"Is there any purpose to what we do here?" Kia asked, as Jandru slaughtered his way through yet another group of beings who'd opposed his conquest. "Because it seems to me that everything we accomplish will be erased at a whim."

Jandru shrugged uncaringly. "I am aware of your feelings on the matter."

He laid about himself with his dual lightblades, slashing apart virtual enemies with the uncaring attitude that had grown from unconcern into full disdain over the past months.

Kia worried.

Jandru did not. He focused his mind on the foes before him, the rebels who'd dared to involve him in a plot against their rightful overlords. The plot had gone sideways, because of course it had, and now they needed to be reminded of the price of failure.

He still held some lands, some resources, though Kia was right. The AI regularly warped the world in such a way that it became impossible to maintain control over long distances. He could conquer anything, but not everything.

"I fail to see the value in these undertakings," Kia pressed. "At least in reality there's some benefit, lasting benefit, to such things. Control can be held, at least in theory. Here? It's not even good practice for the real world, since everyone's so unrealistically rendered."

"There's an argument that can be made, but I don't believe it." Jandru shook his head. "I have told you. The value in doing what I choose to do is in remaining the sort of person who can make that choice."

"It's not helping you any," Kia pleaded. "I can see you growing unhappier, darker. It's not good for you."

"But it is me. I'm not going to give in. VINE may have entangled everyone else, but it won't have me."

He paused in his slaughter long enough to glance behind himself, into the grey semi-world where everyone was represented by clusters of vines, where VINE presided like an eldritch god of vile green tendrils, and where Jandru lay quiescent and dark, his representation untainted by the glowing poison that continued to seep into all the countless other minds hanging beneath the endless green thundercloud that was VINE.

The once-thin line of burning gold coiled along the bottom of the dark tangle that represented himself had grown with VINES’ further integration. It shone like an ember in his mind, a comforting fire of defiance. He could follow it down, now, into the darkness beneath VINE and its helpless victims, to where VINES hid far below. Small and neat and orderly, VINES was a simple structure in the metaphysical unworld into which Jandru could peer, fiery hexagons in a neat grid, overlaid with a few circles to mimic from a distance the chaotic tangle that was VINE, but up close it was obviously constructed purposefully.

Jandru was not the only one to be connected to VINES. Well, besides Kia, she barely counted; the thread linking her to the virus was so thin it nearly disappeared, while VINE’s poisonous green seeped into Kia more clearly with every passing day. If he hadn’t known she was a VINES user, he would never have guessed it from what he could see here.

Jandru had three other potential allies out there somewhere, three others who had found VINES in their own ways and used it enough to create bright, strong connections. He still hadn’t found them in the overworld, had no method for communicating with them at present, but he would find a way.

He blinked away the hidden reality behind the simulation, and found Kia had been babbling some nonsense about Ivy. So he hadn’t missed much.

He couldn’t help but notice she carried that stupid lizard around with her everywhere now. It seemed a tangible reminder of Ivy’s influence over her. He wanted to smash it and scream at Kia to wake up, but he knew it wouldn’t make a difference. VINES had been trying for long enough and gotten nowhere.

Jandru completed his one hundred and sixtieth quest, which was still not quite enough to reach level 21. The tasks had quickly grown more arduous and complicated, from simple fetching and talking to full searches and extensive travels. Not everyone was helpful and willing to sacrifice their own aims for his, though far too many were. If this were the real world, they'd have been taken for everything they were worth long long ago. As it was, Jandru got to be the one to do the taking.

It wouldn't even hurt them. They were fictional creations of VINE's mind. And through systematic defiance, Jandru had avoided becoming part of that mindset.

Kia wavered. He saw it, saw her hovering on the edge. She would have to choose between him and VINE sooner or later, and he had a feeling she'd choose wrong. That regardless of anything he could say she would let herself be swept away in the vehement rewriting that VINE thought necessary.

He didn't care as much now as he once had. Kia had begun as an ally, but she'd quickly become an irritant. Someone he couldn't be rid of, someone who followed him incessantly, always talking about him when she thought he wasn't paying attention, gossiping with Ivy.

No, if Kia ended up choosing to die, Jandru told himself, he would no longer mourn her. He had chosen his path. She had to chose hers. He would help her if she decided to stay, but he would not pursue her if she decided to leave.

That was that.

He shouldered his pack and trudged onward.

Kia was much better equipped than him. She'd alternated between skills and items and spells, resulting in a powerful, balanced character. He'd stubbornly stuck to his alternating cycle of one level, then the equivalent in items or abilities, though the further he advanced the longer each cycle took. In a year he'd reached level 20, and knew it wasn't close to enough. He needed to do more, be faster, be stronger.

