Zoey took a second to breathe as she massaged her legs. She sat down on an oddly-shaped rock near the upward-sloping side of the path up Mt…she would have to double-check the name when she left. Her legs burnt with lactic acid, real lactic acid, and it made her smile, but then groan as they hurt to even massage.
“It’s good exercise, just take each step as it comes. Wes told you what was at the top. Just got to go up there and get it, right?”
Zoey looked forward, toward the other side of the path and past the railing. The slope cut down sharply, but past that ridge was a sea of trees blowing and shifting in the wind. Near the edge of the woods was a line of residential buildings, followed by medium-rises, and then skyscrapers barely bigger than the nail on her little finger. She checked.
Zoey searched through her backpack, pushing aside a first aid kit, a flare gun, and a copy of a book she didn’t remember bringing. At the bottom was a cell phone.
“There you are. Let me just…” She took a picture of the landscape that unfolded before her. Beneath the photo she captioned it, “Absolutely gorgeous landscape, can’t believe the work that goes into making this place beautiful. Already looking forward to coming here again and just staring at the forest. 5 stars!”
She put her phone away and stood up, a little more relaxed and energetic than before. She was halfway up the mountain and she was determined to get that prize.
As she hiked up the mountain she saw other hikers and admired the dedication they represented. She never quite talked to any of them, but they wished her a good morning. Later up the trail, a ranger checked to see how she was doing. Just like she had with the hikers, she waved the ranger along. Eventually she found herself at a river crossing the path before her. The other hikers were taking a bridge to get across. The wooden hand rails were carved and painted red to give the place a sort of meditative feel to it all. Zoey moved towards the bridge but as she got close, a kid broke free from his family and instead skipped over the river using a series of smooth flat stones sticking up from the creek.
She decided to take his lead and began to follow across the stones. One, two, and then a big stretch to three, a small jump to fou…
She caught herself, her nose an inch away from a larger, more jagged stone.
Zoey looked up and saw the ranger from before looking toward her with concern, wading into the water. She waved him off with a laugh, straightened up and turned towards the bridge. Just beneath the bridge she could see the river give way to a waterfall. She took out her phone again and gave the picture another five stars and a small warning to “be careful if you decide to skip across the river.”
The ranger stopped her on the far bank and asked, “Do you need me to look at that?” pointing toward a small gash on Zoey’s hand.
“Oh, uh, no, no thank you. I’m actually kind of happy with it as is. Haven’t felt a scrape like this in years. Exciting in a way.” She walked past the ranger who furrowed his brow.
As she continued she noticed another stone on the side of the path, once again towards the upward sloping side of the mountain, and angled just perfectly for her to sit and stare out across the path toward the scene for her. The wear and tear of the thing made it clear that it was natural, yet the thing looked exactly like the rock she saw only a few kilometers back. She pulled out her phone and took another picture and left a less flattering caption. “I saw this stone before. It’s a bit repetitive, is it not? I get that it’s there to let me look across for the view and rest, but just put in a bench instead. The view is pretty though. Two stars.”
After another hour of hiking, she finally got to the pavilion at the peak. A stone marker indicated that she was 599 meters above sea level and had walked 6.8 kilometers. Across the courtyard was a cable car that would lead her down the mountain. She took another picture, commenting on the details of the cables, and the colors of the car, and how it all looked like it was well maintained, but in need of another paint job. She hoped Wes would appreciate her comments.
Just past the cable car was a small restaurant with a bowl of noodles on the sign. Finally, her reward. Zoey walked inside and ordered the curry udon, just like Wes suggested. The bowl was out before she really had a good time to look around, so she took her chopsticks and dug in. The first slurp was absolutely delicious, just the perfect blend of buckwheat noodles and curry spices.
Around the restaurant were several of the hikers she saw before. She considered inviting one of them to eat with her, but didn’t want to keep Wes waiting for her review, especially of the noodles.
The next bite felt a little spicy… She checked the menu over the counter and it didn’t have the chili pepper for spicy, but Zoey pushed it out of her mind. It was curry udon after all. She continued to eat a little more, though she began to struggle as her hand started to shake and her palms sweat.
Zoey’s lips began to burn. She dropped her chopsticks into the bowl of noodles. The noodles sat in her stomach like a brick, but worse, the spice was growing hotter and hotter in her mouth. She stood up, fanning her mouth, and looked around for a water fountain or something, anything. Everyone around her continued to eat without reacting to her. The pain grew hotter and hotter until it was a searing fire burning through her throat.
Zoey unplugged from her VR set and quickly fell out of her chair toward the mini fridge in her wall. She pulled out a bottle of water and downed it before another could even be fully constructed in its place.
The sensation difference between the scorching heat and now the ice cold water cooked her brain for a second as she took the time to just let it slowly wash over her.
She stood up and switched the chair from VR to just her simple computer and started to type up a report to Wes. She included all of her previous screenshots and comments, but focused on how the udon needs to be fixed. “You can’t have players pulled out of the experience because of some damn noodles.”
Zoey took a second to look out the window of her dragonfly and stare at the distant stars. She pulled up the status display on the window to double-check the relay was still allowing messages to flow properly. All green and hovering at 7.8 exabytes a minute. Then she plugged back in.
Zoey found herself at the foot of a mountain…
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