The fresh air of the overworld was better than sweet. It felt like a rebirth. Which, when Tessa paused to consider the idea, was somewhat appropriate as they’d just left the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].
“How long were we in there for?” Rip asked, cradling FOOF, her [Lil Gloom Drinker] pet as the party ran at a half jog away from the dungeon.
“A bit over an hour, I think,” Alice said.
“Is that usual?” Matt asked. “I mean that seemed pretty involved and intense for a beginners dungeon, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, that was definitely not a tutorial area,” Rip said. FOOF seemed content to cuddle into her arms and fearlessly observe the wide world the surrounded them. The moment fighting had broken out in the dungeon, the [Celestial Butterfly] had vanished back inside the black gem which had been at the heart of the egg it was birthed from. It was a good move from Pillowcase’s point of view since a blow from more or less anything was likely to kill the fragile creature.
Tessa wondered if the pet could be killed at all though. In the game at least, non-combat pets were simply immune to damage (and also unable to inflict any damage or draw any attention to themselves). There were many odd elements of the world like that which Tessa would have paid cold hard cash to know the answer to. In the case of Rip’s pet however she had no interest in experimenting to find out. Not with how much comfort they each seemed to be giving the other.
“The Ruins weren’t as complex as one of the old raids, but there was a lot more challenge to them than there should have been,” Tessa said.
“They did mention that the [High Beyond] dungeons were designed to be more interesting than the usual ‘walk through a few rooms of trash and then beat a big bag of hit points at the end’,” Alice said. “From what I remember the beta testers saying though, that involved more story elements and cutscenes, not ridiculous things like that [Mind Crusher].”
“My sister said the dungeon she ran wasn’t bad,” Pete said. “It was the same mobs as always, just a little harder fighting them when you can actually feel the flames.”
Tessa’s party of four had become a party of seven by combining with Starchild’s team. Thanks to party chat, the miles which still separated them weren’t a barrier to communication, only to Tessa’s crew providing Starchild’s team needed the help they needed.
“Why was your sister running a dungeon?” Alice asked. “I thought they closed them down in the normal realms?”
“They closed down the raids. They couldn’t close down the regular dungeons though,” Pete said. “Melissa or Feralfang, my sister, she was with a team that went to rescue a party that tried one of the new mid-level places, the [Crypts of Lost Flesh]. The mid-level folks got in trouble so a bunch of max level characters that had been hanging around fishing went in and crushed everything in the dungeon to get them out.”
“Why would anyone go into a place called the [Crypts of Lost Flesh]?” Rip asked.
“Maybe they don’t have any?” Matt offered, shrugging the metal shoulders of his entirely metal body.
“I don’t think they had even that good of a reason,” Pete said. “None of them had been drawn into the game before they went in. They just thought the warning message was a joke.”
“This catastrophe does sort of select for the unlucky and the monumentally stupid doesn’t it?” Alice asked.
“Given that we fell into a giant, obvious hole which one does that make us?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Don’t think of it as blundering into a big trap,” Obby said. “We’re explorers right? So what we did was discover a whole new dungeon using only our passive detection abilities.”
“I like how you think Obby,” she said. “Have you managed to find out anything about the place yet though?”
At a half jog, Tessa’s team was several minutes away from the abandoned farm, but the distance was falling away with each step and being ready for what faced them seemed like a novel enough idea that it just might be worth pursuing.
“I keep offering to charge in and find out but for some reason the idea of being swarmed by demons doesn’t seem appealing to my compatriots here.”
“Sounds like a target rich environment to me,” Rip said, her smile sparkled around the edges of her words.
“See, and I’m hearing ‘torn apart by wild animals’,” Matt said.
“That’s the spirit!” Obby said. ”Oh, wait, we’re not the wild animals in that scenario are we?”
“That depends,” Pillowcase said. “What level demons have you seen?”
“Mostly level 5s,” Obby said, her words were slowed a bit as though they had to wade through a pool of curiosity. “There have been a few level 15s though, and we definitely haven’t seen all of the ones that are in here yet.”
Tessa wondered what she’d said that had intrigued Obby so much, but shrugged it off. It was a lot easier to work out that kind of thing out in person. For all Tessa knew, Obby had noticed some odd feature of the dungeon she was in and her curiosity had nothing to do with Tessa.
“Have any of them seen you yet?” Alice asked.
“Strangely, no,” Lady Midnight said. “We fell into a room which overlooks a much deeper cavern. Picture something like an opera box, but a lot bigger. We can see demons wandering about down below and we can hear ones moving back and forth outside the door to the room we’re in, but they’re not in a good position to see us.”
“Good. It sounds like you’re safe for now then,” Alice said. “Is the entrance to the room narrow?”
“It is. If they try to push in, it’ll be pretty simple for me to bottle them up there,” Obby said.
