This story is part of a series!
This is a direct followup to Up to Code, Down to Code, and Right to Code. It expects knowledge of the world and characters, so I would strongly recommend reading those stories before this one.
Left to Code
The sun rose once more on a peculiar world.
To one of its denizens, today was a chance to learn, grow, and overcome. With her girlfriends at her side, she would let nothing get her down, not anymore.
To that girl's teacher, today was a chance to impart the lessons she had learned, guiding her students onto the right path to surpass both anything she had ever been, and her fears.
To that teacher's new student, today was a chance to start working toward her future and prove herself - not only to herself, but in service of the hopeful legacies she had been left with.
And last but not least, to one unsuspecting girl, it was no more than another day in paradise.
I was dozing off in the classroom. But don't get the wrong idea - class hadn't started yet. I intended to give it my full attention once it did.
No, I was always early to Sourcery class. The subject had always grabbed me, and Professor Meyer taught it well. I took careful notes, and practiced it plenty outside of class too. I consistently scored better than anyone on all the tests. Heck, if I didn't trust Meyer's teaching skills, I probably would've skipped class to go study it at my own accelerated pace.
Why? I dunno. I just felt passionate about it. Maybe I was initialized that way?
As I comfortably rested my eyes in my seat at the back, I heard chatter in front of me. One of the voices was familiar to me, but the other wasn't. I begrudgingly opened one eye to look.
Sure enough, it was Lina Brackett, that clumsy rabbit girl. I'd been shocked to still see her here on the first day of SRC 102; I had every reason to believe Meyer had flunked her bigtime. But here she was, still struggling. Well, I had to respect the effort.
She was talking to another rabbit I'd never seen before. Where'd she come from? Didn't the class fill up? I glanced around to try and determine if someone had dropped the class, freeing up the space, but plenty of people just weren't here yet, so I couldn't be sure. She seemed real friendly with Brackett, though.
Case in point, Brackett was letting her copy her notes from the first week of class. So sure enough, she hadn't been here. Wonder what the situation there was.
"...Okay, that's everything! Now you should be caught up! Um, as long as my notes aren't too bad," Brackett told her friend with an embarrassed laugh.
"Don't say that, Lina, they make perfect sense to me."
Brackett looked down shyly. "Yeah, uh... they don't to me, is the thing. But I guess you're a natural at this and all..."
Her friend shook her head with a sigh. "C'mon, you shouldn't think of it that way. What parts are you struggling with? I can try to help."
"Um... the parts I underlined, mostly."
She stared at Brackett in disbelief. "O... Oh, those were...? I thought..." She trailed off and rubbed her neck. "Well, um, class is starting in a few minutes, so let's just leave that for later."
I couldn't help but let out a chuckle. Brackett's friend took notice and turned around to give me a disapproving glare.
"Sorry, sorry," I apologized, at least half sincerely. "I'm just all too familiar with Brackett's sourcery struggles. ...Lina's, I mean. You aren't her sister or something, are you?"
She shook her head. "Not... exactly, no. I'm Rena Taggart. And I don't take kindly to people mocking Lina. Who do you think you are?"
Brackett tugged Taggart's sleeve. "R-Rena, it's okay. That's Cecilia; she's one of the best students in our class. She even helped me, um... once or twice," she said slowly, as if struggling to remember how many times I'd actually bothered.
I sighed, feeling a little guilty for making this into a thing. "Well, I could make it twice or thrice if you're up for that."
"O-Oh!", she exclaimed. "I'd love that! You're too kind, Cecilia...!"
"It's the least I could do," I shrugged. "Actually, Brackett, I've been curious why you're still here... on two counts. You had a real rough time in SRC 101, and Meyer only seemed to make it rougher for you."
"That's... certainly not wrong," Brackett nodded. "But Mrs. Meyer recognized my drive to continue with sourcery, and gave me a chance. And I don't intend to let her down!"
"Why is that, though? What is driving you?"
She rubbed her neck. "Well... wanting to fix my own glitches, mostly. If you haven't noticed, I get a lot of them. Plus maybe someday I could be an admin, or at least a sourcerer who helps people..."
