July 30th, 2021. Nordend-West, Frankfurt.
The school bell rang. An indication to the students that not only school was out, but also that the summer holidays had finally begun.
Like a frantic stream of birds let out of their cage, the students fled their seats and the school building.
A seventeen-year-old girl called Winter den Haag was one of them. She had blonde, shoulder long hair, blue eyes, and fair skin with a warm ivory undertone. With a height of 178 centimeters, she was taller than most girls, a fact that stood in stark contrast to her timid personality.
Her favorite food was pizza, and in her book, the best way to start the day was with a cup of black coffee.
Due to her introverted character, she had no friends, but that didn’t matter to her. The thought of going out with so-called friends or classmates was not something she fancied. People, she felt, would only hold her back. What she really enjoyed was reading an interesting and well-written novel or play an occasional round of either one of two competitive video games. Other than that, she also liked to study and work toward a solid future.
Winter aspired to become a brand manager at one of Germania’s most illustrious publishing houses. Surprisingly, she wasn’t much of a reader when it came to magazines, but she completely adored the formatting, design, and composition aspect of the work involved. To witness and control the production of a blank page that would later turn into a wonderfully designed canvas with perfectly placed text in a beautiful font was one of the most satisfying things she could imagine.
Meanwhile, she also focused a lot on cyber-dynamics, a field that concentrated on potential solutions to problems not yet perceived.
As she crossed the bridge across the B8, the highway that went through the city of Frankfurt, a yawn escaped her.
“Last night was rough…I feel like I’ll pass out any second.”
She didn’t catch much sleep last night, but no matter how much she craved a delicious cup from her coffee machine, Winter had to stop for the service golem that was currently vacuuming the stairway.
A bit of tension grew in her heart, but eventually, the golem had finished up its duties.
Just as she was about to rush down the stairs and enter Stetten Street, she heard a call from behind.
“Hey! Ugly-duckling, wait up!” A rough female voice entered Winter’s ears. She turned around not to confirm who it was, that she already knew. It was the voice of one of her classmates. Therefore, she did so to acknowledge the other’s presence and lessen the trouble that was about to come.
A group of three girls already stood in front of her before Winter had the chance to turn around.
Angelika, the one that called her out, was the leader of the group. Her two friends, Lusilda and Zara, were always by her side and almost acted like an extension of their leader’s body. Both of them looked at Winter with expressions of indifference, but the light in their eyes held a poisonous glint. All three of them stood in front of her with confident dominance, the typical school bullies you might say.
A cruel smile crept up Angelika’s lips. At a slow pace, her hand moved up toward Winter’s face, grabbed hold of her, pulled her down to her height, and squeezed her cheeks. “Now, now, you didn’t really think you could escape without us noticing right? With that height of yours?!” Angelika said before she added with a pretentious tone of empathy, “Oh, little ducky~”
Ever since Winter came to this school five years ago, Angelika had used some sort of duck-related insult to reference the lips of the former. After a short pause, Angelika’s voice rose once more, “Then again, a stick in the wind like you can easily hide behind a light pole and accelerate along with the wind.”
At this point, Winter had enough, and she pushed her aggressor’s hand from her face. Merely a second later, though, the crisp noise of a slap erupted. Winter’s hair was disheveled, and a red glow slowly filled her left cheek. A bit of shock was detectable on her face. Angelika walked up to her and pushed her against the wall with her massive chest. The motion caused a strand of her purple mohawk to fall in front of her face, which gave her already crazy eyes an even worse impression. “Don’t you dare scream again, bitch!” Angelika said with a menacing tone.
With half her upper body enveloped in the other’s chest, Winter couldn’t help but look down at it. Mocking laughter broke out behind her bully before the latter also let out a chuckle. “What is it? You want some too? Well, I guess even a gram of my mountains would be an improvement for a flat chest like yourself!” Angelika once more lashed out in an attempt to mock the other. Then she let go of Winter for a moment, only to push her to the ground. Shortly after, the bully with the mohawk snatched the latter’s bag and emptied its contents out on the sidewalk. At last, she looked down at her victim in what appeared to be a perverse form of glee.
In the distance the sound of a Lawkeeper appeared to close in, Angelika’s expression turned into a disappointed one. She looked down at Winter and said, “Let’s go, girls! There’s nothing here anyway. Nothing at all!” before she walked away. Lusilda and Zara shared a look for a second, shrugged, and followed their leader. There was nothing they could do. After all, the Lawkeeper golem was not a unit one could talk to. It would analyze the situation thoroughly within seconds and then execute the law in place in the most effective way.
