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Ken's eyes snapped open. Gray sky instead of dark cave walls. Am I looking out of the cave entrance? Did I hit her? His body rotated. The wind whipped his bangs. Cold white snow. A wall of snow was going to slam into the cave. He looked around for a place to run to, but all he saw was wide open empty air.
Oh shit, I'm falling! He plummetted down through the air like an artillery shell and then his face plowed into a deep snow drift.
God, my head hurts like a sonofabitch, like that time I hit the back of my head on the ice in the skating rink. He stood up slowly. The ground wobbled. Easy boy. He stuck out his arms to steady himself and winced at the pain in his right shoulder. His heart and soul hurt and his insides were all twisted up in knots. I've got to get out. I have to see with my own two eyes—that everyone's okay!
His fingers grabbed for the helmet strap under his chin, but he didn't find it. He stuck his hands on both sided of his neck and pushed up. They slid up through empty air.
"Log off." Nothing. "Menu." There was no log off menu command. He scrolled through all of the menu items, but there was no "Exit" or "Quit", or any other remotely related synonym for "Logoff". No "Chat" or "Contact Admin", not even "Help". It was like he was really in an ancient world without any modern conveniences. "What the hell's going on?" He started breathing fast, then he winced from a pain in his ribs. Now get a hold of yourself. It has to be around her somewhere. Be systematic about it. His trembling hands rubbed all over his neck and face and then he raked his fingers through his hair. No, no! I'm not trapped in here am I? Like in the trope-filled but lovable litrpg novels I used to suck up years ago? Before the book subscription model died. I mean that's just fiction, isn't it? Am I in some pod or could that helmet have used wetware and attached itself to my neck like a cybernetic octopus. Was that the real reason why my neck was raw with sores? Maybe I've been sealed in a pod of synth-amniotic fluid to keep The Machine running. He yanked at his hair and scratched his cheeks. Scraped his neck and ears.
Feeling the pain, he stopped. But it was an odd pain, like the sensorial max was dialed down to the min. Still, it was hard to focus on other things and his brain kept distracting him, screaming there's pain! Pain where you scratched! "At least I'm still alive."
"Chat," he said, but exactly like before, there was no way to access the chat feature nor any in-game or real-life communications.
"Chie! Are you okay?" he yelled at the top of his lungs. His voice echoed off of the mountain sides. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled even louder. "I can't log out! Can you take my helmet off?"
His words bounced from one mountain peak to the other. It was like a heavenly choir was repeating his words and then trumpets sounded. The echoes shot up to a deafening volume. He slapped his hands over his ears. Suddenly, a tsunami of sub-bass waves struck him in the chest and knocked him down. What the hell was that?
"Chie! Hayden! Mas!" No one answered—not even a single echo.
Am I still be attached to my body, but for some reason no one can remove my helmet. Are the tentacles stuck in my neck like electro-mechanical leeches? What is my body doing in the sphere now right now? Is it moving around on its own? Am I talking out loud? Do they think I've been hypnotized or that I'm in a lucid dream completely detached from reality. Or am I immobilized? But the websuit detects the movement, so if I were immobilized I wouldn't be able to move around like I am now, right?
Nothing's making sense. The only way is to get back out. I have to warn them. But how? Think, think. In some games, you have to log out from a safe zone; otherwise, the player would lose all of their experience and loot gained during that session. The White Imperium was even more hardcore and only allowed logging out from the safe zones. Right, the cave. In his heavy trenchcoat and boots—at least the system had given him season-appropriate clothing to go over his thin shirt and pants—he stomped through the snow, breathing hard, his face in a grimace.
As he trudged through the snow back to the cave, the steady rhythm of his boots plunging through the snow up to his knees calmed his mind. He felt tired. Snow began to fall. It was quiet. His inner voice stopped talking. He stuck out his tongue and a snowflake fell on it and then it melted right away. It felt faint yet distinctly cool on his tongue.
