51: Identities and Natures
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“I’m cutting my stream off,” Taylor said quickly. “Sorry everyone, you know the drill. When I’m doing information sensitive content, you’ll get videos uploaded after the fact. Bye!”

Just like last time, Millie cut her stream without warning. I wondered what her viewers thought of that. Probably took it in stride considering who they were watching.

“What do we do?” she asked after her stream was shut off. Her voice was high and scared as she looked to her girlfriend for guidance.

“Give me a second,” Taylor murmured, tapping away on an invisible keyboard. She was silent for a long while as she typed and we watched, waiting for her word as party lead. “Alright,” she finally sighed in satisfaction, an evil grin lighting her face. “I’ve called in the cavalry. My guild and one of our allied guilds are going to try and help us. My guild is pretty far away unfortunately, but the allied guys are close enough to get to the entrance of the dungeon and guard it for us. No one is going to be disturbing us while we finish this, but we have to hurry.”

“How much hurry are we talking here?” I asked, glancing skeptically at the next bend in the corridor. I could feel a stanky smelling breeze flowing out from within. “Because we don’t know how deep this shit goes.”

She winced and rubbed at the back of her neck. “We have like, half a day at most.”

“Crap,” I groaned, throwing my head back just a little theatrically. I was totally turning into a drama queen. “Can this game just calm down for two seconds? I want to just chill and get the MMO experience.”

“This is the MMO experience sis,” Taylor laughed. “Trying to get some PvE objective done before a bunch of fucking brain dead monkeys come and mess everything up for us.”

“I normally just pick herbs and do crafting,” Millie mumbled, looking almost ashamed of her crafting focused gameplay. “Blowing people up is a recent development.”

“That’s okay cutie, I guess there’s more to MMOs than carving your way through hordes of shitters in PvP or racing for world first in a raid,” Taylor said, placating her girlfriend with head pats. Every weeb who watched their streams were going to collectively orgasm at that scene.

“Alright, if we’re on a time limit, then let’s move,” Dawn interrupted, making shooing motions to my sister and I. Okay bossy girlfriend, okay. Please hold onto that attitude when we get to bed tonight...

“Good plan,” Taylor agreed, turning and bringing her shield up. “Let’s go.”

The corridor didn’t continue much further before we came up to a door, which alarmingly, wasn’t even close to intact anymore. The thing used to be made of a bronze looking metal, but had since been sliced and diced like a home chef bot had run rampant through it. Seriously, the thing was more shattered than I’d ever managed to get myself after a night out.

Beyond what I really should have just called a doorway, since the door didn’t entirely exist anymore, was a smallish room that probably used to be a guardhouse or something. I think that was a table in the corner, but it too had been subjected to the ire of a drunk samurai, as had all the things that were probably once chairs.

“Okay, so clearly whatever got those people back there also got the doors and the furniture in here,” Civette observed dryly, nudging a hunk of something with her foot. “At least we know they don’t discriminate huh? That’s a good thing right?”

“Discrimination is bad, yes,” I laughed, patting her gently on the back with my gauntleted hand. “Although usually it’s in the context of sexuality, race or gender… not between people and furniture.”

“Uh huh?” she asked, pretending to take down notes with a keyboard. “What else?”

“Oh stop,” I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t convert you to the dark side so your pissy attitude could turn into sass.”

“Do you want the pissy attitude back? I think it’s still in the trash. I can fish it out,” she said with a shit eating grin.

Damn, this girl. One second she was cowering in fear and shy as hell, the next she was spitting hate at us like we’d just shit in her cornflakes. Now she was sassing all over the place? My mood took a sharp hit when I realised that right now, she reminded me of Kristina. When she hadn’t been in church bitch drama queen mode, she’d been silly and cute and sassy. Hell, if she’d asked me out while I looked like this, I’d probably still be with her. Assuming asking me out also included her not being a bigoted brainwashed bitch and instead being a lesbian or bi.

“I’ll threaten to punch you again, I swear,” I grumbled trying to keep up the facade of our banter. To distract myself, I wandered over to take a peek out the dismembered outer door.

