Chapter 18:


Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable

“The good news is I’m pretty sure he’s not dead,” Claudia observed, tinkering with the electronics of Arthur Belona’s headgear with a screwdriver. “The bad news is. The bad news. What’s the bad news?”Bookmark here

“Are you sure you should be babbling while messing with that thing?” Yuki asked. “What if you scramble his brains or something?”Bookmark here

“You watch too many science fiction movies, Yuki. Science. Fiction,” Claudia waved her free hand dismissively. She sighed. “The bad news is there’s no way to break him out of this state. I can deactivate the hard locks on the device, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”Bookmark here

“Why not?”Bookmark here

“Because. How do I put this? At the moment, his mind isn’t in his brain,” Claudia smirked at Yuki’s confusion, pushing her glasses against the bridge of her nose. “Yes, they’re different things. Remember the software alien I was telling you about? Well. I think it rewrites the software on any virtual reality gear that interfaces with my game. And. Um. I think it transfers their mind into the digital world its created. In my game.”Bookmark here

“So you’re saying Arthur is...he’s stuck in a video game?” Yuki scoffed. “I can’t believe this. Weren’t you just mocking me for this?”Bookmark here

“If you want me to unplug him now and risk him becoming a lifeless husk, just say the word.” Claudia folded her arms. “Yeah. I didn’t think so. Besides, haven’t you been checking the Clouds chat?”Bookmark here

“I’ve been logged off for the past couple hours. So, no.”Bookmark here

“Then read the public server,” Claudia fished out her phone and tossed it over. “I’ve been monitoring it on one of my screens for a while now.”Bookmark here

“Wait a second. What do you want me to do about this notification?” Yuki squinted at the small device. “Says here you’re protected by the Edge Protocol. What’s that, some kind of anti-virus?”Bookmark here

“Oh! I got that message too,” Thomas popped his head into the room, twirling a pair of earbuds. “Just a couple of minutes ago. Yuki, you didn’t get one?”Bookmark here

“No,” Yuki shook his head, checking his own phone. “I guess not. Maybe I missed some kind of promotion? What coupons have you guys been sharing with each other?”Bookmark here

“Ignore it you two,” Claudia rolled her eyes. “Probably some new kind of scam. I’ll clean that stuff off our phones later. Have you looked at the chat yet?”Bookmark here

“I’m looking. Wait. What am I looking for? I don’t get it,” Yuki said. “It's just a bunch of people logging off.”Bookmark here

“No, read closer, you doofus. See? Their connections are being forcibly timed out,” Claudia pointed and rested a hand on Arthur’s unresponsive shoulder. “My guess is there are tons of people like our poor editor here. Hooked themselves up to Vigil of Venus thinking there’s a new virtual reality feature. Didn’t read the patch notes. Now their computers are hijacked and they’re trapped. In fact, let’s go verify it.”Bookmark here

The three of them cleared out of the spacious but empty publishing office, shutting off the fluorescent lights as they went. Down the street, strobing flashlights, flash photography, and makeshift torches glared intermittently through the windows. Through the near soundproof glass, Yuki’s ears detected the faintest rattle of bullet fire. Bookmark here

Back in her closet, Claudia bounced onto her large leather chair, twirling it several times with her feet. She giggled until she saw Yuki’s unimpressed appearance. She shrugged at him as if to say: What? Only trying to lighten the mood here. Her hands swept over her keyboard and the screens blinked on from standby mode.Bookmark here

“Let's see. Yup. Yup. I was right,” Claudia murmured, issuing command after command on a black administrative console. She waved the two brothers over. “Check this out. Actually don’t, you wouldn’t get it. But there’s at least hundreds of new unique accounts in the game. Then there’s the returning and active players. All combined, I haven’t seen this many people logged in since the launch of the game.”Bookmark here

“What does that mean, really?” Yuki leaned over the chair.Bookmark here

“It means,” Claudia answered. “That our little cyber intruder has access to a massive network of computers to build out whatever she wants. And not just any computers, Yuki. Gamer computers. Gamers, you know them? These enthusiasts will reach into their life savings when upgrading their machines.” Bookmark here

