Releasing a held breath, Roxi sighed her shoulders slumping in surrender.
“I don’t know what to say… Fuck, I don’t know what to do. A part of me still wants to tell you off for running away like that and getting hurt, but fuck… There are bigger things to worry about and I’m not sure I would have handled it any better. Another part wants to wrap you in a hug and tell you everything will be alright. And then there is the part that wants to lock you up in this suite so you can’t get hurt again, game and respawns be damned.”
Even with the lounge, a cushion to hug and Roxi’s damn caring patience it hadn’t been easy to get it all out. I’d started with back when Roxi logged out, proceeded into the cascade of errors when I tried to do the same, getting booted into the deathdream, the strange meeting outside, May and the startling series of revelations leading up to the realisation of my death and rebirth. Ending with my ill-conceived and panicked breakout for fresh air.
As my story progressed, Roxi’s reactions went from wide-eyed disbelief, suspicion, stunned shell shock and silent unease through to and ending in agitation simmering under a mask of worry. Then she sighed with slumped shoulders.
“If you tell me this is all a prank for a stream, I won’t be too mad. Well I probably will be, this is really fucked.”
I shook my head.
“Yeah… Fuck,” I echoed in agreement.
“So… You died and you’re like some sort of ghost? Digital clone? Wait no… Why would that matter to me?”
Her words wrapped themselves around my heart constricting and stopping it mid beat. I froze.
“Uh right, we met after. I’ve only known you as you are now,” she quickly blurted out, as if to shore up my foundations before I could fall to pieces.
Thu-Thum-Thump. Thump-Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
I exhaled as my heart shuddered back to life and inhaled a great gasp of air like I had resurfaced after falling into the Schuylkill river in the middle of winter. “Oh Gods…” I sobbed, drowning in relief. “I… I thought you were saying… you were about to—”
The dull rug-muted thud of her chair falling away interrupted me, as a wall of Roxi rose up to grab me. Ragged breaths tore at my throat as I cried into her chest and she hummed soothing notes, all the while her spare hand was rubbing my back easing the knot in my chest.
“Aisling.” Pulling away slightly to look up at her at the sound of my name, I blinked to clear away the remaining tears. “I don’t know what we can do yet, but I promise I’ll try to somehow… Fuck! I dunno. I’ll help you! And if you need me I’ll try to stay logged in more so you don’t have to be alone.”
Finishing her speech, Roxi fell silent. Her chest chest rising and falling as she quietly panted. “Thanks,” I mumbled, looking up to catch her pale face awash with red, just before she again pulled my face into her chest with a hug to hide her embarrassment.
Breaking the hug, Roxi messily slumped down onto the sofa next to me. “What I still don’t get is,” she started, head flopping back to stare at the ceiling. “What I don’t get is, how did your pod break down so catastrophically as to catch fire? Aren’t VR pods required to like, meet certain safety features and have, umm, redundancies in order to meet safety guidelines?”
“It’s my fault…”
“Huh?” Roxi blurted out in confusion, straightening up to look at me. Blinking, her expression hardened as she frowned. “Stop that! Don’t you go blaming yourself for things clearly beyond your control. For we know it was probably a freak accident of immense proportions. The girl next to me doesn’t deserve that kind of self-blame.”
Setting my jaw, I stopped myself from giving into her kind rebuke. It was my fault and continuing to lie to her wasn’t making it any easier to explain. I had to come clean. Fuck.
“I think I know what caused it and it is my fault.” I explained how I had built my own pod out of the sea washed remains of three identical pods, plus a few less-than-legally-sourced replacement parts, and then I explained how I was tapping into distribution lines for power.
Her face was like a blank wall, unreadable. What was she thinking? Her clenched knuckles were bone white as I explained how I used a homemade transformer to lower the voltage to usable levels and how it could have possibly failed leading to the sequence of events that resulted in my death.
“I don’t get it? Why would you do something so fucking stupid? Why would you need to? Don’t you run your own repair business? This doesn’t make any fucking sense…”
“I live in the American Republic!” I blurted out revealing my biggest darkest secret. “I run a back alley repair shop out of a utility shed! Fixing and jailbreaking stolen and smuggled tech that the UN embargo prohibits being traded or sold to AR citizens or trafficked into the Republic. That and other electricals of questionable providence...”
“You heard me correctly. I not only live in a shitty backwater country that is deservedly treated as an international pariah, I also live on the fringes of that shitty backwater making a living on the wrong side of the law to survive and make ends meet,” I declared, glaring at her. Daring her to throw me away like I deserved, like I was used to.
