traces of kate | wendy nikol

Level 1

The Onyx Kingdom’s namesake gemstone has been stolen from the royal treasury, and Queen Mariel has ordered you — her top ninja — to hunt down the thief and retrieve it! Make your way through the labyrinthine castle corridors to the front gate, fighting spiders and mice, and avoiding the inept Wizard Razzlebeard who might try to cast a strengthening spell on you and accidentally turn you into a frog! Good luck!

As the opening for Kate’s game scrolls across the screen, I know somewhere in here, there must be a clue. When the cops asked if she’d been acting strangely, I told them how she’d been obsessing with this game. For weeks, she’d be sitting there in every spare moment she could find between classes and late into the night. Her neck would be bent over the computer screen and her hair hanging down over her face, a Cup O’ Noodles half-eaten beside the keyboard as she coded and designed it and did whatever else she does to make it a real, playable thing.

Maybe the cops would have done more than frown and scribble on their clipboard if I’d told them about the times I’d sat up in the middle of the night, turned to her side of the dorm room, rubbing sleep from my eyes, and seen her sitting here, looking like a ghost – transparent, as if she was fading into the game itself. How I’d call out her name to draw her back, and she’d look at me, blinking in confusion, like she didn’t know where she was. Like she really had been somewhere else.

But I’d just been dreaming, hadn’t I?

“Give us a call if you think of anything else,” the officer had said, handing me his card. Then they’d all filed out: the cops and the dorm supervisor and the head of the university, all shaking their heads and muttering like it was already a lost cause. Like she was already a lost cause.

I tossed the card on Kate’s empty bed and pressed the power button on her computer.

Level 2

You have found your way out of the castle, but your quest is far from over! Outside, there are strange footprints leading from the castle into the heart of Perception Woods, where things are never quite what they seem. Beware hidden pitfalls and enemies masquerading as allies as you follow the tracks.

The game is filled with traces of Kate. The playable ninja braids her hair like Kate does and has her blue eyes and pear-shaped body type. The background music is the same sort of techno stuff Kate listens to as she codes, its bass steadily pounding like a heartbeat. Even the meadow leading to Perception Woods is filled with the same swirling flower she’d drawn all over her textbooks during freshman orientation week as we’d sat up late, eating chocolate in our pajamas and tentatively testing out our new partnership, trying to determine if the housing lottery had matched us up with someone compatible. Someone fun. Someone cool.

Mick barges in without knocking, interrupting the game just as my ninja has entered the darkening forest and the music takes on an ominous tone. Do I want to hang out? No, my roommate is missing and that’s kind of more important to me than watching him play pool at the student center. And, no, I don’t care that Jake’s been talking smack-talk and he needs me, his “lucky charm” at his side.

“She’s probably just doing it for attention,” he says when I don’t give in. “She’s jealous you’re spending your time with me now.”

I don’t look up from the screen, where I’ve just stepped into a silvery bear trap. When it snaps shut upon me, I flinch. I’m bleeding, crying out for help, but the collection of pixels I assumed was my ally has morphed into a wolf that’s now circling my imperiled ninja.

Could Mick be right? Is this just a cry for attention?

“It’s not like you’re out looking for her, anyway,” he says, scoffing.

But I am.

Level 3

Deep within the forest, the strange tracks lead to clearing. There, you find a cabin with no door, where a hook-nosed witch taunts you from the highest window, the missing onyx glimmering in her outstretched hand. You must find a way in and seize the witch before she escapes with the gemstone.

The witch bears an uncanny resemblance to Kate’s mom, a woman I only met once, on move-in day, and barely exchanged three words with. Her in-game taunts grate on me as I fail over and over to scale the wall. My ninja will scramble halfway up… three-quarters of the way up… and then the witch will shriek and the whole cabin shakes and the character falls to the ground with a puff of dust. Soon, I’ve used up every object I’d collected — all the potions and berries and fortifying amulets — and still, she mocks me.

“If you were really clever, you’d figure out how get up here.”

“Is that the best you can do?”

“And you call yourself the queen’s ninja? Ha!”

“You ought to be ashamed!”

My mind reels back to phone conversations I’ve walked in on, with Kate staring out the window across the quad, blank-faced and tense, muttering, “Yes, mom, I know,” over and over. Conversations I pretended not to hear as I gathered up the books I needed and slipped back out the door. Conversations that were none of my business.

Level 4

The witch has escaped on her dragon, which has flown her to the top of Advancement Peak. Answer the trolls’ riddles to scale the mountain, watching out for hidden pitfalls and mischievous sprites that will steal your coins.

I recognize Advancement Peak all too well. I swear Kate must’ve taken the trolls’ “riddles” directly from the pages of our latest history exam. I’d aced it, even though Mick had dragged me to a party the night before. It wasn’t until now, with those ugly, 8-bit trolls leering at me that I remembered that she’d asked me to study with her. Absolutely, I’d said. But I hadn’t. I’d done my makeup and slipped on my heels and headed off to that party without a second thought. Without a second glance at the pile of textbooks on Kate’s bed.

Was this how she’d reviewed the Bill of Rights? The names and dates of all those presidents?

I’d seen her talking with the professor after the papers were returned, her back to the rest of the class, but I never bothered to ask her how she’d done, whether all her studying had paid off.

A troll sneaks up behind me and a pile of coins fly from my bag. Somehow, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the amount he steals is the exact same as the tuition bill Kate left sitting on her desk.

Level 5

Within the mountain lies the dragon’s lair. It is so dark, it swallows up all light. Even the magical orbs the queen provided you to light the way are useless here. In fact, everything seems useless. You’ll be lucky to get out alive.

The screen is so dark, I wonder if this was as far as Kate got, if the rest of the game is unfinished. But if I squint, I can make out the ninja’s outline, and if I hold down the arrows, it moves slowly across the screen.

My phone buzzes with a text from Mick, but I ignore it. The clock says it’s well past midnight, and I’ve got early classes tomorrow and homework still to do, but I press on, sipping now-cold coffee from one of the matching mugs Kate and I had bought from the campus bookstore our first weekend here. Matched glassware. We’d joke about how classy our dorm room would be.

A tiny part of my brain argues that I should just log off, finish the game up tomorrow morning. That it’s not worth pulling an all-nighter.

But it is.

The darkness is even more oppressing than the text at the beginning of the level had warned. Gone are the bright graphics of the castle, the forest, the mountain. Gone, too, is the struggle. There’s no path here, no tracks to follow, no enemies to defeat or shining items to collect. There’s no story. No purpose. No point. One scene of blackness fades into another — identical and indistinguishable from the first. It’s just screen after empty, lonely screen. On and on to forever.

What am I even doing here?

Why bother?

Desperate, I whisper. “Where are you, Kate? I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Except, no, that’s not exactly true. The pieces were there all along.

“I’m sorry. I should have seen.”

The moment I speak, something appears on the screen: black upon black, tucked away in a shape that looks vaguely like a curled-up child. It’s the onyx gem and at the same time, it’s her. I don’t know how I know it, but I do.

The image sits on the screen, barely visible and just out of my ninja’s reach, and I know I can’t help her out of the darkness — I don’t have the know-how or skill — but I can let her know that I see her. That I care.

I position my hands on the keys and type, “I’m here.”

The image flickers, and suddenly, Kate sits beside me at her desk, her eyes fixed on the still-black computer screen.

I take her hand, not knowing what else to do, whether it would be too little, too late. I can see it now — not on the screen, but in her eyes — the hurt, the emptiness, the pain. It’s been there all along, but now I see it. I squeeze her hand and whisper. “I’m here.” ◇

Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and various other ezines and anthologies. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com.