Aether Gate
by A. M. Deuel

". . . you have to understand that dying in this world is okay, even when in our mind dying is the thing we often fear the most."

Focus Fire Initiative is an online games company which announces Project Vulcanium and Nebula: Genesis as a "first full-dive virtual reality system." From this point on the narrative enters into variations of online warfare, where participants engage in battle with virtual enemies like the Venchuri in what is at times an almost indistinguishable intensity from actual warfare, except that virtual bodies explode in shards. A small group of players notices some anomalies regarding "modded" parts being shipped to various organizations. These are modified weapons or even warriors that can outclass everyone else. When thirty-seven soldiers for the small group suddenly disappear from the system, each marked with a peculiar icon, the players at first put it down to possible glitches in the new closed test of the Aegis Project. But after being summoned to a virtual arena meeting where Project Aether is announced, they intuitively sense that something is not quite right.

This foray into a convincingly real virtual reality is an interesting plot device, as the "virtual" aspect is not that far from the function of fiction itself. As such, the plot is bound up in rapid shifts between everyday reality and that of the virtual warfare world that can at times be confusing. There is a lot of military jargon throughout which adds to the sense of action and conflict. Character development is not emphasized, with people's military personalities being more present than those of their everyday lives. Still, the banter and dialogue between the gamers do show some personality quirks. The theme explores what happens when a virtual warfare program is suddenly made all too real. Power corrupts, and the small group of thirteen players dressed in blue robes with golden undershirts who announce Project Aether exhibit no exception to the rule.

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