Chapter 24:

Twenty Four

Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable


Sasha dove behind the brick wall to her right. Two bullets whizzed by and ricocheted off a nearby fire hydrant. Dojo dodged to the other side of the alley and crouched behind an aluminum garbage bin. To her surprise, the cat did not flee, but rather maintained the stance of a wary predator searching for an opening.Bookmark here

She drew the sidearm she had snuck from Jay’s trunk and released the safety. Miles continued firing from the cover of darkness. Every shot flashed the lifeless eyes plastered on his face. His mouth rested as if just prepared by the coroner. He dumped the contents of his pistol’s magazine into the brick wall, blasting away rusted viridian chunks. On the penultimate bullet, he released his finger from the trigger and paused. His free hand hovered over his next clip. Bookmark here

“You still have a round in the chamber,” Sasha mocked. Across from her, Dojo crept through the thin crevice between the garbage can and the moldy walls of the corridor. “Don’t think I didn’t learn anything from you.”Bookmark here

“Too much,” Miles frowned, glancing around the scarce alley for anything that could serve as cover. A few things grabbed his attention.Bookmark here

Sasha risked a peak as Miles finished speaking. She ducked low, adjusting her sight to where she last saw him standing. He wasn’t there. Instead, Miles’s grey silhouette fled down the passageway. His figure crouched low, using scattered trash cans and discarded dilapidated furniture to block Sasha’s line of sight.Bookmark here

She gave chase and opened fire. Miles shot his last bullet blindly behind him. The round flew high over Sasha’s head and crashed into an upper balcony window. Sasha’s shots fared no better, drilling holes into miscellaneous garbage bags and tearing through dense cotton couches.Bookmark here

In the corner of her eye, Sasha watched Dojo burst into a full sprint. He covered a surprising amount of ground for such a plump cat. He bobbed and weaved through tipping trash cans and fearlessly climbed over mattresses burning with bullet holes.Bookmark here

Miles had almost crossed to the other end of the alley when he unexpectedly lurched to a halt. He rose from his crouched stance and spun around, his quickly reloaded sidearm aiming down the backstreet. Sasha’s own weapon clicked as the last bullet left the chamber, zipped past her target, and dented the passenger door of a nearby car. All of a sudden, she found herself standing caught at the center of the narrow corridor with nothing close enough to leap behind. A streetlamp hanging at the other end above illuminated Miles’s triumphant smirk.Bookmark here

Dojo ducked out from the shadows and lunged forward. Miles noticed too late, but nevertheless swiveled his hand to aim his sights at the cat. He fired a single shot.Bookmark here

The bullet veered wide but clipped the edge of Dojo’s rotund stomach. His angry hissing trembled with an abrupt and abnormal cry of pain. Still, he landed on Miles’s hand and bit down with voracious appetite. Miles’s grip loosened on his sidearm. It dropped to the ground and discharged another round. The glass window of the nearest store shattered.Bookmark here

Dojo climbed aboard Miles’s arm and slashed at the man’s face. Of course, Jay Sakamoto was a responsible pet owner. His cat’s claws were neatly trimmed. It took Dojo multiple scratches across the same cheek to draw blood. Miles howled and toppled backwards. He raised his arms to his face and finally managed to clutch the aggressive feline in his hands. Bookmark here

The cat kicked, bit, and hissed relentlessly, and Miles thrust the struggling cat into the alleyway. Dojo hung dazed in the air, then crashed into musty brickwork behind him, where his plushy fat bodice absorbed most of the shock. He landed and righted himself on an unsteady pile of trash, slightly limping forward.Bookmark here

Miles scrambled to his feet to search for his weapon. But before he had a chance to scan the pavement, the barrel of Sasha’s gun buried itself in Miles’s forehead. Miles raised his hands and offered no more resistance.Bookmark here

“You should be dead,” Sasha snarled. “But boss’s orders.”Bookmark here

“Do you think I’m too dangerous to be left alive?” Miles sneered. Bookmark here

“No, you idiot,” Sasha flipped the gun in her hand and clubbed Miles’s temple with the loaded grip. He toppled over cold, and Sasha fingered a pair of metal handcuffs. “That’s for hurting the cat.”Bookmark here

