The city's lights reflected in puddles gathering in the incessant rain, overlaying the geometric patterns of the glowing grid of inlaid radiation receptors.

There was a smell of fish and fried onions from the market laced with the smell of ozone, the rain cast a neon haze over the darkening city, it was night, it was Neo Tokyo…

Citizen 558 sat slumped against the dumpster in a nondescript ally in one of the outer regions. The city had a way of making you feel alone and uneasy.

Abandoned avatars drifted aimlessly by, picked up by the real-ware retina overlay the citizen had picked up from one of the illegal code brokers who set up shop on the outskirts of the industrial zones. ‘Remnants’ were either selling some long out of fashion product just to interact or having conversations with their multiple ai driven personalities their owners had once installed “l can’t believe you would do that, if I were you, if I were you, if I were you…” one repeated vaguely to itself as it walked by, stuck on some logic loop it couldn’t close.

The rain had turned into a fine haze, through its luminescent softness, an elegant Neo-Victorian avatar walked by in the visual field, peering at him and somehow through him. “You know” it mused, “Words don’t mean what they used to, not the same at all, you’ll see! Don’t things feel different now?”. It seemed to be engaging him in a conversation it had started a long time ago, it wasn’t an entirely odd thing to say, especially for one of these entities. But there was the sensation that he was being invited into something important.

The strange avatar flickered and stopped, it drifted closer, seeming to focus on him now, rather than through or past him. It squinted at him through a monacle attached to a chain in the breast pocket of the pinstripe waistcoat. It studied him in a way that made him feel exposed, uncomfortable: remnants never really took an interest in you personally, they were usually too wrapped up in themselves, inturned, stuck on an unreachable layer.

It chuckled jovially “The Citadel eh! Well, I wish you luck my boy, but a world of advice..”

It then froze, looked a little confused and befuddled, looked about itself as someone who has been sleepwalking and has now found themselves in a place they don’t recognize and have no memory of getting to. It then flickered out of vision and didn’t reappear to impart its words of advice. There was a heavy sense of something closing in, as if he was getting close to something or it was getting close to him.

These old artifacts; avatars and remnants, sometimes they looked at you, attempting to start conversations, their code recognizing an observer. This however had been different, almost as though it had identified him personally, not just as a random observer, a warm body: Some seemed as though they were attempting to be seen by an entity that was real, an attempt to break through the layer they were stuck on and into the real. Occasionally, if one paid them any attention, they would wring their hands in gratitude or reach out an insubstantial hand, but they weren’t really interested they just wanted a brief moment of attention, it didn’t matter from whom, after which they would soon return to their inward facing monologues and exclamations.

He was indeed trying to reach the citadel, many of his kind were: a dream sold to those living in the outer regions, although none he knew had ever reached it. Most who tried were led astray by elves: malicious artificial agents, selling tech loaded with malware or even leading some into the hands of the illegal organ or reclaimed wet-ware traders. Some were just garden variety scammers, grifters or hackers. The city was treacherous and killed dreams as easily as it made them.

The citizen sat against the cold metal looking into the hazy night, old world Berlin techno thumped from a building nearby, broken by eerily melancholic Neo-core synths; threading a growing sense of something unknowable through the night and somewhere beyond.

As he pondered the strangeness of the avatar’s interest in him and its parting words, he became aware of another figure approaching: it appeared on a digital layer, picked up by the real-ware optics. It wasn’t clear if it was an old avatar, it didn’t look the way they usually did, but then again, cracked real-ware often seemed to create odd artifacts, one never knew if it was remains of old code, a remnant or if it was picking up things on the dark layer, things that led you astray…

But as the figure approached, he saw that it was a child, it must be an old avatar as it seemed to flicker and glitch a little, but it didn’t represent any of the avatars that had ever been in fashion, it was oddly dressed in a flower patterned frock and red shoes, on its head was a straw hat.

“I want to give you this” she said, opening her hand, a box with intricate carvings instantiated, hovering an inch above her small palm. It rotated slowly, the city lights reflecting off complex metallic patterns on its surface that seemed to swirl and rearrange themselves in response to something he couldn’t see.

“I know where you’re trying to go. Take this” it said, thrusting the strange looking box at him.

“These are my instructions” it stated, starting to flicker and fade.

“But what is it?” He said

“It’s a game” she gave a little metallic laugh and was gone in a cloud of holographic particles refracting into the rain.

“Wait! What are you? Who sent you?” But he just spoke into the night and the empty alley.

He looked at the rotating cube now hovering at chest height, reached out and brought it into his palm, inspecting it. His pulse felt thick with unease: someone somewhere knew who he was and wanted him to have this strange object. And earlier an old avatar had somehow identified him as one on a mission to the citadel. One of these entities was malicious, someone was trying to help him and another to kill him, but which was which? Maybe it was just a game conjured up by one of the game cartels, who created newer, more intricate games, recruiting new players in increasingly novel ways, luring in unsuspecting citizens: if you find yourself on the chessboard, your only option is to play…