It was still dark when I escaped from the castle, but morning was not far off as the mountains on the eastern side of the valley behind the castle were haloed in light. The streets were quiet, here and there a few of the city’s inhabitants were already moving about and the fragrant smell of baking bread was rising from more than enough chimneys to cause my stomach to growl.
I didn’t have any plans for where I wanted to go now I was out of the city and a part of me felt like I would be betraying Roxy by exploring the city without her. So without a goal or destination in mind, I just wandered.
Or I would have if the topography didn’t have other ideas. In the absence of plans, the terrain decided for me. I didn’t travel the most direct route and I wasn’t paying much attention to the journey, but eventually I wound up downhill of the Castle, just outside of the city on the same road I’d entered on maybe two days ago.
The small lake at the center of the valley was night black, with none of the cobalt blue at its edges it had when last I saw it. Instead pale reflections of the night’s last stars shimmered on its surface. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t real. It wasn’t real, but this world was all I had.
It was beautiful.
It was empty and still. A place you could be alone. It had a draw to it.
Already I found myself descending the slope towards the lake and the valley center, almost stumbling on the rough mountain gravel as I took halting steps down the steep slope. Cascades of stones, gravel and pebbles flew down the hill with every step, dislodged by my slippers kicking into the rich black loamy earth underneath as I tried to slow my descent. Enough dirt and small grains of gravel had managed to slip their way into my slippers to make each step uncomfortable.
Slippers were great for moving about indoors, comfortable, pretty and fairly quiet. They weren’t so great from moving about out here. If I saw the Duchess again I’d have to apologise for ruining them. What am I thinking? She and the slippers were as fake as the rest of this place.
The ground had barely leveled off when I reached the sparse green ring that surrounded the black lake. That’s not to say there was no level ground on the lake’s edge, just that it was limited to small patches where the roots of hardy shrubs and stunted trees had caught pockets of soil and rock around their bases. Between those islands of flat ground, the valley’s slope dove straight into the lake’s depths.
Careful not to slip, I wove my way down to one of those green islands that ringed the lake. Set near the middle of this island was a lichen covered boulder that had at some point in the past had its descent arrested by the bough of one of the stunted trees, which had gone on to grow in such a way that it had bound the rock to its base. It was the best place to sit on this side of the water. Real or not I’d made a mistake leaving the castle in the beautiful peasant dress and I wasn’t going to ruin it sitting on the ground.
Using the tree’s branches to steady myself I carefully pulled myself up onto the boulder, to sit on the grey lichen covering it.
While I had been escaping in the castle, wandering the city and navigating my way down the treacherous slope down to the lake, I’d achieved a state of near mindlessness. By focussing only on the tasks in front of me, I’d been able to keep my mind clear of all but the most passing thoughts concerning my situation. Now perched on my rocky throne as I stared at the sky’s reflection on the dark water’s surface, it all started coming back.
My thoughts seemed to cycle as I sunk into a vicious whirlpool of never ending rumination.
I’d died. It was my own fault. I was trapped in the game. Was I real or a copy? Could I be targeted for deletion like the S.A.I.? Again I was alone. Was there anyone that would mourn me back in Philadelphia? Roxi had logged out. El had probably already left the city on his next quest. What was I going to do for the next week, while Roxi was offline? What was I going to do for the rest of my ‘life’, especially once people had grown bored with this game and moved onto the next new game? Would they eventually shut down the game? Would that kill me? Would I just exist in sensory deprivation for the rest of my digital existence? Would I be able to go elsewhere? Would Roxi be annoyed if I went off and did stuff without her? Would Roxi find it creepy if I dmed her while she was away? I’d died. It was my own fault. I was trapped in…
The sound of gravel and small stones plunging into the lake and rippling its still surface, brought me back out of my own head. Glancing over my shoulder I could see the rising dusty trail of the tiny avalanche leading back to where they’d been dislodged by the cold wind.
I wasn’t sure how long I had spent trapped in that negative spiral, but however long the valley had changed in the meantime.
No longer were there any stars reflected on the lake’s surface or in the sky above. The sun was no longer hidden behind the mountains, but instead it could be seen between two peaks to the east still rising towards its noon peak. Clouds streamed past overhead, sometimes low enough to engulf the top of the surrounding mountains as they were driven by chill winds that could be felt even down here in the valley’s bottom.
“I’ve fallen off the wagon again haven’t I?” I muttered to the Lake.
It was true. When my Mom’s had died and the bank took the family home, I’d shut myself off from anyone who could have helped. I didn’t just run away from the state foster services, but also the few of my parents' friends who could have helped. I dropped out of school, lived on the streets and shut myself off from the world.
I don’t like to remember or talk about that period of my life. By the time my former middle school homeroom teacher Ms Mitchells pulled me out of the hole I’d crawled into, through my circumstances and self pity I was barely recognisable. I’m surprised she did or even decided to help me, but she did and eventually I managed to move forward.
I probably could have relied on her for even longer and gotten a better start to my adult life, she would have been happy if I had. I left when I did because I was thankful to her for saving my life, but I hated feeling like I was imposing on her and wanted to be independent.
This time I had no Ms Mitchells or anyone to recognise me. Those who knew me would think I was dead and anyone else wouldn’t know anything was wrong. Aside from that S.A.I. there wouldn’t be anyone to help me if I let myself fall into self pity again and run away.
I had to reach out.
Reaching out was easier said than done. I had exactly one friend in their game, Roxi. Yeah El was nice and somewhat dependable, but I didn’t feel close enough to them yet to trust them with something like this. So Roxi… Just the thought of trying to contact her had my brain running all sorts of disaster scenarios.
