The Aftermath Academy - CH5 (Olivia)

“Come on, get up, we have work to do,” Abe tells me. I look up at him groggily, then flounce upwards, annoyed my nap has been interrupted.

“Work, what do you mean work? Is it time to go Hero hunting? I mean, totally not hurting the heroes too badly and stealing whatever Krieg needed?” I ask him.

“Not quite, you’re going to play a game with us for a bit,” Abe said, chuckling.

“You mean that dumb game I can’t feel anything in? Sounds like a miserable time,” I tell him. “I have a hard enough time feeling things in real life, thanks.”

“Krieg made some upgrades,” Abe says, waving me over to a stand. It’s some sort of mechanical device, which says nothing because everything in a base Krieg created is some sort of mechanical device. Lilith is lying on the couch with a headset on already. “The sort of electro-magnetic signals that cause sensation in most people using these programs don’t work on you, but he figured out how to upgrade the visual stimulus to trigger signals in your nervous system.”

I stare at the device skeptically. There’s a flash of light and I find the world dissolving around me. Suddenly I’m in a medieval looking village. A giant tree rises at the center of it, towering over the town with lush branches spreading in all directions.

“Hey, what the hell! I didn’t say yes, jackass”, I yell at…Abe? Where’d Abe go? I look around, and all I see is a ten year old with pink hair and eyes. A little icon hovers over her showing her to be level 200.

“He’ll be here in a bit,” the girl says excited, “I’m so glad you could make it!”

“Lilith? You look… your age,” I say, puzzled. Her real body is that of a woman in her late twenties to early thirties. It’s easy for me to forget her chronological age is barely a decade. “Yeah, Abe said we had work to do then tricked me in here.”

“Don’t be too mad at him, Krieg wants us to start preparing some contingency plans with Vile dead. But I’m just excited you’re going to finally play with us!” she says, not explaining how we can set up anything while stuck in a virtual world. “I hope you like your avatar, I designed it.”

I look down, seeing the same tan skin I have. The few tips of black hair I can bring around to see look a lot like mine too. The put my hands to my face and press around. The only difference I can feel is… pointy ears? Yeah, pointy ears, she made me an elf. Well, I can run with that. As I put my hands down I see Lilith’s form hurtling towards me to give me a hug.

“Wait-,” I try to get out as her small body hits me, terror flooding through me at the memories of fragile bodies hitting my Pride. But Lilith hasn’t fallen to pieces and once I calm down I can feel her soft arms wrapping firmly around me. I let out a slight gasp of surprise. It’s been… a long time since someone could touch me like this. It’s nice. Maybe this game isn’t so bad after all.

Another avatar pixelates into existence next to me. A blinking icon shows him to be level 193. The giant, poorly clad man glances over at us.

“Sensory information working?” Abe asks, twice his real size and I bet anything a fraction of his real strength. “Your power is still in full force in the real world, but you shouldn’t be able to move too much. Still, do your best not to get too worked up here.”

“I never get worked up!” I proclaim. “And anyone who says otherwise is engaging in slander and lies.” He just snorts. “Also, the thing that’s letting me feel things here wouldn’t happen to be related to those body-jacking spiders he just came out with, would it?” I could be totally off on this, but keywords like nervous system stimulus sound awfully familiar.

“Think those were a side product of Lilith wanting you to enjoy playing with us more,” Abe shrugged, comically large muscles rising and falling with the action.

Lilith shivers. “Those things creep me out,” she says. “Please don’t say they’re my fault.”

“Don’t worry about it Lilith. It’s not your fault Krieg’s primary ability is militaristic adaptation,” I say. “He wouldn’t get anything done if he couldn’t frame things as weapons.” But really, not too pleased I’m basically a Guinea pig for applications of his latest weapon tech.

“That’s so sad,” Lilith says, entirely missing the irony that her power could accidentally cause a genocide with a sideways glance. I guess the difference is that there are non-military things Krieg needs to do, so he must use his power in whatever path allows us to achieve our goals, whereas Lilith must try to avoid using her abilities at all.

She finally lets go of me and I consider grabbing her back, missing her warmth. But I settle for grabbing her small hand instead, smiling. “What are we going to do today?”

Before Abe or Lilith can reply a voice breaks in, “You could go to Lady Hope’s temple!” My good mood is soured in an instant. I turn to see a maiden, maybe a year or two younger than me, standing with a basket of flowers. She has long brown hair, a blue dress and a light dusting of freckles on her smiling face. A little icon hovers over her indicating she’s a non-player character.

