>>> Alan's gloved fingers clung to the rough surface of the cliff's ice-covered edges, his heart pounding in rhythm with each calculated movement. The frigid wind numbed his cheeks and frosted his breath, as he followed the path highlighted in neon pink. Though he used it rarely, the Mountaineering plugin augmenting Alan's vision was worth every credit. From one handhold to the next, he methodically made his ascent to the peak of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

Suddenly, a voice whispered into his mind. "Alan," it murmured, a cadence of synthetic warmth cutting through the biting cold. It was Piper, his ever-present, exceedingly helpful A.I. companion. "Incoming call from Ed," Piper informed him, his voice resonating in Alan's consciousness like a hidden frequency.

Alan hesitated, his fingers tightening on the ice pick. Edward Djikstra, the enigmatic corporate titan infamous for his aggressive, hands-on approach to leadership, had a way of drawing Alan back into the more frenetic jobs MRT offered.

Alan closed his eyes and cleared his head to use New Horizon's mind user interface. In the blackness of empty thought, he imagined sitting at a desk clear save for a lone book. The cover bore the name "Edward Djikstra." Alan opened the book, and from its blank pages, and into his imagination, a hologram appeared of an elegant man, clad in a crisp gainsboro suit. Alan opened his eyes, and the pink pathfinding overlay was replaced with a digital projection of Ed.

"Alan, my boy," Ed's gravelly voice crackled as it traveled the cybernetic bridge connecting his physical world with Alan's digital one. Deep wrinkles carved canyons across his weathered face, hinting at a lifetime of secrets and strife, yet an undeniable spark of optimism pierced through the visage. With a tone and posture that exuded the confidence of one accustomed to success, he replied, "I trust my interruption hasn't thrown you off the cliff, so to speak?"

Alan managed a wry smile, despite barely hanging on. "Not quite, Ed. Just hanging around."

"Good, good," Ed chuckled, the sound tinged with amusement. "I must commend you on your last bug report. I read it personally, you know. A fine piece of work. You have an eye for catching things our other debuggers miss. And you're not afraid to get in the thick of it."

"I didn't know you read bug reports Ed," Alan said half-jokingly, a little surprised, and a little flattered, "but thanks." He shifted the weight from his hands to his feet to ease the pressure.

"On special occasions I do… and this is a special occasion," Ed's tone turned serious, his hologram flickering as if to underscore the weight of his words. "I have a job that requires your expertise. A situation demanding of your observational skills and your ability to navigate the… idiosyncrasies of MRT's programs."

Alan's grip on the ice pick tightened. Ed's proposals were always a double-edged sword, promising rewards that often came with a price he couldn't foresee. But the excitement of a challenging job, and a big payout, was a siren's call Alan found hard to resist. His heart raced. He glanced at the icy expanse stretching above and below him, the mountain seeming to echo the duality of his choices. Still hanging onto the cliff's edge, Alan called back to Piper.

"Piper, set gravity to zero."

"Okay, Al."

The tension gnawing at Alan's limbs melted away, replaced by a curious weightlessness that cocooned him in a gentle embrace. With a gentle push against the cliff's icy face, he drifted away, anchored only by his climbing rope.

"Alright, Ed," he said, his voice steady, betraying none of his uncertainty. "I'm listening."

Ed's smile widened, revealing a glint of satisfaction that matched the calculated precision that made him a corporate legend. "I thought you would, Alan. You see, we've been working on a new feature for New Horizons, one that will revolutionize the way users experience our world."

"And what would that be?"

Ed leaned forward, the hologram of his face and torso looming larger. "Cloning," he announced, his tone carrying the weight of a revelation, as if he himself had stumbled upon this profoundly novel thing missing from the human experience. "We've developed technology that allows users to create clones of themselves within our reality. Each clone operates independently, allowing users to experience multiple scenarios simultaneously."

Alan floated quietly as he processed the implications. Cloning was unprecedented, both for New Horizons and, so far as he was aware, any other digital reality. He imagined the possibilities: users splitting their consciousness, exploring divergent paths, and acquiring experiences at a rate unachievable otherwise.

