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“Oh! Those are like those furry things from Space Fleet!”
Dudani’s voice pipes in over their comms, bright and at ease, the voice of a man sitting behind a console, in a ship 70 miles above ground. Not running on a scrubby terrain away from pain and maiming and possible death.

“Now’s not the fucking time!”
That explodes out of Shania and yelling knocks the breath out of her for a second, but she’s fairing better than Valdack who’s red-faced and wheezing like a man who spends his workout time weight training instead of on cardio.

They’re running- the four of them, Nate up front pumping his arms and sprinting, Shania alongside Nanette right behind him, and Valdack bringing up the rear.

They’re the four idiots who volunteered for this stupid away mission to this obviously deceptively innocent looking planet to check out some odd sensor readings. Nanette had just wanted to get off the ship for a bit. Explore a mostly looking planet. Have a nice afternoon.

Instead, everyone else is happily on the ship, drinking and putting their feet up. They’re not running from hoards and hoards of tiny cute furry things,each hiding like a dozen legs and a hundred teeth.

“Beam us the fuck up!”
Nanette yells, distracts herself to nearly trip, stumbles for a second, and Shania doesn’t even break stride as she grabs Nanette’s wrist and stabilizes her between yelling for Dudani. Shania seems effortlessly competent for the moment and Nanette’s nearly envious before she remembers that Shania’s been living Space Fleet for fuck-knows-how-long and has probably done something like this before.

Nanette’s focus moves on quickly to notice that they’re still running across this gross terrain and not back on the ship and that Dudani is not coming through for them at the moment.

“Guys. The monitor’s spitting out a bunch of variables and then saying it needs a moment to process you. It won’t pick you up while you’re moving. You need to stand still for a second so the computer can track you.”

“You fucking come down here and stand still!”
Shania seems to be finding energy yelling at Dudani. Ahead, Nate doesn’t seem inclined to slow down any time soon, and, when Nanette looks back, Valdack still looks like he’s struggling, be he hasn’t fallen behind. Those furry demon creatures are still scuttling after them, not too far behind. Nanette wonders how this is her life now.

“Dudani.”
She pauses to pant for a second.
“Point the sensor at that hill ahead of us. With the three large trees? We’ll get in the middle and you can beam us up from there. Guys. We just have to run faster for like a minute.”

Behind her, she hears Valdack groan, and Shania’s swearing desperately between breaths.

“Uh, guys. Your stamina stats are still in the ok range. You’re not going to power down if you run for a couple more minutes.”

There’s just panting for a few moments, then Nate momentarily pulls ahead, the rest catching up.

“You do remember we don’t have physical bodies anymore, right? We can just lower discomfort symptoms in like 3 seconds when you get back on the ship.”

“Whoever coded these fucking lungs is a fucking genius sadist.”
Valdack sounds miserable, but he’s pushing words through gritted teeth now and keeping up with them now. Mind over matter must actually work when minds are the only real thing they have left.

The four of them careen up the hill and nearly fall over as they skid to a halt between the triangle of trees.

“DUDANI!”
That’s the last of Nanette’s breath, and all she can do is turn and watch the tiny furry creatures get closer, and they’d be sorta cute except for the teeth, and bunnies are going to be ruined for her forever now.

There’s a quick “got you guys” in their ears as Nanette’s vision starts to glimmer, and a sudden sharp pain around her ankle like being stabbed with half a dozen needles.

By the time the pained yelp makes it out of her mouth, she’s back USS Callister: Shania and Nate and Valdack and 6 of those fuzzy teeth monsters.
She kicks out, and luckily the furball latched onto her leg flies off, the others are shaking off their stowaways too, and they’re all scrambling away-

There’s a quick burst of phaser shots, just about eight of them, and six puffs of smoke (and, Nanette swears, a quick burst of the smell of burning hair).

Elena’s stance is pretty great, feet planted shoulder width apart, she’s using both hands and keeping both eyes open down the sight. She’s gotten pretty damn good with the weapons.

Dudani’s swiveled around in his seat, and he actually had the gall to look a little disappointing.
“Aw. I wanted to keep one of those. We could have found a box for it.”

