+ + +
It was a Monday evening when the staff members of 「Q's Server」 congregated to hold their monthly meeting.
Ordinarily, it was held on the last Friday of every month. However, Supervisor @Synbius circulated a message on the staff bulletin requesting for an "urgent meeting" due to the extraordinary circumstances of MagnoliaCorp's recent acquisition by Tencent — and the related announcement that the public servers for 「Magnolia Online」 were shutting down.
Somewhat begrudgingly (and after a lot of hair-pulling), a quorum of staff members was assembled.
Otherwise, it could have been any other ordinary October evening.
+ + +
As per tradition, the diverse crowd of somewhat odd personalities crammed into the first floor of the 「Tower Library」, which frankly at its current state was never designed to hold more than a few dozen people.
「Q」 never quite explained the philosophy for her architectural design, but the 「Tower Library」 was essentially a thin spire that stretched high into the sky. Each circular level was no wider than a comfortably-sized reading room, and a long staircase spiraled along the outside wall. The result was a fairly cozy central living space that was unique to each floor. Meanwhile, endless stacks of bookshelves lined the circumference of the perimeter.
It was fairly self-evident that 「Q」 prioritized coziness over volume. The library was the perfect size for a handful of bookworms to comfortably lock themselves indoors for the rest of eternity, but it clearly lacked the scale to support a steady stream of daily visitors. The 「Tower Library」 would never be able to serve as a popular tourist landmark without getting congested.
By some regards, the architectural style actually made total sense, if one thought carefully about it.
「Q」 was a digital hikikomori, and the library was essentially designed for anti-social introverts like herself.
+ + +
Kiu tugged lightly on the sleeve of @Synbius's avatar.
"Do you really have to hold this meeting here?" She sounded slightly distressed.
The black-haired reclusive girl was currently holding an armful of textbooks and loose paper. The largest volume was an extensive treatise on European history, and minutes ago she had been writing notes for her school's collegiate dual-enrollment class. She was also carrying a few other supplemental resources, including Voltaire's Candide and Hamilton's Federalist Papers, which were reference materials for a half-written word processor assignment open on her tablet. The most eye-catching point, however, was a sizable cloud of multicolor floating sticky notes that levitated and followed her wherever she walked.
There was a steady din in the library as various users chattered with each other in the background. More avatars continued to flood in through the front entrance, and they squeezed into any inch of space they could find. Fairly quickly, the entire room gained the atmosphere of a crowded undergraduate university dorm party.
Kiu, on the other hand, was decisively evicted from her usual Monday evening study space.
Supervisor @Flan inserted herself apologetically into the conversation:
"Sorry 「Q」 — but this meeting is really important. You know how hard it is to gather everyone across the world together at once."
"I told @Synbius last time that there are plenty of bigger spaces on the server. Almost anywhere else could have been fine..." Kiu was indignant.
@Flan glanced back at the other head supervisor, Syn. They shared a silent exchange of mutual understanding.
Kiu deactivated the sticky note application and promptly started to put her things away.
"I'm leaving." Kiu stately simply. "I'll be on the sixth floor if—"
"Please stay." @Synbius promptly interrupted her. "The meeting is here because you wouldn't show up if we picked somewhere else. We've gone through the effort to bring the entire 「Assembly」 to you, so the least you could do is maybe sit and listen for a bit."
The black-haired girl froze midway in her tracks.
The middle-aged man folded his arms and watched her quietly. Syn was not usually a person of many words, so his deep voice carried a certain weight each time he spoke. Combined with the perpetual frown that was always etched onto his face, Syn had the intimidating aura of a scary person that most people were reluctant to cross.
"If it's no more than ten minutes," Kiu spoke slowly, her tone of voice quite dry.
"Twenty minutes of your time, max." Syn replied.
"Tch." Kiu was clearly unhappy.
+ + +
@Flan clapped her hands together at that moment, as if to relieve the tension in the air. She turned around to face the crowded room.
"Great! Let's get started then! Is everyone here?"
Her voice projected over the mass of people, further amplified by an invisible microphone that she had switched on. However, the volume of background noise did not lessen in the slightest. At best, there were only a few stray comments from isolated pockets of individuals who were actually paying attention.
"@Vesrian731 isn't here," someone joked.
("Shh! That's tasteless comment.") There was a poorly-concealed whisper in response. ("He's banned, you know?")
"Who here doesn't know?"
"Guys, I'm here! And I'm not late! For once!"
"Oh, I haven't seen you in ages, @Flair!"
"Raise your hand if you're not here!" Another joke came.
"I think all the new staff promotions are here except @Kurotora2."
"I thought he said he was coming?"
"The idiot got sick running around in the rain yesterday."
"Is that even probable?? The current rhinovirus vaccine covers 158 out of 160 possible serologies, so it's virtually impossible to catch the common cold unless you're stupidly unlucky."
"Thank you for the completely unnecessary explanation, Doc."
"Shit, my cat fell in the toilet."
"Oh, on that note, does rain really cause cancer? My mom is always nuking my ass for not bringing an umbrella."
"The published data in the literature are rather premature, but preliminary results suggest—"
"Can we stay on topic please?" @Flan interrupted with slight exasperation. "We have an agenda to stick to..."
She struggled to project her voice louder.
Kiu fidgeted awkwardly in her seat.
+ + +
"We have a lot of new faces with us today, so I just wanted to take a moment to welcome the newcomers to the group."
Eventually, @Flan managed to wrangle the attention of the audience under control.
"We're a fairly casual and relaxed bunch, and there will be a social mixer later tonight. But for now, if you haven't met me — I'm @Flan — and the other guy over there is my co-supervisor @Synbius. You should come see us if you have any problems."
