Ken choked up. She's okay. It's been so long since I heard her voice. Wasn't she gliding down to rescue me from this frozen wasteland?
"Who is this?" Chie said. "What have you done to Ken?"
Betsy nudged his shoulder.
"It's me, Ken," he bawled. "Chie, I'm sorry. I love you. Are you okay? I don't know how I could've done this to you and Hayden. Hayden, is he okay?" Tears streamed down his cheeks. It all came flooding out. All of his love, his regret, his guilt, his loneliness. Why couldn't they be next to him again? Why? Of course, Yuri was right. It was my own fault. I'd lied about wanting Chie in the game and emotionally blackmailed her. I'd lied about wanting just another thirty minutes in-game. I'd even walked out on my family. All because I was obsessed with making my dream come true. All because I'd been promised my dream job, my dream career, making the most immersive game ever. I did get my dream. And now I'm stuck with it—and lost everything else.
"How can I trust you? The number's blocked."
Dammit, get a hold of yourself. He wiped his eyes and cleared his throat. "You had your nipple pierced."
"On the left side, after graduation, in Honolulu."
Then she started to sob. "Ken, what happened to you? I don't understand. I was so afraid. Hayden—"
"Hayden? Is he okay?"
"Yes, yes, he's fine, he's at Mas's, but... we both miss you." Her sobbing slowed.
Now that he could actually find out, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. "Am I... is my body... is it still—"
"You're in a coma." She took a deep breath. "The helmet injected you with a drug and that's how you became addicted. I knew you weren't yourself."
His hand flew up to his neck. It was smooth now, in-game. "How did the helmet do it? What kind of drug was it?"
Chie pinged Betsy's line for a video call and Betsy accepted.
Chie told him that the helmets had been stolen from the Berkeley police department and there were no traces of drugs in their bodies. She was sure Websuit was hiding the evidence. And then she told him that Aya, the Websuit attorney, had told her she could get him out by completing the quest.
That confirmed the Empress's pronouncements, except in one important aspect: the quest was a battle royale—not the standard shared group win. Then, he explained his encounters with Yuri and the Empress and how he'd concluded that they were hackers.
"Yes, the drugs. Jake Robertson is on the board of Nano Crisper biotech and that's how he got the drugs." Chie said. "But how can a drug transfer your consciousness into a game?"
"It's difficult to believe. Maybe it's something like LSD and I'm hallucinating all of this, right?" He sighed. But it's just too real. How could a drugged-out mind create such an elaborate world? "This is going to sound crazy but it has to be something supernatural like black magic or the work of a devil worshipping cult."
"You don't know the half of it. Whatever it is, supernatural, drug-induced, or a crazy new technology, I believe it. I've experienced it myself."
"What, you sprouted horns?" He laughed.
"No." Her head drooped and she hugged herself. "Wings," she whispered.
Wings? He was about to make another joke, but then he saw her face. She had closed her eyes and her entire face was squeezed into the center like it had collapsed into a sinkhole. Rose Crow's wings. Of course. It made logical sense in the in-game world, so why not in reality, if the supernatural existed? "I'm sorry. How?"
"I'll tell you after I log in." Her face relaxed, and then she wiped her eyes and tried to smile.
He frowned. Now that he was level-headed instead of pumped full of drugs, he knew it was dangerous for her. "I know we could figure out something else. It's like we're playing right into those hackers' hands." Then it hit him. Why didn't he think of it before? "They've wanted you in the quest from the very beginning. I'm just bait. We've got to contact the police, even the FBI."
"The FBI's already working with the police, but Websuit's stalling and who would believe us? Like you said, it's black magic."
He clenched his hands into fists. "Is this really the only way?"
"I'd already determined that before you so rudely interrupted my login preparations." She gave him a big smile. "With you by my side, I can do anything and with Yamabushi Rock and Rose Crow united again, we'll vanquish any foe, including the Blizzard Berserker King and finally the Empress herself."
"The 'Rose Crow'?" Betsy said.
"Who the hell's that?" Chie said.
"Betsy, Betsy Parikh," Betsy said and added herself to the video call. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I didn't want to interrupt such a beautiful moment and intense planning."
"She helped me," Ken said. "We're using her line. If it wasn't for her, we wouldn't be talking now. She's one of the alpha players."
Betsy held her breath.
Ken knew Chie was thinking about how to respond, whether to trust this new person or not. As the team leader, she always had the veto on who was accepted onto the team.
Chie didn't answer for a full minute.
"I have to agree with you, Rose Crow," Betsy finally said. "The authorities won't help. My brother has gone missing in IRL and he's missing in-game as well. I'm looking for him in-game and I think that will lead me to him in IRL. Needless to say, the police think I've gone completely insane."
Chie raised her eyebrows. "So, your brother was in-game when he disappeared?"
