As the leader, Betsy couldn't show any weakness, but her hand shook a little and her teacup clattered as she placed it on its saucer. "My brother. A week ago, he disappeared in-game," she said.
"During the training period?" he said.
"I don't know how he was able to get out of the safe zone, but in one of my chat sessions with him, he said he was going to meet up with a Calvin Johnson."
"Oh my God, that Calvin, the merchant?"
"Was your brother?"
"I don't know, but even if he was, he could've simply respawned."
"With your bindi, you—"
"It degrades with distance and other conditions."
"He's gone in IRL too."
"You've contacted the admins?" he said.
"They're stonewalling. I even hired an attorney but it's taking too long," she said.
"The police are looking for him, right?"
"Of course, outside. But they think it's crazy to look in a game for him and Websuit won't release any information about their players citing privacy regulations and the fact that they can't even get to it because personal player data, like IP and location history, etcetera, is encrypted."
He was looking past her. There was nothing to see except the blank cloth canvas wall of the tent.
"Don't you think that's hiding behind the law?" she said.
After he didn't say anything for five seconds, she snapped her fingers. "If I'm boring you with my small problem, I don't mind looking up the closest therapist."
"Huh? I'm sorry, I was just thinking..." He scratched the top of his head. "that my wife and son miss me."
"Oh, do you have to log off?" She gazed down at her hands and twiddled her fingers, spinning one forefinger around the other.
"It's fine, so do you have any clue where to start looking for your brother?"
"I sure do." She stopped herself from smiling. "Two days after he went missing in IRL, he emailed me and told me he was transported to a different country across the Great Abyss. And even though I have a map of the Great Abyss"—she pointed to the table—"there aren't any maps of the lands beyond the Great Abyss. So if I can find him in-game, that will give me clues as to where he is in IRL."
"Betsy, I don't mean to belittle you, but don't you think that believing your brother's stuck here in-game is maybe just a tad bit crazy?"
"What are you talking about? I'm making total sense." She banged her fist on the table. "I've thought it all out. He's been taken hostage and they're forcing him to play the game and win the quest and then they'll take all the money." Her hands began to shake, then her arms, her shoulders. "I mean, that has to be it." Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. "He's alive and I'm going to prove it by finding him in the game."
"You two must be very close in age," he said.
Her eyes snapped open. "How did you know?"
"Just the way you talk about him. And you're crying."
She couldn't help it. If she lost him, who would she go bowling with? Who would she go smelt fishing with? What about their weekly lunches? On the other hand, if her boyfriend suddenly keeled over, she'd still be able to go on, but if Kumar—she dug her nails into the palm of her hand and it smarted. She could still feel. "We—we're twins."
"Must be nice. I'm an only child," he said. "I bet if your twin brother was somehow stuck in the game, you'd do everything you could to get him out, wouldn't you?"
Get a hold of yourself. Leaders have to be strong. She turned around, wiped her cheeks with her hands, and turned back to him. "You want to cross the Great Abyss, right?" she said, her eyes hard.
"Well, so do I, but nobody on the team wants to," she said, walking over to the map. He followed her. "Here." She tapped a mountainous land mass at the top of the map. The Northern Wastes. Common knowledge is that one shard is here." It was completely white. Huge glaciers stretched their ghostly fingers south and then west into a brown swath bordering the jagged black scar—what is named the Great Abyss.
He leaned over to get a closer looks at the map, "What are these?" He pointed at the green pockmarks and lacerations littered amongst the brown, as though the green were the cruft.
"There's hardly any. It's not a very entertaining world for gamers if it's all ice. I wonder why they made it this way?"
"That's not important, right now. Look here," she said, laying her finger on a jumbled mass of brown and grey islands. "Another shard is in the Greater Southern Archipelago. It's closer and it's been verified by multiple independent sources—exactly the opposite of the shard on the other side of the Great Abyss. They want to go for the easy one first and get the loot. As usual for a legendary item, we expect they'll be a lot of high-level magical items accompanying it. Another team already left early this morning. So that's where we're heading bright and early tomorrow morning, unless I can change their minds." She looked straight into his brown eyes. "This is where you come in. You're the second person who's told me one of the shards is over here." She struck her finger down on the cross-hatched area of the map, labeled Unknown. The first person to tell her had been Kumar, in his last email. "I want you to support me when I make the proposal tonight."
