Interlude – Peter Kilkarney
The monitor was off. It was unplugged. It had neither power nor connection to a computer, and yet its screen still glowed with a soft mother-of-pearl glow.
“They’re both like this,” Peter said, gesturing towards his son’s room.
“Do they have batteries?” Officer Melissa Astra asked.
“No.” Peter wanted to say more, but not screaming was important and he didn’t think he could do both.
“Do you know what time your children disappeared last night?” Officer Beth Smith asked.
“They were here at 11:00,” Peter said. “I checked on them and told them to close up what they were doing before midnight.”
“That’s late for a school night isn’t it?” Smith asked.
“Yeah. They’re normally supposed to be in bed by 10:30. It was launch night though and they’d both been waiting for it for months, so, we made an exception.”
Intellectually, Peter knew the exception wasn’t what had made the difference. He’d seen the videos. He knew story people were passing around. It wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t Samantha’s or John’s fault. He believe that, on some level, but the knowledge did absolutely nothing to hold back the waves of guilt that poured over him.
“Did your wife see them after that?” Astra asked.
“No, she went to bed early. She was supposed to have an early meeting this morning,” Peter said, running his hand through his hair. For weeks, Krissy had been worried about losing funding for the library. She and Peter had gone over projections and she’s used him as a sounding board for her speech a dozen times. Neither of them had ever imagined that when the day for the budget meeting came it would be the least important thing on anyone’s mind.
“This isn’t a typical missing persons case,” Smith said. “And that’s good and bad.”
The call to the police had been made the instant Krissy and Peter understand that their teenage children weren’t playing a trick on them. It could have gone out hours earlier and been too late though. If what the people online were saying was true, it was already too late when Peter said good night to them.
“Is someone…” Peter wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask. Words refused to lock together into sentences much less complete thoughts. “Is someone fixing this?”
The two officers turned to look at each other as though weighing who was required to answer. When Officer Smith spoke, it was with a shake of her head to cast off the bland party-line they were expected to spout.
“The official story is that all options are being pursued and all available experts are being brought in on it,” Smith said. “I don’t know what kind of experts there are on this kind of thing though. What I can tell you is that we’re going to do everything we can here.”
“How…what can you do?” Peter asked.
“We’re setting up a special channel with the National Runaway Switchboard,” Astra said. “These cases aren’t typical runaway or abduction cases but if the people who are missing are able to make it back we want to make sure we can reunite them with their families no matter where they show up.”
“”That’s good. That sounds really good.”
“We’re also coordinating with the people who are still logged into the game but haven’t been abducted yet,” Smith said. “I don’t have the details but many of them have agreed to pass communications into and out of this game world where the abductees are being taken.”
“The communications will be monitored though,” Astra said. “I guess people still aren’t certain that the people inside the game are actually people.”
“How do we get into that?” Peter’s hand shook as he asked the question. He’d imagined losing his children many times. It seemed like something all parents did. The reality of it though was so alien and unfathomable though.
He’d only been living with it for a couple hours. Or maybe it was six? Or eight? His time sense had crumbled under stress and nothing seemed quite real, despite the fact that he couldn’t deny that Sam and John were gone.
It was afternoon? It seemed like they should be getting home. Maybe it wasn’t yet time for that yet. Peter couldn’t be sure without checking a clock and couldn’t focus enough to handle that at the moment.
The house was empty of children a lot these days. Sam and John had activities and school and friends. Somehow that was different though. The silence that had swallowed the house since the morning had weight and substance. It pressed down on him like a mountain and ran sharp edges through him every time he stopped to notice it.
Smith and Astra shared another conspiratorial glance.
“Technically, we’re supposed to take down your information, including the account and character names that your children were playing,” Smith said. “When we get back to the station we can enter it into the database and then one of the coordinators will reach out to you to setup a special mailbox you can send to.”
“They’ll tell you about message size limites and the frequency you can expect them to be processed in,” Astra said, before looking over at Smith and nodding.
“We’ll do that, but I think you’ll want this too,” Smith said and handed Peter an iPhone with an enchanting mermaid design on its cases.
“What is this?” Peter asked.
“It’s my personal phone,” Smith said. “I’ve got the communication app already installed on it. Check the entry under your name.”
Peter scrolled through a list of “K” family names until he found a joint entry for “Kristina and Peter Kilkarney”.
There was already a message waiting for him from Sam.
“Mom/Dad – John and I are fine. We’re safe and with our guildmates. People are figuring out what happened here and looking for a way home. I don’t know how how quick that’ll be, but we will work it out and get back to you, ok? Just don’t worry. John’s afraid you’re going to be going crazy, but I told him you know the kind of kids you raised. We can handle this, and we’ll see you again soon. I can’t wait to show you the real magic I can do now! Love -Sam”
It was only words, only letters on a screen, but Peter could hear Sam’s voice behind them.
