As if waking from a terrible nightmare, Stoni reflexively gasped for air. That led to the realisation that she had no lungs as a ghost, and some moments of panic as she failed to reconcile that with the strong desire to breathe. When she saw and felt that no harm was coming to her, she gradually began to relax.
Actually, that was a nightmare. But one I couldn't wake up from until it was over. The person playing Aga Utana is for sure going on a new list. One for people who will taste my retribution. Nat's player gets milder retribution. And timberwolves are going on the list of things I hate.
Stoni shuddered, or perhaps wavered in a ghostly fashion. She could still practically feel the teeth and claws, and smell their breath and her blood.
No, not my blood. Aga's blood. I'm not Aga. None of that was real. Just a dream. A job. I felt it, but it didn't hurt me
With some trepidation, Stoni checked her stack of forms. She feared further terrible reviews, solidifying her zero rating.
You have 2 new mission ratings.
Two? Please be good, please be good!
Got me to town safe and quickly, and ranked up my footwork! But what do you have against figs? 4/5 stars
Kinda muddy. 3/5 stars
That's... an improvement. I stand by my disgust for figs though. Eugh! So that should bring my overall rating up to... two and a third stars out of five?
Aggregate ghost rating - 0.5833 stars
Seriously, that can't be right. Is that out of five? How does that add up? I have seven stars total, divide that by 0.5833, that rounds to twelve. I'm being rated averaged over twelve reviewers, not three. Which means Nat's player was worth ten times the rating weight of the others. Ten times! If I get five star ratings for the next five missions, I'll still be under two stars overall, if they're all equally low weighted reviewers. And I'm more likely to get players like Aga's than Nat's going forward.
She shuddered at the thought of the Aga situation repeating itself.
I wonder if they're gonna give me a zero rating on top of that, just to spread more grief. Horrid little troll. Is that the right word? I think it fits.
Shaking away the vestiges of the awful experience, Stoni set about filling out her mission report in the most scathing way possible. It was the only avenue for expressing her displeasure, so she made the most of it. When that was done, all that was left was the waiting and worrying.
Stoni snapped into awareness in a new location already steeling herself against the next terrible experience. She found herself seated on a woolen rug, which was perched on a grassy outcropping of land overlooking a pebbly beach. The sun had already fallen below the unbroken horizon, but it still threw pink light up on a scattering of distant clouds. She briefly thought it far too soon for the sun to have set, but it made sense when she considered the faster passage of time in VIVID, and that she was at a location further west on the continent of Mrilchift. While she didn't know how big Mrilchift was, she knew it had to cover multiple time zones.
Her time pondering the passage of time was interupted by the realisation that she was not alone. There were two more blankets beside hers, and a total of eight other humans present. They ranged in age from young to old, but she struggled to put numbers to their appearances. What remained of her brain was giving conflicting answers to such questions. Upon reflection, she did remember some details of the role she was filling. It was a painful role, but for very different reasons to her previous predicament.
The name of her character was of no real importance. The other players present had referred to her as 'Granny V' and "Mum'. This had been a virtual family reunion. A final reunion for Granny V.
But why am I here? Why would Granny V want a ghost to fill her character?
"Granny V, tell me the story about Aunt Lidi and the cats again," a young woman with dark hair and striking green eyes said.
Stoni remembered the woman's name was Tavvy. She did not remember any story about cats.
*This isn't right. I really shouldn't be here. There's no way this should have happened. Someone made a mistake for sure. Now what am I supposed to do?"
"Hmm, well, Aunt Lidi... How long ago was that, Dearie?" Stoni said, stalling for time. She felt like she was doing a decent impression of a grandmother, but she could not remember whether she had known a grandmother or been one herself. Perhaps, both, or neither? All answers seemed to be alternately fitting and foreign.
I don't know what's more messed up: my brain, or this situation I'm in.
"Back when she was younger than me," Tavvy was saying. "When she and Daddy were kids."
Stoni had no idea where to go from there.
Huh? That was for sure an error. I got dropped into that one due to a service interruption! I'm going to have some strong words for the next mission report.
Huh? That's new. But I think I remember reading something about that in my instructions. Or it was something Kanda said.
The rest of the initialisation process went by too fast to read, and a familiar view of the world reasserted itsefl.
"Sorry about that, Dearie. There was some sort of network glitch. What did you say?" Granny V asked her granddaughter Tavvy.
"Oh, er, I asked about Aunt Lidi and the cats," Stoni said, remembering the conversation from the reverse angle.
This is more disorienting than riding a horse!
"Ah yes, Lidi and the cats. That's a good one! It all started when I ordered a new dress. I'd saved up EC for months to get something that wasn't a standard fabric design because I was tired of always looking the same as at least one of our neighbours. I had to stick with only the basic 'meal of the day' rations, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make for an uncommon dress. Such is life."
Various other relatives nodded their agreement at that. "Such is life," an uncle echoed.
"So the drone brought my delivery in a box," Granny V continued.
Stoni leaned forward to better hear the story.
Please be over!
"Whoooa, that was weird," said Tavvy, the actual one this time. "There was some sort of network error and I think I slipped back into a normal dream... but I think I also remember being here talking to Granny V. But it wasn't really me."
"That's the same thing that happed to her," said a redheaded man with a curled mustache and gold hoop earrings. Stoni wasn't certain who he was, but had a sense that he was one of her sons. One of Granny V's sons, that is.
Tavvy nodded, humming thoughtfully. "Yeah, I think I remember her saying that. We're in adjacent appartments, so it could be a local network problem. It's been spotty lately out here and the repair bots are always slow to get to us."
"Did you remove the free ghost option when you made your accounts?" the mustachioed man asked.
