The nextworld 02: spawn point

Table of ContentsCoverAlso by Jaron Lee KnuthCopyright001011010010111000101111001100000011000100110010001100110011010000110101001101100011011100111000001110010011101000111011001111000011110100111110001111110100000001000001010000100100001101000100010001010100011001000111010010000100100101001010010010110100110001001101010011100100111101010000010100010101001001010011010101000101010101010110About the Author

Also by Jaron Lee Knuth

After Life

Fixing Sam

Demigod

The Infinite Life of Emily Crane

Nottingham

The NextWorld Series

Level Zero

Spawn Point

Book 3 coming in 2015

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © by Jaron Lee Knuth

First Edition 2014

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons

Attribution - NonCommercial - ShareAlike

3.0 Unported License

SPAWN POINT

The NextWorld Series

Book Two

by Jaron Lee Knuth

“Whatever that be which thinks,

understands, wills, and acts.

It is something celestial and divine.”

- Marcus Tullius Cicero

00101101

I won the game.

I killed my enemies and I got the girl.

You'd think I'd find contentment in the fact that with an army of Level Zeros, all operating at the same Level as me, I was able to kill every monster in every zone. The civilians are free to spend their days without fear, gathering information from every book the designers placed inside the world, learning and exploring their new found emotions.

Yet here I am, marching the Level Zeros into another unfinished zone over the Darkfyre Mountains, continuing my search for more game to play. The name on the map is a series of meaningless numbers with multiple decimal points, but it's massive, four times the size of the desert zone. It's full of hills and valleys and clusters of trees, with a canyon that rips through the center, ending in a cliff side that falls off the edge of the world.

Every time we reach the top of another hill, a valley stretches out toward the horizon, mocking me with its emptiness. There are no structures, no signs of civilization or activity of any kind. There are only tall grasses swaying in the wind like waves of green. It's been weeks since we've entered the zone. The troops are growing restless, but not nearly as restless as me. I slide my pistols back into their holsters and let out a defeated sigh.

The barbarian standing next to me says, “It's the same thing.” He pushes the blond hair out of his eyes and adjusts the horned helmet on his head, his arms flexing as he performs the simple task. “I'm starting to think Cyren is right. These zones beyond the Darkfyre Mountains were probably meant for some kind of future expansion, a planned area that wasn't finished by the time they released the beta.”

“I'm not going to give up,” I say, lifting my telescopic goggles to my eyes and zooming in on the next hill. “If there's something out there, we're going to find it.”

“Forgive him,” a voice from behind us says, “Arkade is annoyed that he's run out of things to kill.”

We both turn to see Cyren climbing up to meet us. Her black leather straps glisten in the sunlight, every metal buckle twinkling like a star against the night sky that is her body. Her arms lift her lithe body without any effort as she hops on to the boulder next to me. When she leans over to hug me, her black lips brush against my cheek, planting a kiss there as they pass.

“I'm not just trigger-happy,” I say, even though it's a lie. “We need to know if there are any monsters left. I'm not going to rest until there's nothing left to threaten the life of any NPC.”

“As you've said many times before.” Cyren flashes a knowing smile. “But there's something you don't understand.”

“No? What's that?”

“There will always be the threat of death for us. Car accidents, natural disasters... heck, I could fall off this boulder right now and snap my neck.”

“As long as the Level Zeros are grouped with me, their Levels will match my Level 100. You're not going to suffer much damage falling from this height.”

Cyren smirks, like she thinks my argument is cuter than it is poignant.

“You're missing the point. That impending doom? That fear of death? That makes us more human.”

“It helps us understand you,” the barbarian says as he slaps my back, knocking me forward with his Level 100 strength. “From what I've read, fear is the source of most human interactions.”

“We should get moving,” I say, pointing toward the nearby hilltop. “We could reach the next hill by nightfall.”

The barbarian points to the western sky and says, “There's a storm coming. We should make camp.”

“We still have time to-”

“No,” Cyren says firmly, “wedon't. Becausewehave a previous engagement.”

I take off my cowboy hat, knocking the dust from the brim. “We do?”

“Xen and Raev?”

“Oh. Right. Of course. I-”

“You forgot.”

“No. I just...”

“It's okay. If I didn't expect you to forget, I wouldn't know you very well,” she says with that same comforting smile. “But these are your best friends. I think it might be nice not to be late to their partnership ceremony.”

“Fine,” I say with a pouted bottom lip, but when I turn around to give orders to the barbarian, I stand up straight. “Send the scouts ahead of us. I want them to reach that treeline and report back before daybreak.”

The barbarian nods and makes his way down the hill, back toward our camp.

“Don't look so depressed,” Cyren says, playfully punching my arm. “The Omniversalist partnership ceremony is a celebration.” When I don't respond, she adds: “That means you should smile.”

I know she's calling me out, so I force a chuckle. “Sorry. It's just that... I mean, Xen and I barely get a chance to talk anymore. And it's not my fault this time! He's been so busy with Raev and getting everything organized...”

“You should be excited to see him then.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“Do you have a speech prepared?”

The size of my eyes reveal how startled I am by the question. “A speech? I have to give a speech?”

Cyren slaps my arm, less playfully this time. “Of course you do! You're his witness!”

“No one told me that involved talking to people!”

“It's common knowledge.”

“Not common enough, apparently.”

Cyren tugs on my arm, leading me down the hill, back toward the camp. “Come on. I'll help you write something.”

“Can't I just... wing it?”

“This isn't a low Level quest. You're going to be in front of a crowd, and they're going to expect you to at least pretend you feel emotional about your friend's happiness.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Don't you think this ceremony is... kind of pointless?”

“When you say things like that, it proves that there is no way I'm going to let you 'wing it.'”

“I thought Omniversalism was all about telling the truth,” I say with a smirk. “The truth is, I think this is kind of pointless.”

“That isn't funny. This day is important to Xen and Raev, and you should be honored you're a part of it.”

I grunt, pretending to acknowledge what she's saying, but Cyren doesn't let me off the hook.

“What's the problem now?”

I bite my lip, knowing I shouldn't say anything, but of course it comes out anyway. “It's just that people are always telling me how Ishouldfeel, but it's never how I actually feel.”

“And by people, do you mean me?”

I shrug my shoulders and mumble, “Sometimes.”

She grabs on to my wrist and stops my descent down the hill. She yanks harder and pulls me so close to her that I'm looking into her eyes from a few inches away.

“I'm trying to help you.”

“I know,” I say, my eyes shifting from side to side, looking at everything except her.

She appears more sullen than before as she says, “I'm trying to help myself too.”

My eyes flash to her.

She turns away from me and looks out over the camp of Level Zeros. “As more and more connections are forming in our programming, we're becoming more like you. These feelings, these emotions, we're experiencing them for the first time. Some of us aren't sure how to deal with it. Some of us get overwhelmed. But you have this lock on everything you're feeling, like you can control your emotions, set them aside so you can focus on logic and reason.”

“Is that what you think I'm doing? You think I'm controlling my emotions?”

She glances over her shoulder with eyes so sad that I want to reach out and hold her and tell her everything will be alright, even if I'm lying.

“I don't know, Arkade. Sometimes I think the more I feel, the less I understand.”

I can't help laughing to myself. “Cyren... sometimes I think you and the other NPCs are becoming more human than I will ever be.”

But I'm lying again. I don't think Cyren and the other Level Zeros are becoming more human. I think they're becoming something else entirely.

00101110

When we sit down to watch the video-cast of Xen and Raev's partnership ceremony, I realize how nice it is to have some time with Cyren. It's rare to share quiet moments with her. I'm always moving forward, over the next hill, looking for more of the game. Holding her hand, with her head on my shoulder, is a treasure I never stop craving.

The screen playing the video-cast is hovering in front of us. Cyren can't access casts from outside of the game world, so I try to explain everything that's happening.

Xen looks happy. Happier than I've ever seen him look. His smile is beaming like the sun itself. The moment Raev enters the room, he looks like he might explode. She's wearing a plain, gray cloth wrapped around her body multiple times, per Omniversalist tradition, but it looks nice against the deep blue of her avatar's skin. Her hair looks like rainbow-colored ribbons that stream behind her as if there was a constant gust of wind blowing through the room. As she approaches, her eyes never leave Xen. They're lost in each other.

From the back of the church, a DJ plays music. He mixes their two favorite songs together to create something that sounds entirely new. Cyren assures me this is symbolic.

Even though she can't see it, the whole ceremony is making her cry. She keeps apologizing for it and I keep telling her it's okay, but it scares me. It's affecting her on a level I'm afraid I won't ever understand. To me it looks unnecessarily decadent.

As the ceremony continues, Cyren explains the details of the ritual to me. Omniversalism is one of the things she's been studying, trying to understand the human need for spirituality. She's tried talking to me about her theories of souls and binary code, but I spend most of the conversation nodding my head. That stuff has never felt important to me. It's like a puzzle with a solution that holds no reward. What's the point?

The Omniversalist teacher reads from some ancient text called “First Origins” before lighting a series of candles. Each candle emits a different colored flame.


Page 2

“Why eleven?” I ask, trying to appear intrigued.

“Each one represents a quality of partnership that they should honor.”

I can't help smirking. “Only eleven? That doesn't sound so hard.”

Cyren elbows me in the ribs. “Be nice.”

“And what's this about?” I ask, trying to restrain my reaction to the spectacle. “Why are there white feathers falling from the sky? It looks like a blizzard.”

“It symbolizes the purity and weightlessness of love.”

“Of course it does.”

Cyren wipes the tears from her eyes, leans away from me, and crosses her leather-strapped arms over her chest. “You can resist this all you want, but I've seen you be romantic before.”

“Romance? Sure. I just don't think it needs to be this complicated. I love you, but I don't need magic or spirits or any of that stuff to explain it. It's more logical to me.”

“Oh really?” she says, leaning forward, suddenly very interested in what I'm saying. “Perhaps you'd care to explain the logic of romance?”

This isn't the conversation I want to be having, but I see on the video-cast that the Omniversalist teacher is changing his robes into a waterfall that is cascading down the front of the church and washing over the audience. Whatever that's supposed to symbolize is even less interesting to me.

“When I met you, you were the first person I felt like I could relate to. Ever. You were uncomfortable around people. I saw every moment that you were trying to pretend to fit in with them. I knew what you were doing because I was doing the same thing.”

She smiles and says, “So you love me because I'm just like you?”

“No,” I say with frustration, but I'm only frustrated with my own inability to explain myself. “That's how I felt when I met you, but as we spent more time together, I realized how much we complimented each other. Your strengths are my weaknesses, and vice versa. My logic is your emotion. My calculated response is your brazen action. My ranged attack is your melee.”

She lets out a chuckle. “My melee? Coming from anyone else, that might be the strangest compliment ever given. But from you? That's the sweetest thing you've ever said.”

“I'm trying to say that for me, love isn't just something I feel. It isn't some unquantifiable emotion. Love is something I do. It's a physical action. It's a verb, not a noun. Iloveyou. Whether that's through a simple kiss, or holding a door open for you, or protecting you from that giant preying mantis.”

“Yeah. Thanks again for that. It would have been a terrible way to die.”

“I love you because you're the greatest person I've ever known.”

She closes here eyes and bows her head, hearing my words as deeply as she can before leaning in and kissing me. I want the moment to last longer, but out of the corner of my eye I notice something happening on the screen.

Both Xen and Raev's chests burst open, a golden chain springing forth and locking together in the middle. As I explain the bizarre image to Cyren, she responds more calmly than I expect.

“Their hearts are to remain bound to each other for the rest of the night.”

“That's... grotesque.”

The Omniversalist teacher bellows through the church in his most commanding voice, “I now pronounce the souls of these two partners forever locked in the space of infinite!”

The crowd cheers. I consciously watch everyone's reaction as Xen and Raev parade through the audience, shaking hands and hugging people. Xen points right at our camera and waves at me. Cyren urges me to wave back.

The camera follows the couple into the adjoining room for the celebration of their partnership. I settle in and summon all the mental strength I have in my body, knowing this is the part of the day where I'll have to interact with people. I lean over and grip Cyren's hand for support, but we're interrupted when someone throws open the entrance to our tent.

The barbarian steps into the room, his hands pulling aside the curtains of blond hair washing across his shoulders. Each strand curls at the end with a sort of playfulness that's ironic compared to the rest of his violent physique.

“Sorry to interrupt,” he says, “but we found something.”

I jump to my feet, trying uselessly to hide my excitement at the sudden turn toward the game world. Cyren jumps up next to me and pushes me back down on to my chair.

“You're not going anywhere.”

“But-”

“You have a speech to give,” she says, pointing her leather-gloved finger right in my face. “We're all Level 100. I think we'll be able to handle whatever this is. I'll be back as soon as I can, but in case I don't make it in time, I want you to record your speech with your in-game camera so I can watch it later.”

“But-”

“Stay,” she says, wiggling her finger again. Then she leans down, kisses my cheek, and whispers, “You'll do great.”

Her kiss takes my breath away long enough for her to leave the tent without any more argument. The cloth door closes as they begin to discuss whatever exciting things are happening in the zone. I let out a long, dramatic breath and cross my arms in my best pouting form.

There's more. I knew it. More zones to explore, more monsters to kill, more game to play.

I try to summon a look of attentiveness as I watch the entire audience of Xen and Raev's family and friends file into the celebration room of the church, but even without a golden chain, my heart and my mind are with Cyren. Always.

00101111

I can't stop thinking about what the Level Zeros have found, but I try to bring myself back to the moment I'm experiencing.

“Xen is my best friend,” I say into the screen.

The crowd in the celebration room is staring back at me. A sea of faces hang on my every word. I know the palms of my hands are sweating in the real world, but my avatar looks calm and collected. I hope.

“You might not think that's a big deal, seeing as how I only have one friend, but that's exactly why it's important. There aren't many people who could put up with somebody like me.”

The crowd laughs. They think I'm joking.

“Most people think I'm so self-absorbed that it wouldn't be possible for me to care about anyone else. It takes a special person to look past my exterior. I have an obnoxious inability to interact with anyone. At least using anything other than my awkward social skills. I often indulge in a distanced analyzing of other people. I have idiosyncratic, nuanced behavioral disabilities. I mean, what I'm trying to say is that most of the time I'm a real jerk.”

The crowd isn't laughing anymore. They're shuffling in their seats. Someone clears their throat, making the silence more obvious.

“My point is, Xen has always been able to look past that. He ignores the avatar and sees the person that lies within. For every failure, he sees a success to match it. He tells me that this is what Omniversalism teaches us to do, but that doesn't mean we all do it. It takes someone special, someone like Xen, to excel so highly at being a good person.”

I smile, more to myself than anyone else, because I know I'm almost done. I've almost completed the task. Soon the attention will be off of me and I'll be able to breathe again.

“Luckily for Raev, there isn't anything to look past. She's a beautiful, thoughtful person, and I have no trouble seeing why Xen would choose her to partner with. I'm sure it's just as obvious to everyone gathered here today. So without any trepidation, I'd like to congratulate them both for finding a perfect partner with whom to travel through this life.”

The crowd cheers. It's almost like no one noticed how terrified I was. Or no one cared. Maybe they're as happy that I'm done as I am. I try to remind myself that maybe this moment isn't about me. I was just a momentary distraction from the real spectacle.

Xen and Raev stand up and they share a kiss for all to see. The crowd loves it, their cheers growing louder. I pull my screen to the back of the room, relaxing into the shadows where no one will notice me. The awkward weight lifts from me as the thousand eyes look away. I can breathe.

There is a procession of congratulations. A line of people wait to shake hands with Xen and Raev and offer brief points of partnership advice. Some share humorous anecdotes from the past, others give a simple word that sums up the attractiveness of the ceremony.

I watch from the back of the room, trying to wrap my brain around why anyone would partake in such a strangely choreographed ritual in order to exemplify their relationship for others. I've never felt the need to explain what Cyren means to me. Not even to her. She understands. That's one of the things that's so great about her.

As NPCs pass plates and serving trays full of glowing food and colored drinks around the room, I notice Xen and Raev stand from their throne-like chairs at the head of the room and make their way through the crowd. People stop them to chat and tell Raev how beautiful she looks, but soon enough they smile and wave their hands at my screen.

“Kade!” Xen says through his still-beaming smile, rocking back and forth on the heels of his feet, barely able to contain himself.

“Hi,” I say, limply waving my hand at the screen. “Um... congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Raev says. “You did good.”

I shrug my shoulders. “I'm just glad it's over. I hate doing stuff like that.”

Raev chuckles, unsure if I'm joking or not.

Xen clears his throat and says, “Either way, we're glad you're here.”

I reply with a single word: “Cool.”

I wish Cyren was here. She always knows how to fill the gaps in conversations.

Before I can think of anything to say, a hand reaches out from the corner of the screen and grabs Raev's arm. An older woman steps into view, her rigid face looking anything but happy. There's nothing unique about her design, but I can tell she's from an elite line of avatars. It's a very boring, very expensive model for the business-conscious user that doesn't want to make a statement other than: “I can afford to be a conformist.”

