Saturday, April 24, 2021

Big Papa: Biting the Ice (Part IX)

We never could have guessed the truth about what has become of the afterlife simulation since we’ve been gone. For a world where you’re not supposed to be able to die, it sure is dangerous. Gilbert doesn’t come back with all the answers, but he has a decent idea what the hell is going on. Details about Pinocchio remain scarce, as people are evidently afraid to say anything about him, but the results of his efforts are clear. The worlds have been thrown into war, built on a foundation of a class system, fueled by real consequences...and weapons.
“It’s like the zero blade,” Gilbert explains as he’s still trying to catch his breath. No one is actually breathing in the simulation, or at least they don’t have to. If it’s possible to become tired, it’s because somebody deliberately turned that feature on to better resemble base reality.
“What does that do again?” Lowell asks.
“It kills you,” Nerakali answers. “It destroys your code, so you don’t respawn, or heal, or anything. You’re just...gone.”
“But you said it’s like the zero blade,” I point out. “What does it do?”
“There’s more than one,” Gilbert continues. “Blue, red, orange, yellow.”
“Downgrading weapons,” Pryce realizes. “I made one for every level.”
Every level?” Gilbert questions. “Even the higher ones?”
“Yes,” Pryce confirms. “There’s even one for resurrection, which will transmit your consciousness to a new substrate in base reality. From there, you can pick out some other body.”
“I don’t care about the upgrades. How many of the weapons are there?” I ask.
“You can make more of certain ones,” Pryce explains. “There are only a few zero blades, though, and only one white staff. I lost it a long time ago, and I have no idea where the zero blades are. Obviously, Leona had one at one point, which she got from Boyce.”
“Tell us about the others,” Nerakali orders. “What are we dealing with?”
“The ones you have to worry about are the ice picks, the red axes, the hock shanks, the yellow hammers, and possibly the green collars. That last one isn’t all that bad, but some would disagree. The others would be considered upgrades, and they’re incredibly rare.”
“They’re using them in a war,” Gilbert adds. “If someone gets their hands one one, they can either use it against their enemies, or threaten them with it. The people with the worst weapons are the ones with the most power. No one wants their IDCodes to be shelved, so those with ice picks are considered elites. They make most of the decisions, delegating to the red axe wielders as needed, and so on down the hierarchy tree. I got the feeling when I was out there that a few people have the upgrade tools, but it’s unclear how powerful those people are. I think they can really only use them to bargain for personal favors, but they don’t control anything.”
Pryce is shaking his head. “When we started this project, we didn’t immediately know how the levels would work, or how you would rank up, or what. But we never wanted war. I wouldn’t have let this happen.”
“When we first showed up,” I begin, “we thought you were the enemy. We thought things would only get better if we removed you from power. Now I see how bad things get when you’re not here. Abandoning this place was the biggest mistake of your life. When you went down this path—shutting me out of it, manslaughtering Trinity, letting your daughter and Thor go off to wherever—you chose to assume the responsibility of tens of billions of people, and you should have respected that. People like you don’t get to quit; it’s a lifetime appointment. The fact that you’ve had an extremely long lifetime is no excuse.”
“You’re right,” Pryce says, “which is why I have to be the one to fix this.”
“How?” Lowell asks.
“Ice in the Hole,” Nerakali guesses.
“We can’t do that,” Lowell argues.
“I wasn’t here,” Gilbert reminds us. “What is that?”
“There’s a button,” Pryce starts to go over it again. “I doubt Pinocchio ever found it, it’s not in my office, and even if he did, he probably wouldn’t know how to use it. And he would be horrified by the downside. As the name would suggest, it puts everyone on ice. It shelves every single IDCode inside the simulation. Every single one,” he reiterates. “It’s like pressing a great reset button, except that it doesn’t destroy anything. The simulation itself remains up and running, and once it’s time to reinstantiate the identities, they’ll all be intact. I created it in case something like this happened.”
Like a great reset button that doesn’t destroy anything, I repeat in my own head. It’s a terrible choice, but if it’s the only reasonable solution, then it will be what we do. We have to end the war, and if we can’t do it through words, we’ll force it. But we have to try to use our words first. “That is a last resort,” I protest. “We haven’t even tried to stop it some other way. Can’t we start by deleting all of the weapons?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Pryce contends. “You can’t find and replace the weapons. The code is far too complicated for that. It’s designed to be self-teaching, and adaptive, and it simulates every law of physics that isn’t specifically counteracted by a programmed rule. In the real world, you can’t find every weapon, and erase it from reality, so you can’t do it in the simulation either. We created it that way to curtail our own power. There is no button, for instance, that turns everyone’s clothes black, even though it wouldn’t be very hard to program that. Hell, I could set every server on fire if I wanted to, because I have the privilege of a body, but it would take a long time, because each one is at least hundreds of miles from any other. These restrictions are all about preserving life, and preventing something disastrous. You’re right, Ice in the Hole is a last resort, but it is perfectly safe for the residents, and we are already at the point of a last resort.”
“Where is it?” Lowell asks. “I know it’s not murder, but I have experience with hurting people, so I should be the one to do it.”
“No,” Pryce says. “I’m responsible, I have to push the button. Besides, you’ve been resurrected. I can’t take that away from you.”
“Why would that take it away from me? Can’t you just re——”
“Reinstantiate,” Nerakali helped.
“No, I can’t,” Pryce replies without the full question. “I told you, the button has a downside. I said it was safe for the residents, but that doesn’t go for the person who pushes the button. It requires a blood sacrifice. You can push it all day long, if you want, but nothing will happen unless you do it with your bare hand.”
“What, does a needle come out of the button as it goes down?” Gilbert figures.
