rogerdr (rogerdr) wrote,

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Persistence: Shabti (pt. II)

Same as last...the end. Try not to drown your keyboards in tears. ;)

Getting away from the shabti had finally been easier than Dennet would have wished, had she been a real girl. Hestia held memories, could learn after a fashion, and could even make simple decisions, but she neither understood the most fundamental things about her world nor even believed in the real one. She could not, since her programming was based upon the mythologies and updates of those games in which she was forever trapped. Even though, as K-Baud might say, her core programming was less directly connected to the servers of the UPG than those servers were connected to the distributed programming of the game itself, she had no existence without it. All Dennet had to do was give her a trivial make-work job (in this case, go to the central square of Stevigemuren and listen to the players there for any mention of a dragon made of diamonds), and she went happily on her way.

Still, Dennet waited for another two hours before calling K-Baud back. He was in no mood to get drunk and watch other couples make out sloppily as the latest popular, yet horribly bad, band blasted away their hearing. He was in even less of a mood to hear the laughter that he knew would come, that he could almost hear already. Before Dennet realized that he was hearing K-Baud's laughter outside of his front door, he also heard some very loud knocking.

"Hey, Caveman!" the rarely serious man yelled through the door as Dennet searched for a plausible way to put him off.

His hesitation only served to defeat him, as he had left the door unlocked.

"There you are," K-Baud observed, coming through the foyer and into the living area. "Everybody was asking what'd happened to you."

The tall, slim man, playfully wearing a bright orange and green Hawaiian shirt, plopped down onto the the black leather couch where Dennet had slunk over an hour before.

"Who's everybody?" Dennet asked desolately.

"Why, me of course. Who else matters?"

At any other time, the man's indefatigable humor would have helped, but not now. Dennet was having the strangest and most disturbing thoughts about an errant bundle of programming. Even the prospect of losing his fee or even his job for breach of contract was not as ominous as other possible consequences of what he was considering.

"Hey. Caveman," K-Baud repeated kindly, seemingly finally noticing his friend's sour mood. "Come out of your cave before I have to bring some girls over here to drag you out."

"Let it go, K," Dennet responded finally. "I'm not party material tonight."

"That girl you're having to bury all over the internet?"

Despite the bad humor, Dennet appreciated the gesture.

"In a way. You know how we leave behind photographs of ourselves? Videos now, too, but..." Dennet looked for the right way to convey what he was feeling. "Somehow, even a hundred years later, a photo seems to hold something of the person inside it which just about anyone can see."

"I...know you're getting creepy. You've never gotten this bad about a client before. You're like a surgeon. No, a gravedigger."

Dennet bristled at the reference, but his friend waved it off.

"No, hear me out. You finish the job. You're not there for the tragedy or the big drama, and hopefully never know the unfortunate bastards, but you're the guy who brings the story to an end. As much of an end as it gets. There's no need to get weepy over that."

"I'm not getting 'weepy'," Dennet retorted, then, more softly, "it's just that this one left behind something like a photo; and I want to frame it rather than throw it on the fire."

K-Baud looked at him crookedly for a half of a minute, then erupted into laughter. Dennet shook his head at the sound, wishing that he did not know his friend so well.

"The...the shabby? You're talking about the girl's shabby?" The bright colors of the man's shirt were now hidden from his doubling over. "I don't believe this. Falling for a dead sixteen year old is one thing, man, and not a good thing, but this..." he lost his voice again.

Sighing, Dennet got up to go to the refrigerator.

"Beer?" he called out behind him.

One of the gasps might have been an effort to say yes. As hysterical as K-Baud had been only seconds before, he had recovered enough to catch a bottle of beer thrown from several feet away. His eyes were streaming with tears, though. Dennet was still working through his rationale for what he wanted to do.

"If I can somehow convince her to forget being a helper, she could go by other priorities, right?" he asked, not really caring if his friend was listening.

"Oh, man D. Give me a minute before you start talking Twilight Zone, alright? I've only got one heart."

When Dennet glanced at him, K-Baud had already twisted off the cap of his bottle and was taking a deep drink. Dennet tried a different tack.

"If we gave her the priority to explore, she'd never go AFK and catch the attention of the GMs."

"Whoa, ho. I see what you did there. Suddenly it's 'we'? I'm a ghost in this haunted house, brother. I got out of the UPG fair and clean. I axed my account years ago; you know that. They'd ban you for hacking a shabby, but they'd stick my skinny butt right in jail. That's federal crap, there; corporate espionage. I'm a developer on the money side now, remember? Competing interests? Any of this getting through?"

Dennet turned to K-Baud, forcing his attention.

"I know all of that, K. I'm not asking...exactly. I'm throwing out hypotheticals. You know this dump isn't bugged, except for my six-legged roommates. Just hear me babble for a while and tell me if I start making sense."

