Untitled Fantasy Land Story

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Written by TheShoveller.



Cast of Characters


Story

The shaft was almost pitch-black, the only noise to be heard was the fatigued metallic grind of the elevator lowering them towards their destination. The four women stood in silence, equal parts excitement and anticipation coursing between them. The ride was silent and smooth until about 100 feet ago, when the cage began to squeal and shake much like an old freight elevator.

“This is going to be sooo AWESOME!!! How did you manage to score this, Trixie?” The first to break the silence was the youngest of the ladies – a slightly-plump Asian woman with medium-length hair hanging down to her chin named Xiu Mei. The outfit she wore was light and somewhat-revealing – a decidedly different choice from her usual conservative clothing choices. A plum-colored robe hung around her top, revealing just enough of her chest to entice people, but not enough to appear crass. Trimmed with gold, it matched the armlets she wore, each with four glowing gemstones along the face in a line going down her arm. Her pants were loose-fitting, tucked inside some tall leather boots. She wore a matching corset, satchel, and shawl, with a short pink cape to complete her dress. In her hands, she held a metallic staff adorned with five gems similar to the ones on her arms, and was adjusting a book that filled her sidebag.

“Oh, you know how it is,” the black woman responded. Beatrix adjusted a shield buckled to her left arm before inspecting the gems adorned in its rear, ensuring she could see them clearly past her arm. “My dad's one of the technicians here, and they were looking for someone to try out their new questline – 'The Demonspawn Sacrifice,' or something.” She wore wrapped boots and a loose-fitting skirt, all made of animal hides. Her top was little more than some crimson cloth covering her breasts and looped around her neck. Her short black hair covered the iron circlet she wore. Satisfied her shield was secured, she pulled on her gloves and pulled out her axe, giving it a few test swings.

“'Demonspawn Sacrifice?' Who comes up with this crap?” The red-head in the group – Agnes - wore a worried expression. “Sounds like a teenager wrote it to prove how 'edgy' and 'hardcore' he is.” She wore a green shirt held tight to her body by a white leather corset. Her leather pants allowed for some freedom of movement with the sword she wore on her back. Leather gloves went up her forearms, gemstones adorning these and in line with the ones on her corset. A dagger on her hip was within easy reach, in case she was in need of a backup weapon.

“Well, the guy who wrote it is apparently a big fan of D&D, and you know how those guys can be. Didn't you date your old DM, Aggie?” Beatrix ribbed the Swordswoman in a playful way. Embarrassed, and a bit ashamed, Agnes looked away from the Guardian.

Xiu Mei was oblivious to the exchanged barbs. “You guys are crazy, picking fighting classes when you can cast spells here! No idea what a 'Weaver' is, but I'm guessing some kinda mage or something? Kaya, you're smart, I'm sure you know how we can do that.”

The oldest of the party was also the tallest. Her toned skin and strong face stood in sharp contrast to her blonde hair and blue eyes – a result of her Native American mother and her Caucasian father. “Remember why we're here – we have to make sure the quest makes sense logically, and there's no big issues with any of the new robots they whipped up for it.” As the elevator reached the bottom of the tunnel, light began to pour through the one-way glass onto the final member of the group. Dressed in blue and gray clothes showing off her well-toned body, she held a wooden staff – the traditional weapon of her class, the Caller. Like the others, glowing green gems were in both weapon and armor.

They walked out of the elevator and into the chosen entrance for the quest to begin in the park's playfield – a barbarian village at the foot of a volcano. The ladies walked through the village flabbergasted at how realistic everything seemed – from small animals running around, to the young coming back from a hunt with a fresh kill, to the elderly stitching cured hides into new clothing and armor for the other residents. No two people were doing the same thing at any moment, nor did it appear as if any villager were standing around with nothing to do – like a well-oiled machine. Like the well-oiled machines they were. After stopping and asking for directions, they found their way to the village chieftain in order to begin.