"Huh," I said with a nod. "And you, new girl? I mean, Taggart."
"I'm going to be an admin too," she replied decisively. "It might sound a little corny and naive, but... I want to make the world a better place."
"Corny, but commendable," I laughed. "I think it's pretty ideal as is, but I guess there's always room for improvement."
"What about you, Cecilia?", Brackett asked. "You're really good at sourcery - is there something motivating you too?"
"Me?" I chuckled. "I jus
"hdj kasd lgsadkhdka dghas gfdf askjdfgvk asfdgkj fkgd"
All of a sudden, Cecilia's expression went blank, and she started rambling incoherently.
I quickly turned to Rena, who looked just as stunned as me. We ran over to Cecilia and shook her, and called out to her, but she wasn't really responding. She just sat there running her mouth, hardly moving anything but her tail.
The other students had taken notice, looking similarly worried and/or freaked out. No one seemed to have any idea what was going on.
I turned and shouted as loud as I could: "PROFES -"
I saw Mrs. Meyer standing right in the doorway, her hand on the door handle. She turned her head slowly to survey her panicking classroom.
"Class is canceled for today, I think," she said in quiet shock.
"dasd hasdkj hjaks dah dgas dg asgd h gkhdashgk dg"
"What happened to you...?", Professor Meyer muttered in confusion, crouching down to inspect her all over.
Everyone else had cleared out, leaving just me, Rena, and Meyer. Cecilia had been moved out of her seat to sit on the floor. It wasn't like she was completely limp; she could even stand or walk if guided, but it appeared as if she couldn't consciously move.
We'd told Meyer how we were talking to Cecilia before it happened, but that info didn't seem to help much. Observing Meyer's expression, I got the feeling she suspected my glitchiness had done something to her, but... that still didn't tell her what, apparently.
After a good while, Meyer's worried expression changed slightly as her eyebrows raised. "Hm... what's this?"
"What is it, professor?", Rena asked, sounding like she'd been holding her breath.
"I've found something, er... unfamiliar. I'm not sure what to make of it. Let me see..." She gasped. "Yes, this property was just changed earlier, before the start of class! This might be it!"
"But you've... never seen it before? On anyone? What with you being a former admin, that seems bizarre," I remarked. "How would you know what it's supposed to be, then...?"
"We'll just have to hope it's something we can experiment with," Meyer replied with slight unease. "I believe the safest course of action would be to set it to 0 first. It's possible the property itself was erroneously added by a glitch, although that begs the question of -"
"Aaah!! What happened?! Why am I on the floor?!"
Meyer was interrupted by Cecilia snapping back into speaking normally and starting to move her body again. All of us were incredibly relieved.
Meyer bowed her head. "My apologies, Miss Rhodes. It seems Miss Brackett here accidentally infected you with a glitchy property that briefly took you out of commission." She looked up at the clock. "I canceled class so I could focus on fixing the issue for you, but... it was resolved quickly enough that I may attempt to reconvene. Perhaps with a special lesson, to help prepare students for situations like -"
Cecilia abruptly stood up. "Hold on... Something's not right. Why can't I remember...?"
"Remember what?", Rena asked worriedly.
"Anything!! I mean, I remember my name, I remember talking to you, I remember all our Sourcery classes..." She thought it over. "Yeah... my initialization... I can't remember anything before my initialization!!"
"Well, that's odd," Meyer remarked. "Memory-related aspects were the first things I checked, and everything seemed fine there. I wonder if it's something to do with that idPointer property?"
Cecilia blinked. "idPointer...? Uh, maybe it's pointless to say this what with my memories missing, but I've never heard of that..."
Meyer shook her head. "Neither had I, until today. Is it all right if I try giving it some other values to see if that does the trick?"
"I mean, I want my memories back, so... yes!", she said desperately.
"Right, well... just be prepared in case something goes awry again," Meyer warned. "In lieu of any other ideas, let's try changing it from 0 to 1."
There was a pause while Cecilia looked at Meyer expectantly, and I wasn't sure if she had even changed it yet or not. Meyer folded her arms impatiently, seemingly waiting to see if it would have any effect.
