If the majority of players online were aware of the trouble hanging over NetLife’s head, they weren’t showing it when Nila signed on with Sireno and started the walk over to Utopia. Here and there she saw concerned faces but most of the avatars went about their business as usual. Outside Utopia the line was as long as ever and she had time to study the tower itself as they shuffled forward to get in through the front door. High up its side, in one of the narrow windows cut into the marble, she thought she saw movement, but it vanished almost as soon as she squinted in an attempt to see better. She kept watching as they moved forward but came to the door without seeing anything else.
Kisavo met them at the top of the stairs outside the door marked with a 4, looking slightly frazzled. He said something about tighter security measures when Sireno asked but shrugged off further questions, gesturing to the door instead.
“The quicker we get through this level, the quicker we can move on to the next. Reno, don’t get distracted,” he said.
“What did I tell you about babysitting?” Sireno gave him a pointed look.
“Both of you stop getting distracted by each other.” Nila rolled her eyes. “It’s like trying to quest with a pair of hormonal teenagers.” She looked between them then put a hand on the door and pushed it open.
The door opened into an area of bright green grass marked with a rectangular checkered platform in black and white, like an elongated chessboard. Cartoonish flowers in neon colours nodded in the wind and the sky above was an eye-searing bright blue. Nila found herself squinting just trying to process it all and an attempt to dim her visor’s visuals had no effect. She turned to ask Kisavo if he could do it and found herself face to face with a six-foot-tall penguin wearing a black tuxedo and a bright red bowtie. Her sudden shout of laughter made the penguin glare at her, crossing its flippers over its chest in a way she was pretty sure real penguins couldn’t do.
“You’re one to laugh,” Kisavo’s voice said from the penguin. “You’re a hippo. A purple one.”
He pulled a hand mirror from his tux and held it out to her so she could see herself. As he’d said, she was wearing the avatar of a pale purple cartoon hippo, about five feet tall on its hind legs and stocky. The avatar was wearing a flowered housedress and a straw hat with a daisy stuck in it, and a dash of incongruous bright red lipstick. Making a face, Nila waved the mirror away and tugged at the housedress, absently noting that she was able to grip it with fingers that didn’t actually exist on the avatar itself.
“This game needs to stop putting me in female avatars,” she growled. “I hate dresses.”
“Maybe it’s giving you a hint,” Sireno said from behind her.
She turned to glare at him and giggled again instead. The avatar the game had chosen for him was a long-faced black and white hound dog with floppy ears, wearing nothing more than a pair of overalls hanging from a strap over one shoulder. A stubby tail poked out from the seat of the overalls and a tuft of fur stuck up in a cowlick at the top of his head. The mournful look he gave her only made her laugh harder, until she was doubled over and clutching at her stomach, wheezing with laughter.
“Thanks,” he said when she’d finally managed to calm down somewhat. “Appreciate it.”
“That’s what you get for implying I need to wear a dress.” She wiped at her eyes with her clumsy finger-hooves. “Okay, now what the hell is this?”
The whirlwind exploded out of nowhere, startling her into a few stumbling steps backwards. Sireno caught her with one paw, his tail tucked in tight against the overalls. They stood huddled together until the whirlwind resolved itself into a white rabbit wearing green army fatigues, enormous boots, and an old-fashioned helmet jammed down over its ears. It was chomping on a thick cigar and glared at them from under bushy eyebrows, its little pink eyes bright with manic glee.
“You think you’re men—and woman—enough to take on this course?” it bellowed at them without taking the cigar from its mouth. “I think you’re all chickens!”
“I’m a penguin,” Kisavo pointed out, and Nila had to stifle an inappropriate giggle as the rabbit’s eyes slid towards him.
“Enough talk!” the rabbit yelled after a beat of silence. “Get out there!” It pointed towards the checkered platform. “Get through my obstacle course and maybe I’ll let you join my army!”
“Oh goodie,” Sireno muttered.
Nila looked at the rabbit, which still stood with its arm stiffly pointing towards the platform, then hesitantly walked forward. She and Sireno stepped onto the platform at the same time, and Kisavo joined them a moment later. In front of them, below the small cliff they were standing on, sprawled a huge obstacle course full of exaggerated traps and pitfalls. It had been splashed with so many neon colours that just looking at it made Nila want to throw up.