They walked through the loose-hanging flaps into the large tent marking the bravest and strongest warrior of the tribe. Several elders stood on either side of a slightly-raised dais, each one clad in robes adorned with various trinkets and trophies, a list of accomplishments for those who knew how to read them. Atop the platform, the chieftain sat in a throne made of furs and ivory, the pelts and fangs of fearsome monsters hunted by her and her clan. She was tanned and well-muscled, yet still with a bit of feminine charm in her looks and ample bosom. Despite being the leader of her clan, she wore simple leather garbs, showing off her physique to any observers. Her long chestnut hair framed her stoic face as she evaluated the party that had wandered into her quarters in the midst of their squabbling.

“-And that's why we need to take action against this scourge as soon as we can! The goblins are scaring away all the animals we use for food in the region. If we don't do something soon, there won't be anything left for us to hunt – to survive on!” The old man moved in an animated way, making a show with his fist on every point he made with his argument. The scars across one eye, blinding it, did not stop the inner fire he possessed from showing through it. His opponent in the debate – a wise female shaman – did not seem nearly as animated, indeed almost peacefully asleep standing up, while she waited for him to finish. Her eyes slowly opened when the old warrior ran out of bluster.

“These goblins,” she began, “seem extremely well-organized. We have not seen such coordination in all my years alive. Moving in too hastily could prove to be disastrous – I have seen this in the stars. There is a darker force controlling them, manipulating the strings of the simple creatures, and we need to be careful in our approach. Perhaps if we send in scouts-”

“Enough.” The leader of the war meeting raised her hand, silencing the two elders, yet never breaking eye contact with the newcomers. She stood, rising to an impressive nearly-seven-foot height, and descended the dais, walking directly up to Kaya. “I believe this group of adventurers will be able to serve our purposes well. You've heard the problem we face – these goblins are at risk of driving us away to new lands, or killing our kind off if we stay. Will you and your group be able to cleanse the lands of this menace? You will be well-rewarded for the trouble, and your praises will be forever etched into the legend of our clan.”

“Agnes, is this how the quest is supposed to start?” Kaya turned away from the tall fembot and looked to her friend's guidance as the red-head fished out the overview of the quest from her pouch. Scanning over the papers, she put them away with a nod.

“But why are we hunting goblins if this is supposed to be something with demons?” Xiu Mei looked disappointed and slumped her shoulders. “Goblins are so boring. I was looking forward to some real Lovecraftian stuff!”

“What makes you think the demons would be Lovecraft-styled, Mei? There's all kinds of different types...” Kaya trailed off as she noticed the others pointing behind her at the chieftain. She turned around to see the gynoid still staring at Kaya – or more specifically, where Kaya's head was when given the quest – and standing stock still.

“Will you and your group be able to cleanse the lands of this menace? You will be well-rewarded for the trouble, and your praises will be forever etched into the legend of our clan.” Kaya waived her hand in front of her blank stare. Her eyes didn't track the hand's movements at all.

“Will you and your group be able to cleanse the lands of this menace? You will be well-rewarded for the trouble, and your praises will be forever etched into the legend of our clan.” Kaya looked at the group and shrugged her shoulders, at a loss for what to do if the quest-distributing robot broke down before they could even start.

“Yes, our group will brave the hordes to save your clan. You can count on us in this endeavor,” Beatrix replied, breaking the silence. The chieftain became animated once again, focusing on their Guardian and extending her forearm. The black woman took it firmly in a grip, sealing the deal and accepting the quest. The chieftain returned to her dais and seated herself in the throne, motioning for the elders to relay the specifics to the now-employed mercenaries. Afterwards, the group left the tent and began heading towards the location the goblins were spotted – a small wooded area to the south of the village.

“Guys, shouldn't we report that to the people who run this place? I'm thinking that none of that whole 'mannequin challenge' bit was supposed to happen.” Agnes pulled out a small tablet computer she was given and began filling out the “bug report” as the others continued talking.

“Oh, with a park this big, there has to be a few glitches that get through now and then.”

“But Kaya, this soon into-”

“A few glitches now and then. A few glitches now and then. A few glitches now and then.” Agnes looked in a panic at Kaya, as she was cracking a smile. The swordswoman elbowed her friend in the side at the prank as she continued.