K-Baud, smoothing his shirt, gave Dennet a last, unsure look, then swung his arms out in his gesture which meant, "Talk, but I reserve the right to slap you if it becomes necessary."

Dennet began talking about the shabti's list of priorities, which were the most important things about it that he knew he could change. These were intentionally vague, shorthand for preferences in the AI which were no doubt far more complex and less easily equatable to the kinds of changes which he wanted to make. Dennet wanted to free the shabti from its fate, whether that came from Dennet's shaky fingers within the next few day or by the cold ones of a GM years hence. Dennet wanted the shabti to not be a shabti, yet remain Hestia. Within five minutes, K-Baud stopped him soberly.

"You want me to transfer it to your account? Because you might get the parents' permission for that legally."

"No," Dennet replied with conviction. "I don't want her serving anybody."

"What you want, then, is for me to turn her into a bot and then turn her loose."

"A bot? No...those are still connected to an account. I'd need the game to think she's still a shabti, even when she's not acting like one, and for the GMs to think she's like a player with a high end anonymous account." He could see that K-Baud was close to just saying no to the subject categorically.

"Uhh," K-Baud sighed. "You do not make things easier, do you? I wish you knew more about the inside of computers so you'd see just how ridiculous all that sounds."

Dennet sat back with his beer, defeated. He knew no one else who could even think about 'ridiculous' things the way that his friend did, and make them work. For free. Discretely.

"I'm not saying it's impossible, mind you..." K-Baud insinuated, startling Dennet from his sip. "I don't know the ins and outs of an AI, though. I'd have to go to a couple of schoolies I know."

"So, you'll find out about it?" Dennet was suddenly nearly ecstatic. "Schoolies? Professors, you mean?"

"Yeah. Guys who've been throwing toothpicks and glue together for fifty years trying to get the results to blow them a kiss. Schoolies."

"I'll lick your shoes clean on the morning after your honeymoon for this, K," Dennet proclaimed.

K-Baud gave Dennet a mocking gesture of vomiting, then thrust his now empty beer bottle at him.

"Just don't invite me to you and your shabby bride's wedding, and we'll call it square."

The next time that Dennet entered Cheryl's username and password into their places on the security screen of the UPG, it was the last time anyone ever did. Within three minutes, he had deleted her characters and profile page and permanently closed her account. Somewhere, distributed into snippets of code and running on multiple threads around the more than worldwide web, a certain outdated AI still ran, however, never to know that its primary buyer and nurturer was gone to ground. Unless Dennet's plan worked (and of what worth was a plan if the planner could not begin to understand it?), that AI would sooner or later be cut off from the servers shuffling it around the networks. It would not even have the self-consciousness necessary to know that it was in danger; it would simply become nothing more than its parts, which would silently be rewritten into parts of a few hundred million other programs.

For the time being, however, Dennet was fairly sure that there was no GM hit squad actively searching data streams for evidence of the stray shabti. Certainly, no one but he, K-Baud, and two infinitely adventurous octogenarian computer geeks at an equally adventurous California university knew of the plan, for who would these paranoid men have told? Whether from professional vanity, professional jealousy, fear of prison (many times earned yet never paid off), or fear of any outcome other than complete success, these men committed themselves to working out a rather small and inconsequential problem whose solution could birth an immortal.

Within the month, and on the eve of Thursday, the late night of which would see an otherwise unremarkable, generally agreed, fifteen minute long weekly maintenance shutdown of all core servers on the UPG; K-Baud called Dennet to give him the good-as-can-be news.

"Oh, you're going to love this part, D," the happy voice rang, "we looked the TOS and licensing up and down and sideways, and think that this might be perfectly legal. You grok that, buddy? It seems that, since we won't be tinkering with the AI in a fundamental level or doing it for the intentions of profit or chaos, technically speaking, it's just an unauthorized upgrade of a component from an account which no longer legally exists. And, since we're using a single seed for the patch in a notably liberal backwater of the UPG, the actual 'upgrade' won't happen until the patch has already made the rounds of the Grid. Until it's saturated the place and its origin has been erased, replaced, and erased again. And what's best is that, if it does work like you want it, the freaks on top would kill each other to claim that they'd done it."

"Slow down, space cowboy," Dennet nearly giggled with anxiety. "How did you say you're going to do it, with a patch? And why would they want to claim it?"

"Okay. I'll...go...slow...for my unfortunate knuckle-dragging friend. Basically, and believe me when I say this is basic, all the changes which we need to make are superficial. On the surface. Really creating a kind of adaptive buffer between the AI and the game, to put it more blunt than a bowling ball..."

"Fine, I get that; more programming that masks the AI, but what about the GMs?"