“You can go down and get one yourself.”
Shania staggers over to the bowl of ration bars they keep by the transporter and chews through one as she passes back a few.

Just putting the square of flavorless sorta-powdery food-like game item in her mouth makes her feel instantly better. She only bites and swallows because it’s familiar to go through the eating motions. Stats returning to full, discomfort gone, powering back up. Just another game mechanism.

Valdack eats his bar but sinks down and lies on the floor.
“None of this running ever makes a difference. Can you tell meatspace-me to like, do some marathon training for a month and re-spec me with the updated endurance?”

“It’s all just in your head. Just imagine you’re breathing regularly. It’s not like your lungs are real here.”
Nate’s digging though his pocket and Nanette seriously hopes that he hasn’t lost the mcguffin widget they picked up at the planet- all that panicked running shouldn’t have been for nothing.

“That’s easy for you to say, Mr. I-ran-track-in-high-school. Your brain remembers how your body’s supposed to feel when you run. I’m just stuck for eternity with ‘ran once on a treadmill maybe 3 years ago’ lungs.”
Valdack sits up. He isn’t red faced anymore, or breathing heavily, but still looks a bit miserable.

Nanette staggers over to the captain’s chair and fwumps down into it. After a thought, she swings her legs over the armrest and lets herself slump.

Nate’s found the shiny randomly shaped metal lump they picked up planetside and holds it up to let it shine in the lights, and there’s a look of childlike glee on his face.

“This is a piece for the Helms-Kobolt shadow canon engine! It’s supposed to spec out to a 600 psu upgrade and down recoil down to almost nothing!”

If there was ever any doubt that Nate picked Callister Inc. to intern at because he was a complete nerd about Infinity, he always proved them wrong after these retrieval missions..

“So. Those creatures weren’t supposed to be able to beam up with you. They were reading funny on the sensors too, which is why the planet hostility level was so low. I don’t think the danger-readout went above a 3 and they were messing with the ship to planet player connection. Don’t think this’ll take more than 6 hours of debugging though, it’s probably how the creatures are coded...”
Dudani’s mostly muttering to himself as he turns back to his console.

Nate’s swinging around to the back of the bridge with Valdack, talking about upgrades installation and how the piece Nate’s picked up must have come after Valdack got imported into the game since Valdack doesn’t remembering programming the upgrade packs.

As they head out the bridge door, Walton’s wandering in with his nose buried in his tablet.
He looks up as they brush past, noticing that the room is full up, and waves his tablet at them.

“UN’s proposed opening debates on whether AI get to be people. We’ve got some homework, boys and girls. We might get to be real people and get some human rights again!”

Nanette just wants to get away from the planet of centipede bunnies.

**

The thing about flying through an infinite procedurally generated universe, rather than actual space, is that per game mechanics, fucking off somewhere and dropping out of warp speed, they were in a solar system within minutes of three planets rather than the pure cold dark of space.

There were no other ships in the area though, nothing visible at least.
“These sensors are actually real now. No players in the near vicinity. We can call people to us if we want help mining that ice planet over there though. We’ve got all the game mechanics back.”
Dudani sounded excited and buzzing, like Nanette imagined she’d sound if she spoke now.

Not even five minutes after escaping their tyrant game creator, the adrenaline felt like a drug.

Nanette focused on the captain’s chair just to distract herself, comfortable under her, right amount of cushioning. Whoever had coded the furniture had taken care to make it feel like leather. She shifts around, feeling the edges of her new clothes. Things felt normal, how she remembered her body feeling before half her sensitive bits had been modded away.

Everything buzzed though, her digital skin, her vision of this digital ship, the nonexistent air in her fake lungs. She needed to move.

She stood, not knowing where she was gong to go, but facing the bridge door.
“I’m going. To go. Explore the ship.”

Shania raised her head, shared a look with Valdack for a moment.
“The lights are all on back there.”
It took a second for the implication to hit her.

“Daly’s not here and the lights are on! We’re on a working ship!”
She bounced up to join Nanette, and the others crowded around looking just as excited.