“Who designed this?” Sireno asked. “Bobo the clown from hell?”
“Ms. Huddleston, grade nine art.” Nila grinned. “Remember her? Could see her coming from the other end of the school.”
She heard Sireno laugh, then the platform under their feet abruptly creaked and surged upwards, flinging them out towards the obstacle course. Nila yelped despite herself and grabbed wildly for Sireno’s arm, bracing herself for an impact she was sure would break at least a few bones. Instead she landed hard enough to hurt but bounced, coming to a halt in an ungainly sprawl in the grass. Wincing, she pushed herself up and made sure nothing was too badly damaged, then offered Sireno a hand to his feet. Kisavo had already pushed himself up and was straightening out his tux jacket, looking as annoyed as his penguin avatar was capable of.
“I can’t work in this form,” he said, raising a flipper.
Sireno caught him before he could make any gestures. “Don’t change. You’ll give yourself away. I bet you anything they’ll notice an anomaly like that, and then they’ll start focusing on us.”
“I can handle anything they want to throw at me,” Kisavo said, but he stayed in the penguin avatar.
Nila followed them silently towards the first obstacle, a simple-looking plank above a ravine full of spikes that looked very sharp for all that they were too uniform and shiny. Something about Sireno’s comment had triggered an idea but she wasn’t entirely sure what it was yet. Not wanting to risk thinking about it too hard in case she lost it, she tried to let her subconscious work on it instead, following Sireno and Kisavo carefully across the plank.
Making her way through the obstacles, which became increasingly harder and more dangerous the further they went, kept her busy for a while, until they came to a platform overlooking a broad expanse of flickering fire. The heat of it made sweat spring out on her avatar’s portly form and she waved the neck of the housedress back and forth to try and cool down her chest. The fire was coloured in reds and oranges and yellows that made it look a little like a false fire made of paper, but she had no doubt it was just as hot as it felt. The only way to get across seemed to be a high rope tied to a wooden pole jutting out of the platform they were standing on.
“Maybe there’s another way around,” Sireno said after a moment of contemplating the fire. “This is kind of ridiculous.”
“Now you think it’s ridiculous?” Nila armed sweat off her forehead and yanked the straw hat off, glaring at the daisy on it. “Whoever came up with this bullshit needs to be shot.”
“It actually seems a little familiar.” Kisavo gave her a thoughtful look. “Like a cartoon I saw when I was a kid. I don’t remember much of it, but I’m sure there was a purple hippo in it.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Unless it was only played in Israel,” Sireno said.
“Are you implying something?” Kisavo asked.
“Only that you might recognize it and we don’t because you saw it only in the place where you grew up. Relax, I’m not accusing you of anything.” The avatar gave Sireno an air of puppy innocence that Nila wasn’t entirely sure was deserved, but movement in the fiery pit caught her attention before she could say anything.
A girl formed in the flames, slim and dark-eyed, her long dark hair curling around her shoulders and glimmering with red highlights from the fire. Her eyes met Nila’s and Nila almost placed her, then the girl looked away again, focusing on Sireno and Kisavo. As though feeling her gaze, Sireno glanced up and his avatar’s ears perked up in surprise. Beside him Kisavo frowned, crossing his arms over his chest again.
The girl studied them for a few moments, her head tilted slightly. Nila thought at first she was watching Kisavo, but when he turned to give Sireno a puzzled look, she realized the girl was watching Sireno instead. It was hard to tell with the dog’s face he was wearing, but something about his body language told her he might recognize the girl. She was on the verge of asking when the girl suddenly shimmered like a mirage and faded out of sight.
“You know her, Reno?” she asked. “Another gamer, got here through some sort of glitch?”
“I’ve seen her before, I think, but I thought she was you.” Sireno stepped forward and looked down into the flames. “Weird. Not some sort of digital watchdog, is she? Kisa?”
“She didn’t... feel like it.” Kisavo rubbed at the avatar’s beak. “If we see her again, I’ll try to get access to her ID. For now, I’d like to get the hell out of here. This place is giving me a headache.”