Then out of nowhere, Cecilia screamed. Her eyes went wide, and she fell backwards onto the floor in shock.
"Oh my god I'm in Ut0p1a! Oh my god how long have I been here!! Oh my god a Ut0p1an probably just saved my life?!?"
The three of us looked at each other, then back at Cecilia. Her staring face turned toward each of us, then she started staring at her own hands.
I broke the silence to say what we were all thinking. "Um... what?"
"This is ridic what is happening right now," Cecilia assessed. "I've been here for months and I didn't even know... Oh, I'm so mad..."
"Err... what's "Ut0p1a"? Or a "Ut0p1an," for that matter?", Rena asked cautiously. "Like... "utopia," but spelled weird?"
"How can you tell how I spell it?!", Cecilia responded in bewilderment. Then she seemed to realize something. "...Wait, I feel like I can too? Freaky..."
I scratched my head nervously. "What would the alternative even be...?"
She put her hands out to the side, palms down, as if telling us to shut up and let her think. "Okay, okay, a Ut0p1an is... uhh, Ut0p1a is..." With a sigh, she folded her arms and shook her head. "No, I don't even know how to begin to broach that subject with... you guys. What do you even call yourselves?"
Again, we gave each other confused looks.
"P... People? Like you?"
"Okay, sure, "people" - but no, not like me!", she vehemently denied.
Awkwardness filled the air, and no one was sure what to say. Why did the best student in our class suddenly seem so... confused? It felt as if her memories had been messed up somehow, but what kind of messed-up memory would cause this? Meyer must have been thinking about going back to edit that weird property again, but something seemed to keep her from it.
Finally, Cecilia stood back up and let out a deep breath. "Okay, look. This is getting nowhere, so I'm just going to say it. What I'm about to tell you is 100% truth, no jokes. You have to believe me."
"A... All right," Rena replied. "I'll believe you."
"Me too," I agreed.
"...Mm," Meyer nodded.
Cecilia gulped, maybe not having expected us to agree that readily, and maybe not sure if we were actually prepared for what she was about to say.
"This world, Ut0p1a, is a computer simulation, and I'm from the world that made it."
The room was again silent.
Meyer put a hand to her head and shook it with a sigh. "Oh dear... it's been a while since I've had a student like this."
"Like what?!", Cecilia asked with annoyance.
"Miss Rhodes, would you happen to have experience with computer science?"
She nodded proudly. "Well yeah, I'm a programmer! That is, in real -"
"There you have it," Meyer interrupted. "Some students of sourcery find the shared concepts between it and programming to be too great, and begin to believe our world is a programmed simulation." She shook her head sadly. "It's quite the delusion. In reality, most shared terms came from sourcery, not the other way around. Programmers are notoriously bad at naming things, you see."
Cecilia stared at her, fuming. "W-Why, you... That last part's accurate, but...! That's revisionist history and you know it!!"
"It is the truest history we know," Meyer retorted, although that sounded like she was leaving the possibility at least a little bit open. "In any event, the idea of a computer-simulated reality is preposterous. The "life" within would be nothing but code. You can't talk to lines of code."
"And how do you think I'm feeling right now?!", Cecilia shouted furiously. "You guys should be...!"
She stopped herself and looked down at the ground.
"...No, sorry, I shouldn't say something like that. It's a damn miracle that I'm talking to you right now. It's just... a real shock to wake up to all this."
"Wake up?", Rena repeated. "You mean you were "sleeping" until now?"
"Yeah, uh, technically I still am... in the real world. I mean, my world. My body's asleep, but my brain's hooked into Ut0p1a - so here I am." She gestured at herself, then started looking curiously at various parts of her own body.
Meyer cleared her throat, and Cecilia stopped and straightened up. "Uh, right, sorry. So, I think I know how I messed up. I had to set up my own properties to enter Ut0p1a, and when I got to idPointer, I was like, they'd probably make that 0-indexed, right? Nope. So here I was just living a regular life for the past few months, no clue about who I was, 'cause I'm not properly linked to my own dang brain."
