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When your reality shatters, what will you do to put it back together again?
Still reeling from the failure of his last project, videogame developer Peter Banuk is working hard to ensure his next game doesn’t meet the same fate. He desperately needs a win, not only to save his struggling company, but to justify the time he’s spent away from his wife and daughters.
So when Peter’s tech-genius partner offers him the chance to beta-test a new state-of-the-art virtual reality headset, he jumps at it. But something goes wrong during the trial, and Peter wakes to find himself trapped in an eerily familiar world where his children no longer exist.
As the lines between the real and virtual worlds begin to blur, Peter is forced to reckon with what truly matters to him. But can he escape his virtual prison before he loses his family forever?
File Under: Science Fiction [ Game Grumps | Whole New Virtual World | Headset Havoc | Lost and Found ]
Release date: January 11, 2022
Publisher: Angry Robot
Print pages: 400
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Listen to a sample
I don’t remember what it’s like not to work.
First thing I do when I wake up is check my messages. Last thing I do before I go to sleep is check my messages. Even when I’m not at Omega Studios fielding gameplay bugs, frazzled employees, and blown deadlines, my days are bookended by the siren song of my phone pinging with one incoming notification after another.
Take today. It’s Sunday morning. I should still be in bed with Alana, waiting for Cassie and Evie to come charging into our room demanding breakfast.
Instead, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee while I alternate between feeling overwhelmed by the production schedule and staring frozenly at dozens of unanswered emails, all the while trying to convince myself that we’re not falling behind, that Starflung, our latest video game project, won’t crash and burn like Scorchfell did.
Recent history suggests otherwise.
I sigh, shaking my head at the prospect of dumping another five years down the digital drain, and force myself to pick an email at random. The moment I thumb it open and start reading, a throat clears in front of me.
Blinking, I look up from my phone and see Alana standing in the doorway. Her arms are crossed, hazel eyes narrowed, shoulder-length brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail.
I scrunch my face, confused. But then I hear Evie calling out from upstairs, “Are they ready?”
“Shit.” I toss my phone on the table and start to get up, but Alana waves me off.
“It’s fine. I’ll make them.”
I can tell by the stiff, methodical way she moves around the kitchen gathering ingredients and mixing chocolate crepe batter from memory that it’s the polar opposite of fine.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I totally spaced.”
Alana smacks the pancake pan on the cast iron stovetop. “It’s her goddamn birthday, Peter.”
“I know. It’s just–”
Right on cue my messenger app dings. I glance at the screen, unable to stop myself from scanning the preview.
It’s from Bradley. All it says is, You up for a test run?
A nervous thrill races through my body as I tap out a quick reply. It’s finished?
Get your ass over here and see for yourself.
The metal ladle cracks sharply against the pancake pan. “Seriously, Peter?”
I send a thumbs up emoji and put the phone on silent. “Bradley says the new headset’s ready.”
Alana’s shoulders tense. “You’re going into work.”
I know I should say no. This can absolutely wait until tomorrow. But we’re beyond behind, and if he’s done what he claimed he could do, I’ve got to see it. “Only for a little while.”
Alana jabs a spatula under the crepe and tosses the steaming pancake onto a plate. “So when you said Meg was going to start handling more of the workload, what you really meant was, ‘Get off my back’.”
“What? No! It’s just, she’s already doing, like, ten things, so I…” My voice trails off. Alana’s heard this excuse before. “You’re right. I’ll tell Bradley I’ll see him tomorrow.”
As I pick up my phone, Alana pours more batter into the pan and pivots to face me, dark goop dripping down the length of the ladle like she’s just brained a zombie.
“Please,” she says. “You’ll act all put out for the rest of the day if you don’t go in.” She thrusts the ladle at me. “But so help me God, if you don’t get home in time to make Evie’s birthday dinner, I will end you. Got it?”
My brain’s coldcocked by a second forgotten promise: I’m supposed to cook Evie her favorite meal, fried chicken fingers and gooey mac and cheese.
I am such an asshole.
I can tell by Alana’s raised eyebrows and pursed lips that she’s well aware of just how much of an asshole I am, but she has the grace not to say anything before turning back to flip the crepe.
As if our conversation has summoned her, Evie bounds down the stairs, skates sock-footed into the kitchen, and plops into the chair next to me, her ever-present pink blanket tightly in hand.
“I’m hungry,” she announces.
