The rest of the Natalia mission passed without incident, and Stoni successfully reached Star Town on time. She was quite pleased at the minor victory and at the progression Natalia had made, so she wasn't too disappointed about failing to explore the town again. Her good mood persisted even through filling out the mandatory mission report.
|What is your intake number?||"1709."|
|What was the goal of your mission?||"Reach Star Town within two hours"|
|What do you think contributed most to the success of your mission?||"It wasn't too far to run in that time and no one killed me on the way"|
|Was your mission ever in danger of failure?||"Yes, when some guy named Hambold tried stealing my necklace at knifepoint"|
|What would you have done differently?||"Paid more attention so Hambold didn't sneak up on me"|
|How do you rate your chances of success at a similar mission?||"Very high"|
|What did you like most about the mission?||"Using some skills/abilities other than footwork"|
|What did you like least about the mission?||"Hambold's attitude was unsettling"|
The sound drew Stoni's attention to an incoming message. She turned to the front page of her 'notes' and read the words, "You have 1 new mission rating."
Stoni smiled, or at least felt like smiling. She wasn't sure whether she could really smile as a ghost, but didn't let that stop her from feeling good. Ratings were a very critical part of this job. Good ratings from the players she helped meant higher demand and a higher price on her services, which lead to more interesting work oportunities and possibly better working conditions. Often players took many hours to leave a rating, or didn't bother at all. The ratings given by higher tier customers had higher weight, so it took a lot of stellar unimportant jobs to make up for a bad report from a VIP.
I wonder who left feedback so fast. Oh, it's about the Natalia mission. Quick response.
She tapped on the page and the review was revealed: 'My dress was torn on a tree. It was a gift from my aunt. 0/5 stars'.
All the good feelings melted away like butter... in lava?
I wish I'd let Hambold take her stupid fake necklace! All that effort for nothing!
Below the review, an additional notation appeared: 'Aggregate ghost rating - 0.0 stars'.
She stared at the number, willing it to change. She continued staring for several minutes, unblinking. Ghosts did not need to blink. The number did not change.
No. Nononono. That's gonna get me fired. Kicked out. Thrown back in the ghost cache. I really really hope they won't do that just off one review. Surely they'll understand that it wasn't my fault, right? Right? I'd better finish my report before they dump me for lack of reason not to.
With no other reasonable action, Stoni quickly finished her mission report. The only other option she considered was calling for a supervisor. She could only see that making the situation worse.
Given their method of communication with their workforce, I don't think they would welcome any disturbance of the peace. I should keep quiet and hope the system doesn't punish me too swiftly for something that wasn't my fault. Though they might consider my inability to keep my balance a fault, and not the sort that can be fixed. Can it be fixed? Am I getting any better?
Stoni's worries cut deeper with every new thought, carving a mental chasm into which every other thought flowed. She could see no escape from this place, no path up and out to whatever lay beyond Cube Farm 3.
What is out there? The actual sun in the real sky? A world where I can be myself instead of having to be other made up people? Somewhere I can buy and cook my own food? Choose and wear my own clothes? Explore streets? Go up elevators? And ride in... trains, yes, trains! And listen to music. Of course, music. Why can't I remember any music?
Realising how stressed she felt, she tried humming a few soft notes. She hoped to find a tune, but it only sounded frantic.
Of all the times to be stuck waiting for my next mission, why did it have to be this time? Do they have a next mission for me? Did I break something by earning an aggregate rating of zero? Will I be stuck waiting forever? Will anyone notice? How long are the work days in here? Are they trying to find the worst available mission to punish me? Who are they anyway?
The answers to most of her questions remained elusive. All she had was a growing terrible awareness of ghosts' lack of need for sleep.
What if they leave me wondering like this forever? I think I'd rather be thrown in the ghost cache. At least then it would be over.
Her preferences did not influence her unpleasant reality. Stoni remained waiting with nothing to distract her from the swirling anxieties.
I can't continue like this. I have to get out of my head! Alright Stoni, no more thinking. Only look.
Stoni looked at the plain divider that encompassed the sides and front of her desk. It existed without motion, consisting of lightweight cloth-covered panels in a metal frame with square corners. The divider was at peace, fulfilling its purpose without effort or worry. She carefully turned to her left along the row of ghosts working beside her. The closest ones were motionless, evidently on missions. Those further away were too indistinct to determine whether they were moving or still. Past those, the blurry forms seemed smeared together, so she could not count how many workstations lay between her and the wall. She could not really tell how far away the wall was just from looking at it either.
Dots and shapes and colours danced behind her right eye.
None of those are real. That's just something wrong with my optic nerve, or my mind playing tricks on me. Brain chemistry. The shifting symbols are not real. The chair is real. The desk is real. My body is... real? But I'm a ghost. I don't remember ghosts being real. Did I forget?
The truth was that she did not know who she was, what she was, where she came from, where she was now, or how she got to be there. She didn't even understand when she was. The papers on her desk showed the date, but that didn't help her understand.
It's the twenty-third of Bolember, 568, 5th Era. But what's Bolember? It's the ninth month, the month of plenty, but how do I know that? And the fifth era? That doesn't seem right.
Fearing that her mind would soon return to the paralysing problem of her own existence, Stoni focused on the calendar confusion. She had some inherent knowledge of the months' names and their meanings, but none of it seemed to belong to her.
Ares, Vinral, Ray, Lucy, Gantti, Guraztus, Qīyuè, Crescimentober, Bolember, Kodaiber, Nojuary and Carnabry. Each one was named by a powerful family. Some were named after the family directly, some for something important to the family. Like Ares, named after the computing cluster. Naming a month after a computer seems... backwards. Why were the months renamed in such recent history? What stated the fifth era? Why do I know some of this but have so many gaps?
Her next mental excercise was an attempt at recalling more familiar names of the months.
Months, months... Let's see now... The year starts in... No, nothing. I was born in... Nope, still not getting anything. What time of year was it? Late summer... or early spring? Why can't I remember my own birthday? What season does the year start with? Spring. No, that can't be right. But it is. Ares, Vinral and Ray are the spring months. But that seems wrong. The year starts with winter. Or summer. That depends. Have I lived in different parts of the world? But that doesn't account for it being spring in Ares now. Did the new year change too? But I think that wasn't observed in the same part of the year by everyone, so... I don't know whether that's significant. It may well be, but... May! Yes, May is a month! May... May... May May May. May? No, I just can't remember what's next.
All these thoughts offered the tantalising possibility of connections to other memories, but whatever they were connected to was disappointingly missing. Too much was absent to reconstruct even the fragments of a solid whole structure.
At least I've got May. I have no idea which new month that relates to though. Do the months even line up at all? Does that matter? At least there's still twelve of them, and that seems correct. Twelve. Twelve twelve. That seems like an important number.
Stoni had no time to muse further about numeric importance. The job indicator light on her desk began to flash. In her short memory she had never experienced such relief as from that light. She wasn't fired or forgotten. It wasn't over. She had a mission. Opportunities awaited her.
The rows of dividers and desks melted away.
A wild exposion of motion greeted her. Browns and greens rushed by her in a blur, obscured on one side by a painful torrent of kaleidoscopic phantoms. The world rocked and tilted. She felt a rope or strap clenched tightly in her right hand. The other arm flopped limply. Something alive and powerful rippled beneath her. Dark hair streamed in front of her face.
She was riding a horse.
Someone yelled angrily behind her.
Correction: she was riding a stolen horse.
The beast responded poorly to its rider's lack of understanding and control.
Further correction: she was falling off a stolen horse.