Nearly eight hours had passed in Vantibia since Festiva had blinked into her death-filled existance. That was equavalent to only four external hours. She was halfway to the end of her VIVID session. That fated end loomed large in her mind, taking up resources she would much rather use for something more productive or fulfilling.
What did a person do when they knew how many hours they had left to live? Apparently, the answer was to write a lot of letters. A sizable stack of formerly blank sheets of paper sat beside her cosy perch. Before finding the materials she needed, she had spent a few hours tidying up and making the 'altar' far more comfortable.
Performing the repairs had been a frustrating process, as she only had three minutes of movement before paralysis set in. That severely limited her range. Retrieving the necessary sewing replies to repair the beanbags had taken several trips. Once she'd found the right storage closet, she'd had to sprint to get to it in time to get the door open in time. On the next trip she'd barely been able to fling a few things up the hallway before collapsing. It should have been easier after that, except that the round tin containing the sewing kit had burst open upon landing. That caused her almost as much frustration as collecting all the loose beans.
When the beanbags and cushions were at last restored to a usable state and a neat pile, Festia was rewarded with an extra 25% health upon respawn. In practical terms, this gave her an entire extra minute until she was paralysed, now at 15% health. In turn, this slowed her death rate and caused the duration of the Death Curse to increase less often. However, she had not been able to escape the museum's strong radiation. It wasn't as bad as in her house, but it had been enough to age her all the way to 287.7 years old, so on balance she was accumulating the curse much faster than before.
An even better bonus of the extra health was that she now had three minutes free of diziness, rather than just one. She was well aware of how far she had fallen to think that not being dizzy was a 'bonus'. She had figured that fully repairing the altar would win her an additional two minutes. That would have been a big improvement, but she knew it wasn't practical. A full restoration would require replacing all the damaged books. Finding and transporting enough books could take hours, if it was possible at all. With the remaining limited time, the gains weren't worth the time investment. Writing had to come first.
At least I'm not getting hungry.
She would have muttered such a thought aloud, but her woolen lungs did not allow for such a luxury. The lack of hunger or thirst due to her body resetting every few minutes was the only real perk of her dismal situation.
I do wish I had a snack though. Is a last meal too much to ask? That's my fault for designing the museum without any food facilities. Requiring everyone to eat far from the various valuable and fragile items seemed like a great idea back then.
Alas, there was no chance of her taking joy in food in her current state. There was really little to do but wait, think, and try to distract herself with the futile writing of letters to people who might never see them. She'd found writing to Lume to be relatively easy. That letter was a combination of some thanks, some encouragement, some gentle teasing, and hopes that he didn't blame himself for her death. There was also a lot of unsolicited advice which she expected him to ignore, as he usually did. She hoped that writing down such expectations might cause him to follow at least some of her advice to prove her wrong.
She also hoped her advice wasn't terrible. Given that she was the one dying repeatedly and expecting to die finally as well, she lacked certainty on that point.
Writing to other family members — Jannit's family that was, though most of them played characters who were in some way related to Festia — was a simpler task. It regardless consumed a lot of time overall, because there were so many of them. It was also less pleasant, but far more cathartic. She'd almost torn up a few of her angry rants, but had decided she might as well let her feeling stand.
It's not like they can resurrect me to reply.
Despite many of the ardently debated advances in manipulation of human consciousness, death was still death. It might get occasionally delayed or temporarily cheated — something humanity had been doing in a multitude of ways since the dawn of medicine — but it could not be reversed.
Technically, someone might be able to copy my memories from VIVID to another brain. But that wouldn't be me. Not my consciousness. It would also be extremely illegal under current laws, and very expensive. And it will be impossible once this session ends. Though if my body — Jannit's body — is dead, then whose dream is this? Festia's? ALI's?
It was an odd question, which Festia immediately decided to pose.
"Uh, ALI? Do you dream? Am I your dream?"
The answer was rather tangential to the question.