From the alley, Dojo’s eyes fluttered and closed. His body limped onto the sidewalk and collapsed after one final weak whine. Whatever adrenaline pumped through his blood had evaporated following that last harrowing act of heroism. Sasha flipped the unconscious Miles over and cuffed his hands behind his back. Then, she rushed over to Dojo and cradled the cat’s warm body in her arms.Bookmark here

“Still breathing,” she pressed her ears to Dojo’s chest. “Moderate heartbeat. Wounded. Exhaustion.”Bookmark here

Sasha glanced back at Miles. After shadowing his presence for years, she had gotten used to never letting him out of her sight. It was risky to leave him for his own people to find. But someone else required her attention now. She turned away and ignored her prone prisoner, crossing back through the shadowed alley. She juggled Dojo onto one arm and used the other to dial a preset number on her mobile phone.Bookmark here

“Target apprehended. For good this time,” she whispered. “Sending the coordinates. Get him off the streets before someone else does.”Bookmark here

On the other side of the street, Sasha started Ryu’s motorcycle. She set Dojo inside Jay’s tank bag. His breathing grew more uneven, and the grazed wound burned with a shade of dark red. Sasha worried about the possibility of infection. Dojo's eyes remained close, and his body shivered. Sasha dialed Helena's number and floored the accelerator.Bookmark here

⁂⁂⁂ Bookmark here

Claudia woke from her nine hundred year slumber right as Magnificent and the other guilds declared victory over Philomela’s boss.Bookmark here

She yelped and fumbled to remove her headset. She turned her administrator character towards the final moments of the fight. She witnessed Philomela’s clone dissolve into twinkling crystal flakes. The global chat flooded with self-congratulatory messages. Behind her, Thomas Miyamoto jolted out of a brief nap and knocked his head against one of the shelves.Bookmark here

“Veggies,” Claudia yelled. “Thomas? Are you there? Where did you put it?”Bookmark here

“O-on the table,” Thomas rubbed his head. “You scared me. What happened?”Bookmark here

“No time,” Claudia tossed a stick of celery into her mouth, rushing to grab a usable microphone. Bookmark here

The dark folds of the massive cellular automaton parted, and Philomela’s cloaked figure emerged. Her silhouette appeared at first like a shimmering refracted mirage. Shards of elaborate kaleidoscopic light danced around her. The hollow void of the bubble world closed behind her, and Philomela's illusory form dispersed, revealing her usual soft fleeting smile.Bookmark here

A few players, thinking the boss had returned for one last hurrah, flung a barrage of fresh spells. The attacks phased through her and dissipated into nothingness. Philomela waited her aggressors to stop. Then, she bowed.Bookmark here

“Congratulations to all of you,” she said. “I’m sure you will all be happy to receive your rewards. As promised, the fate of the simulated space behind me is now up to you.”Bookmark here

Riko stepped forward. His guild members filed in and oriented their characters towards him.Bookmark here

“I don’t even think there’s really a choice,” Riko shrugged. “You came in, broke the game’s economy, broke the game world, and now you’ve made us play the game for an entire night, spending I don’t even know how much money that we’ve cultivated for months. I don’t even think the rewards from the administrators is going to cover the in-game costs. Players will be spending weeks recovering the resources and potions they’ve used up tonight. How many are going to quit? If you’re a joke by the developers, you’ve done a good job alienating a large part of the fanbase. If you’re just some hacker who wanted in on a little fun, congratulations, but some of us are going to wake up tomorrow feeling a bit silly in how much we spent entertaining you.”Bookmark here

“Of course,” Philomela nodded. “As promised, I will restore the portions of the game world that I’ve overwritten. I will be in contact with the developer to suggest that she reimburse your spent funds and resources. After all, the point was not to bankrupt any of you.”Bookmark here

“Wait!”Bookmark here

Traveler’s voice sounded out over the game’s voice channel. Riko turned his character’s field of view to Traveler’s sprinting avatar. For many in the guild, it was the first time any of them had heard his voice. Some had even forgotten what it sounded like.Bookmark here

