rogerdr (rogerdr) wrote,

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Persistence: Shabti (pt. I)

Here's an idea that has nagged at me over the last few days while nearing the end of my (now over 600 page!) Sita Roryn writing 'lesson'. I held it in until I just burst. So, here it is in all its half-baked glory. It's a speculative or near-future tale of a guy who wipes the online accounts of dead people for a living and the - ah - residue left behind when he breaks the rules. Also, there's a trope I've added to the WoW-like gaming universe that some might understand from the idea of a farming bot and the uncanny ability of gaming companies to screw themselves while trying to accommodate the bitching or piracy of their players. Please give any and all comments or advice. I'll try to edit when my fingers recover from the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.

PS: post too large, so...this is pt. I. See the rest in my next post. :p

Dennet's job was not a depressing one, although everyone who learned of it seemed to think that it should be. Neither did he consider it creepy, although he had lost two girlfriends because of it. Dennet was an Endwasher, a between-careers software technician who, for grieving families or security-conscious corporations, would erase the online profiles of people who had died. Before the millennium, this was a relatively trivial problem; even the most permanent seeming social websites or personal webpage hosts changed hands or went bankrupt eventually, leading to the abrupt disappearance of countless online accounts whether the user was alive or dead. Since the advent of practically indissoluble large scale social networks, online gaming, and the endless number of sites which claimed to be free while still requiring a personal account to be made, the need had grown for techs with a comprehensive knowledge of such sites and the ability to seek out accounts which the deceased might have wanted to keep secret or had merely not thought to reveal to anyone else. Banks and government agencies wanted to be sure that their employees had left no vulnerable connections with outside groups; executors, widows, and mothers wanted no unknown 'ghosts' lurking forever and leaving unanswered questions for those whom the deceased had known online.

Cheryl Strove's case was one that Dennet found typical, if tragic, of young adolescents who had lived long enough to enjoy a healthy exploration of the online world yet had been too young to realize just how large her online presence had been. Sitting with her patient, though barely technically proficient, mother, Dennet was able to close out over a dozen accounts in less than two hours. These were mostly on the ubiquitous social sites, with a few special access accounts for media sites found easily by looking through Cheryl's operating system and browser password files. In addition Cheryl had kept four online journals, beginning one on a children's social site and moving to new sites as her aesthetics or sophistication changed. For these, Mrs. Strove helped Dennet to write final posts, which she said to leave up for six months on behalf of Cheryl's online friends. Dennet took the usual step in copying the contents of all the journals to a flash card, which Cheryl's parents could keep and read at their leisure.

The only accounts left were two Cheryl had made at gaming sites, one a retro-arcade site and the other a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and many browser-access accounts for unremakable news and celebrity sites. Dennet would wrestle with the commercial news sites during the next few days, as these never wanted to delete information they had been given, even if was only a name and email address. He was able to close the arcade account with no trouble; at least here were no friends to be informed of Cheryl's death. The last, a graphics user interface portal into the vast realm of interconnected games commonly referred to as the Universal Patch Grid, posed problems no more difficult than those of Cheryl's journals. Here, however, was no way to post a general statement which could be left for her sixteen 'patchies' to read. Reluctantly, from the frustration of knowing that he would be forced to personally contact at least one of these persons, but having no idea when one of them might be online, Dennet agreed to leave the account open on the terms which his contract dictated.

Mrs. Strove was a nice person who had taken her daughter's death hard, yet had grown numb to its harshest emotional stresses over the several months wherein Cheryl had suffered from a metastatic bone cancer. Dennet did not want to waste months monitoring sad comment threads on a dead girl's journals or the friend list of a doomed account on a game he had stopped playing more than a year and a half before, but his contract was clear on these points and his clients came mostly from the old, unreliable fount of reputation. Nevertheless, Dennet found no fault with Cheryl's mother and sat with her for over an hour after doing what they could on Cheryl's laptop. She asked a few questions about his work in general and what he would still need to do for the Stroves, but Dennet could see that she just wanted to use the opportunity to tell her daughter's life story to another person. This was common and wholly understandable, so Dennet answered what he could and listened politely.

