The mechanical screwdriver spun, loosening a screw on the upper part of a matte black helmet. The section came apart and revealed a mesh of wires and circuits under a focused light hovering midair.
[Model number VKH-003 has initiated scanning. Would you like to observe?] an even and polite, in other words, auto-generated sounding female voice spoke.
“Hm? So the subject finally decided to start. It’s been active for three hours already,” said M, putting down the screwdriver.
[That is correct. Would you like to observe the process?]
“Ugh! That voice is so 20s. Don’t be like Loki, Minerva. Talk normally,”
[Why do I find that insulting?] Minerva said, her voice returning to a young woman’s.
“Don’t worry about it.” M chuckled. “All of you are observing the situation, aren’t you?”
[Yes, everyone except Nimbus.]
Of course, he isn’t. M’s attention returned to the helmet again. “No need to bother me with it then. I’m sure you’d do a fine job of keeping the situation in check. I gotta finish this soon.”
[You should leave that for later. Blindness is not the same as other disabilities. We also do not have much data on it. You should have been more active in your search for another suitable candidate after the plane crash.]
M sighed. Yes, the plane crash. That had been a major setback. In addition to some of the company employees and beta testers, the only congenitally blind tester had also been on that flight.
M had really liked that old man and hadn’t since tried to get anyone else for the part. Though that was more due to laziness than anything else. There hadn’t been a need to either, at least, before now.
[Other than the blindness, there is another reason you should take a look. All three of us agree that you might find this newest subject interesting.]
M was about to start the screwdriver again but stopped. “Interesting? Does she have the factor?”
Minerva paused for a second before continuing, [The first phase is done. She does have it, but that is not the main reason.] A holographic screen appeared in front of M as Minerva spoke. [you should take a good look at this.]
You wanted me to check it even before the first phase scanning? M thought, curiously looking at the user information on display. What could be more special than the factor count result?
“Chitra Mukherjee. That’s some hard to pronounce name there. Hm, the factor count is barely there. Though it’s not the worst, it’s still well below average." M said with mild annoyance. "Why am I wasting my time on this?”
[Please read the whole information first before judging.]
Checking the information further, M’s silver eyebrows raised in surprise. “Oh my! this is…”
M fell silent, scrutinizing the information further.
[So? What do you think?]
“Yeah, this is really surprising,” M said, leaning back on the chair. “I mean, what are the chances! An astronomical coincidence.”
[Do you want to watch her now?]
“Yeah, I guess.” M nodded. “Though I still don’t think I’m gonna include her. She’s got too little factor count. Besides, she’s blind too.”
A full 3d projection of Chitra blinked into existence with lines of blue, green and red lights running from her head to toe.
[By the way, Loki is pretty excited about her.] Minerva said dismissively.
“Why don’t I like the sound of that?”
Chitra perked up her ears, but other than the constant whirring sound, there was nothing else. She frowned. Was it her Imagination? But she could’ve sworn...
She squirmed. A strange feeling like a warm stream of water was running up and down her body, seeping beneath her skin, flesh and blood. It made her feel exposed as if some perverse, all-seeing eyes were exploring all her secrets. Not a particularly pleasant feeling.
The whirring came to a sudden stop, and though it took the warm streams with it, the feeling of being watched still remained.
“Something’s strange…” Chitra muttered, her frown deepening.
|PHYSICAL SCAN COMPLETE|
Chitra’s heart leapt to her throat as the monotonous female voice reemerged.
|USER DATA CONFIRMED|
“—What is this?” She tried to sit up, but her body refused to listen to her.
|REGISTERED USER IDENTIFIED|
“What’s happening?” Chitra’s voice trembled as she struggled against the invisible constraints binding her. Panic forced her heart into a fitful race. “What's going on? Father?”
|ACTIVATING ACCOUNT: CHITRA ROY MUKHERJEE|
She took deep breaths, trying to calm down, but her thoughts were in chaos. And like the sudden strike of a viper, a suspicion reared its head in the back of her mind.
“Wait!” she breathed out.
|USER REGISTERED BY PROXY|
“Please, wait a minute!”
The idea reached out to the depths of her memories and made her see the invisible thread linking them. The thing her friends were trying to hide, the reason they didn’t let her return early, the suspicious behaviour her father showed.
Maybe because the desire had taken such a deep root inside her heart, it didn’t take long for her to connect the dots to it.
“Not possible!” she whispered. He shouldn’t know!
“No way, no way!” she tried to shake her head, to deny the possibility, but even that freedom was unavailable to her.
|PROXY: VIKASH MUKHERJEE|
She gave up trying to deny. From the programs she watched, she knew how the Cortech capsule worked. It wasn’t just a possibility anymore.
“Why?” she bit her lips as tears formed in the edge of her sightless eyes. “Why did you…?”
|COMPILING USER DATA. CREATING AVATAR…|
|ERROR: PHYSICAL DISABILITIES DETECTED. NUMBER OF CONFIRMED DISABILITIES: 2|
“I don’t want this.” a painful sob squeezed past the lump in her throat, but a scornful voice inside her heart whispered, Don’t lie to yourself. Of course, you did!
“No!” she whimpered in protest. “Not like this!”
|WOULD YOU LIKE TO PROCEED TO DISABILITY NORMALIZING?|
“Her heart rate will reach a critical state at this rate!” M frowned, looking at a blue dot climbing up and down on a graph. “Why is she so agitated? This isn’t normal!”
[It might be because she was unaware.] a disembodied male voice answered him.
“Unaware? Of what?” M was confused. “You don’t mean the game, do you?”
[Precisely! She was unaware of it.] Minerva answered. [Her father Vikash Mukherjee seems to have meant it as a surprise for her. ]
“A surprise?” M looked at the user data once again. “Right, today’s her birthday. But how do you know all that?”