“Your mother would like to speak with you.”

Raev runs her hand along the golden chain bound to Xen's heart and says with an authoritative voice, “My partner and I are talking with our friend right now. We'll let you know when we're done.”

The woman squints her eyes and inhales through her nose, holding on to Raev's arm for a long pause before releasing her grip and storming off into the crowd.

“What was that about?”

Raev runs her free hand through the rainbow ribbons on her head, straightening them before releasing them to flow freely over her shoulder. With a deep breath her sarcastic attitude returns.

“That was my mother. The life of the party.”

“Raev's mother isn't exactly thrilled about our partnership,” Xen says, his smile looking weak and forced.

“Oh, that's not true,” Raev says with a sardonic smile. “Our partnership doesn't bother her. It's my choice to join you in DOTgod that really stokes her fire.”

“I take it she isn't religious?” I ask, surprised by my own interest.

It's possible that I'm feeling something akin to empathy for her. I understand the disappointment of a parent when you refuse to follow the path they've laid out for you.

“It's more than her philosophical differences with Omniversalism. She owns InfoLock. It's one of the biggest information insurance companies in NextWorld. Her success provided us with financial security and gave me opportunities that, I can't deny, we're pretty extraordinary. The fact that she was able to get a child license as a single mother should tell you how much influence she can throw around.”

DOTgov looks past a lot of their own rules when you have enough credits.

“But she expected you to take over the family business, not join a religious movement,” I say, filling in the rest of the story from my own experience.

“She's been grooming me for InfoLock since I was a child. She used her money to give me the best of everything, but she also used that same money to control my life.”

The design of Raev's avatar is quite amazing. And expensive. The detail doesn't hide the tension in her face. She clenches her teeth and tightens her jaw.

“She dangles her credits over my head like she's trying to teach a new trick to her pet.”

“So you're saying that joining up with a humble, minimalistic religion wouldn't exactly thrill her?”

Raev laughs boisterously, trying to step away from her own seriousness. “You should have seen my mother's face when I told her that the church pays for the ceremony.” She lifts the back of Xen's hand toward her lips, laying a soft kiss upon it. “But it doesn't matter. None of it. I've found my partner. I've found love. That's all I need.”

They get lost in each other's gaze again, but this time I'm not as disgusted by the display. In fact, I begin to feel something, a connection to what they're experiencing, when the game announcer's booming voice breaks in.

“Group member Devyl has died.”

“Group member Alfa has died.”

“Group member Phaet has died.”

“Group member Newk has died.”

“Group member Saynt has died.”

“Group member Epek has died.”

“Group member Taifoon has died.”

“Group member Dedhed has died.”

I'm forced to turn off the alerts as an emergency voice-cast from Cyren appears in the corner of my view.

I slam my hand on to the icon and hear her voice shouting over a thunderous roar of gunfire and magic spells.

“I shouldn't be sending you this, I shouldn't be asking you to do this, but we don't have a choice. I need your help.”

I'm standing up from the couch before I'm aware of what's happening. Xen and Raev don't have a chance to react before I'm pulling out my revolvers and checking to see which advanced ammunition I have selected.

“What's going on?” Xen asks. “Is there trouble?”

“Yes,” I say, my hands shaking as I select different options in the menu. “Something is... I don't know...”

“Cyren?” Raev asks.

I nod my head, unable to say the words.

Raev leans in closer to the screen. “Go to her.”

I nod my head again, acknowledging the fact that she understands how dire the situation is.


Page 3

“Let us know what happens,” Xen manages to say right before I swipe my hand to close the screen.

I throw open the flap and step into an empty camp. The Level Zeros are gone. I open my map and see the cluster of dots that represent my group a few miles away. I climb the side of the hill and open my list of magic items with a single gesture of my hand. I select my default load-out: Anti-Gravity Belt, Boots of Leaping, and Ring of Magic Protection. I use the boots to launch off the rocky cluster at the top of the hill and as I plummet toward the valley below, I activate my Anti-Gravity Belt and land softly on the grass. My feet pound against the soil, pushing me as fast as possible toward my goal. Toward the only thing that matters.

Cyren.

00110000

As I reach the treeline that I ordered my scouts to search, the vegetation manages to block out what is left of the dwindling sunlight. A twisting maze of trails wind through the trees, but as I get closer, I don't need the map to direct me toward Cyren. I just follow the rattle of gunfire and the rumble of explosions. The sounds make my heart beat faster. My hands clench my pistols tighter. I don't want to admit how excited I am, but I can't deny it.

When I reach the scene of the battle, I launch myself from the thick curtain of vines into a clearing. I try to take in my surroundings, but the chaos overwhelms me for a moment. Winged demons explode in the open air as the sniper team fires from the cover of the treeline. Flashes of gun barrels join the blinding lights of various magic spells. Screams of rage from the Level Zeros are followed by screams of pain from the demons they're fighting.

High walls encircle a courtyard, with a single, crooked tower in the middle, rising toward the sky. The ancient temple rests in the center of the clearing, twisted and evil in its architectural complexity. The stone is black with moisture, enwrapped by vines and natural growth trying to cover its shameful existence. Green moss fills every crack, decaying as it reaches toward the top of the tower. A flash of lightning streaks down from the peak, striking a group of Level Zeros advancing toward the front doors. The demons bubble out of large cracks in the ground, like a gelatinous liquid of horrifying crimson flesh. Nothing more than clumps of gnashing teeth and writhing tentacles, they eventually separate into smaller misshapen creatures. Some take to the air, their tiny wings flapping furiously, trying to keep their bodies aloft.

I raise the barrel of my pistol, aiming it at the demon flying in the center of the flock. My eyes squint, my teeth clench, my trigger finger flexes, and with a single gun shot I'm playing the game again.

I pop off a few more rounds and find myself disgusted when the bulbous bodies explode into demonic goo. It's been a long time since I've seen violence in the game. Too long.

I hold down my triggers, using the automatic gunfire upgrade I purchased to wave the streams of bullets through the sky, cutting through more and more of the horrible creatures. I only stop when I see Cyren slamming her foot into the head of one demon while breaking the neck of another. I sprint toward her.

“What is this place?” I shout as I leap over the bodies of the demons piling up around her.

She drops the corpse of another demon and glances up at me. I can't tell what the look on her face means. She's either relieved to see me, or she's more scared now that I'm here.

“There's no end to them,” she yells over the shotgun firing next to us. “They just keep multiplying. We've got to end this before they outnumber us.”

I remember a quest from when I was first playing the game. The quest where I met Fantom. There were aliens that acted the same way. They kept coming, a never-ending source of enemies.

“There's something we need to destroy, an item of some kind,” I shout over the crackle of an ice spell that freezes five demons overhead. They fall to the ground and shatter into pieces. “And whatever we have to destroy is most likely in that temple.”

“That's why I contacted you,” she says as the temple releases a bolt of lighting, striking another group of Level Zeros. “We can't get near that thing without it blasting us. We've got nothing to protect ourselves from lightning magic. But you have-”

“The Mirror Shield,” I say, finishing her sentence.

I swipe my hand in the air to open my inventory of magic items, scrolling through pages and pages until I find the reward I got for killing the Medusa boss in the secret labyrinth underneath the desert. The Mirror Shield appears on my arm, the sun shining off its reflective surface.

I lock my mind back into my gamer thought patterns. “Keep these things occupied. I'll take care of the tower.”

“Nice try,” she says, stepping next to me and punching her fist through the head of a demon swooping down at us. “That shield is big enough to protect both of us, and whatever is inside that temple might require more than one Level 100 player.”

I open my mouth to respond, but she continues: “If you thought I was going to let you run off by yourself-”

“I wouldn't dream of it,” I say with a smile, feeling the nostalgia of having her by my side in battle again.

She leans in, inches from my ear, and whispers, “Let's go to work.”

I want to correct her. I want to remind her that this is fun. I want to remind her that this is a game. We're not going to work. We're going to play. But I know she disagrees. We're here for a reason. These monsters threaten the safety of me, the Level Zeros, and the civilians.

With the other Level Zeros fighting alongside us, we force our way through the torrential rise of demons, battling our way through a wall of mouths and talons and wings. Snipers take down every demon flapping above us in the sky. Heads explode, limbs break free, and the swing of a sword or the crushing blow of a hammer silence the few that land on the ground. My own gunshots join the swarm of bullets and arrows from the ranged team. We lay waste to row after row of the misshapen creatures. The jagged hooks of medieval weaponry tear the bodies asunder, gargantuan clubs splatter them across the courtyard floor, and the razor sharp edges of twirling blades carve the demons into pieces. Elemental magic sparkles and twists through the air, destroying each demon with blocks of ice, walls of fire, spinning tornadoes, and giant boulders. Yet as each demon falls to their doom, another red body emerges from the ground to fill their ranks.

As we near the main entrance to the temple, a cluster of demons erupts from the ground, completely blocking our path. Cyren leaps into action before I can react, becoming a spinning vortex of hard limbs. She shatters bones and launches bodies across the courtyard with her Level 100 strength. Her dance of death is stunning, and I find myself lost in its beauty for a moment. Just long enough for two demons to tackle me to the ground.

00110001

The creature on my chest leans in, hissing into my face. Its silver teeth drip with acidic ooze as its mouth opening wide to devour me. The Mirror Shield is the only thing holding its gaping maw at bay. I turn my face away from the burning saliva that is slowly dropping from the demon's mouth, but I can still hear the clicking of its gnashing teeth.

The other creature has decided to work its way up from the bottom. A tentacle wraps itself around my leg right before rows of razor sharp fangs sink into my thigh. The teeth hit bone, my knee cap cracks under the power of its jaw, and I find myself wishing the coding of the pain in this game wasn't so real. I try to kick at the demon, but at the difficulty rating of these demons, my melee attacks are harmless.

I chose guns for a reason.

I dislodge one of my pistols from underneath the demon on top of me and shove the barrel into the face that's eating my leg. A quick pull of the trigger and the source of my pain turns into a cloud of red scales.

Trying to hold back the demon on my shield with only one arm proves impossible. As the demon's mouth opens to ravage my entire face, it's thrown from my body, squealing in pain as it flies through the air. I look up and see the content smile of a barbarian shining through his blond hair.

“If I stole that kill from you, I apologize,” he says, offering me his free hand to help me from the ground.

I accept his help and as soon as I get to my feet, I take a shot at a demon swooping overhead. “There will be plenty more kills to be had for the both of us.”

He nods and says, “Aye,” as he clutches his large wooden club with both hands and rushes toward a cluster of demons.

I look out over the heads of everyone on the battlefield. The Level Zeros are holding fast, decimating the demonic forces as quickly as they're birthed from the ground, but we aren't making any headway. It's a violent standstill.

“We aren't getting any closer to the tower entrance,” Cyren shouts over the clash of weaponry all around us. “All we're accomplishing is a steady increase to our kill ratings.”

I take a shot at another demon. Its head explodes and its body topples to the ground. I bring my mind back to a time when I used to command these Level Zeros in battle rather than just pushing them forward into empty territories.

“Arrow formation. Break a line through the battle. You and I will split the middle.”

She holds up a fist in the air, raises two fingers from her fist, and the melee team moves into position. The mass of fighters create a pointed V directly toward the entrance, pushing the demons outward as they advance. Cyren and I charge forward, down the center of the V, toward the point of their formation.

I'm hobbling on my wounded leg, trying to keep up with Cyren, when a demon breaks through the formation. Before he's able to attack, Cyren leaps into the air, rolling over the demon and kicking backward. Her leather heel caves in the demon's skull.

As we reach the tip of the formation, the fighters split open, allowing us to break free and sprint toward the entrance. The lightning magic bursts from the top of the tower, but my Mirror Shield is already in position. The magic reflects off the surface and arcs away from us in a random direction, striking a group of demons rising from the cracked courtyard. Their electrified corpses turn black as they crumple to the ground. Our melee team fills in the gap behind us, blocking the demons from following us into the temple and giving us time to infiltrate the ancient structure.

When we reach the stone entrance, Cyren lowers one shoulder. The ancient rock crumbles under her momentum and we rush into the foyer of the temple. The damp, black walls curve overhead with crooked angles and twisted beams supporting the upper levels. Dust and pebbles fall from the ceiling as the clash of battle echoes from outside. The faces of ancient gods are carved into pillars throughout the open area, their eyes glowing red with an unholy purpose. I hear the screech of a bat, then something that sounds like a low rumble in the distance. It takes me a second before I realize its laughter.

“Creepy,” Cyren says before she takes a step toward the center of the room.

When she does, I look down at the floor and notice hieroglyphic symbols carved into the stone. Her foot touches one and it begins to glow. My hand lashes out, grabbing on to her shoulder. As I yank her back, a buzz saw swings down from the ceiling, the blade passing inches from her face.

She swallows hard and says, “Thank you.”

I point to the symbols on the floor. “Standard evil temple stuff. I've seen it in a thousand games.”

She glances out the doorway at the bloodshed still exploding in the courtyard. “We don't have time to critique the level design right now.”

I blink once and turn away. “Right. Sorry.”

I carefully step through the maze of symbols, only placing my foot on unmarked stone, planning four or five steps ahead. There's only one way to get through the symbols, even though it looks like there's a hundred, so if I don't think ahead, I end up having to backtrack. We don't have that kind of time.

Cyren follows my every footstep, placing her trust in my gameplay. There is no doubt in her allegiance. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we know how to compliment both. Xen would call it Yin and Yang. We prefer to call it binary. One and Zero. With a sum that's greater than its parts. We are a team. Now and forever.

After dodging a few spear traps on the way up the staircase, we find the next level covered in flowing lava. Chains dangle from the ceiling, allowing us to swing between stone platforms. Apparently Cyren can read my reaction to the room from my facial expression.

“Still not satisfied?” Cyren asks.

“Lava?” I let out a breath of derision. “I mean, come on. It's the second floor of the temple. How did lava get up here? It's sloppy design.”

With a single leap she latches on to a chain and maneuvers between platforms. I activate my Boots of Leaping and cover the room in three bounds.

When Cyren catches up to me on the other side, she steps past me with a smirk and says, “Show off.”

“Hey,” I call after her, hurrying up the staircase to the next floor, “it's not my fault that the game doesn't allow Level Zeros to use magic items.”

The third floor is designed like some sort of cultist worship room. The ceiling is the interior of a twisted cone, reaching all the way to the top of the tower. At the front of the room, past a long, deteriorated carpet, stands a huge stone statue of an evil god towering over us. The head of a cobra stares down at us, its body carved with six arms, each holding a different item: a sword, a crescent moon-shaped hook, a lantern, a five-pointed star, an orb, and a hammer. Cyren stands by my side, waiting for my move. I study each object in the statue's hands.

“Well?” she asks. “Now what?

As if on cue, the stone statue of the evil god creaks and groans as the stone begins to move. I remove both of my pistols from their holsters.

“Finally. Something interesting.”

Cyren looks around, worried. The six arms of the statue fan out like weaponized wings that are stretching for the first time in centuries. One of the hands throws the orb into the air. The stone sphere streaks up toward the top of the spiral roof, crackling with a glowing energy. It fills the entire room with a strange purple hue that hangs like dust in the air. The light of the orb flickers, casting shadows on the walls that dance with their own twisted merriment.


Page 4

“What is that thing?” Cyren whispers, clenching her fists and digging her feet into the ground.

I raise my guns, taking careful aim as I smile and say, “It's a boss fight.”

00110010

I activate my Boots of Leaping and my Anti-Gravity belt, launching myself into the air and holding down the triggers on both of my pistols. I hover through the room, unleashing a steady stream of bullets into the face of the statue. Chips of stone spray into the air, but the statue strides forward, unaffected.

The arm holding the sword swings at me. I pull my knees to my chest and flip forward. As the blade passes under me, I push off the flat edge with my good leg and rocket higher into the air, still shooting.

The arm that wields the hammer swings toward Cyren. She cartwheels to the side and the weapon crushes the ground behind her, leaving a crater in its wake. Cyren sprints toward the edge of the room. The arm with the five-pointed star reels back, then flings the shape toward her. She ducks and the star slams into the wall, one point embedding itself deep into the black stone. Cyren continues forward, running straight up the wall. Ten feet up, she pushes off, flipping backward. Her body tumbles through the air like a stiff baton until she spreads her limbs and lands upon the hand that threw the star at her.

I'm falling slowly. My bullets keep chipping away. The statue's cobra face looks mutilated, but there are no weak spots underneath. Just more stone. So I keep shooting.

As Cyren runs up the arm, the statue scrapes the crescent-shaped hook down the surface of its bicep, trying to remove her from its body. She leaps into the air as the hook passes underneath her. When she lands on the shoulder, she clenches both of her fists and raises them above her head. I can see her muscles bulge underneath the black straps of leather. She screams as her fists swing down like bombs and the impact creates a blast that turns the stone into a cloud of dust. She's lost inside the fog for a moment before she drops out of the bottom. With the shoulder completely disintegrated, the arm falls free, crashing to the ground and breaking into more pieces that scatter across the floor.