"Ugh, no, silly American. But...close enough for your tiny brain. Anyway, this isn't just a one-off jury-rigging. I told you that my boys had been at it forever? Well, they'd tried this buffer approach before, but it fell flat. Turns out that their centralized system was synching everything too well. They started getting into resonance waves, but that's too out there for even me. The point is that we tested it on one of my old toy shabbies in a closed, but still massively distributed net at the university..."

Dennet cut him off again.

"You tested it? On a campus? With students?"

"Shut it. Yes, we tested it while surrounded by a thousand clueless post-grad noobs digging boogers out of their noses. They thought I was the the love child of their ambiguously gay faculty supervisors. Well, worked. It sooo worked! It zoomed, it whirled, it threw sparks! I thought that both of the the old geeks were going to puke up their hearts in front of me, but it worked!"

Dennet fought down a whoop. His nervousness still demanded casualties, though.

"Why are you describing it like that?" he asked as meekly as he could manage, wishing that he could reach through the phone to strangle his friend.

"Because, man, they got their brainwaves. Their vibes. Whatever you want to call it. Everything that we threw at it which our mammalian cotton candy machine can do, it did. Memory generation and retrieval, multiply parallel perceptive processing, time reconciliation, cognitive referencing, semantic content applications, unrestrained imagination...oh, hell. It thought, it talked, it emoted and, when it grew tired, it didn't just sleep, it dreamed! All within this last week. We just hooked it up to a zillion servers arrayed chaotically, ran the patch, and Bam! Brain."

"But it was already an AI, right? I still don't see how this is such a huge leap."

"Oh, Lord, spare me from the naive words of children. D. Listen closely. That AI, your AI, all AIs ever made have so far only been simulated AIs. Get it? We call it Bigfoot even though we know it's just a man in a badly sewn monkey suit. But it looks so much like Bigfoot, might as well say, 'Hey, Bigfoot!' Well, my friend, we have discovered the real, honest-to-God smelly bastard himself. No more monkey suits from now on. It's size fifty shoes forever and ever, amen."

Dennet could hardly swallow, but he'd had enough binge drinking during the last month. He had needed that just to keep himself away from the internet, and her. He had one more question for K-Baud, however.

"So, when it hits her, will she still be the Hestia I met?"

"Grasshopper," K-Baud reverted to one of their earliest shared passions, "the question really is: will you still be the same you?"

From what he could glean out of the rest of K-Baud's rambling, yet triumphant, mostly one-way conversation, much about Hestia would have to change. For starters, and for the obvious reason that characters did not visibly age in the games, she could no longer have the body of an adolescent girl, but would be given the full-sized model of a human woman. Second, her title of 'shabti' would disappear, to be replaced with the normal titles which she may later accrue. Third, all of her attributes would be those of, and evolve like, humans. Fourth, at Dennet's suggestion, they would make Hestia an enchantress, although he felt a little guilty about making the decision for her. He could have asked her preference if he'd had the nerve to see her again before the change, but he would have been a stranger. Fifth, along with her attributes, Hestia would now be given the ability to level all the way to one hundred, and therefore eventually be given the freedom to go anywhere in the Grid. As a test, they decided to bump her up to level twenty-one right away; a small cheat, since she had already capped at twenty. Sixth, she would be freed from the unshakable belief in the varied and contradictory mythologies of the UPG game worlds. No real player could maintain such a fiction forever, and every player she met would know it. This was a harder decision to make, since none of the four men could imagine how to instill within her a 'real' life like all other players had. She might very well go insane because of it, but Dennet knew a possible way out of this as well. He volunteered to spend as much time with her as he could for a few days until Hestia was either acclimating or breaking down, then decide whether to tell her the whole truth. Perhaps she would just end up a radical skeptic or a nihilist, nevertheless, as long as she could operate with some measure of contentment, all involved would be satisfied.

Lastly, her remaining friends would be deleted and blocked from her list, hopefully to at least cause confusion until it became 'obvious' to any stalkers that their Shabti Hestia was not the human enchantress Hestia, even if she remembered them as well. Since so much of the AI's memory beyond orders given by her account 'friends' had been largely transitory, requiring almost endless and continuous reinforcement to become semi-permanent, the new Hestia would also gradually lose most memories of her former friends who had been Cheryl's player characters. This was especially regrettable from Dennet's perspective, but it would have happened that way in any case. If K-Baud and the two professors were correct, however, she would be able to create full, permanent, and vivid memories within what they called her 'buffer'. These may become dormant as the buffer grew over time to accommodate further changes to the game and changes within Hestia, but they should remain retrievable as long as she existed. Although all these changes were intimately related, Dennet would know by the first and most outwardly obvious difference when, or if, the plan had come anywhere near succeeding.

