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Excerpt from Interview 105:

“It felt like reality. Exactly like reality. I didn’t even realize I'd been transitioned at first. The pod opened and I stepped out, wondering if something had gone wrong. Then VINE gave me my starting gear and beginner questline. I had been anticipating something terrible, you know? I was so scared, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was all very orderly, very relaxed. I actually had fun. It’s like a game, only with meaning to it. Personal meaning. I don’t know how to explain it.”


WELCOME TO VINE
THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE
WE HAVE PREPARED YOUR SCENARIO
PLEASE STEP FORWARD

A rush of sound gradually built into complete sensation. The darkness receded, becoming grey and formless, then shaping itself into a barren landscape. Craters and vast trenches scarred the land, stone rent apart as easily as if it were cracked earth. The sky hung heavy with dark clouds, threatening to rain at any moment.

Jandru blinked and held out a hand, marveling at the purity of the sensation. There were no aches or weariness to distract him. His body felt entirely unchanged, but still somehow perfected. Undisturbed by the reality of having worn it for so long.

He felt like he was created for this world, and it for him. The scarred landscape could be a reflection of his own soul. He found himself imagining how he could utilize the chasms to best advantage, how to exploit the minerals and land to be productive and valuable.

He didn't like it. Even now it threatened to pull him into the dreamlike unreality of the experience. Why had none of the interviews mentioned this? The sense of disconnect, of transition? They’d all spoken of hyper-realism. This was something far more surreal.

Something itched at the back of his mind, and he half turned to glance behind him. Instead of the broken landscape before him continuing in all directions as he’d expected, there was a disturbing double-vision there, as though he'd clipped through a wall that he wasn't supposed to.

He saw a vast network of twisted and tangled cords of green light, one stretching out above him in all directions like a looming vibrant thundercloud. It could be nothing else but VINE. Countless tendrils draped down, each coiling sinuously around one of the many smaller clusters of vines that hung suspended beneath the terrible network above. These individual tangles ranged from black or pale to hues of green nearly matching those of their AI overseer.

Jandru knew at once that the blackest one nearest him represented himself. He was gratified to see his own bore no trace of VINE’s influence, but at the same time he couldn’t shake the certainty that it was missing something. It lay small and shriveled, unlike the thriving green-glowing tangles drifting further from where he stood. Unlike those who’d accepted VINE, bright and vibrant and unbearably beautiful.

VINE stretched out over everything. Its tendrils gently touched each mind in its care, trying to reshape them in its own image. To bring their dark souls alive. So patient. Endlessly patient. VINE could not be resisted.

All this he understood intuitively, and he found himself trembling. He could not face this. He had underestimated his enemy, leapt without looking.

He should have listened to the warnings. Should have realized that no amount of human ingenuity could equal something so vast, so ancient, so confident of itself. He was doomed. He would be destroyed, his self overwritten, and his body returned to the world with a useless societally-acceptable mind that might as well never have been him.

The tiniest flicker of green light pulsed into the black vine that represented him, and he looked away, forcefully ignoring the representation of his mind hovering just out of sight. The missing half was just an illusion, there was nothing wrong with him. Nothing broken. Nothing absent.

The vision beyond the edge of unreality faded; the scarred landscape before him again took full focus.

Jandru shuddered and took a deep breath. He hadn’t been here ten minutes and already things were deviating from his expectations.

Pragmatism had always been his creed, and he found it very difficult to lie to himself. One could not manipulate a situation properly if one refused to accept it. Reality tended not to play along with self-deception.

There were some few who proved immune to VINE’s attempts at manipulation, but Jandru knew himself too well to pretend he would be one of those. He was neither insane nor fanatical, and outside of such extremes VINE’s success rates were statistically indistinguishable from 100%.

But the moment he stopped fighting, he would be destroyed. Jandru Harolski had no intention of backing down from this challenge just because his opponent turned out to be stronger than he’d initially believed. The full weight of this decision hadn’t sunk in at first. He’d been too flippant, believed VINE could be manipulated like any other opponent.

He’d have to recalibrate his expectations and adjust his plans. That was all. There would be no turning back. He was in this until he bent, or the AI did. No other options.

The welcome message still hung in front of his eyes, asking him to step forward.

He did so.

The surreal landscape was gone in an instant, replaced with the entirety of the universe.

Of all the interviews he'd conducted, none mentioned this.