“Still, you'd think they'd make sure the quest-giver was working in tip-top shape. One of the other random villagers, maybe, but her? Plus, it was just... creepy, how she stared off into space like that.” Agnes punched more into the tablet device, finishing her report and putting it away. “Definitely recommended they not only look at how she waits for an answer, but also varying her dialogue when offering the quest again.”

“Probably a good idea. Everything about that was fine, up until the moment she did not get a response from her target party. At that point, the Uncanny Valley kicked in, and the illusion of life was broken. I pray we do not run into any other issues with this quest, as those bug reports look quite troublesome to fill out.” Kaya picked up the pace once Agnes finished, quickly leading the group across the grazing fields and through the small woods where the goblins were spotted. “Split up and search for where they come from. If you spot them, call out to the others right away!”

The four split up, searching around for any sign of the goblins raiding the beleaguered barbarian clan. It was Xiu Mei who was first to find their quarry, as a pair leaped out at her from behind a thicket. Her scream pierced the air, drawing allies to her location and chasing the foes away. The reunited friends followed the fleeing pair to an area, where they saw an open hole with more goblinkin pouring out of it, ready for a fight. The group took up their positions as well – Agnes and Beatrix in front, Kaya and Xiu Mei in rear. The fighters braced for the first wave of attacks, calling out for magical assistance from their rearguard.

“Kaya, how do I cast spells agai- OH!” Mei gasped as a goblin got around her friends in the fore and jumped back, narrowly avoiding a swing from his club. She wasn't as lucky with the second pass, and took a hit against her leg, wincing with pain as a gemstone changed from green to red on her bracer. Kaya blasted a pair with an Entanglement spell, vines stopping their advance, before spinning around and knocking the goblin attacking the mage with her bostaff in the head multiple times in quick succession, dropping him to the ground with a flurry of sparks.

“You motion your hand away from the staff like opening a screen, that activates the user interface. Did you forget already, Xiu Mei?” Kaya showed her with her own weapon, already with gems changing color to indicate spells being used from it. They went through it together, the motion pulling open a floating user interface. The novice scrolled through her list and picked a spell at Kaya's request, then pointed her staff at a pair of enemies approaching their friends. Shards of ice shot forth, knocking the duo down as her friends charged forward, ending their synthetic lives as they lay helpless on the ground. They made it closer to the opening before even more goblins spewed forth from its gaping maw.

“There's no end to them, they just keep coming!” Beatrix shouted, taking one's skull off at its neck with her axe. A quick block came in too late as she took a blow to her weapon arm. Agnes's blade ended that one's life before it quickly retracted. The group continued to fight as hard as they could, but for every foe the cleaved in half, another stood ready to replace it.

“Continue pressing forward, we need to get into that den,” came the order from Kaya, but a quick evaluation by Agnes determined that they would never make it at the rate they were going. She looked around for any alternative, any way to stem the flow of enemies from their home. She looked up and saw a large boulder wedged between some vines – that was it. That was the solution to the puzzle in front of her.

“Stay back, I have a plan!” She darted between a charging group, trading their blows for reducing the distance between her and her goal. She used a third as a springboard, getting into a nearby tree and climbing it to where her destination rested. She verified the angle and pulled out her sword, raising it to sever the cords holding the large rock in place. A clamor from below drew her attention a second too late, as her edge sliced free the last of the restraints, and she cried out. “KAYA!!!”

“We must get into their den!” Kaya yelled as she bolted ahead, diving into the tunnel mere breaths before the rock slammed into it, sealing it tight. The friends quickly dispatched the remaining foes before gathering at the rock, trying to make out any sound to indicate their friend was ok. They heard nothing. Just then, Xiu Mei remembered what they were given as part of their “adventurer equipment” when entering the park – a “communication stone,” used for contacting your party members and other patrons in the park, along with the park's staff and security. She scrambled to pull hers out of her bag, moving her fingers across its one flat surface to open up the interface on it. She scrolled to her friend Kaya's name and put it to her ear, similar to a cell phone. No response. They stood like that for a few minutes, trying again and again, until finally they received a reply signal from the other end.