He walked to the rope and untied it from the post, sighting along it to the bar it was hanging from then to the platform on the other side of the pit. Squaring his tux-clad shoulders, he wrapped the avatar’s flippers around the rope, stepped back, and took a running jump off the edge of the platform they were standing on.
Nila cringed automatically, expecting him to lose his grip or not even make it to the opposite platform, but other than a few seconds of teetering at the edge, he landed solidly. Holding up one flipper, he yelled at them to wait, then started poking around the walls of the tunnel leading off into the rest of the course. Nila glanced at Sireno and got a shrug in return.
“There’s still something really weird going on around here,” she said, turning her gaze back to Kisavo. “He’s weird.”
“He’s helping us though.”
“And he’s pretty, right?”
Sireno gave her a mock-wounded look, the ears on his avatar drooping. “Are you calling me shallow?”
“I’m saying sometimes kiddie pools have more depth.” She bumped him lightly with her shoulder. “I tell you the truth because I love you.”
“Hey, remember that guy you had the huge crush on in grade ten? The stoner with the big blue eyes? What was his name again?”
“I’ve changed my mind, actually I hate you.” She shaded her eyes against the glow of the fire, trying to figure out what Kisavo was doing. “Seriously, though, Reno. Don’t get too distracted by the pretty. Netjunkie or not, what he does is unnatural, even if he’s some sort of damn prodigy or something.”
“Concern noted. I promise to think with the big head.”
She gave him an amused look before turning her attention back to Kisavo just in time to see him trace a rectangular shape on the wall, press against it with both hands, and disappear. Beside her Sireno made a startled noise but she didn’t even have time to get angry—or scared—before an opening appeared in the grass beside her and Kisavo pulled himself up.
“What?” he said in response to their looks. “I’m a hacker.”
“Won’t that call their attention just as much as changing your avatar?” she asked.
“Not unless I’ve gotten really rusty on shielding my actions. It’s not going to last forever though, so get in.” He stood back and gestured to the hole.
Nila glanced at Reno then took a deep breath and squeezed herself down into the dark opening. There was a moment of total disorientation and a sense of an infinite space all around her, then she stepped forward and out into the tunnel on the other side of the fire pit. Feeling a little off-balance, she moved away and leaned on the wall until Sireno had come through, and Kisavo after them. Waving off Sireno’s look of concern, she pushed herself up and moved on to the next obstacle.
The rest of the course passed without much more trouble, though by the end Nila was feeling scraped, bruised, and so exhausted she just wanted to lie down and take a nap. The rabbit general met them at the ending platform and announced that maybe they were worthy after all, then showed them through a door that put them back out onto the fourth floor hallway of Utopia’s tower.
“Keep going.” Nila gestured up the stairs. “When we’re past this level, we don’t have to do these lower ones again, and I for one have no desire to visit Puke City ever again. You know, if you two are up to it.”
Kisavo started up the stairs without comment but Sireno hung back, looping an arm around her waist and asking, “You okay?”
“Feel like I did a real obstacle course, but yeah.” She patted her belly. “I hope I at least burn off some fat doing this.”
“What fat? I know ten-year-olds that weigh more than you.”
“Don’t insult my womanly curves.”
“I wouldn’t if they actually existed.”
“Hey, you weren’t complaining the other night.” She stuck her tongue out at him and looked up at Kisavo, who had stopped on the fifth-floor landing above them. “Everything okay up there?”
“Just waiting for you two to stop dawdling.” Kisavo rapped a fist against the fifth door, producing a hollow thudding sound. “Hopefully this next level is a little more adult.”
“But then you wouldn’t be allowed in.” Nila stopped on the landing and rubbed at her sore thighs, then pulled away from Sireno and pushed the door open, stepping through.
Her mouth filled with the taste of seawater and brine, choking her when she gasped in surprise. Cold blue water closed over her head and she realized she was sinking down towards the depths. Kicking hard, she shoved herself up towards the light above her and broke the surface coughing and spluttering, spitting salty water. All around her the ocean stretched out, calmly immense, shadowy blue under the fading light of the cloudy sky above. Treading water awkwardly, she shoved wet hair out of her face and struggled to get her breath back, trying to ignore the fear creeping through her as she looked around and saw nothing but water.
She was completely alone.