None of this is happening.
I’m standing in the morgue at the Company’s facility. I should see my own image in the gleaming metal cabinets where they store all the bodies, but I have no reflection. I don’t know if I’m real. There are corpses laid out on the autopsy tables, crisp white sheets pulled up to their chins. On the far side of the room are Brian and West, two guys from my high school who were victims of an accident that the Company orchestrated. In front of me lies Carole, the soccer mom turned fearless warrior who sacrificed her own life to save mine. Blood seeps through the section of sheet that covers her abdomen. That’s where the sword that killed her went in.
She thought I was the one who could save the others. All it takes is a look around the morgue to know Carole was tragically wrong. There are at least a dozen bodies here; most of their faces I don’t recognize from the real world. Who knows how many cadavers are tucked away in the morgue’s metal drawers? The dead here come in all sizes and shapes and colors. But they all died as guinea pigs, their brains tinkered with and their bodies broken. All to beta test the Company’s new virtual reality technology. All to debug a goddamn video game.
The man who started it all is on the table next to Carole’s. Milo Yolkin, the Company’s boyish CEO and the inventor of Otherworld. Now he’s just another shriveled-up corpse. The mind that was hailed as one of the century’s greatest turned out to be no match for its own creation. Otherworld may have given Milo everything he’d been missing, but in the end, the game killed him.
I pass a computer monitor on my way to the door. I can see the room reflected in its screen, and I’m still not there. I glance at the floor behind me—I don’t even cast a shadow. Whatever this is—dream, hallucination or memory—I know only one thing for certain: Kat’s here somewhere, and I have to find her.
I don’t know who needs to be rescued. Maybe it’s her—but it might be me. The panic keeps building. It’s pushing me forward. I rush out of the morgue and into the main part of the
facility, then skid to a stop. Ahead of me is a wall of boxes with hexagonal windows. These are the life-support capsules where the Company stores the people whose minds they’ve imprisoned in Otherworld. It looks like the corporation has expanded its operation since the last time I was here. There must be hundreds of thousands of capsules by now, stacked on top of each other and rising up into the sky.
In the center of the wall is an opening—the entrance to a maze. There’s a middle-aged man lying on the floor in front of it, blood gushing from a bullet wound in his arm. As I close in on him, I notice that his eyes remain open. The man doesn’t see me, but he might not be dead. He works for the Company, though I have no idea what he does. All I know is that his name is Wayne Gibson. He’s Kat’s stepfather. And I was the one who shot him.
I step over Wayne’s body, resisting the urge to give it a kick, and enter the maze. Walls of stacked capsules tower over me on either side. Inside each capsule is a human being. I glance into one as I pass by and recognize the swollen, purple carcass of a guy my age. The car accident the Company arranged for Marlow Holm and his mother must have been brutal. Mrs. Holm’s corpse is probably back at the morgue. Somehow Marlow survived. Now they have his mind trapped in Otherworld. I wonder which of the Holms was the lucky one.
I pick up my pace and try not to look into any more of the capsules. The path in front of me keeps branching in different directions. I don’t know where I’m going, so I stick to the left. After a while, I start to think the maze might be unsolvable. Every new bit looks the same as the last. I’m about to collapse from exhaustion when I turn a corner and find myself at a juncture. The path ahead has split again, but this time there’s a statue blocking the left side. The tall Clay Man has a Bedouin scarf wrapped around his head and a glowing amulet dangling against his chest. One of his arms is raised, with a finger pointing toward the passage on the right.
“It’s you,” I gasp. The Clay Man is Busara Ogubu’s Otherworld avatar. I’m so relieved to find her that I almost forget that she can’t be trusted. Busara was the one who got me into this mess. She risked my life and others for her own selfish reasons. Still, it’s impossible to hate her. If it weren’t for Busara’s scheming, there’s little doubt Kat would already be dead.
“Busara,” I say. If her avatar can hear me, he shows no desire to communicate. Then it dawns on me that the finger may be the only message I need.
I choose the path to the right.
I try not to think morbid thoughts while I run. I try not to imagine what might be happening to Kat. I try not to envision my life without her.
Then, all at once, I find myself at the center of the maze. There’s a wide-open space here, and it’s packed with remarkable beings. Some are giants, others tiny and delicate. A few look almost human, but most can only be described as hideous. No two of them are exactly alike. These are the Children, the creations of Otherworld, the digital offspring of parents whose DNA wasn’t meant to mix. When they first appeared, Milo tried to get rid of them—until he realized the Children were every bit as alive as he was.
Above, thousands of captive humans are looking down from the capsules, their faces pressed up against the glass. I came here to find Kat; now I won’t be able to leave without helping them, too. There are now thousands of people and an entire species depending on Simon Eaton, fuckup extraordinaire, to rescue them.
And yet no one notices that I’m here. They’re all staring at a spot on one of the walls. Somehow I know that whatever is there is what I’ve been looking for. I weave through the crowd, and when I reach the front I see guards standing on either side of one of the capsules. Their faces are blandly handsome, their bodies buff, and both of them are armed to the teeth. They look a lot like the non-player characters in Otherworld.
No one in the crowd dares to challenge them. It’s clear they’ll die if they do. The guards can’t see me, though. If Kat’s in there, this is my chance to save her.
As I walk up to the glass, I pray I’m not too late. It’s not until I’m standing between the two guards that I realize everything is all wrong. The person inside the capsule isn’t Kat. The body doesn’t even belong to a female. Lying on the stainless steel shelf is a tall, pasty kid with a giant nose. I suppose I’m still not used to seeing him with no hair. It takes me a moment to recognize myself.
I spin around to face the Children who are staring straight through me. I see why they’re all here. They came for me. I was supposed to help them. But now that they’ve found me, I’m just a huge disappointment. They’re all going to die. I won’t be saving anyone.
“Why are you so upset?” A man wearing a garish 1960s suit and a brown fedora steps forward. He’s the only one here who can see me. It makes sense, I suppose. I’m the only one who ever sees him. “Don’t tell me you’re surprised,” my dead grandfather snorts. “You always said you weren’t the One.”
I’m about to respond when something whizzes through the air past my ear. I hear an oof and a thud. One of the NPC guards just hit the ground. I’m looking straight at the second guy when an arrow gets him right through the temple.
I catch sight of Kat’s hair in the crowd. Her camouflage bodysuit leaves the rest of her little more than a blur.
“Kat!” I call out to her, but she must not hear me.
She rushes past me to the capsule and yanks open the door. Kat slides out the shelf with my body on top. I stand by and watch as the girl I’ve loved since I was eight years old bends over my motionless body.
“Simon,” she whispers. “Remember who you are.”
I see my body twitch as if it’s coming back to life.
“Simon,” Kat says. “It’s time. Open your eyes.”
I open my eyes. I’m in a hotel room in Texas. Kat is asleep beside me.