My bloody leg wobbles when I land, but my trigger fingers are still flexed. I dodge to the side as the statue swings the sword at me again. This time the blade cleaves into the ground, sticking for a moment. I turn both guns toward the fingers wrapped around the handle of the sword. The stone is thinner there. My guns chew through the hard surface and the thumb breaks free. When the statue yanks on the sword, its arm raises, but the sword remains stuck. The statue flexes its four remaining fingers in front of its face, confused by its inability to grip the weapon.

With two of its appendages rendered useless, I focus my shots at the arm that's wielding the hammer, considering it the next biggest threat. I'm wrong. The statue turns the lantern toward me and a beam of light surges from the interior. It hits me square in the chest before I can react. I'm thrown backward and my body crashes into a stone column that breaks, crumbling down on top of me.

I try to collect my thoughts and lift myself from the debris. My chest is burning. I look down and the area where the lantern struck me is still glowing, smoldering from the heat. It's possible that I'd be dead if it wasn't for my Ring of Magic Protection.

As soon as I look up, the lantern strikes me again. This time I hit the wall, which crumples under the impact. I hang there for a moment before tumbling out of the body-shaped crater and falling to my knees.

My ring can only protect me for so long. I can't risk another shot. I don't waste time checking my wounds this time. I roll to the side just as the beam strikes the spot where I was. I manage to get my feet underneath me and sprint the other way, zigzagging through the room, dodging the beam of light as it burns the floor behind me, searching for its target. It's moving faster than I can. The heat closes in on me, nipping at my heels.

Cyren slides underneath the statue's legs. She places a palm on the ankle and pulls back her other fist. Another explosive hit, a cloud of powdered stone, and the statue tumbles to the side. The lantern light streams to the side, away from me.

When the statue hits the floor, the entire room shakes. I'm almost thrown from my feet, but I manage to remain standing. The arms of the statue spread out to the sides, as its entire body flattens along the floor. Its foot remains standing, disconnected from the body at the ankle. Cyren stands next to it, her black leather covered in gray soot.

Using my Boots of Leaping, I push against the floor, launching myself on top of the statue. I land on its neck and point both of my pistols at the back of its head. The pointblank shots pound against the stone like a thousand jackhammers. I'm blinded by the large grains of dust that envelop me, but I keep shooting, stopping only when I feel a hand touch my shoulder.

The sound of gunfire echoes through the chamber for a few seconds after I stop shooting. Then there is silence. The cloud of dust drifts to the floor, leaving Cyren and I covered in gray, standing on the broken ruins of a dead god.

“We won,” Cyren says, but there's no triumph in her voice. It sounds more like a question than a declaration of success.

I look up, toward the tip of the ceiling, and see the purple orb still crackling with energy.

“I thought that killing the statue would end the magical effect. Maybe we have to destroy the orb as well?”

I lift my pistol and take aim, but Cyren places her hand on my arm and lowers it.

“I've got a better idea,” she says as she hops off the back of the statue and sprints toward the wall where the five-pointed star is stuck. She grips on to one of the points and pulls. The muscles in her arms ripple like waves of water, summoning as much of her Level 100 strength as she can. Cracks in the wall arc out from the point piercing the stone. With a final bellow of effort, the star breaks free. Cyren stumbles backward a few steps, barely able to hold the star aloft, yet when she spins in the middle of the room, the momentum allows her to twirl the star around in a circular arc. The points whirl past me, increasing in speed with each turn, until she tilts the star upward and releases it. The five points streak through the air, shooting straight for the orb.

When the star strikes the orb, there's a flash of purple light that burns my retinas. A warmth cascades over my body. As the light fades, it leaves the temple room in the dark. Through the thick stone of the temple walls I can hear cheers from the Level Zeros outside. I slide both pistols into my holsters and let out a long, heavy breath, finally allowing my muscles to relax. My shoulders slump forward and I take off my hat, running my fingers through my hair as if I'm physically telling my brain it can slow down. It can stop analyzing movement and speed and velocity. It can let go of its stranglehold on strategy.

We accomplished our goal.

We won.

I'm about to call out to Cyren to congratulate her when I hear a rumble from above. A rain of dust falls down upon me. Then a stone. A rock. A large chunk of the ceiling crashes into the floor next to me. I look up at Cyren, but she's already next to me, grabbing on to my arm and yanking me toward the staircase. We run, leaping down three and four steps at a time.

When we reach the floor below, covered in lava, I scoop her into my arms and activate my Boots of Leaping. One, two, three bounds and we cross the entire floor just as the ceiling collapses. The stones land in the pools of lava, splashing the hot liquid everywhere.

By the time we reach the ground floor, the lava is already streaming from the ceiling and spreading out across the floor. We ignore the traps and charge down the middle of the room. Most of the buzz saws dangle from the ceiling, the mechanics of the traps destroyed by the lava. Some lay on the floor, the compartment that once held them gone, open to the crumbling temple above. But some are still intact. They swing for us, scraping against our backs as we rush forward.

I can see the door.

My viewpoint is turning red when another spinning blade digs into my back. I'm dying. Cyren gets hit as well. She's stumbling. Her feet aren't catching up to her momentum. The walls are falling around us. Hunks of black stone start to fall in front of the door. We're only six feet away from the safety of the courtyard, but I know we're not going to make it.

I slam the palms of my hands into Cyren's back as the last of the temple strikes our heads. She's thrown forward, through the rock and stone and dust.

It's the last thing I see before complete blackness.

00110011

“The Temple of Ultimate Evil has killed you.”

I wait, but I don't hear any other deaths. No one else in the group died, which meansshelived. Cyrenlived.That's all that matters.

There is nothing around me. In fact, there is nome. I'm not anywhere. There is a lack of existence, an emptiness that penetrates my form. When I thought about death, I always pictured a world of black, that I would be floating in some kind of space, but there is nothing.

“Prepare for respawn.”

I haven't allowed the words to register when the game world fades into view. First large, blurry, pixelated blocks pop into the blackness. As they continue to multiply, thousands, then millions, then billions of tiny dots form graphics that are indistinguishable from reality.

I'm standing in the middle of an ancient tomb. A fire is snapping around a pile of wood. The flames allow me to see the yellowish stone of the walls. It looks like the design used in the desert zone, but I can't be sure. My message notification is beeping in the corner of my viewpoint. Cyren's voice comes from behind me. It sounds exhausted.

“It worked.”

When I turn around, she's standing among a group of civilians. Each one of them has a code book open, and each one of them is holding the large quill that allows them to rewrite the code inside.

Cyren runs toward me and throws her arms around my shoulders. I hug her, but when my hands wrap around her, I touch the wounds open across her back. I step away and look at her bruised face. Her split bottom lip, red with blood. Her torn, leather-strapped outfit hangs from her body in shreds.

“You're... wounded.”

I swipe my hand in the air and open my inventory. I scroll through my magic items until I find my collection of health potions.

“Here.”

She hesitates, but reluctantly accepts the glowing red bottle. She pours the liquid down her throat and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. Her wounds glow for a few seconds and disappear. Even her clothes mend themselves, the potion rejuvenating her entire avatar. She smiles, crying and laughing at the same time. She touches my face, like she's making sure it's solid.

“You're the one who died, but of course you're worried aboutmyscratches.”

“I died?”

I catch up all at once and I feel like I'm going to fall over, like the world is twisting on an axis that shouldn't exist. I look down at my body. I'm completely healed. A fresh avatar.

“I died! How am I... what happened? How did I respawn? How am I here?”

She clasps both of my hands inside of her own.

“A lot has happened since you died.”

“Tell me,” I beg, trying uselessly to contain myself.

“You were right. There were more monsters. Deeper into the zones on the other side of the Darkfyre Mountains. The battle drew them to us. They were higher Levels than we've ever seen before. We think the designers meant them for end game quests. Raids.”

She closes her eyes, trying to push past the pain of the memories.

“But after you died, we were helpless. With your death, the Level Zeros had no Level. The monsters chased us back toward DangerWar City.” She pauses. “Not all of us made it.”

The pain is obvious, like every breath she's taking is another moment she has to live with their deaths.

“But those of us who survived, those of us who managed to run fast enough... we spread out into small groups to warn the civilians and hide them in the bonus zones, behind the secret doors. I led my group here, to the labyrinth under the desert.”

“The labyrinth,” I mumble. My mind is foggy and slow, like my thoughts are too thick to process. “That was smart. We cleared this place a long time ago. Monsters would never find the entrance to the hidden chambers.”

She bows her head as her words whimper and fail. “Others tried to reach the secret doors in the city.”

I reach out and touch her, trying to offer her as much of my strength as I can summon. “What happened to them?”

She closes her eyes tight, trying to shut off the desperate need to weep as she whispers, “It was a slaughter. The monsters... they destroyed everything. The city is... ”

She pulls away from my touch and inhales, summoning her own strength to continue.

“Those of us that survived, that were able to remain hidden, we knew we had to figure out a way to end the death loop that you were in. The civilians came up with the idea to change your spawn point so that you'd reappear inside the game instead of outside the gates, in NextWorld.”

I take a long, deep breath. I'm trying to allow all the pieces of the puzzle to find their place, but they keep spinning. I look down at my avatar again, studying my hands and my clothes. I feel new. Fresh. Untouched.I pull out one of my pistols. It looks shiny, like I've never fired it. I spin the cylinder of bullets.

Cyren leans in and rests her head against my chest. “I made a selfish choice. We should have let you go, let you log-out. This world... it's falling apart. It's dangerous and-”

I cup her face in my hands, look directly into her eyes, and this time I speak honestly, because there's one thing I'm sure of: “You're the reason I keep playing. You're the reason I stayed. As long as you're by my side, nothing else matters.”

She shakes her head and wipes her eyes. “I don't mean to be like this. It's these emotions. I'm still trying to figure out how to handle the way I'm feeling. It's like this flood of passionate responses to everything around me.”


Page 5

She can sympathize and empathize and experience what's going on inside of herself and other people. She's getting in touch with emotions she doesn't recognize, because it's the first time she's ever felt them. She may have learned what it means to be human, but only on an intellectual level from whatever books were available in the game's library. Now she's experiencing it first hand.

She's looking at me like she wants my help. She wants me to explain to her what it all means. The happiness and the sadness and the anxiety and the excitement. But the only thing I've ever felt is love.

“Arkade,” she says my name as she reaches out and touches my hand. “There's something else you need to know.”

“What is it?”

She glances back at the civilians, but they're focused on their code books, not our conversation. When she speaks, she's unable to look at me.

“It took them a long time to change the code. They had to be careful. Changing code is dangerous. If they made a mistake...”

I wait with a blank face, oblivious to what she's about to say. I can hear the struggle in her voice, something internal, like she's unable to speak.

“How long did it take? How long was I in the loop?”

She grabs both my hands, but she still isn't looking at me. She can't. She squeezes, letting me know she's there with me. Letting me know she's strong, so I can be weak.

“You were dead for two years.”

00110100

The labyrinth is silent other than the constant scribbling of the quill pens that the civilians are using to correct the code in their books. They are still finding errors caused by the change in my spawn point.

Cyren stands next to me, her body cold and defeated. I place my arm around her, trying to comfort her, to let her know she's safe again, but her mind is elsewhere. In another time. Another place.

I know I should be more concerned with the years I've lost in my life, all the changes that have happened in my absence, but my mind keeps coming back to one thing.

“How many?” I ask.

Cyren looks at me, waiting for more.

“How many died while I was gone?”

She lowers her head, facing the fear of answering the question with a bashful hesitancy.

“Nine thousand, three hundred and eighty-seven.”

I stumble backward, as if the truth shoved me away from her. My fists clench.

“The Level Zeros?”

She bites her lip, trying a different pain. “Including me, there are twenty-seven of us left.”

I feel distant from the truth, like the number is so unreal that I'm unsure of its meaning. I should have been there. I vow right then to never let another NPC fall. It's a foolish, naive promise, one I know that's impossible for me to keep, yet it's all I have. It's all I can offer. The past is gone, written in code, but the future scrolls ahead of me. I have to be in control of something.

There's a tapping above us that breaks the silence.

“Rain,” Cyren says when she sees my confusion.

I look up at the stonework of the ceiling. Above that are the grains of sand that cover the desert zone. Above that are the clouds in the sky that cover all of DangerWar 2.

I've never seen a real sky before. My dad always promised to take me on a tour of the upper levels of our tower, but we never found the time. Work and school and the growing distance between us got in the way. It doesn't matter. I doubt it's as beautiful as a virtual sky, even during a storm. In this world, everything is meticulously crafted, shaped, and reworked until every last detail is exactly what the designer pictured in their imagination. This is better than the “real world.”

But the real world is still there.

I sit down on the stone bench along one wall and open my message screen. The most recent attempts to contact me are from my father. It surprises me. Even if someone within the government alerted him that I fell into the log-out loop, that I was trapped in a coma state, I can't imagine him caring. It would be no different than me being “trapped” inside the game. It changes nothing for him. In the real world I'm a body. A hunk of flesh lying in an E-Womb.

I try to push away the painful thoughts and mindlessly scroll through the endless list of message requests. I smile as I realize ninety percent of them are from Xen and Raev. Of course they are. I choose “Delete All” and select “New Connection.”

It takes a few seconds before the screen opens in front of me, but instead of Xen's smiling face, the image on the screen wobbles for a second before dissolving into monochromatic static. Ones and Zeros scroll down the screen, separated by black and white pixels. I swipe at it, but my gestures aren't activating any commands.

The civilians all scream at the same time, “Turn it off!”

I keep swiping my hands at the screen, but it retracts from my grasp and explodes into a cloud of digital noise.

“What's happening?” I ask as panic tries to collapse my chest.

“The firewall is down!”

I stand up, but I don't know what to do.

“How did that happen?”

The civilians are flipping through pages, scanning each line of code at lightning fast speeds.

“The spawn point. It forced the firewall to shut down so that it could slip you back into the game.”

I look over to Cyren. She appears frozen next to me, her body unable to react to the news.

“What was the firewall protecting us from?” I ask her, reaching out and touching her arm. “What else got through?”

As soon as I touch her, she jerks, catching up to the present. She leaps to her feet and rushes to the door, throwing it open and running down the halls of the underground labyrinth as fast as she can. I follow her, but by the time I catch up to her, she's outside the hidden entrance to the labyrinth, standing in the cold sand of the desert night, helplessly staring upward.

“What are you doing?” I yell over the pounding rain and howling winds. “We shouldn't be outside. The monsters could-”

The rain comes to a sudden stop. The clouds twitch, turning from a gray mist to flashing, monochromatic static.

“What is happening?” I ask.

Cyren is silent as we watch the static spread out. Black and white pixels flash on and off randomly, like the entire game is glitching. I glance at Cyren's face. The hyper strobe effect of the sky is bouncing off her porcelain skin. Her contemplation is stoic as she peers upward, but there's a look in her eyes that I can't quite place. It's like she's struggling against another emotion, fighting against an overwhelming feeling that's threatening to knock her over. But she remains resilient.

“Cyren. What is that?”

She turns her shaking eyes toward me, the flashing lights of the static gleam from the tears forming on the surface. When her pupils have locked on to mine, she squeezes my hand and says, “It's a virus.”

00110101

From high above, echoing through the world, we hear a groaning noise that sounds like an aching hunger inside the stomach of a giant. The concussive blast of the sound sends out a wave of sand and throws us both to the ground. I cover my ears, trying to stop the noise from shattering my ear drums.

When I scramble to my feet, I can see the distortion of the sky bending outward, like something is pushing on it from the other side. The pixels and the binary code elongate as the sky stretches downward. It keeps growing until it reaches its maximum tension. The groaning stops and the distorted static hangs there, teasing me with a moment of peace. I believe, for half of a second, that it's over.

Then the sky shatters.

Each tiny pixel bursts out in a radius, sprinkling to the ground like the ash of war. In its wake, it leaves a hole where there are no clouds, there are no stars, there is only the blackness, the emptiness, the nothingness that surrounded me upon my death.

That scene, that image, freezes me in place. My feet weigh twenty times more than they should. My muscles weaken. I can't move. I can't speak. I can't do anything other than stare at the hole in the world.

Cyren is yelling something from behind me, but I'm not listening. Her hand sets on my shoulder, pulling me away from the moment, but nothing inside me acknowledges her existence. I'm lost in the face of oblivion.

“Arkade!” she screams my name, her voice powerful and desperate.

It shakes me. I'm able to turn, however slowly, and see the terror in her face.

“Run!” she yells, pulling on my arm.

Her words don't make sense.

“Run? From what?”

Time slows down. Her eyes raise from me to the sky. She pulls harder.

“From that!”

I turn and look over my shoulder even as her Level 100 strength rips me from my immobile fear. My feet stumble through the sand, trying to move sideways because I can't tear my eyes away from the sky.

