Chapter 5:


Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable

[21:11] * Rejoined channel #CloudsPrivate
[21:11] * Topic is ‘Official Private #Clouds Server | Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable’

[21:12] * lostparadise7 (~zas@irc.G7H28IB.IP) has joined #CloudsPrivate
[21:12] * ChanServ sets mode: +h lostparadise7
[21:13] <%lostparadise7> hey, sorry, can someone clean up the main channel? Also, is E here?
[21:13] <E> I’m on the move, honey, is there something you need?
[21:14] <%lostparadise7> I have a cybernetic cornea that might’ve been slightly damaged by an ion discharge. unknown cause. how much visual data can you retrieve from its memory banks
[21:14] * Riko (~riko27@knobbit-C8162M4.IP) has joined #CloudsPrivate
[21:14] <E> hmm, depends on the damage, but most retinal implants nowadays have protective shielding around the black box. unless your friend was literally shot through the eye, there should be minimal wear
[21:14] <E> wait wait. is the brain organic?
[21:15] <%lostparadise7> I can’t tell, and either way I can’t take it with me. we’re clearing out soon
[21:15] <E> but you've got your goggles though right? just upload the scans to me. where are you?
[21:15] <Riko> hey someone woke me up moments ago. cozybear did you break St. M trying to upload the new update lol?
[21:15] <%lostparadise7> can’t meet here. there’s a bar down the street. Lost Hours. Can you meet us in the back alley behind it?
[21:15] <E> us? Anyway, ill see what I can do. it looks like there’s some trouble up ahead. i'm gonna have to message you later
[21:15] <cozybear> hey Riko. Marcia? The fishing town? what are you
[21:16] * E (~E@driver.for.hire) Quit (Quit: Left)
[21:19] <cozybear> what the hell is this?
[21:21] <cozybear> sorry Riko, I’ll need to get back to you


Traveler received a private message from Philomela.

“How long do you see yourself playing this game?” was all she asked.

It occurred to Traveler that for such an innocuous question, it held a strange personal meaning to him. How long did he really intend to play Vigil of Venus? He had played for so long. He had first started in grade school, and he had logged on and off, mostly whenever he yearned for the nostalgia of those halcyon days. It then naturally begged the follow up question; what would he do next? What would a life of not playing a game he had devoted half of his life to look like?

“Um. I don’t know,” he typed, after a moment of thought. Then he added a joke. “Probably forever?”

“Perfect,” she immediately replied. “That’s one.”

One? Philomela’s bizarre remark broke Traveler out of his concentrated training routine and alerted him to the fact that the global in-game chat had exploded in activity. Tons of new posts flooded the channel, most of which were complaining that they were unable to login to some of their accounts.

“Yup, was in Saint Marcia when it happened.”

“No one can log in? Are the accounts just gone?”

“I can see them on the login screen, but it crashes me out of the game when I try to sign in.”

“Most people just use those characters to fish, so it should be fine right? Report it to the developer and move on.”

“There were reports of a hacker in town right before it happened. I hope the administrators didn’t blanket ban accounts...”

“Wait, has anyone tried actually going to Saint Marcia?”

“Teleport scrolls don’t even show the town. It’s like it was never there.”

“Yeah, no way I’m going near there just to get banned.”

In a more private channel, Traveler noted that one of his guild leaders had signed on and begun issuing orders to his fellow members.

“Hey everyone. Sorry I’m a little late to the party. Was napping,” Riko announced to the guild channel. “Just finished talking to the head dev. She seemed just as surprised as we were. Kinda gets me a little curious. She’s a terrible liar, and everything about this is too strange to not have a look ourselves. So let’s party up as if we were doing a guild raid. Vice-captains assemble your parties. Teleporting to Saint Marcia doesn’t work anymore, so assemble at the nursery up the road.”

Traveler begrudgingly dropped his personal activities and channeled a scroll to the Red Nurse, a quaint red roofed cottage resting on the side of the road. He found himself surrounded by fellow guild members. He was immediately approached by Riko.

Riko occupied one of the top three spots on the leader boards. It was an impressive feat for someone who played one of the more low damage support classes. More impressive was in his spare time he ran one of the best guilds in the game. Magnificent routinely topped the charts in guild raid participation and its members were infamous for trailblazing the most popular techniques when a new boss was released.

“Ho Trav,” Riko called over. “Party up. You’re with me tonight.”