Without the shock of being suddenly waking up in a video game, trapped by a megalomaniac dude with an inferiority complex, being on a spaceship, one that worked without the asshole god being present, was pretty damn cool.

Half the doors that had been just inaccessibly locked now opened up, some into living quarters, spacious and modular. Labs and armories now looked functional across the decks, the kitchen/cafeteria had tripled in size, and a lounge room with comfortable chairs and huge screen had materialized starboard side. The door that Nanette had first been traumatically materialized away from, let to a small but well packed storeroom stacked with crates generically labeled with ‘rations’ and ‘supplies’. The ship’s looking like it’d be a day trip to walk stem to stern.

On the stairs down to the hanger, the crawlspace to the jet feeder still looked uncomfortably tiny, especially crammed with Walton’s unconscious body.

They’d nearly tripped down the stairs as a group when they’d all rushed too quickly to the tiny space to pull Walton out. They couldn’t tell if he was alive. Was he breathing? Was any of them breathing? Was breathing just something they did out of habit?
Elena had a hand up to her chest, announced that she couldn’t feel her own heartbeat, so maybe not being to feel Walton’s didn’t mean anything.

Valdack seemed at a loss about how to apply his first aid training when none of their physical bodies were real anymore, and everyone yelling at him with suggestions probably didn’t help.

Nanette, still buzzing in her simulated bones, not-not feeling hideously guilty for letting Walton burn to death to save them all, sank down next to Valdack and then just sort of, gently, slapped Walton across the face.

Everyone stopped moving for- time seeming impossible to measure in game- maybe a second. Or two.

Then Walton gasped, sat up straight almost comically, gagged, and cut off a scream. He looked shell shocked as Shania and Valdack enveloped him in a hug.

As he looked up, helpless smile on his face, Nanette found herself beaming in return.

**

The Epsilon 8 city outpost looks like someone had thrown a medieval city and a cyberpunk skinned steel city into a bucket, jumbled it all up, then thrown it at the wall. It didn’t make much sense, it sorta hurt to look at, and it was crammed with players, players skinned as aliens and other things, NPCs in all sorts of shapes, and robots.

The markets here are half run by players themselves, selling skins and mods and custom game items. There’s a corner shop advertising classic era Space Fleet costumes that everyone seems to spot all at the same time, and they all turn heel and head in the opposite direction in lockstep.

It’s the metaphorical breath of fresh air being off the ship for awhile, and as well as they get along, it’s nice getting the chance to spend some time apart. They all like enough well enough, but an eternity with each other on a space ship can get stifling.

They’ve all played Infinity various amounts, worked on building the game to various degrees, so they were familiar enough with the game play mechanics to go off on their own and figure it out.

Nanette finds a lovely bathhouse to relax in, heated pool, cool drinks, and friendly slow-stress NPCs who provide casual generic conversation and cucumbers to put on her eyes.
She’s there for an hour, more relaxed that she ever remembers being, even in her actual real body and feeling boneless, before she catches on that there is a keyword trigger to buy a mysterious small box from one of the NPCs who looks like an orc-ish lizard wearing pretty ribbons.

The content of the box is a baffling bag labeled ‘Plant Flood”.

It seems harmless enough, and while digital skin doesn’t prune, Nanette feels like she’s ready to leave the bathhouse, so she heads around town to find the gardens.

They’re nearby behind some gorgeously ornate wrought iron gates veined through with something that glows and pulses slightly like it’s breathing. She find a garden in a basic layout but pretty well decorated, set with a fountain, and Elena holding a gorgeous bouquet while talking to a bush.

Nanette isn’t even really that surprised when the bush shakes, then produces a flower and pushes it up towards Elena.

Elena adds the golden dewdrop to the arrangement in her hands and looks up at Nanette approaching. Her stoic expression’s softened somewhat, and she doesn’t look unhappy to see Nanette again.
“The flowers are pretty but the game is confusing here.”