She gestured at me. "Then here came the white rabbit to make my life topsy-turvy with a glitch. Meyer "fixed" it by putting it back to 0, but then I realized something that must not have even occurred to me before: I couldn't remember a thing from before I entered Ut0p1a. But set it to 1 like it should've been, and... it all comes flooding in."
I shook my head. "This is just... absurd. Should we actually believe all of this?"
Cecilia looked betrayed. "I told you, I'm 100% serious!!"
"But if I'm understanding you right... you just hooked your brain up to a computer without anyone to help you if something went wrong?"
She looked away with embarrassment. "Y-Yeah, well... what of it?!"
"Wait, seriously?", Rena asked incredulously.
"Don't have to rub it in," Cecilia groaned. "I get it, I'm alone in this. Don't have a single friend who'd follow me on this project. They just told me there's more important things to worry about. And hell, they're probably right." She buried her head in her hands. "It's just, thinking about what could be possible if this panned out... it was worth every risk to me. Maybe it could be for others, too... but I have to prove it first."
There was silence again. Then Meyer, who I realized had been quiet for a bit, spoke up.
"Are you saying... you intend to restore our world to how it once was?"
Rena and I looked at Meyer in surprise. "Wait, you believe her now?"
"Not as such, but... she has said some curious things." She looked Cecilia in the eye. "Is it in fact your goal to prepare "Ut0p1a" for "others in your world" to "enter into"?"
"W-Well, uh..." Cecilia stammered. "I was sort of just curious what I could even do with this. I'm still stunned the old hardware actually worked to get me in. Sure, maybe I've had that in the back of my mind, as a distant goal..." She gulped. "But I dunno what I can promise. To you, or to anyone in my world."
"...Hm." Meyer looked down solemnly.
Then Rena spoke up. "Um, Cecilia... would you happen to be... a "human"?"
I wasn't sure what she was talking about; I'd never heard the word before. But Cecilia's eyes widened, and she looked away nervously. "Um, yeah... people in our world are... humans. Generally. ...But there aren't still any humans around here, are there?"
Rena shook her head. "Not that I know of. So if you're wondering how I knew, it's a long story." She turned toward us. "Hey, I think we should believe her."
"I'm afraid I can't accept such an outlandish story based on claimed knowledge alone," Meyer sighed. "Having now "woken up," I don't suppose there's anything you can do to prove your -"
"Oh my god wait, what am I doing chatting with you guys?!", Cecilia abruptly exclaimed. "I need to check that I'm not, like, dying of malnutrition or something! I mean you're not supposed to, but I'm not about to risk my life on the word of some marketing department!" She closed her eyes and put her hands in front of her face. "Let's see, uh... "log out," maybe?"
And then, she completely vanished.
We stared at where she had been in stunned amazement, with Meyer probably being the most surprised.
"She's... not anywhere," she informed us, disbelieving. "Like a total deletion... except her data is still around. As if waiting for her to return..."
I blinked. "So then, she's really...? Our world is really...?"
Meyer folded her arms. "Well... provided she does return, I'll at least grant that Miss Rhodes is something very special."
And return she did.
Later that day, we assembled in Meyer's office to discuss what we had witnessed, and what we should do if Cecilia came back and was indeed what she said she was. Lily also joined us and was filled in, but I got the feeling she thought it was all some big prank that we had roped even Meyer into.
"What's this about "humans" anyway, Rena?", she asked me. "I thought we promised to put things out in the open from now on."
I scratched my head. "Sorry, I didn't mean to hide anything... One time when you weren't around, Eda said the word "humans" instead of "people" as a slip of the tongue, probably dredging up some ancient memory of theirs. So when Cecilia brought up the people from her world, I made a guess. That's... pretty much all it was," I concluded, deciding that even if I wanted to tell Lily about my later personal discovery, now wasn't really the time for it.
"That wasn't that long a story," Lina remarked.
"Only because you know who Eda is," I retorted. "Explaining that one took a whole night, remember?"
"Come on, explaining who Eda is is easy," Lily argued. "They're just a genderless wolf with a little sister who adopted them who built a community on a cube out in the far reaches of our universe and is apparently incredibly old and has mysterious abilities and even they aren't sure what exactly they -"
Suddenly, Cecilia popped into existence in the middle of the room. "Tadaaah!"