“I’m sorry, did you say Lady Hope has a temple? As in… her own temple?” I ask. I can feel Lilith’s hand tense right before I let go of it.

“Of course the Goddess of Hope has a temple,” the girl says, oblivious to the mood. Guess they don’t make these NPCs too smart. “They’re giving away free flower baskets all day if you’re looking for something to do.” She holds hers up for me to observe, a bouquet of Bluebonnets, roses and violets peeking out. Well intentioned enough, I’ll give her one more chance.

“Surely you don’t mean to tell me, that you worship Lady Hope here?” I say, my voice lowering. The girl looks uncertain for the first time, her smiling slightly faltering.

“Olivia.…” cautions Abe.

“Of course, of course I do,” she says, unsure of what to make of me. Sigh, some people can’t take a hint. I try to draw my character’s knife. It sticks, my movements clumsy. “Sorry, give me a second here, normally I’d just put my hand through your heart,” I tell her apologetically. The dagger pulls free and her eyes widen in fear a moment before it is in her throat. Blood gushes out all over me, warm and sticky.

“Ewww, is this what I keep getting on me? Wow, this is way worse when you can feel it. Glad my Pride washes it off so easily,” I say. Then turning to Abe as the girl’s body falls to the ground. “Seriously, what sort of shit designers made Lady Hope a Go-“ I don’t get to finish as I hear a roar of anger and see the business end of a pitch fork about to connect with my face.

Pain, actual pain, blooms in my mind and the world goes dark. What the fuck?! What the hell is that, where’s my Pride, wait, no, I’m in a game. Ok, sorry, lost it there a second, forgot I was in a game. My Pride is still working in the real world…right? Krieg wouldn’t have tricked me, would he? Not his style. Usually.

But what if he did this time? Yeah, I’m not hyperventilating. These system admin words telling me I’m dead mean nothing to me. Nothing. Not like I haven’t spent days in a pitch black place before, I’ll be fine. Just fine.

Cracks in the blackness flash, glimpses of the basement I’m really in. Larger cracks flash. Ok, I get it, I need to calm down. My Pride’s running so strong Krieg’s tech is starting to fail, the signals his little device is sending my brain no longer getting through. I breathe deeply, or whatever the equivalent is when you’re a disembodied consciousness waiting to respawn.

“You are about to return to life, player, try to avoid dying again in the future,” deadpans the administrative announcement.

“Don’t die again, sage advice that,” I say sarcastically as my body reforms. I see two halves of a large farmer with one hand clutching a pitchfork. Doesn’t look like I’ll be getting revenge any time soon. Turning to Abe I ask “You guys actually like this game? I just got killed in one hit by a fat forty-year-old, why can’t I play with my own powers?”

He shrugs, sending a cascade of blood off the axe he’s holding “The time compression the administrative A.I. Albion employs here is helping catch the age of our conscious experience up to that of our bodies. So that’s nice. And once we shove a lot of rare skill and experience potions Lilith and I collected down your throat your character will be a lot stronger. Though you’ll have to learn some skills, like dodging. Part of the reason we’re here.”

“I’m not sure which part of that statement I disliked more, the part implying time moves slower in game, thus more playing time moves me even further away from my dreams of a penthouse Or the part implying I might need to dodge something,” I glare at him. Not that I’d be stupid enough to take a direct hit from someone like The Butler on purpose, but there aren’t many people on the planet who could hurt me.

“Speaking of Albion, could you please not kill any more NPCs?” Lilith breaks in pleading. “There’s the game story deities, but he’s the real god of this world. Bad things happen to players who kill off people he’s not set to kill off….”

Lilith looks genuinely worried for me and I want to placate her. It’s not like I can argue the NPC was just a soulless automaton when my company is Lilith and Abe. The girl was an independent subroutine or a carefully scripted part of Albion’s worldwide play. The first possibility would allow for a fully conscious perspective, the way humans could be argued to be if there were a panentheistic God, potentially making her death the same as murdering some random person if you stick a pin in the soul issue.

But to Albion she’d directly have been an unessential part of him, either way, like his fingernail. And I’ve killed a lot of people I regret more than some girl worshipping Lady Hope. Sometimes you need to stick to your principles, even if means arguing with a god. I raise my arm high, pointing at the sky and shout.

“Is that right, Albion? You don’t want me killing your people? Then don’t make a deity out of Hope. Because I’ll kill anyone who worships her. Just like I’ll kill whatever proxy you’ve made for that bitch in this world. It’ll be a practice run.”