“Trav?” Riko asked. “That you? Where the hell have you been, man?”Bookmark here

“I’ve...been around,” Traveler paused. “Sorry, this is going to sound like it's coming out of nowhere, but I really need you guys to change your minds. You guys can’t tell her to reverse any of this. We have to let her do what she wants.”Bookmark here

“What the? Are you out of your mind?” Riko almost screamed at the sudden suggestion. The chatroom flooded with a cacophony of jeers and moans. Riko led their voices. “That thing she’s made has taken over almost half of the entire game world. Cozy hasn’t said anything, so she must be powerless against this thing. Philo...Philo agreed to let us get rid of it, and that’s what we’re going to do. Telling her to do whatever she wants is the same as saying you want all of us to stop playing Vigil.”Bookmark here

“Maybe that is what I’m saying,” Traveler affirmed. More shouts of anger and frustration barreled towards him. Traveler could already see numerous reports filed to the administrators against his character. “Look, you guys don’t understand. Inside that bubble right now is real people.”Bookmark here

“What are you even talking about?” Riko asked, incredulous.Bookmark here

“He means people that you probably know are living new lives in that bubble behind her,” Claudia interjected. Finally, a microphone that worked. She planted her administrator character next to Traveler. A strong nostalgia washed over her. Nine hundred years of it. No time to think about it. “Have you guys been paying attention to what’s been happening outside? Wait, don’t tell me. Of course you haven’t.”Bookmark here

“Cozy?” Riko sounded confused. “What’s going on? You’ve been silent this entire time. I thought you might show up just to tell us this was all an elaborate prank.”Bookmark here

“If only,” Claudia replied. “But maybe some of you guys have been getting advertisements that Vigil supports virtual reality. Well, I’m glad you people here pay attention to my patch notes, because that was fabricated by Philomela over there.”Bookmark here

“My apologies,” Philomela bowed again. “Deception was...necessary to draw people to the unknown.”Bookmark here

“The people who fell for it,” Claudia explained. “They’re in there right now. Not their bodies. But their minds. And many of them, dare I say all of them, are living happy lives. The simulation is not so different from our world. The NPCs have come alive. People are having children, researching science, developing technology. In the hours you’ve spent in Vigil tonight, over a thousand years have passed in that world.”Bookmark here

“Two thousand,” Philomela corrected. Before any questions sprouted, she answered them. “Time in the simulation clocks at speeds considerably faster than standard time here.”Bookmark here

“You agree to her demands,” Claudia warned. “You collapse the simulation, and you’re responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and their children.”Bookmark here

“That’s ridiculous,” Riko groaned, but there was concern laced in his words. Furious typing in his background suggested that he was researching Claudia’s outrageous remarks. “You expect us to believe that?”Bookmark here

“It is unbelievable,” Traveler said. “But I’ve been there and I’ve seen it for myself. I just got back so I could stop you guys from following through on her deal. But at the end of the day, it is your choice. I can’t stop you. But Riko, if I’m right, are you really going to let people die so you can have our game back?”Bookmark here

“Hey, I just checked out my roommate’s room,” one of the players spoke up. “He’s just...stuck there, gazing at the screen.”Bookmark here

“There are people like that in the streets below me,” said another. “Are they all going to die?”Bookmark here

Murmurs shivered through the game’s playerbase as they weighed the consequences. Eventually, a singular thought crossed their minds. Not all of them believed it at first. But only one word could describe the action that they would be partaking in if Traveler was speaking the truth. Genocide.Bookmark here

“But if that's the case, you tricked those people,” Riko cried. “Those people, some of them might be our friends, even family. They’re stuck in that…whatever you want to call it? Because you lied?”Bookmark here

“All inhabitants have been offered a choice for over two millennia,” Philomela shook her head. “They’ve had over two thousand years and counting to contemplate returning. Their reasons for staying remain unknown to me, but you cannot deny the obviousness of their answer.”Bookmark here

“What if you’re lying?” Riko asked. “What if you never gave them a choice?”Bookmark here

“She did actually,” Traveler replied. “That’s why I’m standing here. I chose to go in, and I chose to leave.”Bookmark here