"I was just about to finish," Lily mumbled.
"Well, look who showed up," Meyer commented, sounding less surprised than I would have expected. Really, I think all of us had vaguely believed she'd come back. Aside from Lily, whose lack of surprise I attributed to thinking she had merely teleported in.
"So... was your body okay?", Lina asked with concern, sounding like she still found the concept as surreal as I did. "You weren't, um... malnutritioned?"
Cecilia shook her head. "Nah, everything seemed fine. I mean I was still mad hungry, but yeah. Since I messed up the brain link, I was worried I might've somehow messed that part up too..."
Something occurred to Meyer. "How did you know we were in here and not the classroom?"
"Decided I'd figure out how to look up people's locations while I was stuffing myself. Pretty proud of how quickly I banged that one out," Cecilia replied confidently. But her smile soon faded. "Then again... I do need to start making up for lost time, huh."
"...Are you on some kind of deadline?", I wondered aloud. "Even though you were able to be dead to the world for months..."
She rubbed her head. "Not especially, but... ugh, it was just so much wasted time for such a dumb reason. Now I just wanna get right to it. ...Uh, whatever "it" is."
"Yes, well..." Meyer paused to consider her words, as if starting to feel the weight of who she was talking to. "If you are indeed from "the world that created ours," I would have you confirm your knowledge of our world, particularly if you intend to revive a past era of it."
"Uhh, well... huh." Cecilia scratched her head. "Sorry, you tell me one thing first - what exactly do you think my connection to Ut0p1a is?"
"Erm...?" She was at a loss for words. "Well, I... I have had reason to believe that people from your world once entered into ours. And that there were once "admins" whose powers over this world far exceeded those of the admins we have now. For that matter, I suspect even those admins were merely maintaining a world that had already been designed by another hand."
Meyer's voice grew shaky; she seemed to be trembling. "You have seemingly demonstrated the ability to enter our world from your own. And to observe us from that world like an admin would. I... I must believe you held such an esteemed position in the past. And have finally returned to... to..."
"Leeeeet me just stop you right there," Cecilia interrupted with a strained smile. "Ut0p1a shut down officially decades ago, long before I was born. I'm, uh... kind of just a nobody hoping to preserve it...?"
"A... Ah." Meyer looked like her brain had just been fried. "Sh... shut down, you say. B-But... you have kept it going, with your great knowledge...?"
"S-Sure... something like that," Cecilia replied, smiling nervously, clearly now trying her best to soothe the poor woman. "Like, yeah it shut down, but nobody wanted to let it die, you know? It all got backed up by an admin, and there's been a couple attempts at preservation since... which always petered out and got passed on to the next hopeful. But I think I'm the first to track down some working hardware!"
I struggled to wrap my head around it. "So you're just a... big fan of... something you have no experience with, from before you were born?"
"Exactly!", she exclaimed, pointing affirmatively at me. "But don't fret - I'm a great programmer, so it shouldn't be that hard to pick up!"
"I, uh..." Lina was dazed. "If I'm getting that right, we're alive right now because of you...?"
"Well depending on how you define "living," you could still say you were alive between the last attempt and when I entered the picture. Just, you know... paused!" Cecilia rubbed her neck and looked to the side. "No questions about your sentience, though. That's a real head-scratcher."
"...Wh... why?", Meyer just barely eked out. "If you have no connection to our world... why are you...?"
Cecilia's eyes widened, and her forced fake smile fell away.
"Because... out of all of humanity's attempts at making an artificial world, it's clear to me that Ut0p1a was one of the best. And it deserves a second chance."
Meyer looked impressed by the sudden earnest response, and her calm seemed to return a bit. "I... I see. Then... I am endlessly grateful to you, Miss Cecilia Rhodes. Thank you..." She bowed. "...for caring about our world."
"H-Hey, no problem," Cecilia shyly replied. "I wasn't even expecting there to be people here who could feel gratitude, so it means a lot."
"Wait, you thought we'd just be a bunch of... programs or something?", I asked with uncertainty.
