Saturday, April 17, 2021

Big Papa: Horror Vacui (Part VIII)

Hogarth holds up her hands, and takes a quarter step back. “Relax, Cadet,” she says. “We’re not here to hurt you. We just want to know what happened. How did you get to this universe?”
“We were in The Crossover,” Ukodenva explains. “Something went wrong with the engines, and we were sent, I guess to your universe. We did not come here on purpose.”
“What was that thing that crashed into my planet?” Hogarth demands to know.
“That would be the fighter bay. We happened to be doing some training in there when everything fell apart. The six of us managed to escape in this simulator, but we don’t know if anyone else did. Please understand that we possess no working weapons, not even on the ship itself. This is just designed for battle training.”
“I understand,” Hogarth assures her.
“Who are you training to fight?” Nerakali questions.
Ukodenva hesitates.
“Be honest,” Nerakali urges.
“Humans,” Ukodenva says, “but only if we need to. There are a lot of universes out there, and not all humans are as warm and welcoming as you. We have to be able to protect ourselves.”
“We’re not at war,” Hogarth says. “Not with each other anyway. There is a far greater threat that we both face. I built this brane to insulate my people from it, but it would seem your fighter bay has discovered a weakness.”
One of the other cadets stands up. “We will help you.”
The other four stand up as well, and regard Hogarth respectfully.
Ukodenva looks back at them, and smiles. “You are our commanding officer now.”
“That’s not what I—”
“It cannot be reversed. What you say, we must do.”
“What if I say—?”
“Unless you tell us that we no longer have to do what you say.”
Hogarth has no response to this. She turns her head to look back at us. “I need to effect repairs, and deal with this...development. Would you be terribly offended if...?”
“If you asked us to leave this brane?” Nerakali guesses.
“Not at all,” Lowell finishes the answer, presuming a consensus.
“You too, please,” Hogarth says to Pryce.
He has a bit of a sour face. “Very well, but I would like to return one day.”
“We’ll see.” Hogarth breathes in with her eyes closed. As she breathes out, our bodies break apart into tiny little bits, only to be reconstructed in the afterlife simulation interface room. Gilbert has returned with us, but Aldona has not, because that is where she belongs now. Trinity isn’t here with us either. She’s already home.
The technician smiles at us. “You have finally returned. Would you like to be connected?”
“Finally?” I question. Glisnians have a very different perspective of time than regular organic humans. They’re more like travelers and temporal immortals. We’ll regularly go years without seeing a loved one, and pick up right where we left off upon reuniting. Finally is just not a word someone like this would use to describe us coming back after less than a couple months. Something happened, and we can all feel it.
Lowell steps forward. “How long have we been gone?”
“Sixty-three years,” the tech replies. He doesn’t think this is weird, because while it’s his job to provide outsiders access to the afterlife sim, he probably doesn’t grasp how important it is, and how problematic it is that I left it unattended for all this time. There’s no telling what it will look like when we go back.
“Six decades,” Lowell echoes, shaking his head. “They’ve not had a leader in all that time.”
He is wrong. The simulation has not been without a leader for the last sixty years. It found a leader in someone. The most likely suspect is Avatar!Pryce, but there are billions of other possibilities...hundreds of billions, if you count the Glisnians. We have no idea what it is we’ll be walking into. “Nerakali and Gilbert, you may go now. You’re Level Eleven now. You’re free.”
They both shake their heads. “There’s nowhere for us to go,” Gilbert explains. “Our cycles are complete. Everyone out there expects us to have finally died, and dead is how we’ll stay.”
“We will go with you and help, in any way we can,” Nerakali agrees.
“I don’t know how bad it’s gonna be,” Pryce says. “My avatar has been changing in the prison, and I lost connection with him as soon as that thing crashed into Hogarth’s planet. He’s unpredictable.”
“We don’t know that he’s the one in charge,” I remind him as I’m sitting down in the interface chair. “I have the gearkey, and the rainbow clothes. Whatever has become of this place, we’ll deal with it...just like I dealt with you.”
We jack into the Matrix, appearing in my office, except it’s not my office anymore. It’s been redecorated. I knew that someone took over, but why would they operate out of here, when Pryce’s office was more central, and a lot nicer? Apparently answering our question of who it is has been running things since we’ve been gone, Avatar!Pryce comes into the room. He does look a lot different, though. He hangs his head down low, and he’s not wearing his rainbow clothes, or his orange Hock clothes. It’s a sort of tie-dye mix of blue and pink. There’s a sliver of black at the hems of his shirt and pant legs. He’s also carrying a rag and spray bottle.
