Yanmei Zhao slowly peeled the white wrapper from the small, barrel-shaped coconut candy. The nineteen-year-old noted once again how it looked like a miniature version of the cylindrical Alternis immersion tank before her. The tanks themselves were much smaller than the standard model units, but this was the best China could do with their limited space and resources. Rumor was they had been cobbled together from the broken dreams of the national space program. It didn’t matter, as long as they had players in the game.
Yanmei stepped up to the porthole of the tank and stared at the sleeping woman inside. The glass almost could have been a mirror, except that Yanmei had recently cut her hair, and Meilin’s long dark hair fanned behind her and waved gently to and fro in the nutrient broth.
“Hi, Mother.” Yanmei rapped on the glass with a knuckle. “How are you doing today?”
“Don’t tap on the glass,” Cheng said wearily.
“What’s the harm? If a little tap like that can damage it, we’re in worse shape than I thought.”
The lights flickered.
“See?” Cheng said.
“I didn’t do that. Idiot.”
“No, but she did,” Cheng said. “The power grid is down. Again. We’re on emergency reserves.”
Which meant that all the backup power in the district was going into keeping this place running, instead of keeping citizens’ lights and heat on. So China could stay in the game as long as possible. Maybe so Meilin, Fei Hong, Li Bai, and Jingyi stayed alive.
“I guess that’s how your day’s going,” Yanmei said.
“She died,” Cheng said. “In the game!” he added hastily, when he saw the look on her face.
“You weren’t supposed to tell me that,” Yanmei said.
“You aren’t supposed to go to dinner with me.” Cheng smiled.
“Maybe I won’t.” Yanmei popped the candy into her mouth and took a moment to savor the sweet, creamy flavor. Her mother had given her a bag of these candies as a going-away present, even though she hadn’t really gone away—not physically.
“What am I, five?” Yanmei had asked her mother. “You know I can buy these whenever I want now. And I don’t even like them that much.”
“One: You love them. Two: You can’t find them anywhere in the province, but I pulled some strings. Top-secret strings,” Meilin had said. “And three: You’ll always be my little girl.”
“Can I have one of those candies?” Cheng asked now.
Yanmei shook her head. “I only have one left. I’m saving it.”
“For what?” Cheng asked.
“For her.” Yanmei pressed her hand against the glass. “Miss you, Mother. Come home soon.”
Etta | Class: Divine Seeker | Level: 7
HP: 89/89 | Mana: 24/25 | Status: Normal
XP: 21,215 | Next Level: 28,000
Etta huddled just outside the makeshift shelter of stones and canvas, watching Ben and praying. For two days she and the others had taken turns protecting him from animals, monsters, and looters. Etta had leveled up in the process, but that was cold comfort considering the circumstances.
It was easy to imagine her comrade was only sleeping, but she had attended enough wakes—too many, in the neighborhood she’d lived in all her life—to know a dead body when she saw one.
In the real world, the meticulously applied makeup, sculpted hair, and perfect clothes of the body in the casket always seemed artificial—an artist’s rendition of the person, not too different from player avatars in Alternis. Sometimes the illusion passed muster at a quick glance, but the longer you studied the body, the more unsettling it became. Not because of what was there, but because of what wasn’t; when you didn’t see a chest rising and falling steadily, when you didn’t hear the soft sound of air moving in and out of their lungs, you knew something was very wrong.
Alternis meticulously simulated the smallest details—things you often didn’t notice consciously but would miss if they were absent. Like dappled sunlight through a tree canopy or the crackling of a campfire, little touches that lent reality to the virtual.
Etta’s palms had been slick with sweat and blood—Ben’s blood—during the PvP battle that had claimed his life. Her heart had pounded as she’d run through the forest, dodging the Nigerian, Russian, and Saudi teams. And, even in the game, players appeared to be breathing—only she hadn’t realized that until Ben had stopped. That was a pretty clear indication he was gone.
On the other hand, Ben’s body hadn’t been decomposing. He smelled no worse than any unwashed soldier in close quarters would. Was that significant? Or were she, Tandy, and Dante simply clinging to any hope that Ben...