"What'd I say re: questions about sentience?", she sighed with annoyance. "But like, yeah. Until I got in here myself, pretty much. I never heard anything about Ut0p1a having its own life outside of people coming in from my world - and I really think I would've, if anyone knew. Which is... all the more reason to preserve it, absolutely."
"U-Um, excuse me," Lina interjected, raising her hand. "I know you said it was more of a "distant goal," but if you're planning on letting people come into our world... i-it sounds like that plan wasn't accounting for us? Does that... um, are we throwing a wrench in..."
Cecilia held out her hands in front of her. "Whoa, no, don't even sweat it! Like of course it came as a huge surprise that you weren't mindless AIs slapping words together, but I gotta say it's a pleasant one. Like, it's completely amazing what you've gotten up to." She shook her head. "You know what, don't even worry about all that "humans coming back" stuff for now, okay? For now, I'm here for you guys. I wanna make this a world I'd wanna live in before I worry about getting anybody else in."
"Which is to say... you would fix it?", Meyer asked. "With access to the foundations of our world like we could never dream of... you would address the many issues that have plagued it, left to fester since this so-called "shutdown"...?"
Cecilia looked away, clearly hesitating. But it was also clear she didn't want to take away the light from Meyer's hopeful eyes again.
"I... I'll try?"
In response, Meyer hugged Cecilia tight.
"...Ahah, um. ...So, where should I start?", Cecilia asked, visibly embarrassed.
"Th-That is a good question," Meyer replied, failing to hide that she was tearing up as she let go of her. "I have some ideas, but... well, I'll get back to you later."
"Sounds good," she said with a dazed nod. "I think I'm gonna log out and like... sleep. You know, for real. No idea whether it's any different from sleeping while in Ut0p1a, but... it sounds nice right about now."
Cecilia stepped back from us and waved goodbye.
Then from out of nowhere, floating, flat, kind of crusty-looking images of winged figures wearing white appeared all around her, gently lifting her up into the air, and she phased straight through the ceiling.
A floating message appeared where she had been standing. "pretty fancy right??"
Lily glanced at our stunned faces, and looked around the room in confusion.
"Oh she was serious. Oh you were all serious. Oh. Oh wow."
It seemed bizarre to try and just go about our business after all that, but that's what we did. We heard nothing from Cecilia for the rest of the day, and the next day we went to our classes as usual, and Meyer even taught Sourcery like nothing had happened... well, aside from acknowledging Cecilia's "emergency," as our classmates knew it, and her resulting "absence."
It had sure felt like a lot in the moment. It undeniably was. And thinking back on Meyer's response to it all - from denial to rationalizations to what ultimately seemed to be hope - I wondered if her reasons for quitting as an admin were related to mere inklings of the sorts of things Cecilia had told us, sometimes frighteningly casually.
If it were up to Meyer, she probably would have kept this whole thing secret from us out of concern. Maybe she'd been worrying for a long time that our world had been "abandoned." I couldn't wrap my head around what it being "shut down officially" meant exactly, but it sounded like it may have been her worst fears realized.
But that was in the past, and now Cecilia was here. Though her attitude and everything didn't always instill confidence, at the end of the day, I trusted she was someone who didn't want to see our world die - who really wanted to live in it herself.
So to my own surprise, I was able to carry on like normal. Knowing the nature of our world didn't change anything; it didn't make it any less real. We were just as much "alive" as Cecilia, even - as proven by her own wonder at why that was - and I sensed her carefulness to not let her position make her see us any differently. All that had really changed was... knowing someone cared.
I looked across the room at Lily, who had sort of a blank look. She was probably still processing everything, having apparently spent that whole conversation yesterday thinking about how much effort we were putting in for a prank...
"Hey, Lily, is everything okay?", I asked with concern. "If you want to talk about anything..."
"No, I think... I think it's best if we don't talk about it," she replied, sounding frazzled. "I feel like if I can just go about life as normal for a day or so, then I'll probably be..."
Suddenly, Cecilia appeared in the center of our room, completely motionless, her arms fully extended outward.
"I don't see it," Lily muttered to herself, grabbing her purse and exiting the room with her eyes fixed firmly on the ground.
