Rebecca and Jack walked down the street, the sun flickering over their faces as the flying cars above broke the line of sight with the sky. Both Rebecca and Jack stared at those around them, looking for those who would notice sticky fingers upon their valuables.
“Hey Jack, is it just me, or does no one seem to have nice things anymore?”
Jack looked around more intently, focusing on every one that passed by.
“Yeah, I guess it is because we have nicer things now. I am sure these things would have excited us not that long ago.”
“I guess I have grabbed a couple wallets for cash so far. But nothing on anyone seems to be worth the risk; even these wallets had minimal amounts.”
Rebecca extracted the money and split it between her and Jack.
“Maybe you are right; I mean, we do have a dead-end key now. This stuff is nothing compared to that. I saw a job board which varied from hundreds to millions.”
Jack frowned, staring at his feet.
“Have we moved out of the trash?”
“I think we have; we can use our consumables without thinking, we can actually afford the food we want, and now we have access to one of the bigger underground organizations.”
Jack tried to smile, but no matter how much effort he put into it, he could not help but grimace.
“I kind of liked being in the trash; we learned a lot. Now I just feel like everything we do is set up, and we muck around a lot more. If we were to decode anything, we would sit at a computer for two weeks. Now, a pre-designed program as we head out.”
“Get over it, you sentimental idiot, we might be out of the trash, but we are still in the filth. We are idiots who know nothing; we have a long way to go before we are anybody of significance. So don’t lose track of where we want to be because of where we have been.”
“Right, open up heavens for one day soon we shall ascend and take our seats as the newest gods to the pantheon.” Jack yelled into the air.
“All we need is enough knowledge of this universe to obtain a divine scepter. After that, we have the whole multiverse to explore and learn from.”
They both cheered, still making their way down the street, attracting the eyes of those who walked the streets around them. Neither of them took care as they wandered; quickly, hours passed, and they found themselves standing in front of a staircase that led down to a worn, dark, wooden door. The two looked at each other as they stood at the top of the stairs. Jack nudged Rebecca down a step.
“I swear to all the divine ones, if I die, I am getting Hemlock to bring me back to haunt you.”
Jack pushed Rebecca to the side, heading down the stairs first.
“Look, if anyone gets to be an immortal ghost, it is me. Step aside and let me meet my eternal fate.”
Jack went to knock on the door, but it opened at the same pace as he tried to knock. His hand instead collided with another individual’s chest; confused, he let it remain on the man’s chest. He stared at it as Rebecca watched from above. A snort sounded from the man, and Jack looked up.
“Do you mind?” A deep voice forced its way over Jack; timidly, he lowered his hand and stepped to the side, awkwardly gesturing for the individual to walk past. Glaring at Jack, he walked past, staring Rebecca up and down as he made his way onto the street. As he left sight, Rebecca mimicked Jack.
“After you, potentially aggressive behemoth.” Rebecca laughed and walked past Jack.
“Hey, you know the kind of people Hemlock attracts? The dude may have wanted to eat me, for all we know.” Jack said as he followed Rebecca, closing the door behind him.
A stale air clogged their noses as they made their way through a dark corridor, a small frame of light emanating from a closed door at the end of the hall. They both stood before it, neither one of them reaching for the handle.
Jack whispered as he grabbed onto the handle. “Well, let’s hope his daughter is not around.”
Pushing the door open revealed a lounge where Hemlock sat at the head of a small dinner table. His large form was hunched over as he seemed to be playing with something within his grasp. A small girl at the table turned away from her father to face Jack and Rebecca. Her smile disappeared, and she dropped from the table and went into a full sprint at Rebecca. Without a whisper, she ran, the only sound being her footsteps making a soft patter as she sprinted across the hardwood floor. The audio of her run disappeared as she lifted into the air, still in a running motion. She floated back to her seat, and a nearly impossibly deep voice growled out at her.
“You can play once you finish what you started.”