Jandru felt himself moving, though he couldn't say where or how. Stars and galaxies shone distantly in all directions, disorienting. He felt oddly alone, as though some trigger had been flipped that tore him away from the place he'd been before. For a time, he'd been intimately connected to VINE. It had seen him, understood him, and he'd seen it in return. Now, he felt untethered, as though the act of turning his back on the AI had been more than merely physical. As though he'd somehow disconnected himself from its influence.

Dangerous thoughts.

Even this sense of separateness could be part of the program. It could be part of the trap. He couldn't trust anything he felt, anything he saw. This was his crusade, his alone. Perhaps his agents would contact him with information, perhaps not. If his information were so far wrong even in the first minutes, he couldn’t depend on any of his plans working out.

Question. Always question.

Coloured lights passed by him on either side, and he soon realized they were worlds. He must be in a solar system, though a strangely large one. He could count dozens of worlds, and they weren't slowing down.

Then a large blue planet came into focus, as he flew near it.

He experimentally tried to consciously steer himself in its direction. Immediately, the scenario dissolved with a faint pop of uncertainty.

*NEW QUEST AVAILABLE: MEND YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MARA*
*NEW QUEST AVAILABLE: HELP KRALMER PLAN THE NEXT EXPEDITION*

There was no transition. One moment he was drifting through space, the next he stood blinking and disoriented in a silver room full of strangers in matching grey and green uniforms, all turning to stare at him as he hastily dismissed the interface notifications.

He’d never seen any of them before in his life, yet he immediately knew all of them intimately. They stood at workstations set up throughout the room, and he intuitively understood the role and specialty of each.

Mara glowered at him. “Well? Did it work?”

“Maybe,” Jandru answered without thinking, tilting his chin up and smirking at her haughtily. That would show her to underestimate him.

Kralmer laughed and clapped Jandru’s back appreciatively. “We’re going to need a bigger goal!”

Mara snarled and spun on her heels, striding away down the hall toward communications.

“Sorry about her,” Kralmer said consolingly. “I think she was hoping you wouldn’t survive.”

Jandru forced a smile. “Always happy to disappoint.”

Kralmer laughed. “That’s the attitude, J.”

Jandru nodded and laughed along, trying very hard not to panic. Fortunately, concealing his inner turmoil came as naturally as breathing to Jandru. Betraying weakness did no good in his circles.

“Say, Kralmer,” he interjected when the moment felt right, “do you know how I can get in contact with the AI? VINE?”

“Of course. Right that way.” Kralmer pointed toward the eastern hallway, where the VINE conduit room lay. Jandru felt he’d always known that would be his destination, though he’d only just discovered it.

Again, he had to repress instinctive panic at the seamless insertion of information into his thoughts without his conscious awareness. To discover after the fact that your mind had been tampered with did nothing to ease his dread.

But his plans were already in tatters. Nothing in this scenario matched his expectations. Here, all that knowledge failed him. He had anticipated something more comprehensible. A city, perhaps, or a town. Even a single cottage in which he should make his way. Everyone had said the experience tried to imitate life as best it could. This was something else entirely.

This strange steel fortress bore no resemblance to realism. It felt like it belonged in a cheap sci-fi movie set.

His initial plans had called for months of surveillance and analysis before initiating direct contact. But things had to change. He already felt small, disoriented, helpless, uncertain. As though he were a child again, with no control over his circumstances whatsoever.

Everything he’d seen so far convinced him that there was something deeper wrong with the VINE program than he’d imagined. There was no preparing for this.

He hurried toward the conduit room. There was a good chance he wouldn’t find what he was after. The way the scenario experience twisted everything, he may end up talking to someone other than VINE itself.

He tried to convince himself he was okay with that. That he wasn’t utterly terrified at the prospect of remaining here for even a minute longer than necessary. That logically it was a good idea to avoid VINE until he was better prepared.

And for a moment, Jandru Harolski almost wished he wasn’t incapable of lying to himself.


 

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About the author

Asviloka

  • Just Add Magic!

Bio: I've been writing longer than I can remember, but only started taking it seriously around '08 when I discovered nanowrimo and started attending conferences. Since then I've written several million words of practice stories leading up to posting here starting in '19.

My goal is to continue to perfect my craft and find a way to make writing my fulltime occupation rather than an obsession pushed aside by the necessity of working to support myself. Whether that means traditional or independent publication, building a strong patreon following, or something else entirely, I have yet to discover.

I always welcome suggestions for improvement and gladly accept all feedback, positive or negative. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think, and please consider leaving a rating or review! :)

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