HAM0101082019-06-16T14:24:29+00:00

01.01.08

Anya didn’t get much sleep over the weekend. She didn’t even leave her apartment, despite the fact that she now had an expansive and stylish wardrobe that had only cost her 2,902 RAC.

Tori messaged her a few times to check in and confirm she wouldn’t be coming into work on Monday, but that was it. Anya was a little worried that she had scared her friend off, and was relieved whenever she saw a message from her pop up.

She spent her Monday off going through all of the different class options in the menu before it all just became too much. She’d spent days in her apartment staring at the glowing orange menu and it was getting under her skin. She needed to get out.

She had a day off, her first in a while, and she might as well enjoy it. She slipped into some of her new, stylish clothes and then picked up her phone.
“Hey Felix?”

“Yes?” the AI asked as they appeared.

“I’m heading out for a while. Can you make my menu appear on my phone like an app or something? Just in case I want to use it while I’m in public.”

“I can’t actually put integrate it into your phone, but I can layer it on top of the screen to appear like it it. And it’ll follow your hand and eye movements with some calibration. Just stare at your phone and move your hand around for a few seconds.”

“Like this?” Anya asked as she followed her phone with her eyes while she moved it from side-to-side.

“Yup! All done! I’ve set it up to only become large when you’re alone automatically. I can make other adjustments as we go along, and of course, you can just verbally tell me to make it big or match your phone again at any time!”

“Thanks Felix,” Anya said as she opened her door. “All right, make yourself scarce. I’m going out for a bit.”

“See you later!” Felix said as they vanished.

By the time Anya arrived in Manhattan, it was late afternoon and the sun was already setting. It made the innumerable windows of the city burn with reflected fire and Anya paused on the street to admire the sight. She stopped at a small cafe and got a cup of coffee and decided to enjoy the scenery on the patio outside. The cafe was packed full inside, the bodies forming a bulwark against the cold outside, and Anya was alone on the patio. The cold didn’t touch her and her sun’s heart kept her plenty warm as she sipped her drink and watched the multitude of pedestrians pass by.

Her reverie was interrupted when she heard a quiet beep to her right. She looked to her side, thinking it might be a phone somebody had dropped, but then she heard it again and realized it was coming from inside her ear canal.

Anya raised her phone to her left ear and asked, “Felix?”

“Yes?” the AI replied, at level with her phone, but unseen.

“Why is my right ear beeping?”

“That’s the menu system! I also set up any notifications to be more discreet while you’re out in public! Super thoughtful, right?”

“Yes, thank you,” Anya said. “Why am I getting notifications? That’s new.” Anya pulled her phone away from her ear to look at it as she tapped her chest. Her menu appeared, compact and unobtrusive, to the main screen displaying her stats and skills. There was a flashing icon of an envelope in a glowing orange circle in the upper corner of the screen.

“One of the previously locked menus, the messages menu, has become available. Another cache of data has unlocked too, as well as a new side-objective,” Felix said.

Anya clicked on the flashing envelope with her thumb and was taken to a new menu that resembled a messaging app. Green text glowed on the screen and Anya’s eyes widened as she read the words they spelled.

“HEY. U A MENU USER? MEET UP? IM IN THE CITY 2”

“Felix?” Anya asked, a tremble creeping into the two syllables. “What is this?”

“The new data cache has informed me that yours was not the only menu system to have entered the atmosphere Friday night.”

Anya’s mouth dried up and she took a breath before she asked, “How many?”

“As of Friday night, 10,608 menu systems entered Earth’s atmosphere and connected with hosts. Two of them landed near here: one in Brooklyn, and one in Long Island. Your new side-objective states that you should make contact with a fellow host.”

“Ten thousand?” Anya rasped.

“And 608.”

“All over the world?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus Christ,” Anya muttered. “And this guy is in Long Island? The one who messaged me?”

“Ye——”Felix started to say then paused. “No. He’s a few blocks away and closing.” Anya’s menu switched from the message screen to the map, which showed her current position near China Town as a blinking orange dot. Another dot, this one green, was just up the street and approaching quickly.

“What?” Anya hissed. “How did he——?” But then she realized he found her the same way she could see him: the map. But how had he known to find her? Had he just been staring at his map the entire time?

She didn’t have much time to ponder the questions that sprang to mind. She and several pedestrians, all looked up as a gleaming black Rolls Royce straight out of an old movie pulled up in front of the coffee shop. It matched the position of the green dot on the map, mere yards away from Anya’s orange one.

Anya’s grip tightened on her phone as the rear door of the Rolls swung open, and another host for the menu system emerged onto the sidewalk.

The man who stepped out from the luxurious car was at least as tall as Anya, with broad shoulders and a muscular frame clad in a three-piece black suit. He carried a glossy black cane with a silver lion’s head at the top, and several silver rings glittered on his fingers.

He was also the single most handsome man she had ever seen, to the point of it being almost surreal. His hair was long, blond, and swept behind him. He had bright blue eyes and a wide, friendly smile that displayed white, even teeth. His facial features were sharp without looking harsh, rugged without being crude. It was a face that put every man in Hollywood and the modeling industry to absolute shame.