From the blackness, the coiled body of a giant worm descends toward the world. Its wrinkled flesh unfolds as it stretches toward the ground. Its movement seems slow, but I soon realize it appears that way because of its size. The mouth of the beast opens and a thousand razor sharp teeth encircle the gaping maw, spinning around the circumference like an inverted buzz saw. Inside the mouth is an endless throat of nothingness, waiting to swallow anything. Everything.

Cyren's hand grips my wrist tighter. She's screaming, but the words are incoherent above the heartbeat that's throbbing in my ears. My feet move faster, trying to catch up to her. She's dragging me, I know it, but I still can't look away from the apocalyptic monster plummeting toward the desert.

Right as the mouth of the worm reaches the ground, the tail breaks free from the hole in the sky, leaving the emptiness behind it. When the worm plunges into the desert floor, I'm expecting some immense quake, like a bomb that will shake the world, but there's no impact. It's as if the desert disappears as the rotating teeth devour it. The worm dives deep into the sand before curling back upward, leaving the absence of anything in its wake.

It's consuming.

Swallowing.

Deleting.

The terror in my body forces me to look away. I can't comprehend what I'm seeing. Logic is taking too long to process. I go primal. Fight or flight. I dig my boots into the sand, pushing myself away from the threat. Cyren doesn't need to drag me anymore. We're both running at full speed.

We cross over a large dune when my gamer brain kicks in. I swipe my hand in the air and open my inventory of magic items. My muscle memory helps me scroll to the exact spot in the alphabet for my Boots of Speed. I replace my Boots of Leaping in my magic item load-out, scoop up Cyren in my arms, and speed across the surface of the desert, leaving a cloud of sand in the wake of my dashing feet.

I can't help stealing a glance over my shoulder. There's a broken horizon, like an incomplete puzzle. The desert floor ends in jagged edges, revealing the obliteration of the worm's deletion. Voided areas of annihilation streak across the sky, crisscrossing trails of black left by the worm's flight through the game world. It continues, back and forth, systematically annihilating the entirety of the desert zone.

My constant push forward stretches our distance from the worm, but I don't let myself rest. When we reach the edge of the zone, I urge myself forward. My Boots of Speed burn into the pavement of the highway, toward the ruins of DangerWar City.

When the first exit sign appears, I realize I don't know where I'm going. I have no plan. I have no strategy. I yell before I know what I'm saying. I'm blubbering, my words tumbling out of my lips with a desperate speed.

“I don't know what to do! What do I do?”

“I'm contacting the remaining Level Zeros. They're collecting as many civilians as they can. We'll rendezvous with them in the city.”

“The city?” I don't understand how she could be directing us toward more danger. “What about the end game monsters?”

“The Level Zeros are back at Level 100 now that you're alive again. We should be able to handle any monster if we're all together.”

How is she staying so calm and collected? She's the one I'd expect to be out of control, overwhelmed with emotion. I'm supposed to be the logical one, yet here I am, shaking like I'm freezing to death.

She places her hands on my shoulders and squeezes. There's a gentleness mixed with a firm reassurance. It's calming and invigorating all at the same time. She leans in and places her mouth next to my ear again. I feel her breath as she whispers, “I love you.”

I was hoping for a game plan. I was hoping for a strategy. I was hoping for a clear set of instructions that I could follow to an ultimate goal. That's what I thought I needed. But she gives me three simple words and brings my mind back to where it belongs.

I dig my feet into the pavement and head to the right, turning off the highway and running down the off-ramp. When we turn on to the street that heads toward downtown, I twist my head and look back at the desert sky. It's almost completely gone. A few chunks of cloud still remain, but otherwise there is only blackness. We're too far away to see the worm. I'm thankful for that.

After I released the players from the game, the civilians went about cleaning up all the destruction that remained after the restrictions were removed from the monsters. The world looked livable again. But now, as we reach the main street of DangerWar City, I'm able to see the destruction that happened while I was dead.

The clouds that cover the sky only serve to add to the gray decay of the city. Beams of steel lay crooked and broken, like the skeletons of rotting corpses. No windows remain, only shattered glass. Signs for stores are no longer connected to their bases. Street lamps lay shattered across the pavement and vehicles lay overturned on the streets. The pavement is cracked from the impact of brute force, scratched by claws and talons, blackened by the scorch marks of magic and explosives. It looks like the apocalypse, but I know better.The apocalypseis still eating the desert.

I scan the skyline of demolished structures and see one building standing tall above the others, somewhat still intact. I nudge Cyren and point to it.

“We'll make our stand there.”


Page 6

Cyren closes her eyes and wordlessly sends a text-cast to all twenty-seven Level Zeros in our group.

As we near the high rise, I run toward the ramp that leads to the underground parking garage. As we pass the gate, I set Cyren down and we enter the darkened area slowly. I swipe my hand in the air and select a torch from my inventory. Flames burst from the end of the wooden stick. There are a few cars still parked in their spots, but the rest of the area looks empty.

I'm ready to declare the area safe when a mummy shambles out from behind a van, dirty white cloth draped around its entire body. Glowing red eyes turn toward us from between the wrappings on its head. It throws out one hand and the cloth wrapped around its arm uncoils, flying straight at us like a hissing snake. We both leap to the side and the cloth shoots past. Cyren lands in a perfect, defensive, crouched position. I roll to the side, throwing the torch to the ground and coming up with both pistols drawn.

It's nice to shoot something again. It's good to do something that I can wrap my brain around, to accomplish a clear goal that I understand. It makes sense. Point and shoot. Simple. Concise. Logical.

The cylinders of my pistols spin so fast that they sizzle, releasing automatic gunfire that streams from the barrels. The bullets tear apart the undead creature, the dried flesh ripped from its body as each round explodes. I think I'm winning, but as fast as I can decimate the enwrapped mummy, the white gauze continues to multiply, healing every hole I make.

“How strong is this thing?” I yell over my own gunfire.

The wrapping shoots out again. This time I'm not quick enough, too focused on my offense and not enough on my defense. The mummy yanks hard on the strand of cloth that snares my hand. I'm thrown from my feet. My face smashes into the concrete floor. It drags me closer so that it can land its final blow.

Cyren leaps at the creature, slamming the side of her foot into the mummy's head. It lets out a painful moan and stumbles backward. She strikes again with her palm. Her hand penetrates the dried, flaky skin of its chest and bursts out the back. She lets out an enraged scream and lifts the creature into the air, spinning it in mid air and slamming it down hard. Its arm breaks free from its body, but the cloth wrappings intertwine, pulling the limb and torso back together.

As the cloth retracts from me to heal the mummy, I scurry away from the monster, joining Cyren at a safer distance.

“We can't survive this,” Cyren yells back. “They designed this for ten, maybe twenty players.”

I'm ready to run away, to give up, to lose yet another battle, when I hear someone from behind us say, “Maybewecan help.”

I turn toward the voice and see the blond barbarian stomping down the ramp into the parking garage. He's flanked by numerous Level Zeros, each one carrying a different weapon. The melee forces charge toward the mummy, while the ranged attackers unleash a storm of arrows, bullets, and rockets. In less than thirty seconds, a pile of dried, flaky remains lie on the ground where the enemy used to be. When the dust settles, the barbarian approaches me and I clasp hands with him, thanking him for his good timing.

“I'm glad you're back.” He flashes me a cocky smirk and says, “I missed being Level 100.”

I laugh, letting myself appreciate the moment of triumph, but that moment is shattered almost as soon as it appears when we hear the bellowing moan of the worm from outside the parking garage. It sounds far off, but I know it's headed this way.

And it's hungry.

00110110

“I want snipers in the corners,” I say, pointing to the edges of the rooftop.

A robotic cyclops makes hand gestures to the three other remaining snipers in his team. They spread out and set their high-tech rifles on tripods, adjusting their scopes and scanning the disappearing horizon.

We can all see the worm now. Its mammoth form curls over the rooftops of the city, looking as if it's inhaling existence itself. It leaves behind an imposing trail of deletion, blackness that exists in the absence of the world. I wonder what will happen, even if wecanstop it. Will we move on, accepting this new edge to our reality, a cliff into the abyss that will hover over the southern horizon?

I shake the pointless worrying from my head when Cyren emerges from the stairwell.

“The civilians are fortifying the parking garage,” she says before looking into the distance, toward the doom that draws closer, “though I'm not sure how much good a few parked cars blocking the entrance will do.”

“It's only there to stop any monsters that might wander nearby,” I say, trying to keep my mind in strategy-mode. “The last thing we need to worry about are multiple opponents. I want all our attention focused on...that.”

“I helped them gather more vehicles from the surrounding blocks,” she says. “Fast ones. Just in case...”

“Smart.”

I hate considering failure, but we need to have an escape plan, even if I have no idea where we could run.

“I don't understand where that thing came from. Who would want to attack this game with a virus?”

I stop to consider her question, then shake my head and say, “There will be time to worry about that later.” I hope. “We need to focus.”

The group of Level Zeros are all silently preparing themselves. A part of me wishes they hadn't spent so much time studying and developing their emotional depth. Maybe then they wouldn't know fear. What I see in their eyes, I have to assume is the dread of what awaits them.

For them, deletion is death.

As the worm reaches the edge of the city, we all watch in horror as it destroys the first of the buildings. The beast shaves off the top ten floors in one swoop, turning into the park and scooping out the ground as it swings around to obliterate the rest of the building. It coils and retracts, its flabby bulk sagging and bulging as it consumes the contents of our world. Its movements seem random, but I continue to watch, counting out the seconds before each twist, each turn, each dive, and each reemergence from below. Within a few minutes, a pattern appears.

“Listen up!” I yell, calling out to the entire group.

My words are so fast and excitable that I need to consciously slow myself down. My hands slash through the air, physically describing the pattern. The Level Zeros nod their heads. This is math. This is logic. There's no need to explain a second time.

“The snipers are going to have the greatest distance with their attacks, so they're going to fire first. We don't know if that will draw its attention, but even if its direction changes, it will most likely fall right back into the same pattern. Watch for the signals, the twitches. You'll be able to predict what it's going to do, and that will give us the advantage.”

I point at the two remaining Level Zeros left in the demolitions team. “You're up next. We want a huge volley as soon as that thing comes within range. Look for weak spots and concentrate your fire there. Normally I'd say to aim for the mouth, but that thing is a vacuum. It would delete your explosives like everything else. We need to destroy the body.”

I motion toward the leader of the ranged team, a woman in a bright red suit and fedora carrying an ancient Thompson submachine gun. “Then it's your turn. If that thing comes anywhere near us, I want a wave of bullets crashing against its body every second that it's within range.”

She and her team take position.

Turning around to talk to Cyren, I notice her stance is stiff, with her hands clasped behind her back. She's in full-on soldier mode, ready to take my commands with a salute of confidence. She stands in front of her melee team, all fifteen of them mimicking her exact posture. They're the biggest group, with the most survivors, all of them armed with swords, clubs, and spears. I understand her need to be professional in front of her troops, so I resist the urge to offer her comfort.

“You have the most important role.” I'm speaking to Cyren, but loud enough so the whole team can hear me. “It's also the most dangerous.”

I point at the worm spiraling into the sky, deleting a large gray cloud that hangs over what used to be the city park.

“It's going to require some precise timing, but when that things comes near us, I want you to jump on top of it.”

The eyes of the team grow large, but Cyren doesn't flinch. She accepts my words without hesitation. Her strength emanates outward and the rest of the team finds their bravery in her, settling back into a firm, defiant stance.

“Use everything you've got,” I say. “Carve into that thing. Open up wounds that our sniper and demolitions teams can exploit.”

“Yes, sir!” the entire team shouts with a salute.

When they spread out to take their positions, Cyren lingers. Her face softens. She reaches out and wraps her fingers around my arm, squeezing a bit.

“It's a good plan.”

I let out a breath. “It'saplan. We'll find out how good it is if we survive.”

“We couldn't do this without you.”

“I know. You need my Level to-”

“No,” she says with a sharp yet quiet voice. “We needyou. You're an amazing player. You can look at this game like no one else does. Not even us.” She gives me a knowing smile. “And they programmed us to play.”

“Sometimes I think I was too.” I look out over the world, watching the worm delete everything I've held dear to me. “All that time, in all those games... I always felt what I was doing was important. More important than I could explain to anyone else. It was like every shot, every kill, every skill I learned... it was all building up to something.”

“Maybe it was.”

“Maybe,” I say.

She grabs my face, her leather gloves holding on to my cheeks, forcing me to look into her eyes.

“No matter what happens today, no matter how this turns out, whether we win or lose, you must know how cherished you are in this world. You've already sacrificed more for us than any other player ever has.”

I do my best impersonation of someone confidently accepting her words, but when I turn away from her and look out over the city, only to see the worm dive from the sky and devour half of a shopping mall, I can't help wondering how many more sacrifices I'll be making.

00110111

The robotic cyclops counts down for his sniper team, timing their first shots all at once. The rest of us stand with our weapons gripped tightly in our hands. I tap my foot as each second counts off. When the cyclops reaches zero, and the four sniper rifles fire in unison, it makes me jump. I'm not startled by the noise. It's the simple release of anticipation, the thrust into the present. I can't think about “what ifs” anymore. It's happening right now. I need to stay ahead of the game.

The bullets strike the thick skin of the worm, but they leave no trace of damage. The worm continues on its path, carving into an already bombed-out office building twenty blocks away. Its gargantuan body digs into the ground, leaving a pit of nothingness where the street used to be, before turning back up as its programming tells it to.

“Again!” I shout.

The sniper team fires. Still nothing.

It doesn't exactly inspire anyone. Is this thing following the same rules that we are? Can it take damage? Am I misreading it because of its graphical representation? I ignore my doubts. We have a plan. We have to stick to it.

“Keep firing!” I turn to the rest of the group and yell over the gunfire, “If it doesn't change its movements, at least we'll know when it's coming for us.”

It doesn't take long. The worm devours entire city blocks in just a few swoops. As it destroys a nearby complex of buildings, the demolitions team steps up. Rockets stream across the sky and explode in blooming clouds of fire as they strike the worm. We all wait with anticipation as the smoke clears. There is an unspoken reaction of disappointment that washes over us when we see the worm descend toward the street without a single mark.

The sniper team continues to fire. The demolitions team releases six more volleys of rockets before the head of the worm makes its preprogrammed turn toward our building. All six members of the ranged team raise their weapons as the melee team readies themselves to launch into the air.

Our group's barrage blocks my view. It's a constant rattle of gunfire all around me. The Level 100 attacks of bullets and rockets and explosions turn the sky into a blinding storm of warfare. When my eyes adjust to the chaos, I see the worm break through, pushing past the rolling fire and the swarm of explosive rounds. It falls toward the building slowly, and I'm able to gauge the true size and magnitude of the creature. Its shadow casts over us like an approaching storm. I can see behind the spinning rows of teeth, directly into the blackness, the void widening as it draws closer.

My hope is lost.

Luckily, my feet know what to do. I run to the side of the rooftop with the melee team as my gamer instincts calculate the worm's descent. I watch the worm crash into the rooftop, shaving off half of the building as it drops. The teeth continue to spin inside the mouth, helping the creature inhale the graphics like they are simply breaths of air.

As the worm falls, the underside of its belly rolls past. Among the flabby mounds of flesh, I notice a symbol marked on its skin. It falls past me so fast that I barely have time to see a single logo that looks like two question marks, back to back, before it drifts out of view.

The melee team rushes past me, toward the massive body. Reaching the edge of the rooftop, they leap into the air, latching on to folds of flesh as the beast rumbles past. They drop from view, carried on the worm's back like parasites. When the tail drops below the building, I follow the ranged team as they rush to the fractured edge.

It's a strange thing, staring down into nothing. There is no sense of depth. No height to judge how far up we are. In the dimensionless field of black, the tail of the worm grows smaller until it swoops back around for another pass.

The tiny bodies attached to the side use their weapons to pound and slash and stab at the flesh, trying to break through, but they aren't making any progress.


Page 7

The worm chews through the neighboring office building, deleting a diagonal slash through the structure. Two of the melee team are scraped off the side as the worm slides past the steel and concrete walls. Their limbs flail as they tumble into the black, disappearing in to the emptiness.

The leader of the ranged team, the woman with the red suit and fedora, stops firing her Tommy gun and leans in closer to me, shouting, “This isn't working!”

I grit my teeth. I try to summon the puzzle in my brain. My problem-solving abilities rise up, ready to tackle the question in front of me, but nothing happens. I hit a wall. There is no solution. The invincible worm will continue its relentless deletion until there is nothing left.

I can't kill that which will not die.

I can't escape when there is nowhere left to go.

Deep within my stomach, there's a boiling, festering frustration that burns me from the inside. I want to lash out. I want to stomp my feet and yell at the game.

“This isn't fair!”

There are supposed to be rules. There are supposed to be laws and limitations. There are supposed to be balanced powers that give everyone an equal chance. This isn't a game. I can't win.

So I decide to cheat.

“Fall back!”

