No... there must be more.
And you and I, son, we will find it.
— Peter Weyland, Alien: Covenant
The day Sarah’s boss had his second stroke was the day she quit.
Her job at Digidream was not bad; much to the contrary, it was awesome. She had been incredibly lucky to be selected for the position while being only twenty years old. She was in charge of testing different features of a highly experimental game that had been in the making for years and that was supposed to revolutionize the industry. It was so cutting edge that on occasion, even she didn’t have a clue about what it was exactly she was testing.
“Not the industry. We will revoltionize the whole society,” the owner and head of the company, Victor Anderen, was fond of saying. And he was so energetic and contagious that you would find yourself agreeing with him despite yourself. He was over sixty already, but he radiated the energy of youth, as if he and Sarah were of one age.
The first stroke had hit just a few months earlier, but Mr Anderen came back to the job barely two days after that, giving orders and pushing ideas among the developers. It was like nothing had happened to him, like he had just taken a couple days off.
The second stroke hit the day Sarah was testing the new suspension system, designed to maximize the player’s immersion. It had cost a small fortune (... well, maybe not so small) in research and development, but it was finally here: an individual levitation tank with a reticule of sensors that allowed it to register the exact position of your body, inch by inch, in order to gently push the air around you as necessary to keep you floating in place, without touching the walls or floor of the tank. This way you could let your body abstract itself from the sensory and positional feedback from the real world and get fully immersed in the game. Body and mind working together, or body and soul, as Mr Anderen liked to say.
“Mr Anderen, this is great,” Sarah said, impressed, as she explored the game world. She could barely feel the touch of the paper-thin VR band in front of her eyes, and the sound coming from inside the tank eliminated the need of earphones so there was no VR helmet or any other heavy devices weighing on her. She was wearing a skintight suit that communicated her motion and other data, like body temperature and humidity, to the computer. Floating in the air, with barely anything attached to her body, she abandoned herself to the sensations provided by the game.
“I wish we had finished the scenario so that you’d have more to see and hear,” the company’s owner said, “but we’ll have to make do with this rough draft.” His voice came to Sarah as if he was speaking from somewhere in the back of her head. It was weirdly intimate.
Mr Anderen’s words were a false apology: beneath the apparent complaint about the unfinished scenario, his voice betrayed his pride and satisfaction. And he had every right to feel satisfied. The place Sarah was exploring was amazingly rich and detailed, full of sound and vivid color, almost comparable to real life.
It was a version of the Enchanted Forest. The team had been working on it for months, artists and developers collaborating closely to get it just right, but they still had work to do. You wouldn’t be able to say it from being there, though. Sarah took a step and the grass and leaves emitted the appropriate sounds under the weight of her foot. She closed her eyes and listened. There were birds singing far away, and a gentle breeze played the foliage of the trees like a flute. She opened her eyes again. Light came to her in a burst, just like when you open your eyes in the real world. She let the breeze caress her scantily clad body. The game had equipped her with delicate, almost ethereal clothes, like those of a fairy. She was barefoot, and her loose hair danced around her in the playful air.
“Can you see this, Mr Anderen?” she asked, as a butterfly came to rest on her naked shoulder. She felt it tingling as the tiny legs touched her skin. She became aware of her own changed body too: the butterfly waved its wings against her ear, and the ear was big and pointy. She touched it with her hand. The tip of the ear felt just like it would feel if it were real. Her back had changed too: there were two zones where she could feel the weight and touch of parts that were attached to them where nothing had been before. Her wings. Her fairy wings.
“I can,” Victor Anderen said, his voice surging from somewhere in her own head. “And it’s beautiful. Why don’t you try flying?”
Sarah frowned. She had never thought of that, but of course this would be the litmus test for the new suspension system: flying had to feel different if she was actually floating in thin air instead of just standing on the floor wearing a VR headset.
Let’s see. How can I fly? If I try to move my wings...
