"Soul?" He doubled over in laughter, leaned forward, and almost fell out of the recliner. A corporate attorney asking about a soul?
"The Self, then." She raised her voice and made chopping staccato motions with two fingers. "Some immutable personality that transcends physical termination."
"What the hell are you talking about?" He shook both of his hands in the air. He was getting excited again, too much for his own good. "There is no immutable self, we're constantly changing. Each person is the sum total of his or her experiences, actions, and thoughts. All of which can be collected, digitized, collated, and then input provided and output delivered."
"There are bound to be gaps... you really believe the digital Ken is a complete copy of the Ken in this universe, don't you?" she said and then took a deep breath and exhaled loudly while shaking her head. "Only through the Empress's—"
"Yeah, yeah, I get it, through the all-powerful Empress everything will be made right."
"Don't disparage the power of the Empress."
"I'm sorry," he bowed his head, his chin touching his chest, and smiled.
"You'll rue the day." She pointed her finger at him.
Talk about bad role-playing. What a shitload of hokum! She's talking as though the Empress was some kind of god, or a demon out of some B-movie horror flick.
"You haven't been exactly forthcoming this entire conversation," she said. "You know, to be the best partners, we have to trust each other."
He only nodded.
"The copy's not perfect, but it'll suit the Empress's purpose." She smiled and looked into his eyes. "Keep up the good work."
"What is the Empress's purpose?" he said.
She stared at him and narrowed her eyes. Then, she stood and walked up to the wall monitor. "Let's get back to the operational aspects," she said. "We need to lower our risk of lawsuits, so don't send any of the special helmets to households with minors in them. But we do have a common need to keep the game running, now don't we? And if addiction helps ensure that goal, then why would I or the Empress object as long as the risk is manageable within reasonable parameters?"
His superficial answer had worked, but he wondered how long their goal would remain a common one.
"By the way, the path has been smoothed, so Chie's family is the obvious exception," she said.
"Chie's path smoothed..." He furrowed his brow and then struck his fist on the recliner arm. "I get it, she's going to go after the copy of Ken."
"Bravo," she said and clapped her hands. "Now that a good enough copy of Ken"—she wiped her glasses and then repositioned them on her nose—"that is to say, good enough to fool her, is in-game, she has no choice."
"Only a copy," he said to himself, frowning and pinching his lower lip.
"You're the one who said the Ken in-game is only a copy."
"I know, I know...," he said, frowned again, and laughed.
"His soul could've been transferred," she said.
"I already told you, there is no soul," he said. But what if the in-game Ken was a perfect copy. Soul or no soul, it wouldn't matter. It would be all the proof he needed.
"Could it be you're afraid? The hyper-intelligent Jake Robertson who clawed his way to the apex of the corporate ladder. The founder and former CEO of the Three Kingdoms and now the vice-president of the Quantum Katana Online division. The inventor of the websuit, holder of over one hundred patents, ranging from biotech to quantum computing. That same Jake Robertson is afraid of entering his own creation?"
He choked back his words and gritted his teeth.
"There's only one way now... only one way to find out." She grinned, her thin lips stretched back, displaying her rows of demonic incisors.
His jaw went slack and then he shivered and clutched at his chest, above his implantable cardioverter defribrillator.
Her laughter echoing around the office, she switched the wall monitor to a map, stood up, and motioned for him to join her at the map. "Next question. Where is Ken?"
"Uh, let's see..." He walked up and pointed to a green jagged line bordered by a brown gradient on one side and a white expanse on the other. The brown edged around a gigantic black scar thousands of times bigger than the Pacific Ocean. The scale of The White Imperium was unimaginable, like a superearth exoplanet. It was called the Great Abyss. One of many abysses, but it was the largest. "Locate player Yamabushi Rock." The map zoomed in on a village at the intersection of two highways, then moved to the northeast along one. Finally, it zoomed in on the mansion. "Here, well outside of the town's safe area."
