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>>> Under a blackened desert sky bursting at the seams with an infinite stream of fireworks, Alan weaved through a throng of revelers swept up by the wild spectacle of this year's First New Dawn party. A cacophony of booms, cheers, music and chatter flooded Alan's ears as he wandered Cowboy Street, a nostalgic reminder of his roots. The twangy guitar riffs and southern drawls emanating from the row of honky tonks reminded him of his home town Austin, where while still in high school he would set up AV equipment for music venues on Sixth Street. He was building out mining farms for indie crypto firms by the time MTP had recruited him, back then a fledgling startup. Alan was one of the first employees MTP had hired beyond the original founders.

He navigated the sea of stetson hats and denim, moving from one group to the next, in search of eyes lingering long on his. He had always enjoyed the camaraderie of these parties, even if it was fleeting, but this year was different: his world finally had a multiplayer slot; he could now share it with a kindred spirit, if he could find one. He liked his odds; there were plenty of users here. This world, unlike his and everyone else's, was highly scalable, and could accommodate, for one epic day, as many users as MTP had.

Absent the spark he sought, he drifted like a ghost through the multitude till he reached an intersection where the cross-street opened a new view to the city's skyline. A massive skyscraper rose far off in the distance, its glass and steel facade shimmering the reflection of fireworks exploding overhead. A giant triangular cutout carved a hole through the top of the bulging figure's chrome skin. It looked like an alien spaceship that had crash landed on earth. Without much thought, Alan headed towards it, drawn to it for unexplicable reasons.

Leaving the neon chaos of Cowboy Street behind him, he entered Olaya Street, its sidewalks lined with glittering champagne bars and cocktail lounges. A circle had formed around a man in a tuxedo vomiting on the sidewalk outside a swanky restaurant. The crowd was broadcasting his misfortune to their followers on Streams, their eyes a constellation of emerald green. Alan was about to help the poor guy when a beautiful voice pierced the rambunctious atmosphere and beckoned him towards it. Mesmerised, he homed in on the source—an unassuming, windowless bar across the street with the name "The Velvet Veil" flickering in white neon above the door.

Hazy, bathed in smoky blues and purples, the lounge was a serene refuge from the unrelenting energy outside—an upscale saloon near an intersection where the realms of cowboys and gentlemen collided. Alan navigated between patrons and hovering waiter drones till he got to the bar.

The bartender, a slender gal wearing spurs and a silver cowboy hat, gave him a friendly nod. "What'll it be?"

"What's popular around here?"

She pondered for a second. "Most folks seem to love the Arctic Siren."

"Sounds interesting. I'll have that."

"Wanna watch?" she asked, unassumingly.

Alan blinked. "Excuse me?"

She laughed, a hint of amusement in her voice. "The drink. Wanna watch me make it?"

"Oh, right," Alan mumbled, blushing, "No, that's okay."

The bartender stared at a silver pad embedded in the wooden bar top in front of Alan. Her eyes flashed gold—a subtle sign she was a bot—and a cocktail materialized before him. The drink glimmered an icy blue, and, hovering above it, a holographic siren atop a glacier beckoned him closer. As Alan took a sip, she leaned in and kissed him on the cheek as she let out an exaggerated Muah!. A rush of coolness flowed through him, refreshing him from the desert's dry heat.

Reinvigorated, he turned his attention to the singer across the bar. She sat on a wooden stool on an empty stage, the spotlight casting a soft halo around her, her cascading silver hair shining under the glow like a new moon. Her fingers danced gracefully over her guitar's strings, producing melancholic notes that harmonized perfectly with her hauntingly beautiful voice. The entire room hushed as she sang a tale of a lost love.

Her blueviolet eyes told a story even as she paused between verses. Her raw emotion, sincerity, and lyrics resonated deeply with Alan. He found himself reliving his final stretch in the physical.

He thought of his ex-fiance. The road trip where they had fallen in love—when he had laid her down under a starry night sky on the Guadalupe Mountains, where they watched from afar marauding off-roaders kicking up dust clouds illuminated by their headlights. The lazy days when they'd lay naked in bed together, and he'd graze her hips with his fingertips to feel the curves of her body. Their last fight: how her voice trembled and lilted like a leaf see-sawing softly to the earth; how his rumbled and quaked, like an angry earth swallowing it whole. The car crash that cut short his time in the physical, and ended up ending their relationship.

The song concluded with a lingering note, and the bar erupted in applause. Alan remained silent, engrossed in the memories of his past life, when a rowdy Australian bumped into him.

"Oi, sorry about that, mate!" he said, signaling the bartender.

"You're good."

"Ripper of a performance, eh?"

"Mesmerising."

"Too right," the Aussie agreed, his eyes on the bartender mixing his drink. "How long you been in here?"

"Four years now."

The bartender slid the drink over. The Aussie took a hearty sip and let out a satisfied sigh, "Aaaah, that's the go."

"Bit of a veteran then, are ya? What do you reckon?"

"It's not too bad… though, I didn't realize how important credits would be in here. Not even in death could I escape capitalism, I guess," Alan shrugged. "How about you?"