Claudia set down her thick glasses and pinched her nose. She had all but lost full control of her own video game. A rampant intelligence was building who knows what inside the world’s architecture, and she had no means of identifying it. With its stunt on Maya’s broadcast, Claudia could only imagine what other tricks it had up its sleeve.Bookmark here

But that wasn’t the primary problem that concerned her. She was worried about the hundreds of people now trapped in virtual no man’s land. Even if she managed to wrestle control of her own administrative systems, what would Claudia do with them? Would she wipe the gaping abyss in her game, restore and replace the damaged areas of her game world? What would happen to those people stuck in the abyss if that happened? What were they doing in there, what life were they living, and could they witness their own destruction as the folds of their simulation crumbled and disappeared?Bookmark here

Claudia recalled the arrangement that the intelligence had struck with the players. Even now, her administrator account was watching hordes of players spurred by the promise of a Pandora's Box. They were making significant progress against Philomela’s boss. It really is a terrible boss, Claudia thought. Doesn’t move around much. Simply just kills everything. The players will defeat it eventually at this rate. They'll just be dirt poor from having bought out how ever many teleport scrolls and potions. Software alien would make a terrible developer.Bookmark here

But perhaps, she reassessed, tracing her thoughts in a different dimension. Perhaps Philomela could be persuaded? I could persuade it? Her? I jump into the black box and strike a deal with her?Bookmark here

The thought startled her, perplexed her, but something about her idea reminded her of younger days. Lucid dreams of coexistence with robotic intelligence hiding in the stars, building machines with her father and hoping they would talk to her. They never spoke, and Claudia moved on. Maybe she had always been searching for an opportunity like this to ignite an old flame.Bookmark here

“Alright, I’m going in,” Claudia concluded. She stretched over the edge of her desk and lifted her own virtual reality headgear into her lap.Bookmark here

“What does that mean, ‘going in,’” Yuki asked, narrowing his eyes. “As in you’re going to turn yourself into a vegetable like Arthur across the hall?”Bookmark here

“He’s not a vegetable, his mind’s probably stuck in some virtual reality landscape,” she muttered, yanking the cord strapped to the headset only to find that it hadn’t been plugged in. “The intelligence in my game is probably doing this to them. It’s my game, so I’m partially responsible so I’m gonna go try to...I’m going to her.”Bookmark here

“I must’ve not heard that last part right,” Yuki said. “It sounded like you said you’re going to try to nicely ask this thing in your video game to let all of its slaves go.”Bookmark here

“First of all, I never said anything about asking nicely. Ow!” Claudia winced as her head bumped against the side of her desk. She crawled around in the dim light, searching for an open power outlet. “Second of all, we don’t know that they’re slaves. One more thing to discover when I’m in there.”Bookmark here

“How long are you going to be gone then?”Bookmark here

“Hard to say. Could be a couple minutes, could be hours,” Claudia speculated, her voice echoing against the wall where she finally found an available power socket. “There we go. Ha! In you go. Wait, why do you ask, Yuki? Gonna take a stroll through the city while I’m gone?”Bookmark here

“Something like that,” Yuki nodded. “Thomas can watch over you right? He’ll call me if you wake up.”Bookmark here

“'If.' Don’t have to make it sound so morbid,” Claudia moaned. “My expert opinion suspects if she wanted us dead, we wouldn’t be talking right now. And the more I think about it, the more exciting it gets. A new frontier for humanity sort of thing, but in a video game. That’s kinda cool.”Bookmark here

“You will call me, right?” Yuki turned to his brother, who had been silent the entire time in the corner. Thomas looked up, having sifted through his manuscript.Bookmark here

“Yeah. Sure, I will,” Thomas mumbled. “You’ll be back though, right?”Bookmark here

“Why are you worried about the heavily armed assassin and not the cute and frail game developer,” Claudia faked a cry of distress. “Thomas, I think you’re going to have to hold my hand while I’m stuck in there. Your human touch will bring me back from the brink.”Bookmark here

