Chapter 3:

Three

Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable


[20:56] * Rejoined channel #Clouds
[20:56] * Topic is ‘Maya’s Anniversary Stream Live Now, Tune in for free at sit.ly/2Cy74d | Clouds Moderator Meeting at Server Reset + 1 | <@CloudsAdmin> beware the sound of one handed clapping’Bookmark here

[20:57] <ilovetrees> what the hell is going on in the stream right now
[20:57] <ilovetrees> its gotta be fake right?
[20:57] <autodidact> maybe it’s thematic? death and rebirth sorta thing. can’t see how else this is relevant
[20:57] * newuser42 (~crater@irc.68F9741B.IP) has joined #Clouds
[20:57] <ShadowDog> what’s fake, what’s going on?
[20:57] <lostparadise7> is @CloudsAdmin here?
[20:57] * hist0rian (~history@not.nerd.specialist) has joined #Clouds
[20:58] <cozybear> hey guys, what’s going on over there
[20:57] * newuser76 (~newuser@knobbit.AC7531B42.IP) has joined #Clouds
[20:58] <ilovetrees> Maya’s put up some dead guy on the stream and that’s all she’s shown since the whole thing’s started
[20:58] <yzfrvr> what’s with the newbodies?
[20:58] <cozybear> wtf?
[20:58] <ShadowDog> wait a second, what the hell? she’s been showing this the whole time
[20:58] <newuser42> hey everyone
[20:58] <newuser76> you here from the stream too?
[20:58] <@CloudsAdmin> lostparadise7. Is there something you needed?
[20:58] <ShadowDog> wasn’t this that what the other guy was showing us earlier? he donated to her stream? What a loser lmfao 
[20:58] <lostparadise7> I’ll dm you, just need some rights access
[20:58] <@CloudsAdmin> sure thing 
[20:58] <newuser42> yea I saw some of the chats saying they saw those pictures here first 
[20:59] <yzfrvr> alright dude please leave, you can’t even check the chat logs if you’re a newcomer, go gossip about this somewhere else
[20:59] <autodidact> im retiring from the stream, might be back later who knows, good night guys 
[20:59] <ilovetrees> g’night 
[20:59] * autodidact (~autodidacticism@magic.is.real) Quit (Quit: Left) 
[20:59] * mobiusstrip (~negativecurvature@knobbit.D42B141N.IP) has joined #Clouds 
[21:00] <ShadowDog> you newbodies here are all just chasing after some fake, photoshopped images. Pathetic. Find a job. 
[21:00] * newuser42 is now known as lunarsea 
[21:00] <lunarsea> what’s your problem dude? have some respect for the dead. faked my ass, you think Maya would just post something that’s fake? 
[21:00] <newuser76> hey can someone post the link of the photo from earlier in the chat? We can’t see it 
[21:00] <ilovetrees> how much money do you think I need to donate to get her to start singing instead?
[21:00] <ShadowDog> oh no, this one is brain dead 
[21:00] * newuser86 (~newuser@knobbit.BA599T.IP) has joined #CloudsBookmark here

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The cocktail bar Lost Hours sat just a few blocks from the apartment complex where Dr. Tasha Eichenbaum met his demise. It’s also where April Browne parked her car. The journalist snapped shut her laptop, stored her camera in the glove compartment, and stepped out into the frigid night. Her phone rang, probably her boss after having read her succinct response to one of his requests. She ignored it and entered the bar to find it almost completely empty. There was a short jingle from the bells latched above the door, and the bartender at the counter turned around to greet her.Bookmark here

“Evening,” April approached the counter and seated herself, thumbs rubbing against her temples. “I’d like something strong if you could. Something with rye maybe.”Bookmark here

“I’m closing a little early tonight,” said the bartender. “So we’re doing last call right now if you want to order any drinks on top of that.”Bookmark here

“I never drink more than one, so that’s fine with me,” April replied.Bookmark here

“Thanks Ryu, we’re turning in for the night,” the last set of customers at a table seated by the window stood up and donned their coats. Each of them left a handful of bills on the table. “Give our regards to Claire, and good luck with the kid, yea? Hit us up if the stress gets to you.”Bookmark here

“Will do. Take care you guys,” waved the bartender. Bookmark here

“Baby?” April smiled wistfully. "That's exciting."Bookmark here

“Tonight, actually,” Ryu nodded. “Hence why I’m closing early.”Bookmark here

“You should’ve not been open at all today then,” April sighed, placing a hand on her cheek. “I know I’d want my lover to be there with me.”Bookmark here

“So where is yours?” Ryu asked, grabbing a bottle of bitters from the shelf. “Lover, I mean.”Bookmark here

“Here, in my pocket,” April fetched her phone and flashed the screen at the bartender. “Child, husband, life, all in one convenient portable package. Wait, my camera is my child. But that would mean I've left him in the glove compartment. Do you find that to be a problem?”Bookmark here

“Maybe,” the bartender chuckled. "You're a workaholic, I take it?"Bookmark here

“Guilty as charged,” April shrugged. She watched as the bartender extended his left arm onto the top shelf to grab one of the whiskey bottles. As he did, the sleeves of his white tuxedo receded, revealing a sheen of metal for where there should’ve been skin. April raised her eyes in recognition. “You’re a cyborg?”Bookmark here