The little girl stared with malice towards Rebecca, her legs swinging anxiously as she eventually returned to cutting paper on the table. Rebecca and Jack moved in as Hemlock waved them in, keeping his head down as he continued to fiddle with a small object in his enormous hands.
“Judging by my little one’s excitement, I assume I have the pleasure of Jack and Rebecca.”
“Why do you use his name first? Maybe it is Rebecca and Jack.”
Jack sat next to the small girl, patting her head and receiving a smile in return.
“That makes no sense alphabetically; besides, I think it has a good ring to it. It should be the name of our store. To save on cost, maybe just Jack and co.”
Rebecca sat down on the opposite side to Jack and the girl, taking the seat next to Hemlock. The little girl scrunched up some paper and threw it at Rebecca. The paper slowed and stopped right before her eyes, returning back to an unfolded piece that made its way back to the girl’s hand.
“Focus, Rebecca, now get back to your origami; I have already finished mine for today.”
Hemlock sat up, shifting his hands; a small paper swan made from blue paper sat before him. The child scrunched up her face, pulling against the stitching that held her mouth shut. Hemlock turned to her and lowered his form to her level.
“Listen, little Rebecca, you need to be careful. You will rip your lips off if you fight too much.”
“Still mad that she has the same name as me ae?”
Little Rebecca stared at Rebecca, growling through her stitches. Rebecca turned to Hemlock.
“Still can’t control her voice yet?”
Jack stood up in a rush, pushing his chair back loudly. “And on that note, I am going to head out back; I can’t be bothered sitting through another one of these conversations. Catch up when you can.”
As Jack walked away, little Rebecca tugged at his shirt; returning a smile, he gave her a head pat and passed through a door in the back of the room. Little Rebecca turned back to the table, a frown upon her face. She returned to her paper craft.
“No, she can’t; we train patience, though.” Hemlock turned from his daughter back to Rebecca. He looked her up and down, making note of her rugged clothes, the tears, stains, and odd familiarity.
“If you need money, I can provide for you; I make more than enough from the back rooms.”
Rebecca looked at herself, flattening out the creases of her coat. Creases that reappeared as soon as her hand left the coat.
“Can’t have you looking after our kid and give me money. That is not how child support works, besides I have plenty of money, I just like this coat.” She pulled it closed on her front, sniffing at the collar. “Still smells like you.”
While Hemlock and Rebecca talked, little Rebecca finished her paper swan out of a green piece of paper. Clearing her throat, she pardoned herself from the table. Standing at attention, staring eagerly at Hemlock. He picked up her piece and examined it; placing it down next to his, he waved his hand.
“Go distract Uncle Jack; he usually leaves here with too much money.”
“Don’t distract him too much; his money is my money.” Rebecca followed up.
Little Rebecca waved her hand, shifting the chair from her path. It scraped for a meter before tipping over. Focusing again, she waved her hand, opening the door and passing through. Leaving Rebecca and Hemlock alone.
“She still hates the fact she is named after me?”
“She is not fond of it. She will learn to appreciate it once she understands why we can’t stay together. She may even respect you once she realizes what you had to go through to have her.”
“It wasn’t much; the staying away part is hard, though.” Rebecca reached out to Hemlock, attempting to grab his hand. He pulled away with a disappointing look.
“We are not doing this again; last time, it took me a week to repair the damages. And from what I hear, it was a month before you were out of the hospital.”
“Jack needs to keep his whore mouth shut.” Rebecca leaned back in her chair, cracking her knuckles.
“Well, I did not come here to go through this again; I am heading out back. I must go defend my title. Can’t have Jack taking it from me again.”
Rebecca Stood up and walked past Hemlock; he went to grab her to stop her but retracted his hand.
“I’ll be here when you leave.”
Rebecca went through the door, closing it behind her. Hemlock remained at the table, leaning back over as he started to fold another swan. Rebecca was confronted by a robotic man at a booth.
“Player or watcher?”
“Player, I have a couple of days to kill.”
