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©2020 Alanna Peterson. All rights reserved.

Chapter Nine

Wednesday June 17

Cyrus was bored out of his mind.


Only a couple days had passed, but he already wondered how much more he could take. The only things to do around here were to eat—not that he was complaining about that; he found the constant supply of junk food pretty fantastic—watch dull TV shows, and play even duller video games. 


After he'd woken up on Monday night, Dr. Snyder had come in, accompanied by that guard with the turkey tattoo—Zane—who looked creepier now, with his busted-up face. Cyrus felt like he once knew how it had gotten that way, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. It bothered him that he couldn't remember much about the morning of the protest, or recall how he had gotten here, but Dr. Snyder headed off his questions with her own interrogations.


She wanted to know why he was trying to break into Nutrexo's computers in the first place, and he told her he was just trying to show off. Which, unfortunately, was kind of true. He probably wouldn't have been so stupid if he hadn't been so irritated that morning. He’d missed the contest deadline after finding an even more catastrophic, unfixable bug in his video game. Between that, Roya's omission of him in her family portrait, and Naveed acting like his whole summer was ruined because Brooke left—God forbid he hang out with someone else for a while—Cyrus had wanted to do something to stand out. To prove himself.


But it had backfired spectacularly; he'd only succeeded in getting himself locked up in this strange prison. Dr. Snyder had grilled him for a while, but in the end she seemed satisfied to write him off as a stupid teenage boy trying to impress a girl. She told him that she'd initially wanted to get the police involved, but she had worked out a deal with his parents instead. Nutrexo wouldn't press charges if he agreed to help the company evaluate some new products. After a week or two, he'd be free to go.


Cyrus didn't believe his parents would willingly ship him off to Nutrexo, of all places, and wondered if something else was going on. Maybe they'd found out about those documents his mother had taken, and his whole family would be in huge trouble if he didn't take the fall. Maybe he was a pawn in some elaborate game with incomprehensible rules.


But he could only speculate, because he didn't remember what had happened, and nobody was telling him anything. All he could do for now was go along with it. 


The night before, he'd complained to Erika about the video game offerings. He had gotten so fed up with the only video game they'd given him—BitzKrieg, a Tetris-like puzzle game with tiny multicolored Blazin Bitz as the stacking shapes—that he'd written up a list of suggestions for improving the game. As usual, Erika hadn't said anything, but she took his notes with her when she cleared his meal tray.


Erika actually spoke when she brought his breakfast Wednesday. “Thanks for your suggestions. The developers said they'd give them a try. Sorry, though, you can't have any other games. We'll give you a new version in a few days.”


Cyrus groaned. “Are you guys trying to torture me? There's seriously nothing I can play but BitzKrieg?”


“No. Nothing.”


Once Erika left, Cyrus turned on the TV while he ate breakfast. But by the time he finished eating, he'd had enough. Of the television, that is; he was still hungry, so he started in on the ever-present bowl of Blazin Bitz before clicking back to the video game input channel. He'd already scoured it, trying to find out if it was connected to the internet—the occasional online conversation with Dev would make his situation more tolerable—but had come up empty. 


Today, though, he found a new screen adjacent to the main menu. It was blank, but he found that clicking through a few more of these blank screens brought him to a new one. This screen contained an icon for a different game: NutrexoWorld. 


Cyrus glanced over his shoulder, not because anyone else was there, but because he knew he wasn't supposed to have access to any other games. Still, no one would know if he were to play it, right? And he could always claim ignorance if anyone caught him.


He clicked on the icon.


His first step was to choose a screen name. He chose pnwQuest, after his own video game, and set up an avatar (dashing, muscular, unspectacled).   


When given his first mission—he, a lowly serf, would lose his lodging at the town tavern unless he earned enough coins to pay the rent—his excitement faded. It sounded like the most boring video game ever created. Weren’t there any princesses who needed rescuing? Or, at the very least, zombies that needed killing?


But, since he didn't have anything better to do, he entered the tavern and inquired among the villagers where he might find work. 


A man with a quiver of arrows slung across his back, called Leadfoot, wrote in the onscreen chat box, “I believe the Lord of Nutrexington needs help in his orchard.” 


“How might I find his estate?” Cyrus typed in response. It took him a while; he had to use his video game controller to select each letter on the on-screen keyboard.


“The passage to Nutrexington is fraught with danger,” wrote Leadfoot unhelpfully. 


“Don’t listen to him, he’s had too much mead.” A young woman in a low-cut dress joined the conversation. Her screen name was WindWhisperer. “I’m headed that way. Would you like to join me?”


“Sure,” Cyrus wrote, grateful for the companionship. Plus he liked her dress. Or, more accurately, he liked the view it provided.


