Willow glanced around the busy market, not exactly sure what she was looking for, or who, to be more exact, but the crowd made her feel overwhelmed and like it was going to squash her. She couldn’t stay here for much longer.
Violet: Just a couple more steps, you’re almost there.
Yeah, like that was much help. She had no idea where Violet was guiding her and there were so many people around her that she had no idea where she was even going.
Violet: To your left now.
Willow looked over her shoulder and came eye-to-eye with a large and imposing statue. What? The dark statue looked like a gigantic wolf and as she eyed the name hovering over it it read ‘Fenrir’. It tickled something in her mind, a memory, but she couldn’t really place it or why it sounded so familiar. The wolf seemed to be bound by some invisible ropes, though she couldn’t see a place where they attached to keep it in place.
As Willow looked around, she realised that a lot of people were looking at the wolf, and as she took in the buildings over the crowd, she could mentally recall what these streets normally looked like. This wolf hadn’t been here last time she had been.
Dawn: Okay, now take two steps back and take a screenshot of yourself with the wolf.
Willow had no idea why Dawn was poking into the chat she was having with Violet, or why he was even around. She pulled up a quick keyboard, her fingers flying over the keys as she put in the commands for a camera to take a selfie with.
Violet: Just do it.
Like she had much to lose… Willow turned her back to the statue, pulling up the camera in front of herself, it looked like a mirror so she could easily see what she was taking a picture of. The statue didn’t look any different in the camera, just big and imposing and dangerous, like it had looked before. She sighed, took the picture and put the ‘camera’ away again.
Meadow: And now?
Was something supposed to have happened?
Dawn: Turn around.
As she turned, she saw movement from the corner of her eyes, her heart starting to race as she realised that the wolf was moving, the statue was moving. The wolf shook his head and body, breaking free from his constraints. It looked at her with his red eyes, like the hearth of a fire, before it let out a snarl and rushed past her. It bumped into her as it did so, almost pushing her off balance, and then disappeared into the crowd. It took her a moment to realise that while it had been able to bump into her, it seemed like the other players didn’t see it, or were affected by it. The wolf just ran right through them.
She took a couple of deep breaths, putting her hand over her heart, trying to calm it down again. What the?!
Meadow: What was that?
Violet: A hidden quest.
Violet almost sounded like she was enjoying this, and right as she said the words, text appeared in the middle of Willow’s view.
*Quest accepted: Bind Fenrir*
She opened the quest log for it, curious about the pop-up. That was new.
Your vanity has diminished the ribbons keeping Fenrir in place. Now you need to collect six mythological items to craft Gleipnir and bind this creature safely back in place.
0/1 Cat’s footfall
0/1 Beard of a woman
0/1 Spit of a bird
0/1 Breath of a fish
0/1 Roots of a mountain
0/1 Nervousness of a bear
What? What kind of list was this? These things didn’t exist, right? And how did Violet and Dawn know about it?
Meadow: When did you find this?
Willow hadn’t heard of any of these items before, or even the whole quest line, and six months into the game, they’d found most quests and items that were around.
Dawn: I found it last night, right after the update came out.
Why wasn’t she surprised by that? At least, not since she’d got to know Dawn better and found that he was actually pretty vain, which could explain his choice of race or his outfit most of the time. So, of course, he’d be the one to find a quest like this.
Meadow: You know that this is going to get annoying at some point, right? You taking pictures of everything is going to get us wiped at some point. By a mob or some player who isn’t fond of selfies.
Dawn: At least it will have a cool action shot before it happens.
Willow sighed, smiling, then she pulled her cape closer around herself and pushed through the crowd, trying to get to one of the quieter streets. On her map, she could see Violet follow her closely, probably still on some rooftop, as she tended to do since she found out how to get onto them in the cities. Violet said that it was much faster to get around when she wasn’t constantly trying to get through crowds. At the edge of the map, she saw a dot representing Dawn, a turquoise dot, also come into view, coming over to her at a high speed, crossing streets and buildings with ease. He was probable flying or something.
As Willow slipped behind some stalls, getting out of a throng of people, Violet landed right next to her, grinning widely.
Her eyes shone and she moved like it was hard to contain her energy.
Willow sighed, glaring at Violet. Like they had the time to do even more strange sidequests these days... Her job at the BASE division of content curating was taking up enough of her time, and going on weird magical hunts... When would she have time for that?
Meadow: I don’t know...
Dawn appeared next to them in a cloud of colours, almost like magic, which it probably was.
Dawn: Please, please, please? Join us?
Dawn: I’m fairly sure they’re all new dungeon drops and we’ve not done a good dungeon run together in weeks. I’m pretty sure these all come from new dungeons too.
He was right about the not having played together for a long time. They’d all been really busy with work and getting all their schedules to match up for a run had proven more difficult than expected. It was strange, before the whole mess with Helheim Fallen Online and exposing the corruption of the mother company, most of them had been playing Destruction of Elysium and it never seemed to be a problem to get everyone together back then, even though Willow had been the only one in the group without a job or school at the time. But with two new people in their group and now most of them had jobs, things had gotten a little more complicated. She missed having everyone around.
Meadow: Do the others know about the quest yet?
Violet shrugged as Dawn shook his head.
Dawn: They’ve not been online this morning. You were the first.
Right. Well, that made sense. Also, wait...
Meadow: You two have been online all night?
She looked between them and they both didn’t meet her eyes now, almost like they were ashamed. Right...
*One hour until work*
The internal timer Willow had set up for BASE to tell her when she had to be off to work came in handy, as she could easily get lost in these worlds if she wasn’t reminded that she had to return to the ‘normal’ world sometimes, especially since the ‘normal’ world was a boring apartment where she was on her own most of the time. At least in the game, she had her friends around.
