Jennet faced the Dark Queen, her mage staff at the ready. Excitement fizzed through her blood like it was carbonated. This was it. She’d completed the quests, mastered each level of the game, and made it here. The final boss fight.
“Fair Jennet.” The queen’s voice was laced with stars and shadow. “You think to best me in battle?” A faint smile crossed her pitiless, beautiful face. Her dress swirled around her like tatters of midnight mist.
“I plan on it,” Jennet said. She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear, then shook off the sudden anxiety that settled on her shoulders, cold as snow.
She had no idea what this particular fight held. Feyland was the hardest sim she’d ever played, full of weird twists and turns. She thought about it all the time. The game filtered into her dreams, shaded the edge of her days. Sometimes the computer-generated world felt more real than her ordinary life.
“Very well,” the queen said. “I accept your challenge.”
Jennet couldn’t see any weapons on her opponent, and that dress was no substitute for armor. Safe bet that this was going to be a magical duel, spell-caster against spell-caster. Jennet flexed her fingers around the smooth wood of her staff. Anticipation spiked through her, tightening her breath.
Fantastical creatures watched from the edges of the clearing: feral-faced women with gossamer wings, dark riders with red-eyed hounds at their heels. The sound of drums and pipes wove through the shadows. Overhead, a sliver of moon tangled in the black branches of the trees. Then, between one heartbeat and the next, silence fell.
A dark figure stepped forward, forbidding in midnight armor and a wicked helm, and Jennet’s stomach clenched. The Black Knight. She’d barely beaten him in an earlier quest. If he got involved in this fight, she was in severe trouble.
He held his gauntleted fist high and grated out a single word. “Begin.”
It echoed eerily through the glade, and the fey-folk let out a rough cheer. There was no one to cheer for Jennet.
Without hesitation, she tipped her staff and shot a bolt of fiery white light at the queen. A sphere of shadow appeared, blocking her attack and swallowing the fire into its dark depths. More spheres materialized and began floating toward her, called by the Dark Queen. Jennet ducked and wove, avoiding their deadly touch.
Lightning crackled from her staff, illuminating the clearing with shocking white light, but the queen evaded her bolts. Still, Jennet kept pressing the attack. The dark spheres were multiplying now, bobbing in the air on all sides. A low, menacing hum surrounded her as she tried to find a clear shot.
She couldn’t afford any mistakes – but the fight was pushing her to her limits. Worry started to nibble at the edges of her concentration. She just had to watch for an opening… there. She took aim and sent another bolt crackling through the air.
White fire sizzled and Jennet heard the queen gasp. Yes! She could do it. She could beat this game. The first player ever to claim victory over Feyland.
A dark sphere brushed against her shoulder. Ice stabbed into her skin, sent numbness down her arm until she could barely hold onto her staff. She stumbled back, trying to regain the rhythm of the battle. Keep breathing. Keep fighting. But where was the queen? The place where her opponent had stood was now filled with twisting shadows.
Everything rippled, as though the clearing was made of cloth billowing in a sudden gust. Jennet heard high, chiming laughter as she fell backward…
And landed in an ornate chair set before a feasting table. What? She jumped up, heart racing, and knocked the edge of the table. A goblet sitting in front of her shook, sending a drop of deep red liquid to stain the white tablecloth.
“Sit down, Fair Jennet,” the queen said from her place across the table. “This is the next stage of our battle.”
Pale candles in thorny candelabra illuminated the feast. Their silver flames reflected in the queen’s fathomless eyes.
“You changed the rules! You can’t do that.” Jennet’s legs felt shaky as she edged back into her chair. She was so not prepared for this.
The queen laughed. It was the sound of ice shattering on a black lake. “Of course I can. This is my court. My realm. You are but a visitor. Please – drink.” She waved one delicate hand at the goblet.
Jennet’s mouth said the words, but her hand reached out anyway and lifted the heavy silver goblet. A sweet, thick smell drifted from the cup. Roses and burnt sugar. The edge of metal touched her lips.
No. She was not going to do this. The queen might try to control their battle, but she could still fight back. Fingers trembling from effort, Jennet forced the goblet away. The air around her was sticky and nearly solid, like dough. She pushed against it, her breath coming in gasps, until at last the cup touched the table.
“Very well.” The queen’s voice was edged with frost. “If you disdain my hospitality, then you must answer a riddle.”
That seemed safer than drinking whatever was in the goblet. And the game wasn’t giving her a lot of other options. “A riddle? All right.”
The candles flared and the queen’s eyes glowed. “Listen then, and listen well, the answer to this riddle tell, or forfeit of thyself will be, and never more wilt thou be free.”