I send the group-wide audio-cast and back up toward the stairs. As the worm dives at our building, the melee team leaps from its back. The remaining twelve Level Zeros land with precision on the rooftop and join the rest of the group running toward me. I hold the door open for them, and when Cyren runs in last, I spin through the opening and follow the group down.

We're racing as fast as we can, leaping four or five stairs at a time, using the railing to keep our balance. Not being able to see the worm from inside means we can no longer calculate its approach. I try to mentally picture it in my head, but by the time we've descended ten floors, I've lost track of my orientation.

We descend another five or six floors before I hear the hollow moaning of the worm outside the building. Directly below me, the beast cuts the building in half, deleting floors thirty-five through fifty-one. What remains of the top half of the building still floats in the air as if the deleted section was still holding it up. Past the blackness, three Level Zeros look back at me in horror from the lower floors. I stand with Cyren and two others, the rest of the group swallowed. Gone. Their existence erased.

Cyren's fists clench. The other two Level Zeros look at me with a panicked sadness, but we don't have time to mourn. We don't have time to remember our fallen comrades. We need to survive.

“Grab on to me,” I shout, holding out my arms.

There's a moment of confusion, but I thrust my hands toward them. They fumble, but eventually find a tight grip on my trench coat. I step off the deleted staircase and activate my Anti-Gravity Belt. The weight of all four of us still pulls us through the black at an accelerated rate, but the belt gives us enough pause to tumble on to the staircase below unharmed. We waste no more time and run down the rest of the stairs as fast as we can. I hear the worm pass overhead a few more times, devouring the rest of the rooftop and the remaining upper floors.

When we erupt from the doorway into the underground parking lot, half of the area is gone. A row of cars and trucks idle near the gate, packed full of civilians, but not as many as there were before. I can see a look on their faces that must be mourning. It deepens when they see only seven of us running toward them.

I don't have time to explain anything. I swing myself into the bed of a pickup truck and Cyren joins me. As soon as the other Level Zeros find a vehicle I shout, “Move!”

The tires squeal as each vehicle launches up the ramp, turning on to what remains of the street. I tell them to head east, toward the ocean, while I watch the worm continue its ruthless decimation of the city behind us. I can't look away, but when I hear Cyren say my name, I pull my gaze forward. The group in the back of the truck are all staring at me, all awaiting some kind of order. Some kind of direction. They want a plan.

I look into Cyren's eyes and among the sparkles of light that reflect back toward me, I see her. The real her. The girl I love. I realize, in that moment, that I'm no longer playing a game. I'm only fighting to win another day with her. So I push past my disdain for cheating and I accept the absence of rules.

“I need you to change the code,” I yell to the civilian dressed like a baker that is sitting near the back of the truck.

“What can we do?” The baker summons his code book and opens it up, flipping through the pages, showing me how many are now blank. “That worm isn't a part of the game. It doesn't exist in the code.”

“But the airport does,” I say as I look forward, toward the untouched coastline.

“The airport?” Cyren asks, flashing a nervous look over her shoulder at the rest of the group. “Escaping in a plane would only be a temporary solution. Eventually we'll run out of fuel.”

“I know.” I flash a smile of confidence at the baker and say, “That's what I need you to change.”

00111000

While our caravan of vehicles makes its way out of the city and travels down the coastline, toward the airport, I'm still watching the worm. I'm timing its consumption against our speed and I don't like our odds.

“How's it coming?”

As the baker searches the text that scrolls across the page of his code book, he holds up one finger, as if to silence me.

Cyren tries to assure me by saying, “I have faith they can accomplish a simple hack of an airplane's fuel supply. They were able to change your spawn point-”

“When they changed my spawn point, they brought down the game's firewall and let in a virus.”

She cracks her knuckles and says, “Fair enough.”

“At this point, I'm not worried about if they can do it or not,” I say, looking away from her at the great beast consuming the sky, “I'm worried about howfastthey can do it.”

“With their combined processing power, it shouldn't be long.”

“I hope you're right. I just-”

The driver of our truck locks his brakes and I'm thrown against the cab. Peering over the top of the cab, I see two Level Zeros climbing out of a van that's now parked sideways on the street. They lift their guns and raise their barrels upward. I follow their aim, instinctively pulling my own pistols from their holsters, readying myself for whatever flying monster is approaching. But the threat isn't in the sky, it's towering over us.

Two Tyrannosauruses are charging down the middle of the road, their mouths hanging open, salivating at the sight of us. Their powerful hind legs crack the pavement with every lunging step they take toward us.

The Level Zeros ahead of me start firing and Cyren is already leaping over the side of the truck, ready to join the battle by the time I register what's happening. I'm trying to keep too many things balanced in my head. The multitasking is slowing down my reaction time. I glance over my shoulder at the worm, calculate its approximate distance, and then turn back toward the immediate threat.

As the bullets pierce the first dinosaur's hide, trails of blood stream behind it. I let out a sigh of relief. Finally something that we can hurt. My own pistols join the gunfire, tearing small chunks from its body. A Level Zero lets loose a rocket, which slams squarely into the monster's chest. The attack on the first dinosaur is continuous, draining the creature's hit points until it falls face first into the street. Its body lays motionless as the second one climbs over it.

When the remaining dinosaur reaches the lead car in our caravan, it lowers its head, sinks its teeth into the station wagon, and scoops it up from the street. The back door opens up and civilians fall out, like dolls falling to the pavement. They crash into the street, some of them able to get up and run, while others roll around in agony.

The dinosaur shakes its head, whipping the vehicle back and forth. When it opens its mouth, the empty car is flung toward our group. The vehicle crashes into the street, rolling end over end, scattering everyone. I leap to the side as the car crashes into the pickup truck next to us. The collision crushes two more civilians as I roll off the side of the road and watch the dinosaur devour the crippled civilians near its feet.

I should be sad, or at least reacting to the constant string of deaths, but all I can think about is the time we're wasting. This is taking too long, and now we're down two vehicles. Right now I'm looking at things on such a macro level that the details of individual deaths are insignificant compared to a giant virus that is eating the world.

I'm about to order every to focus their gunfire on the dinosaur's face, hoping to score critical hits and increase our damage output, but Cyren is one step ahead of me.

As she leaps toward the dinosaur, it sees her coming and opens its mouth, ready to snatch its next snack right out of the air. Cyren contracts her body at the last second and slides past the giant teeth, and as soon as she's inside the creature's mouth, she lashes out with all of her limbs. Her feet stamp down on the dinosaur's tongue and the palms of her hands slam against the roof of its mouth. Her muscles struggle for a few more seconds as the dinosaur's jaws try to squeeze shut, but her Level 100 strength wins the fight. With a sickening snap of bones, the jaw breaks, falling open and dangling loosely as the creature roars in pain. Cyren jumps to safety as the remaining Level Zeros and I unleash another hail of gunfire. The helpless monster twists and turns as each round explodes, finally toppling on to the street.

There is a strange moment of silence as we all brush ourselves off and look around in stunned astonishment at the devastation these two monsters caused. The bellowing moan of the approaching worm snaps me back into my panicked momentum.

“Let's get moving!” I yell, shouting out commands to the group, telling them which vehicle they should get into to spread the Level Zeros out among the surviving civilians.

I climb into the back of a van as it lurches forward, building speed as the worm devours the last of the city behind us. The civilians return to their task, opening their code books and searching for an answer to our fuel problem.

We travel down the coastline and reach the airport in under three minutes. Other than the wreckage of a few jets out on the tarmac, the place looks abandoned. I'm worried that we might not find a working plane, but when the lead vehicle crashes through the chain-link fence, I see a cargo jet that looks untouched on the runway.

I point us toward the airplane and watch the worm make its way up the coast, consuming the beaches and harbors that line the city. It's drawing closer. I know we don't have much time.

We park behind the plane and the civilians race up the open ramp, buckling themselves in to seats that line the walls of the aircraft. As soon as they're strapped in, they open their code books and return to their search. Two Level Zeros run toward the cabin to start the preparations for takeoff. I take position with the other four near the rear of the plane in case there are any other monsters inhabiting the airport. I'm not going to let anything else delay us.

No one speaks. We watch in silence as the worm skims the coastline, deleting everything on its way toward us. I hold on to one of my pistols, foolishly allowing it to give me some sense of comfort, even though I know it's pointless. There's nothing we can do against the virus. Nothing. Our only hope is to run.

As the mouth of the worm crashes into the side of the airport, it shaves off the tower that rises above the terminal and the body of the immense creature sinks below the ground.

I look at Cyren. She looks back at me and a smile lifts the corners of her black lips. It's weak, but I know it's taking every ounce of her strength to offer it to me.

“Arkade? I want you to know...”

“What is it?”

“It's okay if we fail.”

“We're not going to fail.”

She reaches out and grabs my hand.

“Listen to me. I want you to know that if this is the end, if we never see each other ever again, it's okay. I'm happy. I'm happy because I got to know you. I'm happy because I got to love you.”

The worm rises up from the runway a few yards behind us, its mouth letting loose a moan that shakes the pit of my stomach. I calculate its trajectory and I know when it turns back toward the ground, it will consume the plane.

I yell toward the cabin door, “We need to go!”

When I don't hear a response, I move my foot forward, ready to grab Cyren's hand and run. It's a useless gesture of course, there's no way we could make it to a vehicle in time, but my heart doesn't care. I can't give up. I need to do anything I can to fight for our survival.

The sound of the jets stop me. The aircraft rolls forward as the worm turns its head, twisting its body for its descent. The plane picks up speed. The worm drops toward us. The nose of the aircraft lifts from the ground. The spinning teeth of the worm skim the tail of the plane, missing us by inches before it plunges into the ground, mindlessly unaware of our existence as it erases more of the world.

I holster my pistol and grip on to the strap above me with both hands as the rear wheels lift off the ground. Before I manage to press the button to close the rear ramp of the plane, the wind rushes past me and my cowboy hat flies from my head. It flops through the streams of air currents caused by the jets, falling toward the deleted blackness, shrinking in size as we ascend into the clouds, eventually disappearing like everything else.

00111001

From the window of the cargo jet, we watch the virus destroy our world. The sea is gone. The horizon is black. The worm annihilates the jungle acre-by-acre. It carves open the Darkfyre Mountains, scooping out every boulder and cliff and snow-capped peak until there is nothing left. Finally it erases the sun itself. We fly away from the mouth of the beast into the endless nothing.

There is no up or down or sense of direction. There is only us and the worm, and we aim our jet away from the mouth that is always approaching. It hunts us now, moving in a straight line, sensing the last bits of information that it must destroy.


Page 8

I can't stop thinking about all that we've lost. The streets of DangerWar City that I loved. The equipment shops where I filled my inventory. The penthouse apartment where Cyren and I watched so many sunsets.

I think about Deathsand Desert. It used to be home to the doorway which at one point was my only means of escape. It's strange to think about now, after risking so much to stay, that at one point I was willing to risk so much to leave. I think about the friends that accompanied me on that journey. It felt like we could have accomplished anything. I wish they were with me now. Maybe things would have turned out differently.

I consider opening a video-cast with Xen, but when I think about the risk of unleashing yet another worm right here, inside the cargo jet, I shut the menu screen with a quick swipe of my hand.

I drop my head and close my eyes, shutting out the view of the worm's gaping maw. There is a moment of loneliness. The weight of the situation rests upon my shoulders, as if it's up to me to turn this hopeless situation around. It's my own stubbornness that fuels that fire. No one else is pressuring me to save them. In fact, there is a melancholy attitude reverberating inside the jet that isn't allowing the civilians or the Level Zeros to see a future.

But the game isn't over yet.

I barely notice Cyren sit down, her stealthy movements allowing her to slide in next to me like a breeze rather than a body. I shudder when she sets her hand atop mine. I open my eyes and meet her gaze. I can't read her state of mind, but I know she's reading mine.

“You're going to be okay,” she says.

“We're all going to be okay. The civilians will change the code, hack the fuel supply, and we'll have as much time as we need to figure out a new plan.”

She smiles, but I notice something different in her eyes. Is that sympathy?

Her smile doesn't break as she says, “The world is gone.”

I shake my head, not wanting to hear what she's saying. “You're still here. That's all that matters. We still have the jet and-”

“Then what?”

“Then... I don't know,” I say, exhausted. “At least we're still alive.”

She rests her head on my shoulder and says, “This isn't living.”

I reject it. I reject her. I stand up, maybe a little too forcefully, pushing her away as I do.

My voice strains defensively as I say, “That's exactly what this is. We survived. I got us away from...” I point out the window at the open mouth of the worm with its spinning teeth and hollow throat. “...that.”

“I know that. Everyone does. You were great. You were wonderful. As always. You did as much and even more than anyone could have done.”

“So what then? Is that not enough?”

She doesn't look away. She keeps gazing into me, like she's trying to cradle me with her eyes.

“You tell me.”

I look around the jet. The civilians are flipping through pages, scrolling through lines of code and scribbling with their quill pens to change if/then statements and recalculate algorithms. They're working at a furious pace, but they wear a blank expression, like they're struggling to accept some kind of inevitability that only they are aware of.

The remaining Level Zeros sit in their own chairs, fiddling with their weapons, unsure of what to do now that they have nothing left to fight.

There are a few cargo containers buckled to the floor, most likely empty, only there as environmental decoration for the game. Some radar equipment sits behind a fenced off area with blinking lights and flashing screens twinkling in the corner, detecting nothing. The rest of the jet is industrial beams and bare walls. Function over form. It might not be pretty, but it's keeping us safe. It's keepinghersafe.

“Yes,” I blurt out. Confidently. Defiantly. “Thisisenough.Youare enough. All I need is you.”

She smiles again in that sympathetic way. For some reason it feels condescending, like she understands something that I don't, and she's patiently waiting for me to catch up.

“That's sweet. It really is. And I have no doubt, that at this moment in time, you believe that.” The smile falters. It shakes a bit as she struggles to maintain it, and then falls away. “But I could never ask you to do that. I could never ask you to live like this.”

“You don't have to. I'm making the choice on my own. This isn't a sacrifice. I get to keep living with you, and I-”

“This isn't like before. This isn't like when you chose our world over NextWorld. You'd go mad here.” She looks around at the other civilians, still pouring over their code books. “We all would.”

“That's not true. You'd still be able to study, and learn, and-”

She reaches out and grabs my hand. The leather glove is cold. She pulls me closer so that I'm sitting down next to her again. She puts both her arms around me and hugs me. It's forceful, but oddly comforting, like she's pressing her calm into me.

I try to push her away again, ready to argue more, but she holds on to me, her fingers gripping my trench coat and holding me in place.

“Not all of us have to die. If you log-out-”

“No!” I shout, but my lips are pressed into her shoulder. My mind flips into problem-solving mode. “We can fix the firewall. We can keep flying.” I jump from idea to idea before I shake my head and say, “We'll figure something out. I'm never going to leave you. That's never been an option for me. I won't-”

“Shh,” she whispers. “Sit with me for a while.”

I close my eyes and do as she asks. It's actually easier than I expected to not think about anything. I inhale the smell of her leather-strapped suit and relax into her powerful arms. I feel like a child again. Something that hasn't happened in a long, long time. Since my mother.

I'm not sure how much time has passed when we hear a calm, sedated voice say, “Excuse me.”

An old man wearing a tweed jacket steps next to us. He adjusts his glasses and speaks to Cyren. “We wanted to inform you that we've succeeded in changing the code.”

He doesn't wait for a response. He pivots on one foot and returns to his seat. The civilians all close their code books, which disappear into their inventory, and stare straight ahead. Their faces are devoid of any humanity. It's unnerving.

“That's... that's good,” I say, but when I look at Cyren, she looks far from happy. I put my hand on her shoulder and say, “Cyren, I know you don't believe me, but now that we don't have to worry about fuel, we can-”

“Arkade,” she says my name in a whisper and takes a deep breath before she continues. “That isn't the code that they changed.”

Her words confuse me, but the ominous tone she uses causes my stomach to sink.

“What are you talking about?”

I look around the interior of the jet at all the faces of the civilians, hoping for some kind of explanation, but their eyes are vacant.

Cyren touches the side of my face and turns my gaze back toward her. Her eyes are glossy with tears, but she's holding them back, doing everything she can to stop them from falling. She stares at me for a long time. Too long.

“I knew you'd never leave me. I knew that was never an option for you.” She smiles as a tear rolls down her face. “Sometimes I think I know you better than you know yourself.”

She's not answering my question, and the panic inside my chest is rising from the unknown.

“What did they change?”

Her answer is simple and soft, like she's offering me a goodnight kiss.

“They changed your spawn point.”

I stumble backward, away from her.

“No,” I say, but no matter how strongly I mean it, it falls powerlessly from my mouth.

“It's the only chance you have. You can go on living, without fear.”

“I don't want this,” I say, my voice breaking with desperation. “I need to be here with you. I need to protect you. I need to save you.”