Anya wasn’t the only one who noticed the man. The Rolls pulling up to the curb had drawn several stares, but the man drew all of them. The Rolls pulled away and the man waved to it as it left and then stopped at the edge of the cafe’s patio. There was a series of click! sounds from pedestrians as a few people took pictures. The man ignored them and glanced at Anya. He touched his ear and whispered something while keeping his eyes on her, nodded, then sat down at her table.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Carl.”

“Uh, hey. I’m Anya,” she said as she stared at him. She’d only ever seen people this good looking on a screen or in magazines.

“You’ve got a menu too, right? My little green friend told me,” At this, Carl tapped his left ear. Anya raised an eyebrow.

“Green friend?” she asked and pointed at her ear.

“Yeah, you know, you touch your ear, menu comes up, little green thing appears and helps you out. Don’t tell me mine was lying.”

“No, I got a menu,” Anya said. She pointed at the center of her chest. “Except mine’s here and my ‘little friend’ is orange.”

“Huh. Makes sense. Your dot on my map was orange too,” Carl nodded. “So…weird shit, right?” he laughed but it was forced.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Anya agreed. Silence stretched out between the two of them as they studied each other. Anya couldn’t help but wonder what this guy had spent his RAC and points on. Did he have a nuke? A gun? Psychic powers? Something else more horrible?

Anya studied his face, almost too perfectly made, before she asked, “Did you always look like this?”

Carl laughed. “That’s pretty direct. But no. Friday night I was barely five-foot-six, had curly brown hair, braces, and acne. Saturday morning,” he gestured down at himself. “Boom. Leading man quality.”

“I’m guessing the Rolls and the fancy clothes, cane, and rings are new too?”

“Yup,” Carl nodded. “Got everything on Saturday. Cost me most all of my RAC on top of the physical improvements. You? Were you always so tall and muscular and cute?”

Anya made a pfffft! sound and rolled her eyes. “I dunno about ‘cute,’ but the height and muscles were an accidental side-effect of dumping six points into my brawn stat.”

“What? You got tall and buff just by adjusting your stats? You didn’t have to pay for it in the RAC store?” Carl asked, a note of irritation in his voice. He touched his ear and said, “You didn’t tell me I could do that.”

“Yeah, these AI things kinda tend to keep to themselves unless you really grill them,” Anya said. “Does yours take things really literally and act way too cheerful?”

“She takes things literally, yeah, but she’s actually really dull and grunts a lot,” Carl replied.

“So they have different personalities. Huh.”

“I adjusted my appearance first, locked it in place, and then did an even spread on my stats until everything was about the same,” Carl said. “Only had twenty-eight points to work with.”

“You know you can get more by doing the side-objectives, right?”

“Yeah, that’s after I did a lot of them.”

“How old are you?” Anya asked.

“I’m twenty-one, but level twenty-eight,” Carl said. “You?”

“Twenty-eight, but level thirty-one. How’d you go up seven levels?”

“I grinded out a ton of the easy side-objectives. And when you’re lower level, you get experience faster. You’re past thirty, huh? You try any of those ‘Other’ skills?”

In response Anya held up her index finger and summoned the tiny flame. Nobody else in the cafe could see anything but some extra light. Carl gaped as his eyes widened and he sputtered as Anya blew the flame out.

“Is that magic or something?” Carl asked.

“The menu says it is,” Anya said. “I only put one point into it, just as an experiment. ‘Flame Dominion,’ if you wanna look it up. I put one point into the yoga skill as another experiment, but that’s it. You?”

“Mostly mental stuff. Acting, gambling, and persuasion, plus the ‘Man of Leisure,’ class selection. I put a few points into marksmanship, fencing, and some self-defense physical skills but that’s it.”

“Why all that mental stuff? I mean, nothing wrong with it, just curious.”

“Cause I wanna get rich. The RAC store is nice and all, but you can’t buy fame, and the RAC doesn’t earn interest. So, better to just max a bunch of money-making skills and get it in the real world and use the RAC for stuff I can’t buy otherwise, like flying cars or robots.”

Anya frowned. She had no clue what she was going to do, if anything, with all of her remaining points and RAC. But just using the menu system to get rich seemed so…boring. Granted, the idea had crossed her mind. And she definitely would use it to make money at some point, somehow, but as an end-goal for a piece of impossible technology from another galaxy…

“That’s it?” Anya asked. “Just get rich and buy sci-fi toys?”

Carl scowled at her. “So? What’s wrong with that? You can light your finger on fire. Big whoop.”

Anya rolled her eyes. “I told you, that was an experiment. And I dunno. Nothing’s wrong with using the menu to get rich. God knows there are worse things you could be doing with it.”

“Like buying some of those space bombs,” Carl said with a note of tension in his voice. Anya nodded and was quietly relieved to hear Carl sound uncomfortable just mentioning the weapons.

Carl shook his head and continued, “That just seems like more trouble than it’s worth. I don’t want the military banging on my door or people rioting or anything. Did your AI tell you how many other people have their own menu?”

“Yeah. 10,608,” Anya said.

