Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable
Twenty minutes after the disappearance of April Browne, Yuki and Thomas Miyamoto arrived at the front steps of a modest three storied building. All but two of the offices had turned their lights off for the night. Erin parked the taxi at the curb, wedging herself between two vans. The automatic doors slid open, and the Miyamoto brothers stepped out.
“Thanks, Erin,” Yuki waved. “Are you going to be staying in the area? We might be in and out in a couple of minutes.”
“We’ll see. If you need me, I’m hooked up to the phone, so just call me,” Erin replied, then turned to Yuki’s brother. “Thomas, darling, if you would be so kind. Can you please excuse us for a few moments?”
Thomas anxiously turned to his older brother. Yuki gave him a reassuring nod and motioned for him to wait by the concrete steps. When Thomas was out of earshot, Erin’s blank guise transformed into a face of genuine concern.
“Don’t get involved,” Erin warned. “It’s not worth it.”
“So that's what this is about. Look, thanks for your concern, E,” Yuki sighed. “Really.”
“Really?” Erin raised an eyebrow. “That’s all you have to say? Think about your brother. Actually no. Yuki. Please. Think about yourself. I beg you. You think you have things under control, but there are some things that can’t be controlled. Don’t take the contract on her. There’s a reason I sent her away.”
“I’ve got my reputation to think about.”
“Your reputation isn’t going to help you when you’re dead.”
“Maybe you can tell me what I’m up against, then.”
“No,” Erin closed her eyes and shut the automatic doors. She turned back to her steering wheel and scanned the empty street. “I won’t be an accomplice to your own demise. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Erin drove off without another word. Yuki watched as her taillights disappeared when she swerved away at the very next intersection. “What was that about?” Thomas asked when Yuki rejoined him. “She didn’t look too happy.”
“You know her, she’s never happy with me. Don’t dwell on it,” Yuki laughed, patting his brother on the shoulder. “Let’s just go see the editor, yeah? You didn’t leave your manuscript behind right?”
Thomas’s editor worked at a fairly niche imprint called Alexandra & Lautaro, located on the second floor of this shoddy building in the middle of town. They took on very few authors and specialized in publishing fantasy stories concerning myths and urban legends. Thomas was proud to be one of their more successful writers, having published a handful of titles that clipped the bottom of the bestsellers’ lists.
This late at night, the front doors of the building were magnetically sealed. They required access from someone already inside or an employee with a key card. Yuki punched in the editor’s office number on a buzzer besides the door. The brothers stood in the cold waiting for the editor to respond. Thomas folded his arms and shivered.
“Try calling him,” Yuki suggested.
“Yeah, I’m on it,” Thomas had already pulled out of his phone, but after another half minute he shook his head. “No, it just goes to his voicemail.”
“Maybe he’s on a bathroom break or something,” Yuki speculated then tapped a different sequence of numbers. “Cozy should still be here. Let’s just ring her up. They both work on the same floor anyway, so maybe she knows something.”
This time, the voice box besides the buzzer almost immediately responded.
“Who’s there?” the voice box answered.
“Cozy, it’s me,” Yuki replied.
“Right. Right. Yeah, I understand. Who is this?” the girl’s voice trailed off. “That you Riko? Stop messaging me.”
“Cozy,” Yuki repeated, then decided to switch names. “Claudia?”
“Oh. Oh! Is that you Yuki?” the voice exclaimed. The door beeped and slid open. “Really sorry about that. Come in, come in.”
“Everybody’s a bit off tonight, it seems,” Yuki scratched the back of his head. “Come on Thomas.”
The walls of the office building were painted with a pleasant beige hue. The corridor itself was rather narrow. Thomas had to follow behind Yuki as they strolled down the hallway and up a flight of steps to reach the second floor.
There were two rooms on the second floor facing opposite each other. On one side stood a blank unpainted wall and a single unmarked door. On the other lay Alexandra & Lautaro’s open and modern office space, visible through freshly cleaned transparent glass walls.
“Strange,” Yuki looked over and across empty convertible desks and lavish expensive chairs. He attempted to pull open the front door but found that it was also still magnetically sealed. “Maybe he’s in one of the private rooms in the back? Like a late night meeting. Why not give him another call?”
Again, there was no response.
“The lights are still on, which means he at least hasn’t left,” Yuki shrugged. “Let’s just bother Cozy for a while. She probably has an access card since she visits their offices anyway. We can grab it and check in on him if we’re worried.”
The two approached and Yuki knocked on the unmarked door. “It’s unlocked!” yelled a voice from within. The brothers entered and found themselves surrounded by a mess.