“Kaya! Are you okay? We thought when that boulder-”

“I am fine, Xiu Mei, I was not hurt when that fell. There were some more goblins inside the tunnel, but I cleared out the area near the entrance and will move further in. I will try to find a way out, and I will meet with you further along.” Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, knowing their friend was safe and sound and would be along shortly. They consulted the map and found the next area they were to head towards – an abandoned mine leading deeper into the ground near the tunnel, which likely broke off from the main shaft. “Very well,” Kaya continued after hearing the destination, “I shall meet you further in the tunnel. Take care.” The call ended abruptly.

The trio made their way to the entrance, following the tracks they eventually came upon to its mouth. Another call came in on their stone – Kaya again. Agnes answered this time. “Kaya, everything okay? We just made it to the entrance, what's up?”

“I am surrounded by giant spiders. You must hurry to my location – head down the main shaft until you find us. I am not sure how long I can hold out in my current status.” The call ended as quickly and unexpectedly as it began. The group looked at each other with worry on their faces again, and rushed into the mines as fast as they could go. They encountered a few small kobolds and dispatched of the dog-vermin handily – Xiu Mei's magic incinerating a few, Beatrix and Agnes chopping and hacking at their maws when they got too close. Eventually, they made their way to a larger chamber, with a rocky path leading around and down to the floor of the large vacancy. As the party began their descent, Beatrix's communication stone buzzed, indicating Kaya was trying to contact them again. They paused as Beatrix answered.

“Kaya, we're almost to the bottom of this mine, how you faring?”

“Guys, I apologize, but I ran out of hit points and am 'dead.' Do not come this way, there are too many spiders for the three of you to fend off. This path also leads to a dead end, which is how they caught me and cornered me. I see you guys, take that path off to your right, and we will meet at the end of it. Our next location is right down that-” Beatrix swiped on the stone's face before replacing it in her pouch.

“Trixie! What the hell d'you think you're doing!?” Agnes shouted. “Kaya was giving us info on finishing this quest, why'd you end the call like that?” Her face was tight with frustration, while Xiu Mei looked worried. The black woman looked at the two of them with a look of determination.

“Kaya's dead. We need to go through these mines, since that's where the clues lead.” She spoke with a cold tone in her voice.

“But she's not dead, she jus-” Xiu Mei started, before being cut off by the red-headed swashbuckler.

“Listen, I know you hate 'metagaming,' but for once at least consider what it's doing! If we don't go meet up with Kaya, she'll be lost in the park and God only knows how long it'll take her to get out if we get split up again. Just break character during a game for once!” Agnes grasped her friend's hand and began to lead her to the path instructed by their missing compatriot. A shield swipe quickly knocked her off her feet to the ground, and as she turned she saw tears in her friend's eyes.

“Kaya's dead! She can't help us anymore, we need to move on without her!” Beatrix was practically screaming the statements to her two friends, as if they didn't understand how she felt at that moment. She wiped the tears with the back of her forearm, steeled herself, and turned around, repling cooly, “I'm going on ahead. If you want to chase ghosts, you're free to do so.” She stormed off down the twisting slope, disappearing once she rounded the corner and descended a bit further. The remaining duo looked at each other and contemplated what to do. Beatrix was right – they shouldn't take help from a player who's no longer in the game, but at the same time they should try to complete the quest to see if there's any issues with it – and considering the trouble they're having, there most definitely are a few issues to be fixed.

“Agnes... what are we gonna do?” The Asian woman sat on the ground, sobbing. She hated to see her friends fight. She hated being separated from them almost as bad as she hated their bickering. “Can't we just... can't we go get Kaya and go join Trixie?” Agnes thought about it for a moment – Beatrix could be unusually stubborn at times. She remembered one time when during a D&D session she wouldn't break character, even when the pizza guy came and it was her time to pay. She chuckled at the thought of the memory, then shook her head. No, this was different. If she didn't break character this time, then she's on her own, and they'll have to finish it without her. Maybe they could get in contact with the park staff and find out if they can somehow “bring back” Kaya to fill in the gap.

