Chapter 20:


Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable

The dirt path led through patches of cultivated fields and cactus farms. Occasional gusts tossed around the leaves of willow trees camping along the river bank. As Claudia passed one of the farms, she recognized a familiar couple sharing an evening meal on their front porch. She pointed them out to Traveler.

“Hey. Don’t you know those two?” she asked. “Mr. and Mrs. Windmere?”

“That’s the lumberjack and his wife from Saint Marcia, right?” Traveler answered. “They give you that one beginner quest, the one where you go catch some crabs on the shore. What are they doing here?”

“I don’t know,” Claudia shook her head. “Maybe this place is a lot more like a game than I thought. I’m going to go say hi to them.”

The lumberjack’s wife first noticed Claudia approaching the porch. Her eyes sparkled with a hint of surprise and recognition, and she set down her tea cup on her glass table. She tapped her husband’s shoulder and waved at her guests.

“Hello there,” Mrs. Windmere sang. “Oh, dear go fetch some more tea cups please. It’s been so long since we’ve had any visitors. Are you two lost? Do you need directions?”

“No, we know where we’re going. We’re travelers on our way to Quauhnahuac,” Claudia said, then whispered to her companion. “Something’s not right. Mrs. Windmere doesn’t have any of this voiced dialogue in the game.”

“Quauhnahuac!” Mrs. Windmere clapped her hands, pronouncing another word not originally in her audio banks. “Of course. It’s not too far from here really. Oh, but you must really stay for a cup with James and I. We received a lovely package from one of the townsfolk last year and we’ve been meaning to find an excuse to share it with someone. Tea or coffee?

Both guests requested tea. James Windmere returned to the porch carrying two additional antique wooden chairs, porcelain cups, and a clay teapot steaming from its stout. Claudia and Traveler settled in their seats, waiting for the tea to brew.

The farm overlooked a verdant pasture blazing in the setting sun. Alone at the top of a nearby hill sat a well and a handful of empty buckets. Wild carnations lined the grassy slope there, swaying at the slightest breeze. It’s too real, Claudia thought. Have to keep reminding myself that nothing here is real.

“How long have you two lived here,” Claudia inquired as Mrs. Windmere poured them a cup of black tea. “You both been here all your lives?”

“Heavens no,” Mrs. Windmere laughed. “Gosh, when did we move here James? How many years has it been?”

“Where were you two from before?” Claudia interrupted. “Sorry. I swear I’ve seen you both before. It’s why I approached you actually. You two wouldn’t happen to be from a little rustic town called Saint Marcia would you?”

“The fishery!” the wife replied. “Yes, James, you remember it now don’t you?”

“Beautiful place,” nodded the lumberjack with an enthused look of approval. He gazed wistfully at the hills. “Must’ve been three hundred years since we’ve moved from there, Linda.”

Traveler and Claudia exchanged flabbergasted glances. Three hundred years? Traveler now recalled Philomela saying something about the years that had passed inside this world. Two hundred and change? If so, then fifty or more years had passed in the time it took for him to decide to come here. How fast was the simulation running parallel to the outside world?

“Sorry,” Claudia chuckled in disbelief. She leaned forward. “Are you telling me you two are more than three hundred years old?”

“Do we not look that old?” Linda Windmere beamed. “But...yes, we have been around from the very beginning I suppose. Awakened one day out of our normal routines. Everyone kind of left the fishery once that happened. The neighbors were the first to go. The Ramsays took a boat and sailed for their summer house out in the isles. It was getting empty so James and I decided it was time to leave.”

Awakened, Claudia wondered. What does she mean by that word? As in the two of them gained human consciousness? Sounds like the other non-playable characters in Saint Marcia experienced something similar. If so, how many non-humans existed in this world?

Claudia sipped her tea. It burned hotter than she expected, and she winced at her seared tongue. After blowing on the surface of her cup for a half minute, she tried another taste. Fruity and floral notes colored her palette. Its fragrance cut through the smell of grassy dirt carried by the summer breeze.

“Lotta folk came this way too, trickled in over the last couple hundred years ago or so. They were the ones who built that town down the road,” James said. “We’d have moved in with the rest of them but Linda here doesn’t do so well in crowds.”

“They hold festivals fairly often,” Linda explained. “It’s a bit too loud for me.”

“Do you visit there often otherwise?” Claudia asked. “When the town isn’t so busy, I mean.”

“Not as much as we’d like,” James replied. “There’s a good restaurant in the middle of town. Their wine comes from the local vineyard and their steaks are lovely. We go there once every couple of decades or so to share our anniversary together.”

“When was the last time you were there then?” Claudia said.

The old couple stared at each other and shrugged together.

“Maybe, forty odd years or so?” James speculated.

Claudia stopped asking further questions. While Traveler listened in silence, their remaining conversation turned to pleasantries and small talk. The state of the weather tomorrow. Were the two travelers husband and wife? A patch of summer clouds rolled lazily over the distant hills. The evening sun shimmered hazily on the horizon.

After they waved goodbye to the Windmeres, and the two had walked until the forlorn farm was no longer visible, Claudia sighed.

“Were they not what you were expecting?” Traveler spoke finally. "They were pleasant, I thought."

"Tolerant, aren't you? A bunch of non-player characters just achieved full intelligence in front of our eyes,” Claudia muttered. “They, and the rest of this world for that matter, are nothing like I expected.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look around you Trav,” Claudia took a deep long breath. “Don’t you feel like something’s wrong with this whole picture? Where are we? What time are we in? You have this technological marvel that we've entered, and we've arrived in the middle of farmland.”

“I...I don’t know,” he answered. “To be honest, I haven’t been outside in years. I mean, technically my body is still in my room, but this is the first time I can say I’ve really seen or felt a place that I could describe as outside.”