“Beware!” Leadfoot wrote, rising from his bar stool and lumbering out the door.


“They’re just trying to make this game seem more exciting than it is,” WindWhisperer wrote as she led Cyrus outside. “There isn't much here that can hurt you. Steer clear of the bandits, and you'll be fine.”


Cyrus rode to Nutrexington in a wooden cart hitched to WindWhisperer’s white steed, gazing at the farms that dotted the countryside. Red barns bearing Nutrexo logos stood beside pastures of grazing cows; fields were thick with cookies growing atop long stems like daisies; rivers rushed with cola instead of water. 


Right before they reached Nutrexington, they passed a grand white castle upon a green hill. It was surrounded by a stone wall that appeared to be covered in flames.


“Whoa, what’s that?” Cyrus asked.


“The FireWall. King Richard’s palace is off limits except to the Elites.” They drove by a locked iron gate embedded in the flaming wall. 


“How do you become an Elite?” Cyrus asked. Maybe he could aspire to that—he needed a goal in order for the game to hold his interest.


“It doesn't work like that. You can't just become one. The Elites are in charge of this place. Sir James, Lady Erika, a few others... they're watching us all the time. Listening.”


Lady Erika? Maybe that was a coincidence. It didn't seem likely to Cyrus that the sullen girl who brought his breakfast spent her free time playing video games, but he made a mental note to steer clear of the Elites. And to watch what he said. He didn't want her to know he was playing.


At the same time, though, he was curious about the FireWall, and the palace beyond. WindWhisperer's reference to King Richard hadn't escaped him, and he entertained the theory that it was some sort of staff area, like a virtual break room or something. But that didn't make sense; it wasn't like Richard Caring spent his lunch hour in NutrexoWorld. Besides, Cyrus had learned his lesson about poking his nose where it didn't belong. It still didn't stop him from gazing longingly at the FireWall until it disappeared from sight. 


Now an orchard stretched before them, the trees covered with dangling red fruits. “What are those? Cherries?” Cyrus asked.


“Jolly! No, they’re Blazin Bitz.”


Of course they were.


Shortly afterward, they pulled up in front of a turreted mansion. WindWhisperer dismounted and helped Cyrus out of the cart. “Here we are. Lord HiFi’s estate.”


“Thanks for your help,” Cyrus wrote. “Will I see you in the fields?”


“Probably not.” She didn't elaborate. So Cyrus thanked her again, and took one last look at her marvelous cleavage before she mounted her steed and rode away. 


He knocked on the door, and a butler led him into the parlor before ringing for his master. While he waited, Cyrus explored the lavish room, decorated with elaborate tapestries and velvet curtains. Lutes of various shapes and sizes covered one wall. He wondered if these were background decoration or if he was able to manipulate them, so he picked one up, temporarily forgetting he was waiting for a job interview in the parlor of a nobleman. A melodious note rang through the room when he strummed it, not at all like the strangled sounds he managed to coax out of musical instruments in real life. He strummed again, barely noticing when a man in elegant robes and black-framed glasses entered.


“I see you’ve found my lute collection,” Lord HiFi wrote.


Cyrus returned it to the wall. “Please forgive me, sir. I meant no harm.”


“’Tis a fine instrument you chose—the best in my collection. They say it once belonged to King Richard himself. Do you play?”


“No, sir. I could never get the hang of anything but the woodblock.”


“Oh, but keeping time is important. Rhythm is key,” HiFi said. “So you want a job? Starting wage, 2 coins per bushel. Plus there’s a 10-coin bonus if you pick more than two bushels in less than a minute.”


“Uh, okay. What do I do?”


HiFi handed him a bucket. “Just get out there and pick some Blazin Bitz.”


Once in the orchards, Cyrus was pleased to find his job more compelling than expected. Not only was he challenged to the occasional duel over choice Bitz-trees (he always lost by default, not having earned enough to buy a sword yet), but also, there were bandits. They nearly stole one of the first bushels he picked, but he was able to use his good old-fashioned fists to settle that dispute. 


When Cyrus brought his three-bushel bounty in to be weighed, HiFi asked him if he'd checked the post yet. Cyrus asked what that was, and HiFi explained, “The Elites send us messages from time to time. There's a new decree from King Richard today.” 


Following HiFi's instructions, Cyrus opened up the screen containing items he'd collected. He found the icon in the bottom corner: a parchment scroll tied in red ribbon.


When he clicked it, two messages displayed. One was the decree from King Richard, but he skipped it in favor of the other message. This one was from an unknown sender. It was only a few sentences long, but Cyrus read it over and over, at first in confusion, and then, as the meaning dawned on him, in alarm.


You're on the right path. Keep going as you have been, and you'll stay out of trouble. But you deserve to know. 


They're lying to you.


All of you.


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