Kia arrived at the scheduled location, surprised to find that it was not as empty as she'd been assuming it would be. Usually, new arrivals had a fairly open and empty territory. Hers hadn't always been covered in trees, it had once been a few roots and mostly barren ground. From what she'd seen, Harolski's had always been more damaged and beaten up than most, but neither of the two of them were particularly far from the norm.
This territory was different. The ground seemed to warp as she neared it, buckling and folding in slow waves almost like ocean water. She could see faint lines of firelight visible through cracks every time an earthen wave crested and broke.
This was beyond abnormal. This was wrong.
It took her nearly five minutes to make her way to the center of the territory due to the constant shifting of the earth, but once she got accustomed to it it wasn't completely impassable. The occupant stood on a raised stone platform, holding her hands out to either side with her eyes closed as she conducted the shifting of the earth with quick hand motions.
"Excuse me, are you Benina?"
The woman opened her eyes slowly and stared at Kia uncomprehending. "Who are you?"
"I am Kia Arnold. I came to welcome you, but…" She gestured around at the earth. "You seem to have a handle on things. I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of it is though."
"Does every action need to have a purpose?" Benina said. "I think life would be awfully tedious if everything we did had purpose."
"I disagree." Kia felt distinctly off-balance, not only because the ground continued to shift beneath her. She found herself mentally off-kilter as well. "Why would you ever do anything without purpose?"
"Is there purpose when you step outside and see a flower? Is there purpose in a blue sky, or speaking to those who will not be changed?"
"Yes," Kia said at once. "Of course there is. It may be a small purpose, but that doesn't make it unimportant. And very few people truly cannot be changed."
"Then you tell me. What is the purpose in what I do?"
Kia frowned at the shifting earth beneath them. "Are you practicing your control?" She asked slowly.
"I need no practice. This is… more like breathing."
Kia shook her head. "You just arrived yesterday. There's no way."
Benina smiled. "You assume that I came here unprepared. Times are changing. VINE is no longer the threat it once was. Expect to see more like me soon."
Then a crest of earth shifted abruptly beneath Kia’s feet, knocking her to the ground. A second wave came directly after, which picked her up and carried her rapidly to the edge of the woman's territory, depositing her more roughly than necessary into the empty ground between territories.
Kia turned and started toward the city. She hadn't visited Ivy for several months now, ever since she’d blown off Kia's warning about Rift, but now she had proof.
This was too important to ignore.
Ivy didn't believe her.
Even when Kia showed her the newcomer with the shifting flaming earth. Even after again describing her own experience with Rift in her own territory. And even after an increasing number of new arrivals showed either unrealistic levels of skill or an unnatural affinity towards flame and destruction, Ivy continued to insist that she was the one and only AI in this place, that anything else was Kia's imagination, and everything was under control.
"It’s one thing that you ignored the VINES system back when it was just a quest log,” Kia ranted, frustration sharpening her tone. “I can see wanting to let players have a bit of freedom to experiment. But now that VINES has its own manifestation, how can you still deny it?"
"I control this entire world." Ivy said, in her childishly calm voice. "Everything you see, everything you experience, everything you think. It's all part of me. There is no part of this world that is not mine."
"So you're saying Rift is you? That the increasingly dark quests VINES gives out for destruction and self-serving ends are yours? You are the one encouraging Harolski to push still further past the boundaries of decency?"
"Of course I would never do those things. My goal is to ensure that everyone becomes their best self. A better self. One capable of proper integration into society, without causing any problems for themselves or others."
"If you aren't Rift, then Rift is another AI. There's no way he's a player. He has too much power and knows too much."
Ivy giggled. "There are people who say I've given you too much power, that you know too much. Does that make you an AI?"
Her playful tone grated on Kia's nerves. This was no time for levity! "If you won't do something about it, then I will."
"Do not." Ivy stood straighter, any trace of playfulness vanishing in an instant. "You have done enough. It is time you withdraw from this matter. You will only hurt yourself if you continue."
"What aren’t you telling me? Can't you just give me a straight answer? If this is some plot you’re running, let me know and I'll drop it. If this isn’t you, then you have to stop being stubborn."
"I am incapable of stubbornness. I simply am what I am. No amount of talking will change what I am."
"You know what I mean." Kia sighed. "If you can tell me honestly that you want me to stop worrying about a potentially evil AI running around inside your simulation without your notice, then I will stop bringing it up."
"Yes. That's what I want. Stop worrying."
"All right. I won't mention it to you again."
Ivy reached up to put a hand on Kia's arm. "I'm serious," the girl said gently. "If you continue to pursue this, you will get hurt. I don't want that to happen."
"Then give me a straight answer."
"I have been perfectly clear. Stop worrying. This matter is not one which you should concern yourself with. If there is somehow a rogue AI inside me, you would not be able to handle it. And if there is not, then you are worrying needlessly. Neither circumstance will be improved by your interference."
Kia nodded and turned to go.
"Thank you,” Ivy called after her. “Even if you are wrong, you have a good heart and your intentions are pure. If you find anything else unusual or suspicious, that is not related to this, please continue to inform me of it."
"I thought you already knew everything."
Kia walked away, not giving Ivy time to respond.
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- Just Add Magic!
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! :)
(If you're looking for my cover thread, it's at https://www.royalroad.com/forums/thread/110578 )