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Ella regretted not re-tinting the window as the light pouring in made it impossible to stay sleeping. When she tried to rise, her abdomen screamed in pain, then forced her to roll off the edge of the bed onto her knees. The strain from the seizure made every movement arduous and intolerable, but after a few attempts, she stood.

 

  She traipsed into the bathroom and washed her sticky eyes before undressing to search for any hidden scars on her body, but there were none. No signs of new body modifications or healing wounds, and no evidence she’d been in the pod at the doctor’s residence.

 

  Outside of her birthmark, she didn’t see any blemishes on her skin or thin lines from a recent surgery. The results agreed with her hazed search the night before and left her disappointed at the lack of clues. After slipping back into her clothes, she went towards the kitchen to deal with her growling stomach.

 

  Her apartment had delivery vents connected to the 12 restaurants and 14 stores on the second floor. Without them, people who spent their lives in the virtual world wouldn’t survive. She ordered an artificial wheat-based cereal—food her father never allowed—and moments later, it arrived, packaged with a plant milk mixture.

 

  During her sleep, her memories merged, and both sets became hers. Her father’s murder stopped feeling foreign, and so had hers.

 

  The reality of her predicament struck once more, but before her emotions crippled her, she ate the sweetened cereal and stood next to the window, taking in the view. Tiliri was no longer visible; instead, its light reflected off the artificial sea created from cometary ice.

 

  The enormous Union Tower dominated the skyline and cast a shadow over the city. First settlers transformed the generational ship into The Union’s headquarters as a reminder of where humans came from, and rumors circulated that it still flew.

 

  The constant buzzing of drones left her in a trance while combing her memories until dusk. She didn’t bother syncing to her apartment as the thought of someone hacking her chip and overriding her security settings terrified her. Instead, she operated the controls manually and covered each panel with a cloth.

 

  After finding nothing, she took a long, hot shower and laid on her bed. She closed her eyes and joined the network to search for information on the area, and herself.

 

  Her mind linked to a white room, and dozens of screens floated in front of her. Each connected to simulations, shopping outlets, system news, and other possibilities. As she predicted, the new avatar had a 500-point reputation score. There were biometric parameters based on her body and purchasable clothing options. Using 100 credits, she changed her face and bought a full outfit.

 

  When she finished customizing her avatar’s appearance, she checked her choices and found several free simulations. Sadly, they were fantasy Sims for people who enjoyed role-playing. She also didn’t have a single contact in her list, a reminder she was alone. There were decent options for relaxation, but she decided against them. She needed a more realistic simulation, one tied to the capital.

 

  Although she had been to the city VR many times, it was always in the Inner-Zone and Financial District. Out of worry for what would happen, she never entered the residential Blocks. It wasn’t possible—that she knew of—to injure a person’s body through VR. However, she heard rumors of kidnappings and mental torture.

 

  Her father told her stories of VR slavery, with citizens used for mind-altering drug tests and other detestable experiments. Traffickers broke into homes and drugged people, so their mind became clouded and incapable of breaking out of the simulations. They filled warehouses of victims in this manner, in a nightmare that spanned days or even years.

 

  Virtual environments stimulated the brain in ways similar to reality, and criminals competed to deliver new drugs. With the right chemicals, sexual experiences were so realistic a person orgasmed. Drugs replicated the effects people wanted, but developers required test subjects. It was the reason Ella checked the door so many times.

 

  She searched through her available list and removed anything without backing. Free Sims with little support pushed virtual boundaries, the types that lead to a mental breakdown if you weren’t careful. Her only safe options were the city Sims.

 

  There were corporate simulations loaded with competitions, where participants could earn credits or sponsorships and Union Sims. However, most Union Sims were work-related.

 

  The Union had multiple layers of simulations that required employment codes. Items such as Bots, surveillance drones, trains, and cars ran through the network, and each required a human to operate. There were even Bots called Cybernetic Skins, which were indistinguishable from humans at a distance.

 

  Most wealthy people never left their mansions; it was safer that way. She had tried one of her father’s Skins, and she couldn’t discern any difference in sensations. She wondered why anybody bothered leaving home until she learned of the price and realized only wealthy families like hers could afford them.

