Chie had asked Mas and Audrey to let Hayden stay the night at their place. Mas had asked if everything was all right, but she'd put him off.
She grabbed the helmet off of the kitchen table and tossed it on the leather couch in the living room. Then she picked up her phone. It was cold as though it had been in the refrigerator. She felt its coolness through the bandages wrapped around the burns on her right palm and fingers. The screen faded in. Ken hadn't sent another message. The old one had been confiscated as evidence, but its internals had been fried anyways. She'd bought a new phone and kept her old number, as a matter of course. A cold burst of air from the ceiling vent blew her bangs into her eyes. I didn't accidentally turn the A/C on, did I? She checked her phone app, but the A/C wasn't on. All of a sudden it was freezing. She rubbed her upper arms and shoulders through Ken's long-sleeve dress shirt to warm them up. Tapping the app, the heat to the kitchen and living room kicked in.
After settling down on the leather couch in the living room, she donned her helmet and started the login process for The White Imperium public chatroom. The helmet still had the software update that was installed when she was rerouted to a White Imperium server, but it had been almost a month ago, so another update started to install. Could the Websuit neurologist really help wake Ken up? They must. They knew the drug that was used, so they knew its biochemistry. That was the major advantage they had over Ken's current doctors. Obviously, they didn't want to officially admit anything. God, how she hated them. But she had to control herself if she wanted them to help.
The caller's handle was 1c3f0x012 and the avatar was a white fox. Almost immediately after she logged in and joined the public chatroom, 1c3f0x012 pinged her with a join request to a private chatroom and they shunted over to it.
"I'm so sorry to hear what happened to your husband," said a soothing older woman's voice.
Chie crossed her arms. "Who the hell cares about your platitudes." Dammit. "I mean, thanks for your concern."
"I know it must seem callous to meet like this, but—"
"Do tell? Then why not meet in person?" Chie said. It wasn't going like she's planned. Oh, to hell with it.
"Mrs. Shibuyama, I sincerely apologize for having to meet you like this and—"
Chie snorted. "Just get to the point and tell me how—"
"Shouldn't we get to know each other?" 1c3f0x001's unblemished face sporting cold pewter glasses displayed in a webcam." She clipped several stray strands of jet black hair back into one of four barrettes. Each barrette, a row of three silver snowflakes, glued her hair onto the smooth curve of her skull. At the back of her head, a larger matching clip gathered her short stiff hair together and it fanned out like a witch's broom. Two full moons, one on each of her shoulders, were stitched into a blood red kimono and its ivory collar bound her neck like a noose soaked in holy water.
"I'm not going to get on a webcam," Chie said.
"No need, I already know your plain Jane look, but your intelligence is what we value." 1c3f0x001 adjusted her glasses higher up on the bridge of her nose. "My name is Aya Yamasaki. I'm a patent lawyer, specializing in medical devices in the neurology field. You can find me online or even call my office to verify my identity, if you so desire."
"What? I thought you were a neurologist." Chie almost screamed. "I don't want to talk to a goddamn lawyer."
"I am a neuroligist as well."
Were they going to try and force her to sign some kind of agreement waiving her right to sue before they helped her? Corporate attorneys were leaches onto society; they were just there to blockade suits from everyday people. "What's Websuit trying to pull?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Shibuyama, but just to be clear, I don't represent any such organization. I'm here on my own cognizance to offer whatever assistance I possibly can," Aya said in a voice simultaneously soothing and threatening as only a corporate attorney's could be.
"But you said you were from 'the company' and obviously that's Web—"
"I know it must seem terribly inappropriate, but, unfortunately, because of the ongoing police investigation as well as legal liabilities, no one from the company would be able to meet in a situation that could be documented or that could somehow be put forward as prima facie evidence before a judge in order to produce a warrant." Aya rattled off the legal disclaimers with alacrity. "On the other hand, I really want to help you. I hope you understand."
"Understand? You ask me to understand? After Websuit injected a drug into my husband—and probably me too—and made him addicted to your game? And then he was shot because he didn't know we were being swatted. And now all the evidence has somehow been lost?"
Aya blinked and knit her brow. "A drug?"
"Don't play all innocent with me." Chie banged her fist on the kitchen table.
"No, really, I didn't know. Were there any traces of the drug in the body?"
"God, I don't know how you can say that with a straight face. Of course not. That's why we need the helmet, the helmet had needles to inject a drug and now it's gone—gone from the evidence lockers at the Berkeley police department."
"Oh, interesting." Aya pulled on her ear lobe.
"That's all you can say." Chie grabbed the controller. "This conversation is over!"