"That's quite a feature, Ed," Alan remarked. "But why? Why does New Horizons need this?"

"You see, as our users live their lives far beyond what they're capable of in the physical world, and as we continue adding features that make their lives more interesting and our product more compelling, they crave more stimulation; more excitement; more unique and titillating ways to experience eternity." Ed's hologram shimmered.

Alan was skeptical, especially at the idea that people wanted to live their lives faster now that they could finally live forever, but he also acknowledged that Ed's world was different than his; New Horizons wasn't the only digital reality on the market—Ed had improvements to make, competitors to stave off, new features to introduce, foes to vanguish. Another company just added infinite orgasms, Alan heard. The experience is so intoxicating some users leave it on for years before they even care to do anything else. Ed, whether for religious, moral, philosophical or technical reasons, hasn't duplicated the same feature in New Horizons. A cloning feature, however, could be just as stimulating…

"So, you want me to test this feature out, beta test it."

"Precisely. We've completed extensive alpha testing with simulated users in our production environment. We're ready for real users." Ed leaned forward even more, his shimmering green eyes focusing deeply on Alan. "Alan, this feature is our most ambitious yet—we must ensure it's ready for our users."

"It sounds risky, Ed. Even for you."

Ed nodded and leaned back, his hologram emanating respect for Alan's caution. "Cloning offers boundless opportunities, but it also presents unique challenges," he said, gently stroking his beard. "The potential for system disruptions, unintended interactions, and ethical considerations are all factors we've been grappling with. Your role will involve rigorous testing, fine-tuning, and ensuring a seamless integration within our users' experiences. We are mindful of the scale and complexity of this project, Alan. All the resources you need will be at your disposal."

"What's the payout?"

"Payout, my boy," Ed replied with a sly grin, "will be commensurate with the scale of the task at hand. This task is exponentially more complex than the Streams feature you assisted us with. Rest assured, you will be paid handsomely."

Alan considered Ed's words as he floated in the chilly air, his thoughts shifting like the clouds scattered above him.

"Can you give me a moment, Ed?"

"Of course."

Ed's feed cut out. Alan took in the snowy landscape around him, the rugged expanse mirroring the uncharted territory he was being asked to navigate. This new feature was audacious, to say the least, maybe even reckless. Ed was ambitious with his timelines. But he'd always been straight with Alan, and he seemed confident this was ready for mass adoption. Besides, and perhaps most importantly, Alan really wanted those credits.

"Alright, Ed."

Ed's hologram fluttered back into view.

"I'll take the job."

Ed formed a charismatic smile, a glimpse of the force that propelled him to CEO of MRT. "I knew I could count on you, Alan. We are invested in this feature's success, and your testing and insights will be crucial in refining it to its maximum potential."

"I'm looking forward to helping the delivery," Alan replied, "and I'd like an advance."

Ed paused for a moment, a little taken aback, then grinned. "I had forgotten, Alan… that you are something of a mover yourself. Of course, we can make that happen. Would 10% of the final payout suffice?"

"If that's enough to add a user slot to my world, then yes."

"Certainly," Ed smiled. "I will send all the details to your digipal Piper, and the initial funds to your account. Happy climbing, and do enjoy the view once you've reached the top. It's quite magnificent."

The hologram of Edward Djikstra dissolved into digital fragments, binary traces of human interaction spiraling away into the ether, and Alan was once again left alone in his static world. He reoriented himself back on the mountain face, restored gravity, and resumed his climb up Mt. Denali.

With a user slot he could now invite another human to his world, to hopefully quell the crippling boredom that nagged him in his life in eternity. Yet, he found his destiny was now intertwined with Ed's, for better or worse.

He pressed on, pushing aside any contemplation of his decision and its possible outcomes, and focused with tunnel-like vision on his objective, the mountain's peak. Grip by grip, he slowly made his way closer to the top.

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