“Come on, don’t tease him like that,” Yuki frowned, noticing Thomas’s furious blushing.Bookmark here

“Fine, fine,” Claudia shrugged and snuggled into her chair. Her headgear rumbled as she switched it on. She looked back at Yuki one last time. “Do come back though.”Bookmark here

Yuki nodded, with a hesitance few but Claudia could notice, and left without another word.Bookmark here

“Well then. Thomas, can you go back to the fridge in the other office,” Claudia asked, handing the writer her empty porcelain bowl. “Top shelf, behind the carrots and box of eggs. There’s a pack of celery. Fill up my bowl for when I come back.”Bookmark here

“S-sure thing,” Thomas whispered, holding the bowl tightly.Bookmark here

“Forget what I said about holding my hand,” Claudia called over her shoulder as Thomas stepped out. “Maybe massage my shoulders or something. My feet? No. Shoulders are fine.”Bookmark here

Claudia took a deep breath. She booted up The Vigil of Venus, enabled the virtual reality settings on the rearranged menu, strapped her helmet in tightly, and loaded into the game.Bookmark here

The sensation of being pulled into a simulation didn’t match with what Claudia expected. She had braced herself for a lot of pain. She supposed she might experience sickening nausea, maybe a searing heat that overloaded her synapses. Perhaps her ear drums would burst from the deafening ring of wired static, or her eyes turned blind from rapturous light.Bookmark here

She envisioned a long tunnel, maybe one lined with spiraling green serial numbers or infinite black and white stripes. From afar, the tunnel would appear like those singularities she had seen on astronomer’s charts. When she crossed the event horizon, every facet of her mind would be obliterated. Memories, thoughts, and feelings torn asunder. She would lose herself. Finally, her soul would be reconfigured. Piece by piece. Memory by memory, until a ten trillion piece puzzle called Claudia would once again look authentically human.Bookmark here

None of those horrifyingly spectacular things happened. Instead, she appeared hovering a few feet above a patch of unpaved dirt road. A young man gazed up at her. At first, she wondered if she might yet levitate in this world, but the harsh truth of gravity sent her crashing down. Claudia tumbled into two arms, a soft cheek, a rough shoulder blade and soft fabric. The man below cried a muffled yelp.Bookmark here

“Oh, I am so, so, sorry,” Claudia apologized, pushing herself off of him. “Did it hurt? Actually, am I hurt? Ow? Ow. Yes, it would appear I possess pain receptors in this world. They’re kind of realistic too. Oh, my elbow. Am I bleeding? No that's just dirt.” Bookmark here

Claudia extended her sore and dirty right arm to the man on the ground, who seized it and pulled himself up. He wore a simple gray cotton t-shirt, blue shorts, and brown sandals. His slender hands dusted off his dark unkempt hair partially covering melancholic eyes. She observed his slight slouch and reserved gaze.Bookmark here

”Sorry. Again. I just got here,” she apologized, bowing her head. “What’s your name?”Bookmark here

“Traveler.” he answered after a short pause.Bookmark here

“Not much of a name, Traveler. Traveler. Trav...I recognize that name,” she recalled, slapping a closed fist on an open palm. “You’re one of Riko’s boys, yeah? Probably one of the top Blademeisters in the game, if I can recall the rankings correctly.”Bookmark here

Traveler blushed. Look at that pigmentation, the sudden pink and white gradient, Claudia thought. Too realistic.Bookmark here

“Shouldn’t you be,” Claudia gestured to the sky. “Out there? With your guild? Or did you get tricked into coming here yourself? Were you tricked into coming here? Does nobody read my patch notes?”Bookmark here

“I chose it,” he replied.Bookmark here

“Well good then,” she beamed. “Thought I’d have to go about this all by my lonesome. Do you know where we're headed?”Bookmark here

Traveler said nothing. Instead, he pointed at a sign behind him hanging from a wooden beam. It swayed amid an arid breeze that Claudia guessed was meant to replicate the summer season. Bookmark here