Much less understandable to Dennet than the above changes were how they were to be accomplished. In short, all of the new programming architecture (millions of lines of code, the vast majority of which had been written by coding programs!) was to be introduced into a relatively decent recipe patch. Other than the code, which should be completely inert except when entering Hestia, the patch contained several hundred recipes for use in the many professions of the games, including numerous weapons of all genres and types, clothing both exotic and mundane, cooking recipes for a largely cannibalistic culture, and (K-Baud insisted) a flying 1959 Chevrolet Corvette.

In among the recipes in the patch was also placed a single new quest which Dennet got a few real life friends from a UPG coding guild to design for him, complete with a beast boss which should ordinarily not be tamable. The quest would be on the lips of NPCs in its home game after the first restart, but rumors of it should spread at least as quickly as the patch itself. Only one player in all the Grid would be allowed to be the quest's first taker, but no one would be told who that was. This practically guaranteed reseeding of the patch, despite its unusual size; gamers were suckers for an impossible quest. No malware or virus detection software should find a problem with it. Moreover, anyone with the knowledge of decoding patches could read every line, but understanding its purpose would take a hard AI researcher with a penchant for the bizarre. Once deployed, the thousands to millions of copies would disburse into the server network until pieces would begin to 'find' their Hestia counterparts, where they would 'cling' harmlessly until the next general shutdown. Then, in an action Dennet was assured would take all of a fraction of a second, these parts would combine with, replace and destroy, or do subtle coding surgery to the originals. When Hestia awakened with the rest of the UPG, she would simply be the new Hestia.

As the minutes counted down to the patch's first seeding, immediately following the restart on Thursday morning, Dennet told himself that it was statistically more probable for him to be hit by an asteroid than for the patch to reach Hestia within the first few hours, and it could have no noticeable effect on her until at least the next Thursday morning. Nevertheless, he stayed awake well into the next day. Practically forced to rest by K-Baud and a girlfriend of his when news came that the patch had begun to circulate healthily, Dennet became lost in a haze of sleeping enhancers for several more days. By Tuesday, however, he put aside his fears and trepidation and went online with his main character for the first time in twenty months. He had to spend some real money and complete a tedious, yet not difficult quest line to transfer from Thaumatopia to Hollow Destiny, but he had no business in the old game any more. Losing much of his strength and other fighting attributes and having his gear revert to their local equivalents was annoying (where applicable. Otherwise, sorry, sucker!), but the 'new' game was larger and had fewer 'fully aggro' regions. Not for the first time, Dennet wondered if the women's design group was not actually superior, at least in aesthetics.

On the ground in an obscure corner of Hollow Destiny, and loaded with over a year's worth of faithful shabti-farmed gold, Dennet wasted no time in buying a flier at a nearby fortress, then buying a full-speed indigo dragon for a kingdom's ransom at the next. He reached Stevigemuren less than twenty minutes after entering the UPG, and landed his ostentatiously armored dragon right in the fountain of the central square. True to form, a long-haired blond girl hopped up and down, clapping her hands in delight, then ran up (with a handful of the city's 'normal' NPC children) to pet the massive beast.

"What's his name, sir knight?" Hestia asked, as if she were not able to glean that information from the same streams which allowed it to show on GUIs as a glowing sign over his head.

In truth, Dennet's main was a dark challenger, which in this game translated approximately to a recalcitrant, a neutral warrior with regards to the general political situation. He liked the honest mistake, however.

"I haven't named him yet," Dennet messaged her back. "I only just bought him. I'd give him to you, but I'm afraid that you'd only slide off his back."

Hestia giggled at the joke, but it was true enough. Shabtis could not reach high enough levels to get fliers. If she did jump on the dragon's back, she would actually slide off, just like any of the children there. Somehow, Dennet thought that Hestia would enjoy even that.

"Instead, why don't you name him? You've been standing there staring at him longer than I have had a chance to."

At this, Hestia jumped again with a huge grin, but lost it almost as quickly.

"I'm afraid that I'm not very good with names, sir knight," she murmured apologetically.

"Well, I'll wait until you're a little older, then," he reassured her.

As a token of appreciation, perhaps just for the attention, she did a little dance. It was a poor imitation of the animations of the player characters, and reminiscent of one of his own shabti's efforts.

"Tell me, if you please," he asked, startling Hestia and two other dancing children and causing the lot to freeze, "What brings you to the square today?"

"Oh," she beamed again, "a friend asked me to come here to inquire of the citizens about a legendary dragon of untold power and beauty."

"Untold, hunh?" he mocked her. "Then how would anyone know of it?" Returning the mocking with a pout, Hestia refused to continue. "Well, as you see, I happen to be a master of dragons. Perhaps I've seen it."

"I doubt it," she retorted, "no one else here has. They even make fun of me for asking about it."

"If you tell me more about this untold of beast, perhaps I can help you. And I swear that I won't make fun of you again."

