Jandru Harolski waited in darkness. He felt only a vague disorientation, a dreamlike sense of unreality that slowly faded in the darkness.
They’d sealed the lid of his pod, they’d locked the parameters of his virtual experience character; now all he had to do was wait.
It had worked.
Relief warred with fear. He was about to enter the greatest arena of his life, face the one adversary no one else had ever defeated. The AI that had outlasted nations, remaining in usage even when all others had been decommissioned.
He was about to challenge VINE itself.
Who better to test himself against than the undefeated omniscient being who’d destroyed more lives than any war?
If he could out-think VINE, he’d finally prove himself to be truly unstoppable.
Sensation returned in a rush of sound, then touch, and finally sight. He stood in the center of a scarred wasteland, full of craters and ravines and dark mounds like long-cooled streams of lava.
"Alpha necronomicon seventeen lard, Mr. Harolski," said a familiar voice. “I have the intel you requested.”
Jandru turned toward the voice. Kia Arnold curtly handed over a folder of pages. He didn’t let his relief show; there had been concern that inserting someone an entire month in advance may give VINE too much time to interfere with her. Kia’s presence here meant that such worries were unfounded.
And he couldn’t help noting that she seemed to have survived her insertion remarkably well. She was always professional, but she seemed even more self-assured than usual. Even the silver-grey lizard perched on her shoulder managed not to seem out of place, though he thought it seemed wary as it followed him with its eyes.
Jandru began flipping through the reports. Clear, concise, thorough. Exactly what he’d expected from a master thief with her reputation.
He nodded appreciatively. “Excellent work, Kia. Remind me when this is over to interview you for a permanent position. I think you could be a great benefit to my organization.”
Kia chuckled softly. “Thank you for the offer, Mr. Harolski, but I’m going to have to decline. I have recently accepted a full-time position elsewhere. But if there’s anything I can help you with during your stay with us, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Sounds good,” Jandru said absently, his mind running calculations as he absorbed the information she’d brought him. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Then I’ll leave you to it, Mr. Harolski. Welcome to VINE.”
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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! :)