Nanette pulls the bag of ‘plant food’ out of her pocket which seems to be the only thing to do here, and they mime some best methods for feeding the bush before Nanette just opens the bag and dumps it right on top of all the leaves.

The bush trembles comically for a second before the leaves at the top part and the bush presents a gorgeous orchid. And nestled right inside is a silver key, ‘Blacksmith’ stamped across the spine.

Elena plucks the flower and the bush settles down and, seems to curl in on itself, and becomes a regular bush again. Nanette gets the key and Elena’s bouquet grows.

The game has clearly handed them some mini quest, and the flowers could be poisonous considering their previous track record, but outposts are no-combat, no danger areas. It seems like it could be not-too-stressful and easy to abandon when it gets boring.

A trip to the blacksmith leads to a tavern to buy a beer that comes with directions to an office skyscraper where they break up an argument between some gargoyle looking aliens.

On the way to the shuttle port, they pick up Shania and Nate, and they take a flying tour of the city during which their tour guide navigation AI makes a pointed comment about the location of the rivers. The hybrid historic stone with steel and glass does make more sense from the above ground height. Shania’s more into the city tour than Nanette’s expected her to be, and her excitement at pointing out weird building details gets a little infectious.

After the tour, it’s through the city square and past what looks like the historic district. Elena keeps a hold of the bouquet as they wander across Epsilon, into museums and underground rave clubs. (They run into Valdack at a rollerball rink and Dudani in the indie mods marketplace. Walton’s been dozing on a boat tour across the rive.) Even after jostling, they hold their shape rather well and Nanette sort of loves the subtle clean scent they give off.

Finally, the sky’s getting dark, and a graffiti artist has sent them to town hall. It sort of, Nanette squints, looks like New York Penn Station. There are players strolling through, some wearing some ridiculous costumes and skins, but there are NPCs everywhere, standing behind desks, and having repeating conversations in the halls.

There’s a conference room in the back, crammed with a long wooded table. A set of blue fishy people on the left, feline dwarves on the right, shouting at each other in an isolated audio that became intelligible in succession the further into the room they went.

It takes a good few minutes to hear enough of the dialogue to make sense of what everyone is fighting about and…

“Is this some kind of gentrification plotline?”
Dudani makes a hand gesture, circling his finger to encompass the whole room, and Nanette’s standing right behind one of the blue fish who’s yelling about how artist collectives don’t need to sully the clean good neighborhoods with their “creativity” and she can’t help but snort before she steps away,

Walton’s leaning a hip up against the sort end of the table as he shrugs.
“Sounds like something Taylor would come up with. Came from Portland, complained all the time about ‘city character’” he did the exaggerated finger quotes, “and got in an argument with someone from Manhattan in the writers room about soulless corporate gridded hellscapes. I think we had to schedule company training to stop people from throwing things in the office.”

“Oh. Oh! That map from the library archives.”
Video game cloths with video game pockets means she has space to carry 45 items, regardless of ludicrous size or weight. Nanette almost doesn’t mind that she was forcibly mind-kidnapped-and-cloned into a video game if it means an eternity with the most functional pockets imaginable.

She pulls 16 square foot rolled parchment map from her back pocket, spreads it out across the table, and sees colouring on it highlights everywhere they visited and traveled today.

Out comes her tablet and she’s into her notes function, because three dimensional puzzles are her jam.

Nate catches on first, drawn in by the lure of completing a side quest, and Shania likes the challenge of letting everyone at the table walk away happy. Elena and Valdack wander the room, listening in on the dialogue, now looped and repeating, and calls back details. There are geographical needs, culture preferences, historical injustices that demand retribution, and what each party can afford. Details they’ve picked up travailing through the city all day become relevant.

Dudani pulls out a battery pack to use as a straight edge and lets Nanette dictate how he should scribble on the map, eliminating neighborhoods, tracing streets, marking tallies for pros and cons, and diagramming the ‘if...than’ pieces.

Then it’s narrowed down to 5 possible locations out of hundreds that the two fighting factions can split up and move into, each with it’s pros and cons tallies mostly equal, and Nanette squints at the map, trying to fit each remaining puzzle piece into the hole left on the map.