 

  With her decision made, she selected the free corporate simulation and found herself back in her apartment. Ella rose from the bed and saw her drab residence matched reality so accurately it scared her. Corporate drones had technologies capable of penetrating the thickest walls and recreated buildings’ interior details down to the color of your bedsheets.

 

  They told everyone they didn’t map organic matter; however, she wasn’t so sure.

 

  The reflection in her bathroom mirror matched her avatar and the clothing she purchased. A thick, charcoal gray pullover hugged her body along with a comfortable pair of black insulated jeans. Clothes to fit the weather and colors that mimicked her mood.

 

  Once set, she walked over to the window and removed the tint from the glass. The city lights blasted into her apartment in a wide assortment of blues, yellows, oranges, and pinks. Scenes impossible to replicate outside VR.

 

  A brilliant radiance covered each building with holographs of alluring women and the newest products. People packed the streets, rushed from one place to another, and decorated themselves with glowing hair and sparkling bodies. There were even non-human avatars that stood out amongst the crowds.

 

  The city exploded with life and every imaginable vice. Corporations maintained order and class in the exclusive Inner-Zone Sims by hiding advertisements and coating the region with a soft glow. That wasn’t the case in the residential Blocks, though.

 

  The conflicting themes found in the free corporate simulation were beautifully chaotic. It was a mix of fantasy and reality that created a world without repercussions. And that’s how The Union controlled the population.

 

***

 

  Halos of light surrounded Ella’s feet with each step and left a trail of alternating pink and blue footprints. Roadways and walkways sensitive to pressure fought with buildings on who could outshine the other, and sparkling silver stars hung from the sky like stringed lights.

 

  The rhythmic beating of music stabbed her ears in sharp pulses while she walked, and enormous holographs of dancing characters moved between towers. She paused and hid her face in her hands after she remembered the Inner-Zone simulations. By comparison, they were dull.

 

  A soft, white glow draped over the core areas of the city that pleased the eye. Gentle music hung in the air, and the pace was slow without interruptions or fears of privacy. Refined men and women walked together towards opera halls in virtual courtship, then stopped for a meal in renowned restaurants. It was a comforting environment, unlike the colorful scene in front of her.

 

  As she continued walking away from her apartment, government style drones appeared between buildings and shined spotlights on places that lived in the dark too long. The simulation became a mix of carefree recklessness, and a police state the further she traveled; it was a strange combination. Like other Sims created and run by corporations, it should have been a utopia, but something seemed off.

 

  Whenever a fight took place, or some form of dispute occurred, a light landed on the people involved. However, the drones only observed. Nobody stopped the fights. If she had to guess, the drones tracked who started the altercation, the brawls severity, and the reactions of nearby citizens.

 

  It seemed like social monitoring. Corporations monitored purchasing patterns and created profiles, but it felt like Union interference.

 

  The Union kept records of everyone for a countless number of reasons. Sometimes to suggest certain occupations or interests, and others were just mundane health logs. She couldn’t think of why they tracked this Sim, though.

 

  Sims were a way to vent frustrations and escape reality, with most—unless otherwise specified—having limits on the violence users could inflict. There were no warnings, though, and no restrictions. It startled her at first, but she got used to the concept with time.

 

  After walking close to an hour down the bright streets and witnessing several violent altercations, she preferred to leave the region. Most fights happened outside entrances, but she had no interest in learning why. She had somewhere she wanted to go.

 

  In VR, almost anything was possible, and shuttle cars flew everywhere. Ella swiped the back of her hand, and a holo-screen appeared above her arm. She ordered a car and waited for close to five minutes before it arrived.

 

  The shuttle was nothing special and looked just like any other car, with two doors that slid up like a secret opening and seats for up to eight people. However, unlike traditional street vehicles, there were no tires; instead, a bright blue glow allowed it to hover above the ground.

 

  Outside of simulations, the only hover systems existed in the Financial District, and they used quantum locking. They also hovered two meters above the surface. The force required to raise such a shuttle into the sky would knock people to the ground, so The Union outlawed them within city limits. There were platforms in the Inner-Zone for private shuttles, but the small craft never flew below 200-meters.