In truth, Dennet had little interest in the deceased girl. By her photos, anonymously pretty and seemingly content with life, even in the last ones taken at the hospital, Cheryl was but one among several young girls and boys who had died within the four years since Dennet had begun his freelance work as Endwasher. So many more had been obviously greedy and paranoid businessmen or cagey husbands and wives - all leaving behind secrets which, in the end, meant little to anyone beyond themselves. Cheryl's case and, ostensibly her life, was far less complicated than these, and neither promised any surprises nor threatened any undo surveillance from shadowy third parties. Dennet found a mild curiosity with regards to the role-playing game, but he saw no special difficulty there. Mrs. Strove did not seem to understand it, anyway.

"You say it's a helper for her characters? Then won't it go away with the rest of the account?" she asked, trying without much success to sound concerned.

"It's a helper, yes," Dennet explained apologetically, realizing that he need not have mentioned it. "Think of it like...a robot that you might have around the house to do your laundry or clean your bathroom. It's not directly connected with the account, however, so I can't just delete it like I can with the other characters."

Mrs. Strove shook her head in general misunderstanding.

"I don't even understand why she had more than one character...avatar?" she commented, letting out a wan laugh at the unfamiliar term.

Dennet let this go, not wanting to get into the whole culture of MMORPGs. When he continued, he meant it to be a conclusion.

"Well, these are compromises the gaming companies made with players some time ago. Kids used to build up alternate characters who had no other purpose than to do all the dirty or boring work while the player was offline. This was unfair to other players who didn't know how to do this. Now, for a small extra cost, they can buy one of these helpers from the company. The helpers are limited, though. They can't easily be changed or directed from the account itself, for one thing, so that the player won't be tempted to misuse them. A side effect of this is that I'll need to either talk to a Game Master to have it deleted or use one of Cheryl's characters to go look for it. I can then delete it at a certain distance." He wiped his short, dark hair back from his forehead, relieved that Mrs. Strove had not interrupted him to ask more in depth questions. "I'll do the search. The helper is listed as a friend of Cheryl's main character, so I can just message it and ask where it is. Going through the GMs would require a long time and a lot of questions you'd probably rather not have asked between strangers of your daughter."

Not to mention that the GM might very well not believe him about the girl's death, in which case the account would be frozen and many more headaches begun before it could be put to rest. But a contract was a contract.

"I understand, I think," Mrs. Strove responded finally. "We just want these things closed cleanly. We have all the memories of Cheryl that we need; it wouldn't be right to leave little parts of her out there where we can't even see them."

"Of course," Dennet nodded.

Sensing that the conversation was over, he stood to leave. Neither he nor Mrs. Strove said anything as she escorted him to the foyer, but she spoke again when he opened the door.

"What was the word you used for that helper in the game again? It sounded familiar."

"Oh, 'shabti'. It's from ancient Egypt. They were...little figurines the Pharaohs were buried with; servants to do their work in the afterlife."

"Hmm," Mrs. Strove frowned. "Yes, I didn't know that, but now I'm sure that I don't want it left behind. It's morbid."

"I'll see to it and keep in touch until all of the accounts are down," he affirmed.

"Thank you, Dennet. You do a good service." After a few seconds looking down in deep thought, she began to close the door.

Dennet could see her mouthing the word 'shabti' until she was gone. Whether or not he agreed that the service was good, Dennet was glad that the personal part of it was probably over. Another month or so, and the most annoying parts of the rest would be done as well. It was not a depressing job for Dennet, but only because most of it was spent in front of a screen, far away from mourners or grave sites. Even this shabti was closer to the dead than he normally liked to get, but that would be gone as soon as he had eaten lunch and gone home to take a shower.

After his shower and before jumping back into the morass of the Universal Patch Grid, Dennet called his tech friend, K-Baud. This man was not only a fellow veteran of Minuteman High School, but also the closest tie Dennet still had to his younger days as a hacker and cracker. This was a hobby which Dennet had given up after realizing that software GUIs were about as close to computer architecture and security that he could understand. K-Baud, comfortable both in the innards of computers and on the dance floor, was also one of Dennet's few ties to the social world.

"Hey, K, it's me. I think I might be late again tonight," Dennet said to K-Baud's answering service. "Sounds like you've gotten started early, though, so I guess it doesn't matter. Call me if you don't see me in an hour or two - I've got a shabby to track down in UPG, and I don't want to leave it any longer than I have to."