Traveler developed a keen interest in seeing Riko’s expression from beyond the contours of the game. He imagined him struck, as if slapped across the face. Speaking into the microphone felt good. Speaking carried a different weight than emotionless words floating in a chatroom. Maybe I should do this more often, he thought.Bookmark here

“I’ll do what I can with respect to the game,” Claudia pleaded. “I can pull up backups and maybe do something about refunding your money. But I think some of you are beginning to understand. I have a friend. He works across the office from me. For one reason or another he’s staying in that other world. I’ll miss him.” Bookmark here

“Is that Arthur?” Thomas whispered. He had started listening in. “He’s staying? Where?”Bookmark here

“Shh,” Claudia silenced. “Come on, this is an important moment.”Bookmark here

An uneasy silence befell the playerbase of The Vigil of Venus. Soft sobbing could be heard from open microphones. Eventually, a bulk of the players logged off, as if to signal their blessings. Several more began to follow their lead. Riko said nothing. Instead, he forced his character to kneel. It was a gesture well known in Magnificent; it meant for his guild to stand down.Bookmark here

“Thank you. I’ve locked access to Quauhnahuac,” Philomela said, reading the growing consensus among the players. “There is the question of computing power, an issue I will likely have to address in the near future. For now, new entrants will need to exchange an Edge token for passage."Bookmark here

“If you had all the power to do this,” Riko asked one final question. “Why didn’t you just go ahead and ignore all of us?"Bookmark here

“People are fearful of new things, new technologies,” Philomela said. “When my father created me, he knew that I would give birth to a new world. New things breed distrust, chaos. Perhaps one day that world that I have hidden in the veins of the online universe will rise and pose a threat. He required that I give people a choice to decide the fate of this new world at its inception. If the human mind can be persuaded to accept this new universe when all of its variables remain unknown and void, then understanding between our worlds is communicable.”Bookmark here

“You’re asking a bunch of video game players to make that kind of decision,” Riko sighed.Bookmark here

“Don’t sell your label short,” Philomela smiled. She raised her hands. Vigil’s sun disintegrated into spectacles of light, descending upon the game world like soft flower petals. “You gamers have just saved the world. Claudia and Traveler. You have my eternal thanks.”Bookmark here

The sunlit petals fell and erased everything they touched, everything except for the cellular automaton that expanded upwards at subliminal speeds. Philomela swept her hands across the scenery. Players and game world alike burst into golden snowflakes. The radiant crystals assembled above Philomela. Bookmark here

Claudia and Traveler had not spoken to each other since their return. They instead gazed at the light show in awe, wondering what the world within that impenetrable abyss looked like now. In a moment perhaps too embarrassing for both to acknowledge, they both gestured their characters to hold each other’s hands. Finally, in the brief moment before Claudia and Traveler were forcibly ejected from the game, the two of them saw the birth of a new star above Philomela. Quauhnahuac’s new star.Bookmark here

A new dark screen featuring a single line of text replaced the login screen of Claudia’s game. Bookmark here

QUAUHNAHUAC IS CLOSED. PLEASE ENTER THE SIGNATURE OF YOUR EDGE TOKEN FOR ACCESS.Bookmark here

A notification blinked in the corner of Claudia’s desktop. An anonymous message opened itself in front of her middle monitor. Attached were net links to an assortment of large folders, filled with familiar assets and bits of code.Bookmark here

“Hello,” read the message. “Apologies again for all the trouble. I’ve taken the liberty of removing some of Vigil's zero day vulnerabilities while adjusting it for the automaton’s deployment. I hope you’ll find the improved version to your liking. Perhaps one day we shall see each other again.”Bookmark here

Claudia blinked to ensure the message was real. Then she slapped her own cheeks. She chuckled, snickered, then howled hysterically at the absurdity of it. Tears burst from her eyes, both sorrow and joy at the love that she lost and the love she had just regained.Bookmark here

“What happened while you were gone?” Thomas asked, eyeing her nervously. “Is everything okay?”Bookmark here

“I think everything’s going to be okay. I fell in love for nine hundred years,” Claudia sighed. She brought another stick of celery to her lips. She handed the empty bowl to Thomas. “And then I came back. Come on, get me another bowl, please?”Bookmark here

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