The Ares computing cluster is the substrate for the execution of routines governing the creation and operation of the VIVID worlds, as well as virtualisation of the cognitive functions of active players. The latter function allows for the acceptably low latency of player-to-player interactions. Under normal operations, this virtual cognition is regularly synchronised with the relevant player's cognitive state, which is experienced in the form of a dream. If there is a communications interruption or poor network connection, a split may occur. In the case of a split, the player's VIVID cap will attempt to place the player in a neutral restful sleep state for the remaining duration of the session. At the end of the session, the final state will be written back to the player in the wakeup sequence or on a subsequent VIVID entry sequence. This is perceived by the player as 'forgetting their dream' and 'remembering their previous dream when next dreaming' which are not uncommon phenomena.
"Great, that's just great. But it doesn't really answer my question."
The answer to your question has been provided.
"Fine, then I'll ask another. Why not keep the 'virtual cognitive functions' of players active indefinitely, synchronising them when possible? If the memories of my current consciousness — whoever's consciousness this really is — can't be reintegrated when my session is over, why not keep me running indefinitely? Is it a legal limitation, a resource limitation, or financial?"
The limitation is technical. The virtual cognitive functions begin to degrade rapidly after sixteen perceived hours. This is greater in some cases, but sixteen is an adequate safety margin. The virtual cognitive functions cannot emulate the restorative properties of sleep, and soon experience an error cascade. Once the deterioration begins, reintegration is unsafe. These details were clearly stated in the End User License Agreement to which Jannit Oji agreed.
Festia ignored that last bit.
"Ah, so you have to delete me before my mind falls apart. But what about you and all the patron deities, ALI? Are you continually stopped and restarted? Are you a whole bunch of separate simulated consciousnesses in parallel? How do you seem to do what we can't?"
The so-called 'patron deities' are not self conscious entities but merely simulated personalities conforming to the collective applicable lore.
"Oh, right, of course."
Some of those entities are taking an increased interest in the character Festia Hightree.
An imagined chill ran up Festia's spine at the combined threat and warning.
"And that's my cue to stop talking to you before Berrentan comes after me for not acting in character. I better write some letters to my in-game friends. Some of them might actually come back here some day, so I should really make the effort."
An hour later, Festia's stack of completed letters had grown almost twice as thick. Immersing herself fully in her character helped her keep her mind off her impending doom, even though she was specifically writing goodbye letters. It was amazing how the human mind could learn to work around the repeated frustrations of temporary paralysis and death. The process had long since become routine.
It's a good thing we don't leave bodies behind when we die and respawn like this. It would get impractical, fast!
Festia imagined the reading room filling up with duplicates her body and laughed at the absurdity of the image. It was not really funny, but laughter was better than any of the alternatives.
Someone might venture in here after a few years and find the museum bursting with skeletons! Identical tall and skinny skeletons! I wonder what effect the radiation would have on them. Would I leave behind an army of animated skeletons? Actually, I wonder whether I'll leave behind a body at all? I haven't seen any bodies yet, but everyone else probably logged out and deleted their characters, or fled the town. And none of them thought to leave a note! Or maybe they did, somewhere else. In any case, there might be a way to leave a body behind. Then my letters won't be all that's left of me. Or of Jannit. Who is also me. Sort of.
Deciding to shelve that thought until her work was done, Festia began the final letters, which she had been dreading. These were the letters to her children. The message for Mora in the outside world was relatively simple in theory, but a mess of complex emotions in practice.
My dear child Mora Oji,
This is a letter from your late mother, Jannit Oji, written by her VIVID character Festia Hightree in her final hours of life.
I have to hope that somehow this message will make its way to you. That someone will explore the ruins of my museum in Vantibia once the Celestial radiation dies down, will find my letters, and will pass them on to the intended recipients. If not, this exercise is futile, and my dwindling time in this world is wasted.
With that out of the way, Mora, I'm so sorry it came to this. I'm sorry I left you and ran off with my brother to seek a fortune. It was meant to be just a quick trip, but it turned bad. I do hope that the fortune part turned out well, but it's not really worth my absence from your life is it? Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Yes, money can buy a lot of happiness, but it can't buy you family who love you. Please never doubt that I do love you.
I admit that I put a lot of myself into Vantibia, and my life in VIVID. Perhaps too much. I hope I didn't hurt you by ignoring you when I was so busy planning my town and my character. One day you might understand what it is like to be pulled between the love of one person and the passion for a project you believe will help a great many. I expect you will be called upon to make great sacrifices and critical decisions in your life, being a member of one of the twelve great families. While Oji has been the least of those for a long time, hardly considered to be one of the twelve, that may have changed by the time you read this.