"First week, mate! Loving every bit of it. Played a lot of footy back in the day until a bad tackle wrecked me legs. Couple years dealing with that, and I was itching for the digital switch," he said, pausing for a swig.

"What kind of user are you? Are you logged in?"

"Logged in. Just 'cause I ain't got me legs doesn't mean I gotta go all out!" the Aussie exclaimed.

"You'd be surprised," Alan replied, "living between two worlds ain't cheap… or easy." He raised his glass, "Cheers, to your new legs, and your first new dawn."

"Cheers, mate," the Aussie nodded, as Alan headed towards the door, "Reckon I could snag your details?"

Alan nodded with a friendly smile. "Sure man, no problem," he said as he made for the exit. The Australian closed his eyes to focus.

Back onto the street still aglow with lights, sound, and revelers, Alan set his eyes once again on the alien tower looming in the distance, the tallest building in Riyadh's skyline. He had only taken a few steps in its direction when the continuous stream of fireworks suddenly stopped. An expectant hush fell upon the crowd. The night sky, previously painted with bursts of color, was now an expansive canvas of darkness.

Suddenly, a brilliant array of lights pierced the night, converging to form an enormous hologram of a man in an iridescent top hat and tuxedo. He stretched across the sky, dwarfing the high rises below and pushing aside the twinkling stars. He stood with impeccable posture, his hands resting confidently on a silver cane as tall as a skyscraper. He leaned forward, revealing his face from the shade of his hat.

"Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome… to your First… New… Dawn!" His voice boomed with theatrical flair and echoed throughout the city. "On behalf of MTP, I would like thank you for choosing New Horizons as your digital reality. We understand you have several to choose from, and we are humbled and grateful for your presence in ours." The giant hologram performed a graceful bow.

"If you are new to New Horizons, allow me to extend to you our warmest welcome. We are delighted to have you here, and we hope your stay will be as wonderful as you imagined."

"For those of you just joining us, make your way to the Kingdom Center for a special welcome. It's the giant tower with the triangular hole at the top in the middle of the city. You can't miss it!"

"For our seasoned guests: indulge in a drink, mingle with companions new and old, and revel in all the festivities!" With a Cheshire grin stretching across his face, the holographic man began a surreal, almost hypnotic dance across the sky, his smile broadening with each exaggerated move.

Music blared from the sky and a fresh stream of fireworks burst in the air. Cheers and exclamations of awe and delight rose from the crowded street as the kaleidoscopic man danced maniacally above them, his iridescent suit shining a million different hues with each step.

Alan grinned at the absurdity of the display. They've really outdone themselves, he thought. He continued his journey toward the Kingdom Center, more eager than before, knowing now it was the pinnacle of this year's celebration.

With each stride down Olaya Street, the tower grew ever larger and the city morphed around him. He strolled through the tranquil Japanese district, reminiscent of Kyoto, with koi ponds and wooden structures lit by paper lanterns swaying in the wind. He reached the Brazilian district, where samba drums and lively crowds replaced elegant dancers and delicate Japanese melodies. A group of drunk Brazilians pulled Alan into their midst and urged him to take a shot. They cheered him on as he downed the fiery drink and danced awkwardly with them afterward, their laughter filling the air.

Walking between the districts was like loading from one city to another but in real-time: in a matter of minutes, Alan had traveled from the calm beauty of Japan and into the fiery, passionate energy of Brazil.

He reached the business district, where the noise of the festival quieted to a soft hum. He encountered only the occasional passer-by as he walked past empty offices, restaurants, and cafes. Like a conduit between earth and heaven, the Kingdom Center loomed over him now. It was awesome to behold. Looking up, he saw a platform floating in the middle of the building's triangle cutout.

He approached the entrance where a large bouncer stood, composed yet relaxed, dressed in a long, pristine white robe and a red checkered headscarf. A line waited patiently nearby, eager to get in. As Alan neared, the bouncer's eyes shimmered gold as he scanned him. Detecting Alan was a contractor for MTP, the bouncer nodded him through.

Alan walked through a pair of tall glass doors that slid open with a sleek, silent motion and entered the Kingdom Center's exquisite lobby. Intricate mosaics decorated the walls depicting scenes of Saudi Arabia's ancient history; gilded columns rose majestically from the floor, supporting an ornate ceiling where delicate chandeliers sparkled like diamonds. Beneath his feet illuminated lines formed pathways on the marble floor, guiding guests to their desired destinations. A green line marked with an elevator icon showed Alan to his. He entered the spacious elevator chamber that glided along the building's exterior. As it ascended the tower, Alan marveled at the bird's eye view of the city.

At the top the doors slid open to reveal the celebration's pinnacle—a vast open platform crowded with partiers surrounding a stage in the center on which the iridescent man danced tirelessly. Bars lined every side, and trays supported by drones weaved amidst attendees offering champagne and hors d'oeuvres. Crowds gathered in clusters, some moving to the beat, others engrossed in conversation, many simply admiring the spectacle. A mix of voices, laughter, and music filled the air.