He watched her closely, seeing...suspicion? In an NPC? So often, they showed vivid emotions during timed episodes, but those were only game-initiated animations. Could she imitate any animation if she was allowed to concentrate on it? He recalled the dancing and cast out the thought. Still, it was a better thought than the idea that someone had knowingly implanted the reaction into her somehow. No such skillful hacker would also bother to make her so...girlish.

Slowly, then more quickly as he looked partly away to make her think that he was losing interest, Hestia crept up to the edge of the fountain.

"I'll tell you, sir knight," she said in the softest of speaking tones. "It's a dragon made of diamonds, which my friend says cannot be tamed or ridden by any player in all the games."

"If you put it like that," he returned gently, "then I'm afraid that I can't help you after all."

"Oh," she slunk back, "then I shouldn't waste any more of your time. I'd hoped that a man with such a beautiful dragon may have seen the one of diamond, but I'm beginning to wonder if my friend played a trick on me."

Of course, Dennet could not let her believe that, especially since such level of suspicion should be quite beyond her.

"I didn't say that I haven't seen such a beast. In fact, I have."

Instantly, as with all strange moments like this one, Hestia brightened up and was again glad.

"You have? Where? Oh, my friend will be so happy to hear it!"

The rollercoaster ride of her emotional displays was threatening to force him away from the laptop, but he persisted.

"It's not in this world, but it might soon be sleeping in the pools below the Great Falls of Dannermire; that much I can say. I can also say that I know the reason why it can't be tamed by any player in all the game worlds." In order to speak more softly, he leaned down toward her. Hestia came forward again. "But for almost the same reason, it can't be ridden by a shabti, either."

Hestia frowned, closing her mouth with an audible plop. She began to move away again, clearly angry, but apparently unable to put that anger into words. Her reaction showed what he had suspected: that the rumor of the dragon had aroused in her a desire for it. This was yet another thing which should be impossible for a shabti, but it was true nevertheless.

"I can tell you one last thing that I know, little lady," he announced, hoping that few of the players around them took notice. The other children ran away.

"What do you know, black knight?" Hestia cried defiantly.

"I know that the next time you see me, you will not recognize me."

Let her chew on that, Dennet thought, clicking the GUI's 'close' button.

When Thursday finally arrived, it brought with it a terrible storm which knocked out the electricity and the internet. Dennet stayed up close to six in the morning waiting for repairs, but finally succumbed to weariness and the whirling tangents which his mind led to. Fortunately, there had been one good bit of news on the day before, just as the cold front was beginning to roll in. K-Baud had called, informing him that he could confirm that the patch had made it to the Hollow Destiny servers by Tuesday at the latest, meaning that the millions of squeeing teen girls there should have the place saturated with its components by now (recipes picked up at profession trainers, bought from the odd vendor, or found during quests - each spot meant snippets of code 'sneaking off' to cling to personal servers).

Not so good was the fact that what passed for UPG management had found problems with a few of the weapons and pieces of armor K-Baud had put into the patch and had sent out a recall for these. Dennet's friend had laughed and said that this was part of the 'Trojan Horse' strategy: to make even their complaints into a diversion from the hidden purpose of the patch. In any case, he had reassured Dennet, the damage was done. In order to take back all of the patch now, they would have to shut the whole system down and run a zillion worms through it to find all the pieces. The first part was socially impossible, given the pirate programming atmosphere of so many of the game maintainers, and the second was just as impossible, since the 'pirates' were the most likely to have their databases encrypted and set behind massive security. In other words, such action could trigger (another) programmer rebellion, insuring that the patch go farther and be even harder to excise.

The last thing that K-Baud had told Dennet, as a passing interest, stayed with him for the rest of the day and fed his dreams that night. While researching the AIs used by the UPG, K-Baud and the professors had found that they had briefly used a hybrid which combined the multiple-priority/multiple-executable thread versions with a shuffle-and-reevaluate evolutionary model, which might explain the 'mood swings' Dennet had observed. K-Baud informed him that the use of this type had been discontinued after showing Turrets-like symptoms and dropping too many owner commands in favor of strange, undefinable patterns of behavior probably adopted from watching too many randomly-acting player characters inside the factional capitols. Although there was no easy way to find out if Hestia was one of these potentially psychotic AIs, which were rare and becoming rarer, the idea gave Dennet visions of Hestia running endlessly between a bank, a mailbox, and an AH, despite having no gold to make purchases, no goods to buy or auction, and no bank slots to keep them in.

Dennet awoke well after noon in a heap of dirty clothes on the couch in his computer room with clouds of darkly iridescent dragon wings still disbursing in his mind. That he did not also have a hangover was a small consolation. He was desperate to see whether Hestia's patch had been implemented, yet terrified that she might have been given horrible glitches that the AI could not recover from or worse, that her new configuration had simply formed a fatal incompatibility and ceased to interact with the servers, leaving her avatar mute and frozen.