Jennet shivered. The queen’s voice was ominous, her words intoned with deep meaning. Whatever happened, it was clear that failing to answer the riddle carried a price. Jennet curled her fingers tightly into her palms and tried not to show the fear flickering through her.
“Ask me your riddle,” she said.
“As soon as it begins, it is ending. Without form, still it moves. When it is gone, it yet remains.” The queen smiled, sharp as a blade. “You have three guesses.”
“Ah…” Jennet’s mouth was dry. Her mind beat against the riddle like a bird trapped behind glass. Without taste or form. Something powerful, but insubstantial. “Is it the wind?”
A low sighing went through the branches of the dark trees. The candle nearest her snuffed out, as though some invisible hand had abruptly doused the flame.
The queen shook her head. “One chance gone.”
A circle of watchers had formed around the table. Lithe women with gossamer wings gathered beside the queen. Gnarled brown creatures with sharp teeth and fingers that were too long for their hands swayed next to them. Red-capped goblins and capering sprites – they all watched her with avid, gleaming eyes.
Freaky. This whole battle had turned beyond strange. Jennet pulled in a deep breath, though her chest felt tight, and gave another answer. “Music?”
The second she said the word, she knew it was wrong. She shivered as a second candle flame went out. The watchers surrounding her tittered, and the low breeze rustled the branches.
Jennet squeezed her eyes closed, blocking out the shadowy glade, the fantastical figures, the wicked curve of the Dark Queen’s smile. Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, and she tasted the metal edge of fear on her tongue. Think. She had to figure this out.
“Your time has run, Fair Jennet. Speak your final answer.”
She opened her eyes, to see that the Dark Queen had risen to her feet. A single candle burned between them.
Panic banged through her, like a hundred doors slamming shut. The watching creatures grew still and silent. Even the wind quieted, waiting. She had to answer.
“Is it… a dream?” The words floated from her mouth and hovered there, just beyond her lips.
In the silence that followed, Jennet felt shadows gathering closer. Dread crawled through her, carrying the awful sensation of failure.
The last candle died. A high, wailing music started up, the keening cry of pipes swirling through the air. Slowly, the queen shook her head. Diamonds sparkled like frost in her dark hair.
“No,” she said. “You have lost. Now, mortal girl, I take my due.”
The queen held up a hollow crystal sphere in one hand. With the other, she scribed strange gestures in the air. Her fingers left glowing streaks of silver against the darkness. Then she pointed straight at Jennet.
“Ahh!” A sharp pain speared through Jennet, as though the queen had stabbed her in the chest. She doubled over, gasping, while agony iced her blood. Oh god. It hurt.
“Behold, Fair Jennet,” the queen said. “The answer is Life. Your essence is captured here. It will serve us well.”
Jennet looked up, tears clouding her vision. The queen held the sphere aloft. It wasn’t empty any more. Inside was a bright swirl of color, like rainbow flames. They pulsed and danced, trapped inside their crystal prison. Wavering, calling to her.
“How,” Jennet forced the words out through lips tight with pain, “how do I get that back?”
Every game had a second chance, a third. You kept fighting the last battle until you finally won. Failure wasn’t permanent. Not like in real life.
The queen laughed, and the sound carried a bitter chill. “You cannot. Without a champion, you are lost. Now go. Go! I send thee, defeated, from the Dark Realm.”
Pain wrenched through Jennet and she screamed. Golden light blinded her senses and she swirled through a sickening vertigo. Blackness waited, merciful and dark, on the other side. She opened her arms to it, and fell.
Jennet woke, aching, in the sim chair. Her fingers were stiff inside the gaming gloves, and when she sat forward, fire exploded in her shoulder. She could barely lift her arm, but it was impossible to take off the helmet one-handed. Trying not to whimper, she gritted her teeth against the agony and pulled off her gear.
She had lost.
Feyland was more than just a sim game. The clues had been there all along, but she hadn’t paid enough attention until now. Now, when it was too late. And she’d done worse than lose the game.
There was an icy hollow in the middle of her chest. The Dark Queen had taken something from her – something she feared she couldn’t live without. Bright flames trapped inside a magical sphere. Her mortal essence, the queen had said.
She had to get it back.
Jennet leaned her forehead against the tinted window of the grav-car and watched as the unfamiliar neighborhoods went from decent to tattered. So much had changed in the last few weeks. She couldn’t believe she was here, friendless and alone, starting a new school.
And no closer to winning back what the Dark Queen had stolen.
She sighed, and her breath left a mist on the window glass, obscuring the boarded-up windows and graffiti-festooned buildings along Crestview’s main street. From what she’d seen so far, this decaying town in the middle of the country’s flatlands was barely wired. Did the kids here even know what a good sim-system looked like?
