>>> Alan's gloved fingers clung to the rough surface of the ice-covered rock face, his heart pounding in rhythm with each calculated movement. The frigid wind howled around him, numbing his cheeks, frosting his ragged breath. His vision was augmented with a plugin that highlighted preferred routes up the cliff to the misty top. Paths were marked with curved lines, and the handholds and footholds to use for each one were highlighted in hot pink. The climb up Mt. Denali was a breathtaking challenge, a stark contrast from the neon concrete sprawl where Alan felt he spent too much of his time.

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 AI companion. "Incoming call from Ed," Piper informed him, his voice resonating in Alan's consciousness like a hidden frequency.

Alan hesitated for a moment, his fingers tightening on the ice pick. Ed Djikstra, the enigmatic corporate titan renowned for, and in some circles reviled for, his aggressive and hands-on approach to leadership, had a way of drawing Alan back into the more frenetic jobs MRT offered.

Alan closed his eyes and imagined a book. The cover bore the name "Ed Djikstra." Alan opened it, and from its blank pages a hologram appeared of Ed. He opened his eyes, and the digital pathfinding overlay was replaced with a 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. His face was a maze of deep wrinkles and hidden agendas, its demeanor exuded confidence, having been shaped by the life experiences of one accustomed to success. "I trust my interruption hasn't thrown you off the cliff, so to speak?"

Alan managed a wry smile, despite hanging on for dear life. "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've an eye for catching things most of 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 bit surprised, "but thanks." Alan shifted his weight from the handholds to the footholds to ease the pressure.

"On special occasions I do… and this is a special occasion," Ed's tone turned serious, the hologram's flicker intensifying as if to underscore the gravity of the conversation. "I've got a job that requires your expertise. A situation that demands your observant eye and ability to navigate the… idiosyncrasies, shall we say, of our 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."

"Ok, Al."

The tension gnawing at Alan's arms and legs 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 a 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 could 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 had stumbled upon some profoundly novel thing missing from the human experience. "We've developed technology that allows users to create clones of themselves within New Horizons. 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 alternative reality service. He imagined the possibilities: users splitting their consciousness, exploring divergent paths, and acquiring experiences at a rate unachievable otherwise. He also wondered why it was necessary.

"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, and as we continue adding new features that make their lives more interesting and our product more compelling—features like the gravity adjustment I see you're currently using—they crave more stimulation; more excitement; More unique and titillating ways to experience eternity." Ed's hologram shimmered as he spoke.

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 understood that Ed's world was different than his; New Horizons wasn't the only alternative reality on the market—Ed had improvements to make, competitors to stave off, new features to introduce, foes to vanguish. A competing service recently introduced infinite orgasms, Alan heard. The experience is so intoxicating some users leave it enabled for years before they desire doing anything else. Ed, whether for religious, moral, philosophical or technical reasons, has refused to duplicate the same feature in New Horizons, but a cloning feature 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 and a small cadre of real ones in our staging environment. We're ready to test it in production." Ed leaned forward even more, his shimmering green eyes focused 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 holographic form emanating a sense of respect for Alan's caution. "Cloning offers boundless opportunities, but it also presents unique challenges. 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 quite mindful of the scale and complexity of this project, Alan. You'll have all the resources you need at your disposal."

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."

The feed of Ed cut out. Alan glanced at 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, daring, and aggressive with his timelines. But Alan knew him to be an honest man, and he seemed confident this was almost ready for mass adoption. Besides, and perhaps most importantly, Alan could really use those credits.

"Alright, Ed."

Ed's hologram fluttered back into view.

"I'll take the job."

Ed formed a smile that radiated charisma, a glimpse of the force that helped propel 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. As always, your dedication will be generously rewarded."

"I'm looking forward to helping you launch it," Alan replied, "and speaking of reward… I'd like an advance."

Ed paused for a moment, a little taken aback, then grinned. "I had forgotten… that you are a mover yourself. Of course, Alan. We can make that happen. 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 Ed 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's face, restored gravity, and resumed his climb up Mt. Denali.

Ever reaching for greater heights, pushing himself beyond old limits, for no reason other than it was his nature, Alan ascended the mountain with the same resolve he had for climbing the social ladder in New Horizons. And, thanks to some quick wits, he had just secured credits for a user slot just in time for the upcoming First New Dawn party.

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