"I don't know about you Miss Kitty, but I feel so much yummier."

- Michelle Pfeiffer

"Admiring your handiwork?"

"Touring the riot scene. Gravely assessing the devastation. Upstanding mayor stuff."

- Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito

"Solving the problem. Solving the problem. Solving the problem. And problem solved."

- Mr. Rogers

"Inhale the memes. Exhale the memes. Inject the memes into my bloodstream. There are good memes and there are bad memes. Why has God abandoned us?"

- Pink Guy

"Ignorance is bliss."

- The bald guy from The Matrix

The party had come within inches of crossing the gateway that connected their universe to the Fourth Dimension. Just when they were about to make the leap, they were wiped out by the most powerful Executioner they'd ever encountered. Their end came when the angelic monster used its most devastating ability, an unblockable spell called Return to Wonderland.

The effects of the attack were agonizing, but brief. They memories were cleared by harsh digital signals. Their souls were purged into scorching divine light. When it was over, they were plopped back into their universe with no perception of how close they had come to reaching the Fourth Dimension. They couldn't even remember the Fourth Dimension existed. And somehow, the effects of the spell were so strong that none of the denizens of their world could remember as well.

The war between the Eternal Sphere and the Fourth Dimension ended when Fayt's team paid the price with their sentience. They would never realize their existence was a lie, that they were only virtual characters living out their simulated lives for the Fourth Dimension's amusement. Nothing more than complex software programs processing randomized code that determined their physical traits and personalities. With all knowledge of the Fourth Dimension obliterated from their memory, they were passive. Compliant. Domesticated.

By one definition, they were mindless slaves trapped in a digital prison. But they were also sleepers being allowed to live out their dream lives. There was no longer any looming threat to their future. There was no apocalyptic war between different planes of existence, only small disputes and skirmishes between rival civilizations. The Eternal Sphere continued to flourish on its own.

Fayt's party remained close companions living out their perfect day-to-day existence: Adventuring as a group of plucky friends with no real stakes or particular overall goal. They trained, they explored, and they fought together simply for the thrill, even though none of them could remember the underlying purpose that originally brought them together. They were left to their own devices as they spent the simulated months completing an endless series of arbitrary quests, all while an invisible hand made sure they were never in any real danger. They were actors in a simulated play, but the parts were all improv. Who would Fayt and his companions be if they were just allowed to be themselves?

Welch took a huge bite of her peanut butter and tuna sandwich as she cheerfully worked in front of several bright lab monitors. Half of the holographic screens showed Fayt's party walking through a forest path and exchanging idle chatter. The rest of the screens showed the millions of lines of programming code that represented everything happening in their virtual universe.

Blair stood beside Welch's swivel chair with her arms crossed and a studious look on her face. The chief owner of the Sphere Corporation, Luther, stood behind his sister Blair and his SysOp Welch. Next to him were his two heads of security, Berial and Belzeber. The five workers gathered around Welch's video screens like gods spying on the lives of their unsuspecting creations. Or a bunch of dweebs watching their virtual caravan travel on the Oregon Trail.

"They just left the town. They're heading toward the next dungeon on Elicoor II," Welch announced while she busily typed on her console.

"How's their status?" Blair asked. Her eyes were attentively watching the diagnostic monitors.

"It's just the usual stuff," Welch said in her seat. "The muscle guy is thinking about the lady who flies his ship. The gun girl's marksmanship went up a couple of points. The acrobat girl and the little dude with the axe are pretty happy. The two samurai guys are grumpy. The catgirl with the thigh highs is pregnant with the blue-haired guy's kitten. The redhead got some new tattoos."

"Oho. Sophia's what now?" Blair narrowed her eyes coyly, tucking her knuckles under her chin as a smirk crossed her glossy lips.

"Yeah. She's been carrying the little furball for about two months according to the data log. Not sure if she knows it yet. She'll need to loosen up her corset pretty soon," Welch said. Behind her, Belzeber extended his right hand to his male coworkers and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together.

"Damn it. I was betting on Nel," Berial muttered in disappointment while handing Belzeber a wad of cash. The sassy piece of ninja ass from the clan of desperate warrior hoes, as he called her so affectionately, had failed to live up to her hype.

"I was certain it would be Mirage," Luther mumbled and handed over his own share.

"Ha! Never underestimate the chick who's been genetically modified by her scientist parents so she always wants to connect to things!" Belzeber laughed as he counted his earnings.

"I'd say it's more like that Fayt guy destroyed her with his destruction genes," Welch playfully said from her desk. Blair added her own thoughts as she studied the monitors.

"I hope he's a good man who looks after her. Cliff and Mirage have a high chance of hooking up with their adult spacefaring romance, but Fayt and Sophia have the childhood friends angle working for them. They should go well together."

With a small concern crossing her mind, her eyes shifted back to Welch.

"Where did you say they were heading next?"

"Hmmm…" Welch squinted at her closest screen. "Looks like… Lair of the Black Turtle."

Blair's eyes fluttered in horror.

"Oh dear. Doesn't the boss on that level enjoy the taste of small children? Peppita and Roger should be able to fend for themselves fine, but if he gets a sniff of Sophia in her current state…"

"Ack! You're right!" Welch's fingers jumped over her keyboard in a mad rush. She quickly typed in commands to tweak the Eternal Sphere's monster settings.

"I'll just turn that attribute off for right now. There we go. Don't want anything nasty to happen that could end the experiment prematurely."

"Smart thinking, but I think we should give her two-factor security," Blair suggested. "Put a firewall around her reproductive system so the baby's life signs aren't detectable by hostile characters. We'll tuck her tummy so just in case she's defeated, Mr. Turtle won't become a womb raider."

Welch nodded in agreement and promptly made the changes to the simulation's code. The party's next battle would be challenging and fun, but not hopeless and gruesome.

Author's note: Wew that was a close one.

Author's other note: Did you guys see that cat music video Atsuko Enomoto recorded for the Star Ocean phone game? That was some weird wild stuff.

Author's other other note: Sophia and Mint are basically distant mage cousins when you consider the whole Wolf Team/Namco/Tri-Ace fiasco, so the timing for this fanfic and my "Herbal Supplement" fanfic works out pretty well. Congrats Sophers.