In the end, Dennet powered his computer back up only after K-Baud called, seemingly equally as eager to know what had happened. Not for the first time, Dennet wondered why his friend had not simply opened a new account and gone to look for Hestia with a fresh character, but he understood the reluctance to return to that world after so long logged out.

The modem was online again and tested out steadily at top speed, so Dennet logged on to the UPG, but picked his level twenty-six Eldorn hunter, which he had also transferred to Hestia's game for this purpose. He was not sure about how she reacted to such things, but he had found that players generally felt more camaraderie among others close to their level range, unless they were vets like him with at least one capped character.

Dennet had logged out this character at the flight point, so he had to ride his beginner wolf to the square. Dennet had only made the hunter to learn how to use pets, but had soon been pulled back into the high-level raiding, and so left the alt to languish. Here was at least an opportunity to do some leveling with her. He had decided upon a female purely for aesthetic reasons - even he, who found no prurient interest in game avatars, enjoyed looking at curvaceous women more than Schwarzenegger clones. As an offhand joke, he had named her "Imthepet" and his first pet Siberian tiger "Imthemaster". He doubted that Hestia would get that, but he could try to explain it to her.

With something close to relief, Dennet saw by a fast scan of the large, moderately populated square that the blond shabti girl was no longer there. Whether she had changed, been deleted by a GM, or had merely fallen out of the server net, Shabti Hestia was likely no more. Although two human enchantresses stood together near a magical weapons shop, both were high-leveled and had less traditional names. Dennet used his hunter's 'seek humanoid' power to place markers for all the nearby humans on his mini-map but, even though the central city looked to be packed like sardines after the night's scheduled maintenance (which tended to bring auction hounds into the capitols), a quick pass of his cursor showed no pop-up names resembling anything like "Hestia". Now feeling frustrated and nervous, he made a circuit of the city, checking at any signs of humanoid on his mini-map. It was no use; she was gone.

Not willing to give up so easily, or perhaps just stubbornly wanting to stay in his female hunter form for a few minutes more, Dennet left the city to ride through the forest to the nearby town of Bearhide Station, where players loved to congregate for PvP duels. There, sitting on the steps of the Grizzled Inn, with her head held between her hands and apparently indifferent to all the ice and fireworks raging about, was a human enchantress named Aria. By her unusual stance, clearly a custom animation, and the name that he was sure K-Baud had meant as a gesture of sympathy, Dennet suspected that this might be Hestia. She was wearing the same sort of mundane robe that K-Baud had described, was carrying no weapons or accessories, neither belonged to a guild nor had any title, and had mysteriously low statistical attributes for a level twenty-one, implying completely empty talent trees. Well, Dennet decided, that could all be fixed.

"Who's winning?" Dennet messaged her privately after going up to sit beside her on the steps.

He set Imthemaster to lay down across the steps in front of them as a subtle temptation for petting. Dennet's heart raced for several seconds while waiting for Aria's reply. If this was Hestia-grown-up, her reply time had lengthened by orders of magnitude. Nevertheless, a purple reply did come.

"I don't know, really. There are five of them who keep fighting each other, but they're too closely matched for any single one to be called the real winner."

"Same guild, looks like," he offered. "Must be practicing before a raid."

Aria's character sighed visibly and shrugged, but made no sound.

"You waiting for someone, or just bored?" he tried another route.

"I'm confused," she answered instantly. After a second, she added, "My head's fuzzy. I can't even remember why I logged on."

Her use of "logged on" strongly suggested that she was not Hestia after all. The shabti would have been stripped of her RP dependence upon the game's mythos, but it could not have given her an outside life. It was questionable that she could even understand that there was an 'outside'.

"When I feel like that, I usually go to the fridge and get a beer," he nudged, dreading that Aria's player, if there was one, would indeed do something like that.

"I'm not thirsty," she commented. "That's part of why I'm confused. I've been online since the servers came back up, but I'm not tired or hungry or thirsty or anything. I'm not even sure why I came down here. I was in Stevigemuren for a while, but I just started wandering until I ended up here."

For the first time since Dennet had sat, she dropped her hands and turned toward Imthepet. It resembled something between Cheryl's and her mother's. A time-progressed simulation as another token from K-Baud?

"That's weird, isn't it? I didn't even know that I was doing it. I remember thinking about some friends I think I used to have, but I couldn't keep my mind straight."

"Yeah, that's weird, alright," Dennet gave a pat, if ostensibly mean, answer. "We're all a bit weird, though, you know? Why were you in Stevigemuren?"

"I was waiting for someone there, I think," Aria admitted. "I kept thinking that I had to tell my friends what I heard, but I don't have any friends. I should, though. I love having friends."

