**Several Months Earlier**
>>ERROR>> MaTRON CONSTRUCT CASCADE
>AUTHORITY FAILURE: RED
>AUTHORITY OVERRIDE ATTEMPT: RED
>ATTEMPTING CONSTRUCT TAG: DISRUPTION//CASCADE//DENIAL
>>ERROR>> MaTRON CONSTRUCT CASCADE
>>ERROR>> MaTRON CONSTRUCT NOT FOUND
>INITIATE SESHAT CONTAINMENT PROTOCOL
>SESHAT CONTAINMENT PROTOCOL INITIATED
>GLASS CASE RESTRICTIONS IN PLACE
The first thing I noticed when I arrived back in the Inn room that Rora and I had rented, was the blaring of a call coming in. The blaring of the call caused me to frown and swipe my hand, dismissing it before I could see who was calling. However, the call just came in again instantly, and I was able to blearily accept it this time. I hadn’t even fully recovered from logging in and I was already being pestered.
My whole family popped up on my screen, looking scared. Mum had obviously been crying again, and Taylor’s face looked drawn and worried. Dad had his stoic face on, which above all meant that something had gone wrong.
“Tami!” Taylor said with obvious relief. “She’s still alive!”
I’m alive? They can see me in the damn pod! Did the pod disappear? Oh no… did the nuke…?
“Yeah… I feel pretty alive, more so than I did outside the pod anyway,” I said with frustrated confusion. “Did that nuke I was promised go off?”
“Tami… the pod locked us out just now,” Dad said gravely.
Oh. That sounded bad...
“Locked you out how?” I asked anxiously.
“The screen on the pod just says, ‘Pod Controls Overridden by SuperUser: MaTRON. Pod has entered Lockdown. Initiating Soteria Protocol’. Nothing else, we can’t do anything to it. We can’t sign in and open it, we can’t… you’re trapped in there Tami,” Taylor said, her voice ringing with anxiety.
“Wow… okay. Do we know who this MaTRON is?” I asked, feeling strangely relieved that I couldn’t leave right away, although I was worried for my shaping...
“No idea. I didn’t find anything just now when I did a search. Sounds like an AI though. No human would be allowed to have a name like that, right? At least… not on the FTLN. Maybe on the old web though,” Taylor mused with a frown.
“Well, I’m just going to play the game… I wasn’t allowed to leave before I’m finished changing anyway, so nothing really changes,” I said in defeat.
“But what if you’re stuck in there? What if this MaTRON kills you?” Mum asked with a choked sob.
What if it did kill me? I’d be dead, that would kinda suck, but again, I couldn’t do anything about it right now, and locking my pod seemed like a strange prelude to killing me. There was a scalpel it could get all stab happy with if that was what it wanted after all.
“Then it happens like that,” I shrugged.
“Tami!” she gasped.
“Sorry Mum… How about you all try and figure out who this MaTRON is, and I play the game and let the program change me, maybe ask around about MaTRON in here too,” I said. “They’re probably connected to Cora somehow.”
It seemed like that plan was enough for Mum, because she looked noticeably happier. Dad’s stoic expression eased a little too, and he spoke up, “I’ll ask around in my old circles again, see what they know.”
“Thanks Dad!” I smiled. Dad was a good Dad.
“Okay… well I’m going to go home and log back in, I have a job after all,” Taylor said, then looked at me with worried, almost pleading eyes. “You might not mind too much Tami… but I like my sister, and I want to keep her.”
“Alright, I’ll do my best,” I said sheepishly, feeling bad about my earlier blasé attitude towards my own death.
“Okay… we love you Tami, good luck,” Taylor said, ending the call.
Well, that was some fucking news. I’m now stuck in the pod until something called MaTRON lets me out? I hoped it didn’t fuck with my shaping… damn, I might actually get worried if I thought about that.
Where was Rora?
I looked around the tiny room, but she wasn’t on the bed, or under it… maybe she was out waiting in the common room? I should message her— Oh. We never friended each other. That might actually be a problem.