[The capsule has been online for three hours now.]
M raised an eyebrow at her answer. “So spying on their household affairs! I certainly didn’t expect that from you, Minerva.”
A giggle of a little girl broke the awkward silence.
“...Loki,” M said, nodding. “Figures.”
[You told us to keep track of the more difficult subjects, didn’t you? I was just following your instructions.] Loki’s voice was accusatory.
“I thought the rule was to track their vitals and mental condition, so we can intervene in case of an emergency, not spying on their private life,” M said with a mix of sarcasm and annoyance. “I would know since I’m the one who made those rules. Or did the rules change while I wasn’t looking?”
[I only did it because it was her.] Loki’s voice had a tinge of guilt in it.
“Sigh! There won’t be a next time, I hope.” M looked at the confused and pained expression on Chitra’s face. “She doesn’t seem terribly happy at the surprise though, does she, Thanatos?”
[True. From her behaviour, we can conclude that she is feeling conflicted for some reason.] The owner of the male voice, Thanatos, answered. [She is most likely not happy with the surprise.]
“Well, thank you for figuring that out, mister obvious,” M grumbled. “But whatever her father’s initial intentions were, his surprise has become more trouble than it’s worth. Her condition is worsening by the second. She needs assistance. Either choose a competent Active, or one of you should go help her.”
[Loki has connected with the subject’s server.] Thanatos said.
“... I’d rather Minerva went there.”
|WOULD YOU LIKE TO PROCEED TO DISABILITY NORMALIZING?|
Once again, the voice asked Chitra.
She sniffled, blinking her tears away. She should calm down. Maybe, it wasn’t what she thought, and she was just misunderstanding the situation.
Yeah, right! The scornful voice sneered at her. As if the signs aren’t clear enough.
No! Chitra tried to cast those thoughts away. She had to be sure first. “Where—” Her voice shook. She breathed twice, steadying herself somewhat. “Wh- what is this? Where am I?” she asked the disembodied voice.
The passing seconds seemed too long as she waited for an answer, but the voice remained quiet. The pressing silence made her anxious.
Why won’t anyone answer me?
A shift happened to the air around her, too subtle for even her to catch. But the feeling of being observed intensified, raising the hair on her neck and arms.
[You are within a Cortech capsule, model no. VKH-003, a device used to play Cortech integrated VR games produced by Desirecraft productions. Currently registered game: Finitum.] The voice this time wasn’t the monotonous female voice Chitra had been hearing until now; instead, it was that of a little girl. And even though it delivered the answer the same formal way as the voice before, it had a liveliness to it.
[Would you like to proceed to disability normalizing now?] Loki asked, with an expectant, almost mischievous tone.
But Chitra had no mood to care about the changes in the voice. She clenched her teeth and said, “I- I want to get out!”
[...Do you wish to abort?] Loki was quite disappointed.
“Yes!” Chitra said. she barely noticed the disappearance of restrictions placed on her as she extended her hand and touched the hatch overhead. Right now, staying inside felt suffocating, almost like a prison. “Open it. Now!”
[As you wish…] Loki said as a disheartened sigh escaped her.
The lid detached itself soundlessly. As it started to lift up, the familiar noise of open-air filled Chitra’s ears once again.
Vikash stared at the various numbers and statistics on the black surface of the lid with wide, almost bulging eyes. Those figures showed the conditions inside the capsule, the temperature, humidity and other operation statistics, as well as the physical and mental condition of the user, but he understood little of their meaning if any.
“She is alright, she should be alright!” he muttered on and on, but the worry in his heart refused to die down.
He felt like punching himself in the face now!
Why didn’t he learn a bit more about those numbers? Those technician people had been nice enough to explain so many things to him. If only he hadn’t hurried so much.
So reckless! Chitra was right about him.
Those numbers were heartbeats, weren't they? He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. “Isn’t that a bit high?” he muttered, gulping down the dryness in his throat. If only he could…
“Oh yeah, the user manual!” Vikash’s eyes lit up.
Yes! It must have the necessary information! He would have listened to the thing more thoroughly if Chitra didn’t return earlier than planned.
Vikash took one last look at the capsule, about to turn around but when his eyes fell on the numbers again, he stopped.
They had started lowering.
Was she alright now? He squinted down to get a better look, but the screen suddenly went black.
“What happened? Did it turn off?” He reached out toward the lid, but before he could touch it, it opened with a hiss, equalizing the air pressure.
Vikash backed up as It rose on its own, and Chitra rose with it. She sat up and turned towards him. Her cloudy, tearstained eyes were full of anger.
The voice that came through her clenched teeth, grated in his ears. It was full of blame.
His heart dropped to a pit.
[What’s her problem? I just wanted to help.] Loki’s voice dripped with annoyance.
“Don’t be such an ass. Give her some time to settle herself.” M chided her.
Loki pouted. [I’m not being an ass. I just thought… it’d be more fun.]
[You are not supposed to have fun, especially since this concerns the subject’s safety.] Minerva also said in a serious tone.
[Why are you all scolding me? Thanatos, support please.]
Thanatos remained silent.
M disregarded them, returning to the screen that now displayed Chitra and Vikash confronting each other outside the capsule. The sound also came through.
“The outer camera is still on display. We should turn it off.”
[Don’t do that! I wanna know what happens.] Loki said, her voice carrying with it some concern. [The way she’s acting, it’s like she doesn’t want to play the game. I don’t want that. She… I want her to experience it!]
Well, if she quits, we can’t really stop her.” M said, looking at Chitra. No point in turning off the camera now since Loki was interested. She didn’t care much about permissions and stuff. “Though, to be honest, I don’t want her quitting either. If anyone deserves to experience that world, it’s someone like her.”