“Not a needle,” Pryce corrects, “a blade.”
I know where he’s going with this. “A zero blade.”
“It’s not a blood sacrifice, it’s a code sacrifice.”
“In the end, yes,” Pryce agrees. “The code of your blood is different than the rest of your avatar. It contains your genetic information, just like it would in base reality. Once the blade tastes those genes, it will zero out the person they belong to.”
“You can’t just cut yourself with a regular virtual blade, and pour it on the button, while you push it with a meter stick, or something?” Nerakali suggests.
“Sure, you could,” Pryce says with a shrug, “but that doesn’t solve your problem. Your blood matches your code. You still die, because it knows it’s your blood. Or rather, it knows it’s my blood, because I’m the one who’s going to be doing this. And before you think you’ve figured out a loophole, that won’t work either. You wouldn’t be able to draw someone’s blood, and store it in a jar while you resurrect them. People who are resurrected are still connected to the simulation, and it will kill them, even when they’re on the outside. Plus, the virtual blood has to be fresh. I mean, seconds fresh. Nothing can resurrect you that fast, except for the white staff, I guess, but like I said, I don’t know where that is.”
“Why did you design it this way?” Nerakali questions. “This is needlessly complicated and deadly.”
“Not needlessly,” Pryce maintains. “Quite importantly. It’s not dangerous for the residents per se, but there is some risk. If the Glisnians detect a sudden drop in power usage—which is what this act will do—they could theoretically decide that the experiment is over. That’s what they keep calling it, an experiment. They don’t see it as a subversion to death for all the humans in history. As far as they’re concerned, they’re the only ones who matter, and they’ve already cracked immortality. They let me continue with my work, because I don’t get in their way, and I don’t use too much energy in the grand scheme of things. But they will end it if they see any evidence that I don’t need it any more. The button, and how it works, is a deterrent. If someone pushes it, someone else has to go up to the real world, and make sure they don’t shut the whole thing down. Ellie, you have proven that you can convince people of almost anything. The residents will rely on you to be their advocate once I’m gone.”
“I am their advocate,” says a voice from beyond the huddle. He looks familiar, but I can’t place his face. As he approaches, I start to remember. He’s altered his appearance to be a more attractive version of himself, but this is the bot who served us what would turn out to be fake refreshments back when I was trying to convince Glisnia to give me the simulation. This is Pinocchio? He’s been hiding in plain sight. He has two goons at his flanks that look mean for no reason but they were programmed to look that way.
“How did you get in here?” Gilbert demands to know.
Pinocchio chuckles. “IDCloner. Very easy.”
“Is it now?” Lowell asks, oddly interested in having something like that.
He chuckles again. “Well, I suppose not that easy.” He shakes the subject out of his mouth, and readies it for a new one. “I’ve been listening to your conversation, most of it, anyway.” He reaches behind his back, and slowly slides a sword out of a virtual pocket dimension. “Before I kill you, you’re going to tell me where I can find the Ice in the Hole button.”
“It’s up your ass,” Pryce tells him.
Pinocchio jerks his chin, prompting one of his goons to take Pryce by the shirt collars, and press him against the wall. “Your mom was there last night, she would have told me if she had seen it.”
What are these, fifth graders?
“Boys,” Nerakali shouts in a smooth and steady voice. “There is no call for violence.”
Pinocchio nods, which causes the goon to release Pryce, even though he wasn’t even facing his master. Yeah, they’re definitely NPCs. “I have no beef with you. I wasn’t created until after the other Pryce took over the simulation. I’m only going to kill you, because you’re a threat to my power, but it’s not personal. Just tell me where the button is. Understand this, that I know it exists, I’ll find it myself eventually. You can make it easier, on everybody, but you can’t stop me by keeping this information to yourself. You do not have the upperhand here. If you don’t tell me, I’ll still kill you, but not before I kill your friends in front of you.”
“Wait.” I hope what I plan to say to him is the right call. “Is this what Leona wanted? When she gave you consciousness and agency, did she want you to do this?”
Pinocchio smirks knowingly. “A hundred percent. She wanted me to be able to make my own decisions...and these are my decisions.” He grows cold and passively angry. “This is my design. Tell me where the button is.” He lifts his finger, and starts wagging it in front of Gilbert’s face without even turning to face him. “Gilbert, if you try what I know you’re about to try, you will be the first to go.”
“I’ve died a thousand times,” Gilbert retorts. “Each time, I knew it could be the last.” With that, he drops a yellow hammer into his grip from out of his sleeve, and bashes one of the goons over the head, only to swing it back immediately, and smash it against the other one. Their clothes turn yellow, and they disappear. It’s the color of Limited, so they’re still very much alive, but they’re only allowed in public spaces now, which is pretty normal for NPCs, but it’s a good short-term solution. Gilbert swings a third time, and tries to strike Pinocchio, but he’s met by the zero blade. They hold there for a few seconds, neither one yet strong enough to overtake the other. “Nerakali...get them to the escape hatch.”
“No!” I scream.
“Come on.” Lowell takes me by the shoulders, and tries to usher me away.
I struggle against his pull. I’ve seen Gilbert across many timelines. I know how much he’s had to overcome, and it’s all been his own personality and instincts. He’s changed himself, and improved more than almost anyone I’ve ever known. You have know idea how hard that is. People who are naturally good could never understand. He doesn’t deserve this. “No!” I repeat.
Lowell’s too strong for me, I should have asked for an upgrade in here, but fake physical strength wasn’t really a priority. He pushes me into Pryce’s arms, who takes it from here. “I’ll help him,” Lowell promises. “Get her out.”
The last thing I see before we round the corner is Lowell removing a fireplace poker from against the wall, and heading back towards the still-struggling Gilbert and Pinocchio.

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