 

  “Please enter your destination.” The small bot resembled a cartoon character of a panda. She wanted to touch it but resisted the urge.

 

  Ella held her arm terminal to the scanner and transmitted her house’s location. The scanner charged 25 credits for the trip; however, once she pressed accept, a red box appeared and canceled the transaction. The car sat motionless, and the bot spoke in a somewhat more robotic tone.

 

  “Access denied, you do not have permissions to the Inner-Zone of the city. Please enter a different destination.”

 

  She knew it was foolish of her. The Union would never allow access to the Inner-Zone without proper entry codes. Even the Central-Zone required privileges. Ella Parker was dead, she had to remind herself of that, and dead people did not visit the home where their fathers raised them. After thinking of an alternative place, she entered the address of a spot her father took her as a child.

 

  After paying the 15-credit charge, they rose at least 500 meters into the air and shot forward. Below, the ground became a blue canvas dotted with shades of pink and yellow, painting a spectacular image. The shuttle blew through the holographic advertisements and past the kilometer tall buildings. In Ella’s opinion, they resembled colorful prison bars that locked everyone in place.

 

  Ten minutes later, Ella reached her destination. A ledge on the ruddy crater wall in which the city resided, less than 300-meters from the rim. Although it wasn’t deadly, the area outside was a vast desert of nothingness for thousands of kilometers.

 

  It wasn’t illegal to leave the crater and travel outside, but other than people with large ships, nobody traveled beyond 300 kilometers. The rim had the most fantastic views, though.

 

  The impact occurred 100 million years ago and was possibly a collision from one of the many moons the planet once had. At 1300 kilometers wide and a dozen kilometers deep at its lowest point, it created a vast valley where water pooled and created a saltwater sea. When the terraformers arrived, they expanded it and created an ideal location for future cities.

 

  Tiliri II was a desert planet with little water, and its atmosphere wasn’t as thick as Homeworlds. However, deep within the enormous impact craters, the atmospheric pressure was perfect. When seed probes slammed into the planet dozens of years before the first ships arrived, the plants only spread in the craters, and it created a web of enormous cities like the capital.

 

  Inner-Zone and Financial District buildings and manors had a unique wavy style of architecture that settlers designed during their journey. The Central-Zone was a mix of residential houses and small businesses. Most Blocks were the consequence of poor population management.

 

  Homeworld sent ten million biological samples for cloning if needed, and the early Union used them. Astronomers studied Ophiuchi 36 for decades before deciding on the 20 light-year journey. Unfortunately, the young Triple-Star System of Orange Dwarfs was less hospitable than they thought. With A.I. banned and Bots requiring human operators, The Union began a massive cloning operation, which led to a population boom.

 

  The quickly expanding population needed a place to live, so using the limited resources available, they built Blocks. The Union planned some like Block C, but most weren’t. Whether intentional or not, the cloning program created two classes.

 

  Descendants of the first settlers became upper-class citizens, while the families of clones became laborers. They lived meaningless lives in dreary neighborhoods, but all sections of the VR city were beautiful.

 

  Ella watched the lights flash and sparkle over the city with the same bright eyes she had as a child. The gorgeous display and mix of colors danced on the magnificent sea. The vibrant city buzzed with life.

 

  She pictured the world the first settlers saw when they arrived, what they thought at the end of their journey. They traveled over 100 years on a ship and created an ecosystem on a lifeless planet in its star’s habitable zone. It was an incredible accomplishment taught to all children from an early age.

 

  To the disappointment of many, there were no records of primitive life found. The probes sent before the seed ships determined the planet did not house single or multicellular life. The Trinary System was younger than Sol, its stars chromospheres were more active, and the threat of collisions without interference was a legitimate concern. But life thrived in many harsh environments, and many on Homeworld raised ethical concerns.

 

  Historians wrote about the reasoning for colonization, for interrupting potential evolution on a planet outside Homeworld. This system of three stars would live for 30 billion years or more, long after Sol died. It was a matter of survival, or so they said. Humans needed to become an interstellar species if they wanted to survive, and they did.