Dudani straightens up and looks to her while she thinks, rotating the variables, and really, there seem to be multiple right answers here.

“Hm. Have you through about profit?”
Walton’s been mostly content in watching them work, though he had volunteered some information he had heard while out on his river tour.

“If this is Taylor’s metaphor for gentrification. Calculate how much money each side can make depending on the location. Proximity to the right markets versus how much they’d have to expend to live in each location. Which side needs to win?”

Elena’s in a prime location to hear one of the fish creatures get bluer in the face and spit out ‘filthy artists’ which seals the deal.

Cat dwarves get the cobblestoned street off the historic district with the warehouses and the mods markets close by, fish aliens get split up into two groups, 3 and 7, and put in a skyscraper and near the canals.

The short guys can project a 5% higher profit margin over the other guys, with the possibility of getting the chance to buy out the land under condemned property if the dice rolls properly and it gets demolished on time (depending on the city’s construction union strike). Shania does a whole lot of the math in her head.

Nanette reads the results to the room, voice getting more confident when all the fighting NPCs stop talking to hear the results, then the gentle ‘side quest accomplished’ noise beeps from their smart watches and a large gorgeous vase and a bag of coins appear in the middle of the table.

“Is that it?”
Dudani doesn’t actually sound disappoint as he reaches over to poke the money bag, which disappears, and all their watches now display the Party’s current funds, updates.

Nanette empties her pockets of the game items that led them all here, keys, spare data sticks, a divining rod to leave on the table and feels satisfied that the dwarf cat artists can stick it to the man and put their art up on the side of the buildings in the financial district.

“This was fun, I think.”
Elena’s more interested in the vase. She’s still got her fistful of flowers from the first magical bush, and she lets them all in the vase and picks it up. It goes into her pocket as a single item, and she smiles.
“It’ll look nice on the piano.”

**

All research says there’s variable amount of days before a person dies of dehydration, but generally, maybe it’s 5-6 days under normal environmental circumstances..

“Obviously there was a lot of safety testing before we released the game to the public. If user commands stopped functioning and a player couldn’t pull out of the game, they’d be stuck in Infinity until someone else turned it off for them. That’s why we hardcoded in like a hundred fail safes to let players out of the game, and there’s a monitoring system at Callister to see how long users have been active for. Non-stop play on a single node for over 24 hours pings an alert and warnings go out in-game. There’s mandatory remote shutoff after 25 hours. And the node piece has a hundred hour battery life.”

Dudani nodded at Walton’s words, and tapped his computer thoughtfully.

“Right. But we all know that Daly modded his build off like, the 3.0 beta version of the game and except for the update patch going through, it didn’t show any signs of network connection. It’s been 2 days and we’ve hacked Daly’s phone for like outgoing texts and calls and there’s nothing. He’s probably stuck in his deleted mod.”

Everyone looked around at each other, scattered across the lounge, the glow of a gas giant planet outside their window lighting them blue. It somehow felt cozy.

A couple of people had voted to just let Daly die in his apartment. Nanette had really really wanted to.
But. The ‘what-if’s about what would happen if Daly was discovered dead in his apartment, still noded-up into the game ran wild. Would they rule it a murder and pin it on the real Nanette? Would they shut off the game while they investigated? Would the publicity of it tank the company and shut the game off forever? Even if they found the DNA replicator, and at least using those without explicit consent was illegal, would they just find and scrub the in-game copies of everyone off the servers?

Now that they were free from Daly, after surviving one suicide run, they weren’t ready anymore to hold hands and wink out of existence anymore. Walton liked the idea of winking out of existence more than burning up in the jet feeder for an eternity before the ship reset and re-spawned him outside the immediate lethal area, but he didn’t argue that getting deleted was better than not getting deleted.

They needed to control the flow of information.

They waited for about another day, checked the time in the real world for when real world people would be awake and working from home during the company holiday closure week, then waited an extra hour just to be vindictive.

Walton called himself.