“Well, you have come to the right place; here at Hemlock Grove, we have a wide array of virtual reality for you to spend your time in.”
“I have been here before. Can I skip this message?”
“Our most popular are Fantasy worlds, where you can cast magic or take others on with the sword and bow.”
“Just charge me the stupidly large fee, you idiotic robot; I hate this shit.”
“Alternatively, we have a wide array of other worlds to partake in, such as horror, house life, hobo simulator, space traveler, and many more. Additionally, we have a plethora of mini-games, get the top score, and win a cash prize. All of our worlds are single-player but in just.”
The voice of the robot changes to a more synthetic crackly voice from his calmer people voice for two words before going back to normal.
“Two hours. We will be releasing our first multiplayer game, carefully crafted by the mind of the Hemlock Grove. Hemlock.”
Rebecca’s eyes lit up at the prospect of a multiplayer game.
“Please, insert your card to transfer funds.”
Rebecca transferred across the money, watching as her bank account suffered a rather dramatic hit.
“Mother fucker, damn, this shit ain’t cheap.”
The robot reacted to Rebecca’s statement, speaking at a heightened pace.
“May we remind all visitors that we charge a premium for our services because our services are a premium one? Not only are we the only VR station that offers cash rewards, but we have the widest array of large-scale competitive single players games that run at 1:1 real-life graphics. Not only that, but we are to be the first to have an MMO that runs at a 1:1 with real-life graphics. Our competitors have not even managed a tenth of that.”
The next door opened, and Rebecca entered the Grove. Before her laid a plethora of pods filled will people. Around the edges of the room were food vendors that sold snacks, no meals, just smaller foods. Rebecca looked through the room but failed to find Jack; she moved on through the remaining rooms. Room by room, she searched but failed to find him. Being stopped by the edge of a large crowd, she realized where he was to be; pushing her way through, she made her way to the front. Jack was lying in a VR chamber. A large TV next time showed him competing in a space-bound dog fight simulator. Above the simulation had a neon sign.
‘Everyone who scores 1,000,000 wins a priority ticket to our new MMO. Only 10,000 to be won across all Groves.”
Next to the sign was a digital counter displaying the amount of remaining tickets.
Little Rebecca was sitting on the floor staring up at the monitor watching as Jack performed a plethora of stunts that baffled the AI in the game. Cheers from the crowd sounded every time he narrowly avoided death. Finally, a loud, disappointed aw resonated as he spun into an asteroid, ending his spree. The pod opened and printed a ticket that he took. Little Rebecca gave Jack a hug as he climbed out of the pod. She turned and saw Rebecca, giving Jack one last squeeze; she ran off through the crowd. Rebecca watched a little saddened as her daughter ran off; turning back to Jack, she gave a little smirk.
“Didn’t even get the high score; what an amateur.”
Jack looked confused.
“I got nearly six times the old high score. What are you on about?”
“I was not really paying attention, so did you win a ticket to the new MMO?”
“Na, I won seven. Turns out that for each million you get gives you a ticket, and you get an extra one if you beat the high score.”
Jack started to yell.
“Now I have five tickets that I can’t use and a light wallet.”
Jack was swarmed by others all trying to buy his tickets; he passed one on to Rebecca before being taken away by others around him. Rebecca sighed and sat down on a nearby chair, waiting for Jack to finish his transactions. She took the time to look around, spying a door that had a digital card lock with a title above it.
‘Top of the Arch-Mage tower’
Curious, she wandered across to it.
“Oh, this is the new MMO; hey Jack, I am going in now.” Rebecca yelled across as she put her ticket in the door, and it let her pass through. Jack acknowledged her as he continued to barter off his remaining tickets. Inside the room were nearly 20 pods and only three others in the room.
They all turned and looked at her.
“What was your score?”
Rebecca stared blankly.
“Oh, I, I never played the game. My friend won seven tickets and gave me one. He is out there now bartering off the rest.”
The others in the room laughed.