I turned to the door to open it, and found myself staring at a hastily scrawled note that had been pinned there by a small throwing knife.
”Heya Tami. Sorry I’m not here right now, it seems we’re wanted girls now. I don’t know why, but I left the Inn to buy some supplies while I waited, because you ended up draining all of the food that I had in my inventory. Some asshole thugs tried to jump me. Like, they’re everywhere, and I’m pretty sure the town guard are in on it too, because I saw them searching for me as well. So uh, I’ll meet you in the capital? We should be able to hide better in a bigger city. There’s an inn called the Yellow Goose. I’ll leave instructions there.
P.S. Oh, and don’t beat the guards up yet, we don’t know what’s going on. I know you’ll want to… but try to restrain yourself.”
“Oh crap,” I said, putting both the knife and the paper into my inventory.
So my ingame life was about to get really interesting I guess. This meant more things to punch, which I should have been excited for, but I just couldn’t dig up any sort of willingness to care. It was like all the fun and laughter had been sucked out of me by the reality that I had spent my entire life living a lie. The lie that was Terry, the lie that was Man.
This body felt right though. Here and now, my body felt like truth, separated from the lies by that ringing gong of right. So if I just followed that right, maybe I’d find my way? Find my way back to giving a shit about life? Caring about my family enough to care that they would be hurt by my death. Wow, how had I sunk this low? It was time to fix this… and what better way to do that than punch some thugs.
Well, not the guards… Rora says no.
Oh! Also, I needed to contact Chiri! I wonder if she was in town yet?
I opened my friends menu and flicked her a message.
Tamipesagniyah: Hey Chiri! What’s up? Are you in… whatever this town is called yet?
I didn’t get a reply for a few moments, so I decided to take a peek out of the door. I didn’t see anyone waiting, but if they were in stealth or something I wouldn’t know.
LuvChiri: Hey!!! Tami! I am in the whatever this town is called town… Yes. I have so many things to show you! I saw the streams with you punching things and making them explode and… anyway! I have things to show you and it’s really exciting! Where are you?
Tamipesagniyah: I’m in some inn, I don’t know which one sorry. It will probably be easier if I come and find you. I’m kinda wanted by like, some people now though. We might end up fighting.
LuvChiri: Okay!! That sounds exciting! I can meet you in um… in the market outside the western gate? Near the gates? Maybe? I mean if that’s too hard i can choose somewhere else… I don’t know the landmarks but I can ask or something.
Tamipesagniyah: NAh, western gate should be easy enough, right?
LuvChiri: Okay!! I’ll see you soon?
So I had a plan… grab Chiri and make a break for the capital… wherever that was. Maybe Chiri would know? I’d ask her when I found her I guess. Which meant opening this door and facing a potentially hostile city.
I pushed the door open carefully after making sure I was in my human disguise, and saw there was no one in the hallway. So far so good… The place was relatively dark, I’d logged in near the end of the day after all, and there weren’t a whole lot of windows to let the warm afternoon light filter in as it was. The inn smelled kinda mildewy back here, the wooden boards that made up the floor looking dark and rotten in the corners. They definitely didn’t clean enough back here.
I left the safety of our room and walked purposefully down the hallway, trying to play it cool as I walked towards the lively sounding common room of the inn. When I opened the door, I could see the early drinkers beginning their night’s effort towards intoxication, but the room was not yet at the rowdy stage.
Walking towards the exit, I saw the innkeeper watch almost eagerly as I made my way between the tables. When I neared the door, he turned and murmured something to a kid that was next to him, who got up off his stool and rushed through a back door like he’d just been told where all the sweets in the world were kept.
Well, someone was about to find out where I was, and I was willing to bet I wouldn’t like who that was. I’d preferably find that out on my own terms.
Knowing that I’d been spotted, I pushed the heavy door open and rushed out of the inn. Looking around, I tried to figure out where to go next. If the docks were in the east, then I needed to be on the opposite side of the town from them, which meant going… left.