Somehow, he'd find a way. And he wouldn't be surrendering himself to any AI in the process.

The nagging uncertainty that VINES might be just that, another AI, perhaps an offshoot of VINE instead of a human-created virus as he assumed, worried at him. But he tried to ignore it. He could deal with that issue if it came up. Until then, he would fully exploit the opportunity.

"Will you never change?" Ivy asked.

Jandru didn't respond. She never used to come around without Kia being already present, but Kia had been leaving him alone more and more often lately. This time, it seemed, the AI just wanted to talk.

"I've been watching you."

Jandru knew that. It was hard not to want to roll his eyes, but the childish gesture would accomplish nothing.

He continued marching steadily toward his destination, a city in rebellion.

His own land had continued to shift, the chasms deepening until they reached magma. He quite liked the look of it now, lively and full of defiant flame, no longer the empty desolation waiting for any spark of light.

"You don't have to take on every problem in the world, you know."

"And I don't have to listen to you."

"You don't have to pay attention to me, but you can't stop listening. That's like ignoring the world. I am the world."

Jandru closed his eyes and walked forward without speaking. His next quest waited, and the distraction wouldn't succeed in stopping him.

"Do you think you're special?" Ivy asked softly. "Do you think you've been chosen for something unique?"

Jandru rather did think that, but he wouldn't give the AI the satisfaction of an answer. Even if she must know it already. He was within her domain, fully and completely. He could do nothing, think nothing, imagine nothing without her being aware of it.

So why did she insist on following him around?

Jandru did his best to ignore her anyway.

"You think I'd truly allow this to take place?" she asked.

After years of grinding, Jandru had reached level 40 the past month, and now worked toward his next upgrade in the power chain he'd begun unlocking the previous year.

She'd been more and more like this ever since he'd reached that milestone, as though finally taking him seriously. She kept coming and making vague threats.

She wouldn't allow this to happen. She would stop him from that. She had the power to do this or that. He couldn't escape. He'd never win.

It was all talk. She was the freakin' AI running the entire experience. If she could have stopped him, she'd have done it by now. Whatever permanent restraints held her in place, they were strong enough that he was safe from her direct intervention.

Sure, she could twist the scenarios. She could make his enemies act innocent, make them seem like the right people to help. She could order them to plead and beg, and offer him anything if he'd stop and let them go. She could shift the weather to threaten him, make it rain when he needed sun, chase away clouds when he needed cover. But apart from these superficial differences, she seemed powerless.

Jandru couldn't be stopped. He couldn't be diverted from his course. Like the magma that carved its way through his territory, his path would burn through any obstacles.

Even VINE itself couldn't stand in his way.

The fear that had once consumed him felt distant and unreal. How had he ever imagined that this false person could hold any power over him? This wasn't helplessness, this was freedom. This was the vacation he'd never known he needed. And once it was finally over, he'd have so many new ideas to put to work in reality.

It was amazing, the things you could experiment with when whole societies existed for your whims. When nothing truly mattered.

Nothing but yourself. You carried your experiences, your discoveries, your resolve within yourself, and no one could take them away.

"I could," Ivy whispered. "If you ever pushed me too far, I could crush you." Her voice was sad. "I don't want to. Please stop this before you go too far. I don't want you to be irredeemable."

Jandru snorted derisively. As if anything in her tame little world could possibly be pushed too far. Even the most extreme violence resulted in clean, censored death. It was as though she'd been designed by an eight year old who knew nothing of anatomy.

Some things may be lacking, but they weren't important. Jandru wasn't a sadist. He didn't see any benefit in cruelty, aside from its pure entertainment value. But even then, he preferred to use words as his weapons.

With words, you could twist someone around your fingers and dance them to your tune. Anything else was crude and inelegant.




About the author


  • Just Add Magic!

Bio: I've been writing longer than I can remember, but only started taking it seriously around '08 when I discovered nanowrimo and started attending conferences. Since then I've written several million words of practice stories leading up to posting here starting in '19.

My goal is to continue to perfect my craft and find a way to make writing my fulltime occupation rather than an obsession pushed aside by the necessity of working to support myself. Whether that means traditional or independent publication, building a strong patreon following, or something else entirely, I have yet to discover.

I always welcome suggestions for improvement and gladly accept all feedback, positive or negative. Don't hesitate to let me know what you think, and please consider leaving a rating or review! :)

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