She tried to concentrate on the areas of her back where the wings were attached now. There were muscles there, and she would naturally be able to move them. It was like raising an arm or a leg.
After a few tries, she managed to do it. Her wings trembled slightly, then agitated with more decision. A few seconds later, they were in full motion. But she was still on the ground.
Oh, that’s it. I have to jump. Then the wings will keep me in the air.
She jumped up. She didn’t make a great effort, maybe expecting to fail, but she found herself propelled upward by the force of her wings, and then hanging in the air from her back, like some clothes left out to dry.
It was amazing. And beautiful.
She arced her back and managed to get in a vertical position. She was a couple feet above the ground now, and it really felt like flying. She had to make a conscious effort to remind herself that she was not actually a fairy, but a human girl who was not in the Enchanted Forest but in a levitation tank inside a high-tech building.
She pushed forward with her torso. Her body responded instantly. Now, she was flying.
She felt the dampness in her face as tears of joy ran down her skin. She hoped Mr Anderen wouldn’t notice. She pushed forward, and felt the acceleration.
Suddenly, something happened.
It was like a very faint tickling, embracing her whole body at once. It lasted for a fraction of a second. It was accompanied by a subdued, almost imperceptible buzzing sound, and a legend appearing right in front of her. It was written in greenish blue letters, slightly glowing, partially transparent.
|Skill acquired: Flight|
A notification from the game.
“Oh, they changed this,” she muttered, as she kept flying.
“We did. It’s more organic now, and less invasive. Do you like it?”
“Yes, it’s way better,” she replied, descending on a new area of the forest, where the vegetation was thicker and the sunlight had more trouble to pass through the foliage. The sounds had changed accordingly. Now she heard fewer birds singing and more creatures crawling and climbing the trees. Insects, of course, but maybe serpents as well, perhaps some monkey. It was more jungle than forest in this place. They must have made a compressed map for this test. If I keep going, there will be a beach and then a castle and then some snowy mountains and after that, maybe a modern city.
She took a walk, stopped, turned around, and concentrated on the sensations. She gave a small jump and she was floating again.
“It’s... it’s awesome, Mr Anderen,” she said. She couldn’t find any better words. “I’m here. It’s like I’m really here. Floating in the air, and I have wings. I can really fly. And I feel the breeze and the sounds. It’s a completely different experience. If this passes all the tests—”
“It has passed your test. This is all I needed. Sarah, I trust you completely.”
Sarah felt flattered. She couldn’t help it. She had been working so hard for this, and now the game was really taking shape, partly thanks to her. It was a beautiful thing what they were building, so beautiful she had cried.
“Is it changing?”
“What?” Victor Anderen asked.
“The forest. It’s changing, right? These vines weren’t here a moment ago.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I looked all around and they weren’t — hey!”
The vines had taken hold of one of her feet. She jumped up and took flight, but she was pushed down again. Now she was beginning to despair. Well, this is certainly immersive, she thought as she struggled to get free. But the vines kept crawling aroung her leg, then the other. I forgot that this is just a simulation. I should be ashamed. The vines kept encircling her. They went around her knees, then her thighs, sliding over and under her tiny fairy dress. Sarah started panicking again. Even though none of this was actually happening, the sensations were all too real. She felt the pressure and the harsh, muddy touch of the vines running all over her skin, trapping her in a deadly embrace, threatening to rip her clothes off and crush her delicate wings. They were already closing around her throat when she mustered the energy to scream.
And then it was all gone.
She was floating inside the levitation tank, staring at a huge, dark, almost empty room. Victor Anderen was there, eyeing her with a worried expression.
“I’m sorry, Sarah. Must have been a glitch,” he said, with forced casualness.
She opened the tank and climbed out. She was still shuddering from the experience.