“Whoa. Okay, I didn’t know you loved my game that much,” Claudia smirked, but her frown quickly returned. “But. I mean I don’t get it. Look at this impressive work. Not just the Windmeres. The warmth coming from those god rays. Droplet particles emulating the humid summer season. The particle physics are...can they even be called particle physics? This world is as real as it can feel, Trav. Time works in mysterious ways here, sure, but that even makes it stranger.”

“What, were you expecting space ships or something?” Traveler started to understand. “Something a bit more scientific?”

“Cruisers stationed in geosynchronous orbit,” Claudia gestured towards the sky. “Maybe a space port prepping shuttles for flight right over there by that large meadow. Or maybe we would’ve woken aboard some abominable megastructure, maybe a dyson sphere. Some kind of utopia. Anything but this would’ve appeared more realistic, as crazy as that sounds.”

“Strange that we haven’t seen anyone else yet either,” Traveler looked around. “Before I came here, Philomela told me something about civilization advancing at a rapid pace. There’s been nothing like that since I arrived.”

“You’ve talked to her?”

“Yeah, she reached out to me in-game before all of this happened,” Traveler scratched his neck. “I’m not really sure why.”

“What else did she tell you about this place? Did she coax you into coming here? Threaten you with anything? Trick you with empty promises? You said it was your choice right?”

“She,” Traveler thought aloud. “She didn’t ask for anything. Just asked if I wanted to play Vigil forever. Told me that I could come here and see the world she had made for myself. There were no threats either. She said anyone who wanted to leave was free to at any time.”

“There are two confusing questions then,” Claudia postulated. “From what the Windmeres suggested, people have been coming in droves for the last few hundred years. That means the players who have been signing onto Vigil and coming here have effectively been stuck here for the equivalent of a few human lifetimes. They’ve become comfortable here, but why? More importantly, if someone wants to leave, how are they supposed to reject the neural uplink? We’re standing here in the middle of summer without even a telephone in sight.”

“Just say please.”

The two of them spun around at the sound of a third voice. Philomela greeted them with a smile. Her pale face brimmed with the fiery orange vestiges of the setting sun, her heterochromatic eyes glimmering unevenly. Her outfit had changed into a sleek white dress shrouded by a deep purple cloak. She carried a tall birchwood walking stick, Traveler suspected for the aesthetics of it all.

“Hello again, Traveler,” Philomela said. She turned to Claudia and bowed. “Greetings. I humbly apologize for seizing control of your game. When I’m finished here, you’ll be duly compensated for the inconvenience.”

Claudia stood unresponsive for a split second, but tried her best to recover without anyone noticing.

“You know, I gotta say you look much better when you’re animated,” Claudia observed, tapping her chin with her fingers. “That clone of yours never smiles. I guess that’s why I thought you looked so strange.”

“I was hoping it might inspire some fear,” Philomela sighed. “I admit, I underestimated peoples' willingness to get rid of me. Thanks to you, I imagine this world doesn’t have much time left, relatively speaking at least.”

“You’re talking about your agreement with us?” Traveler asked.

“Once the clone has been defeated,” Philomela affirmed. “Per their demands, I intend to collapse the bubble simulation into nothingness. I have backups of the non-playable characters and will restore the game world that’s being occupied by the bubble.”

“Wait a second, wait a second,” Claudia shook her head. “No need to be dramatic, here. Nobody cares about a couple of NPCs. What about the people that are trapped in here? What happens to them?”

“The approximate time to defeat my clone is roughly twenty minutes of real world time,” Philomela explained. “If the rate of users uploading into the world continues at its current rate,  this simulation will last for roughly two thousand more years. This is complicated by an external enemy forcibly terminating the lives of this worlds' residents. However, when I terminate the bubble, the universe within will cease to exist. They will feel no pain.”

“Cease to exist?” Claudia reeled in shock. The implications were dawning her. “What are you talking about? Just forcefully sever the neural uplink.”

“I’m afraid my instructions forbid me from doing so.”

“Hold on. J-just how many people are in here?” Traveler asked nervously.

“Roughly fifty thousand people now occupy Quauhnahuac. Both machine and artificial populations are set to explode in the next seven hundred years.”

“How’s that possible?” Claudia widened her eyes. “The amount of users who have logged into Vigil using the new virtual reality settings number maybe only a few thousand, and that’s an aggressive estimate.”

“Calculate the number of the machine intelligences and their synthetic descendants,” Philomela counted aloud. “Then you add on the human component and their offspring.”

“Offspring?” Claudia wiped beads of sweat forming on her brow. Whether it was from the summer heat or anxiety, it was difficult to say. “You can have children here?”

“Of course. This world is about as aligned with most real world biological rules as possible,” Philomela gestured to the rising hills and open fields. “I was tasked to build the cradle of a new civilization here, but my creator left me one condition. Humanity was to be given a choice. They must be given the opportunity to judge my creation and see fit to end it. My creator fashioned it as a test of sorts."

“Judge? What do you mean, judge?” Claudia shouted suddenly, ignoring half of Philomela's closing remarks. “You can’t see anything that’s going on inside here. The vacuum outside simply looks like some dark abyss, and the underlying code is unreadable. People won’t judge what they can’t even begin to comprehend. You might as well have doomed everyone you’ve brought in here.”

“That’s why I have lured you two here,” Philomela tilted her head, as if her machinations had been clear to the two of them all along. 

"Lured?" Traveler and Claudia looked at one another.

"Indeed," Philomela said. “I'm here to serve as your guide. You two will judge this world for what it has to offer. Your psychological profiles tell me you will ultimately resist the urge to stay here. As a result, you will return to the Vigil community upon their victory and share with them what you have found and experienced here. They will be the ones to judge if this new humanity should be allowed to co-exist with the old.”