Would she be annoyed receiving a game dm during her week logged out? Would she even check her dms before logging back on? Would she reply?
Waving open the UI and selecting the game’s message function, I pulled up my chat history. My hand trembled as it hovered over the button to reopen my previous conversation with Roxi. I don’t know why reaching out to her had me so scared— No, terrified. Maybe it was the thought of rejection… I don’t know why I feared her rejection so much. No, actually I do. Sorta. The corners of my mouth twitched into makings of a smile at the thought of her character’s face. It probably was the same reason I felt able to reach out to her.
Before I could chicken out any further, I flicked open my conversation history bringing up my last dm conversation with Roxi.
Aisling Mistmirror: Hey Roxi, I’m alright!!! Respawned back at the village orphanage, hbu?
Roxadice Umbrial: Exhausted, but I’m fine. Looted all the bandits, we’ll divide it up when I see you. Probably going to crash at the inn as soon as I get back to town. See you in the morning.
Aisling Mistmirror: Sure. Thanks. Sorry for being trouble. Night!
Three messages in four days, since we’d first met in that meadow, we’d spent almost all our time in-game together. The only messages were from the one time we were separated, when I was killed in game by that crossbow bolt.
Tapping the empty reply box, I made the virtual keyboard to pop up and raised my hands to type out a message, but they stayed that way, hovering as I hesitated. What do I say?
‘Hey Roxi. I didn’t mention it before, but I live in the American Republic and have been playing via an illegal connection and a gerryrigged VR pod. Oh, I also got myself killed in real life and only exist as a simulation online. Can we talk?’
Fuck. That would be a hard sell in person, let alone in dms.
Aisling Mistmirror: Hey Roxi, hope you’re doing alright. Was wondering if you wanted to chat? If that’s okay, no worries if you’re busy or something. If you can, message me back. I’m in game so I’ll see it straight away.
Pressing send was as difficult as writing the message was, I wasn’t happy with what I had written. It was vague and ambiguous, not to mention it screamed of desperation and anxiety, but I couldn’t bring myself to directly ask her to log in so we could talk. I’d hate if my message made her anxious and caused her problems because she dropped everything to come help me. I might be dead, trapped in a game and on the verge of plunging into a self destructive spiral of self pity, but I also had all the time in this world. Not like I was going anywhere?
I’m a coward, sue me. Well once you work out what judicial jurisdiction I’m in.
A freezing gust of wind caused the loose skirt of my dress to whip against my legs, along with chilling everything under it. The wind had been blowing for a while, but I was shivering pretty hard by this point and I had to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. I was really missing my travelling clothes, my solid boots and my thick warm cloak, not to mention regretting running away in what I was wearing.
It was time to go back and smell the alpine roses, especially since I wasn’t ready for another round with MaTRON. Maybe I had half an hour, maybe I had several hours, but if I stayed out here too much longer, I would be on my way to visiting her after slow death by exposure. Removing my slippers I gave them a few shakes to remove the soil and gravel from the journey down here. Then after giving my freezing feet a quick brushdown with my hands, I pulled the slippers back on and pushed myself off my boulder.
The journey back up to the city was a different sort of hard compared to the trip down. I found myself regaining some warmth as I exerted myself battling my way up the slope. I was panting and almost out of breath, while my dress clung to me soaked from my rapidly cooling sweat.
I had to be careful as with every step the gravel and soil underfoot threatened to slip away, taking my footing with it. My hands were feeling red and raw from the number of times I had thrown them out in front of myself as I tried to soften my falls.
I was exhausted by the time I was back on the road leading into the outer city, almost stumbling forward on painful feet and resisting the urge to bend over panting. I was also cold, what little warmth I had gained from the climb I had already lost to the cold wind through my sweat soaked dress.
A guard spotted by before I reached the outer city’s outskirts and I watched him point in my direction as I hobbled forward, before shouting to a pair of guards leaning against a wall. I felt a spike of fear and froze as the guards looked in my direction. Then one of the pair split off and disappeared inside a nearby building, before he reemerged seconds later carrying a heavy blanket.
I released a breath I didn’t realise I was holding.
After dashing towards me, the trio began wordlessly draping the heavy blanket over my head like a cloak’s hood and wrapped the rest around me until I could not move my arms. With one guard supporting me, the other two began rubbing my arms and back through the blanket trying to warm me. My ears began to burn as circulation resumed.
I wasn’t sure how they communicated it between them, but one of the guards sprinted off up the hill on his own, leaving the other two to support me as they guided me up the long road through the two cities to the castle. I’m not sure I was really paying attention at this point, I was walking in a daze, but I was vaguely aware that my escort was making soothing sounds attempting to reassure me as we walked.
It wasn’t until we’d passed through the portcullis into the light of the courtyard that I realised we had reached the castle. Then as we passed the fountain I had run my hand through days ago, I looked up to the sound of someone almost running in our direction.
Just in time to see the Duchess’s relieved expression as she almost collided with us and pulled my blanket wrapped form into an unexpected tight embrace.
Still hugging me, I heard her thanking the guards as my vision went black.
Illegal Alien is a canon story in QuietValerie's Troubleverse setting. Make sure you read Quietvalerie's Trouble with Horns, her second Troubleverse story Witch of Chains and ChiriChiriChiri's Troubleverse story Snowbound.
The Troubleverse & Kammiverse have their own discord where you can talk to other readers and the various authors including myself and QuietValerie.