Laying the phone on his 1940s style heavy wooden desk, Dennet opened his laptop, double-clicked the icon marked "Thaumatopia", and immediately winced. The update window had popped up, showing several dozen gigabytes worth of general content patches which he had failed to download since last playing the game. Thaumatopia was only one of many different games played on the Universal Patch Grid, but all were made available through the client. Even with his hundred-odd Mbps network connection, the download and upgrades would take several minutes, if not an hour. Such were the joys of playing a P2P-based distributed online game.

In anticipation of the wait, Dennet went to his kitchen to get a beer. Looking through some music in his "muses" folder, Dennet was despairing of finding anything good when his phone rang with a nostalgic line from an old comedy film.

"Hey, D, aren't you finished yet?" came K-Baud's high, cheerful voice.

"Not a chance. I forgot the whole problem with the UPG," Dennet explained miserably.

"Ah, the 'patches' part." the other man acknowledged, laughing. "That's what you get for turning off the auto-update and taking a header."

"Yes, well, I didn't expect to ever play again."

"Yet, you didn't uninstall it, did you?" K-Baud was not laughing any more, but his mirth was audible in his tone.

Dennet looked at the icon on the desktop, recalling the many times when he had considering clicking on it again - yet had not.

"Never mind. The DL's going faster than I thought it would. I might get down to Freda's by eight or nine, after all."

"Did you say you were hunting a shabby?" K-Baud asked, showing a measure of seriousness. "Why? They don't earn you anything but newbies as enemies."

Because of the limitations placed upon shabtis, they were not only useless to everyone but low-level characters, but also highly vulnerable to attack by bullying users in player-versus-player areas.

"It's from my client's account," Dennet replied with a sigh. "The mother wants everything wiped, and that's what my contracts say."

"So, write up a ticket and say 'Goodnight, Gracie.' Let the GMs worry about it. Or write new contracts."

"You know how hard it was to get their attention even when the support system was uniform. I don't even know if the server the girl's account is on has GMs."

"Well, heh," K-Baud laughed again. "You're screwed, then. I guess I'll see you tomorrow night."

"Funny, K," Dennet retorted. "I'll get out before ten if I have to get you to wipe the whole server array."

"Whoa, buddy, not on public air." K-Baud remonstrated him playfully. "Anyway, go ahead and call if you have other problems but, if you can't kill a school girl's've got more problems than I can help you with."

Dennet wanted to make a witty comeback, but failed, as usual. K-Baud had already hung up.

True to form, seemingly as soon as Dennet stopped watching the progress of the patch downloads, they finished and the program began cycling through the upgrades. Dennet surfed some, checked his email, and looked to see if any good videos had been uploaded on his favorites channels at the currently most popular media sites. Bored with the spam and attention-deficit-bred videos, he also decided again not to put on any music. When the newly revised graphical user interface for Thaumatopia appeared, Dennet felt a pang of melancholy for all the late-night hours spent grinding for experience or running for flight points in his early weeks playing the game. It had seemed so vital then, and so impossibly immense, that he could not have imagined losing interest in it.

But he had lost interest. After raising his main character to its level cap and accompanying raid groups in all of the then relevant instances, Dennet had inevitably found less time to devote to killing the same bosses repeatedly to look for high-tier gear drops or farming materials for weapons and accessories for which he no longer had any desire. By the time he had toggled off his auto-update for the game, and with it his computer's person-to-person and server extension to the distributed computing of the UPG, Dennet had long since broken ties with many of the players in his guild and had deleted many of his friends from both the game and the guild's voice chat channels.

Now, Dennet did not even pull out his still-good over ear headset for the chat channel; he would not be logging onto his own account. He had written all of Cheryl's pertinent usernames and passwords into his casebook, as always looking forward to when he could shred the lot of it, and keyed her information into its waiting text fields. He only barely remembered not to allow his OS to save the information and waited the normal few seconds for the GUI to change into an account portal.