Winter stood up and looked at her school papers, books, and other utensils sprawled all over the ground and stairway. She bit her lip in anger, and a fist formed, as she squeezed her hand tightly. Winter took a deep breath, picked up her belongings, and stuffed them back into her bag. She picked up one last pencil on the sidewalk down the stairs and turned around the next corner. After she had crossed several streets and turned two more corners, she finally reached Kleeberg Street. That’s where she lived along with her father, aunt, and uncle. It was a surprisingly small, and tranquil area. Unlike most buildings in the city, the highest here was only fifteen meters.
The neon lights of several workshops and Antonio’s Pizzeria were already alight even though the sun would still be up for another six to seven hours. As the smell of Antonio’s doughy masterpieces entered her nostrils, the previous unpleasant scene slipped out of her mind, and her mouth filled with juices yearning for a pie.
“Should I?” She sincerely thought. After all, Pizza was Winter’s favorite meal, but in the end, she decided against it. It wouldn’t feel right to eat a full meal by herself. Especially while her father, aunt, and uncle were out to earn money for the family.
She held her green ID-Stone against the display, and the door to their little, two-story apartment opened. Once inside, she put her bag on a stool, turned on the coffeemaker, and took a peek into the fridge.
While the coffee brewed, she took off her school uniform and went into the shower, while the radio in the bathroom reported of another cyber-attack that happened today. Back in the kitchen, the fragrant smell of coffee had filled the first floor. She put the mug on the dining table, devoured a sandwich she had previously fixed herself, and took out some school papers she wanted to work on. She took a sip of the coffee and stretched her neck as if to say that she was now ready to go through her homework.
Suddenly loud and frantic knocks banged on the door. “Winter, are you there?” A man’s voice traveled through the door. It sounded like her neighbor, Herr Neumann. Flustered, by the sudden commotion, Winter did not dare to open the door but curious what this was about, she answered Herr Neumann. “Y-yes I’m here, what is it?” She asked.
"Your aunt couldn’t reach you, so she called me. Your...your father was in an accident. Your aunt is already at the hospital in Maingau.” Herr Neumann narrated. Winter froze after she heard this, as memories similar to this situation flooded her mind.
April 15th, 2013. Near Stuttgart.
Winter was eight years old at that time and enjoyed a simple life, such as a young child should. Her father sat on the little front porch of their house while he observed his daughter play with the kids of the neighborhood.
Xander, Jenny, Gio, Tobias, and his daughter were classmates and stuck together like glue. Alone they were ordinary little children, and might sometimes seem lost. Together as a unit, though, they became a revitalized group of hellraisers. Even so, they were also cute and innocent, so others in the neighborhood would still affectionately call them the gang.
Winter’s father called Xander over, which put their current game at a halt. Her father needed Xander for something inside, so they resumed their game without him. The den Haag’s and the Saloman’s, Xander’s family, were closer to each other than the rest of the group since they were neighbors. Also, his parents and Winter’s mother were colleagues.
They resumed their game, but not five minutes later, a black car pulled over at the sidewalk of their street. The children looked at the car with odd expressions as their game was once again interrupted. They would not complain, though. Only officials drove this kind of car. Therefore, they remained silent and observed. Two officials climbed out and looked around; one of them noticed the group of children and asked. “Could you tell us where the den Haag family and Saloman family live?”
The children were confused at the question and didn’t react at first. Tobias was the first to respond and pointed toward the two houses in front of them. “Thanks, young man!” The official answered with a smile before his expression turned serious again. Somehow Winter could feel her stomach churn but had no idea why.
The officials went up the stairs and stood in front of the open door of Winter’s house. They rang the doorbell, and before they were able to introduce themselves, her father’s voice rang out, “Come in!”
The other children returned to their game, but Winter couldn’t entirely focus on it. Not long after, she could hear her father yell. The tone of his voice sent chills down her spine, never had she heard, or known the sound of pain. Seconds later, Xander ran out of the house as he wept without restraint.
The darkest day in the young girl’s life had come without notice and left her family in shambles. Winter’s mother, along with both of Xander’s parents and many others, died in a terror attack at one of the company’s energy hubs.
A month passed, and her father could not stand living in that house anymore. The air inside had grown stale, and every memory felt like a needle in his heart. Eventually, he decided to sell the house before they both moved to his sister’s place near Frankfurt.
July 30th, 2021. Frankfurt.
Winter’s eyes were lifeless as she gazed out of the window of Herr Neumann’s car. Her thoughts were in a mess, and so were her emotions. Nowadays she could barely go by with her father, and now that school holidays were on, she should have finally begun to enjoy six peaceful and happy weeks. Even her father had taken two weeks of vacation starting this weekend to spend more time with her. Yet somehow, all this had turned into an eight-year-old Deja-vu.
Life had been rough ever since her mother died, but at least they had themselves. Her aunt and uncle were also there, and wonderful individuals, but that still wasn’t the same. She just couldn’t bear the thought of what might happen with her without him.