I wasn’t under any illusions about how the rest of the world saw in the American Republic, I mean it wasn’t hard to see how little they thought of us. Especially considering how quick they were to write us off once the soft targets had either been captured by their forces or seceded away and they had to decide between a potentially prolonged land war or just sealing off from the rest of the world what remained.
“But, your not—”
“Not what? A violent xenophobic religious fanatic?” I growled, cutting her off.
For a moment she just sat there in awkward silence, staring down at her fidgeting hands twisting and contorting in her lap. “Umm… Well yes,” she confessed. “I’ve seen the Patriot Church here and I thought… I thought things would be that, but like, more.”
Her frustrating honesty knocked me back a little, I’d been mentally preparing to tear apart the denial I thought was coming.
“Look,” I started, pausing to exhale the heated tension that was threatening to make daggers out of my words. “I’m not going to lie and say that doesn’t exist or they are not in charge, there are lots of people like that here, but there are also lots of people who aren't. Some really good people, as well as your plain old ordinary people who are scared, trying not to stand out. Just trying to survive.”
Roxi quietly opened and closed her mouth like she was mentally deleting a reply right before saying it, so she could reword it. “If there are so many good or even ordinary people, how did they let things get so bad?” she quietly sounded, unsure of herself.
“My mums used to say there were plenty of good people here, they just never had a voice. Their voice was taken long before the Patriot Church rose up or the Republic came to be. Taken by a broken political system and discriminatory policies intended to drown out their voices. And before you ask why they didn’t leave or move, not everyone has the opportunity or could take it. Before those walls came up, poverty had many people trapped, and even if they were willing to risk everything moving to those better places, they would have had to give up the support from their communities,” I answered, hands tightly clenching the cushion.
“They have even less of a voice now, the Republic made sure of that when they started violently stamping down on protests and letting loyalist militias unleash waves of terror and retaliations on those they identified as having taken part.” I remembered the months after my Mums died, even grief-stricken I couldn’t not see the gruesome decorations hanging from the odd lamppost… Or the smell. “Now the border patrols, walls and railguns lining them prevent them from leaving, trapping them with those violent xenophobic religious fanatics.”
I was quietly shaking at this point, nerves firing from the stress and my brain burning with fatigue. A host of frustrated, angry, sad and hopeless thoughts and memories I normally kept locked out of the forefront of my mind, now not only revisited but vented at someone I cared about. A match tossed onto a gasoline drenched bridge.
As bad as all that was, it had had another effect. I’d accidentally crafted a mirror for some unwanted self-reflection.
“I’m not a good person… At least not like my Mums or Ms Mitchells. I’ve never gone out my way to try helping anyone or tried to change things for the better,” I rambled, verbalising my revelation. “Honestly? I gave up on better years ago. Aside from surviving I just kept my head down and worked to be independent and not need to rely on anyone. Hell I failed at that. Surviving that is, fried my—“
“Stop,” Roxi quietly interrupted, pulling me over so my head was resting in her lap. “You’re not a bad person for just focussing on surviving a shitty situation, and you’re not a failure. I’m even more impressed now that you run your own business, even if it's on the wrong side of the law. A shitty country's laws. Everyone fucks up sometimes, even me…”
Her voice seemed to twinge with barely suppressed emotion at the end and I tried to turn my head to look up at her face, but her hand lightly resting on the side of my head prevented me. My attempt drew the attention of her other hand, which then began softly stroking my hair. “Since you’ve been so honest with me, I should probably tell you more about myself.”
“You don’t have—”
“Shhhhhh… I want to,” she scolded. “Ok, so I live in UN city with my Dad and little brother. I’m doing a biweekly attendance university course in Social Design and Robotics. Ummm… It's like using sociology and psychology to design better robotic shells for human interacting AI systems,” she explained bashfully.
“That’s really cool!” I replied enthusiastically, probably making her even more embarrassed.
“Umm, right… So, my parents are divorced, Mum ditched us to go marry some Ivory-Perch penthouse asshole. Dad had to pay her alimony until his sister-in-law, my aunt, managed to convince the court her sister was experiencing the exact opposite of financial hardship. Aunt Tess never forgave her sister for abandoning us, calls her a gold-digger whenever she gets the chance. She’s cool like that.”
Roxi’s voice trembled as she told of her mum and her parent’s divorce, I couldn’t tell if she was upset or just angry, but when she got to her aunt I thought I could hear a small smile in her tone.
“Dad’s the chief nurse at one of the city hospitals, he works long hours so when we were younger I had to babysit my brother. A lot. Our family home is only a little better than those supplied to families on basic, Dad thought it was more important to pay to send Aaron and I to one of the private schools. He didn’t want us missing out on a good education after the funding cuts to public schooling happened.”