As before, when he had only given the account a cursory look, Cheryl Strove's GUI was refitted with a stereotypically girlish skin. In colors of pink, mauve, and text-jet, it resembled Dennet's own only in the types of information shown. Cheryl's chosen game world, Hollow Destiny, was one of the 'softer' role-playing worlds offered, focusing more on single-person questing and non-instanced dungeons than 'harder' worlds such as Thaumatopia. Dennet had never been within this particular game, but knew than it had begun as an offshoot of one of the first all-female designed worlds in the UPG, Hollow Venture. Even now, Dennet had to force away a lopsided grin for all of the misogynistic jokes he had heard based upon that title. In truth, it had been purported to be a self-deprecating play on words. The joke had eventually been on all of the not-so-nice boys of the Grid, as that one game eventually brought in more than twenty million women and girls and became the most popular among all groups for two full years before later additions to the Grid overshadowed it. Dennet had been told that this was a stable and worthy successor to that game, so he expected nothing less than top quality, if outdated by five or six years.

Although players could by several means transfer characters between any of the games on the UPG, the clothing and some attributes of the characters were strictly kept to the accepted style and fighting parameters of each game. Therefore, Cheryl's six characters in Hollow Destiny were all dressed in the pseudo-European high fantasy style seen in so many films and read about in so many novels. Her main, that is, the character with the highest experience level, was a human enchantress, the default dream-self of countless girls. Among the rest were an eldorn huntress, a dark mordant (this game's version of an evil enchantress), a gnome tinkerer, an ogre recalcitrant, and a half-gilt human janissary. All were female, which had not surprised Dennet overmuch. The gnome was a bit of a puzzle, but Cheryl was probably smart enough to know that they made the best tinkerers, and that tinkerers were valuable for building armor and weapons for janissaries and recalcitrants. None of the characters, the main or alternates, had gotten above level fifty, however, only halfway to the cap at one hundred. This meant to Dennet that, although her account showed to be more than two years old, Cheryl had never focused on the level grind. Something about that fact touched him, but he did not know why.

Surely, as her mother had told him, the girl had spent much of the last six months of her life playing the game. Dennet hoped that she had enjoyed it.

Dennet clicked on the icon of the main, named Arianrhod, to take him into the game and, after the ubiquitous short download screen, was shown the grassy top of a high cliff overlooking a slim waterfall and very well rendered bucolic valley complete with a village of tiled roofs and gently smoking chimneys. By the low levels of the animals wandering below, as well as the one doe and fawn eating from a tree nearby on the ridge, Dennet guessed that he was in one of the world's player nurseries, an area where new characters were 'born' and given their first low-level quests. Cheryl's choice as this for her last log-off made a certain sense; it was not only pretty and relatively peaceful, but the high ridge must be a hard won goal for a first-time player with a character below level ten. It would have special meaning for many players. For this reason, Dennet memorized the view for possible future reference.

He turned away from the valley and saw a small pond and grove; a not-too-subtle invitation for the player to explore further into the mountains beyond. Dennet had no such interest, however. He had but one purpose, and time was wasting. He brought up the friend list and immediately sent a private message stream to Hestia, the shabti, whose name was given a tiny 'S' for emphasis. He sent a simple message, one which he had sent many times to his own shabtis.

"How's the search going?"

A reply came seemingly before the computer could have had time to process the message, much less the intervening networks, servers, and Hestia's program.

"Arry! I've been expecting you to return! You'll be so happy with everything I've gotten for you."

The nickname was mildly surprising, but another quirk easily understood for a fifteen year old girl. Dennet could imagine the chat conversations required to get the shabti to adopt the use; probably frustrating at first. Artificially intelligent non-player characters, even those with the priority of shabtis, learned how to chat smoothly rather slowly when most of their resources were devoted to movement and productive activity. Dennet's next question was easily asked and easily answered, if the answer helped him only in narrowing the search.

"Where are you, Hestia?"

"I'm in the Blue Crested Mountains, near the northwest border of The Mad King's Playground," the shabti replied promptly. "Shall I turn from my task and meet you at Farthren's Alehouse?"

Dennet looked at the dragon head button on his standby bar and smiled to himself. The shabti would not give him any trouble, so why not enjoy his time here?

"No," he replied, "just don't get yourself killed before I get there. I don't want to wait for you to run your spirit back."

Just as he clicked on the dragon button, or macro, and watched a brilliantly iridescent blue-scaled beast erupt from the character's chest, another message came from Hestia. This one more surprising by its gently castigating nature.