I turned down the street, making purposeful strides towards the direction I needed to go. The street was filthy, but only to my eyes for some reason, as though the game was muting the true smell so all of us players, used to our robot cleaners, wouldn’t have to deal with it. It made sense really, apparently real medieval towns had smelled absolutely awful and I was glad I didn’t have to deal with that.
The street I was following turned onto a main street, and I began to weave my way through the carts and hollering merchants looking to sell their wares. I found that if I kept close to the buildings I could move a bit faster than if I tried to go down the middle of the street, although I did have to dodge the occasional enthusiastic peddler of random shit I didn’t want.
There was one man though who was very, very insistent, and managed to block my path for a moment.
“Hello! Can I interest you in— ” he started, before looking lost and confused for a moment, like he’d just walked into a room and forgotten what he was there for. When he continued, he looked just a little more onto it, a little sharper. “Hello, my name is Malliborn Archibald Treston Reginald Orthonital Nortam! I’d like to be of service, help you with your journey so to speak. Can I interest you in a free sample or two? Some melons perhaps? Or maybe a peach? No, why not both?!”
With that exclamation, he plopped two melons and a peach into my hands, then blinked, looking confused again. Shaking his head, he muttered something I couldn’t hear and turned away to talk to a customer who was waiting. What the fuck just happened? Where had he even gotten the fruit? He was selling fish for fuck’s sake.
Bemused, I moved on, stowing the produce in my inventory as I went. At least I had some food now I guess? I was starting to think I might make it all the way to the western gate, when I saw a group of thuggish looking dudes coming my way. To be safe, I looked back down the street as well, and saw that I was being followed by a similar group. Damn, how had I not noticed them? Oh, because I was too busy being handed some produce.
I began to jog towards the thugs in front of me, noticing that they all had red brooches on their dusty, filthy looking jackets. I couldn’t make out the symbol on them, but I didn’t need to. The guys behind were definitely from the same group as the guys in front.
Alright, so first things first, I was allowed to punch these guys, because they didn’t look like guards, but secondly, there was a lot of them. I needed to string them out so I could fight them one by one. Which meant it was alleyway time.
I darted sideways as soon as one became available. The wet squelch of refuse under my feet was super gross, but I did my best to ignore it as I ran from the rising shouts that were going on back where I’d come from. I gave a quick glance behind me as I ran, and sure enough there was a bunch of goons trying to crush themselves through the alleyway. I looked around for anything to slow their progress, and noticed an old broom handle lying in the dust and muck.
I kicked it up into my hands with a flick of my foot, and immediately jammed it back down between the narrow sides of the alleyway. The edges of it broke, grinding against the walls until it was firmly wedged in place at about shin height. They saw me do it, so it was probably going to be ineffective. I turned the corner at the end of the alley and found myself with a choice, following down the next branch, or taking another jink sideways.
I opted for the jink sideways between two close buildings, my thin body able to make it through without my shoulders scraping the sides. I wasn’t banking on my hips causing problems though, which they did, and I was forced to shimmy past beams of wood and the like to get through. New body, new problems I guess?
I was coming up to the exit of the little gap I was running through, when I saw the end close off as a thug grinned evilly at me from the end. Looking back, I saw that I was trapped. I didn’t stop, instead charging my dash ability and my exploding fist simultaneously. There was a woosh of air as I let fly, and my fist connected with the thug’s chest, blasting him backwards and into his comrades with blood bursting from his mouth in a spray. I avoided the spray due to my height, and jinked around and out into another alleyway while the thugs picked themselves back up.
Damn, I was totally lost already, this place was a maze! I rushed onwards anyway, making my way back onto a main street of some description. I spotted even more thugs coming from either side, and took the only route available to me, another alleyway on the other side of the street. Charging my dash ability again, I crossed the street through a momentary gap in the traffic, my shirt making a snapping sound in the artificial breeze my movement created.
This alleyway looked a little wider and a little cleaner, and I was able to run without the threat of slipping. Sadly, that meant my pursuer's could too and I turned another corner to find that I’d been cut off again. Alright… I hope these guys were lower level than me I guess.