Literally hear her voice.
The tears that rolled down his face were an alloy of joy and wonder.
The world had turned into something it wasn’t supposed to be, and then it had turned into something more than he could have dreamed.
Interlude – The Reverend Gerald Cook
Reverend Gerald Cook, and he required people to use his proper title, waited for the signal that the cameras had started rolling. The key to great fortune was projecting the right image to the masses and an appearance on a well rated cable news show to discuss the inexplicable wave of abductions was the perfect moment to land a mighty fortune indeed.
The key, he knew, wasn’t to fan the fears of the masses. The news would do that just fine on its own. Being part of the fear meant being behind the curve. He needed to be out in front of things. To lead the easily swayed. Especially those with cash they would part with in exchange for offers he would never have to deliver on.
It didn’t occur to Gerry Cook that he might be facing a true apocalypse. The world wasn’t going to end because it hadn’t ever ended before, but it sure was profitable that people thought it was going to.
“On the air in 10…9….8…” one of the techs said.
Gerry waited for the host of the news segment to introduce him and ask his opinion on the “unimaginable tragedy that was taking place”.
“Well, the LORD SAYS…” Gerry began and stopped.
He’d had words to say. He’d had a fiery and sound bite rich speech prepared, all set to grab onto those who were terrified of the events unfolding around them and willing to pay any price for security.
He’d had that but then a massive stroke took it all away.
It was the subject of much debate later. The perhaps-not-so-Reverend Gerald Cook had began to speak for the All Mighty and had been struck down. Or a man of moderately advanced age, and poor health habits had succumbed to a common medical ailment at a moment of excitement which stressed his body.
In theory there was nothing noteworthy about the stroke, and it offered no actual evidence that a higher power was listening and displeased with Cook’s blasphemy in presuming to speak for the divine. That he wasn’t the only person to attempt to rally people into religious hysteria who suffered permanently debilitating bodily collapses though was a statistically significant anomaly. One which the mathematically inclined silently agreed to overlook unless they were give no other choice.
Interlude – Firemaw
Being a giant dragon with an enormous treasure pile and a home in an active volcano wasn’t quite as wonderful as Firemaw had hoped it would be.
“Is there a mode of address which is pleasing to you?” the representative of the [Consortium of Pain] asked.
Visitors were high on Firemaw’s list of unpleasant aspects of his current him.
In an ideal world, his lair would be tucked away in some lost little plane where only the end of the world could reach him. He guessed that would keep the incoming queue of unwanted trespassers down to a few per day rather than every twenty to thirty minutes as it usually was.
“I am not interested in being addressed,” Firemaw said. “I am however inclined to eat you. You seem to be new. I’m not sure what your species will taste like.”
“If you wish to devour me, the [Consortium of Pain] will offer me freely,” the representative said. “If I am disagreeable, we will send another ambassador of a different species.”
Firemaw blinked. That was not how the banter was supposed to go.
“Why?” he asked. “Why would you do this?”
“The Consortium recognizes your might and value,” the representative said. “We wish to negotiate a mutually equitable arrangement with you to further both of our interests. If the consumption of some of our employees is needed to seal the deal, then that is a price we are willing to pay.”
It was madness. And likely a bluff. So Firemaw ate the representative.
Ten minutes later another one was at the entrance to his lair.
“Was your meal satisfactory?” the new representative asked.
“He was somewhat bland,” Firemaw said.
“I am afraid that is likely true for myself and most of my coworkers,” the representative said. “We could come prepared with flavor enhancers if you would be willing to provide a list of acceptable condiments?”
“I’ve always found fear to be a delicious seasoning,” Firemaw said.
“Oh. I am afraid. So afraid,” the representative said in a sad attempt to mimic genuine terror.
Firemaw ate him anyways, but he tasted even blander than the first one somehow.
Ten minutes later the next representative appeared.
“I believe I may be of better service,” he said. “I am in a constant state of abject terror.”
Firemaw raised an eyebrow. The representatives body was shaking like someone caught in the grip of mortal terror but the whole tenure of his voice and the expression on his face was all wrong.
He ate the representative anyways, the ten minutes of peace was worth it if nothing else, but this one was the worst of the lot. The artificial fear was sour and cloying, a mockery of what made people worth eating in the first place.
“We have refined the recipe further,” the next representative said. “I should be 5% more tasteful than my predecessor.”
“Enough. Enough! Just, what do you want?” Firemaw asked, weary with disappointment.
“Why, to offer you a job of course!” the last representative said.