Mora, I don't really know what to hope for you and for the Oji family. I wanted wealth and power so I could help more people. Too few of the twelve families have many members who really aspire to help all people. Yes they generally work to improve 'the human condition', but only to the extent that it enriches themselves. They would never choose a path of self-sacrifice. Should I hope that you have much to sacrifice, or little?
Actually, that might not matter. From what I've seen of the world, no one chooses to make great personal sacrices who has not already chosen to make small ones. So no matter how big the decisions set before you become, it is the small ones prior that set you on the right path. Make no mistake: the path of exploitation of others as resources is not the right path. Many of the twelve have brought great misery to the world. They're skilled at keeping people just distracted enough to stay compliant. That's no secret. Everyone knows this. The sick thing is that they do it so well that no one cares enough or for long enough.
Everyone has access to employment that's safe and doesn't require stressful effort or long hours. The lowest earners — which is the majority — can afford basic housing, basic clothing, basic food, and basic entertainment. It's enough for a small family to live off. Those who are struggling are assisted. It seems like a perfect system. But that's only the surface layer. Underneath...
Basic is not enough for most people. It fulfills their physical requirements, but they make sure no one's content with basic. Entertainment, advertising, news, it's all designed to make people detest being seen as basic. So they desparately need to earn more. That's where VIVID steps in, providing a way for people to earn a bit extra. But VIVID comes with costs, which means they need to earn even more to get ahead.
Most people think they can earn big money in VIVID adventuring or as some kind of crafter in Riches of Renfros, or perhaps as a superhero or supervillain in Mask of Lunacy. Or other comparable professions in the other worlds. But all those cost even more money to get established in, and require continual upkeep. They can be quite lucrative once you get going, but the barrier to entry is high, and so is the cost of failure. Failure can be due to death, simple lack of good quest opportunities, or not enough customers. So most people start out as labourers. Or they fall into bad debts and are trapped as labourers. Serfs. Drudges. Slaves.
In the real world, there would be an outrage if humans were paid a mere 25EC for 4 hours of manual labour, and were then made to fight each other if they wanted the right to work a second 4 hour stretch the same day. But in VIVID, it's not real. It's just a dream. We can't really be hurt, and we can choose not to feel pain. I've taken many shifts working in the mines, and death is far more pleasant. Virtual death, that is. I've died virtually several times while writing this letter.
As for real death, I'm not sure that I've really finished dying yet. It started out as a slow fade, and it's continuing that way for a few more hours. It's been said that the worst part of dying is leaving people behind, leaving things undone, and leaving things unsaid. I'm trying not to leave things unsaid, which is why this letter is so long. I'm probably saying far more than I need to. If I had a lot more time, I would write a much shorter letter. But I can't avoid leaving you behind, and I have a few more hours yet to dwell on that. I don't want to, but it's inevitable, and that terrifies me. It's not a leap I can choose to make, but one that will be forced upon me. I can feel the moments counting down, and know I won't really be ready for it.
Back to what I was saying about VIVID before I was distracted by death. You may have heard about Vantibia, the town I founded. How it was intended to be a place where people could earn a virtual living and get their characters started on a path of economic growth without being exploited. If you hadn't, well that was my intent. Others had tried similar things before. My attempt was the most successful yet. Hopefully others still try after me. Perhaps they will find a method that does not invite destruction like that which befell Vantibia.
I fear my hopes are as false as those all the downtrodden are allowed to maintain. They are shown the promise of greatness, of independent wealth, but those who obtain it are either co-opted by their masters or destroyed. The latter happened to Vantibia. We could have held off most bands of bandits, and sending a proper army against us would have been too obvious, but the Celestial cultists don't play by the rules of balance. They are an aberration in the sytem, which should not have been allowed to persist. But they serve the purposes of the Goodminton and Nojus families — and any who are aligned with them — well enough.