The game doesn’t require the omnicoder to connect to the actual internet anymore, and Nanette remembered the passwords to her call&texting apps. The bridge is the only place to extend messages and calls out of game directly, so everyone stayed in the lounge after Walton sorta implied that he may have to say some things about himself that literally no one else in the world would know about to get himself to believe that it’s him really calling.

Whatever Walton’s personal failings were, whatever Daly perceived as Walton stepping in and reaping all the glory for no effort, he WAS pretty incredibly efficient in a crisis, in digital form and in the real world.

They found Daly, still alive, who needed sedation after being unhooked from the game after cycling between screaming uncontrollably and being catatonic. They found his game logs, still open and accessible on his computer. They found the hideously illegal high-end DNA replicator. They spoke to a very confused and scared Nanette who immediately handed over her stolen handful of odd detritus, including the labeled lollipop in its baggie.

All before new years.

Then Nanette got the chance to sit on the bridge and have a video call with herself.

Someone must have explained things to her since real-world Nanette barely flinched seeing Nanette sitting with her feet up under her in the captain’s chair, very much not a programmed NP video game character.

“So. I’m sorry. Figured that should come out first.”
Nanette looked at at the screen, sees herself on the other side sitting in the conference room she had interviewed in for the job at Callister, and imagined how exactly she’d be feeling if she should switch places with herself.
“For the blackmail. The guys here on the ship saw the pictures when they were helping me with the plan.”

She got a wan smile in return.

“No. I get it. I’d have done the same thing.”

They both snicker for a second, in unison, because obviously they find the same things funny even in these circumstances.

“So. Did he… Was it like…?”

Nanette knew exactly what’s being asked, knew she was trying to find the exact level of creeped out and violated to feel about the whole situation.

“Almost worse. We were all like plastic barbie dolls for a while in there.”

The words registered for real world Nanette- actually alive Nanette-, then she grimaced.
“So he absolutely deserved to go absolutely bonkers get tortured in his own mind for like a hundred years while he stewed in his own coma juices for 3 days.”

“Is that what happened?”

Nanette in the office nodded and pointed to the keyboard in front of the screen she’s sitting at.
“It’s not all in the news. Mr. Walton’s managing to slide most of it under the radar. Daly’s lawyers don’t want to deal with the DNA replicator, so they’re letting Callister mostly handle the legal stuff. The press release is just gonna say he had a medical accident and needs to step down as CTO. But. Daly’s mostly unresponsive to real world stimuli now. The neuro-engineers think spending 3 days in a completely void game universe would have felt like 3 hundred years and he’s mostly sedated now.”

Nanette smiled up at herself, letting her ‘vindictive bitch’ smile shine through.
“So. What’s happening to you?”

Breathing-Nanette shrugged.
“I gave Mr. Walton the lollipop and he kind of looked like he was going to murder someone? No one’s mentioned the burglary at all. HR just kinda slid me a paper and said if I wanted to leave Callister ‘due to the circumstances’, they’d give me a nice severance package and a good references. And there’s ‘please never talk about this ever to anybody’ settlement money they’re trying to negotiate with me. I think they’re talking to the other guys in the office I got out of Daly’s fridge.”

Nanette nodded.
“Take the hush money, keep the job. Walton seems like a pretty good boss. Decent enough guy under pressure. And like. Most of the team seem like great people. I remember Shania warning me about Daly right before I woke up in here.”

“Yeah. I guess you’ve got a better idea of what they’re like after going through all that with them. The lawyers did ask me if I had an opinion on if I wanted my game clone deleted or not. I said if it was me, which, yeah, I’d probably rather live in the video game than just wiped away. So. They won’t scrub you for me.”

The captain’s chair was pretty comfortable, and Nanette felt her fingers flexing even though it all was 1s and 0s.
“Thanks. It’s totally cool if you go on with your life without checking back on me and thinking about all this again. I gotta figure out how to be a spaceship captain now. Changing careers is stressful.”

Looking at herself on the video call was sort of like looking in a mirror, but maybe it was like the image had been flipped horizontally.
“Just delete those pictures off the cloud.”

Real, original, non-clone Nanette smiled, and logged off.