When Avatar!Pryce notices us, he recedes into his shell even more. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know anyone was in here.” The black of his clothes rises, overtaking part of the other colors. “Oh, no.” He tries to leave.
“Wait,” I urge him. “What’s happened to you.”
Avatar!Pryce’s hands start to shake. “I’m not supposed to talk to you.”
“I’m asking you to.”
The black rises even more, and I realize what’s happening, I just don’t know why. He now lives under constant threat of being zeroed. It’s regulated by his behavior. The more he acts against the demands of whoever did this to him, the closer he gets to being killed permanently.
“This is cruel,” the other Pryce points out. He’s right, not even he would do something like this. Say what you will about him, but he never controlled people through fear. He believes in agency, and free will.
“I’m sorry,” Avatar!Pryce apologizes again. “I have to leave. I’ll come back and clean later. I think that should be okay. I have two hours before I go full dark.”
“No,” Pryce stops him. “You can clean now. Do your job, and do it well. Just answer one question, who’s in charge now?”
“The one in charge has always been in charge. It’s Pinocchio.”
Pryce shuts his eyes. “Shit.”
“Who is that? You know this puppet?” Lowell questions.
“I’ve never heard the name, but...I can guess who that is.” He suggests that we leave the office, so his alternate self can behave, and protect himself from dying. We will try to help him later. “Before Leona Matic reached Level Eleven, she was a Basic, which afforded her the right to visit people in prison. My other me made the counselor who dealt with the Matics and their friends spin the wheel, which landed her in Hock, and Leona started working on a plan to break her out. She ended up needing help, which she found in a non-playable character who had no name, because he didn’t need one. She altered his code, I still don’t really know how. She gave him consciousness, which honestly, shouldn’t have been possible. We kind of lost track of him, because he was unique. We didn’t have any need to track an NPC, because they were never where they weren’t supposed to be.”
“What’s he doing now?” Gilbert asks. “What’s become of the simulation?”
“Obviously, he found my old plans,” Pryce answers. “I had this idea that we would have janitors and maintenance workers. Their clothes would be of two colors, their actual station, and the color that grants them access to wherever they need to work. I decided against it, because this place maintains itself, and it doesn’t even get dirty. I just had not yet figured out how similar life here would be to base reality. It was a bad idea. The levels allow you to live however you want, and however you deserve. Some here are perfectly happy as Yellows. They don’t need to ask for things, or own personal possessions, because you don’t need anything. But the old plans were different. They created a class system, and moving up to a higher station was about as possible as it is in the real world. Meaning that it wasn’t impossible, but not as easy as rich people have to claim in order to not feel like pieces of shit for treating others badly.”
“How powerful is this guy?” Nerakali asks. “What can a conscious NPC do?”
“I don’t know,” Pryce answers honestly. “I can tell you that he doesn’t have the gearkey, and he’s not wearing rainbow, like Ellie said. She should be able to get him in line, though it’s not gonna be like it was when my avatar deliberately stepped down. He’ll probably put up a fight, and if he’s convinced enough of the residents that he’s what’s best for them, they’ll fight too.”
“We need information,” I say. “So far, all we know is that he’s punished Avatar!Pryce. He may have otherwise improved things.”
“I can find out what you need to know,” Gilbert announces. He stretches his arms out like Jesus, and lets his clothes change from white to indigo. Level Six, Plus was a good middle-0f-the-road place to pretend to be. It’ll allow him to go where he needs, but not stir up any commotion while he’s there. Indigos aren’t impressive, but they’re not ignored either. People will answer his questions.
“Thank you,” I say to him. For obvious reasons, I would be useless out there. Even if I masked my clothes, they all know what I look like.
“I don’t care how powerful this NPC is,” Gilbert says as he steps over, and rubs his palm slowly on mine like it’s a furry pet. “Nobody gets past the lock on my house. Except for you now. Make yourself at home.” He tears a breach in the virtual pocket dimension, and goes out to the main simulation to get us some answers. The rest of us walk over to Gilbert’s abode. He called it a house, but make no mistake, this is a palace. It’s the Purple Palace. I unlock the door for all of us, and we step inside. We don’t just sit around waiting for his return, though. We start to come up with scenarios, and determine how we’ll overcome any obstacles. Pinocchio could be bad, or he could be good, or he could be somewhere in between. We have to think of every possibility. Pryce has a particularly haunting contingency, which he calls Ice in the Hole.

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