"Wait, Mrs. Shibuyama, this might be difficult for you to believe, but although I can't bring your husband out of his coma—
"You said—you said you could get him back..." Chie clenched her eyes shut and let her head fall forwards. The helmet banged hard on the table. She hung onto the back of the helmet with both hands and sobbed. "Then why? Why are you torturing me?" She was angry at herself again, for lying over and over to herself about what was probable and giving her false hope; about herself and what she really wanted. Unable to accept herself for who she truly was, imperfections and all. But Ken had loved her and accepted her for all that she was and wasn't—and now he was gone.
Shoving her hands underneath the hem of the dress shirt, she clawed at her back and chunks of moist scabs tore away from pink baby flesh, red mush piled under her fingernails. She winced. She could feel pain. And if she could feel pain, she could feel joy. Therefore, she still had hope.
"As I was saying, Chie—I can call you by your first name, can't I?—I can't bring your physical husband out of his coma, but you can still meet him."
Chie opened her eyes and, through her tears, watched Aya's blurry image.
Aya took off her glasses, cleaned them with a cloth, and then put them back on. "Meet him in-game, that is, Ken's consciousness. It's in the game, in The White Imperium."
Chie chuckled, then she laughed and guffawed, and finally, she cried again. But it couldn't be possible, could it? Could Quantum Katana Online be some kind of elaborate cover for a sinister quantum computing secret military project? Had they broken open the subatomic particles of a person's brain, their thoughts, and then reassembled them in-game? Had they transferred Ken's soul? She wiped her tears. "He called me."
"Oh?" Aya pushed her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose. "Who helped him?"
Chie knitted her brow. "No one. He was far away, like he was calling from the mountains."
"A yamabiko," Aya said.
"An echo, they're all over the central highlands of Tlön."
Aya sighed. "Don't you want to meet him?"
Of course, Chie wanted to, but no—no, it wasn't possible. "It's a hoax, a cruel joke. Who's behind it?" Chie glared at Aya. "You know, don't you."
"I know, but it's no joke," Aya said.
"Then tell me! Someone at Websuit"—then it dawned on her—"It's you, isn't it!" Chie raised her head and pointed a finger at Aya.
"Me?" Aya shot up out of her chair. Standing straight and true like a regal staff, she narrowed her eyes. "How dare you? You insolent knave. You're lucky the Empress even deigns notice your insignificant existence. And after all she's done for you in all her magnanimity become reality through her quantum consciousness."
"Done for me? The Empress? From The White Imperium?"
Her face frozen, Aya blinked several times and then turned her back on Chie. After a few seconds, she faced Chie again. Smiling her cold professional smile, Aya said, "How do like your beautiful black wings?"
"How did you know?" Mas was the only person who had ever seen them. It hadn't been a nightmare or an in-game battle. Reaching under her shirt, she caressed the rough scales and bloody goop of one of the long scabs.
Aya smiled. "Through her miko, the Empress can work the most wondrous miracles."
What the hell is she talking about? The Empress? An NPC? This isn't some game, it's the real world. Maybe some kind of genetic engineering? "Nano Crisper. Did you inject me with some kind of CRISPR biotech?"
Aya lifted her chin up. "Well, who can say?" She flicked an earlobe with her forefinger. "But if that's what you want to believe."
Chie bolted up and knocked the chair back. The chair slammed down on its back, slid across the tile floor, and banged into the stove. "Then inject Ken with the antidote, please, and bring him back."
"I'm not like some god."
"Please." Chie clasped her hands together and bowed over the table in the proper position of a supplicant.
"I'm only a lesser daemon," Aya said.
"You can call yourself whatever you want, but just let me talk to him!" Chie sobbed. It didn't matter anymore, wherever he was, whatever he was, if only she could talk to him for her own sanity—and for Hayden's sake.
"There's only one way now," Aya said and she slipped a pendant out from under her kimono collar. Grasping the pendant's wire cord with her thumb and five fingers, she held it up in front of her face and then leaned into the webcam. The pendant swallowed up the entire view.
Out of the corner of her eye, Chie saw her phone's screen come to life and then the helmet's webcam flicked on. Reflected in the small shard of a bronze mirror was her wet face, stringy hair pasted across her cheeks like parasitic nematodes.
"Only one way," Aya's voice intoned fron behind the pendant.
Black wings laced with Chie's own bleached white bones shivered in the mirror. Chie drank in the iron of her bloodletting and inhaled the alkaline aroma of battlefield urine.
Aya's rosy lips peeked around the jagged edge of the pendant. Stretching her lips back to expose two rows of sharp-tipped teeth meant for tearing flesh, she whispered, "dive."
- 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)