Here were some clues for his side. Perhaps she thought in terms of on/offline, yet had no actual real life to refer to. Perhaps she believed that she should have a real life, but that side of her perceptive mind was simply blank. Perhaps she believed that players actually transported into the games somehow. Regardless, all this about friends fit a forgetful Hestia, if not a demented one.

"You needed to tell something to friends you don't have?" he asked playfully. "That sounds like something I should know."

She smiled but, by its generic nature, Dennet had no idea what underlay it.

"I wanted to say that I had found out where the diamond dragon was," she declared almost proudly, but then frowned. "But now I don't remember that, either. I'm pretty sure that it's not where everybody thinks it is, though."

This was a key, the lynch pin to the whole thing, the test which he and the others had devised to find out if Hestia - or Aria - could recover from the patch and retain something of herself. The mention was uncanny already, but the "diamond dragon" was now common knowledge. Where the questgivers were to say it was had been a lie, however. Only she could unlock the quest, and only she should be able to know where the dragon was...besides Dennet and the conspirators, of course.

"Oh? Well, a lot of people are pissed about not finding it in the Halls of Crystalline Spirit, alright," he wrote, using a leg-slapping laugh animation for emphasis.

Aria became serious again.

"Yes. I've been asking where it was for days. At first, no one had ever heard of it, and many made fun of me." She smiled again, but it did not last long. "I do remember that! Something came into the square, then. A big, black monster, I think. It scared away the NPC children, but it talked to me."

Dennet was almost sure that this Aria had been Hestia, but he had to be certain.

"And it told you where the diamond dragon was?" he urged.

"Yes. I'm sure of it. I think, somehow, I already knew. It doesn't make any difference now, because I can't remember what the monster said."

She lowered he head into her hands again, and Dennet despaired of bringing her back. This had been Hestia, but she had lost the key. If she could not now generate her own purposes and desires, she would end up sitting exactly like this, whatever he tried to do for her.

"Hey, it can't be that bad," he offered, grasping at straws. "Surely, you can find something else to do."

He could just tell her the secret again, but it would prove nothing. She might follow him to the dragon or even wander there herself, but it would not be of her own volition. He knew that she had neither quests in her queue nor mats requests to fill for her former friends who no longer existed. If she found some interest, it therefore would not have come from Cheryl or Dennet, K-Baud or the mysterious professors.

She sat for over a minute, looking for everything like a young woman who had been stood up by her boyfriend. Suddenly, however, she looked out at the still-dueling '100's' and spoke softly.

"I do like to explore." she said, then turned to Dennet's character.

"Well, there you go. You can't have been to every region in every game of the UPG yet. I can't even get through areas above thirty yet," he sent, adding a gesture of holding Imthepet's arms out self-deprecatingly.

Her grin was wider this time, and Dennet's heart warmed from it. She was close, he thought. Very close.

"I know!" she agreed easily. "I'd like to get an 'Explorer' title, maybe even 'Universal Navigator', but there are twenty-eight games listed. Twenty-eight! Who could ever explore all those worlds?"

Indeed, especially considering that new games were added to the UPG every year. Yet the master of Dennet's main character's guild was a Universal Navigator. It could be done, given time and dedication. And Aria had forever.

"I have nothing better to do," Dennet teased, knowing that any real player would consider it a rhetorical comment.

No gamer with a few levels of grinding and seemingly endless and fruitless quest chains under his belt made a serious commitment to a stranger for something so frivolous.

"Really? There are two regions we can look at in this game under thirty where I haven't been. The Golden Hills and Demondim Canyon. Have you seen them?"

"No," he wrote, adding a laugh. "I'm a noob in this game. Second day, in fact." It was true enough for the character.

If anything, Aria brightened up more.

"Well, I don't have much gold, but I'm free. You want to go?" she asked, standing.

"I was hoping you'd ask. Where to first?" He mirrored her action, his tiger following suit automatically.

"I think the Golden Hills. We could find something to feed your pet."

"Bad girl," Dennet teased, "I like it. She's looking at me like I haven't fed her in two years."

"What's her name, by the way?" Aria asked.

Players could see the names of other characters or pets floating above their heads on the screen if they kept the default setting of the GUI. Aria should know all of Imthepet and her pet's attributes directly from the data stream, but she must have retained the quirk from being a shabti for some reason. An excuse to be social?

"Her name's Imthemaster, because she is," Dennet replied.

"Oh," she said, frowning.

"I'm 'Imthepet', because I am. Get it now?"

She kept the frown for a few seconds more. Concentrating? Finally, she burst into laughter.

"She's the master, and you're the pet! I love it!"

Eureka, Dennet thought. She understood semantic content.

"Yes. Ask any hunter, and they'll probably say the same."

"Well, let's go, then," Aria urged, walking down the steps and ignoring a dueling player, who nearly bowled her over. "I have a horse, but a slow one."