She steps toward me and places her hands on either side of my head. She leans in and her kiss lingers against my lips. I lose myself, unable to focus on my own distress. She pulls away and her mouth rounds my cheek, settling in next to my ear.

She whispers, “It's time formeto saveyou.”

She steps back from me. Her fists clench. The muscles in her arms tighten, bulging with her Level 100 strength. I want to beg her to stop and think about what she's about to do. I want to plead my case and give her a thousand reasons why I should stay. I want to step away from her, but I can't move. Seeing her as a threat is something I don't understand. My brain stalls. The moment hangs between us. She steps forward and my body shudders. I flinch, ready for her attack, but her body slackens. Her muscles relax and her fists unclench. She covers her face and begins to cry.

“I can't do it.”

I let out a breath. My body melts back into the reality I know. Cyren would never hurt me. I was foolish to think she would.

“It's okay,” I say, reaching out toward her. “There's no need to-”

From behind me, hands slap down on each of my shoulders, fingers digging into me. They yank me backward and I slam onto the floor of the cargo area. I'm stunned as I look up and see the faces of the remaining Level Zeros pinning me to the floor.

I hear Cyren in the distance whimpering, “I'm sorry. This is the only way to make sure you'll be okay.”

I struggle, but there are too many of them. They point rifles and shotguns at me, the barrels inches from my face.

The last thing I hear is Cyren's voice.

“I love you.”

My death is instantaneous.

00111010

The announcer's voice is loud and clear. It lists the names of the Level Zeros that killed me. It tells me I'm dead, but my ears deny the truth as much as my mind and my heart.

Pixels appear in the black, fading into view, multiplying their resolution. As they form, a part of me still believes that I'll see the game world of DangerWar 2. Maybe I'll be floating in the blackness of the deleted desert, or maybe I'll return to the inside of the cargo plane. My hopefulness would accept either, but as the world takes shape, I recognize my surroundings all too well.

DOTfun.

I'm standing outside the gates of the original DangerWar. Gamers of all ages are shouting and laughing, showing off the new inventory they acquired or bragging about their high score. A myriad of transports roll up, gallop up, or fly up to the gate, and players disembark, ready to start a new game session. The sky is an unrealistic shade of blue and the clouds are as white as I remember.

My eyes flash to the wall, next to the gate, where the wooden door once stood as an entrance to DangerWar 2, but there is nothing there. I fall to my knees. My mind is weak. Useless.

My player stats are public and available for all to see, but it takes a few seconds before one of the players notices my name in the NextWorld social system. An avatar designed to look like a skeleton stops in his tracks and points at me.

“Arkade?” he says, his voice sounding young and prepubescent. “Hey! That's the Game Master!”

A few more players stop and take notice. Some of them mumbling, which grows into arguing, which turns into shouting.

“That's not Arkade.”

“Yes it is! Look at his player stats!”

“It's a hack. Someone is goofing off.”

“No, she's right. Look at how much time he has logged on DangerWar 2.”

“How did he get out?”

“What's wrong with him?”

The arguing and shouting of the growing mob is silenced when the sky above me flashes with a pulsating red light. I remain on my knees. None of this matters. I'm not here. I can't be.

“It's the DgS!”

DOTgov Security officers teleport into the domain and surround me. Their sleek, silver bodies appear androgynous and they are impossible to tell apart aside from the numbers on their backs. The officers swipe their hands in the air, raising screens full of sensors and readouts. Information scrolls past their vision. A few of them nod in agreement before one of the officers steps closer.

“User name: Arkade. We have flagged your account and will log you out immediately to be processed IRL.”

I never thought I'd have to hear that acronym ever again. In Real Life. I can't process the fear that idea causes in me. It's cracking my mind in a thousand places. I'm not ready. I want to cry out, to beg them to stop, to give me one more chance. Please, please, please let me back in. But they don't give me the chance.

The officer reaches out and touches me with a hand that glows red for a second before the world collapses in on itself, shrinking to a tiny white dot in the center of my vision. The dot fades and I hear the voice that was once so common place, but now is more like a forgotten bit of nostalgia.

“Wireless connection disengaged from your nanomachines.”

Tubes retract from my orifices. The long one pulling out from below my waist is uncomfortable enough, but I choke when the feeding tube pulls itself from my throat.

“Biological connections disengaged.”

It's cold. No, maybe it's warm. I don't understand what my skin is telling me because I haven't felt a real temperature in years. The sensation is strange and it takes a few seconds for me to adjust.

My curiosity is begging me to look around, but I keep my eyes shut. I don't want to see. Not really. Not with my actual, biological eyes. I don't want to see the dirt and the grime and the filth of the real world. I think that maybe if I keep them closed I'll fall asleep. At least I can dream. If that's as close as I can get to removing myself from this physical world, I'll take it.

“Welcome back.”

I recognize the voice, but after it speaks, my brain can't locate the memory it's searching for. My eyes blink open. The brightness of the E-womb's interior light is blinding, but as my vision adjusts, I'm able to make out a blurry figure. Like the pixels in the game, my vision defines until I can see the details of the face peering through the open hatch. My brain floods with memories as the connection to the voice is made.


Page 9

I see the face of my father.

00111011

My father thinks he's helping me out of the E-womb because I'm having problems moving my body after being logged-in for so long. The truth is, I don't want to move. I have an apathy for everything that's making my body refuse to cooperate.

He sets me down on the bed and I'm able to take in my surroundings. I know I'm in my old tower room. Same rust spot on the wall. Same scratches on the floor. But some things have also changed.

First of all, my E-womb has been upgraded beyond anything I could afford. It's capable of sustaining someone's life while they're logged into NextWorld without them ever leaving for food or digestion. It takes care of everything for you. Only the richest people can afford those. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't impressed by it.

The rest of the room is bare. The mattress on my bed has no covers. No sheets. No pillow. My body shivers in acknowledgment of the temperature.

“Sorry,” my father says, waking the mirrored screen above the sink from its sleep-mode. “When you fell into the coma and your brain activity stopped, I had to convince DOTgov to continue the game world. They agreed, but they made me pay for your tower room and your E-Womb connection out of my own pocket. In order to save credits, I haven't been keeping the temperature turned up in here. Not much of a need, considering...”

He pushes a few onscreen buttons and raises a small red bar. Heat blows up from the metal-grated floor. It makes my skin ache and the smell of it reminds me of when I'd leave an old vitapaste container out too long. I push myself back on the mattress until I'm pressed against the corner of the room. It's as far away from reality as I can get.

My father sits down on the bed and says, “I knew you'd come back. I knew you'd find a way. I never gave up hope that you'd escape.”

When I don't respond, he leans in close, studying my eyes as if he's searching for something. His face is flabby with wrinkles, like the flesh of the worm virus. Tough and impenetrable. It reminds me how rough his hands felt as a child, like the outside world had punished him when he was young. He puts his hand on my head and turns me back and forth so he can examine me. I can smell his breath. I squint my eyes and pull away from him.

He lets out a sigh and runs his tongue along his gums. It's an annoying habit of his. He was born with teeth and he says he never got used to them being gone. My nanomachines prevented the growth of teeth because they deemed them pointless when all I was going to eat was vitapaste. I can't imagine how weird it must have been for people to have bones in their mouths.

“I'm sure it's going to take you a bit to adjust. You were logged-in for an unhealthy amount of time.”

He's worried about me being inthere? It'sthisplace that's unhealthy.

“It's funny,” he says as he lets out a small laugh, turning away from me and sitting on the edge of the mattress. “I've thought a lot about what I'd say to you. Every time I tried to connect a text-cast, or an audio-cast, or a video-cast with you... I'd practice in my mind what I was going to say. I felt so prepared, like when I give a speech. Every word is carefully chosen so that no one will misconstrue anything I say. That's my job. I'm good at that. I'm good at speeches.”

He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He intertwines his fingers and rubs his thumbs against each other, like he's waiting for one of them to win the struggle. When he looks over his shoulder at me, our eyes catch for a split second before I look back at the bare mattress.

“But it wasn't a speech I was giving, was it? It should have been a conversation. I know that now. I should have been listening. I have all these questions for you, but I'm no good at that. I'm no good at facing the unknown. Without some kind of plan, everything is... it's just too dangerous. There's too many variables that I can't prepare for.”

He looks away from me, back at his thumbs. There's a long moment of silence. I want it to end, but I don't want the conversation to continue either. I want him to leave. I want to be alone so I can be as sad as I need to be. So I can be as sad as I am.

“I've been doing my best. Your life, your upbringing, it was completely different from mine. I didn't know how to make it work. All that stuff came so naturally to your mother. I let her handle it. When she... after she was gone, I was at a loss. I tried, but everything was moving so fast, I don't think I ever had a chance to catch up.”

He reaches over and sets his hand on my ankle. I pull my knees close to my chest, away from him.

“Maybe now that we have time to talk, I'll be able to explain myself. And if you can't forgive me for the mistakes I've made... maybe someday you'll at least be able to understand where I'm coming from. This is a miracle. Truly. Whatever it was that freed you from that game, it happened for a reason. And I'm not going take it for granted.”

He shakes his head and lets out a groan.

“Listen to me. I'm babbling. Like I said, if I don't have a script to read, this is what happens.”

He stands up from the mattress and claps his hands together. “I should let you rest. Get some actual, honest-to-goodness sleep. We can talk more later.”

He walks toward the door, still talking.

“DOTgov will want to expedite your trial, for the media's sake. There's been a lot of attention to your story from parent groups since you fell into the coma. I'm guessing we'll only have a few days for me to call in some favors, but hopefully I still have some pull around the office.” The door slides open and he steps out, turning to look at me one last time. “Don't worry, son. Now that I have you back, there's no way that I'm going to let you go again.”

00111100

With my father gone, I manage to push myself off the mattress and drag my feet across the metal grate of the floor as fast as I can, toward the E-womb. Maybe it's denial, I don't know, but I refuse to believe I'm trapped here. I keep telling myself this is a momentary prison.

I open the hatch, crawl inside the doorway, and say, “Log-in,” waiting for the lights to turn on. But they don't. The E-Womb coldly replies, “Access denied.”

“No!” I spit out the word and bang my fist on the interior of the sphere. “You piece of junk! Log-in!”

“Access denied.”

I groan and crawl out, banging my head on the top of the doorway as I exit. It stings, adding to my frustration. I tap my finger on the mirrored screen above the sink, hoping to contact Xen and talk to someone who understands, but the screen flashes the word: LOCKED.

All I can see is my reflection. The bony figure of a young man I don't recognize. It would be easy to blame it on my age. I'm still skinny, but I'm taller. I must have grown four inches in the past three years. I actually need to bend down to see the top of my bald head in the mirror. There are the beginnings of wrinkles around my eyes and near my nose. Those weren't there before. But it isn't the age of my body that looks so unrecognizable. It's the fact that I'm no longer an avatar.

This body isn't me. I don't look like I'm supposed to look. I don't move like I'm supposed to move. It's more difficult to lift my arm. It's slower. The idea of doing a back flip or rolling across the floor sounds painful.

How does anyone live like this?

I return to the mattress and lay down. As I stare at the ceiling, I notice how loud the room is for being so empty. I can hear the hum of the machines that keep the life-support systems running. The temperature controls rattle below the floor. The air filters hiss in the walls. The entire room is vibrating. Even if I turned off the lights, the sound would deny me the escape inward that I crave. It keeps my consciousness right here, trapped in the real world.

I try to summon my own game world inside my imagination, one where Cyren and I are still together. I can see her, when I try hard enough, but it isn't real. It isn't even virtual. There are no details, nothing tangible. It's a foggy, fading memory, an undefined form that represents her, but can't come close to embodying everything that she was. I remember the coldness of her leather suit, the sharp edges of every buckle. I remember every curve of her lips. I remember how her nose perked up at the tip. I remember the sharpness of her jawline. I remember the innocence behind her eyes resonating with so much emotion that they threatened to burst. But all these memories are a series of fractured pieces that are so much less than Cyren as a whole.

I miss her so much.

She'd know what to say right now. She'd know how to calm my mind. She could always take my swirling thoughts and get them to relax long enough for me to sharpen them, focus them on a single target. We were a perfect team.

I can't accept that Cyren is gone, deleted, dead. I can't accept that the storage space in NextWorld she used to fill is just waiting to be overwritten by some pointless piece of code, some useless data, ones and zeroes that will never add up to anything close to her.

Sleep does finally come, but I don't dream. I fall into a blackness not unlike the game death that robbed me of so much. When I wake, I have no idea what time of day it is. The mirrored screen offers me no information. I stumble around the room, pacing. I look out the window and watch the trains pass between the towers. I stare at the lights coming from the windows of the neighboring rooms. I let my imagination wander as to who lives behind each glowing square.

Time passes, and sleep comes again. Days go by.

My father returns periodically on his days off. He informs me of his constant struggle to negotiate a plea bargain. He thinks that DOTgov is close to accepting a deal that could grant me probationary access to the communal rooms. Whenever I ask about NextWorld, he always changes the subject. I'm starting to think he doesn't want that restriction removed.

When he turns the conversations to me, he tries to ask me questions about what happened inside the game, but I tell him nothing. It's pointless. There's no way he could understand what I experienced. I doubt he'd believe me. All I'd accomplish is to summon those looks of pity from his eyes. Or maybe it's fear. Or maybe he'd think I'm outright crazy. I mean, I fell in love with an NPC. What father wants to hearthatfrom their son?

He's staring directly into my eyes when he asks, “Do you know why I always begged you to spend time with me in the real world?”

I want to mock him. I want to spit out something hurtful that will tell him exactly how little I care about his “real world.” I want to tell him that the virus took away the only thing that matters to me.

“It's because I can see her in your eyes.”

I glance at him. Something about the way he says it sounds different from his usual speeches. It sounds...real.

“The more time passes, the harder it is for me to remember what she looks like. All the digital pictures in the world don't remind me as much as seeing your face.”

He reaches out to touch me, but I flinch, pulling away. He doesn't look hurt by my reaction. His hand drops, but he smiles.

“Maybe it was selfish of me,” he says. “It just... it made me feel, even if it was for just a brief moment, like she was here again.”

When he stands up to leave, I almost say something. I almost tell him I understand. I almost tell him that I'd do anything to see Cyren one last time. I almost tell him that I'm sorry for keeping that from him. But I don't say any of those things. I just watch him leave.

00111101

My father's pleas for leniency in my trial fall upon deaf ears.

The door to my room opens, and he's standing in the doorway next to two DgS officers. Unlike in NextWorld, these officers aren't wearing matching silver suits. Instead, they're clad in navy blue protective armor, wielding batons and wearing helmets with mirrored visors that cover their faces.

The two officers step around my father and approach me. One of them points his baton at me while the other pulls a pair of handcuffs from a pouch on her belt.

“It's okay,” my father says as I back away from the two menacing figures. “It's standard procedure. They need to restrain you for transport to the law room.”

“It's happening? Now?”

My father nods his head as the DgS officer grabs my wrist and locks the cuff into place. She grabs my shoulder, spins me around, and locks the second cuff on to my other wrist behind my back. With a shove, I stumble out the door. My father catches me.

My paper thin clothes aren't providing me with anything but a modest covering from the cold air of the hallway. My bare feet feel every notch and bump in the ridged metal floor. Everything is too real, too intense, too wild and chaotic. There's no design here. There's no beauty. It's function over form. The officer gives me another shove to direct me down the hallway.

“Everything will be okay,” my father says.

I don't believe him. I don't need his unrealistic words of comfort. I need facts. I need a strategy.

“What are they accusing me of? Tell me what to do. I've never seen a trial before.”

My father doesn't make eye contact with me as he speaks. “It doesn't matter what you do. There's nothing we can accomplish at this point. Most likely, they've already made their decision.”

I slow my gait to a stunned shuffle. The DgS officer shoves me forward. I stumble, but it forces me to catch up to the conversation.

“What are you talking about? I thought this was my trial.”

“In name only.”

“You're telling me I'm not going to have a chance to plead my case?”

My father sounds cold and strangely matter-of-fact as he says, “They have to at least pretend to give you the opportunity to represent yourself, but it's for show. They've looked at the data. They already have all the information they need to make their decision. My advice is to say nothing.”

“You're telling me that my side of the story doesn't matter at all?”

“Guilty or innocent, the morality of the situation doesn't matter to them. They have a team of experts decide what's best beforehand. They crunch the numbers. They do market research. They decide whether the declaration of your guilt or innocence is best forthem. You really play no part in what's about to happen.”


Page 10

I raise one brow and look out of the corner of my eyes as I say, “And these are the people you work for?”

“I got into politics to try to fix these problems.”

“You aren't doing your job very well.”

My father frowns disapprovingly.

It doesn't take long for the super-fast elevator to reach the upper floors of the tower. It still looks drab up here, with the same steel walls as the rest of the tower, but the DOTgov flag hangs on nearly every wall. A red rectangle with a yellow star. Seven smaller stars surround it, each one representing a continent in the global government.