The blue light from the hub of her neighbor’s car was suddenly overwhelmed by the incoming sunlight as they began to cross the Main. Uncomfortable, she closed her eyes to evade the sun’s rays of piercing light. She intended to open them again once they had crossed the bridge and had found refuge within the city’s skyline, but instead, she had found comfort in the darkness.
She could hear her neighbor speak with her; most likely, he tried to comfort her. Somehow though, in her current state of mind, the usually rather silently humming crystal generator of the car drowned him out.
“We are here, Winter.” Herr Neumann said before he opened the door. The sound of the opening door and the world outside the car brought Winter back to reality. Almost had she dozed off just now. It appeared the situation as a whole, along with the stress it brought, had quite an effect on her. For a while now, every second had felt like an hour.
With fear in her steps, Winter walked toward the station and room the nurse had said her father would be sent to. When Herr Neumann dropped her off and left, she felt a bit better since no one would attempt to comfort her anymore. Yet the closer she got to the room, the further a tingling form of anxiousness spread through her body. Eventually, she walked into the hall where her father would be. Up ahead, Winter saw her aunt as she sat on a stool by the wall, head in her hands. As Winter got closer, her aunt lifted her head and looked toward her. It was apparent that her aunt had cried by the smudged make-up, another factor that caused Winter’s fear to grow. Konny stood up and walked toward her niece, tears once again welled up in her eyes before she hugged the latter. “Oh, Winter. Oooh, Winter, you have to be strong, ok?” Her aunt said, almost whispering, while she once more began to cry. This action caused Winter’s heart to tighten, along with it a layer of cold sweat formed on her back. “Your father, he...he...part of the machine broke off and... he...his leg, they said they couldn’t save it!” Her aunt added in broken parts before she burst into another wail.
Meanwhile, her tears fell all over Winter. The hugs of her aunt continuously varied in strength before she forced out one more line. “They took him to surgery to amputate his leg.”
Winter actually felt a bit relieved by this revelation. All the while, she had feared the worst. Even though the loss of a leg was brutal, at least her father was still alive. Obviously, he needed to work to support his daughter and the family. Therefore, he would need a costly prosthetic-augmentation, one they could not afford, but she could not care less at the moment.
Two hours passed, and finally, the nurses returned. In front of them floated a rice corn formed capsule. Inside was her father, Roman den Haag. The nursed passed both Winter and her aunt Konny before they stationed him to his assigned room. Winter and her aunt stayed for another hour, but her father had not woken up yet. It had become late by now, so eventually, the two women went back home. Of course, Winter intended to return early the next morning.
Back at home Winter laid in her bed in silence as she looked up the ceiling. A veil of darkness had already crawled over the world, but even the eon old stars could not contest the city’s luminescence. It was a humid night, even worse in Winter’s small room. Suddenly she curled up in her bed and finally began to cry as the neon lights from the other side of the street found its way inside. Below she heard her uncle and aunt argue, probably concerning her father’s situation. She was about to lift her pillow and cover her ears with it when suddenly her phone lit up with a notification of an app she didn’t remember installing.
Codename: Karma was successfully installed!
Perplexed, Winter stared at the LED screen, before as if out of reflex, she opened the app. She waited, but nothing happened. In front of her was no user interface, just a black screen. She wondered if this was part of the cyberattack mentioned in the news today, but right before she wanted to close the app, the screen turned white, and letters appeared one by one.
The unknown app asked her one simple question.
Do you want to change your life?
Struck with a complicated feeling, Winter wondered if this was a joke. “Yeah, right! What does that even mean? As if an app could change one’s life. Is this really part of a cyber-attack? If so, I should close the app and delete it quickly.” Her thumb moved downward, ready to swipe up and close the app, yet somehow her thumb moved back up. She was curious but also uncertain. Therefore, this dance between the Yes-button and the swipe-function went on for a dozen times.
Meanwhile, she had stood up, as if in a dilemma, she paced through her small room. Just before she began to bite her nails, Winter stopped herself from this old, almost vanquished habit and finally made a decision. “What bad could actually happen if I press yes? How much worse can it get?” She told herself before she pressed yes, obviously that action would not kill her father, she thought.
The screen turned black for a short moment, and then white pixelated letters appeared.
Welcome, User 11!
“User 11?” Winter wondered, but before her thoughts could delve deeper into the meaning of it, the screen turned white again.
More and more, the light grew in intensity. Eventually, Winter’s eyes were forced shut, and she let go of the phone out of fear it might explode. In the blink of a moment, her room filled with a blinding amount of light, and then, it abruptly disappeared before Winter dropped to the floor.
She laid there unconscious, her breath light, but there nonetheless.