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You have died.

Rowan Black gazed into the darkness as a painful chill crept up his chest, up his neck. Churning fatigue set into his skull, and his vision blotched with shades of white. A debuff icon, a red exclamation mark, atop his empty health bar flashed every second, counting down from thirteen. He knew what it was.

Medical emergency.

His time was up. Long up. The debuff disabled respawn and would force a log-out in… nine ticks of the game clock. These were his final seconds in this world, in this fully-immersive virtual reality MMO he had most enjoyed since his late-teens. And also now during his final hours. His last supper of gaming. Playing as the bad guy.

Oh, he loved being the bad guy. The troll. Chuckles shook his chest as he thought of the raid he had just crashed with Gabrielle. Their shouts echoed in his ears. Their agony curled his lips. Their red faces allowed him some warmth. Dying one last time and enduring the world’s reduced pain was worth it a million times over.

A shrill beep slapped the smile off his face.

You are now logging out. Thank you for playing Aeon Chronicles Online.

Damn. It’s over.

The dimly-lit hospital room faded in around him, white everywhere save for a potted fern in the corner. Bland as always. Two medical automatons chirped notes in rhythm with his heartbeat and other vital signs. Wireless sensors taped to his skin doubled as heating pads. And an IV fed painkillers into his arm, but it did nothing to help the numb voids in his chest, his stomach, his head. He shifted against the mattress, and a stabbing ache tore into his side—the stitches from the last round of surgeries. A hiss blew through his teeth. The automatons vibrated in alarm for a moment as the pain dulled.

Flaxen hair whipped at the corner of his sight. Gabrielle dropped his matte black VR helmet next to her silver one, then spun around. Her lips wobbled. “Row? Ya okay?”

With strained effort he barely said, “Yeah. Just fi—” A cough flayed his throat, and sudden weakness blurred his eyes. He tasted blood.

She rushed over and knelt at his side, her palm on his forehead. “What’s wrong?”

He could just make out her beautiful features. He swallowed. “Nothing.” He tried to give her that coy smile she loved. “But your eyes are red again. Get that checked out. It could be a lump.” Those three sentences sapped whatever life force left in his body. The corners of the room darkened. 

“Don’t worry. I will. Do ya see any lumps though?” she mumbled in a tiny voice that was lost to his ears. Her hand took his, and when he didn’t respond after several beats of his slowing heart, she shouted, “Row! Did ya hear me?!”

His voice came out as a dying wheeze, so he rolled his neck left and right instead. The darkness was encroaching, here in the real world. A part of him, refusing reality, was expecting a pop-up alerting him of his death. The rest of him told that part to shut up, for he needed to sleep. A good, long nap to recharge his batteries, then he could keep fighting his fate. Just a bit of a nap for a few minutes, no longer. He wasn’t going to give up on her.

Tears streamed down her reddening cheeks. “Come on! Stay awake! The doctors are coming! Uncle Vincent is coming! Stay awake!”

His fingers twitched against her. Just a short nap, okay? The darkness demanded it. He needed it. Just for a minute.

Then she was hugging him. Her pineapple fragrance filled his airways. Her warmth seeped into his numb voids. “Oh my god. Dun’ die! It’s just a little bit of cancer. A teensy tiny bit! Ya can pull through like aways, you and me, Row and Gabby till the end.”

Till the end. See you in a minute. Goodbye. 

“Come on! Ya have plenty of years left. Decades! Aeon Chronicles is getting an expansion next month. Don’t ya wanna play it with me?”

But he was already gone, the automatons silent.

“Noooo,” she whined into his unbreathing neck. “Ya promised forever. This doesn’t count as forever! Ya meanie! Come—” Her voice broke as grief ripped her in two. She weeped and weeped and clung to his body, unbelieving of how this universe could be so mean.

Except this wasn’t the only universe. In another universe, another time, another place, another circumstance, it could’ve played out differently from the beginning, a different fate. It didn’t have to be goodbye. 

* * * * * * *

Author's Note:

This story is an alternate universe spinoff from my other novel series, Aeon Chronicles Online. Reading that is not required to get into Fate Online, but just to note: Rowan and Gabrielle's characters in this story as of the prologue above (and chapter 1) are based off how they are at the end of ACO book 2.

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