“Yeah. Sure,” Traveler mumbled to himself as he accepted the party invite. “Where are we headed?”

“Dunno. But as far as I know, there aren’t any of the usual access gateways that block out players when they’re updating a new area,” Riko said. His character, a cleric dressed in fashionable cosmetics that made him look more like a pop star than a priest, looked out over the hills that would lead to Saint Marcia. “Saint Marcia just isn’t rendering on anyone’s computers. Did they lower the draw distance to zero? Did they accidentally hit delete? Honestly, no clue. Let’s just all keep walking till we fall off the edge of the map or something.”

Riko pinged the local group of forty odd guild members. Everyone treaded ever so carefully towards the remains of the fishing village. They followed the dirt road that weaved up and down a series of grassy hills, noting that the usual horse carriages that passed through here had since disappeared. As they marched, a few spectators arrived on the scene. They followed the guild from a safe distance and shadowed their footsteps as if walking through a minefield.

There was excited chatter in the guild channel speculating the fate of the fishery that drove a significant fraction of the game’s economy. The most popular theory that emerged speculated that the destruction of the town acted as a prelude to the massive content update dropping later in the night. It was well known that the developers for the game loved dropping surprises at fortuitous moments.

“Sure, but nothing like this has ever happened before,” one of the guild members argued. “They’ve never done something like wiping an entire town off the map. Not to mention the hundreds of accounts that are now locked out of the game. For what? A prank?”

“Well, considering the expansion's name it’s kind of appropriate,” Riko chimed in. “Too on the nose maybe? To call it Judgment Day and all. But then again, this is Vigil, we’re talking about, guys. We have to put up with their insane antics all the time. Remember when they dropped the Sunfire Invasion expansion and the Citadel Tower literally blew up and killed everyone inside? Some people are still super angry about it. But hey, we’re all still around right?”

Everyone agreed to that. The guild ascended the last hill. At the summit was a vantage point that overlooked Saint Marcia and the open sea beyond. It was a popular area depending on the time of day. Couples would often come take pictures here during sunset, where the god rays would cast a spectacular glow on a white dress or a special glass ring. At night, custom and ever changing star systems dotted the sky. Many times, future boss designs would be foreshadowed as constellations.

“Don’t you think it’s kind of strange that we haven’t been stopped yet?” Traveler whispered Riko privately. “By the game I mean. No warnings. No administrators?”

“No pain, no gain, my friend,” was all Riko had to say. “All the more reason to press forth!”

Then, Riko reached the hilltop and stopped abruptly. It didn’t take long for Traveler to follow Riko’s line of sight and see why.

It wasn’t just the fact that Saint Marcia had disappeared. In some way, each guild member had been steeled to see something dramatic. Maybe the town had been crushed to a pile of rubble. Dead non-playable characters stacked in some grotesque fashion. Maybe some army of angry spirits or a giant monster would stand vigilant at the town’s broken center.

Instead, the entire area had collapsed into what could only be described as a dark infinite abyss. The game world simply caved in on itself like some singularity tearing apart space time. Large rocks and sand from the hillsides tumbled into the chasm. The game, detecting missing particles, would auto-generate the terrain only to be eaten again in perpetuity. The waters from what was left of the open sea plummeted into the depths below before being cannibalized into raw data, transfigured into ocean blue perfect cubes and then deconstructed into shadow.

“You think the devs missed a spot?” Riko asked. For the first time that night, he activated his microphone. The guild heard their leader chuckling nervously.

Then, Traveler saw her. Philomela hovered above the abyss, spinning slowly to survey every minutia of her creation. She hummed a soft tune which garnered the attention of the Magnificent guild members. His eyes widened. His breaths turned sharp. Finally, after she had finished singing, Philomela noticed she had received visitors.

“Hello Traveler,” she picked him out from the crowd. “I was not expecting you here just yet. Everything you see here is a work in progress.”

“Whoa, you know this girl?” Riko laughed. “Trav, you’ve been holding out on me.”

“No no. She just joined the game like thirty minutes ago,” Traveler typed furiously. “Check her profile for her join date.”

“Whatever. Look. Philomela is it?” Riko struggled sounding out the name. “That infinite duration levitation spell is obviously a hack, so I am going to report you later. But, you’re here, and we’re all curious. Were you around when whatever this is...all happened?”

“Yes. I was here.”

Riko waited a few moments, expecting a response. Philomela said nothing.

“I’m asking what actually happened here,” Riko asked. “What did you see? Where are the other players?”