"I don't remember seeing that. I left it on the defaults for both of us," Tavvy said. "The defaults should be right, right Dad?"
"No, I told you this would happen if you didn't turn that off. The free ghost is the default and it takes over if you drop out. But cos it's free it's utter garbage and won't do anything in particular, so the odds are you won't get any benefit from it. And you really don't want it popping up in the middle of a family event!"
"Why is this thing so complicated?" Tavvy demanded, becoming increasingly upset. "I told you we should have just used Hoip or Quoom, but no you just had to drag us all into the 'VIVID experience' so you could show off your stupid pretend achievements to yer mum!"
"That's quite enough! Mother, I think we should try this again tomorrow," said the man who was evidently her son.
"We only rented all this gear for one night!" Tavvy protested. "That's all we could afford! But I think I'm done here. I'll see Granny V in real life in the morning. Right, Granny V?"
"Right," Stoni said, deciding agreeing was better than making the whole argument worse. "I'll see you soon, Dearie."
"Love you, Granny V." Tavvy reached out for a hug.
Again, Stoni chose not to cause further immediate trouble. She accepted and return the hug. It was very warm and pleasant. "Love you, Tavvy." Even though it wasn't meant for her, the exchange seemed to give her something she'd been missing for a long time.
Tavvy faded out of existence, and the other members of the family did the same in short order. Almost all of them. The son with the mustache remained.
"Looks like they all remembered to change the defaults. I'm sorry it ended like this. Tavvy never follows my instructions and I should have known she'd mess something up." His voice turned warmer as he added, "But it was good to see you. Not that you look like this exactly, but... You know what I mean. Did you enjoy walking around again?"
Walking around again? What does he mean by that? Should I answer, or tell him that I'm not really her? She could come back at any moment. Why hasn't she come back yet?
Unable to make a decision, she instead stalled for too long. "Nothing to say to me? Why am I not surprised? You never... I could never... Oh why can't you just..." Each successive attempt at speaking was choked off by the man's emotions. "I always promised myself I wouldn't let it end in one of these stupid cliche arguments, but here I am."
Stoni couldn't stand to wait any longer. Granny V might not return in time. She might be having more terminal problems than a bad network connection. "I didn't want that either. I'm sorry. This was lovely, really." She didn't know whether that was true, but it was simple enough that it might be sufficent.
"Oh, now you're sorry?" he begain angrily. "I think that's rather..." He caught himself and took a few deep breaths of the cooling evening air. "No. I don't want to fight. Well, you know I do but I know I shouldn't." He stood up and reached a hand down to her. "Would you like to stand with me and watch the sunset fade?"
"Yes, I'd like that," Stony said honestly. She had no idea what the man's name was, but she knew it would be nice to watch the sky beside a friendly person. She didn't really remember human companionship, not in any specific sense, but she knew she loved it, and she craved it.
Love. It seems almost like a foreign concept. How odd. Surely the person I once was loved many people in her life. I can't imagine otherwise. Or I choose not to, that would be too sad. Yes, I do believed I loved. But who? Parents? Children? Friends? Others?
Each possibility gave her a complex mixture of contradictory feelings.
Like a cocktail. Did I drink alcohol? No. Yes. No. Maybe? Oh, I don't know!
Inwardly, her thoughts were driven fruitlessly in no specific direction, like leaves in a shifting wind. Outwardly, she stood in silence beside somebody's son and tried not to let the turmoil show.
The man chose to voice his inner turmoil.
"I don't know what to do with her. Tavvy. She hardly speaks to me, and listens less. Hardly cares about anything I do. All because of her obsession with the outside world. It's absurd! Kids her age should be focusing on their base class abilities and be trying to grind as many of those and their skills up to outstanding rank. But she's refused to put even a single hour in until tonight! All that time, wasted. She'll be stuck watching delivery drones for the rest of her life, eating and wearing nothing but grey. How does she expect to keep friends or meet anyone? And now everyone her age is years ahead of her, so if she joined in she'd be stuck as a low level labourer or drudge while they're picking out more interesting second classes. I only want what's best for her, but she won't see reason! Where does she get it from? I know it's not from you. You always spent all your time with your puzzles and quizzes. But she... she thinks she's achieving something by 'staying in the real world'. She could achieve so much more if she didn't waste eight hours a day! The rest of us live in the dull, boring, real world just as much as she does, but she refuses to acknowledge that!"
That was all extremely fascinating to Stoni. She realised too late that she was expected to give a reply. Granny V had not returned to save her from the situation. "I don't know what to say," she said, realising that the honest answer would suffice. "It's been a long time since I... thought about such things."
"What's your biggest regret, Mum?"
Stoni sighed, letting the breath all the way out. "I think I'm much too old for regrets. I'd much prefer to remember the good times." That was absolutely true for Stoni and she hoped it would be enough for Granny V's son. "Does that help you with Tavvy?"
"It'll have to. I'll need to give that some thought. Thanks, Mum."
"I hope you figure that out, for both your sakes."
"Yes, well..." The man looked back and forth, scanning the dark horizon. "There's nothing left to see."
"I suppose not," Stoni agreed.
"I might call it a night early. It seems wrong to run off to hunt monsters after that."
"Yes, I think I've had enough of this," she said, without any umbridge.
"I'll call you in the morning. Maybe I'll call you and Tavvy together."
"Or maybe call her first?"
"Yes. Of course. I'll do that," he said, a little awkwardly. "So. Until then. Pleasant dreams. Do you know how to exit?"
She replied with a nod and the best smile she could manage. "Pleasant dreams."
He faded away, leaving her alone on the blanket. She quickly realised that it was rapidly becoming colder. Wrapping the blanket around herself helped, but not enough.
"Uh, ALI? Is there some way I can terminate this mission, or am I stuck here?"