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The sun was setting over the lake behind the guild house. Willow was sitting on the roof with Violet, Soleil and Dawn, the others had already left. They’d finished the dungeon a couple of hours ago and had spent most of the time since just sitting around, not doing much of anything apart from trying to bring together everything they knew about the next items for Fenrir’s quest. Which wasn’t much, but now they’d completed the first part, they at least knew that this was going to be a curious quest to finish. Normal ways of trying to interpret the clues weren’t going to work, that much was obvious.

The next item they had to find was the beard of a woman, which didn’t have much in the way of clues as how to complete it. They’d found something about the item coming from the same location as those who created Gleipnir, the ribbon that bound Fenrir in the first place, which wasn’t that much to go on, as the answer would be ‘the dwarves’, but that was about what they’d found. The ‘spit of a bird’ hadn’t gotten them much further either.

Before leaving HF, Sage had grumbled something about ‘woman’ not being the opposite of ‘those who can grow beards’, but they’d been complaining about that from the start that they’d seen the quest and Willow did have a suspicion that HF wouldn’t do something horridly sexist for a quest item, she hoped anyway. Of course, HF could just as easily do something horrid for the quest, it hadn’t been below them before, but with the new people running the game, they did seem to be a lot better.

For now, they’d completed the first part of the quest and were going to have to get back to it after they’d all rested some. Of course, in the hours since, Juniper had been able to teach most of them to sneak, so that they’d be able to do it when they wanted to. Both Willow and Dawn never seemed to be able to get a hang of it, but like Willow, Dawn had learned how to do the silence channelling spell instead, so that would have to do. Maybe they’d be able to pull it off at some point in the future, but since it wasn’t an essential skill, just the silencing spell would be enough for now.

Violet: I guess I should go to sleep soon. I’m getting tired.

She yawned, which made Willow yawn too, which then made Dawn and Soleil yawn.

Meadow: Meanie. But I guess you’re right.

She didn’t want to get back to the real world, she wanted to stay here, in the early evening sun and just being with her friends.

Rotnem: Before you all go, I’ve got an idea.

Even though Soleil sounded neutral, her face was all scrunched up like she did when she didn’t know if what she was going to say was something that she wanted to share.

Meadow: Idea?

Soleil nodded.

Rotnem: Do you think I should sign us all up for the internal testing for the new BASE features?

Dawn: Wait, what? Go back a step.

Willow knew what Soleil was talking about, this new update was something that had been whispered about among the BASE employees for a while now. Some of the features had sounded really interesting.

Meadow: You can get us into the test?

Soleil grinned at her and winked.

Rotnem: I can get us in, I think.

Rotnem: You’ve all heard about the new VR/AR mix thing? Where they’ve been able to update the BASE system far enough that you’re almost in VR when you turn it on?

Dawn shook his head, but his eyes grew, he seemed interested.

Rotnem: A while back, they found a safe way to blend BASE even closer to our brain frequencies, a jump in progression we’ve not seen in over a decade.

Rotnem: It makes AR even more realistic and integrated into whatever you do. Instead of just projecting elements to interact with, you can project whole worlds right where you are.

Rotnem: Imagine that you’re sitting on the couch, but what you’re seeing is that you’re sitting here on the roof. It’s being in VR without being inside the VR.

Soleil frowned now.

Rotnem: Actually, you’d probably see a projected room, as the program works to show you things that blend seamlessly with the world you’re actually in. Anyway.

Rotnem: They’ve started to open the testing up to a larger audience. Still mostly BASE employees only, but I’ve been getting the feeling that I should be able to get all you guys in too. Which would be cool, right?

Dawn: And what would be the advantage? I can still log onto VR to game and just sit on the couch when I game.

Rotnem: Firstly, no more logging in, so you still experience the world around you, you can still see people and talk to them while you’re gaming. Secondly, they’ve changed the sensory settings in a way that’s very close to VR too, so you’d be able to regulate sounds and lights in the real world almost as well as here in VR.

The sensory regulation thing had been what had interested Willow the most, which she had been looking forward to the most. She’d love to be regulate it better because it meant that she didn’t have to worry as much about overloads when she was out and about, something that had given her anxiety for a long time. That would be over with this update. She’d be able to go outside the walls of the place she lived more easily, without being too overwhelmed. That had been such a cool and strange idea for her, but she’d been looking forward to it.

Dawn: But it’s not compatible with HF, right?

Soleil shook her head.

Rotnem: They’re also testing a new game together with this BASE update. It’s an exploration and MMO-type of game. You create a character and fight monsters and complete quests, but you play it out in the new AR world and instead of the real world, you’ll be able to see whatever world is in the game. I’ve seen internal video of people testing it, it’s really cool.

Her eyes were shining as she moved her hands. Soleil really was so excited about it.

Violet: But if we’re all playing in our own part of the world, what’s the use of participating in it when we’re all living in different places? We come here to play together, would we still be able to?

Rotnem: Yes. They’ve thought of that. It’s not perfect, but you can join people from other places in the world through VR still.

Rotnem: I know, not ideal, but it’s the only way they could make it work since different places in the world look differently. And since you’re interacting with the real world, outside, in public, you don’t want people accidentally falling off buildings or running into the street and stuff like like.

Soleil smiled now and then looked at Willow.

Rotnem: You want me to try to get us all on the list? I think it would be cool.