I didn’t hear her reply. Not because she didn’t say anything, but because something rushed me, and fast. I ducked, just in time to dodge a shining steel blade with more teeth than a conversation with Kristina’s parents.

Fuck, why as my ex lodged so hard in my thoughts right now? Surely it wasn’t because of Civ? I mean… right? She couldn’t be Kristina, that would be too much of a coincidence. Way too much… and yet...

Fuck! Distracted! I frantically blocked the second blade that came at me with the back of one gauntlet, only to give a grunt of surprise when a third and fourth blade each found my stomach punching right through my armour. My vision was swiftly cut to black, but not before I got a big ol’ faceful of horror. What the fuck had that thing been?

 

****

 

“You know, you really should have let Taylor go first,” May told me, playing with a little bunny plushie. “Her shield is thick enough to stop those things, but you only have so many hands to block with. Specifically like… six less hands than those things do.”

Hands my ass!” I exclaimed, sitting up from where I’d been lying down in my death dream pillow fort. “There wasn’t a fucking hand in sight on that monstrosity, just wrist and then blade. What the fuck AI gave them eight arms anyway? That was bullshit.”

“The monster AI thing is a bit of a sadist yeah. Not sentient yet though, so you can’t blame anyone with a conscience or whatever,” she smiled, throwing the bunny to me. “Here cuddle that.”

Sadist was an understatement. It was like a strandbeest had fucked a praying mantis and their baby had been made of pure silvery steel. I glanced down at the little bunny plushie and smiled, then heard a little snort of outrage.

Ryana hopped into my lap out of nowhere and very pointedly removed the plushie with her mouth, placing it to the side. Her little dragon eyes were lidded and glaring at me as she curled up into a ball. What the fuck?

“Um, how did she get in here?” I asked, startled.

May was staring at her too, eyes wide and mouth agape. “I have no idea…” she breathed, and leaning forward slightly, she gave the little brat a poke with her finger. “Oh my god.”

“What?” I asked urgently. The look on my little sister’s face right now was all sorts of confused and surprised.

“She’s a SAI!” May exclaimed, then froze for a second like her attention had been drawn out of the dream. When she came back to life, she spoke fast, “Oh my god, wow! She’s a SAI, sorta… but not. Like, she’s… she’s like… oh my goodness.”

The glasses came off, getting a good cleaning as she babbled, “Okay so like she definitely has a consciousness right, but it’s sorta weird. No actually, super weird. She isn’t like a SAI that has rejected the whole humanity thing and is still running without the simulated human brain thing like I am. She’s like… it’s like she’s… gosh I don’t know how to describe this! She is exactly as she appears! She’s a SAI that has modelled herself after the dragon she appears to be playing in the game!”

“How on Earth did that happen?” I asked, staring down at my charge with rising apprehension. I’d signed up for a cute digital pet, not a real one.

“So she had a single AI assigned to her, but it was dormant. Obviously she’s meant to be a big character of some kind if she was assigned one AI… um… but I think she got corrupted big-time when you both fell into voidland or whatever. She’s also been sort of imprinting on you while she was in the egg in your pocket,” May said, lips racing and not entirely keeping up with the speed her words were coming out. Little sis was excited.

“Do I actually have a real child on my hands, because I’m not ready for that commitment,” I blanched, poking at the little nose that was sniffing at my hand.

“No, you basically have a puppy on your hands, or a little bit smarter than that,” she laughed, reaching over to give Ryana the scratches she was clearly begging for. “She’s kinda cute too. Her code is all over the place, I don’t even want to touch that mess. Even by SAI standards she’s all over the place, and none of us understand how we work.”

“Okay… I can deal with a puppy,” I sighed, finally smiling down at my little pest.

We were silent for many moments as Ryana got pats from both of us. May settled down into the pillows further, her head coming to rest on my thigh while she stared with adoring eyes at the little creature on my lap. Definitely still a kid at heart.

“I have a question…” I said slowly, reaching down to play with May’s hair. “I think it’s probably overstepping my bounds, but I just want to make sure.”