The flax-haired girl briefly twisted her torso aside to avoid blocking her colleague, and Synbius held up his arm to be identified.
"We'll run an orientation later this week on the console commands for any of the new staff who are unfamiliar with the Magnolia system. 「Q's Server」 is very light on rules, but we do have unofficial guidelines for all of our members. As part of the moderation team, you're expected to be on the same page as the rest of us. Make sure you attend the mod team meeting for your local timezone, and we WILL come find you if you don't show up!"
The slightly threatening glint in her eyes was mostly teasing in quality. Flan remained mostly lighthearted as she switched topics.
"I also wanted to take the opportunity to introduce 「Q」 — which I'm sure that all of you have heard lots about — even though she can be hard to spot on a regular basis."
@Flan glanced over to meet Kiu's eyes.
"Could I have 「Q」 stand up for the audience?" She continued to speak cheerfully as she held Kiu's gaze.
However, the black-haired girl immediately developed a surprised look. She hadn't expected to be included in @Flan's speech, and she had absolutely zero desire to be at the center of a spotlight. It was exactly the kind of thing that Kiu hated, and precisely the reason why she tried to avoid the monthly meetings that Syn and Flan absolutely insisted on holding on a clockwork schedule.
Privately, Kiu decided that she was absolutely going to have her revenge on @Flan at some point.
"「Q」? Could you raise your hand?" @Flan repeated into her voice amplifier. "This is just so the new staff can recognize you in the future."
Kiu squeezed her hands tightly as she compelled herself to stand up.
She forced an extraordinarily sinister and eerie smile to her face as she awkwardly waved to the crowd.
Internally, she was mortified. Although Kiu was a self-proclaimed hikikomori, she was not totally oblivious about her appearance. It was more of a lack of effort due to her preoccupation with her other hobbies, and she often looked disheveled like she had just rolled out of bed. Had she known that she would be standing in front of a crowd, Kiu would have at least attempted to clean herself up a little — but this was just playing dirty!
This was an unforgivable betrayal!
"Is there anything you'd like to say to everyone, 「Q」?" @Flan asked, totally oblivious to Kiu's internal thoughts.
Kiu's response was extremely blunt, and she promptly sat back down.
A few whispers rippled through the crowd.
+ + +
("She's... not exactly what I expected.")
("Isn't there a rumor that 「Q」 is only a high school student?")
("Are you kidding? ...What kind of high school student has the money to burn a half million USD a year on a private Magnolia server?!")
("I don't know. She kind of looks like my shut-in fujoshi sister.")
("Dude, it's just an avatar.")
("She's still cute. 10/10 would still tap.")
("You're a fucking pedo.")
("Someone please call the police.")
("I dunno, something doesn't make sense to me. If she's rich, why use such a dull avatar? I was kinda expecting a limited-edition designer look.")
("Shhh! I can't hear what Supervisor @Flan is saying.")
("Actually West, I think it's her 「filters」. They're all set on default. The base model isn't a bad one. It's just needs a little more effort.")
("Ugh, disagree! I fucking hate 「filter」 abuse. I'd rather date a girl who looks good without makeup.")
("Shut up, @Nu11. No one asked for your opinion.")
("Tbh, I don't see why @Vesrian731 found her attractive either.")
("Lol, Ves? He would have gone for anyone with a real vagina. Beats dating a trap, you know?")
("Damn catfish everywhere!")
("Pro-tip: All those cutsey kawaii anime girls with nice tits are sketchy as hell — 98% a trap.”)
(“I'd rather take one of those yaoi-obsessed fujoshit's any day. Besides, if they're depressed, there's the added perk that they might see you as this stupidly godly savior being, which is a really lazy ticket to a good fuck.")
("You're a fucking bastard, haha~")
("I appreciate the compliment.")
("So you think 「Q」 is a fujo?")
("I’m willing to bet a hundred bucks on it.")
("10/10 would date a millionaire fujoshit. Bonus points if she’s a virgin.")
+ + +
There was the sudden loud sound of a door slamming shut.
It immediately silenced the murmurs from the peanut gallery.
Although few people had been paying attention, 「Q」 had taken advantage of the gossip time to make her exit from the room. She slipped out without saying a single word, and not even @Synbius or @Flan had noticed that she had moved away from her original spot. Both supervisors were surprised by the sudden disappearance of the server owner, as well as the uncharacteristically loud bang from the door.
The middle-aged male supervisor was blank for a moment.
However, a realization washed over him. Syn was perceptive enough to link the dots to the situation together, and he rapidly gained a rough idea of what happened. The cluster of obnoxious inaudible whispers that were coming from a certain corner of the room, the visual expressions of laughter despite the false perception of total silence to any external eavesdroppers, as well as a basic understanding of the social dynamics in the room — none of that slipped by him unnoticed.
An especially angry glint surged to his eyes. He whirled around to address the crowd.
"I'm disappointed in you all," he hissed, his voice as cold as ice. "「Q」 is the owner for this server. She can fucking hear you 「whispering」 even if you think you’re smart by keeping it to PMs1Private Messages (PMs): Personal message, private message (PM), direct message (DM), or personal chat (PC) is a private form of messaging between different members on a given platform. It is only seen and accessible by the users participating in the message.."
He stood up, and his massive frame towered over the crowd of freshly minted staff members.
"We're going to have a nice chat after this," he spoke.
@Synbius turned to meet @Flan's eyes for moment, and the flax-haired girl jolted in surprise for an instant. However, she immediately seemed to understand what the other supervisor had in mind. @Flan immediately left her spot and headed towards the door that Kiu had disappeared into.
The man returned his attention to the assembly.
("Maybe I can impress onto you what the first and most important rule of this server is.") He 「whispered」 mockingly.