 

  They colonized dozens of systems she didn’t care to remember and became so spread out it took decades to send messages. They didn’t feel like a single species anymore.

 

  A bright light caught her attention as a stadium rooftop opened and erupted with shouts loud enough to reach her. She pulled up a screen and linked it to the nearest feed. There was a demolition competition with sponsors and tens of thousands of people in the stands. Even the stadiums had corporate logos, and she understood why the simulation was so popular. Sports.

 

  Nearly all sports or physical competitions happened in VR. She never paid attention to sports, but some of her friends did. Friends. She had friends and family, but no way to contact them. She wasn’t sure what she’d say to convince them of her identity, or if it was a good idea.

 

  If someone could get to her father, they could get to her friends and family. It was better to keep her distance.

 

  The battle progressed with primitive-looking machine’s slamming into each other, then exploding to crowd’s cheers. She didn’t understand the appeal, but the environment looked exciting, and competitors earned credits if they placed well.

 

  She watched feeds of different competitions ranging from fights to races, one of which she enjoyed for hours. Competitors wearing customized skins fought their way through an obstacle course that pulsated with powder blue lights. It was a winner take all battle with a prize of 2,000 credits. Fighter drones fired missiles at participants, and a large six-armed robot wrapped in flames attacked contenders who warded them off with unrealistic weapons.

 

  A burst of light exploded from an armored suit and cut down a red dog sheeted with ice. A woman created a storm of black butterflies that exploded upon contact with a red bipedal lizard covered in spikes. And a warrior with black, spiral markings lept through the air and slammed his fist into the face of a white-furred ape with blue skin.

 

  Ella heard of fantasy battles before but didn’t know they were so intense. She didn’t realize how many creatures and characters with unusual abilities existed. Her father once told her in magic anything is possible, and it appeared he was right. It was a mess of explosions that made little sense.

 

  The trio fought as a team and defeated multiple enemies until an enormous metal lizard assaulted them. Red lights danced around the creature, and purple flames erupted from its mouth. They stood behind the butterfly woman’s barrier of insects until she pushed them both from her protection.

 

  They were more than halfway through the course, and though they fought together, they were still enemies. The armor suit wearer’s body blazed orange as he screamed: “You Bitch” and the tattooed fighter pounded his fists on the insect barrier until he withered onto the ground.

 

  When the lizard’s flames ended, the woman conjured dozens of stars from nowhere that ripped through the air and shredded the beast. The crowd cheered at her ruthlessness until she fell to her knees, and blood poured from her abdomen.

 

  As contestant numbers dwindled from explosions, temporary allies betrayed each other, and beasts ate their opponents while a small body weaved between the mayhem. The contestant cloaked themselves and brutally slashed anybody too busy to notice them pass. They snuck through the battle, never getting struck, and crossed the finish line before anyone could stop them.

 

  She’d never seen such carnage living under the shelter her father provided, and although she couldn’t imagine herself taking part in such competitions, she didn’t dislike watching them.

 

  Once most of the battles ended the Sim no longer held the same appeal. She fought against her sleepiness and waited for the first rays above the crater’s edge. Tiliri peaked up and birthed a new day. It was another day of essential human workers traveling the rails. A day were Bots commanded by headsets worked in the stores and other less intricate machinations. And a day for drones to scan and capture the whereabouts of people.

 

  She watched as the excitement from the night disappeared, and the bright colors vanished. The shuttles still flew through the buildings, but the number of people ordering rides dropped. Everything died as people left.

 

  She exited the Sim, took care of her bodily needs, and laid on her bed once more. Although she was in pain, it was manageable, and her body begged for a deep rest where she didn’t dream and didn’t wake for many hours.

 

  She would study the college coursework for final markings and contemplate what to do next. A university degree offered her the best path forward and presented a possibility of entering the Inner-Zone for work and information. All professional degrees had the potential.

 

  Earning access to the Inner-Zone was the first step; access to the hall of records the second, her house the third, and the Union the last. Ella couldn’t continue living as a hermit in her room, but she had to decide if everything was worth the risk.

 

  The next decision she made would determine her fate, and one wrong step meant her capture or even death.

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