Alana slides the plate of crepes onto the table. “Good morning, birthday girl. Get something to drink.”
Evie pours apple juice into a glass, miraculously not spilling any, and takes a big gulp. “Can I open presents?”
“I told you last night,” Alana says, “you have to wait until we have cake.”
My youngest child goes imp-grin and puppy-dog eyes. “Can we have cake now?”
I chuckle, lean over, and plant one kiss on the side of Evie’s head, getting a mouthful of unruly curls that smell like half a bottle of strawberry shampoo. “Nice try, kiddo. Where’s your sister?”
Evie rolls her eyes. “Reading.”
“Wow, she’s, like, so boring.”
“Right?” Evie tugs her blanket over her shoulders like a makeshift cape. “Since it’s my birthday can I play Animal Crossing?”
I lift a crepe onto her plate. “I thought you said you were hungry.”
“I am.” Evie shakes cinnamon sugar onto the pancake, rolls it into a tight tube, and takes a bite out of the middle. “So can I?”
Alana drops another crepe onto the pile. “No screen time before breakfast.”
Evie purses her lips, a mini version of Alana. “But Daddy’s got his phone and he’s not eating.”
“That’s different,” I say.
Because your mother might brain me if I even think about reaching for a crepe.
“I’m not playing on my phone, I’m working.”
“What’s the difference?” Evie asks.
“A paycheck,” Alana mutters.
The dig hits hard. Omega Studios is our main source of income. Alana quit teaching to stay home with the girls and has been subbing part-time ever since Evie started kindergarten, but there’s no way we could survive on her paycheck alone. If Omega goes belly-up, which is a distinct possibility, it will take my family with it.
Another message from Bradley pops up. You left yet, dickweed?
Evie leans over. “What’s a dickweed?”
I nearly choke. “Nothing, sweetie,” I say, swiping the message closed. “Just something Daddy’s friend thinks is funny but isn’t.”
“Then why’d he say it?”
“Because Daddy and his friend still think they’re ten,” Alana says.
“Cassie’s ten and she doesn’t say dickweed.”
Alana nods sagely. “She’s got a point, Peter.”
I kiss Evie again. “I’ll tell Bradley to stop saying bad words, OK?”
I ruffle Evie’s curls, then walk over to Alana and wrap my arms around her. “Have I mentioned how much I adore you?”
“Too soon, buddy.” She shrugs me off. “Go tell Cassie you’re leaving.”
Evie looks up from her crepe, lips sandy with sugar. “Where are you going?”
“Daddy’s friend needs him to look at something for work.”
“But it’s my birthday!”
My chest constricts at the distraught expression on her face. God, I really am the worst. “I know, kiddo. I’m sorry. I’ll be back before you know it, OK?”
She frowns. “We’re still having mac and cheese tonight, right?”
“I’ll make it extra gooey.”
She nods. “Good.”
Feeling more awful than ever, I ruffle her hair again, then risk approaching Alana again. When she doesn’t duck away I kiss the side of her neck, savoring the faint floral scent of yesterday’s perfume lingering on her skin. “I love you.”
“I know,” she says, “and I love you, too, even if you are a giant pain in the ass.”
I’ve been married to Alana long enough to know that all is not forgiven, that her joking tone of voice is nothing more than an offer to temporarily cease hostilities in order to avoid the mutually assured destruction of an actual fight. I take the olive branch, praying it doesn’t break before I get home.
“Cassie,” I call upstairs as I tug on my shoes, “I’ve got to go into work for a little while. You’re in charge.”
Floorboards creak, and my oldest child appears at the top of the stairs, a Babysitter’s Club book in one hand and a concerned look on her face. “Do you have to?”
I nod. “Take care of Mommy for me, OK? And be nice to your sister.”
Trailed by a mane of long black hair in desperate need of trimming, she flies down the stairs and launches herself at me. I catch her just in time, letting out an oof as the corner of her paperback digs into my spine.
“I miss you already,” she whispers, willowy arms clasping me tightly.
I inhale the scent of coconut shampoo, trying to ignore the pangs of guilt that cling to me as fiercely as my daughter. Routine is important to Cassie. Any change to an established plan – like, say, me telling her I’d be home all weekend – is enough to throw her into a tailspin.
“It’s only for a few hours. When I get back you can help me bread the chicken fingers.”
Cassie loves cooking almost as much as she loves reading. She pulls back, examines my face for any sign of deceit. “Promise?”