“The downside is that there’s definitely not enough room for a tank and a melee damage dealer to fight at the entrance,” Starchild said. “Rip and Matt, I believe your talents are better suited to this than mine are.”
“No worries,” Rip said. “We got your back!”
Tessa could feel the delight at being needed and important radiating from Rip. On reflection, getting a chance to actually save someone felt pretty incredible to her too.
Talking to the other team made all the difference too. Back in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] when Lady Midnight had called and Tessa had been given a live feed to what sounded like a brutal murder, all of her thoughts had been panic. Tessa’s desperation wouldn’t have made a difference in the outcome of Lady Midnight’s fight but it had still felt proper. Like a lesser, more reasonable, response would have been left her culpable for Midnight’s fate.
Pillowcase had been pragmatic though, a cool, calculating voice, untouched by the agony Tessa had heard. To someone crafted for war, the sound of someone dying couldn’t be a blow to the psyche.
I envy that it can be for you, Pillowcase said. As I was made, I could not form the bonds you have forged so quickly.
And I couldn’t have survived to make them if you weren’t there, Tessa said. But, you’re me.
We are each other, Pillowcase said. You have my memories, and I have yours.
Did you exists before I came here though?
Did either of us?
In other words are we a Boltzmann brain? Tessa asked.
Tessa had read about the idea of Boltzmann brains when she was fifteen and the idea had always intrigued her. Put simply, the idea was that everything we remember, all of our experiences, could be the result of a random ordering of matter and energy in the instant which we think of as the present. We could be nothing more than a transitory brain which winked into existence in an empty void complete with every memory and sense impression we believe we’ve ever had.
I don’t think that’s something we can worry about since it’s both unprovable and offers us nothing to act on, Tessa said. Acting as though there’s no world outside ourselves has a best case scenario of rendering everything meaningless and a worst case of devolving us into the worst monsters the world has ever seen. Better in every case to assume other people exist and that they matter.
Without you I wouldn’t have understood that, Pillowcase said. Without you I wouldn’t even have thought to ask the question.
But you’ve always had me right? I mean, you still feel like me. I don’t feel like I’m talking to someone else. I feel like I’m mulling over an idea in my head and writing both sides of a discussion around it.
Maybe that’s because while we have two lives worth of memories, and two points of view, there is only one will within us?
In other words, you want the same things I want, so there’s no conflict there like there can be with other people?
Perhaps more than that, Pillowcase said. My memories include being given a will which was then shackled to the will of my masters. That is not what we have. Our will is the same. We are one person, with two lives.
How could that work though? I made you up. Like an hour ago…wait, no, it’s been longer than that. How long have we been playing?
I woke many hours ago. It’s been at least half a day now. Before that I was not fully myself but I still remember both what I did and what was done to me.
If it’s been half a day since I created you, how could you be real? How can I see all these memories you have?
Because you were there. You are me. You always have been.
That’s not possible though. All I did was make some selections in a character creator.
You also dreamed up a backstory for me.
Yeah, one that just happens to match what you lived through? What are the odds of that happening?
What are the odds that we would be here at all?
Zero. Going by any rational statistical model, the odds that Tessa would find herself drawn into a video game she was playing were zero because there were too many basic laws of physics violated in the process.
We need to understand the metaphysics then, don’t we?
Yes. We definitely do.
It was a tall order. Neither one had been a researcher by trade, but Tessa understood systems. She knew how to piece together their workings and discover what they were really doing from years of debugging code which could charitably be called sanity wreckingly bad.
If we can find a good setting for some quiet conversations, we should talk to the others about what they’re experiencing, Tess said. That’ll give us more data points to work from and it might help us pick out people who are having worse problems integrating than we did.
Starchild and Pete are an interesting case, Pillowcase said. They seem to be completely separate people, but they’re still harmonious with each other.
Yeah, it sounds like they’re as adjusted to this as we are, Tessa said. Is it weird that I’m thinking of you as a separate person now that we’re talking about how we’re both basically me?
If we had a connection back to your world that would let us read up on it, it might help to study the mental health issues people on your world have had with identity, but I don’t see anything in your memories which fits what we’re experiencing exactly.
Also, whatever we have, or are, it isn’t causing problems so far, Tess said. If anything it’s solving them. If we have any kind of mental health issue then we probably fall into the ‘high functioning’ end of whatever diagnosis we’d be given.
I wonder what that means for the people who don’t have both their character and player halves fully responsive? Pillowcase asked. Alice, for example, said that she’s only herself and not her character at all.
That’s a good question, Tessa said noticing that Alice was staring down at the ground as they ran.
“How are you feeling?” Tessa asked Alice on a private channel for the two of them.
“Hungry”, was Alice’s reply.