Dad had offered to pay for her to stay as a boarding student at Middland Prep, back in their old town, when the company transferred him here. He thought she had a choice, but she didn’t. Not with part of her soul trapped inside a computer game. She couldn’t get it back without going into Feyland, and the only system that could even run the game was Dad’s prototype Full-D. Which no way was he leaving behind. So here she was, too.
The car slid to a stop outside a blocky gray building with Crestview High stamped in concrete over the front doors. Students funneled into the school, trampling the thin grass out front.
“Here we are, Miss Carter,” said George, her dad’s chauffeur.
“Great,” she said.
She wanted to make George turn the car around. Wanted to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over her head. Or power-up her system and lose herself in an easy game – some fluffy simulated world where the goals were catching butterflies and collecting candies. Something pretty and safe.
But virtual worlds weren’t safe. She’d learned that the hard way.
She still had nightmares about that final battle. Sometimes, in the deepest hours, she woke in a cold sweat with the Dark Queen’s laughter cutting through her. A computer game shouldn’t be able to affect the real world. But it did. Jennet pressed her lips together so hard she could feel the edges of her teeth.
“Whenever you’re ready, Miss Carter.” George swiveled in the front seat to look at her. “I would like to be able to inform your father you weren’t late for your first day.”
Her stomach clenched, as though she’d eaten rocks for breakfast instead of toast. She squeezed her eyes shut, then blinked them open. Staying in the back seat wasn’t going to solve her problems. She had to find a gamer here – someone who was even more skilled than herself. Someone adept at wielding a virtual sword. Someone who could help her win free of Feyland. Permanently.
Without a champion, you are lost. The Dark Queen’s words echoed in her mind.
“Miss Carter?” The car door slid open.
“All right, I’m going.”
Forcing her fingers to unclench, Jennet grabbed her satchel and stepped out. Late fall air lay clammy on her skin, and a wave of dizziness made her cling to the door.
Breathe. Don’t let George see her weakness. She caught her balance and moved onto the sidewalk. The grav-car skimmed silently away, and she turned to face the school.
A metallic beeping from the building made the few stragglers scramble for the doors. She swallowed back the dry fear lodged in her throat, and followed.
Inside, it smelled like schools always smelled – a mix of cleaning products, sour lunch, and faintly, old-fashioned books. A security checkpoint loomed just inside the front doors. Her steps slowed. This was nothing like Middland Prep. Were the students here really that dangerous? Nervousness squeezed her lungs as the big guard waved her through the scanners.
No alarms went off, and she began breathing again. When she asked where the office was, the guard pointed to the first door down the hall.
The secretary, a thin, dark-haired man, peered at her through his glasses. “Can I help you?”
“I’m a new sophomore. Jennet Carter.”
“One of the VirtuMax kids?” He said the company name like it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Right. Um, my dad has been in contact with the school?”
The secretary poked the screen in front of him. “Ah yes, Carter. I’m transferring some additional forms over. Make sure you fill them out in full. The school will issue you a tablet so you can access your account.”
He pulled a battered tablet out of a drawer and set it in front of her. It was an old Epox, outdated beyond belief. Her hopes slipped another notch. This place was a technological wasteland. How was she going to find someone here who could help her?
The secretary pushed a piece of paper toward her. “If you’ll sign here—”
“I have my own.” She pulled out her brand-new tablet and watched the secretary’s eyebrows lift as if pulled up by strings. She scrolled through the menu until she found the red and blue Crestview High icon, and then tilted the screen toward him. “This it?”
“Yes. And you’ll want to be careful with that tablet. Make sure you don’t leave it unattended. The school takes no responsibility for lost or missing items.” He dropped the battered Epox back into the drawer, then glanced at his own screen, his eyebrows settling. “You have twenty-four seconds to get to class. Early World History with Ms. Lewis. End of the building, room 114. No running.”
Great. Like she needed to be late on her first day. She slung her satchel over her shoulder and pushed herself to move faster down the hall. A boy wearing a blue jacket dashed past, and a brown-haired girl disappeared into a nearby room. Other than that, the halls were deserted.
There – room 114. Worry skittered up her spine as she pulled the door open.
The plump, red-haired teacher standing by the desk glanced up as she entered. “Miss Carter?”
Jennet nodded, her skin prickling as she felt the attention in the room shift. All the kids were looking at her. Sizing her up: her hair, her clothes, the way she stood. Her heart thumped against her ribs, but she forced her breathing to stay slow. She lifted one hand to smooth her hair back and heard a murmur as they caught sight of her wrist implant.