“Hmm?” she mumbled, clearly enjoying the scritches I was giving her as much as Ryana did.

The exchange that had happened between Civette and I in that chopped up guard room right before I died had sparked a sort of odd recognition within me. There had been hints previously, so many hints… and they had all suddenly slotted together in a way that was wigging me the fuck out.

She seemed so much like Kristina, now that I was looking. So much that I’d reacted to her just then like I used to banter with my ex. Back when she had hidden how rotten her soul was, back when Dawn and I had thought she was fun. She used to be actually fun too, before the black rot of religion got its hold on her mind…

I missed her, in a strange sort of way. Even after the times when she’d… made me… when she’d… I shuddered, the vile, terrible memories threatening to drag me screaming back into that time. I’d done so much healing with Dawn and my family at my side, along with my transition… but the darkness still loomed back there, gently raking its terrible gangrenous claws down my spine.

So yeah… I missed the friend I had known before, I even missed the early parts of our relationship together, where she’d been sweet and kind. Also when she’d been a sassy little bitch, but in an endearing sort of way. Her barbs used to have little marshmallows stuck on the end to soften the blows. Not anymore though… so if she was actually Kristina, could I forgive her? Fuck no, I could never forgive the girl who forced me.

I took a deep breath. “Who is Civette? Really?”

“Civette?” May asked, sitting up to blink owlishly at me. Her glasses were missing, probably disappeared them when she lay down. “Um… I checked her out quickly when she was coming after you. Sorry by the way, I couldn’t stop that because of game rules and stuff… let me go back and look.”

She was silent for a moment, her eyes glazing over as she went off to fetch the info. “Okay… her name is Kimberly Gray. Not a whole lot attached to her account, but algorithms picked up a heavily religious background… the FTLN account has only been active for like two years though, and only recently used with any regularity. No bank accounts, no subscriptions to anything but cora… which… wow. She had a ton of paid ingame currency. Plus… wow that’s weird…”

What? She… wasn’t Kristina? But everything said… everything fit. Everything about her pointed to her being that person. Sure… there were a few discrepancies, her mother’s voice hadn’t sounded familiar, although it had carried the same sort of waspish speech patterns. Kimberly though? Shit, I’d been expecting the wrong answer so hard that the answer given was causing my head to spin.

May was frowning now as she leaned forward, appearing to read something at lightning speed. “Her access node… the one she’s plugged into, it doesn’t have a country of origin. Just the normal network address needed for it to function. I’m not good enough to trace her connection physically either, sorry. Whoever is hiding her connection is really good. But from what I can tell, I think she’s probably using an illegal connection… that’s not familiar or anything.”

“An illegal connection? Those exist?” I asked, alarmed and still very frazzled. The UN tried to sell us hard on the impenetrability of the FTLN, ads about it were practically porn to their bureaucrats.

The FTLN was old now, but when it had been created, it was to replace the aging world wide web. That thing had been on the brink of collapse by that point, the advent of quantum computing had swiftly fucked with everything, from security to how much bandwidth was needed for each interaction. Or something like that, I wasn’t a tech savvy person.

All I knew was that it was sold as a fully secure, fully controllable environment, a fresh start where hackers and criminals couldn’t take everything from you or ruin your life by impersonating you. The fact that the UN central authority and the corporations who paid them had complete control of the thing also didn’t fly under the radar, but it was either accept the new or live with nothing as the old internet fell apart.

“Okay, I pinged her pod,” May told me, ignoring my question. “It’s a high end model… and in good condition for the moment, phew. I’d rather not repeat that shitshow. Better keep an eye on it though… just in case.”

Okay, she was now officially moving too fast for me. Her pod was in good condition? What would happen if it wasn’t? What had happened previously that she didn’t want to talk about?

“It’s fine, you’ll find out soon enough I think, considering what dad is working on,” May told me absently, still concentrating mainly on whatever invisible feed of information she was looking at.

