Chapter 1: Saltwater
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Announcement
Hey all long time no see, so a couple weeks back I was suffering from a small writers block with Songbird, my fault I had meant to take a break between Arc 2 and 3 to recover from story burnout and ended up making it worse by doing that massive edit/rewrite of much of arcs 1 and 2 (don't worry I still have plans for arc 3 and will write it).

Now my gf Valerie came along and talked me into writing a new story, I was a bit stuck for ideas of what to write and Trouble with Horns was her big excitement so she convinced me to write a story in the setting. I have 6 chapters completed and edited and you should be able to read chapters 2 and 3 at the time I release chapter 1, 4, 5 and 6 will come each day after that, then I'll move to my usual rough week per chapter schedule. Also for those who read Songbird, I don't plan to make this story as dark as that. Illegal Alien in a MMO world will be mostly read as a Lesbian romance, Trans story in a LitRPG setting. That said I will address some harder themes and plot points.

Hope you enjoy it!

Ashlyn

Illegal Alien in an MMO World

Chapter 1: Saltwater

Ducking behind the broken old husk of the French Armed Forces anti-armour drone, I prayed everything for once was going according to plan. You see, in five more seconds an automated spotlight’s beam would sweep across this position, followed by an invisible array of motion sensors designed to catch you, once you let your guard down and moved. If they saw me, I’d never even know it. 

Why garrison and patrol a static defence when you can automate it?

People who went this close to the border were killed on sight, not that anyone tried these days. You see, the official border ran down the middle of the river, but it was assumed that anyone outside any of the approved corridors, below the high tide mark, was up to no good. It would have been different if the war had ever officially ended, but the government was too stubborn for that. 

So here I was, cowering behind a relic from forty years ago, waiting to see if I lived or died. 

Three, two, one… A halo of light shone around my hiding place before it moved on as quickly as it came. With an efficiency that spoke of practice, I counted another five seconds for the sensor sweep to pass. I’d done this before. 

Although, now it was time for the hard part. Heaving my body out of its crouched position, I rushed the concrete base of the ruined bridge, hoisted myself up the tangled remains of a ladder, until I was on top beside a hatch.

I had roughly thirty seconds before the next sweep and I’d be found. Thirty seconds to get this hatch open, get myself through it, and then close it again. As soon as I was on the hatch, I grasped the handles and pulled, using all my strength to pull it open. Rusted hinges squealed despite previous applications of oil, but I slipped my sender frame inside and had it closed before anything noticed.

I’d made it. 

Any fuck up that caught the attention of the defenses automated eyes would likely have been fatal. Modern weapons didn’t care about petty obstacles such as concrete and rebar. If they’d seen me, a railgun from one of the emplacements up top would have launched a mass produced round of aluminium wrapped tungsten straight through me and everything in between like it was made of butter.

I looked triumphantly around at the grimy tunnel I was now inside. I was standing next to a collapse in the tunnel. Another one hundred or so yards behind the collapse the tunnel lead home, but unfortunately for me the blockage necessitated my dangerous detour. 

While both immovable and impassable the blockage wasn’t entirely solid, with a few small holes where concrete had broken away from rebar. One of which barely the width of my head, I had managed to worm a spool of cable through a hole. 

Bending down with my knees, I picked up the weighty spool and looped it over my head and shoulder, before I stood up and looked down towards my real destination.

Utility tunnels are always cramped spaces filled with stale air that are either way too hot or too cold. The tunnel under the Delaware River was no exception, not to mention the fact it was damp in a way that made you pray whatever crack that was leaking hadn’t compromised the greater structural integrity of the tunnel. 

That said I probably wouldn't make it far if anything happened, especially considering the spool of cable I had looped over my shoulder and torso as I began to unreel and lay it out behind me. 57 core fibre optic cable was as heavy as it was expensive. Lets just say I got this reel at a steal.

Last thing I wanted was to die crossing the border into Canada as gallons and gallons of filthy water rushed in to swallow me. 

Philadelphia in post war United States was the victim of the Iron Curtain of our time, a former relatively progressive city trapped on the wrong side of the border between the regressive American Republic and Canada. 

For most of the world, World War Three ended forty years ago, but on the North American continent it continued for another two years as the once mighty United states was split apart by civil war and annexation. The annexed states were the lucky ones, they were seized mostly intact escaping the worst of the civil war that followed and without the crushing embargoes they recovered pretty quickly.

The UN and the rest of the world had allowed the annexation in order to protect the international commerce hub of New York City and it’s famous stock market, as well as to create a buffer around the previously besieged UN city.