When I was in the elementary years of DOTedu, they forced us to pledge our allegiance to DOTgov every morning. For me, it was just words. A memorized set of sentences that held no meaning. I wasn't disinterested out of a sense of rebellion. I just didn't care. The flag was a boring set of symbols that had always been there.

My father can still remember a time when there was more than one flag, when there was more than one government. He remembers patriotism. He remembers war. He remembers men and women fighting for the world we now live in. To him, the flag means peace. It means unification. It means having hope for our future.

Maybe I take this world for granted. Maybe if I saw how bad it used to be, I'd appreciate what it is now, but it's impossible for me to not see the cracks, the flaws, the things that still need improving.

When we reach the end of the hall, two large doors stand in front of us. A scanner above the door waves a laser over our bodies, communicating with our nanomachines and detecting our identities. When it's finished, the doors slide open, revealing the law room.

The circular room is surprisingly small. Three screens sit across from the doorway, with a camera placed below them. A fourth screen sits off to the right, away from the others. The floor looks like the DOTgov flag. A single bulb rests in the center of the ceiling, with a glowing light beaming directly at the large yellow star on the floor.

The DgS officers push me toward the center of the room and force me to stand in the spotlight. They remain within arm's reach of me, as if I pose some sort of risk.

I glance over my shoulder at my father sitting on a small bench near the door. He gives me a nod of recognition, or maybe it's meant to be encouraging, either way it angers me. I want him to fight, I want him to save me, but he just sits there, helpless.

The three screens blink to life. An avatar of a judge appears on each one, but each avatar looks exactly the same. I'll never know who condemns me. They're faceless authority figures.

The judge in the middle clears his throat and says, “User name: Arkade. You've been accused of seven counts of cyberterrorism including: inappropriate bandwidth usage, the disruption of network infrastructure, aiding and abetting a known hacker, the exploitation of unstable programming, digital extortion, harboring rogue artificial intelligence, and fraud.”

I smirk at the screens and say, “That's all you could come up with? You sure you don't need time to slap some more charges on there?”

The judges all glare at me, but it's the one in the middle that asks, “Are you refusing to confess to these crimes?”

I let out a heavy sigh and say, “Yes. No. Whatever. Let's just get this over with.”

The judges glance at each other and the two on either side nod their heads at the one in the middle.

The avatar in the middle bangs a gavel down three times and announces, “The tribunal has officially begun.”

00111110

The first stage of the trial consists of the three judges reading obnoxiously long descriptions of legal jargon. They explain each of my crimes in excruciating detail, presumably so that I understand exactly what they're accusing me of and can't later claim any kind of ignorance to the law. This goes on and on until my eyes glaze over with pure boredom.

The second stage utilizes the fourth screen in the room to show a video-cast of different conversations by witnesses. It doesn't take me long to realize that what I'm watching are private conversations, recorded inside NextWorld, unbeknownst to the people involved. Xen and Raev are speaking to each other in a private chat room. Ekko and his partner are talking in DOTsoc. Grael is speaking with his employer in DOTbiz. Klok is discussing what happened to him inside the game world with other players. It's strange, almost voyeuristic, watching their conversations. Everyone knows that privacy doesn't exist inside NextWorld, but seeing the watchful eye of DOTgov firsthand feels wrong, like I should look away out of respect.

They edit descriptions together so that the events play out in a linear fashion, recreating the story from beginning to end. It starts with my entrance into the game with Xen, my meeting with Fantom, her grouping with Ekko, Klok, and Cyren, the log-out failure, our adventure, and finally my decision to stay in the game world.

When the videos end, the judge in the middle clears his throat and asks, “You'll now have the opportunity to offer your rebuttal to anything said by these eye witnesses.”

I glance over my shoulder at my father. He gives a single, firm, shake of his head.

They were telling the truth. All I'd be doing is filling in my point-of-view, which doesn't matter to anyone but me. Should I try to tell them how Cyren makes me feel and how I'd do anything to have that back? Should I explain love to them?

I turn away from my father, toward the judges, and bow my head.

“Very well,” the judge says, grumbling with a passive boredom. “We hereby find you guilty on all counts.”

My father whimpers behind me. We both know what the punishment is for cyberterrorism. Mind prison. A lifetime spent logged-in to a virtual world devoid of stimuli. Like a sleeping state where you're aware of every second. My hands shake as I face the rest of my life.

“But,” the second judge says, “while there is no denying that your actions should suffer severe consequences, we have concluded that we should also take into account the age at which you made these decisions.”

I look up. A moment of hope. A moment where I think they might let me go. A moment where I think that I might see the virtual world again.

The third judge leans back in his chair and says, “By all accounts, you were a child when you committed these crimes. A child that was so obsessed, so addicted to these...games, that he was willing to do anything to keep playing them. You're sick... not evil.”

“Therefore,” the first judge speaks up again, “we have chosen to forgo the usual punishment. We will still place you on the DOTgov cyberterrorist list and deny you access to any form of digital communications for the remainder of your life, but instead of serving the usual prison sentence, we will be placing you in a rehabilitation facility until an expert panel deems you fit to return to your tower.”

The judge slams his gavel down and the screens go black. The tight grip of the two DgS officers wrap around my skinny forearms and yank me toward the door. My father hurries behind me.

“You did well, son. We couldn't have expected a better outcome than that. You should consider yourself very lucky.”

“Lucky?”

I try to swim through my disillusionment as the officers force me into an elevator. Before long, they're shoving me on to my bed face first and roughly unlocking the handcuffs. They disappear out the door without a word, leaving me alone with my father.

“I wish there was more I could do,” he says, his voice sounding like a light breeze. “I wanted-”

“You got what you wanted,” I say, cutting him off.

He reaches out toward me and says, “It's for the best. Before you know it you'll be back in your old room and we can meet every day in the tower communal area and-”

“I'm tired.”

He rubs his tongue against his gums and says, “Sure. Of course. I'll be back before they... I'll see you before you go.”

I curl up on the bed in the fetal position, like I used to do inside the E-Womb. I hear the door hiss shut as my father leaves the room. When he does, I roll over and stare at the ceiling.

I don't know how to handle what's inside of me. When I watched those videos, it made me realize how much I took my friends for granted. Now that I know I may never see them again, it's like DOTgov has stolen more of my heart. It doesn't matter if they lock me in a mind prison, or a rehab center, or my own tower room. Any life without Cyren is going to be empty.

As these thoughts consume me, I notice my vision blur and wobble. I rub my eyes and see a flicker when I open them, as if my brain was experiencing bandwidth lag for a moment. Then text appears in front of me, not on a screen, but in front of my face, floating inches from my eyes. One letter after another, as if I'm watching someone type in real-time.

“Arkade?”

I wave my hand in the air, trying to swat at the word in front of me. My hand passes right through the letters. I rub my eyes with the tips of my fingers again, but when I shut my eyelids, the letters are still there.

“What is this?” I mumble to myself.

The letters spelling out my name in front of me disappear and the words: “I can hear you” appear in their place.

I look around, expecting to see someone else in the room, but no one is there. Have I finally lost it? Am I going crazy? Or is this some kind of feedback, a flashback from being logged-in for so long?

Words type in front of me again: “I have input access to your retinal nanomachines and output access to your vocal nanomachines. You can see what I type, and I can hear what you say.”

I open my mouth to reply, but I stop myself, afraid to say anything. Is this some kind of joke? Who would have access to my nanomachines remotely? That's impossible. Isn't it?

“Give me a second. I'll get you out of there.”

Could DOTgov be doing this? Maybe they're testing me. Maybe they're trying to see if I'm going to be a flight risk or not. There's a large CLUNK as the lock on my tower room door releases.

The text reads, “Follow the arrow.”

A glowing arrow appears in front of me as if it were lying on the floor, pointing toward the tower room door.

“I'm not going anywhere,” I say, confident in the fact that I'm calling DOTgov's bluff.

“Yes. You are. Now move!”

“How are you doing this?” I ask, reaching out and trying to touch the words again, amazed by whatever technology is making this possible.

The words appear across my vision quickly, like the sender is furiously typing them. They fill my entire vision. “Really? Is that really what you want to talk about right now? Do you want me to explain how I reversed the I/O protocols of the tower nanomachine scanners so that instead of a read-only format they can send write commands? Or do you want to follow that arrow I'm displaying on the floor and log back into NextWorld?”

I glance at the door when the words disappear. “Why should I do anything that you're saying?”

“Because,” the words type, slower and more thoughtful this time, “Cyren hasn't been deleted yet.”

I stand up. The words floating in the air are burning into my eyes. They remain in the same position, almost mocking me with their simplicity. I want to reach out and hold them, to pull them closer so they can make me safe again.

I try to reply, to form words when my thoughts are nothing but a whirlwind, but I only manage to stammer, “Who-who... who are you?”

The answer appears in front of me: “A friend.”

00111111

As soon as I step out the door, a sense of freedom washes over me. It isn't a singular sensation. The openness of possibilities mixes with my extreme loneliness. The empty hallway shatters the safety that the monotony of my disconnected tower room brought me. I'm exposed. At any moment a camera or a sensor or a real person could see me and bring this all to a tragic end. Then I think of what the words said.

“Cyren hasn't been deleted yet.”

It's all I need to press on. I follow the glowing arrow toward my goal. When I reach the end of the hall, I hear the door of one of the tower rooms open behind me.

“Quick! Open the hatch!” appears in the air.

On the wall there is a label on a small door that reads: Waste Disposal. I cringe at the thought of what's inside, but when I hear a voice coming from the open doorway of the tower room behind me, the sound forces my hand. The hatch lets out a gaseous release of air when it unseals and the smell almost knocks me from my feet.

“Get inside.”

I reread the words and wait for the sender to retype them, assuming there must be a mistake.

When the arrow points at the opening, I whisper, “Are you serious?”

“This is the only way. Go. Now.”

I glance back at the doorway and see a figure emerge. My instinctual need to hide pushes me through the small opening. I have to stop my body from sliding down the chamber, the walls slick with an unknown slime. There's a trickling stream of liquid constantly running between my fingertips. I press my hands firmly against the metal, trying to keep myself from falling through the angled shaft. The glowing arrow points upward.

“You need to climb.”

I let out an already-exhausted gasp of air and push myself upward. My fingers and toes press hard against one wall, with my back shoved against the other. Loose screws and bolts scrape against me, tearing my flesh. Combined with the foul smell of the vapors inside the chamber, I'm reminded of how awful reality can be.

I'm not sure how far I make it before my arms shake, threatening to give out and drop me down the metal shaft.

“You can do this.”

“No,” I say through gritted teeth. “I can't.”

“You have to.”

I want to argue. I want to give up. I want to crawl back out of the hatch and hide inside my room, but I think of Cyren. I think of her rippling muscles, and her black lips, and her defiance that would never allow her to give up if I were the one in danger. My arms stiffen with a new resolve and I inch myself upward.

It feels like hours pass. The words in front of me intermittently provide messages of encouragement. When I shut my eyes, the arrow and the text appear inside my eyelids, streaming straight to my retinas.


Page 11

“You're almost there. You should see a mesh wire covering the opening to a horizontal shaft just above you.”

Sure enough, a few feet above me the glowing arrow points at a ventilation shaft. Warm air blows across the sewage drain. My legs shove upward and I'm looking into the blowing breeze, enjoying the heated air as it tickles my shivering skin.

I stick my fingers through the wire cover and yank on it as hard as I can. The cage-like fence bends outward before popping free. I let it drop down the shaft. It sends a loud scraping noise echoing through the chamber as it falls past each floor. With a final heave, I manage to wedge my elbows inside the opening and lift the rest of my body inside. My arms and legs melt on to the floor, every muscle accepting my weakness.

“You need to keep moving.”

“I can't,” I say, barely able to catch enough breath to speak.

“Opening your door alerted security.”

“Give me a second.”

“We don't have a second. It will only be a matter of time before they send search drones into the ventilation shafts.”

“Where am I going? What's your plan? I can't go through any checkpoints without them scanning my nanomachines. They'll find me eventually.”

“We need to get you to another tower so you can get aboard a train.”

My eyes blink open. I've never been on a train before. Not in the real world. I've never wanted to go anywhere that would require that kind of transportation.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Somewhere safe.”

“What does that mean?”

“You'll be in NextWorld eventually. That's all that matters.”

They're right. Whoever is sending this text is speaking to me in a logical way that I can appreciate. It doesn't leave any room for doubt. I push forward. Like a machine.

The heat of the ventilation shaft is nice at first, but soon my body is sweating. My skin swells. My lips grow chapped and my mouth drys out. I'm scampering through the shaft, trying to get to my destination quicker.

When I see an opening in the floor of the shaft ahead of me, I move faster. I press my face against the metal cage that covers the opening, trying to suck in some of the colder air from outside.

“Back up!” appears in front of my face, but the cool air feels so good that I ignore it.

“It's that politician's kid,” I hear a voice say from directly below me.

I open my eyes and look down on a group of five armed officers from the DgS. The visors that normally shield their faces are casually raised as they talk to each other.

“You mean that twerp that logged-in to that game for all those years?”

“That's the one.”

“You realize they've been paying for that kid to play games all day with our global credit budget?”

“Oh, I know. I've been telling my partner for years that they should just unplug him and see what happens.”

“That'd fry his nanomachines.”

“Who cares? Just because his father is some kind of bigwig in DOTgov, that don't mean he should get any kind of special treatment. What do you think they would do if one ofourkids got trapped in there? They'd turn them into a vegetable before we knew what was what.”

“Still don't make it right.”

I'm so lost in the conversation that I don't realize how much of my sweat is dripping through the mesh wire covering. A rather large droplet hangs from the tip of my nose, but before I can wipe it away, it breaks loose and plops on to one of the officer's forehead. She looks startled for a moment and when she peers up to see where the drip came from, I push myself away from the opening. I think I move quickly enough for her not to see me, but the sudden shift of my weight makes the thin metal bend underneath me.

The text changes to: “GO! GO! GO!”

I lunge down the chamber on my hands and knees as I hear one of the officers yell out, “He's in the ventilation shaft!”

01000000

I can hear shouting through the metal walls of the ventilation shaft. Security guards are yelling at each other in the hallway below me. They're trying to follow my movements, trying to figure out where I'm going to end up. It sounds far from organized. Some of them think I'm heading toward higher levels. Some of them think I'm heading toward lower levels. When they decide on their own courses of action, they spread out in multiple directions.

“You're lucky.”

“No matter how many times people try to tell me that, I still don't believe it.”

“You're going to be a lot less lucky if those guards catch you.”

I can't argue with that.

At the end of another long chamber, there is a large fan spinning, cutting through the beams of light from the other side. There are no other chambers leading off of this one.

“Now what?” I say, annoyed that the glowing arrow led me down a dead end.

“Keep going.”

“I can't. There's a fan blocking my path.”

“Go through it.”

I actually laugh. It's a cold, dark laugh, but it's still odd. I'm not sure I remember the last time I laughed. Not in the real world anyway.

“Ican'tgo through it. The fan is active. I mean, if I go through it, this conversation is going to get cut short. Along with my neck.”

“It's timing.”

“Timing?”

“Think of it like a game. The blade rotation isn't random. Just time your movements.”

“You're insane. I'm not going to-”

I hear a buzzing sound behind me. The noise is bouncing off the metal interior of the ventilation shaft, making it impossible for me to gauge how far away it actually is.

“Drones,” I whisper.

“You need to move. Now.”

I look back at the fan and curse under my breath. This isn't a game. This isn't fun. This is real life, and I hate it.

The closer I get to the blades, the more they blur together. The heat is blowing right in my face, making my eyes water. I look down at the bottom edge of the circular opening, trying to focus on each singular blade as it swoops past. I try to count, to find the pause between each rotation, but it's too fast. There's no way I'm going to fit my entire body through the gap.

“I can't do this.”

“You have to.”

The buzzing sound from behind me grows louder. A small machine floats around the corner. Four propellers keep it aloft and a bright light sits under the front-mounted camera. It points directly at me.

“Go!”

I turn back to the fan, trying to push myself forward, to summon the bravery to leap through the decapitating machine, but I can't. My brain won't let me. It's impossible.

The drone slides through the ventilation shaft with ease. Its approach is calculated, zooming in on my image. It stops a few feet away, keeping me centered in the camera's view.

I glance at the fan, then back at the drone. With a quick lunge, I grip on to the sides of the drone and yank it toward me. The propellers spin faster as it tries to fly away from me, but I don't give it the chance. I throw it the other way, toward the fan. The large blades hack through one of the drone's propellers and tear it off. The fan drags the body of the drone with the rotation, wedging it inside the track of the fan's blades. The fan screeches to a halt. I don't hesitate. I jump through the stalled blades. As soon as I'm on the other side, the fan manages to rip the drone free and continue spinning.

“Nicely done.”

I exhale and say, “Two birds. One stone.”

The arrow leads me through more of the maze of ventilation shafts until I reach another mesh wire opening. I approach it slowly and peer through the cage. It looks out into a huge vertical chamber with tracks running up and down the walls. I'm not sure what I'm looking at until an elevator rushes past at an incredible speed. Another one drops down the other side.