“If that were true, that means he would have to have gotten a six million score. We are the top players here, and we barely scraped over the million-dollar mark.”
“Yea, well, none of you look like you flew fighter crafts during the great war that only just finished. My friend did, which I assume makes him a better pilot than you.”
The others in the room looked shocked as Jack walked in.
“Hey Rebecca, I made a fuck tonne of money. Let’s just stay here and farm tickets; we could make a fortune.”
The other three ran up to Jack.
“You were a pilot during the great war? What craft did you fly?”
“How many kills did you get?”
“How did you get out of service? I heard no one from the war was allowed out because of all the war crimes that were committed.”
Jack glared at Rebecca as she mouthed sorry to him.
“Ok, these are the only questions I am answering; then I am hoping into my pod as there are only twenty minutes left before the game start. Yes, I was a pilot, but I was primarily a sniper. I flew many craft, but I was most proficient with the lightweight skirmish craft. There is no one I flew because I flew dozens of craft during the war. My kill count is something I will take to the grave; I don’t know exacts, but I have a good estimate. But again, to the grave, I will keep that number. Finally, I was discharged as it was impossible for me to have committed any war crimes based on where I was located. Many people have been discharged, but they have to go through each one to make sure everyone is innocent. That is a long process when you fight in a war with nearly a hundred billion participants. Now I am going to play a video game for the next three days and forget about this.”
Jack looked at Rebecca as he made his way to a pod, turning his eyes off of her to place his ticket into the machine. Climbing in, he left the pod door open and stared up at the ceiling. Rebecca walked over and leaned against his pod.
“Sorry, they called me bullshit when I said you got to six million. I just said the first thing that popped into my mind.”
“I mean, it is fair, the way the difficulty scale is not scaling; it multiplies. One million points are the default difficulty, then two is two times that, and three is two times that. By the time you hit six million, it is thirty-two times more challenging than one million. The only reason I died was because I was showboating. Simulation has to get a lot harder than that before it comes close to real life.”
Jack turned to Rebecca.
“It is fine, woman; I like talking about the war. It feels good to vent it sometimes; I just feel shit when people get excited about it. War is not something you should praise; most of the time, the war heroes did it by luck. Or people don’t realize how many dead are in their wake, both enemy and ally. War is a shit time, fine to talk about, but never to praise like those idiots.”
The other people in the room overheard the conversation, and Jack watched as a little sadness fell across their faces.
“Ok, I feel a little better; anyway, not long till the game starts. I am going to see if I can start character creation before the game actually starts.”
Jack’s pod started to close, and Rebecca wandered off to her own pod, hoping in and tethering up. The lid closed, and her eyes fell heavy; as the lid closed, so did her eyes. Her vision turned from darkness to a loading screen.
‘Welcome, new player, to the great wizards floating tower. A time before now, magic spread across the land and was harnessed by wizards. One wizard in particular ruled as strongest, near divine. But one day, while trying to ascend to the heavens, he was smitten down by the gods. But the wizard had one last laugh; as he died, he dragged magic from the land, and now the only way to get it back is to climb his tower and destroy his soul, which still lingers.’
Her vision came back to her; she was soaring over a land of beautiful terrain. Looking around, she saw cities and lakes, flocks of animals flying in the distance.
‘Now you must climb the colossal 100 level tower in order to get the magic back, but be careful, each level is guarded by a beast of great power. Good luck as you must muster the strength to fight through with blade and hammer, hopefully to one day unlock the magic of the world.’
Rebecca and Jack settled in as they were prepared to be the top players for one weekend. Well over a day in, and the pods displayed a warning message.
‘please take some time to leave the pod; restrooms and food are important. Your key card will be deactivated for one hour.’
Jack and Rebecca were ejected, and they both sluggishly got out of the pods. Jack groaned as he stretched, cracking his back.
“Well, that has to be the most fun I have had in a long time; I forget how cramped these pods are.”