“Just scattered all over the Earth. It’s nuts. I would’ve expected more around Manhattan and other big cities but it just looks like they went all over the place.”
“He’s not wrong,” Felix said in Anya’s ear. “The menus are designed to seek out population-dense areas prior to integration. Some did, but many did not, judging by the last transmissions.”

“So it really was just entirely random?” Anya asked. She glanced at Carl and saw him looking down in thought, finger to his ear. He must have his AI telling him the same thing, she thought.

“Yeee-eees,” Felix said, drawing the word out with uncertainty. “I don’t think it was supposed to be. I can’t say for certain though.”
“More locked data caches?”

“No, this is different. It’s like there’s a hole in the information. The data caches are there, but they’re behind a door. This information just isn’t there.”
“Shit,” Anya said. “So we got malfunctioning menus?”

“It would appear so,” Felix said.

“So, 10,608 menus out there attached to people,” Anya said. “No idea where they are, or how to find them, or if they’re psychos or what.”
“Or even if they know they have a menu,” Carl added. “I found mine by accident hours after I got hit.”

Anya nodded. If all the menus were touch-activated, and somebody got hit somewhere they didn’t touch or couldn’t reach easily, they still might not know.
“Well, as long as nobody tries to muscle in on my budding acting and pro-gambling career,” Carl said and smirked.

“So you’re gonna move out to Hollywood or Vegas?” Anya asked.

“I dunno yet. Might try and grind out some side-objectives and see if I can hit level 30. But yeah, eventually, that’s the plan. You gonna become a fire magician or something?”

Anya looked into her empty coffee cup. That was what she had been mulling over since Tori left. She had the potential to become a literal superhero. A superhero could just be the beginning. So shouldn’t she? But what if she screwed it up? She hadn’t exactly made the best choices. She’d wound up in a job she hated with a dwindling bank account in a ratty apartment she could barely afford. Not exactly the picture of well-reasoned planning.

“I’m still thinking it over,” she said with a forced smile. “Maybe it would be good to try and find other hosts, see what they think of all this.”

“Not a bad idea. I didn’t know about the stat thing making you change physically. They might know something we don’t,” Carl said. “Any idea how to find them?”
“Not really,” Anya shrugged. “Running into you was pretty random. Felix, can you detect any other hosts? Or send out a signal or something?”

“The menu system only reached out to Carl when he was within a certain range. It’s default is to always search, but it can only connect when another host is nearby. Then it picks up the signal and attaches to it. Kind of like your phone looking for WiFi. If there’s no signal, no connection, but when you’re in range, bingo!”

“Got it, thank you,” Anya said. “Can the menu actually attach to WiFi? Search the internet for signs of other hosts?”

“Unfortunately not. The menu can’t access systems that way. It can’t access Carl’s system, just tell you where it is. Sorry!”

“Damn. So you connecting to the internet and searching for me is out. Fine. But, you told me you know where the menus entered the atmosphere, and could track them until they merged?” She thought of her apartment exploding and making the news the next day. The menu couldn’t search, but she could find others by cross-referencing the map with local stories of disturbances. From there she could at least maybe get close enough to pick up hosts like she had with Carl.
“That’s totally correct!”

“Can you show me on the menu map?” Anya asked as she raised her phone. A map of the world popped up in crisp orange lines, and then countless tiny glowing dots were peppered across its surface. She noted that there were only two in the city, but there were a few others in New York state.

“This is the last scan of the menu systems 0.003 seconds before they merged with hosts or failed to do so and self-destructed,” Felix said. Anya tilted her phone so Carl could see and explained what she was doing, He nodded and told his AI to do the same as he brought out his phone. “There were originally 65 menu systems that approached New York, but only two of them connected.”

Of the innumerable glowing dots, almost all of them vanished, leaving only tiny pockets of glittering light across the map. “These dots,” Felix continued, “confirmed host integration and then went dark.”

“And that’s the 10,608?” Anya asked.

“Yup!” Felix said, then, “Uh, hold on.”

For the second time since she entered the coffee shop, Anya’s right ear beeped. “Did you just send me another message?” she asked Carl. He looked at her, puzzled, and shook his head.

“No, I just got some kind of notification though,” Carl replied. “Ivy? Is somebody messaging us?”

“Felix?” Anya muttered. “What’s going on? Is it another host?”

“No,” Felix said. “Another data cache just became unlocked.”

Anya looked up as she heard Carl suck in a breath. His eyes were huge with what she first thought was mere surprise, but his healthy tan turning to a shade of old milk told her otherwise. Carl was terrified.

“What is it?” Anya demanded. Carl didn’t respond, only stared at something on his phone Anya couldn’t see. “Felix?”

Instead of an immediate verbal response, the map on Anya’s menu changed. Hundreds of red dots appeared on the map, most of them concentrated around the last known locations of the menu hosts. “This was fifteen seconds ago,” Felix said.

“Are those more menus?” Anya asked.

“Sorry to let you down, but no. According to the new data cache, those are identified as ‘enemy aliens.’”

“As what?” Anya hissed.

“Enemy aliens sent to eliminate hosts and integrate salvageable menu data from their remains,” Felix said, his voice quiet. “That doesn’t sound very nice.”

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