“Oh, it’s no problem,” she said. “I guess it’s good, actually. It was incredibly realistic. I totally though I was about to die for a second. I know it was a glitch, but it felt so real. It’s the most immersive experiencie I’ve ever had, even since I started working here.”
“And you had a big part in that.”
Victor Anderen was smiling now. He let his hand rest on Sarah’s shoulder. He was a tall man, handsome for his years; the impeccable suit fit his air of authority.
“Well...” Sarah said. She felt almost naked with the skintight suit, and wanted to change her clothes and leave. She was supposed to meet Mike at ten, and it was already past nine.
“I can’t stress enough how important you’ve been for this project,” Mr Anderen said. “You gave me valuable data at every step so I could envision the game world and mechanics.” He looked straight in her eye, and his tone became passionate as his grip on her shoulder became stronger. “Sarah, we made this together.”
OK, now things are taking a turn for the weird, Sarah thought as she shook his hand off her. She had become aware of the strangeness of the situation. No other developers or testers remained on the building; only Victor Anderen, Sarah, and security personnel. This test had taken place unusually late. Now Anderen was getting personal and maybe too physical.
What did he really want to test?
She felt a deep uneasiness growing inside her. All this time, she had thought her talent on the job was being appreciated... she felt flaterred that this genius, the head of a revolutionary company, was so fond of her work. And yet...
“I—I’m sorry, but I have to go now. I have a date with my boyfriend,” she said.
The fact that it was true was completely irrelevant. Suddenly, Sarah wanted to be out of there as soon as possible.
“Oh, come on,” Mr Anderen said, his voice dripping disappointment. “We are making history here. Is your boyfriend doing anything of the sort? What is his legacy?”
“I don’t care,” Sarah said, and gave him a shove. “I quit.”
It was not a violent shove; it was caused more by fear than by anger. Mr Anderen looked surprised.
“Don’t you understand? You’re so special,” he said. He grabbed her by the waist, and tried to kiss her.
“No!” she shouted for a second time. She kicked him in the groin and gave him a new shove, this time with all her strength. She sprinted toward the door and ran through the hall. A few seconds later, she was outside.
Well, that was easy.
At about a hundred feet from the building she turned around. She had heard Mr Anderen shouting faintly, or so she thought; but what did she care? She needed to keep running, get as far as possible as fast as possible. And yet, she turned around. Maybe looking for something to convince her that this was a simulation too, that it wasn’t really happening.
As she looked inside the glass building she saw the man running feebly, his suit still impeccable, raising one arm, surely calling for her. All of a sudden, he stopped dead in his tracks and collapsed on the floor. He was clawing at his chest, as if he wanted to rip his own heart out.
Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.
What should I do?
Even if she wanted to call 911, she had no cellphone; she had left it inside the building in her escape. She was only wearing the minimal suit and the ethereal VR band. She could start yelling for someone to come and help the guy. On the other hand...
The Digidream building was tall and imposing; its body of glass and steel glistened in the night, quietly. There was no one around that she could see. There were several parking lots, a couple of dimly lit pubs in the distance, a skating and parkour circuit (closed, of course, at this time), and a few scattered houses with the lights off. Nobody would come to his aid. And why should they?
She took a step, then another. Then she was sprinting.
What am I doing? Am I going to help him? And how?
If she could get to her cellphone... a call to the emergency number. Yes, that’s it. I can call 911 while I run home. It will be quick.
But then she saw the men in white rushing to Victor Anderen’s aid. They crouched beside him, spoke to him for what she could see. She stopped dead and decided that this was the help he needed. She had nothing else to offer. So she turned around again and ran home.
There are security cameras everywhere. They will see what happened. But what will they see? Which part will interest them more? Me kicking the boss and running away, making him collapse. Oh gods, I need help. Mike will know what to do.
But when she finally arrived, exhausted, sweaty, and completely out of breath, Mike was nowhere to be found.
What she found, stuck to the inside of her window and handwritten in big red letters, was a note.
It consisted of just two words.