It’s a story as old as there has been borders, on one side there was opportunity, potential for wealth, social safety nets and certain protections of diversity and on the other a shrinking economy, ageing population and strict intolerance of deviations from social and religious norms.

For sins, I was born here and I would likely die here, I didn’t meet the requirements for refugee status and skills notwithstanding, without certified qualifications I didn't meet the criteria for skilled migration to Canada, UN City or the Republic of California.

Sure I occasionally slipped across the border for an hour or two, but there wasn’t much I could do without the right IDs or local currency. You really think they’re gonna accept Dollars over there? Our Ben Franklins lost all value when we lost his Birthplace of Boston.

Cold salty water trickled into my hair and down the back of my neck as I passed under a new crack in the concrete ceiling. Slipping a free hand down to my belt, I swiftly grabbed the gun of silicon sealant hanging there and raised it above my head to fill it. They stopped maintaining the tunnel after the war and I usually found one to three new cracks to patch each time I came down here. One of these days this concrete tube would finally shatter under the weight of the river above.

Let's think of anything but that, that’s the key. Where was I? Ah! Why I’m down here...

This time however I wasn’t surfacing once I reached the other side, this was no crossborder day trip and I had already set everything up on that end in order to connect and interface with the local FTLN node. With the advent of quantum computing, AI and the accompanying vast increases in computing power and data usage, it has enabled the creation of a new near instantaneous generation internet, the quantum Faster Than Light Network.

It was a commercial dream, an encrypted walled garden that required every user to have their own system identifier algorithm that permitted access and allowed their browsing to be linked to them, tracked, logged and sold in the name of user personalisation and security. A commercial dream that had digitised and automated countless jobs, if not for basic income in UNC and other welfare and mass employment projects elsewhere, there would probably be a lot more people like me making their living through questionable means on the fringes of society.

It also allowed for the regulation of the FTLN preventing piracy and other illegal practises. Not to worry though, thanks to heavy reliance by embargoed countries like the American Republic, a number of banana republics, a couple dictatorships and those countries too poor to pay for the new infrastructure, the old world wide web was still there to support all your porn, privacy and piracy needs as long as you didn’t mind the download times.

Unfortunately, like most Americans, I was locked out of the FTLN due to embargos preventing the installation of the necessary nodes and denial of access algorithms. Most Americans because if you lived near a border it wasn’t entirely impossible to hardwire a connection or buy counterfeit or stolen access algorithms. Then if you were lucky you might get a few weeks or months before your illicit access was discovered, your algorithm blocked and if they could your connection discovered and destroyed.

Given that neither California, Canada or UN city had either jurisdiction here or any extradition treaties and the local authorities didn’t care enough to lift a finger, you couldn’t be arrested. Well not on our side of the border, there was the occasional story of authorities sabotaging the connection enough to lure you across to fix it and then grabbing you, but those were only urban legends.

A comfortable foreign jail might be preferable depending on your personal situation. Not that I was planning on a decade long vacation in incarceration. The guy I got my access code from swore on his mother’s grave that he got it from a friend of a friend in Canada’s Department of Digital Regulation and enforcement.

Wait... 

Didn’t his mother come to have her holoprojector jailbroken last week? Nah, that was probably a different Mrs Stevens.

So yeah that's what I do for a living. I run a business modifying, repairing and jailbreaking technology, no questions asked, out of this decommissioned riverside utilities shed I’ve been squatting in. I make just enough to get by since I don’t have to pay rent and I can tap into the old internet and power lines that ran through there. Well as long as my jerry rigged transformer doesn’t catch fire again or worse, explode.

To be fair I was doing pretty well considering me mums died 6 years ago when I was fifteen. I went through a real rough patch with homelessness and dropping out of highschool in my freshman year, but thanks to Ms Mitchells, my old homeroom teacher back from middle school, I was able to pick myself up and self educate using textbooks and archived youtube videos.

Now you're probably wondering why I was risking my life and going through all this effort to illicitly connect to the FTLN, like what‘s my angle, my scam, my racket? How was I planning to take advantage of this or make money?

I am sure I could make money selling access to this connect, but I was doing this all for a game. Sounds dumb right?

Have you ever played a game as an escape from your reality? It’s a guilty pleasure of my mine, rpgs on outdated consoles, mmorpgs run out of illicit private servers, you name it.

But this time I was going for the holy grail of escapism, CORA. Cauldron of Realms Ascended, an AI assisted full immersion mmorpg on the FTLN. All you needed was a full immersion capable vr pod, access to the FTLN and as long as you didnt want to make multiple characters or reroll, it was free with one character per system identifier algorithm.

Fuck I need a shower.