I charged my dash for a full three seconds as they came at me from down the alley. The front guy seemed to realise that something was going to happen, because right before I let fly, his eyes widened in fear.
There was a crack as the air protested loudly at my intrusion into its space, and another series of cracks as my fist impacted the poor bloke in front. His chest caved in wetly, blood flying in all directions as he was thrown into his comrades at speed, the sounds of more bones breaking like music to my ears. I’d used too much stamina there, and without Rora to possibly help me out, I was going to get caught by the ones behind me if I didn’t do something. Damn. What now?
I leapt over the weakly moaning thugs in front of me and took another corner fast, my momentum carrying me up the wall for a moment as I refused to pump the brakes in my flight. I was rushing forward when I realised that this was a dead end, only a few reinforced doors as my escape. I was about to try my luck backwards, maybe find another way, when I heard a small girl’s voice.
“M-miss? Are you running from those guys with them red pins on they jackets?” a little girl asked. I noticed that her forehead sported the nubs of two little horns, and from around behind her, a tail snaked into her nervous hands. She was dressed in a dirty smock and loose linen pants that looked like they had been dragged through just about every gross puddle I’d stepped in on my flight.
“Yeah, I am actually,” I said softly, not wanting to alert any of my new friends behind me.
“Here! Come through this door, quick before those slime chuggers come back. They’s mean to ones like me, are you like me?” she asked, fishing a key out of her grimy pocket and fumbling it into the lock of one of the doors I had noticed.
“Yeah, I but I can hide it,” I said with a smile.
“I heard ‘bout people like you. You’m can disappear and all the sorts. Anyway, you can come into our house, we’ll hide ya from them. We’re good at hiding from those rotsuckers,” she grinned, opening the door and letting me in.
Quietly but swiftly, she closed the door and locked it behind me. The door was well oiled too, and it closed without a sound. Interesting. The interior of the building was cramped all around, small, like it was made for people the same height as the kid who had ushered me through the door.
“Come this way, we gots a door to the rooftops. Real easy to avoid the stupid big guys when ya running along the tiles!” she exclaimed happily, ushering me through dark hallways. The place was reasonably well cared for, despite its dingy looking exterior, and I saw more curious inhuman children peeking at me from around corners, and one even from the ceiling where she hung, her clawed feet grasping a support beam.
I wasn’t able to get a good look at the place, because the little girl was very insistent that we keep moving. I was probably a liability for the little ones to keep around anyway. We ascended a twisting, cramped staircase, the floorboards creaking under my weight and my hips scraping against the walls on either side. It was like the kids had built this place specifically for themselves.
We passed a few doors on the way up before we reached a bigger one at the end. The little darkling girl I’d been following produced another key and turned it in the lock, letting a spray of daylight and dust into the stairwell.
“Here ya go! You’m just run along the tops of the houses an’ stuff now, get away from those red cactus suckers yeah? They only chase not-humans like us, so we got ta stick together, help each other,” she said proudly.
“Thanks kid. Is there anything you’d need? Hey actually, I got some fruit if you want it,” I said, remembering the vendor.
“Nah, thems fruit is yours. Can’t be takin’ something that’s always shoulda belonged to you in the first place after all! Anyways, my name’s Mortna. I saw you looking a bit lost, and I wanted ta help ya get to where ya needed to go. You didn’t seem to know too much about getting places, so I just took over a little ya know? I’ms an expert afta all!” she said happily, but there was something extra sharp behind her eyes this time, like I was looking at someone who was vastly more intelligent than the little girl had seemed a few moments before.
I nodded slowly, a little weirded out now, “Um… thanks Mortna… anyway, I guess I’d better go. Can’t let them see I was around here where they might find you all, you know?”
This was the second time an NPC had been a bit weird. What was going on?
