letting herself feel those black feelings again, after having quit competitive gaming years ago.
He laid his hand on her shoulder and turned her around. "Your neck's bleeding."
She touched her neck. Her fingertips came away red. "I guess Ken was right, the helmet doesn't fit right." But the helmet she had worn was the new one.
"I'll get my firstaid kit in the car," he said.
She hugged him. "Thanks for coming."
"Uh, sure," he said and patted her shoulder with his good arm. In a cast, his right arm hung down by his side. "Anything for you, I mean we are basically family, right?"
She looked up at him. Mas and Audrey, Ken and herself, and their kids did almost everything together. Vacations, schools, camping. "I shouldn't have said that. I'm proud to have you as a friend. I don't know what I would've done, what Hayden would've done, if Ken had died."
"Ha! Couldn't let my boss die, there'd be no one to take the blame when things went wrong. But it was all for nought. Now I have to blame myself."
Chie stepped back and punched him. "That's not what I meant. Audrey is so lucky to have someone rock solid like you."
He looked away. "Oh right, well, the domestic front isn't always rosy—lately more like guns and roses." He laughed. "But, yeah, we make it work."
With a wakizashi bokken in one hand and wearing the helmet, Ken stumbled out of the bedroom. He was all suited up. Sobbing, Hayden clung onto Ken's leg. "Dad, don't! You said we're going home."
"Just wanna test the defect your mom found so I can send them a bug report. One hour," Ken said through the helmet.
"Hayden!" Chie ran over and tried to pull Hayden off of Ken, but he hung on for dear life. She avoided touching the skin of the websuit. It shone with a gloss as though coated with alien saliva.
"Hayden..." she said. "We—we'll stay here until Dad's done and we'll all leave together, okay?"
Ken pushed his helmet up until he eyes peeked out from under the edge. "That's right!" He smiled and patted Hayden's head.
She glared at Ken and then lifted her eyebrows at Mas.
"Thirty minutes, that's it," Mas said. "Or else..."
"I'll pull the plug," Chie said.
"Yeah, yeah, no problem, I'll be back lickety-split," Ken said, slipped the bokken into his belt, unzipped the zipper on one side of the sphere, and walked in.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
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)