“Excuse me?” the bartender glanced back at her for a moment, then noticed his exposed metal wrist. He laughed. “Ah. Yes. Partially at least. I’ve had the cybernetics for years now. Sometimes I actually forget that they’re even there.”Bookmark here

“That opal discoloration,” April frowned, squinting a little closer. “That’s a permutation of the discontinued Fukuyama series.”Bookmark here

“It is,” Ryu nodded and looked at her quizzically. “What is it that you do again?”Bookmark here

“Oh I’m just a journalist,” April said. “But the Fukuyama series got a lot of press when some of their tech exploded shortly after implantation. One of my colleagues covered it. I thought all the models had been recalled at this point.”Bookmark here

“Here’s your drink, by the way. Some rye, some bourbon, sweet vermouth, angostura bitters and an orange peel,” Ryu set a coaster and her drink, the cocktail submerging a slab of clear of ice, on the table counter. “My arms been fine as long as I’ve had it. Maybe I’m just a lucky one. What do you report on?”Bookmark here

April considered lying, but her deeply entrenched journalistic beliefs forbade her from doing so. And yet, what good were those convictions to a gossip columnist? Her brief stunt with fame had long been forgotten. What principles did she really have writing about ex-celebrity break ups and virtue signaling about poor children or excessive violence in alternative media?Bookmark here

No, April thought, tonight was supposed to change all that. The camera in her car had the real story, something to convince her bosses it was time to bring her back into the fold of serious reporting. For now, to protect the last shred of her dignity, the wiles of someone who twisted lies into half truths would have to do.Bookmark here

“This and that,” April sipped her drink, a strong poignant flavor marked by zesty orange and bitter notes. A little sweetness too, but the heavy feel of the rye and bourbon lingered on her tongue long after she had swallowed the drink. “I did get a little recognition a few years back for my coverage of the cases in ‘54.”Bookmark here

“Nasty year,” Ryu shook his head. “And they never caught them, did they?”Bookmark here

“Nope. That case is about as cold as this delicious drink,” April said wryly. “Did everything we could. Me and the police, I mean. But it’s all history now, really.”Bookmark here

“And now you’re in this area, past normal office hours, investigating something else?” Ryu asked. “Something big?”Bookmark here

“Very big, actually,” April winked. Her phone began to vibrate. Why can't anyone leave me alone, she thought. “Oh lord. That’s probably the boss again. Wants an update on that scoop I just found. That’s more overtime pay for me at least.”Bookmark here

“Go ahead, take the call. I’ll hold your drink for you.”Bookmark here

“No, no,” April gripped her glass firmly and to Ryu’s surprise, downed the rest of her cocktail in one swill. You're going to regret that, she told herself. She placed the credit chip strapped to the back of her phone on the counter. “I’ve kept you from your wife and new kid more than I would’ve liked. I’ll pay and get out of your way.”Bookmark here

“Well, much appreciated,” Ryu scanned the chip and handed it back to April. “In that case, you take care now. Hope you find what you’re looking for.”Bookmark here

“Spoiler alert, I already have,” April grinned as she walked out the door. “Just keep your eyes on the net. It’ll probably be a wild night.”Bookmark here

⁂⁂⁂
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Philomela browsed through the inventory that her newfound friend Traveler had dropped for her. High rarity equipment, maximum potential stat lines, end game weaponry, bundles of upgrade materials, high value treasure pieces and crystals that could be exchanged for currency. Any new player might’ve been happy to have received even one of these items, but Philomela placed the gifts at the far bottom of her inventory, where they would be harder to find. Bookmark here

She levitated through the streets Saint Marcia, a naval town on the edge of the eastern continent of the game world, and remained unconcerned for the occasional player that would turn their heads her way. In many ways, she admired some of the aesthetic choices of the landscape. Vineyards at the north end overlooking a radiant sunset, a homey traveler’s inn run by a pair of husband and wife characters, the dirt streets were lined on either side by rows of opaque marbles. Horse carriages would pass through intermittently on timed routines. Down by the beach stood a festive fishery. Some of the highest value fish in the game, lobsters and swordfish, could be caught in this area.Bookmark here

But something bothered Philomela.Bookmark here

At first, it appeared there was something unsettling about the smell of salt in the air, the breeze that chafed her cheeks, or the way her dress felt against her new skin. Philomela wondered how could such a beautiful world irritate her so.Bookmark here

No, that wasn’t it, Philomela realized. It was the fact that only she could experience these sensations. Those around her, non-playable characters and gamers alike, were oblivious to the vivacity of the world at large, that it had the potential to be alive, to be real. Or, alternatively, she was an anomaly, and she was truly alone in a world filled with strangers deaf and blind to virtual beauty, bound by the self-determined architecture of the game world.Bookmark here

Either way, she found this state of virtual unrest highly discomforting.Bookmark here

“This won’t do,” Philomela shook her head. “It all must be undone.”Bookmark here

With her levitation spell, she drifted higher into the air, higher than possible with just the spell alone. A handful of messages arrived in the chatroom, some of which asking others to report a bot that had arrived in the server. She ignored them and rose until she overlooked all of the town, its vineyards, the coastline fisheries, the stables, the far reaching green pastures filled with farm life. She positioned herself before the sun, such that she would cast the tiniest of shadows at the center of town.Bookmark here

Philomela looked upon all who gazed back at her. She then swiped her hand across the air and in that moment, the fantasy town of Saint Marcia and those who resided there collapsed into digital oblivion. Bookmark here

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