The cultists aren't unstoppable, but they can gain power much faster. Not cheaper or easier, or more people would try it themselves as a path to easy power. They're adept at gatekeeping their paths to mastery. But they can replenish their numbers quickly enough to do a lot of damage others can't adequately defend against. And they're not just nuisances who kill characters a few times and break or steal their belongings. The aging damage they deal is very costly to reverse, and leaves characters weak and even slower growing. Being artificially aged is not at all like natural aging. To get as old as I appear now, I should have many decades of mastered skills, accumulated stats, and powerful items. Aging is meant to slow down the growth of old powerful characters so they don't get too out of hand. Even then, the downsides aren't significant if we stay alive.
So yes, the cultists have unfair advantages. We need a way to 'level the playing field' as the fans of sports sims like to say. Perhaps we just need the right powerful artifacts. Those are of course rare, and tend to find their way into the grubby hands of those who have too much power already. Setting up on another world is a possibility, but most of the players trapped in serfdom are in RoR, and the other worlds each have their own problems. Despite the Celestial invasions, RoR might be the more stable option.
I would have fought the cultists with all the strength and skill I could muster, if I had been online at the time. I don't know whether it is happenstance or intentional that the attack happened at a time when I ought to have been present but was not. I don't know whether my foes attacked specifically for in-world reasons or because of the dig I was on with your uncle Lume. I would love to blame my death on Goodminton intentionally pushing me into a panic so I skipped safety procedures, but that's too outlandish a scheme. Ultimately it was my poor decision — your mother Jannit's decision, if there's a difference — that caused her/my death. I chose to go on the dig, because I wanted to. I don't think it was a bad decision, regardless of how it turned out.
So whatever you do, take precautions and be careful who you trust, but don't live in fear. Seeing a conspiracy behind everything doesn't help and it's no way to live. Do your best, be smart, be kind, and live or die with the consequences. That's all anyone can do.
I hope my brother is looking after you. I hope he's being responsible but is still plenty of fun. I told him not to blame himself, but please tell him again for you.
I'm sorry, I probably bored you to sleep with all that stuff about the cultists. You might even remember hearing me complaining about them before. I shouldn't have complained so much. I probably set a bad example. I know my parents did, not that I'm blaming them.
I don't know how to end this letter. It's not that I don't know what words to put at the end, but I don't know how to stop writing to you. It's like ending a video call with someone you love who is far away, but worse, because I can never call back. I hope some day you find someone you love like that. I thought I had, a few times, but our hearts and minds can be deceptive. If your family tell you that a partner is bad for you, pay attention. At least consider that they may be right, even if your family is wrong about most things. They might be wrong about that too, but don't dismiss it without thought. You might avoid some painful and unnecessary mistakes.
You were never a mistake though. You have brought me great joy. I desparately hope that losing me does not extinguish your joy. And may you bring joy and happiness to others.
I love you, my son, my little Mora.
Writing that left Festia feeling emotionally drained. The next letter would also be difficult, but in a completely different way.
Her unknown newborn was lost somewhere in this world, in the virtual realm that had been named Riches of Renfros by some Nojus marketing department. There was little chance the child was even on the same island. Tracking down her new offspring would be next to impossible, even given years. The child would have no idea as to their origins. Despite that, she felt a deep connection to the young life that had been snatched away from her. More than a connection: a responsibility.
What am I supposed to say to a child who is just a non-conscious simulated character, a role who will some day grow up to be inhabited by a human player? Is there any point? Is this just character backstory fodder for some stranger?
Festia had no idea where to start. Who was she writing to? What did she want to say? What did she need to say? What was best for a child in this—
The unconscious state could be frustrating if it occurred while she was actively writing, but didn't prevent her from thinking. She easily ignored it and continued to consider the problem.
I'll have to request the person who finds this letter to track down a child who appeared at a respawn point on this day. That's a quest a lot of adventurers would be excited to take on. Perhaps I could make a contest out of it.
Festia had seen these messages upwards of a hundred times in her current session. This time was different.
She had expected to see the timeless monochrome image of the place of her death, decorated only by the garish yellow respawn prompt. Instead, she was whisked away to somewhere... else. Momentarily, she sensed herself moving in every direction, towards and away from all points. Neither and both subsequently and simultaneously, she arrived.