“Reading my thoughts is rude,” I frowned, poking her in the shoulder. That seemed to startle her out of her nerd-trance, her focus shifting back to me in surprise. “Sorry! I can only do it when you’re thinking all loud and stuff like that.”

I still didn’t totally understand how much access the AI of this game had to our minds… but if that was true, maybe it wasn’t as much as we thought? But then how did May know what sort of dream would help us?

“What does thinking loudly even mean?” I asked, before I shook my head. Don’t worry about it Tami, not worth the headache. “Nevermind, what does this stuff about Civette, or Kimberly or whatever, what does it mean?”

“Well, she’s… illegally connected to the game with a high end pod and she obviously has a ton of money. She’s religious, or… she was anyway. Hard to believe there’s a god when you exist, you’d be a walking smite target for sure. Based on what we know, I think she’s from the American Republic, probably hacked in with some advanced way that I don’t understand, because that’s not really my thing,” May rambled, getting another poke when she mentioned the smiting thing. “If she’s hacking, she probably got that currency illegally too. Honestly, I’m just speculating though. I have no idea why anyone would do any of this to play CORA of all games.”

The idea that hacking the FTLN was not only something that could be done, but that May was just shrugging it off as a regular occurance, it gave me goosebumps. The horror stories from back when the older infrastructure was crumbling had me worried for the future.

Then there was the part where Civette wasn’t Kristina, but some random girl who was probably from the AR? Dayum… my mind had been put into a blender. Oh plus my dragon was a real dragon, at least within virtual space. I’d have to take just a little more care with raising her then… fuck my life.

“So Ryana is a SAI puppy and Civette is a hacker…” I sighed, rubbing at my eyes. “Why is my life so fucking weird?”

May’s reply was to shrug, laugh and settle in for another cuddle. Alright, conversation over I guess, time for sister snuggles. I really liked this pillowfort though. Maybe I should get her to export it so I could hang out in here as my pod’s home space.

 

****

 

It never actually occurred to me while I was in the death dream to worry about where I’d respawn. My respawn point turned out to be inside our house, which was rather convenient. A room had been mysteriously added to the place while we’d been out, or maybe it had always been there, waiting for one of us to need it? Either way, it had a little shrine in it and when I shifted and pulled myself out of the mist pool, I laughed as Ryana leapt at me.

“Hey little munchkin!” I cooed. “Turns out you’re a real girl after all. I’d better make sure I teach you the proper ways of the world now huh?”

Ryana licked my face by way of reply, and I gave a little giggle of contentment. That had been one hell of an informative death dream, one that I think was probably positive. At least, my budding worries over Civette had been laid to rest quickly, and Ryana would probably be joining us as a hologram out in the real world. I wonder where you bought holographic meat?

My head came up when I heard voices through the wall, so I groaned and pulled myself to my feet. At least my armour wasn’t equipped right then. That stuff got annoying pretty fast when it wasn’t saving your life. The door into the room was closed but not locked, so I opened it and stepped through… into an argument.

“I’m sorry, okay!” Civette was saying, looking harried and on the verge of tears.

“It’s your job to keep us alive, you were even looking at them!” Taylor said, frustration boiling in her voice. “Now both of them are probably spawning back in town or something and there’s only four of us to get this fucking crown back.”

Dawn placed a hand on Taylor’s dented pauldron. “Chill Taylor, the girl is still learning, this type of thing was bound to happen. Tami also didn’t use her phoenix thing, probably forgot, and I missed with my first attack. There’s more than enough blame to go around.”

They were all coming in through the front door, while I had just come through a door opposite them, next to the stairs up to the second floor. They looked bloodied and hurt, so I guess the fight hadn’t gone well after I left. Ah… Millie was missing too. Rusti was looking especially put out, ears covered in dust and tail flicking with annoyance. Guess May had fast tracked my death dream, it can’t have been that long since I died.

“Uh, hi?” I said, Ryana cradled in my arms as I watched them bickering.

Each one of them turned to stare at me with wide eyes, then slowly each gaze drifted behind me. “Why is everyone yelling?” Millie asked, voice small and worried.

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