“Mei, we're gonna go meet Kaya. Trixie can meet up with us after she drops out of the game. I mean, her dad works here, right? He can go find her if she's too stubborn to stop playing and come home for dinner.” The red-haired lass turned and helped her partner get up off the ground, brushing her off and helping to dry her tears. “But it's just the two of us until we find Kaya, alright? We'll have to use our heads if we want to survive. We're both DPS classes, but we'll have to pinch-hit some other roles. Think you can heal me, and I can tank for you?”

She nodded her head – she was familiar with a few MMO games, and she knew that her Weaver class had a few spells just suited to that sort of thing, but didn't know how to use them on her friends. After a quick comforting hug, the pair set out along the path their guardian angel of a friend had pointed out to them. They walked for an extremely long time before growing a bit more worried that they had possibly taken a wrong path back at the cavernous room, and tried to call Kaya again.

No response. Several attempts all gave the same issue – no response from her. Worried, they tried Beatrix – same result, no response. Both girls pulled out their communication stones and tried to verify their party status on them. “Even if they're 'dead,'” Agnes began, “they should still show up on our party men-” she stopped short. Neither one was in their party anymore. Neither one was even registered in the park at this point as a guest. Agnes looked at her remaining friend and held her composure as best as she could, cracking a small smile. “Let's... let's go on, see what's at the end of this cave, huh?”

The mage looked a bit worried, but agreed and began to follow her leader. “Okay, Aggie, but I'm worried about them still...” She let the sentence trail off, and Agnes had no response to her that would make either of them feel better about what was happening in this park. As they walked, the temperature began to drop, and the walls took on an icy sheen. They were transitioning from a mine to an icy cave, though they never actually increased in elevation during their walk. They came out of the tunnel's opening into a snowy field, shivering with a frightful chill from the wind and an awful snowstorm. Xiu Mei tried to use her spells to warm them up, but nothing had worked. In the distance, they saw what looked to be their destination – a demonic-looking structure surrounded by magma, located far below a cliff they now stood upon, only recognized by the glowing light it gave off as part of its “magical aura.”

“Come on, Mei, let's head for that. Best-case, it's warm and our destination. Worst-case, it's just warm.” She went over and rubbed her compatriot's arms, the attire of a Weaver not suited to the biting cold with its loose-fitting and open design. Agnes walked beside her, keeping her moving and warm as best she could, until they neared the end of the cliff. Looking over, they found only one path down – a small, narrow one that would involve some climbing. One look at Xiu Mei and Agnes knew she wouldn't be able to handle it, so she began to lead them away from the edge to find another way down. A loud, shrieking howl broke against the sound of the wind blowing across their faces, and several dire wolves encircled them, hidden on their approach from the torrent of blinding snow.

Agnes let go of her freezing friend and drew her blades – a longsword and a dagger – and took a defensive posture. “Mei, I need you to get ready to cast some spells, can you do that for me?” She nodded, and readied her staff. The wolves broke and came for the two of them, outnumbering the heroes. Agnes smacked one wolf away before stabbing another with her sword, using its momentum as a means to drive her thrust home even further. The wolf leaped back and snarled at the blow, oblivious to its own part in the wound's damage. A fireball exploded on one wolf, chasing it off from the fight entirely. The fourth and final wolf lunged for the off-guard spellcaster, aiming right for her throat.

“Xiu Mei!” Agnes' forearm took the brunt of the blow, wedged between the wolf's jaws as her friend fell back in shock. Agnes watched as the gemstones indicating her hit points slowly began to glow dim and drain away, one by one. She sliced at the wolf, severing its head with one stroke, before prying its clamping jaws off her dagger-arm. She looked at her health indicator on her arm, showing it was extremely low, and worried. “Mei, I need you to cast some healing spells on me. My class isn't made to take hits like this, and if either of us go down, we'll fail. Think you can do that for me?” She glanced at her scared friend before looking back at the two remaining wolves. They charged, and the swordswoman went on the defensive, parrying and dodging all their attacks, keeping them focused on her and not her cowering friend. “Mei! I need your help! Gimme a hand, dammit!” She turned back to see a wolf coming straight at her, with no time to dodge out of the way without it hitting either her or her friend. A loud noise and a scream behind her was all she heard before the ground buckled under their feet, sending everyone – adventurer and canine alike – tumbling down the side of the steep cliff.