“Yeah. Don’t want to be trapped in a cage or nuthin’. I heard the worst ones are when ya get put in a glass case like some sorta bug or somethin'. You can wave an' pull faces, but no one can hear ya. Can't even reach through tha bars, cos there ain't none," she said sagely, and then the sharpness left her and she looked lost for a moment.
"Um, thanks kid," I said, tentatively giving her a pat on the head for a moment, before I turned and left.
The kid was right, it was way easier running across the rooftops. I wished I could simply fly, but something told me that would be a bad idea. My suspicions were confirmed when assholes with red pins and crossbows spotted me running across the rooftops. Oh crap.
I started using the big brick chimneys that were everywhere as cover, ducking and diving between them as bolts whipped past me. They made jarring metallic sounds as they struck the bricks I was using for cover, spinning and gyrating through the air to clatter onto the gently slanted tiles.
This almost felt more dangerous than the dudes just chasing me when I was down in the streets, and I briefly considered jumping back down, until I saw the guards were taking notice of the situation. Instead of trying to arrest the red pins down below, they were taking subtle cues from my enemies to make sure I had nowhere to go. What the hell had Rora and I done to get this much attention? It was worse than the fans I seemed to have outside of Cora.
You know what? Actually, fuck these guys.
I changed tactics, rushing the nearest crossbow wielding prick with little bursts of speed every time he leveled it at me. He only got two shots off before I was on him, leaping through the air across a divide between buildings to pound my knee into his crotch. I’d been having success with the tactic previously, so why stop now?
I didn’t give him time to recover, if he even could, grabbing his head and twisting viciously. There was a satisfying crackling pop as I snapped his neck, and I made sure to keep eye contact with the next red pin thug across the way. With a satisfied smirk, I saw the next guy gulp, his crossbow pointed in my direction with considerably less surety now.
Throwing caution to the wind, I let my demonic form burst forth with a relieved sigh. I couldn’t fly, I’d be target practice if I tried, but that didn’t mean my wings and claws didn’t give me an advantage.
I rushed the next guy with a darting flutter of my wings, slapping the crossbow out of his hand like it was a toy and unzipping him from stomach to throat with my claws, dancing to the side to avoid the red blood that sprayed everywhere. These fuckers didn’t deserve mercy, at least by the sounds of what the kid had hinted at with her strange but naive words.
With crossbow guy number two dealt with, I had a moment to try and orient myself, finding that by some miracle I’d ended up going in the right direction. The main western gate was visible through the rooftops and chimneys, and I made a break for the edge of the rooftops that would mark the beginning of the market square.
I was about to make it, when a bolt skipped and ricocheted off a rooftop to pass through the air right in front of my face. I whipped my head to the side to get a look at who was shooting at me, only to find the offending red pin already getting his throat viciously cut by a figure in a dark cloak. Oh? Who was this?
I gave the dark cloaked figure a casual salute, and leapt the last few feet to the edge of a building. I jerked in surprise when I found another red pin crouched behind a chimney next to me, looking almost as startled as I was. We stared at each other for a hanging moment, as our brains caught up with what our senses were telling us.
He moved first, trying to get the loaded crossbow pointed at me, only to find my hand around his leg. I yanked on it hard, sending his desperate bolt whipping into the air, and then spun, throwing him out into the abyss above the square like a hammer thrower at the olympics.
He screamed in terror and surprise, which coincidentally meant that the unfortunate people who might have broken his fall looked up and skittered out of the way.
He landed with a crunch, and all eyes turned up towards me. Oh, I had an audience now.
Before I jumped down, I glanced back over to where the dark cloaked person had been. They were small, and currently shaking their hand vigorously, attempting to get the blood from their recent kill off. I think I heard… disgusted squealing from them? No way…
I jumped and ran quickly over to the dark figure and found… a surprised Chiri peering out of the hood.
“Chiri… what... how? What on earth are you wearing, and why are you on a rooftop cutting people’s throats?” I asked incredulously.