A quick scan of the room confirmed there were only two other kids with wrist-chips. They met her gaze with serious relief. The rest either turned their heads away or narrowed their eyes, giving her you-don’t-belong-here-we-hate-you looks.
“Your desk is at the end of the row.” The teacher pointed. “Welcome to Crestview.”
Welcome. Sure. Jennet slid into her seat just as the second bell blared through the room.
“Class,” Ms. Lewis said, “please access file 73 in your history doc.”
Jennet pulled out her tablet and tried to ignore the whispers that followed. Maybe she should have taken the old Epox – but she shouldn’t have to be embarrassed that her gear was cutting-edge.
She straightened her shoulders and scanned the room. The two VirtuMax kids smiled at her. One was a girl with dark hair, the other, a mousy-looking boy. Like herself, they held shiny, newer-model tablets. The rest of the class though…. Despair crawled through her.
Almost none of the Crestview students had their own tablets. The clunky school-issued Epoxes were the standard. How could any of these kids be ‘leet players if they didn’t even have the most basic tech? This was like being transported back to the Middle Ages.
Still, she had to consider the possibilities. For all she knew, that brown-haired boy in the back row was a flawless gamer. She thought he was watching her, his green eyes hostile behind the swag of hair in front of his face.
If not him, what about the blond guy sitting two seats over? Seeing her looking, he winked and blew her a kiss.
On second thought, no. Neither of them could be the sim hero she needed.
Half of her wanted to put her head down on the desk and cry. The other half smoldered, ready to jump up and start yelling curses at the universe. Instead, she stared at the schedule glowing on her screen. Six classes. Six chances to find someone to help her.
If she didn’t get to the Dark Queen soon, she was dead.
Tam watched the new girl. Sure, it looked like he was taking notes while Ms. Lewis droned on about ancient civilizations, but under cover of his moving hand, under the hair he never bothered brushing out of his eyes, he was watching.
He always watched. Everything. Never said much, but that was okay. It kept him invisible and out of trouble.
So, the new girl. Jennet Carter. Everything about her screamed ‘elite.’ Elitist, too. She tucked a strand of pale hair behind one ear, and the chip implant in her wrist glinted. More proof that she didn’t belong here.
“Welcome to Crestview High,” Ms. Lewis said.
Jennet only nodded. She didn’t look too happy to be there, and for a moment, unwilling sympathy moved through him. Everyone was staring at her. It couldn’t be easy, coming into a new school after the year started – even if you were one of the privileged. Which, here in Crestview, made you a severe outsider.
She sat down and pulled a shiny new-model tablet out of her bag. Clearly the school ones weren’t good enough for her. Though, to be honest, some of those tablets barely worked. If he had the option, he’d bring his own gear, too.
She obviously lived in The View, the compound VirtuMax was building for their company employees. He’d heard the houses there were huge, that they were putting in specialty stores, a g-board park. Probably money falling off the bushes, too. All you needed to get in was a wrist-chip.
What would that be like? Wave your arm and have the gates of paradise open. Instant access to a safe and sanitary little world, full of the best tech money could buy. A fat credit account, probably kept full-up by a doting daddykins. Strings fully attached. He grimaced and rubbed his own wrist.
No thanks. Better to be under the radar, far as he was concerned. Not that the VirtuMax kids would know anything about being chewed up and spit out by the authorities. Even the regular townies thought they lived in the real world, but they were dreaming. Nothing was grittier and more real than the Exe. Even the locals tried to avoid his part of Crestview.
But despite his dislike of the new girl, he couldn’t stop sneaking looks. There was something about Jennet Carter. Something more than her long pale-gold hair and the high curve of her cheekbones. She seemed fragile. Mysterious.
He shook his head. The last thing Crestview High needed was another VirtuMax entitlement diva walking the halls.
At lunch, he and his friend Marny claimed a table near the back of the cafeteria. He’d known Marny for years – she lived on the outskirts of the Exe. But where he was lean and agile, she was easily as large as the big guys on the football team. Most kids avoided her, like being fat was a contagious disease. But she didn’t care.
Marny was who she was and the rest of the world could go blink. She was unapologetic to the point of rudeness, and he liked that, how actual she was. Plus, she noticed stuff. Not as much as him, but enough to make it worthwhile to hang with her. Sometimes. There were plenty of days he wanted to be alone, when he was all edges and sharpness. But not today.
“Look at her,” Marny said, pointing with her chin across the cafeteria. She made her eyes narrow and took a long, slurping drink of her cola, as if to show she wasn’t impressed.