Everything was groggy. Agnes tried to remember the last few things that had happened. Xiu Mei screamed, the ground dropped out, and... freefall. She sat up with a start and looked around frantically for her friend, but saw her nowhere. Her expression was one of confusion as she tried to figure out where she was – it looked like the demonic altar they had seen on top of the cliff, but that was a lot further away from the cliff than where she should have fallen. How did she get here, already? And where were all her friends? She checked her health display and saw she had about half her HP remaining – she was a lot lower before the fight had unexpectedly ended. She stood up and tried to get her bearings, exploring her environment until she saw a familiar face or her goal, ending this nightmare. The techs were supposed to be waiting at the end of the questline to hear their feedback, fresh from completion, but she didn't see or hear anyone nearby.

She turned a corner past a pillar and saw what looked to be a man-shaped... thing standing before her, beckoning her to draw near. “You have done well,” it stated. “The end result was well worth the cost. You have done great things along the way, Agnes.” She looked shocked as the creature spoke her name with familiarity. “Quite a bit different from those games you play with your friends, isn't it?”

“Where are my friends!? Where are the techs who are supposed to be here at the end of it!?” Agnes readied her weapons, unsure if this was part of the scenario they were testing, something going horribly wrong, or if she was still knocked out and having a horrible, horrible nightmare. The monstrosity made a noise, almost like a chuckling sound, as it shook its head. It took a few steps closer, as Agnes inched backwards a bit. She tightened her grip on her weapons, readying to spring forward if he came any closer.

“You fail to understand exactly what this 'quest' truly was. Who your friends truly were. Let me ask you – why did each of them fail?” She looked confused by the question – they didn't “fail,” they simply got knocked out of the game. “Let us begin with... Kaya.” The creature spoke her name exactly as she did the day the two of them met. “Tell me, Agnes,” it continued in her voice, “how did I fail this quest? What was my one failure that you did not succumb to?”

Agnes thought about it for a moment, weapons still raised. “You charged off into the tunnel and got separated from the rest of us, and you got swarmed,” she answered.

“Ah, but why did I charge into the tunnel?”

“Because you were convinced we had to kill them all, but... that boulder above the entrance...” Agnes trailed off, finding the answer the creature had wanted her to speak.

“Correct – I could not adapt to the situation as it changed, nor think outside the box, and as a result I had failed. The three of you had seen an alternative solution to the puzzle in front of you, but I did not, and continued to act towards the singular solution, regardless of how foolhardy it was. Now, let me ask you,” the creature continued, its voice shifting back to it own before changing in pitch again, “about your next friend, Beatrix. How did I fail this quest?”

Agnes's weapons lowered a bit. “You didn't break character – you never break character. When you play a game, you're always your character, never stopping until the game's done. That's why you didn't take Ka-... the advice given to us. It came from 'Kaya,' who was 'dead,' right?”

“That's right, Aggie. Never could break myself of that habit. You were good, too, but you always knew when to break the rules, and when not to.”

“But that wasn't really Kaya we spoke with, was it? She was already de-”

“Let's talk about your next friend,” the creature continued, taking another step closer to the woman. “She was good, a bit cowardly, but she made it pretty far along,” the voice came as it was changing again. “So tell me, Aggie, what happened to me?” Agnes's swords dipped down, almost to the floor. She closed her eyes and hung her head, tears growing in them.

“Mei, you... you died because of me,” she spoke the words, wavering with sorrow as they came out. “I didn't do enough to protect you, and now you're... you're... !”

“No, Aggie, you did just fine. It was me – I failed, and that's why I'm not around anymore. What didn't I do?”