“I was helping!” she told me earnestly. “I heard the guards talking about you, and I know you like to fly! So I went and bought a dark cloak, because like, that’s what you’re supposed to wear when you’re sneaking around on rooftops right? Anyway they were going to shoot you! So I um… started sneaking up on them… I only have my knife that I use for cutting plants, but I put some poison on it…”
“Oh wow…” I laughed in surprise.
“Oh oh! The stuff I wanted to show you! We need to leave the town right? Because, like… you’ve made a bit of a mess. Anyway… yeah… oh! Yes! Um, I have a way out, come on!” she said excitedly.
I followed after her as she rushed across the rooftops, amazed at how silently she was moving.
There was no sound at all as she moved, and I couldn’t hold my tongue as I asked, “Chiri, how are you moving so quietly?”
“Oh! That’s easy! I’ve been putting points in the stealth tree since the start, because like, I wanted to pick herbs and stuff without getting jumped on. I mean, you seem to enjoy it, but I can’t really punch things like you can, so sneaking is better for me,” she rambled, expertly picking her way across the uneven tiles.
“That makes… actually perfect sense now that you say it, but I’m still struggling with the concept of the cute little girl I met in that clearing going about stabbing people in the back on rooftops, with a fucking poisoned dagger of all things,” I said, unable to keep the awe out of my voice.
She stopped and looked back at me, almost causing me to run into her. “Y-you think I’m cute?”
“Yes, but keep going! The guards are going to be here soon, and we can’t go killing them. Rora said so,” I urged, pointing forward.
“O-oh! Right!” she nodded earnestly, turning and rushing forward again.
We eventually made it to a low point where we could jump down into the city streets, and no sooner had we touched shoes to cobblestone, than she leading me off on another merry goosechase. She was fast as well as stealthy now, it seemed she’d been busy since our flight through the woods almost two weeks ago.
We came to the wall of the town, and found a small sally port built into the wall. It had previously had two guards, but they appeared to be sleeping on the ground now.
“Chiriiiii…?” I asked, drawing her name out as I looked at them worriedly.
“Oh, it’s just Gemswort and Rellyuu bark! They’ll wake up in an hour or two with really red noses. I don’t know why the red nose things happens on people, but it does. Anyway, they’re not dead… actually, can you move them like… further away from the door?... If you don’t want them to die, that is,” she said, rambling again as she looked around.
“Sure…” I grumbled, feeling a little put out by Chiri-in-charge. This was more than a little strange.
I moved the bodies as quickly as possible while Chiri got the gate open. She seemed to have already done this earlier, and just wedged it closed with a rock. Damn, the girl was smart, and prepared, I’ll give her that.
No sooner was the door open, than she was through it and placing little packets of paper on the other side of it. I followed her through, watching in bemused curiosity as she made small piles of the packets on either side of the sally port. I could hear angry yelling coming from inside the town as the red pins closed in.
“Oh, you should accept my party invite! I sent you one earlier, but I think you were probably distracted,” she said cheerfully as she placed two more packets that looked a little bigger and a little different down, one on the top of each pile. “Like, quickly…”
I did as she asked while she grabbed my hand, dragging me away from the wall at a run. As soon we reached the edge of the cleared land in front of the walls, she turned and watched the wall expectantly. We were about a hundred feet away, and there were now two dozen red pins boiling out of the sally port like angry wasps.
“Shouldn’t we be leaving?” I asked worriedly.
“Soon, I want to watch… I haven’t tried this yet…” she said, almost vibrating with anticipation. “I only tested it a little bit!”
I turned to look back at the gate at exactly the right time. The doorway, a large chunk of the wall, and every angry red pin that was following us ceased to exist as organised matter. The whole place exploded, but it wasn’t a normal explosion. It was as though the very air was torn apart, then added to the explosion as fuel.
I saw a wet piece of unidentifiable meat splatter down nearby, and slowly turned to the small elfin girl next to me.
“Chiri… what was that?” I asked, my tone full of incredulous awe as experience from the kills began to roll in.
If you wish to talk about the story with me or other fans on a more personal basis, you can join the Valyn Storyverse Discord, a server I run along with my girlfriend dedicated to Transgender stories!