I kiss her forehead, set her down, and hold out my hand, pinky finger sticking up. “I’ll even let you fry some of them.”
She smiles, curls her pinky around mine, and squeezes. Content with our pact, she sweeps past Alana, who’s moved to stand in the doorway, and sits in the chair across from Evie.
“That’s Mommy’s seat,” Evie says as though Cassie’s committed some cardinal sin.
Cassie sets down her book, claiming the spot. “But I want to sit here.”
“Mommy already put her water glass there.” Evie jabs a forkful of crepe at the chair diagonal from her. “You have to sit over there.”
“It’s fine, Evie.” Alana shakes her head. “I’ll sit next to you.”
“But I want you to sit next to me,” Cassie pouts.
I pull Alana into one more embrace. “Good luck.”
This time she hugs me tightly. “Don’t forget about your family, Peter.”
“Never.” The girls are still arguing about where Mommy’s going to sit as I close the front door and walk to my truck, every step heavy with regret.
After the Scorchfell debacle, when the negative reviews came rolling in like a flurry of unblockable finishing moves, I promised Alana I’d figure out how to manage my time better. And I did, for a couple of months, until the doubt grew too much to keep at bay. I started adding an hour here, an hour there, and before I knew it I was back to my old habits. Call it selfish pride, call it financial anxiety – either way, it’s led me here, to a Sunday morning meeting with my business partner in lieu of celebrating my kid’s seventh birthday.
Sitting in the driver’s seat staring at my house, I almost message Bradley and tell him to hold off on the beta test. Alana and the girls are more important than the VR game we’re collaborating on.
Problem is, this isn’t just any game. Virtual reality is risky, but if the headset Bradley designed really is next-level immersive, it’ll not only usher in a new era of gaming, it will also save my career. I have to see the headset for myself. Have to know I’m not wasting my time. If Starflung tanks like Scorchfell, I’m done. Creatively. Professionally. Personally. All the time I spent building Omega Studios from the ground up, all the time I’ve spent away from Alana and the girls, it’ll all have been for nothing.
Firing up the truck, I back out of the driveway, ease into the road, and watch my house shrink in the rearview mirror until I round the corner at the end of the street and it disappears from view.
Halfway to Bradley’s office I get a message from Meg, my senior developer.
Hypothetically speaking, if I murder Gary because he’s fucking around with the fast travel system AGAIN, would you be my alibi?
“On a scale of one to God of War,” I say, the truck’s hands-free microphone translating my words to text, “how likely is it that Gary will still be alive tomorrow if I ignore you?”
Meg responds with a gif of Kratos ripping apart a draugr with his bare hands.
Dammit. This is the last thing I need to deal with, especially today, but Meg and Gary are notorious for their creative disagreements, which usually culminate in one of them threatening to quit if the other isn’t fired. At this point I can’t afford to lose either of them. Thankfully, Omega Studios isn’t too far out of the way.
“Be there in ten,” I say.
Unsurprisingly, there are only a few cars in the parking lot. Eighteen months ago, half a year out from Scorchfell’s release, it would’ve been full, but that was back when I thought crunch time was necessary to make a good game. Since then I’d established a blanket rule that extra hours were strictly voluntary, and would absolutely be compensated. If I had any sense I’d follow my own dictate, especially considering how upset Alana is with me. But I can’t slow down, not yet. We need a win. Otherwise…
No. There’s not going to be an otherwise. We’ve got this.
Fixing a bright-eyed smile on my face, I stride through the front door.
My mood shifts the instant I set foot inside Omega Studios. It’s not a drastic change; I don’t feel better, necessarily. But there’s an energy here, a sense of purpose and possibility. It’s far less intense than it used to be, but it’s still there, waiting to be rekindled like a dormant Dark Souls bonfire.
For a moment I believe there’s a chance we’re going to pull this off, that Starflung really could be our comeback. But then a loud, incensed, “Fuck physics!” kills the moment, and I remember why I’m here.
I weave my way past empty workstations until I reach Gary’s desk. He and Meg are too engrossed in their argument to notice my arrival, so I keep my distance, getting the lay of the battlefield before I throw myself into the fray.
Gary Stapleton, lead graphics coordinator, jabs a finger at one of the two flat-screen monitors on his desk, where the three-dimensional inverted cone of a wormhole pulses with silver light inside the cobalt and magenta remnants of a supernova. “Here. Right here. This location is all wrong.”