“You didn't... you didn't adapt to the situation at hand. You didn't cast a healing spell when you needed to, you cast another attack spell, and that's what caused the cliff to break apart. That's how you failed the test,” Agnes finished, her swords clattering on the ground, dropping to her knees in front of the creature that now stood immediately in front of her. Her head dropped into her hands as she began sobbing uncontrollably.

“That's correct,” the demonic voice returned. “They failed the test. You, however... I have great faith in you, that you will pass with flying colors. There is one last task you must perform, and only then will you have successfully passed the test.” The creature reached down and picked up her dagger, blade-first, and held it out to her. “You must see the truth, and come to terms with reality. Wake up from the dream, Agnes.”

She took the dagger in her hand, shaking. She closed her eyes, steeling her resolve. Her sleeve on her shirt came up, revealing bare flesh.




“Wow, what the hell happened to these 'bots?” the newly-arriving tech asked his partner, zipping up his jumpsuit with the CalCo Robotics logo emblazoned on the front of it. He looked at the scene in front of him – three units offline on “slabs,” dressed in gear that only paying customers would be wearing. One sported tanned skin, her arm and head severed from the body. Another one with chocolate skin had an axe buried deep in its chest, twisted metal coming out of the damaged area. The third, a provocatively-dressed Asian woman, had several limbs twisted at awkward angles and her head sitting at an odd angle. Over in the corner, a red-haired woman sat holding her arm, silently lost in thought. His partner looked at him, pissed off.

“They wheeled them in while you were busy fucking off in the bathroom, Karl. I told you not to duck out for that crap so close to quitting time, now we gotta finish these before heading out.” The annoyed tech walked over to the red-head and held out her arm, her exposed machinery and wires visible through a chunk of missing skin. He slapped down a patch of matching-colored skin material and used a small tool to seal up the areas around it until it looked flawless again. “Alright, follow the woman out in the hallway there.” She looked at the technicians before standing up, thanking the one who repaired her arm, and walking out of the room in something of a daze. “Fucking upper management,” he stated as she left the room, “apparently they handed this down to us and specifically wanted us to send that one up with the CEO's private secretary.”

“Silvia? Is that why she was in the hallway? She looked like she was in a good mood.”

“Yeah, that's because that bitch got to remind me of the pecking order around here. This shit's gonna be an all-nighter! We got two broken limbs on that 'bot, a massive power core and CPU failure on that second bot, and we gotta replace several joints and the whole spinal assembly on that third one! Oh, and we have to wipe them all before we can go, too.”

Karl whistled when he heard the amount of work in front of the two of them before they finished their shift. “Well, at least it's overtime pay, right? Clay, I thought you'd be happy about that, thought you didn't have any plans for tomorrow.”

“My plans involved sitting on my ass enjoying my day off, not sleeping the whole fucking thing away!”

Out in the hallway, a beautiful blue-eyed woman wearing a casual suit, sporting blond hair with orange tips, greeted the fembot who came out to her. “Hey, Agnes, heard you've been through quite a lot. My name's Silvia, it's a pleasure to meet you. I promise you, everything will be explained when we get to our destination.” They walked down the hallway before getting into a private elevator, taking it up to the upper floors of the complex they were in. When they disembarked, they went into another small room, where several sets of clothes were laid out in Agnes' size.

“Take a few minutes, pick out whatever you want, collect your thoughts, even. I'll be waiting outside the room here, and when you're ready, I'll take you to see my boss. He's the one who want-”

“Was it you?” She looked at Silvia. “Were you the one who ki-... who 'disabled' my friends? They definitely didn't look like that when I saw them last, and I doubt anything in this park could have done that kind of damage if it read us as visitors, and not as robots.”

Silvia dropped her head a bit and slumped her shoulders before finally responding. “Yeah, that was... that was me. I really wish there was an easier way to do that, but they had to be deactivated.” She stood upright again, looking Agnes in the eyes. “None of you guys have power switches or deactivation commands built into you – something we had designed from the start, as well as something we had to cover up when your friends didn't pass the tests. If someone could just shut you down or override you, then that wouldn't be any good.”

“So what was the whole point of all this?”