“We need to get you to the upper floors.”

“You want me to take an elevator?”

“You can't go inside them. They'll scan your nanomachines.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

The dramatic pause before the text appears makes me nervous. For good reason.

“You need to jump on top.”

“Okay,” I say leaning back. “I had a hunch when you tried to get me to jump through that fan, but now I'm sure of it. You're trying to kill me.”

“There's no other way to go up.”

“Then I guess we're done. I lose.”

“If I thought giving up or losing was an option for you, I wouldn't have tried.”

Another elevator rushes past the opening. The entire ventilation shaft shakes.

“If one of those things hits me, I'm going to be a stain. A big, red stain.”

“You need to be smart about it.”

“Going anywhere near that opening is probably the stupidest thing I could do.”

“You're wasting time. Time that Cyren doesn't have.”

I clench my fist and bang it on the metal wall. Seeing her name causes such an emotional upheaval inside me that even if there was a slight chance of saving her, I'd be willing to throw myself down the shaft and just hope I land on my feet. Whoever is sending this text knows that.

I push my face against the mesh wire and watch another elevator rush past, speeding upward like a rocket. Another elevator drops toward the lower levels at the same speed. My gamer brain clicks in. Strategies flow through me. Calculations and patterns.

“If I step on to an elevator lifting into the air, I'm going to die. It will splatter me. But if I drop on to an elevator that's lowering... I should catch up to it and land softly.” I shut my eyes, not believing the words coming out of my mouth. “I hope.”

“Now you're using your brain.”

“No. My brain is telling me to stop listening to you. This is my stupid, stupid heart talking.”

I shuffle around inside the tight chamber until my legs are in front of me. With a few swift kicks, I manage to knock the covering off the opening. I watch as it falls down the elevator shaft, disappearing into the bottomless pit. I look up, waiting to see an elevator approaching. One rushes past, but I hesitate too long. Luckily I manage to stop myself from leaping out. If I don't time it correctly, I'm going to fall too far, too fast, and slam into the top of the elevator.

A big, red stain.

Another elevator drops toward me and I count silently. One, two, three. When the roof passes by, I shut my eyes, picture Cyren's smile, and jump out into the open air.

It's much cooler in the elevator shaft, which is a nice feeling as I plummet to my death. The cold is surging past me. I try to take a breath, but I can't breathe. There's too much pressure on my chest. Is that panic? I'm going to die. What did I do? What was I thinking?

Ten, twenty, thirty floors rush past. The minimal lighting blurs together as my speed builds. The details of my death become a stream of color and sound that detaches me from what I'm doing.

I force the panic out of my head and start to think straight. Rolling in mid-air, I tuck my legs under me. My toes touch something. It's the metal roof of the elevator, descending right below me. We've been dropping at the same speed, but it's slowing down. My feet press down on the roof. My heels set down. My knees gradually bend, allowing my weightless body to grip on to the ridged metal. It takes another twenty floors, but eventually gravity returns and I settle on to the roof. When I stop moving completely, my lungs heave, taking in quick, strained breaths. Between the tiny, frenzied gasps of air, I manage to read the text floating in front of me.

“Wow. I can't believe that worked.”

I'm about to yell out at the text when the elevator surges into motion. The speed flattens me against the roof when the elevator lifts upward. The rush is so intense, that I have to close my eyes and pretend I'm somewhere else. Thankfully, it doesn't last long. The elevator slows, just like it did when going down.

“Okay. This floor should work.”

The glowing arrow appears again, pointing at another hatch. There's a label, but it's old and faded. I can't read any of the print below the word: “Warning.”

“What is this?”

“It's an emergency release valve. In case the elevator shaft ever got flooded.”

“I don't understand,” I say, squinting my eyes and trying to read the label again. “Where does it go?”

Even when I read the text for a second time, I don't believe what I'm seeing.

“It goes outside.”

01000001

“We don't have time to argue,” the text appears while I'm yelling objections at it. “This elevator isn't going to sit here and wait for you.”

I slam my hand against the warning label and yell, “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Because it's the only way out.”

“I'll die.”

“No, you won't.”

“It's the outside!”

“You won't be out there long.”

“No!” I yell, then in a whisper I say, “I'm scared.”

“Trust me. I've gotten you this far.”

“No,I'vegotten me this far. You've just been directing me toward one death trap after another.”

“I never said it would be easy.”

“But-”

“Cyren can't afford the time we're wasting.”

I take a deep breath, trying to bottle my fear as I grit my teeth and pull the lever on the hatch. The door swings open with a loud, wrenching creak, like no one has oiled it in decades. Inside is a long, dark tube, rusted and unused. I crawl inside, but my shoulder width barely fits. I have to wrestle to get my entire body inside. A panicked sense of claustrophobia tries to back me out, but I close my eyes and force myself deeper. Once I'm a few yards in, all I can see is the text, hovering inside my eyes.

“100 yards.”

“Is that all?”

I wiggle and worm my way through every yard, like vitapaste trying to free itself from the tube. Eventually I spot a point of light in the distance. It grows with every push forward, beckoning me closer. By the time I get near, I see a yellow utility bulb over yet another hatch. I wrestle my arm out from under my body and grab on to the handle.

“Wait!” appears in front of me.

“What now?”

“That's the last door before you're outside.”

I pull my hand away.

“There are no sensors outside the tower, so I'm going to lose contact with your nanomachines, but it's okay. Follow the ledge to your right, cross the train bridge, and enter the hatch in the adjoining tower.”


Page 12

“Right,” I say with a derisive huff, “sounds easy.”

“Try not to breathe too deeply.”

“Sounds like good advice.”

I place both hands on the release lever and fill my lungs with filtered air. With a jerk, I pull the lever free and the hatch flings open. The sudden suction of air nearly pulls me from the tube, flinging me into the open sky, but I manage to brace both hands on either side of the opening to stop myself. I try to move quickly, stepping out on to the small ledge and turning to the right. Even though I know I should, I can't stop myself from looking down.

Hundreds of towers stagger in size around me. The top of each one is in a perpetual state of construction, always adding another level to accommodate the growing population. A million flashing lights and glowing windows scatter across my view. Cords and wires and tubes hang slack between each building, an interwoven mess of electricity and digital connectivity. I can't see the earth. It makes my stomach spin. The dizziness sways me forward. My hands grip tightly to the side of the building. I force myself to look away from the death below. Gray clouds blanket the city, lightning bolts constantly dancing in flaring arcs across them. A destroyed atmosphere with nothing left to do but scream out in pain.

I'm lost in the immensity of everything when a train rumbles past, shaking the building that I'm clinging to. The small ledge my heels are on vibrates. I press my back to the wall, trying to stay firmly in place. When the movement settles, I shift my body, making my way to the right. I can't help thinking of the cliff side in the Darkfyre Mountains and my group's nearly fatal fall. I survived it then, but I don't have a magic belt to save me this time.

As I pass the window next to me glowing with a plate of artificial sunlight, I feel the first effects of the outside air. My eyes water, a burning sensation piercing straight through them. I let go of the wall with one hand and rub them, but it doesn't help. Tears stream down my face. My skin itches. It's like stepping through a fog of acid, a chemical bath in an ocean of corrosive liquids.

My feet move faster as my lungs struggle to hold on to the air inside me. I pass three more windows before I reach the train bridge between the two buildings. I can't take it anymore. My chest heaves, letting out all the breath I've been saving. I try not to inhale, but my body demands it. It burns worse on the inside. The air tears apart my throat before my lungs are filled with burning coals.

My eyes are watering so much by this point that I can barely see. The bridge is right below me, but judging the distance I have to drop is impossible. I wipe the tears from my face and squint, trying to focus. It looks like ten feet, but it could be twenty for all I know. I look back at the hatch I came out of, hesitating for a moment.

I shimmy over the side of the ledge and lower myself down as much as I can. My fingers grip on to the metal ridge and my body dangles freely. My arms cry out in pain, knowing they can't suspend my weight. I close my eyes and let go.

It feels like forever, falling through the open air of the city, but I eventually slam on to the bridge. My legs crumple underneath me and my back slaps against the magnetic rails. It forces me to suck in more air. I lurch forward, hacking and coughing violently. I cover my mouth with my hand and when I pull it away I can see specks of red against my pale skin.

I lift myself off the tracks, my muscles aching, my back swelling with pain, my legs shaking weakly. I'm trying to give myself time to limp forward, but the bridge rumbles underneath me. I look over my shoulder and see two beams of light round the corner of a building far in the distance. I start jogging, but the light is gaining on me. I force myself into an all-out run for the end of the bridge. The tracks shake more and more as I near the next building. I can hear the rattle and hum of the magnetic thrusters hunting me down like prey.

When I reach the other side of the bridge, I frantically search the walls for another hatch. A few feet from the edge there is a small circle with the same faded warning label. I lunge for it, gripping the handle with both hands and pulling, but it doesn't budge. It feels welded shut, like the corrosive atmosphere has melted the door to its frame. I look over my shoulder and see the train reach the bridge. My eyes dart around, looking for somewhere safe to hide, but there's only the edge that drops off into the emptiness between the towers. I have two choices. I either die instantly upon impact, or I die hundreds of stories below. I choose neither.

I grip on to the handle again, leaping into the air and using my weight to pull down. My shoulder dislocates, but the lever also loosens and turns. I throw the hatch open and leap inside, pulling my legs in close to my chest as the train reaches me. The door breaks loose from its hinges when the train slams into it and roars past.

My entire body burns with pain, but I lurch deeper into the tube, pulling myself with one arm. The deeper I go, the cleaner the air feels. My nanomachines work faster and faster, trying to clean the cells I've destroyed in the last few minutes. The microscopic tools numb my shoulder and focus my vision.

“I knew you could do it,” the text reads as it twitches back into view.

Through a fit of coughing, I barely manage to say, “That makes one of us.”

01000010

The end of the tube opens into a hallway that looks empty, so I drop down to the floor and close the hatch behind me. The glowing arrow rounds the second corner to the right.

“The train station is nearby,” the text reads. “They won't be looking for you in this tower, but you still need to be careful not to get scanned.”

I stumble forward, my legs feeling better with every step I take. When I make a few turns through the tower, I see a crowd of people at the end of a wide hall riding an escalator upward. A sign at the top reads: Departure Station. A family hurries past me, late for their train. I nonchalantly merge with the crowd, trying to act like I belong. Men and women, adults and children. Pale, hairless skin hanging on differently shaped bodies.

It's strange, being around this many real people. The smell of their sweat and the gruffness of their movements as they push and shove their way past each other. My breathing becomes quick gasps of air. My heartbeat races. Their mere presence is crushing me. The sheer number of them around me suffocates the air from the room. It's too much. It's too real.

When I reach the top of the escalator, I rush to the side of the train station, trying to find a corner to catch my breath. I lean against a large screen displaying DOTcom advertisements. The citizens walking past me give me a quick glance as I hunch over, sucking in air like I'm drowning, but they move on just as fast, forgetting the strange sight.

“Stay in the crowd,” the text reads.

“There are too many of them.”

“And one of you. Which makes you stand out.”

“How do you plan on getting me aboard a train? I can't just buy a ticket.”

“You won't need a ticket.”

“You need a ticket to board a train.”

“Not every train.”

The arrow flashes on the floor, leading me back into the sea of people. I take a few more deep breaths and push off from the commercial screen, wading into the current of smells and sounds and jerking elbows. Train whistles blow from the tracks, alarms sound in the distance, and the speaker system periodically announces routine instructions for boarding times. I try to drown out the blanket of stimuli and focus on the arrow. I'm bounced back and forth between bodies going in different directions, but I plant my feet hard against the floor and manage to work through the crowd, crossing the entire expanse of the station.

The arrow points at a door that clearly reads: Maintenance Only.

“How am I supposed to-”

“Wait.”

My eyes dart around, watching the faces of every passerby, trying to determine their level of suspicion. To the left and to the right, over and over. A hundred faces pass by. No one notices me. They're too involved in their own lives, their own destinations.

But then I see a security guard. I press up against the wall next to the door, wishing there was a shadow to cover me, a hatch to crawl inside, something that would shield me from the guard's eyes.

“Wait,” is all that appears in front of me.

“I can't,” I say, pushing off from the wall, back into the crowd. “He's going to see me.”

The guard stops a man next to him for a routine scan of his nanomachine signature. I try to imagine what I'm going to say if he catches me. Could I pretend I'm lost? Could I pretend this was all a big accident?

The maintenance door next to me opens.

A worker steps out carrying a large bag.

“Now!” appears in front of me.

I grab the side of the door before it swings shut and slide inside. There's a long hallway stretching either way, lined with lockers.

“Nice job,” appears in front of me.

My breathing is erratic. I don't know if I should relax now that I'm away from the guard and the crowds, or panick because I'm in an even more dangerous area.

“This place is restricted,” I whisper through clenched teeth. “If I get caught-”

“You're a cyberterrorist now. Everywhere is restricted.”

The arrow points down the hall, to the right. I hustle past the lockers and turn into a doorway on the far end. I step on to a balcony that overlooks a large factory. Steam rises from vents all over the floor, masking the true size of the room. I can see large robotic arms picking up seven-foot long containers from a conveyor belt and loading them on to a train.

“What is this?”

The arrow continues to flash, pointing down a stairway that leads to the factory floor. I look over the railing, but I don't see anyone around, so I make my way over to one of the stacks. When I reach it, the arrow disappears.

“Open it,” the text reads.

“The container?”

There's no response, which I take as a confirmation. I search the outside of the container, and when I find the latch, I also find a label. There's a bunch of shipping information on it, but underneath it reads: Contents - Vitapaste.

I lift the latch and the top of the container flips open automatically. The substance fills the interior like a coffin of cold, gray goo.

“What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Get inside.”

I look around, wondering again if this is all some kind of sick joke. Is it too late to back out? I stick my hand in the vitapaste, testing it. It's cold and grainy. I shiver.

“How am I supposed to breathe?”

“Get inside.”

I want to slap the words from my view, but instead I follow the directions. I have to accept this new reality. The text has gotten me this far and I have no other option. I'm past the point of no return.Farpast it.

I step into the vitapaste, lifting the rest of my body over the edge. I lower myself into the gelatinous texture, inch-by-inch, trying to allow my body time to adjust to the temperature. It's no use. My teeth are already chattering. My muscles are shivering. The vitapaste spills over the side as my body displaces the volume.

A yellow light flashes on the wall next to the stack of containers. I hear a whistle. I lean up and look over the edge as one of the robotic arms swivels toward me. It reaches down and scans the container next to me. Once it reads the bar code on the label, it lifts the container from the floor and sets it on the next car of the train. When it releases the container, it turns back toward me. I grab the lid, slamming it shut on top of me.

I'm left in darkness. I can barely hear the outside, but soon enough the container lifts from the floor and slams on to the bed of the train. The vitapaste sloshes around on top of me. I wait in the silent, cold darkness for what feels like forever before I hear another alarm and the movement of the train.

“You did it,” the text reads.

“Yeah,” I say, spitting vitapaste from my mouth. “I'm in a coffin of vitapaste. This isn't exactly what you promised me, is it? I thought you were getting me back in to NextWorld.”

“The train will deliver you to a tower in the twenty-four million district. Old Mongolia.”

“Mongolia?” It's hard for me to comprehend the distance from my tower in Old Russia. “What's in Mongolia?”

“Your new E-Womb. It's time for us to meet.”

01000011

The train ride takes hours. I manage to sleep, but it's restless. All I dream about is Cyren, trapped in a world of empty blackness or swallowed by the virus, deleted from the world I'd have given anything to protect.

I'm angry because she should have trusted me. I'm angry because she should have given me a chance to come up with a plan. But then I fall in love with her all over again when I remember that everything she did was to save me. She put my life ahead of her own. They all did. The NPCs knew we were going to die. They knew it was only a matter of time. Who knows what would have happened if that virus deleted me? Would it have corrupted my nanomachines? DOTgov says that's impossible, they say NextWorld is perfectly safe, but I've already proven that wrong. What else are they lying about?

I'm woken from my dreams and nightmares as something lifts my cargo container from the train. It shakes and rumbles as it's set down, splashing the gray liquid around me. My fingers trace the inside edge of the container until I find a release lever. I throw the latch and the lid springs open. I suck in fresher air than the stagnant combination of the sweat and vitapaste aroma inside. My eyes blink a few times to adjust to the light, but when they do, I see the inside of another warehouse.

Huge stacks of vitapaste containers, like towers themselves, lay in rows as far as I can see. Robotic arms are sorting each container, setting them inside the tubes that will deliver the different assortment of nutrients to the tower rooms that require them.

I lift myself out of the container, the vitapaste making a sucking noise as it releases me from its viscous grasp. Some of the goo drips from my body in clumps, but most of it hangs on, stuck to my skin like dried clay.

I look around for a moment, lost in the hugeness of everything, but soon enough the glowing arrow appears in front of me.

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