Not only does this tunnel stink of seawater, five kinds of mould and noxious algae, but also even as undersized as I am for my age, my arms, hair and shoulders had managed to scrape the walls and ceiling acquiring their own layer of filth and slime.

And I didn’t spend six months dismantling three broken and waterlogged pods that were found washed up as flotsam, wash everything, repair what could be repaired and then reassemble it into one working pod, to then turn around and ruin the clean interior with this muk.

Just sixty or so yards more and I can connect this cable up. The tunnel was now going uphill as we neared the surface and the stale air was getting warmer.

Left foot, right foot, unreel a new loop. Left foot, right foot, unreel a new loop. Plug a crack. Left foot, right foot, unreel a new loop. Repeat. If I started finding any more cracks I would have to invest in a pump and research a better solution than just plugging the cracks.

The spool was getting lighter with every loop I laid out behind me, at least I had that much going right for me. 

Yep, that’s right. I, Jamie Flynn am a glass half full kinda guy. Can’t you tell?

That said… I could use a glass or half of water right now and that shower, now that we’re coming up on the other side it’s drier and dry means dust and dust means a new layer of filth sticking to the slime I had already collected.

Three more yards. Almost there.

Two. I hope the cable is long enough.

One. I reached forward forward with the cable.

The cable mag-locked to the access node I’d set up previously with a metallic clank as it formed an airtight seal. Houston we have connection. 

FTLN was mostly wireless, but simplifying it for practical purposes; you had your area distribution nodes and then you had your smaller ‘residential’ nodes that connected to the area distribution node and serviced a house, apartment tower, commercial building or mall ecetera ecetera. This little node of mine would access the Camden-Cherry Hill distribution node and trick it into thinking there was a residence accessing it on this side of the river in Canada, meanwhile I would be plugged into it from all the way back across the river in Philly.

Job done and dreaming of that shower, I briskly made my way back down the tunnel home.

 

* * *

I forgot to mention utility sheds, even ones as lived in as mine, don’t come with showers. Mine was just captured rainwater passed through a series of modified electric kettles before it was gravity fed to a showerhead outside. For modesty’s sake I had to shower with shorts on, only got 5 minutes and it sucked in winter, but you didn’t have to deal with steam, mirrors or drainage and you got a view of the river.

It felt great to be clean again. I’ve always had a fastidious streak that bordered on obsessive, I hated feeling even slightly sweaty or dirty, hated having any prickly body hair to catch filth. As long as I was clean and smooth I was happy.

Before it had been lost at sea the pod had been a Dreammaker Luxpod 7 bound for UN City, well three of them and I’m sure despite my best efforts, she was going to have a few quirks and that was before taking into account any latency from the fibre optic connection. Dreammaker was one of half a dozen brands competing for the luxury pod market and the 7th generation of its aptly named Luxpod was no pushover.

My pod might not have its padded synth-leather interior after the seawater, but the full immersion, nutrient delivery and waste management, muscle stims, Asclepius aegis and all three Artemis module slots were all operational. So simply put it was probably going to work and I wasn’t going to die of starvation, minor stuff like that.

Knowing I was going in the pod I hadn’t dressed after my shower, instead opting to apply deodorant. I don’t exactly have facilities to easily wash or dry clothes here and I’d rather not soil a set with a week or mores worth of sweat and body odour doing nothing.

As much as I wanted to begin my first VR dive, I still needed to register an account on the games website. And given my mounting impatience to play the game, even all the allure and distractions of my first time surfing the FTLN with my holoprojector wasn't able to waylay me in my quest. Racing through steps, I finished in an excruciating seven minutes and eighteen seconds.

First making sure the shed door was locked, but also barred and my business's site was set to closed, I stepped over the two and a half feet high lip of the pod and laid down.

Sitting back up for a moment, I locked the Asclepius band securely around my forearm and pulled the pod's lid shut, as I lay back into position. After wriggling until I felt comfortable, I positioned the VR link crown down to rest on my forehead and temples and tried to lay still as the pod positioned its feeding tubes in line with my mouth and nostrils.

Thank God the pod had the decency not to insert any of its tubes until after my consciousness was in virtual reality, frankly the thought of them worming themselves inside me made me nothing less than nauseous.

Thumbing the activate button on the wall next to my hand, I felt the machine hum to life. My nose twitched detecting the faintest smell of seawater, as less than a moment later everything went dark.

Announcement
Thank you for reading! Hope you enjoyed the chapter!

Please leave comments/reviews as they fill us writers with joy! Happy writers write more!

The Troubleverse & Kammiverse have their own discord where you can talk to other readers and the various authors including myself and QuietValerie.

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