Alan found a spot with a view of the stage near a group of elegantly dressed women engrossed in conversation, their dresses and accessories shimmering in the ambient glow of lights and fireworks still popping. His eyes remained fixed on the dancing iridescent man as he wondered who he was—whether he was stuck in here forever like Alan, or simply logged in.

Amid the dazzling lights and entrancing music, Alan felt a gentle nudge at his elbow.

"It's quite something, isn't it?" remarked a woman, her voice laced with fascination.

The luminance of the party played softly against her fair skin, accentuating her jet-black hair and sparkling black dress. As she turned to him, her goldenrod eyes searched his, full of curiosity.

"It gets crazier and crazier every year…" Alan grinned and shook his head.

"Well, it certainly is crazy," the woman chuckled. "But there's also a certain kind of magic to it, wouldn't you agree?" She looked deeply at Alan, her eyes thoughtful and gentle. "I studied the ocean before I moved here. It has these ecosystems that are full of life and diversity. And while on the surface they seem chaotic, they were held together by a delicate balance… a hidden order that governed them."

Alan looked down from the edge of the platform at the masses of revelers filling the city's streets below, their bodies spilling out along its avenues like current surging through the lines of a circuitboard. "There is a magic to it," Alan nodded, "when you're looking at it from afar."

The woman smiled. "What did you do before you entered here?"

"I was an engineer. I actually built the data center for one of the early prototypes of this place," Alan gestured at the world around them.

"For New Horizons? The company that runs this place?"

"That's the one…"

"Fascinating," the woman remarked.

The music suddenly dimmed and the dazzling lights converged to focus on the iridescent man who had finally stopped dancing.

"Newcomers!" the man's voice boomed, cutting through the chatter. "On behalf of MTP, allow me to welcome you to our world, New Horizons, and to your new… digital… reality!" he bellowed as he stretched his arms out and raised them to the heavens, his giant holographic sky clone mimicking his every movement.

"Here at New Horizons you'll mingle with the most remarkable people, take advantage of the most groundbreaking features, and spend the rest of your days in utter bliss," his words resonated through his audience as they listened quietly, wrapt with attention. "To help you navigate and fully enjoy your new existence, each of you will receive a unique gift tonight: your very own AI companion… what we fondly call here digipals!"

Excited whispers rippled across the crowd. The woman's eyebrows raised.

The iridescent man continued, "Your digipal is a personalized AI companion tailored to your needs and preferences. And the best part? You choose the avatar!" Holographs of animals sprang up around him, mundane and domesticated yet endearing nonetheless: felines, canines, ducks, turtles, and more.

"If you're looking for something a little more… extravagant," the man added with a sly wink, "For a small fee, you can customize your digipal with any design you desire!" The familiar animals were replaced with mythical creatures and exotic beasts—from fire-breathing dragons to prancing unicorns.

The woman glanced over at her friends, then turned to Alan. "I do apologize, but I have to get going. It was a pleasure meeting you," she said.

"You too," Alan smiled. "Let's stay in touch."

"I'd love that, only… how do we do that?"

"It's easy. Let me show you." Alan turned to her. "Look into my eyes, and memorize my face."

They locked eyes. The party's clamor faded into the distance. Alan could hear only his heartbeat, beating a littler faster than normal, as he glimpsed at the contours of her essence. He took in her demeanor, and her expression; her soft, mouse-like features: long eyelashes, dainty noise and mouth, and flushed cheeks.

"Now, close your eyes."

The woman followed.

"Imagine my face on the cover of a book, and then put that book on a shelf."

New contact added, a soft, synthetic voice whispered in Alan's mind.

The woman slowly opened her eyes, "I heard a voice in my head…"

"Neat, isn't it?" Alan smiled. "You hear that voice when you use features here with your mind. You can also use your watch, but that's not nearly as fun" he laughed.

"Wonderful!" she giggled. "I hope to hear from you soon. By the way, I'm Ada."

"I'm Alan. It was a pleasure meeting you."

"Likewise," Ada said. With a final smile, she rejoined her friends.

Alan paused, caught in the afterglow of their encounter, to reflected on their meeting; it was safe to say she had left him smitten, a feeling he hadn't felt in a long time.

He made his way toward the edge of the platform and gazed out at the expanding human sprawl stretching out from the city. Beyond the shimmering buildings and street lights, arrays of solar panels stretched to the horizon. They reached further into the abyss since the last time Alan was here, three years ago during his second First New Dawn. He'd broken off from the main celebration held in Berlin that year to travel cities that were still locked in his world. This instance of New Horizons, used by MTP to host its annual parties, updated every year to reflect the latest changes in the physical world. Alan's world, on the other hand, hadn't updated since he plugged in, and wouldn't unless he handed over a hefty sum of credits, which he saw no reason to do.

With a feeling of utter contentment, Alan departed the platform and stepped into the elevator. As the city lights approached during his descent, he pondered where in Riyadh he should go to conclude his fourth First New Dawn party.

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