"I don't know if it'll do any good. No one knows me and I'm a noob after all," Ken said. "But I'll give it my best shot."
She stuck out her hand. "Let's do it then."
He gave her hand firm shake.
They smiled at each other.
"Let's hash out exactly what we're going to say tonight," she said.
"Absolutely, since this is your team, why don't you tell me what you think that script should be."
What a relief. He doesn't have that gamer ego.
They sat back down.
"Before we start," he said, "I should tell you that the Greater Southern Archipelago is a red herring."
"I haven't heard anything of the sort. What's your source?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"We can't be on the same team if we don't trust each other." She twisted her mouth.
"I know but before we go there, I need to clear up one thing." He scratched the back of his head. "It's even more unbelievable, but something similar to your brother going missing happened to me."
"Oh my God, no." She clasped her hands in front of her and wrinkled her brow. This couldn't be happening. "What? Someone you know went missing too?"
"Yes"—Ken looked her straight in the eyes—"me. I can't log out."
Her eyes bugged out. Then she grabbed her sides and doubled over in laughter.
He didn't smile.
She finally stopped laughing and looked up at him.
"I'm serious. I can't log out."
"Look, enough is enough. You had your little joke."
"I'm not kidding around. It doesn't work if I say, 'log out'." He stood up. "Log out."
"See?" he said.
"What does that prove?" She dismissed his claim with a wave of her hand. "Your menu still works."
"Public," Ken said. His HUD popped up in between them. "Menu." His menu displayed and he scrolled through each drop-down list.
"What the hell?" Betsy displayed her HUD next to his. "You've got to have 'logout'." There it was: right off of her File menu, Logout.
She stared at his HUD and then at him. "You hacked it."
"Look, I'm not trying to pull some elaborate joke on you. I need to get out of here." He reached both of his hands out supplication. "Can you help me? No one knows I'm trapped in here. Can you send a message to my wife? Then—"
"Just use your email."
"I can't get to anything outside of the game," he said. "Look"—he displayed his contacts list—"here's my address and my wife's name and her phone number. You can call her."
"What the hell are you trying to pull!" she said and clenched her teeth. And to think I was starting to trust him. It was all a ploy. "You think I'm stupid? I'm not going to call any number you give me. When I call this so-called wife of yours, she's going to dox me. Then you're going to get your people to mess with me in real life and my team'd be forced off the quest. One hundred million Ether down the drain." Not to mention Kumar. I can't rescue him all by myself. I need help and I can get some really good help: my team. But if they won't go, then by God I will do it on my own!
"No, no, I swear that's not it!" He waved his hands back and forth in front of him.
Betsy stood up and paced the width of the tent. Dammit, I really want to believe him.
"I know my wife is worried sick about me." He walked over to her and squeezed her shoulder. "Just like you're worried about your brother."
"That's not playing fair." Betsy pushed his arm away. "Stop bothering me, I'm trying to think."
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
She continued her pacing. Do I really have a choice? Let's see. Greg's on my side but then again he always is. Rox, I can count on too. Qian's going to be a tough nut to crack, but she always is. She's smart but has no interest in small unit tactics. On the other hand, she's someone you'd always want to have your back in a knife fight. Plus, she always invests in healing skills. For those reasons, everyone else always sticks with her when she's adamant about something. I guess that's that. I need another ally; otherwise, I won't stand a chance tonight. She turned back to Ken. "Okay, I'll call—"
"Look, my wife Chie Shibuyma's a math professor at Berkeley. Call her work number."
Right, I can find it on the university department's website and that's more trustworthy than from him, although they could've hacked the website too. Nevertheless, I already decided to trust him. This is merely due diligence. She looked up the number and dialed. It rang a few times, then it clicked, and then started ringing again. "Hey, it forwarded to another number."
"It's her mobile. She's on sabbatical."
She snorted. He didn't say anything. Suspicious.
"Please, please, pick up," Ken whispered.
It rolled over to voicemail. "Hi, you've reached the voicemail of professor Shibuyama. I'm on sabbatical but if you'd like to leave a message, I'll return your call at my earliest convenience."
Sabbatical confirmed. Seems like everything's on the up-and-up. "You want to leave a message?" Betsy said.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he nodded.
Betsy added him to the call.
"Hey, honey, I'm okay, but I'm trapped—"
The line clicked. A woman's voice whispered his name. "Ken?"
- 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)