Unlike the wide open and spacious design of the office adjacent to it, this room was claustrophobic and cluttered. The size of the room itself was roughly the area of two janitor’s closets. The walls were packed with shelves littered with dusty loose leaf binders, antiquated video game consoles, and peripherals in need of repair. Strewn across the floor were assortments of tangled wires and cardboard boxes. A wide cone shaped lamp dangled by a string and did more to cast cinematic shadows around the room than provide proper lighting.
A short girl sat in the corner of the room. She wore large thick rimmed glasses and a large jacket with a wool hoodie pulled over her auburn hair. She sat crossed legged on her chair wearing a pair of pink pajamas. In her mouth was a stick of celery that she chewed on thoughtfully as one would chew on a cigar.
She was stared down by an array of fluorescent computer monitors. On her desk were scattered foam cups and an assortment of writing utensils. A bowl of celery sat in her lap. She paid no attention to the two brothers as they tried not to trip over any wires. Her focus was instead glued to fragments of code sprawling across all of her screens. From a reflection on one of the monitors, Yuki could see a drama of confused and frustrated expressions dance across her face.
“Claudia,” Yuki said.
“Give me a moment, give me a moment. I’m in the middle of a thought,” the girl munched on her celery. She pursed her lips and shut her eyes tight. She sighed and turned away from her computer. “Nope. Nothing. I got nothing. Anyway. Fancy seeing you two around. Late night visit to our neighborhood editor?”
“Something like that,” Yuki reached into his jacket and pulled out a thin book. “Here, I said I’d bring the latest volume.”
“Aw, you shouldn’t have,” Claudia squealed and snatched it from his hands, flipping through the pages to skim at some of the images. She pressed the book tight against her chest and hummed in contentment before setting the book aside. “This is perfect. I’ll read it as a reward if everything gets fixed tonight. Thomas, shouldn’t you be talking to Arthur?”
“Front door’s locked, and he’s not answering,” Thomas said. “We were hoping you’d have a key card."
“Now that you mention it, he did say he was spending his office hours today just playing Vigil. I wonder if he’s actually been to the bathroom at all today,” Claudia shuddered at the thought, then pointed to one of her shelves. “I have a spare access pass if you want to go check up on him. It’s just somewhere over there. I think I left it by one of my broken keyboards.”
“Something wrong?” Yuki asked as Thomas scuffled with one of the overflowing shelves. “What do you mean by ‘if everything gets fixed tonight?’”
“I did say that, didn’t I? Well, not to bore you with all the details,” Claudia swerved back to face her computer screens. She picked out another stick of celery and tapped the monitor with it. “There’s been a security breach in the game. No. It’s worse than that. I’ve been locked out of modifying part of the game world.”
“What do you mean, aren’t you the lead developer?” Yuki raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t. Don’t remind me,” Claudia moaned. She stuffed her mouth with more celery. “There’s a foreign agent in The Vigil of Venus that doesn’t belong. It injected itself into the software this evening. How, I still don't know, but it’s been rewriting things without my permission. I can’t even begin to describe the expansive changes it’s been making.”
“Isn’t your stuff...I don’t know...protected? Like passwords and locks.”
“Ha!” Claudia laughed, accidentally spitting out bits of greenery. She covered her mouth. “Sorry. This thing doesn’t care. I’ve been trying to break back into my own game for the last half an hour. It will happen. I’m gonna get you, software alien.”
“I can’t find a card here,” Thomas whined from the other side of the room “Are you sure this is the right shelf?”
“Maybe try behind the broken monitor? The one with a lotta dents,” Claudia called back without looking. “Anyway, if it wasn’t for the fact that this thing was screwing with my game, I might have offered it an internship. Impressive work.”
“It’s not a virus?”
“Yuki, are you computer illiterate or something?”
“We’ve been through this. Yes I am.”
“That’s what I thought,” Claudia mumbled between bites. “To answer your question, a virus would probably just eat up my files. People would lose their accounts. Walking into certain places would crash their game. This...well it’s nothing like that. This thing is building things. It’s adding features that didn’t exist, shouldn’t exist in the game.”
“So, is it, like, improving things? What makes you so concerned?”
“Yuki,” Claudia sighed. “Okay. What about this? What if you were just walking, minding your own business. Then suddenly the two guns you’re carrying around with you right now had added gadgets you’d never seen before? Maybe they have a new burst fire configuration or some tactical scope or laser sight got attached to them. What would you think?”
“I’d be mildly concerned,” Yuki rubbed his chin. Behind him, there was a loud crash, the sound of Thomas spilling half a shelf’s worth of mice and keyboards onto the floor. Yuki shot Thomas a disapproving scowl, but Claudia didn’t seem to have noticed. Or maybe she simply didn't care. Amid, the scattered peripherals, Thomas spotted the sharp edge of a white plastic card.