"Silly. I'm not flagged or in a bad area, and you could resurrect me anyway."

The last, at least, was true. The main had the power of quickly resurrecting fallen group members or friends within fifty feet. That the shabti would now call her 'friend' silly was another matter. That would have taken more than mere cajoling, like teaching a parrot to talk, but a specific interest on the shabti's part to imitate its owner. Dennet wondered what program priorities Cheryl had given her helper.

Mounting the dragon and checking that the village below was, indeed, the local nursery center, Dennet set the animal soaring high toward the east, where the human capitol of this region lay. As Dennet had suspected, the dragon was magnificent looking but slow; the first flier appropriate for a character of Arianrhod's still middling experience level. Nevertheless, the capitol, named Stevigemuren, was the closest flight point where Dennet could pay for a public, yet faster, flier.

As the fields, village, small river, winding road, and covered bridges passed deceptively slowly below the character, Dennet was reminded of his first rides on fliers in the Thaumatopia game. It had felt like such a triumph. And he, an already experienced gamer of twenty-six. To a fourteen or fifteen year old girl, it must have been breathtaking. The rendering of the dragon was no amateur job, either. He guessed that it must have come at a high price in the game, but its quality spoke well of the game overall. The scale patterns were intricate enough and rippled so fluidly that Dennet found it hard to consider the harsh, steamy and spiky dragons of his chosen game superior. Of course, all of the dragons in Thaumatopia were monstrous bosses, and as such could neither be tamed nor bought.

The spires and banners of the capitol began to appear out of the invisible visual distance barrier as soon as Dennet neared the eastern ridges above the valley. This was a staple of most leveling games: the nurseries fed directly into the main hubs of one of the races. For Hollow Destiny, this was the human hometown. There also should be a game-wide public Auction House, Bank, Guild Hall (although ostensibly public and open to all, the guild halls were instanced, so that only members of a single guild could see or interact with each other while inside), some version of a Hero's Hall for buying high level gear with merit badges, and training facilities for all of the 'good' side's applicable professions and skills. Dennet was only interested in where the flight point was, though, so he hovered over the city and checked his mini-map for the telltale symbol which would pinpoint its position. The symbol he guessed stood for flight was a tiny pair of royal purple butterfly wings limned in gold. His guess was rewarded by a player leaping into the air from a central rooftop below on the back of a huge golden eagle. Within seconds, Dennet had paid his fare, checked the flightmaster's choices against the world map, and followed the first eagle back into the sky.

"Are you coming to join me?" Hestia messaged Dennet as his eagle crossed the first regional border on the way to The Mad King's Playground.

That region was not directly connected to the human-centered ones, so Dennet guessed that it must belong to the dwarrows or ogres, presumably the other 'good' or 'neutral' races prone to having kingdoms. In any case, the flight timer showed that he would be in the air for another six and a half minutes until he would reach Gernachlyn, the central city of The Mad King's Playground. The first region he passed over after leaving Whistling Wood was a steamy jungle, obviously a second-stage region for learning combat. The third, a wide river bounded by cave-filled cliffs and all the signs of mining and dirty industry, might have held low-level dungeons. Certainly, what he saw of the residents of the caves showed them to be ugly and ponderous; stereotypical marks of enemies. The next two regions Dennet crossed were deserts or, at least, the first was. The second had high dunes which seemed to move or flow slowly, so that he had to raise the camera view to the horizon to keep from feeling nauseous. Here, the regions were apparently nearing the range for characters of level thirty or forty and above. That Cheryl had run through these to find the next flight points was a credit to her, even though her main was at level forty-seven.

Not for the first time, Dennet had to remind himself that the girl was dead.

Partially to rid himself of the thought and partially because he noticed that he had already finished his beer, Dennet got up to get another. The character was already sitting at the end flight point when Dennet returned. Arianrhod had crouched in the universal stance which signified that the player was away from from his keyboard, and the telltale 'AFK' shown in gold above her. As was normal, Cheryl's enchantress was not alone in this; players often used public flights as food or bathroom breaks. Made curious by the character's flowing blond hair, which resembled Cheryl's own, Dennet had her move to an unoccupied area of the city's main square, where he could pan the camera view around and get a better look at her. He had expected Cheryl to make the avatar look like herself, but the enchantress looked more like her mother, with high, well-sculpted cheekbones and a visibly cleft chin. It was not a perfect resemblance, which was not available with the character tools available in the UPG, but the intention was unmistakable. Again, Dennet found himself surprised by the girl whom he had never met.