He knew though. Jennet Carter was pretty hard to miss. He’d been aware of her from the moment she walked into the cafeteria. It was like an itch. Maybe if he ignored it, it would just go away. Uncomfortable, yeah, but scratching always made it worse. So he tried not to stare at Jennet’s sky-blue eyes, or notice the way she moved. Though now that Marny was pointing her out, he had to.
“That new girl, the rich bitch. She’s one of them.” Her voice was scornful, but he could hear the jealousy underneath.
Could taste it in his own mouth.
Them. The VirtuMax kids. They’d started showing up this summer, with their money and grav-cars and g-boards. Their privilege and arrogance. He pulled his battered brown coat tighter around his shoulders. He wanted nothing to do with them.
Marny took another gulp of her drink, then wadded up her napkin. “Are you done yet? Come on.” She grabbed her tray and stood.
“Where?” He looked down at his half-eaten lunch. It would be better if he finished it, since breakfast had been scarce and dinner was never a guarantee, but the grey meat and congealed white sauce was too unappealing. He pushed the tray away.
“The library. I have to see about graphics mods.”
“I guess.” He dumped his lunch and followed Marny out of the cafeteria.
The library smelled good. The scent of old paper filled up his nostrils, though there were fewer books every year. He went past the meager shelves and straight to the netscreens. Maybe he could find more info on the new simulators VirtuMax was working on.
The corporation had shouldered into town, but he could almost forgive them. After all, they were one of the few companies working on a full-sim.
Full sensory simulation. Total immersion in the virtual world.
His nerves tingled at the thought. What if that world – the world of pixels and programming – could feel as real as this one? Sometimes when he was simming he almost felt it, like he was there, inside the game. But the feeling never lasted. It was impossible to completely escape his reality.
He leaned back in his chair, one leg propped out in front of him. Maybe the people who said there couldn’t ever be a perfect interface were right, that the tech couldn’t ever get to the level of complexity that matched a human brain.
VirtuMax had been developing their full-sim for years, but the release was always delayed. Tam skimmed the articles, but he’d read all of them. The most recent one was a couple weeks old, about how the lead game developer’s death had brought the project to a stop.
Marny paused beside his screen, her taped-together reader glowing in her hand. “Anything interesting?”
“No. What are you looking up?”
She cocked a shoulder. “3-D meshes. I can’t get my avatar fat enough in Freelife. I don’t want to look like somebody’s idea of the perfect woman. I want to look like me.”
“Good luck with that. I hear Freelife’s a hard world to modify.”
“That’s why I chose it. Have you seen the avs in there?” She gave a snort of disgust. “If you saw someone who looked like that in RL, you’d think they were a genetically mutated freak. All legs and skinny and boobular.”
He hadn’t really noticed. In fact, he’d always been fine with the standard avatars in virtual reality. The females were usually cute and sexy. The guys were handsome and brawny, or fearsomely monstrous and warlike.
The point was, he didn’t want to be himself. All the options from there were good with him. Marny wanted to make a statement. She wanted to bust the parameters wide open. Him? He just wanted out.
“How’s your system?” she asked. “Still having issues?”
He shrugged. “It’s ok. I mean, it works. I can play, there’s just a weird thing with the imaging.”
And the sound card was going, and sometimes he lost connection altogether, but he didn’t want to say it out loud, in case it completely jinxed his system.
“That’s the problem with over-clocked gear.” Marny shook her head. “You’d think it would last more than a year, huh. My uncle Zeg might have some spare parts around. Or you could go back to playing at his simcafe.”
Back to the rental-quality systems. The thought left a sour taste in his mouth. For years he’d helped around the cafe in exchange for system time. Marny’s uncle didn’t mind the extra help – or the way people would come in to watch Tam play, after he got good.
Good enough that he won last year’s tri-state simming tournament. He’d scored his system out of it – plus a chance to compete at nationals. And he could have won there, too, if only…
His heart twisted at the memory and he yanked himself back to the present – away from the poisonous thoughts of what might have been.
“Ok,” he said to Marny. “If your uncle has some parts, that could work. I might end up needing them.”
He didn’t even want to think about his system failing. The best part of his day was when he could pull on the helmet, slip on the gloves, and go slay some monsters. Be a hero for a little while, someplace where he was the best.
“Why don’t you ask him,” Marny said, direct as usual.
“Fine then, I will.”
Maybe Zeg had something worth scavenging. Tam’s little brother could figure out how to wire it in – the only thing the Bug was really good at. His blood-stabilizing meds made the kid so manic he couldn’t concentrate on anything unless it was full of fire or electricity.
Tam shook his head and went back to reading. There were no solutions.
Sometimes he was pretty sure his life was on its way to being permanently broken.