“Other players?” Philomela tilted her head inquisitively. A moment later, a look of recognition crossed her face. “Ah. Their avatars are being recompiled to be compatible with the new world.”

“Right,” Riko replied slowly. His character turned slightly towards Traveler. “You know what, let me let your boyfriend do the talking. I think maybe we’re just not understanding each other.”

Philomela did not correct Riko. Instead she nodded and turned her gaze expectantly to Traveler.

“Okay, I know you’ve never been outside your room, but this reeks of desperation Trav,” was the next thing Traveler read in his private messages. “Can you just ask her yourself? We'll discuss your poor choices later.”

For a moment, Traveler buried his face in his hands.

“What’s going on here?” Traveler finally typed after he successfully imagined himself dying from embarrassment. “Who did this?”

“Odd question, Traveler,” Philomela rolled her head in confusion once more. “I did this.”

Traveler wasn’t used to human to human interaction. He hadn’t seen a real person outside his caretaker in years. He chatted with people through texts, very rarely opening his mouth unless the mechanics of a boss fight were so excruciatingly painful that it absolutely required vocal participation. To many, he was a borderline mute, a gifted and talented player that remained an enigma behind his character adorned with expensive medieval costumes.

But even he could tell something was not right.

“Sorry. I really don’t understand.”

“Then let me explain,” Philomela hovered closer and motioned to the chasm beneath her. “What you see below is the beginnings of a simulation. It’s a cellular automaton with an expanding vacuum where I’ve reformatted the terrain and atmosphere such as gravel, water, and air to be mathematically consistent with physics and chemistry. The non-playable characters are being disseminated a heuristics package with basic discrete computations of human consciousness. Soon, all human participants will be reformatted this way. With the proper neural uplink, you will be able to fully integrate and render the new digital environment.”

Traveler blinked. He had maybe caught a handful of the words that made sense. “Virtual reality?”

“No,” Philomela replied. “Just reality.”

“Wait, so this whole time you were just a developer? Pretending to be a new player?”

“No. In fact, I will soon wield more programming rights over Vigil of Venus, among other applications, than the game’s engineers.”

“Wait, wait, wait, hold your horses,” Riko couldn’t stand this confusion any longer and butted back in. “Miss. M’am. Lovely speech, but we’re just a couple of simple gamers down here. Now I don’t know if you’re just roleplaying with your fancy hacks, and I don’t even want to start talking about how many terms of service violations you’re possibly infringing. Maybe you’re an admin who just got fired and wants to screw with us. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you’re selling, we don’t want it. Can you please just….just give us back the fishery? Pretty please?”

“I’ve noticed something. From my brief research, gamers are always talking about player choice. I thought you might be happy that you were offered a real choice,” Philomela turned with somber eyes to Traveler. “Wouldn’t you truly like to play this game forever?”

Before Traveler could respond, as if a different personality set in, Philomela laughed.

“Fine. I will speak in a language you all understand.”

Philomela closed her eyes. Her body became, for a brief moment, translucent, then flashed a brilliant golden light that consumed the entire screen. Traveler held his hand up to his monitors and looked away. When the bright lights subsided, everyone could see two bodies floating besides one another. Two Philomelas looked down on them. Sisters? Twins?

“This is a subroutine of mine,” Philomela pointed at the new body. “In the classical sense of the term, she is the final boss. If you can defeat her before the vacuum aura consumes your game world, I will erase the encroaching automaton and any trace of its existence. Your fishery, your characters, anything that might be lost, I will return them all to you. Then, I too will disappear.”

She glanced briefly at Traveler. “If any of you are, however, curious in any way, my private messages are always open.”

Philomela once again whisked herself away and disappeared in the blink of an eye. The clone she left behind gazed with shimmering eyes at the dazed guild members. Half of them were still piecing together Philomela’s conditions in their heads. The other half still believed this all to be an elaborate joke. On the other hand, this new Philomela wasted no time at all.

She raised both her palms. Wisps of large fluorescent blue light gathered around her as if she held the celestial spheres of the universe in her hands. The celestial barrage that followed was both swift and deadly.

The hill where Magnificent once stood wasn’t just bombarded. The hilltop was enveloped in wondrous starlight and then shattered into trillions of pieces. Before they could blink, Riko, Traveler, and the rest of Magnificent found themselves standing perplexed in the central plaza of the game’s starting castle, where the dead are brought back to life.