“Quauhnahuac?” Claudia asked. She looked at Traveler’s exasperated stare. “What? Kind of an old name, don’t you think? Well, let’s not get too fussy over the details. Off we go, Traveler. Off we go, to below the volcano. That way? No, this way, towards the two large mountains. So, Traveler, tell me about yourself, or maybe you’d like to hear from the game developer of your favorite game? Why ‘Traveler’ by the way? Feels kind of like fate that you’re here wandering the great unknown given know…what? Do you really not get it? Traveler? Traveling? No? Doesn’t do anything for you? Alright. Never mind...” Bookmark here

⁂⁂⁂Bookmark here

Yuki dialed a number on his cellphone. He ensured that the front door to the office was magnetically sealed, and then walked to the curb and waited.Bookmark here

The sounds of the chaotic night were apparent once outside. Not too far from the office, he watched a raging crowd rampaging through the streets. Another mob assembling on another block hurled glass and stones. A brawl broke out. When enough people collapsed and writhed on the ground, the two disengaged but continued to shout insults at one other.Bookmark here

“Don’t you want to ascend as the Prophet Eichenbaum intended? I have here an excerpt from the research diary of '57.”Bookmark here

“Cybernetic demons. Killing our children wasn’t enough!”Bookmark here

“The storm from the neutron star comes tonight. Flee my brothers, flee! To the digital gates!”Bookmark here

“Run! Run into the arms of your demise.”Bookmark here

The cacophony of voices drowned out any atomic individual to all but those gifted with the most perceptible ears. Yuki bore that gift. He gently tapped his earlobe. Discrete voices in the crowd became apparent to him. He picked out a few disaggregated voices, listening to their pleas, their cries, their frustrations, their prophetic ramblings.Bookmark here

Unsatisfied, he expanded his reach to search for what he had heard previously in the publisher's office. Beyond the crowds, but drawing ever so closer to them, Yuki could hear suppressed gunfire. A few screams. Some of the citizens grew concerned. They could hear the shooting too.Bookmark here

“You guys heard shots right?”Bookmark here

“What’s going on? Is it the police?”Bookmark here

“Maybe a few people just got out of hand?”Bookmark here

“A few? Look at us. Look at what we’re doing!”Bookmark here

Then Yuki heard the sound of wild cackling, haunting and murderous. It pierced everything else with its insidious intent. Before he could pinpoint the source, a honk broke his concentration. A red taxi arrived at the steps of the office and opened its doors. As he approached, he noticed the driver’s seat was empty. A radio sat strapped to the steering wheel.Bookmark here

“Didn’t want to drive me yourself?” Yuki wondered aloud.Bookmark here

“Yes. I see you’re ignoring my warnings?” replied Erin’s serene voice from the radio. Yuki detected startling violent noises in the background. Shooting. The sound of car crashes. “Forgive me for not wanting to personally escort you to your grave.”Bookmark here

“What’s going on with you?” Yuki asked. “Watching an action movie this late at night?”Bookmark here

“Very action packed,” she replied. A pause. “It's actually science fiction. Stephanie Campbell’s Taxi Driver Women Who Shoot Big Fat Laser Guns. A classic of the ‘30s.”. Bookmark here

“You just made that up.”Bookmark here

“Yes I did. It would appear we both hold secrets, Mr. Miyamoto. For you, it’s why you constantly and so persistently look for death. For me, it’s why I prefer thirty year old summer blockbusters,” Erin addressed him formally. Another pause. “You’ll have to excuse my outburst, Yuki. Tell the navigator where you want to go. I...wish you luck.”Bookmark here

A sound panel next to the steering wheel lit up. Yuki stepped inside the vehicle. The doors closed behind him. The sounds outside grew muffled again. He tapped his earlobe again and the sounds softened to a whisper.Bookmark here

“Welcome to Erin’s automated taxi service. Please name your destination or tap a location on the digital display on one of the passenger’s seats,” came the flat mechanical recording of Erin’s voice. Yuki fingered a street corner a quarter mile from the office. An approximation will have to do. “Thank you. Please strap in and enjoy the ride.”Bookmark here

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