1 1. Polyester Hats cook Dragon Eggs

'It's just one level. No big deal. You did it yesterday, you do it today, and you will do it tomorrow.' Flora Fluss looked at the stairs and took a deep breath.

One step at a time, she negotiated the stairs while clutching the handrail. Her right knee only complained moderately about the exercise, but her hips let her know they hated it.

She didn't pause at the platform between the floors, because that's for older people. As a 71-year-old woman, she insisted she was capable of climbing the stairs in one go.

'A cooked egg would be nice.'

Flora opened the door to the flat and went straight to the kitchen. She filled a pot with water and took off her hat.

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'I could read a book or watch a dancing show. I would love to design a new toaster. I haven't drawn for a long time. Are my markers still working?'

Absentmindedly, she put the cooking pot on the hatrack and the pink hat on the stove. Then, she placed two eggs in it and raised the temperature.

'And where are my aquarelle markers? I think I put them in the bathroom because...why would I put them in the bathroom? Maybe in the hope, the humid environment stops them from drying-out?'

She walked to the bathroom, discovered dirty laundry, and started the washing machine.

While rummaging through the drawers, she discovered a lot of old mascara. 'I could draw the toaster design with mascara. Something like a homage to withering beauty...to withering care...to withering aspirations...to shifting priorities?'

The fire alarm started beeping, but the noise of the washing machine won.

Two hours later, Flora sat in front of her house and watched the fireman hustling in and out. There were no more dark clouds of smoke drifting out of her kitchen window, but the smell of burned plastic lingered.

A tall black man in a business suit jogged towards her.

"Ma! What happened? Are you okay?" He hugged Flora and inspected her.

Flora smiled at him. "I made some eggs; they turned out really nice."

She showed him the two eggs which miraculously had survived the fire. Violet, pink, and black streaks marbled them.

"But I will say to you, sweety, the next time I'm cooking eggs in a hat, I will use a cotton hat or something organic. I'm almost certain you can't eat them anymore."

"Not funny at all, Ma!" He paused. "But they do look nice, a bit magical even. I saw dragon eggs in the game, which looked similar. But they also glowed."

"I can make them glow. I can find a way to put an LED in there."

"Oh no, you don't. You got me again driving on your crazy train. The issue is not whether the eggs are pretty or not−"

"But they are."

"You burned down your kitchen, Ma!"

"It needed renovation."

"Renovation, not destruction."

"You can't create innovation without destruction."

"I won't get into philosophical discussions, especially not with you." Robby sighed. "You can't live alone anymore. I sent you some links to retirement homes."

"I'm not that old. 70 is the new 60 and 60 is the new 50 and 50 is the new−"

"You are that old."

"Then I'm old enough to have grandkids. Where are my grandkids? Produce some grandchildren instead of playing around with dragon eggs. Inseminate some human eggs."

"I'm not playing around−I'm working."

"Working with dragon eggs? To my knowledge, there is no recognized occupation called 'dragon breeder' in this world. And I thought you had a security company." Flora remembered attending some office parties. The people she met were buff folks− ex-military and ex-cops. They didn't conform to the nerdy gamer stereotype. Therefore, Flora had difficulties connecting the security company to a game.

"In the virtual world, this job exists."

"So you breed dragons? And who would buy a dragon?" She paused. "Okay, maybe I would be interested in buying a dragon. But not a pixel dragon, a real one. Maybe, I would use it as a mount or play with it or eat it. I wonder what dragon steaks taste like."

"That would be cannibalism." He grinned.

"Oh, you terrible son." She grinned too. "But I still don't understand how you can make money with a game."

"I shifted my security company gradually into the virtual world. Rich business people want to level up safe and fast. We provide them protection."

"And why are they playing games?"

"In the virtual world, time flows at the double speed of the real world. Therefore they can work 48 hours in virtual reality while only 24 hours in the real world pass."

Flora nodded. She could see the advantages of it. She had to make a lot of crazy deadlines while she was still working as an industrial designer. 'On the other hand, people will start to plan with virtual time. Therefore the stress will be the same long term, and time spent with family and friends in the real world will be shorter in comparison to the working time. Horrible. So the pressure or gain spending leisure time in the virtual world increases−it's a vicious circle.'

While Flora was lost in thought, her son told her examples of affected businesses like creative jobs, monitoring jobs, or stock market trading.

She caught up with him when he turned to mathematics.

"How competent you are in the virtual world depends on your stats. 'Stats' are the numerical values of your attributes and skills. The fastest way to raise those is through leveling. Here comes our company into play. We escort the clients on quests and into dungeons."

Flora chuckled. 'Quests and dungeons...oh my.' She imagined her son Robby in full knight's armor riding through a BDSM dungeon.

"Can you show this game to me?"

"Only videos of it. You need to lie in a pod to access it. That's a box filled with electronics. Actually, you can stay in these pods 24/7 if someone else does the maintenance. You could enter the virtual reality instead of a retirement home. In VR, you could burn down as many kitchens as you like, and it wouldn't hurt you."

"Radically renovate, you mean. Hmm…" 'On the one hand, I can see him more and exert pressure for grandkids. On the other hand, I wouldn't see my grandchildren when I'm in virtual reality.' "Can you get virtual grandkids?"

Robby gaped. "Ma! No! But please consider entering the VR, I would worry less about you. And I want to show you the beautiful sceneries of the Cetviwos. We could go on hikes like in the past."

'Plan one spending more time with Robsweets underway. Plan two getting grandkids pending.'

"But brainwave-based virtual reality isn't great for anybody. I have a high synchronization rate, and there is a genetic component to it. So the chances are good you will do well. However, it might be difficult to adjust to new technology at your age."

Of course, Flora saw through his attempt to kindle her competitive spirit. Nonetheless, it worked.

"No problem, I have worked with a brainwave-based VR CAD System before. It felt great, a bit like magic."

"Brainwave technology is brand-new. CentralTank, the company running the VR World, is the only one who figured out how to send and receive complex data directly to and from your mind. So it isn't likely your–um CAT−software was fully brainwave enabled."

"CAD means Computer-aided Design—basically, software for technical drawings. I needed a cheap software when I was freelancing, and they did a promotion for BETA-Testing their brainwave VR technology. My workshop was virtual, and I had an artificial intelligence assistant." Flora got increasingly enthusiastic. "Are in this game workshops and AI assistants too? I want to design more toasters! Can you create toasters? If there are no toasters, forget about this VR stuff!"

"The game offers a marvelous workshop for crafting and AI assistants. Although I never saw an actual toaster, there are spaceships named Toasters because they look a bit like it. Besides, they get so hot they toast the pilot if he hasn't enough fire-resistance."

Flora grinned. "Great! The CAD System had some fun competitions. For one of them, I designed a toaster-shaped spaceship too. It was just a gimmick. Nobody sane would fly it. The pilot has to get in like a toast goes into a toaster. A hatch closes behind him, and the whole opening converts into a thruster. I added a few side-thrusters, but the spaceship can move only in a relatively straight line."

"That sounds a lot like the Toasters in-game," Rob said slowly.

"You think you have the most creative, unique idea in the world, and in the next week, the competitor launches it. Convergent evolution of ideas happens all the time in design."

They both shrugged simultaneously. Flora reached for Robby's hand and squeezed it.

"Let's try this VR thingy for a bit. I'll show you I can handle all the modern stuff."

He nodded with a wry smile, but his voice boomed: "Flora Fluss goes virtual!"

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