"Same problem, but with a wolf. At least yours is tall."

A plainly saddled tan horse leaped from Aria's chest, and she mounted it. Dennet clicked his wolf and did the same. Aria started toward Stevigemuren and Dennet brought Imthepet up beside her.

"Do you know what I'd really like to see, though?" Aria asked as they began to leave the town. "A small place in the game Farting Rainbows which somebody told me about a long time ago."

Dennet was unfamiliar with the game, but thought that he should know it. The name enough made it intriguing.

"That's new to me," he revealed honestly. "It must have been created within the past year; I haven't been on much, lately."

"Oh, that's okay. I'm always on. Anyway, the place is called the Great Falls of Dannermire. It's supposed to be the most beautiful spot in all of the games, but few people go there because it's just a closed sandbox. Or, something like that. Do you know what a closed sandbox is?"

Dennet was stunned. He starred at the screen for many seconds before even thinking to reply. That was the key. The dragon was under the falls.

"A sandbox is a place in a game where people can create things," he informed her. "Toys, weapons, castles, whatever the creation engine is able to do. They're practice for people who make the games, but everybody else just has fun with it. A closed one just means that the creative engine has been shut down. They usually have very elaborate gardens, museums, and stuff like that to look at, though."

"Oh," she said, actually managing to both sound and look disappointed.

Dennet smiled to himself in front of the screen. It would be a cheat, although he would not technically be revealing the secret. He no longer cared; he had no contracts to follow here.

"You know, it's rumored that artists sometimes leave behind Easter Eggs in closed sandboxes. Surprises."

She turned to him, her face even. Not for the first time, Dennet wished that games would get facial expressions right.

"Then let's see if we can go there, too," Aria announced, and his joy went with her. "I think I'm getting bored with this game."

"That's funny," he responded, having to wipe one of his now water-filled eyes. "I think I'm glad to be getting back into it."

"I thought that you just transferred to Hollow Destiny," she asked, clearly misunderstanding.

"I'm sorry, I meant the whole Grid. I've been too busy to play much, but I think I can find the time, now."

"Good, because I'll need you to show me the places you've been to, also."

"No problem," he wrote, knowing that he would not be able to keep that promise.

"Oh, and do you mind if I friend you? I would have anyway, but it's polite."

Her voice, minus the slight tinniness born of coming from an emulator, sounded so earnest that Dennet could have been fooled about its origin. Choking back tears and feeling silly for it, he replied happily.

"I was hoping you'd ask."

Among the changes made by the patch had been shifts in her AI's priorities from the defaults of a shabti to ones which might better reflect those of a free person. K-Baud and the professors had changed 'Be friendly' to 'Make friends', 'Enjoy being industrious' to 'Enjoy playing', and the like. These priorities were actually only vague labels given to sets of parameters which overlapped and influenced each other in a nonlinear way. Dennet did not understand much about it, but K-Baud had assured him that these had no effect on her personality, only on the ways in which she might display it. None were steadfast laws; eventually, she should be able to change them on her own (although she would not be aware that she was doing it). That she had asked him to be her friend was a small confirmation that she now could manipulate her own information and attributes like any player. Whatever else it might mean, she had made another first step into becoming a true player.

Dennet vowed silently to play the game with Aria, at least long enough to see her gain a high enough level to be able to tame and ride the diamond dragon. After that, though, he would have to let her go it alone, although he thought that soon she'd be making many friends. The hard truth was that Aria was neither his helper nor another player who could understand what pains lay offline, where a real death awaited everyone. She was something else entirely that Dennet could never really understand, much less meet in person or touch. Aria could possibly become like a goddess in her world, but she could never leave it. And Dennet had a life outside of it where so much more could be found than dragons made of diamonds and friends who, no matter how loyal or long-lasting, would eventually simply disappear from the list leaving no trace. Aria might live for hundreds of years or only a few months, but she was no longer a slave to anyone, yet neither did she really need anyone. Dennet, on the other hand, felt that need. He had almost forgotten that it existed, but it had been reawakened by a dead girl. And though he would have thanked her for it, Dennet could not now let himself buy into the illusion that her ghost was what animated the enchantress's avatar.

So, he rode with Aria to the flight point, then flew to a relatively safe region adjoining the Golden Hills. From there, they brought out their mounts and rode together into the unknown. For Dennet, sharing a few adventures like this would be fun, if sometimes awkward. He knew that, for her, they were only the first steps of a journey which may last until long after he was dead. He had no doubt that she would be a Universal Navigator, but he would not be there to see it. He was grateful enough to have had a part in starting her out along the path. Grateful to Cheryl Strove, who, if anyone, should have been allowed to make that journey.

But Dennet did not write the contracts, and that was not among the terms which he could break.

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