Betsy took a deep breath. "I'm positive it has something to do with the game"—Chie glanced sidewise at Ken and Ken nodded once—"He was online all the time, truly addicted to it. He was chosen as one of the first alpha players. And his websuit and CVRG weren't at his apartment. He would've contacted me, if he could've, I'm sure of it."
Ken nodded. He had to admit that they'd have to go it alone until they were able to uncover more convincing evidence.
"I see..." Chie tapped her nose. "Thanks for helping Ken, Betsy. We really owe you." She gave Betsy a thumbs up.
With her face practically glowing with joy, Betsy responded with her own thumbs-up sign.
Carrying her phone, Chie walked through the kitchen and into the garage. "Hold on, I'm switching over, stepping into the CVRG."
"But wasn't everything taken as evidence and then Websuit stole it?" Ken said.
"Aya—the kind soul that she is—was nice enough to send me replacements to accomplish her noble goals."
"And who is Aya?"
"I already told you, Websuit's hatchet woman, also known as a corporate attorney. I'm logging in now, so where are you?"
"Replacements? The helmet too?" he said.
"Yes, don't worry, I made sure there weren't any needles."
"The old helmets!" Ken said. "Betsy—"
A shock wave tore through the side of the tent and slammed Betsy in her side. Her feet lifted off the dirt floor and she flew through the air, impacting the tent's metal tubing.
The tent collapsed.
❄ ❄ ❄
The connection dropped. Chie was in the dark, caught in the netherworld before spawning into the game world.
That was an explosion! I can't log in without knowing where they are. "Log out."
Neither the logout menu nor her helmet were there. She felt for her phone. While she was talking to Ken and Betsy, she'd brought it with her into the CVRG in the garage. Feeling something hot next to her hand, she fumbled towards it. She grabbed it and then her hand started to burn like she was holding onto a stovetop burner coil. I've got to hold on, onto this snippet of reality. If I could just hold on, I'll get out. She lifted her phone up to dial 911 and screamed. The flesh of her palm sizzled and bubbled like frying bacon. Gulping air, acrid smoke filled her mouth and nostrils. Her lungs spasmed and she coughed.
Tendrils like black hair sprung out of the phone and reached out for her through the wisps of grey smoke. She threw the phone away and tried to run, but it was like she was running in space, no up or down. The tendrils wrapped around her and some thrust into her back like hundreds of needles and coiled around and around her spine, and her wings. Screaming, she fell down into nothingness as blood seeped down her back.
I can't die! What will happen to my body if I die in-game? Who's going to save Ken? Who's going to take care of Hayden? At least I won't go missing like that JamminChat employee. Mas will find my body in a few hours. I'm so relieved we named Mom and Dad as Hayden's official guardians in our trust last year.
"East side!" someone yelled from outside the tent. "Along the road."
"God, that hurts like hell." Betsy moaned. What happened to the max settings. Didn't I set them to the min? She was groggy.
Ken lay a few feet away from her. He stood up and limped over to her. "You're in a lot of pain. Why don't you log out?" he said.
"Yeah, I'll do that," she said, but didn't do anything. Her mind was blank. She didn't know how long she sat there until she decided to try and stand up. After getting up into a squatting position, she groaned at the pain in her leg and sat back down. "I've got to check on everyone. Help me up." She stuck her arm out to Ken.
Ken grabbed her around her waist and looped her arm over his shoulder. He had to stoop because she was shorter than him by about four inches. Together, they limped out of the tent.
She felt like something was missing too. Some part of her consciousness. No, some of her memories from long ago like when she was in kindergarten and didn't she have a dog named Snoopy? Yes, but I think he was brown, not white. Or maybe gray.
"Well, you should log out anyways," Ken said. "If you have a medical condition, you could be at risk for stress-induced injury. Chie was knocked out."
"Chie, my wife."
"Rose Crow? That's right, Rose Crow is your wife." I can't believe I actually talked to the real Rose Crow. I watched all of her fights. Every single boss battle, every single competitive match, and every single battle royale. She'd almost made it to the top when she lost to Prokreashun. She had had a nervous breakdown, but she could've easily come back. Instead, she quit. She was making beaucoup bucks too, easily six figures. And she just threw it all away. Not that money is everything, but just that she could've saved it all and retired. Or she could've kept donating all her winnings to charities. But there was something else, something ineffable that I loved about Rose Crow. It was drive, drive to be the best, and the drive to do the right thing. She was a role model for me. I wouldn't be who I am if it wasn't for Rose Crow. "Rose Crow's in The White Imperium?" Betsy smiled. "So the rumors are true. Rose Crow is back."
"Betsy, your speech is slurred. You really need to log out and call 911. Okay? Promise?"
"Yes, of course." The hibscus flowers at mom and dad's will be blooming in a few months. Spring is my favorite season of the year. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right. So said Goldilocks. Such an independent girl.
Someone was shaking her shoulder. "Hey, Betsy. Log out!"
It's Ken. "Oh right."
Ken shook her again.
Betsy finally said it, "log out."
Ten seconds passed by.
- 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)