With idle curiosity and thirst both satisfied, Dennet clicked the macro bearing the head of an armored horse. From where the blue dragon had burst now galloped a great, white stallion. Sleek of coat, with shining silvery plated mail on his nose and flanks, the horse was another girl's dream come virtually alive. As it turned to make ready, Dennet looked into its large, unnaturally green eye, and wondered how much of Cheryl's gaming had been for the purpose of gaining those things which she could not have in real life. Dennet had never gamed for the purpose of getting any kind of thing, but for its triumphs in questing and battle. Then again, he scolded himself, he should not try to judge the intentions of someone who could never reveal them.

Dennet had picked the land transport because he had guessed, and found out, that it was actually faster than the dragon. This was a quirk of such games: fliers naturally cost more than runners. As such, paying little heed to the region's fauna, which he saw was merely in the ten-to-fifteen level range, Dennet made as straight as he could for the northwest corner. He appeared to be right about this region's use as a secondary training ground for another race, as most of the players he passed were dwarrows. Of course, that also explained the fact that Gernachlyn had been quite sparsely populated with only low mounds holding guard posts, yet had held four immense gateways at the cardinal points of the compass leading into the ground. It must be the Dwarrow home capitol. And where there are dwarrows, reasoned Dennet, there was ore to be mined and shabtis mining it.

After only a couple of minutes, Dennet reached the edges of the open grassland around Gernachlyn and entered a dark and close forest. Here was the beginnings of the mountain foothills and their patrolling beasts. Wolves of some kind, if the cliche held true. Indeed, he passed the first charcoal gray wolf with shining red eyes after only going a few hundred feet in. None were close enough to have their threat zone disturbed by the enchantress or her stallion, nevertheless Dennet was wary of being caught in an actual fight when he had only planned for a quick deletion of the shabti and log-off afterward. He need not have worried, because the woods opened up again at the foot of the surrounding mountains, allowing players better access to resources and area attractions like mine-dungeons. As if on cue, Hestia messaged him. Dennet checked the mini-map at maximum range and found her 'S' symbol to his north, just above the floor of the valley in the skirts of the mountains.

"I thought you'd never get here!" she wrote.

The words caught Dennet up short, and he paused the horse. This was no kind of shabti greeting he had ever heard. There was no 'Mistress', 'my lady', or even the use of the character's name, let alone the nickname. This shabti was speaking to the enchantress, one of her owners, as an intimate friend; even closer than an equal. Dennet thought that this might be possible after years of near constant trial and reinforcement, but Cheryl had not had that time. Had she hacked the shabti in order to change its behavior? Knowing all that he did about Cheryl and what her mother had said about her, Dennet highly doubted this. Surely, the girl would have done at least as much for her characters, especially her main. Yet he had seen no hint of it. Resuming his ride, but at a trot, Dennet wrote a quick message.

"You'd just better hope that I'm satisfied with what you've gotten for me."

As an AI might, Dennet took cues from her manner of speaking to hopefully make himself sound more like Cheryl.

"Oh, you'll be satisfied, but I'm afraid that I might need you to resurrect me, after all."

Dennet frowned. He did not think that the latter was a joke, so he sent the horse ahead again. Unlike earlier games, animals in the UPG could become tired or even collapse if overused, and the stallion was already breathing more heavily than he should be. Dennet checked his health meter, which did show a majority decrease. Soon, an exhaustion warning would appear over the horse's head. Still, at the slower pace, Dennet came to Hestia's location in a narrow canyon within a few seconds. The shabti was being mauled by a pair of bears.

"Eek!" Dennet heard in a girl's voice above the sounds of growls and crashing through thorny bushes.

He had forgotten that the UPG had planned to give full voice to the NPCs. It must have been among the patches which had been installed earlier. Not waiting for what other, possibly uglier sounds might be torn from the shabti, Dennet dismounted the enchantress and began hitting the bears with bursts of fire. Neither were above level fifteen, but either could kill the helpless shabti. Such was one of the bargains for allowing the use of helpers. After only four such bursts, both bears were dead. Such was the advantage of higher levels.