Dawn looked at her, and then looked off to the side, probably checking something in his own interface, before he looked back at her.
Dawn: Anything cool today?
Meadow: I think today is just some office suit program or something. And maybe some puzzle game, nothing really that interesting.
After Willow had found a coding flaw in the engine that Helheim Fallen Online ran on, together with her friends, and they’d prevented the flaw from blitzing hundreds if not thousands of accounts, breaking them and kicking the owners from the BASE platform, she’d been offered a job as a tester for the BASE main company. She, and her guild mate Sage, were hired to find security flaws, like the one they’d discovered, before games were put into the system. There had been some cursory testing in place before, but nothing like they were doing now. And it was pretty cool, if a little brain-draining, most days. The fun part was playing some of the games and getting paid to crawl through their code just to find flaws, but the constant data being thrown at her, the constant sensory inputs, was pretty exhausting. This also meant that at the end of the day, she usually just wanted to hang out with her friends instead of doing even more exhausting things, like playing new dungeons that they’d have to figure out and all...
Even though the job was exhausting, she still loved it. She never expected that she’d be able to get a job, let alone one that actually paid as well as this one did. Her whole life, she’d been told that because she was autistic, that she couldn’t get a job or do anything useful in the world. So she’d dedicated her life to games, since that gave her some feeling of actually making a difference, and now she was getting paid to keep doing what she loved.
Meadow: I’ll be back after work.
She really had to get ready since she’d want to spend some time sitting in quiet so she could prepare her brain for the work ahead. If she didn’t, she was usually much more exhausted after work, this way she felt that she’d at least get some fun out of her day after she was done with work.
Dawn: Good luck!
Violet: Want me to log off too?
Violet often chatted with her before she started work, it kind of was their thing. Being with Violet, chatting with her, it calmed her down.
Meadow: Off now.
She swiped her hand in front of her and a menu folded open. She hit the ‘log out’ button and the world around her went dark apart from one simple message.
*You are logged out of Helheim Fallen Online*
She almost didn’t register the words anymore, that’s how used she was to them showing up each time she logged on or off. As she disconnected the VR system and put it to the side, she sat up, stretching her muscles as she looked around the room. Her room was as white as ever, as light as ever, and it was making her more and more frustrated. Things had moved on in her life, but she was still stuck here in this almost sterile place.
Not long after, she received a call invitation from Violet and immediately accepted it.
“Hey.” Willow got up out of bed and walked to her desk. It had been empty for years, but these days she used it a lot, usually to store notes and other things on that she may need for her work, all pen and paper. It wasn’t the most high-tech, but that didn’t matter, it didn’t need to be high-tech to be useful.
“Hey. We didn’t want to annoy you, you know. We just hoped that maybe it would encourage you to come play with us more often.” She could hear Violet move around in her own apartment, her voice quiet.
“I know.” Willow sighed, smiling softly. Then she went into the living room, making herself comfortable on the couch. “It’s fine. I just... I don’t know... I’m just so tired lately.” Not really from work alone, but from life in general. Things that had been mere ‘annoying’ before were getting on her nerves and it was draining her energy. It also didn’t help that she was still scared that every program that she’d open would try to blitz her like the coding in HF had been programmed to do. But she hadn’t told Violet about any of that, she didn’t want to put more strain on her friend.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Nah, I’m good.” It wasn’t like she could explain it in a few words anyway. It was just something that was slowly nibbling at her and maybe she really just needed to get over everything already. Even though her psych had told her that that could take time. She didn’t want time, she wanted to feel safe again already.
It also didn’t help that she felt so responsible for her work that she’d been pushing the hours for it to the limit of what BASE would allow her to work. It was stretching her thin.
Willow was autistic. She’d been diagnosed at a young age, and that meant that her life had been pre-planned for her from the moment she’d been diagnosed. She didn’t go to normal schools, she’d had ‘private’ lessons most of her life and nobody ever expected her to have a job or support herself or anything like that. As soon as she’d turned sixteen, she’d been moved to a ‘low sensory’ building where she’d be able to live ‘her life to the fullest’ by ‘getting the exact right care’. But in reality it was a building where they’d store her for the rest of her life, pretending to do so much for her while in reality she was really just stuck here until she’d die.
She used to get ‘classes’ in ‘life skills’ like cooking and how to ace job interviews, but she knew that it was to keep her busy and to look good to the parents who dumped their kids here, but nobody ever expected the people who lived here to actually use those skills in the world. She was heavily discouraged from talking to any of the other people living in the building ‘out of safety for other people’s senses’ or from going outside the walls surrounding the building into the ‘sensory overloading’ outside world. It wasn’t exactly a prison, technically, but it wasn’t very far from one.
Willow was just stored here because she wasn’t ‘normal’ enough for the outside world, and while people made it seem like living here was in her best interest, she’d never been sure about that. It felt more in the best interest of a great many other people…
For years, the only way she could manage living here without falling into a deep depression was because she had her friends. She met her friends online in Destruction of Elysium, the first MMORPG that she got really into and it helped her to not feel so lonely all of the time. According to ‘experts’ autistic people didn’t need a lot of social interactions because it would overstimulate them, so the few people who came by to ‘help’ Willow with her household and her psych were seen as enough social interactions for her, but she needed her friends, she needed the people around her. She always had needed them.
But BASE, the Bioelectrical Augmented Synapse Enhancer, allowed her not to just connect to the VR system and play games with others, but to always be in contact with them, to never be alone.
Without BASE, she probably wouldn’t have survived living on her own here. Because she knew that without her friends, she definitely wouldn’t have.