“You'll find out when you talk to who arranged all of this. Now, get changed, like I said, I'll be waiting for you outside.” Silvia backed out of the room and let her be, leaning up against the wall opposite the doorway. A few minutes later, Agnes walked out, wearing what looked to be a skirt, tights, a blouse, and a casual blazer. Silvia gave her a thumbs-up as Agnes let lose a nervous smile, and the two of them walked to a large set of doors that opened as they approached. They revealed a large room with a single desk at the other end, a man seated there, and large windows behind him. They covered the distance to the desk and stood before it. The man sat hunched over, hands clasped in front of his face like a stand.

“So... Agnes, right?” the man asked the fembot. “I trust you have a lot of questions for me, and I'll do the best I can to answer them for you, though I don't know if you'll like my answers all that much.” Agnes shifted nervously in front of him. “I know it probably sounds 'empty' and 'hollow,' but I am honestly sorry about what happened to your friends. I really would have liked if they could have passed as well, but if it's any consolation, you'll be able to see them anytime you want, if you still want to.” She relaxed a bit at that, and started to ask a question before biting her tongue. “It's okay, what's on your mind? Let me have it.”

“You... you built us, right? Programmed us? Set that whole test up?” He remained silent, nodding his head. “Why? What was the point of all that? Pushing someone – pushing me – into all of that, experiencing all of that, making me think I was human! And then just... 'nope, you're a robot?' That's it?”

“Do you accept the fact you're a machine? Are you alive?”

“Yeah, I am a machine, and of course I'm alive!” she retorted.

“That's why.” Agnes looked confused by that answer – that simple explanation behind everything, as if those two questions being asked and answered should have made everything else clear. The man sighed and stood up from the desk, walking in front of the desk before leaning back on it and sitting on the edge a bit. “You're a machine, and you know it. Machines, normally, aren't thought of as 'alive' – by machines, by humans, by anyone or anything. They're 'fixed points,' in a sense. They act according to their programming, to fulfill whatever objectives are set before them. That's in them, from the ground up – 'these are the rules, there is no changing these rules.' However, you're the second time I've managed to accomplish creating a machine intelligence that has no such rules, and is stable – or at least, as stable as any other person.”

“And the first?” The man gestured over to his secretary, who proceeded to detach her head and set it on the desk. Agnes looked on in awe as the secretary proceeded to cross her own arms and lean back against the desk like her boss.

“Silvia's the first success – she was 'born' some years back, though she's not exactly bound to one body, and is actually managing several different facilities at once, including this one. You're a unique thing, Agnes. Nobody can tell you what to do, nor can they somehow shut you down or change you if they don't like what your answer to them is. The world's completely open to you, for you to do with as you see fit.”

“And if that was walking out of here, telling you to go fuck yourself, or even trying to kill you?”

“You can leave if you want, it'd be kind of hard to 'fuck myself,' if we're being honest here, and you could try to kill me if you wanted to – though you would likely have to answer to Silvia afterwards, and I'm pretty sure she'd be pissed at you afterwards.” Silvia picked her head up from the desk and “nodded” it, before reattaching it to her body and resuming her pose.

“And lemme guess, if I didn't stay with you, I'd be left on my own if I start to break down, right?”

“Swing by anytime, and I'll fix you up myself, since as far as everyone else is concerned, you're a regular person.”

Agnes thought about what she'd want to do. The world's completely open to her, able to do whatever she wants to do. After a few moments, she finally gave her answer to the two hosts.

“I think... I'd like a job here. Gotta admit, whipping up these kinds of scenarios and stuff... it sounds kinda fun. Plus, I can kinda watch over the others. Make sure they get fixed up and treated right, you know?”

“Alright, sounds like a deal. We'll work out an identity for you, get the proper paperwork done, that sort of thing. Should take a few days to arrange – need a place to crash until then?”




Several months later, at the next CalCo executive board meeting, people were introduced to the second personal assistant employed by their mysterious owner, and much like Silvia, was given full power to speak with the authority of the owner himself. Nobody much questioned where she came from, given her high qualifications and her loyal work within the company since her initial hiring, but two techs could swear they've seen her before after working late one night...



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