Willow nodded. Yeah, it did sound really cool and she’d seen some stuff from the game too. It sounded like a really fun way to play games, especially since it meant that she didn’t have to worry about where she logged on. Plus, it had seemed like there were random quests and things like that, just in her normal life. How cool was that? She could quest without having to go through the trouble of logging on and such.

Meadow: I’m into it. Especially the sensory thing.

She winked and Soleil grinned.

Dawn: Better sensory settings sounds great and so does playing just in random locations. Sign me up.

Violet: I get to play with everyone, and play new games. I’m always up for new games.

Willow raised a single eyebrow as she looked at Violet, who just grinned at her. Of course, that had been exactly why Violet had gotten in trouble a couple of months back, her insatiable need to play new games.

Rotnem: I’ll get us on the list, then. Of course, we’ll have to ask the others too, but I don’t think they’ll disagree, right?

Knowing Sage, they wouldn’t mind, and Juniper and Opal probably wouldn’t either. They all loved playing new games, even just to test them out, but the idea that they could all play closer together and in ways that would let them basically travel all over the world… That sounded really interesting to Willow, really, really interesting.

***

Willow and Violet were having pizza while sitting on the couch, projecting some old movie on the wall opposite them. Sure, they could play one of the modern all-immersive movies, but they preferred to watch one of these. These seemed to be filled with so much more wonder with the world and at the same time, this was easier when they were eating pizza, not as much jerking around and things like that.

Violet leaned against her, putting her head on her shoulder. “I wish we could always do this together.”

“Watch a movie?” She glanced at Violet sideways, though she couldn’t see her face from this angle.

Violet let out a laugh. “Sure. But I meant just hanging out together. But I can’t stay here the whole time and you can’t really come to my place.” Violet lived in what was basically the ‘slums’ of the city, the neighbourhood dark and dingy and the building she lived in wasn’t even really safe. Willow had been there a couple of times, but most of the time Violet came here, which they both preferred.

“Yeah…” Willow sighed. Though she had no idea how to change their situations. It just seemed that this was always how it went for people like her, no matter what she wanted herself.

“With the jobs we’ve got now, we should be able to get a bigger place to live, right?” Violet sat up now, looking at Willow. “We make enough money. We’ve got legal jobs.” Which hadn’t always been the case for Violet in the past… “What’s stopping us?” Was that a fire in her eyes?

Willow shook her head, looking down at her hands. “It’s not that easy. Look around you. They’re not letting me out of here.” She looked at the white walls, the sterile furniture.

“Why not?” Violet’s face fell. “You could just up and leave, right? You’ve got the finances.”

“Theoretically, yes.” She swallowed hard, a darkness settling in her chest.

“Theoretically?” Violet reached out to her, taking her hand.

“Theoretically.” She nodded. “It’s in my account. I can use it to play games, buy food, stuff like that. But I don’t have access to my account for more than the most basic of things. I can’t even buy a couch or new VR headset without having to fill out ten forms and talk to twenty people about it.” She’d already looked into it before, moving out of here, but the way these systems worked were not set up to let get go of someone once they were in. They were created to ‘protect’ her and everything she owned until her death. Fighting to get out of the system would mean convincing not just the doctors, the ‘experts’, the legal system but also her parents that it was a good idea. But they all saw her as someone who needed 24/7 protection and supervision. She wasn’t even allowed to make her own meals. The people owning the building took care of everything from meals to cleaning and laundry and everything else. She was technically living on her own, but in reality, she was still treated like a small child.

“We can do something about that, right?” Violet pulled her closer and Willow put her head on Violet’s chest, feeling safe here.

“I don’t think so. I can’t seem to find a way…”

“Oh.” She felt the word more than she heard it. “Not even if I get us a place and you move in with me?”

“How many visitors do you see when you come here? Do you see anyone who is dating? Any relationships? Heck, any friendships?” She stopped talking, getting more upset about this than she wanted to. She didn’t need to think about this. She didn’t want to, because knowing that she’d be alone for the rest of her life because of all this ‘protection’ was more than she could handle today.

There had been one thing that hadn’t been in the brochure her parents got about this place, and that was the high levels of depression and suicide the people in this building, and other like it, experienced. Some ‘experts’ had ‘concluded’ that it must have been because those people were more suicidal than others, simply because of their neurovarience, usually their autism, but Willow had become more and more certain that it had more to do with the way the people here were isolated from the outside world. For the last months, when the weather had been good, she’d been sitting outside, watching the others in the building, and the lack of non-support staff visitors had shocked her. It seemed that her parents not visiting her since she moved in here hadn’t been an abnormality, it was the norm. Nobody got visitors, they all lived on their own, by themselves, alone.

When Willow had tried to talk to a couple of her neighbours, staff had come over pretty quickly, intervening and getting them away from each other. They wanted them isolated, that wasn’t an accident, that was a rule.

Which hadn’t been any better for Willow’s depression that had been building inside her, and had made her more and more sure that she had to do her job extra well, because it meant that she had at least done something right in this world. Even when most of the world was trying really hard to make her disappear, like she never existed. It reminded her too much of the worm that the people who blitzed the accounts in HF had used, the worm going through players’ data after they’d been blitzed to make every trace of them disappear, right after they’d made the people themselves disappear from the digital world.

It had made her obsession with her work only worse, so much worse…

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