1.1.0

“Jiang? Jiang Xun? …that’s strange, I’m not seeing any connectivity issues-”

“-I’m here,” Xun replied, though somewhat reluctantly. He turned away from the four code-filled screens of his virtual work space. “What is it?”

“We never received your confirmation regarding tomorrow’s meeting,” his supervisor stated. “If I recall you were not in attendance at the last one. I should remind you that these things are mandatory…”

“Yes, I’m sorry Mei, I was just about to confirm my-”

“You’re a valuable asset to our team at Dòngnéng, Jiang, but I can’t keep covering for you. We simply can’t have any slip-ups with such an important project on our hands.”

Important, thought Xun, his inner voice thick with sarcasm. Infrastructure is important. Hospitals are important. Encryption is important. Not shallow online social exchanges.

“Now I know as a part of the development team you don’t always feel your voice is head but let me assure you-”

“Private call requested,” an automated voice chimed in over Mei’s talking.

“I really need to take this… it’s… Zhou,” he said.

“Well promise me you’ll be here tomorrow for Parallel’s integration presentation. And remember, all development next week needs to take place on site. The boss has emphasized the importance of working in a secure environment.”

“I promise I’ll be there,” he replied.

“Okay, thank y-” He ended the connection before she could finish.

“Accept private call.”

There was a brief moment of silence.

“…hello Jiang.” A man’s voice greeted him, taking particular care in the enunciation of each syllable it spoke. “Are you still interested in that little puzzle I mentioned last week?”

“Yes.”

“I know you are. Check your parcel box. The one you don’t normally use. Thank me later.”

The private caller ended their conversation before Xun could respond.

“Exit Parallel,” Xun said.

“Are you sure you’d like to end your session?” the automated voice asked.

“Yes.”

The space around Xun faded away and his attention returned to the sensations of the world on his physical body. The surface he laid on was cool, but not cold, and his apartment had a mild, musty smell to it. Not that he cared about the latter.

He removed a helmet-like device from his head and sat up, looking around to allow his eyes to adjust to the light around him. It had been raining earlier that morning, but it looked as if the clouds were starting to dissipate.

Standing, Xun walked over to his apartment door, opened it, and continued down the hall to a collection of old, rusted lock-boxes. Inside his was a small, unmarked package, which he retrieved and brought back to his place. Opening the box, he found a rectangular microchip, along with a handwritten note:

You know the risks involved. Once you’ve modded your hardware, boot into the system and you will find a black door in your user space next to the public gateway entrance.

Welcome to CogNETa.