Roxi had gained momentum with her story and I wasn’t about to derail her yet by asking questions. Besides, listening to her was a real authentic glimpse into what it was like outside the shithole I lived in.
“So entering university, I decided to do my degree in the free time-budgeted tier, only going in every other week, so that when my brother graduates high school next year Dad can afford to pay for Aaron to go full time without having to postpone retiring by half a decade or more. As long as my little bro doesn’t fail anything he will Graduate only a year after me. Dad wasn’t exactly happy about my decision, he said it was a parent’s job to sacrifice for their kids, not the other way around.”
“Sounds like you really care about your brother and your dad seems pretty great,” I voiced, squashing a tiny mote of jealousy. “Your brother is lucky to have you.”
Roxi’s hand that was in my hair, paused mid stroke and I felt her tense up under me.
Pulling myself free of her lap, I sat back up and took her hand lightly squeezing it to let her know I was there as I watched her frowning expression for what was wrong. “Roxi? Are you alright? Was it something I said?”
Releasing a haggard breath, she gave me a weak smile. “It’s not you, but…”
“But, you deserve to know. You know how I mentioned how I used to have to babysit my brother all the time because mum had run off and Dad was busy working?” she asked, making sure I had been listening earlier.
“I hated it,” she confessed, her voice a cocktail or bitter anger and more shockingly; self loathing. “I hated being the older sibling, I hated missing out on hanging out with my friends after school to walk my brother home or missing out on birthday parties cause dad was working on the weekends. I thought it wasn’t fair.”
I could relate, I had not only grown up jealous of the supposedly carefree lives of those living in UN city and much of the rest of the world beyond the walls, but also once my parents were taken from me, I was jealous of all the other kids who still had two parents to protect their childhood innocence from the world.
“So one time, dad gave me permission to take Aaron to the mall with me on the weekend, as long as we stuck together and were home before five. I was fifteen and he was eleven, dad trusted me to be responsible. Things were going alright at first, we’d already been to a few stores together taking turns to pick,” she said, then pausing to force her fidgeting under control.
“Then it wasn’t alright?” I prompted.
“Then I ran into some friends of mine from school. I ended up talking to them for I don’t know how long and next I knew it, Aaron was gone. I ended up running around the mall looking for him, until I heard sirens on the street outside. He’d run onto the road to get to the park across from the mall and was hit by a driver who’d been distracted looking for a parking space.” Roxi’s breathes were now coming in low, fast and sharp. Again, I gave her hand a comforting squeeze.
“I ended up in the back of the ambulance with him. He was unconscious. The paramedics were trying to staunch the bleeding from a gash on his forehead above his eyebrow and his arm was twisted funny. Laying still like that, he looked like a broken toy. We ended up at the same hospital Dad worked at, so he knew pretty fast. I was so scared when he was yelling, I’ve never seen him so angry and I knew it was my fault. But, when I started crying, he suddenly stopped yelling and hugged me,” she paused, shaking her head.
“Aside from a small scar on his forehead, the concussion, bruising all over and a broken arm, Aaron ended up alright and healed with no complications. He never blamed me. I felt so relieved when Dad stopped yelling, but a part of me felt I deserved to be yelled at and even after I finished my grounding, I still felt guilty. I’ve always put my brother first since,” Roxi confessed. “I owe it to him.”
Her hand flipped around to grab mine back. “That was my big fuck up, and I did it all again when I took you out beyond your depth to fight those bandits when you were still new to the game and underleveled.”
“It’s alright, I revived. It’s a game. Well, and my current reality, but that’s not the point,” I replied, as sincerely as I could manage. Even though I was trapped here, it didn’t change the fact this was a game and if I died I would just revive after another encounter with the SAI angel of death.
“I know it’s just a game,” she pushed back. “But seeing you die, and the blood… It brought me back to that ambulance.”
I didn’t really know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just leaned into her and wrapped my arms around her. Just a pair of messed-up fuck ups, both drawing comfort from the other being there. Eventually she shook herself free and pulled me so I was leaning across her with my back against her and her arms crossed tightly beneath my chest, squeezing me like I had the cushion.
I think we just sat like that for hours, or at least until Gael came knocking for dinner.
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.
So normally I would recommend a bunch of stories here, but I this release is different. Right now Scribblehub is receiving an influx of transgender stories as authors leave TGST, I highly recommend visiting the Transgender tag and look at the both the new stuff being posted there, but also giving the tag a good browse. Maybe even find a bunch of authors who's works you've liked and chuck them a follow and check to see if they have other works.