He remembered cross-country skiing up on Hetch Hetchy ridge near Yosemite. Hayden laughing behind him as he caught snowflake after snowflake on his tongue. The silence of snow. The dependable Captain Chie bringing up the rear. The swishing of skiis on fresh powder. The snow had started coming down harder, so they stopped and pitched the tent for the night. Lighting up the propane burner and eating a hearty dehydrated chicken and rice soup while playing bridge by LED lamplight.
A snowflake melted on his tongue and he started to cry. Stopping dead in his tracks, he clenched his hands. How could I have done that to them? I was so selfish and stupid. It was my fault. I—I abandoned my own son, just for this game? I fought with Chie, the love of my life. She'd even told me I was addicted. Why didn't I listen to her? I even lost my job. It wasn't about the money, but rather another symptom of my addiction.
Tears streamed down his cheeks. He shouldn't have been able to feel them—like he shouldn't have been able to taste the snowflakes because the websuit didn't extend over his head nor did it have any kind of mouth insert with the nano-electrodes and neither did the helmet—but somehow he did feel them. He shrugged his shoulders. He didn't have any idea how to even start investigating that.
He wiped the tears away. No use getting all guilt-ridden now. They're in danger and they need me. I need to focus on getting out. He started stepping through the soft snow again. It was slow going. If only the snow had been hard pack. He was almost there, just ten more feet.
The ground shook. Another earthquake! He threw himself onto the snow and hugged it for dear life. A few seconds later, the shaking stopped. He stood up but his legs were wobbly and his entire body was trembling. He took another step towards the cave. Suddenly, a rockslide came crashing down the mountainside. A wall of rocks, soil, and ice rushed towards him. He hunkered down in the snow and covered his head and neck with his arms. He winced as rocks hit his arms and shoulders. He coughed at the dust.
Damage = -10 HP
Stun effect = 5 seconds
Ongoing effects = -1 STA/sec (suffocation)
Oh my God, am I buried alive? He panicked and pushed up, but more dust fell down and he coughed again. It was pitch black, but he felt around. His arms and shoulders had formed a rough dome around him from his waist up and he had a little bit of clean air to breathe. The top of the dome was only an inch away from his head and could collapse at any moment. He clawed away at the rocks in front of him until his nails broke and bleed. If his stamina dropped to zero, he'd fall unconscious and start losing hit points. "Remaining stamina."
STA = 27
He was glad that command was still the same. Twenty-seven minutes. He could already tell he was getting tired, but it was reassuring to know an exact time. He reached out in front of him and started clawing away at the compacted wall of soil and rocks again, but then stopped. Oh man, I'm so stupid, there wasn't as much of the slide behind me since the mountainside was in front. And I should dig under it through the snow. Immediately, he twisted his body around as best he could in the tight space. His hips and legs had room enough for him rotate about forty-five degrees around. He started digging through the snow. His arms felt heavy like in Kendo practicing kirikaeshi, but Akiyama Sensei had always preached the basics and now he was thankful for it. "Men, men, men!" he yelled as he pried another rock from inside the snow drift and dropped it down by his waist.
CHI = +5 STA
Duration = 25 sec
Thank God! So, Chi responds to your willpower. It's a repository of spiritual strength. After five more minutes of digging, the rocks and soil above the tunnel he'd made in the snow drift collapsed, opening a hole. At the end of it he saw a dim light. He crawled out.
Standing out in the open, he looked back at the cave. Its entrance was completely covered by the slide. He shook his head. A one time portal.
The wind howled. If he did't find shelter soon, he'd freeze to death. He saw an outcropping downslope and he pushed through the snow towards it. With each step, he sunk deeper into the snow until it was up to his hips. Finally, he pulled himself up onto the outcropping and sat down against its leeward side. Exhausted, cold, and wet, he ran his hands through his hair. Now what?
He looked up. Breaking through the ceiling of gray clouds, Rose Crow on her black wings glided 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)