“Yea, Hemlock really needs to sort that shit out for people like us with no life and lots of cash.”
Rebecca stayed in her pod, sitting upright.
“Guess we go get some food and shit?”
“Yea, although now I am up, I really do need to take a leak. I’ll meet you in the food area.”
Jack walked out of the room while Rebecca stayed in her pod; pulling out her phone, she checked for notifications.
“Hmm, nothing. Guess that is what happens when you don’t give your time to anyone. Or just ignore everyone’s messages. Fuck I need to make time for other people instead of playing games on my time off.”
Rebecca laid back into her pod, her stomach rumbling.
“Damn, I am pretty hungry; I guess I should head out for food.”
Rebecca reluctantly sat up and made her way to the largest food area, buying herself a pile of various snack foods.
“This place really needs some bigger meals.” Rebecca said as she looked at all the bite-sized morsels before her. Jack coming back from the bathroom, sat down and ate some of her food.
“This place seriously needs actual meals.”
“That is what I said!”
They both sat in silence as they ate before the lingering pit in Rebecca’s stomach couldn’t be ignored.
“Hey Jack, do you talk to other people besides me?”
“Ummm, no, not really. Every now and then, I get messages from people, but I usually ignore them or send really basic replies to kill the convocation. Why do you ask?” Jack said, taking another mouthful.
“I checked my phone before, and I have had no one message me in weeks, and it just occurred to me that I actively avoid other people. They are just so boring; they all have nine to five’s and content relaxing to tv in their spare time. I know we literally played a video game for over twenty-four hours and plan to play for even more, but we do this once a year, not every day. They don’t do anything, and that just makes me frustrated when I talk to them. Is that selfish?”
“Yea, it is. But I get the same thing. Look, when you have goals as big as ours, other people’s lives will seem boring. I mean, a couple years ago, when you told me that you were going to become the smartest person in the universe, I laughed. Everyone should at a statement like that. But we are what, four years down the line, and you speak well over twenty languages fluently and spend most of your time researching on the internet, at libraries, and going out to experience things firsthand. You don’t have time for people who are none beneficial to your cause if you are spending that much time bettering yourself.” Jack leaned back into his chair, pushing away his empty plate.
“The main reason we have stuck together is because I know the underworld and the military world. That makes me a useful asset to have.”
“Damn, man, you are my friend. Not just an encyclopedia I use.”
“Oh, I know that, but the other people who don’t message you are still considered friends, and you never talk to them. So being a friend really is not much of a title. I prefer the idea that I am useful to you, not just a friend. Just as I consider you a friend, I also like being around you because you have the talents needed to help us both get money.”
The pit in Rebecca’s stomach sunk deeper, she tried drowning it with her hot lemon drink, but it sat like a stone in her stomach.
“Do you think that is messed up, that we value usefulness over friendship?”
“Na, I think if you lie to yourself and tell yourself otherwise, it is though. Know who you are and live with it. If you don’t like it, change it. But it is pretty hard to change the way you naturally feel about something. So I say embrace it, surround yourself with useful people, and let others live their mundane lives. Don’t let the ideals of others pave a path for you to follow, carve your own and hope it merges with someone else’s further down the line. Just like us.”
“Well damn, you are pretty useful, Jack. So what do you say to round two on that game? We can’t lose our position on the leaderboard. Plus, some in-game lore pretty much said there are unique items that are truly unique, so just one of them in the game. We need to get some of those to sell to the collector players further down the line so we can buy useful shit.”
“Ha, I love you. Plan on the long haul. We both know that after this weekend, we are never touching this game. Neither of us have the time to play it. Hell, we should be doing other things now, but no, we are wasting three days on nonsense.” Jack stood up and headed back to the playroom.
“Does that mean you want to leave and continue working?”
“Do you see me walking towards the door?”
Rebecca smiled and followed suit, both of them getting back into their pods and starting the game for another round, waiting for her decoding software to break into the T.D.E ring so they may steal all the secrets and money that lay within.