She turned to him. "Excellent, an operative of the Shinobi of the Broken Mirror manages that sector. He'll help Ken on the quest." She grinned. "If he survives."
"What's so important about this quest? What do you hackers get out of it?"
"Hackers? You think we're mere hackers?"
Dammit, why didn't I think of it before? They must be state actors or irregular elements of a hybrid warfare organization. "Russia? China? Iran?"
"Tlön," she said.
He sputtered and his face turned red. "Stop fucking with me."
"So, you're from a third world country?" he said.
"Third world? I guess you could call it that, although your third world pales in comparison."
"North Korea?" he said.
"They have secret police, correct? And a dictator. Its winters are long and harsh and it doesn't have much arable land." She sat back in her chair and switched the wall monitor back to the Bay. "Close enough. I'm from North Korea, then."
He layed his hands flat on her cold metal desk. "You know, when I found that forgotten code on the National Lab's high-performance computers and then booted up the NVRAM it was on, I had the shakes so bad. I thought I was going to get arrested."
"Isn't the meeting over? I get really bored listening to people reminisce."
"And the code's timestamp was 1989-10-18 00:04 UTC. I can remember it even now, it's permanently etched into my memory. And still, after all these years, I could get arrested because it's still running. I don't get it? Why don't they know it's there?"
She stared past him at the image of the Bay.
"Even though I was the one who found the Empress's trojan horse code and activated it, I still don't understand what you're after, what's so important about this quest."
She sighed. "The Mirror of Truth."
"Truth? What truth? It's only an in-game legendary item that grants its bearer the ability to see the targeted NPC's lie. Hardly seems to rate a legendary level to me. Legendary's level one hundred, by the way."
"That's only what we've heard. Its description and stats are all blacked out. But the Empress informed all of us—that is, all of those who had a need to know—that once it's reconstructed, everything will change."
"So she must know more than that, she's the one who designed the quest."
"She said she didn't know, only that the world would be forever changed."
"Some kind of apocalyptic game event? Like an asteroid striking the mountains and melting the glaciers?"
"She said 'world' without qualification."
"But it's just a game! Or"—he snapped his fingers—"a virus, is it going to let out a virus?"
"Well, who can say?" She flicked her earlobe with her finger. "If that's what you want to believe."
She held her pendant up to him. His eyes were drawn to it. His tanuki face, a wide swath of black eyeshadow stretching across his face from ear to ear, was reflected in the fragment of a bronze mirror. His blue eyes burned like flames from gas stove burners. He heard a lone taiko drum begin to beat from far away. The drumming came closer and quickly rose to a deafening roar like ten thousand drums were beating in the center of his head. He grabbed his ears and tried to push his palms into the ear canals. Stumbling backwards, he clenched his eyes shut, but his own face still stared back at him. His reflection faded into innumerable white hexadecimal characters that circled and swirled into the maelstorm of an abyss of black emptiness. The drumming ceased.
Shaking the vision from his head, he stood up. "What the hell was that?"
"What're you talking about?" Aya said and grinned, her eyes beaming. "You were asking me what I believe."
His mind went blank and he blinked a couple of times. "Oh right... what do you believe is going to happen when the Mirror of Truth is reconstructed?"
Her hand with its six digits gripped her wakizashi hilt and clicked it free from its scabbard. "I believe"—she unsheathed the blade in a lightning draw and thrust it straight up into the air—"we'll fight again and feast upon our enemy's quantum energy.
❄ ❄ ❄
In the training room on the ground floor of the Websuit International office building, formerly the Three Kingdoms office, Jake strode up to the CVRG sphere. It was the enterprise model. Twelve feet in diameter. With the latest prototype helmet resting in the crook of his arm like the gigantic egg of an undiscovered dinosaur, he stared at the slit in the side of the sphere for almost a minute. Sliding the zipper down, it peeled open like crocodile jaws. He hesitated for a brief moment and then stepped through. After zipping it back up and padding to the center of the sphere, he slipped on the helmet.
A needle punctured his neck.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)