Chapter 49

                The world materialized around him slowly. First a backdrop, pink sky that filled bit by bit with clouds, multi-colored streaks, and a setting sun. Then came the ground beneath his feet, dark stone that actually felt firmer than the circular treadmill he knew he was standing on. The stone stretched outward, branching off at seemingly random intervals, until the buildings began to rise in those blank spaces. They were an older style and packed tightly together. Though Will had never left the country, his best guess was that he was somewhere in Europe, based solely on what he’d seen from television and movies. Last came the people, who shuddered into being mid-step, as though they’d always been there, going about their lives, and only now was Will able to see them. More details kept bombarding his senses: the sound of softly lapping water, the scent of baking bread mixed with fresh rain. Whatever doubts he might have had about the system’s limitations, there was no skirting the fact that this was an absolute marvel. Not even he could figure out how the designers had crafted something so realistic, although his fingers were itching with desire to crack open the device and find out.

                “I see someone isn’t so quick with the criticism.” Professor Pendleton’s voice was crisp, coming from directly behind Will. He turned to find a perfectly rendered version of his teacher standing on the stone street, browsing a small cart selling baked goods. “Neat, right? I asked them to add me in as a tutorial character. Or you can load me up to beat the crap out of if you’ve got any unchecked aggression to work out. Whatever floats your boat.”

                “This is not part of the programming,” Will declared, still a little too taken aback by the realism of his environment to think of something more cutting.

                “No, I’m at the terminal, using a direct input function and microphone. Basically, for me, this is like a video game. Except with less elves and swords. Wait, hang on.” Professor Pendleton stuck out his hand and waited for several seconds, until all of nothing happened. “Yup, no magic swords, at least none I could figure out the commands for.”

                “You are enjoying this far too much,” Will said.

                “Can you blame me? I’ve wanted one of these things for ages, and now we’ve actually got one. But fine, we’ll stick to the task at hand, spoilsport.” Letting his hand drop, Professor Pendleton began walking down the street, pausing after a few seconds to be sure that Will was following.

                The two of them strolled down winding lanes, passing a wide variety of people, which was in itself impressive. Will’s eyes carefully scanned each face they passed, checking for re-used assets, or outright clones, anything that betrayed cheap redundancies. He found nothing, at least that his eyes could perceive. Each person seemed unique, if not striking. One face did give him pause, however, and as he caught sight of it he froze in place.

                “I’m… me.” Will was staring in the window of a butcher’s shop, looking at his reflection. His real reflection. Every aspect, from his haircut to his glasses, was perfect. The only oddity was his outfit, a tailored suit rather than the usual Lander uniform or t-shirt and shorts combo.

                “Of course it’s you. We had to upload your basic stats and abilities in here if it was going to be a good training simulator. Realistic practice means having access to your powers,” Professor Pendleton replied. “Plus, between the bodysuit and the helmet, your whole body is pretty much mapped out, so it created a faithful avatar. Which people will respond appropriately too, I might add, so don’t step into a lady’s restroom unless you want to get the cops called.”

                Will blushed, and so did his reflection, at the outlandish accusation. “I would never-”

                “That was the designer’s warning, I’m just passing it along.” Professor Pendleton threw up his hands, as if to exonerate himself from the whole debacle. “Now hurry it up, there’s a mission that needs your attention.”

                They continued on for a little while longer before finally arriving at a small dock along a gently moving river. Dozens of boats were tied off, with about half as many putting about lazily on the water. Just like the city, everything was perfectly rendered, to the point where Will was beginning to wonder if people inside this system could lose the ability to tell the difference between it and reality.

                “How do I get out of here?” Will asked.

                “Giving up already? I thought you’d at least take a crack at it,” Professor Pendleton said.

                Will shook his head. “There’s no menu, and when dealing with any simulated reality it’s important to know how to discern real from false and how to exit.”

                “Creepy that you’ve put that much thought into it, but I suppose it’s a fair point.” Professor Pendleton raised his hands to the side of his head, like he was gripping an invisible bubble. “You’re still moving around in the real world, remember, the system just keeps you in place. If you want out, all you have to do is pull off the helmet.”

                Reaching up tentatively, Will could feel the hard surface of the helmet surrounding his head, even though no such object existed in the simulation. The knot of anxiety in his stomach eased now that he had an exit route, this was a touch too real for his tastes without knowing how to leave.

                “So, what’s my mission?” Will asked.

                “Nothing too hard. See the riverboat with the bright red paddle?” Professor Pendleton pointed toward it, though the gesture was hardly necessary. The bright splash of crimson stood out like a beacon among the more muted, neutral colors of the other vessels. “It’s a casino boat where people are losing loads of money. One such person on there is a man named Rick Deckard who-”

                “Wait, Rick Deckard? Like from Blade Runner?”

                “Yeah, go figure the people who built and programmed a VR machine were into sci-fi,” Professor Pendleton replied. “As I was saying, on that boat is a man named Deckard. He’s a professional messenger, and in his possession right now is an encrypted list of Supers who are covertly working for an illegal organization. If we can get that, we can scoop them up, cripple the organization, and keep a lot of innocent people safe.”

                “A noble cause,” Will agreed. “And how do I do it?”

                “Beats me.” Professor Pendleton actually shrugged, though Will was hardly surprised the real one had figured out how to make his avatar pull off such a feat. “I know how I would do it, but you don’t have the same powers as me. Or looks, or experience, or any of it. Besides, it defeats the point if I tell you what to do. Welcome to the Hero world, Will. We don’t get gameguides, we get tasks. Find a way to make it happen.”

                “And if I fail?”

                “Then it should reload to right here, the time when you got the mission,” Professor Pendleton explained. “It’s a learning experience. Fail until you get it right. Or give up. Either way, the rest of us will be watching from the terminal.”

                Professor Pendleton flickered for a moment, then vanished. Will was on his own, at least within the world. All he had was a name, a place, and a goal. Despite the fact that this sort of scenario was clearly designed for someone with Alice’s skills over his own, Will found himself a bit excited.

                Even if it was virtual, this was his first taste of what waited on the other side of graduation for a Subtlety Hero.