"Whew!" Hestia exclaimed, getting up smoothly, if slowly. "I am ever so glad to see you again, Arry."

Dennet froze. The shabti was the mirror image of Cheryl Strove. At that moment, he knew that he could not delete her. His mere considering it a "her" confirmed it.

"What's wrong, Arry?" she asked, for whatever unbelievable reason showing concern. "Don't go to sleep on me, now. We haven't talked in days."

Dennet's throat was dry, but he found that his beer was again empty. With the mundane fact bringing him back to himself, Dennet laughed nervously, well aware that no one alive could hear him. Admonishing himself to stop being superstitious, he put his fingers back on the keyboard.

"I'm just a little tired from the trip," he wrote, struggling to think of the stock phrases which had been so second nature to him before he had quit playing. "So, what do you have for me?"

In answer, a shabti tally sheet opened on his GUI, showing a three-quarters full miner's sack of copper and silver, useful to the gnome tinkerer, and four more bags full of what was lovingly referred to in the gaming world as 'vendor trash', since it was only good for selling to food or general goods vendors for small coin. Hestia had definitely gathered her fill of it, however. If she had persisted, she soon would have gone dormant until her account owner came back online. If Dennet had not been called, the shabti could have been mauled and allowed to run back to her body to be mauled again continuously for days or weeks until some player happened by mining or farming bears and thought to open a letter to a GM. If there were no GMs on this world any more...she could be left in these canyons effectively forever.

Shaking his head, Dennet wanted to kick himself. It was not as if the shabti felt the pain of being mauled by bears, nor even understood the concept of being left alone by the real human user of her gameplay 'friends'. The phenomenon of shabtis being left to 'camp themselves', as it was called, had been an open joke since before Dennet had first joined the UPG. If anything, dispatching such abandoned shabtis was one of the main jobs of the GMs. If the player then came back, she could recall the shabti by a simple procedure available at any inn within the Grid. Thus, Dennet tried to tell himself not to be silly, as Hestia might say, but the alternative here was only a permanent deletion. Unless...

Dennet hurriedly emptied the shabti's bags into Arianrhod's, then discarded the lot so that Hestia would not know that he had no real use for any of it. Thinking quickly, he decided that he could mull over the idea for a few days, perhaps asking K-Baud's advice. For the time being, however, Dennet still had a thorny situation.

"Hestia, thank you so much," he began, causing the unnervingly human shabti to hop and squeak in an animation which he had never seen before in any game. "I need to tell you something more important than doing more favors for me."

"Is this about you being sick?" came the next line in the chat window, accompanied by an eerily plaintive voice.

So, Dennet realized, Cheryl had confided in the shabti. But just how much had she said, and how much of it could Hestia's AI understand?

"Do you remember me telling you that I might not come back?" he bluffed, wording it as carefully as he could.

"Yes," Hestia replied, looking down. "You said that many times. You also said that you were in pain. So many of my friends have been in pain since Midsummerfest."

She did not understand that all of Cheryl's alts belonged to the same person. And why should she? She had been hearing the same pain and sadness from many different directions, and probably could never know that only one person had died. However Dennet tried to convince himself that her words were just those of a highly sophisticated chatbot and that her actions were just elaborate animations picked to approximate appropriate attitudes to fit with the words, it did his heart no good.

"I'm not in pain any more, Hestia, and neither are your other friends," he told her, although it did give him pain to do so. "I'm fine now, and very grateful for all you've done done for me. For us."

"Really?" she looked up, instantly brightening, if that was possible. "Then can you show me the Great Falls of Dannermire, like you promised?"

"I'm sorry, Hestia. I feel better now, but I'm still going away soon, and I won't be coming back. I'm afraid that several of your other friends will be leaving also." Despite his mind's railing against the absurdities of this conversation, he continued. "But I think you'll be okay without us."

To his shock, the shabti grinned wide.

"Will you at least send me messages from wherever you're going?" she asked, breaking his heart. "I always love to hear about the wild and dangerous places you go to."

With slightly shaking fingers, Dennet forced himself to keep writing.

"I don't know. I'll try. Maybe you'll make new friends."

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