“Only mildly concerned, huh?” Claudia mused. “Now what if your guns started shooting skyscrapers out of the muzzle or it turned the people you shot into talking gelatin?”
“Sounds a bit unrealistic.”
“I’m gonna go check on Mr. Belona,” Thomas whispered and excused himself.
“Sorry, Cozy, we’ll be right back,” Yuki said. “Don’t want Arthur ripping Thomas off like last time they signed a book deal.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Claudia called over her shoulder, secretly content that she had achieved some peace and quiet. Now she could again hear the pleasant hum of her machines, the faint electronic wines whispering from the wires, clicks of her mouse, the furious tapping of keys, the crunch of celery.
The software alien, as Claudia had since dubbed it, had transformed a large quadrant of Vigil into an expanding virtual reality simulation. What was going on inside the simulation was near impossible to tell. Every moment, the simulation seemed to be consuming more computer power from new users logging into the game. But there was no visual data from the game world; it just looked like an impenetrable dark abyss from the outside, and Claudia had long lost the access privileges to read much of the underlying code.
What she could read was elegant yet simplistic. Anyone with a functioning virtual reality headset could tap into the simulation. “Makes sense though,” Claudia clucked. “After all, F.I. is the only manufacturer.” Claudia’s own outdated headset hung over the edge of her desk, but she had been hesitant to interface with the unknown, not with the Judgment Day expansion still unreleased on the game’s live servers.
Claudia turned to one of her side monitors, where one of her administrator accounts watched an ongoing battle between the alien’s combat duplicate and one of the game’s most competitive guilds. The boss was strong, almost unfairly so, but Claudia had seen the specifications behind the scenes. It was defeatable.
She was also faintly aware of the deal that the invader, calling itself Philomela, had made with the players; defeat this clone and I will return this game to its previous state. Claudia knew that it was capable of doing so. She even went so far as to trust that, given her belief that Philomela could be inexplicably reduced to lines of code on a developer’s screen, it had offered a fair trade to its opponents. Let’s play by those rules then, Claudia thought. She typed a worldwide message on her account, announcing that everyone who contributed to defeating Philomela tonight would be awarded with a Pandora’s Box. That should turn things in our favor.
“There’s still one thing that still bugs me though,” Claudia murmured, turning back to her developer’s console. Her hands fumbled around in her porcelain bowl and she looked down. Damn. She was out of celery.
It’s these calibration functions in the VR code, she pondered. They overclock the neural links on the headsets to handle substantially greater power draw than necessary. And it looks like they’ve reversed the polarity on the neural feedback system. This is just unnecessary. Claudia shook her head, disappointed. VR is supposed to be easy. The game feeds you visual data and the corresponding headset generates and feeds electrical signals to your brain to give you the illusion of reality. Instead, it’s almost like it wants to invert the traditional formula, use the increased load capacity from the capacitors and computationally feed your brain into...
Claudia stopped thinking. Her hands shakily set her bowl on the table and she leaned closer at her screen. No, there has to be another reason, she thought. Maybe it's just the reversing the optics since the internal simulation is too strenuous for most modern computers. At that moment, Yuki burst back into the room and interrupted her train of thought, his face plastered shock and fear. “Claudia you have to come see this.”
“Yeah? Yeah. Sure,” Claudia drawled. Yuki walked up to her and firmly gripped her shoulder, breaking her out of her self-induced trance. “Hey! What’s the deal? What’s going on?”
“You tell me,” Yuki forcefully pulled Claudia out of her seat and out of the room. She tripped over her own mess, and then squinted as the bright lights from Alexandra & Lautaro’s office momentarily blinded her when she left her dim closet. He pulled her through the open front door, across the solemn empty rows of sleeping computers, and into the back of the office. There, she spotted Thomas at the entrance to one of the private rooms. He was shivering and refused to look up even when the two of them approached.
“He’s inside,” Yuki said, yanking Claudia into the office. “Look. What did you do him?”
“What are you talking about?” Claudia cried. “Ow! Quit pulling me like that. Let go of me. How am I supposed to –”
Then she saw Arthur Belona. He didn’t look dead. His body was still upright, his fingers peacefully settled over his mouse and keyboard as if still waiting to log into a game. Draped over his head was a virtual helmet. It was one of the new Fukuyama models, a rare luxury for an editor of a modest imprint.
None of this was exactly strange. What was bizarre was Arthur Belona’s eyes. His eyes did not twitch when Claudia waved her hands between him and the screen; his expression did not change when she pinched his cheeks with her nails. As Claudia looked past the half opaque visor, she was horrified to find that Belona’s eyes had rolled back into their sockets. Only the whites of his eyes remained. And yet, those eyes gazed vacantly at the computer monitor, a monitor featuring nothing but a repeated sentence perpetually rolling across the screen.
Judgment day is coming.