“For the hundred-thousandth fucking time,” snaps Megan Kuang, senior head of development, “the wormhole is fine where it is.”
“And for the hundred-millionth time,” Gary retorts, “if you park it inside a supernova, all the energy leftover from when the star collapsed will be sucked into the wormhole the instant it opens.”
Meg crosses her tattooed arms, the Triforce on the left mashing into Sephiroth’s face on the right. “So?”
“Do you want the ship to get flash-baked by radiation?”
“I wish you’d get flash-baked by radiation,” Meg mutters. “Dude, you know this is all fictional, right?”
Starflung is a semi-open world action RPG about a father searching for his family after they get separated en route to a new home planet. Early on in the game, he uncovers alien wormhole technology that not only allows him to instantaneously traverse vast distances of interstellar space but also exposes the conspiracy behind the alien attack that split his family apart.
Gary grits his teeth, pale cheeks flushing an unhealthy shade of purple above his black Dream Theater T-shirt. “That doesn’t mean we can circumvent the laws of astrophysics.”
“Actually, that’s exactly what it means.” Meg waggles her fingers up and down like a birthday party magician. “It’s not real, it’s an illusion. We can do whatever we want. Except change the wormhole location, because that will totally fuck up the fast-travel system. Also, it looks pretty there.”
“Pretty? Pretty?” Gary’s voice rises an incensed octave.
And there’s my cue. “Hey, you two. Destroy any star systems today?”
Gary swivels toward me. “Peter. Thank God. Will you please tell Meg she’s being completely unreasonable?”
“Excuse me?” Meg drops her arms, hands balling into fists. “Do you know how long I’ve spent mapping out the wormhole network? Three months, Gary. Three months! No fucking way am I scrapping all that work.”
Gary glares at her. “When the physicist nerds put our game on blast, you’ll only have yourself to blame.”
It takes everything in me not to groan. There will no doubt be a contingent of trolls who tear apart every scientific inaccuracy in our game, but Meg’s not wrong. This is our project. We can do whatever we want with it. And right now, that means ensuring the gameplay mechanics not only work properly but make sense in the context of the story, as opposed to the kitchen sink approach we went with for Scorchfell.
While Gary and Meg bicker about the intelligence levels of trolls, my eyes drift to the poster tacked to the wall behind my desk. I’ve thought about taking it down more than once, but haven’t been able to bring myself to get rid of it. I can still remember how excited we were during concept meetings, how innovative Scorchfell’s graphics, narrative, and customization options seemed. Biblical plagues, desert labyrinths, mythical creatures, and an anti-hero main character robbed of his rightful inheritance methodically exacting revenge on those who’d done him wrong – it was massive, it was daring. It was going to be our Horizon Zero Dawn, the game that took us from a respected studio of twenty-seven employees with one small adventure project under their belt to a AAA powerhouse capable of competing in the big leagues.
“Look,” I say, interrupting Gary’s dissertation on Lagrange points. “I get your issue with the supernova, but finding that first wormhole by that particular star is a super important plot point. Can’t we just add some sort of special shielding to the ship, like something players have to find during an earlier quest?”
Meg scowls. “I literally suggested that, like, two minutes before you got here.”
Gary tilts his head. “I’m sorry, was that before or after you threatened to stab me in the eye with my stylus?”
“I’m just saying,” she shrugs, “don’t mess with my shit.”
“Oh my God, you two.” I dig the heels of my hands into my eyes. “Gary, can you design the shield or not?”
Gary reaches out and adjusts the position of the Master Chief figurine situated next to his mousepad. “Hi, have we met?”
I’m starting to understand Meg’s homicidal impulses.
“Just let me know when it’s done.” I look at Meg. “We good?”
She shoots me an overly exuberant thumbs up worthy of any JRPG. “A-OK, boss man.”
“Great. Then I’m heading to Bradley’s.”
“Oh shit, the headset’s done?” she asks excitedly.
“Enough for a beta test, yeah.”
Gary doesn’t bother to hide his frown as he turns back to his monitor, but he at least refrains from voicing his displeasure. Unlike Meg and me, he’s been against taking Omega Studios down the virtual reality road since day one. Admittedly, his concerns are somewhat valid. VR games are cool in concept, but most of them suffer from less than stellar headsets which, on top of being expensive and never quite as immersive as players expect, often cause nausea, anxiety, and eyestrain after prolonged use.
Bradley swears the headset he’s designed will have none of those issues, ...
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