"Hey guys! How's my avatar look?" Cecilia's voice emitted from her, yet she remained completely motionless.
"U... Unsettling," I answered, too freaked out to give her anything but the truth. "What's an "avatar"? You were moving normally before... Did something break...?"
"Oh shoot, is it T-posing? ...Yeah, it's totally T-posing. Let's see if I can fix that..." She abruptly changed pose, now standing perfectly upright with her arms at her side - and still motionless.
I shook my head. "That's not much better... What's going on?"
"Oh right, I forgot I never told anybody. Well, if I'm gonna be doing work on Ut0p1a, it helps to be outside Ut0p1a, right? But I also want to talk with people inside it while I work. So I set up this avatar I can use! Lina, Rena, Meyer, I'm actually speaking to all of you at once through it! Pretty neat, huh?"
"Um, sure, convenient..." I turned away from the uncannily still figure, and in doing so, realized it had no reflection in the mirror, which almost made me jump. "But really creepy."
The motionless husk emitted a sigh. "It's the lack of animations, huh? Well, I did have an easy idea that might work..."
She was silent for about a minute. When she spoke again, it was accompanied by exaggerated bouncing and mouth movements... and then going completely neutral again the moment she stopped talking.
"Testing, testing, hello world... How's that?" There was a brief pause just long enough for the avatar to snap back to a neutral pose for a second. "Much more natural, right?"
"Absolutely not," I groaned. "There was someone I wanted to have you meet next time you were available, and I'll not have his first impression be of this... monstrosity."
"O... Oh. Okay, not a hit. Guess we'll call it a work in progress," Cecilia said sadly, contrary to her avatar's bubbly movements. "Just hold on, Meyer, I'll come in."
The avatar vanished, and a few minutes later, Cecilia reappeared as her proper self. Much better.
"So who's this guy I should meet?", she inquired.
"He's... an admin I once knew," I explained vaguely. "He was my first thought for who else to tell about, er... you, and all this new information. He would be able to connect you with admins the world over to aid in -"
"Ahh, I getcha. Old work buddy," Cecilia nodded. "Why'd you quit, anyway?"
I paused, unsure whether she had looked that up about me earlier, perhaps while "logged out," or just made a guess right this moment. I was... also unsure how to answer the question, especially in light of the facts I had now been faced with.
I went with a general, largely truthful answer. "It was a lot of pressure, as I'm sure you can imagine. Despite my talents, I ultimately didn't feel I was cut out for it."
"Oh... yeah, that makes sense," she acknowledged, folding her arms. "Well anyway, what are we waiting for? Where is this guy?"
I grabbed her hand, pulling her folded arms loose. "We'll be going to him."
A moment later, we were in a familiar location with familiar sounds. Cecilia jumped, clearly startled by the sudden warp, but she didn't make a fuss, likely quick to realize she was surrounded by people hard at work.
I walked with her toward a familiar door. For an instant, I worried I might have been about to make a fool of myself in front of Cecilia, and maybe I should have let go of my stubbornness just a bit and at least said something in advance.
But if I was going to be walking into this office again, this was how I wanted it to be.
I knocked on the door, and heard a familiar voice respond.
"Who is it? Sorry, but I'm a little busy with something here."
Especially thanks to the noise, I could vividly picture him scrambling over to open the door. And when it opened, I saw just what I'd imagined I'd see.
"M... Meyer?", he uttered in disbelief. "You're here? ...Back?" He noticed Cecilia behind me. "Uh, is that your..."
"No. You'll hear who she is in due time," I sighed. "Cecilia, this is Lance Cooper, head admin here in North Lode."
"Uh... hi," she waved, seeming hesitant to interrupt our reunion.
"I'll be honest, I thought you were "on vacation" for good," Cooper said, shaking his head in disbelief. "I mean, uh, not to make any assumptions you're actually back to work here, but..."
"Let's just get inside and talk, Cooper," I urged. "We have a lot to discuss. And I don't want anyone else listening."
He shrugged. "Well that's maybe the most foreboding thing you could've said showing back up here. Should we be encrypting our speech?"
Cecilia raised her hand. "Uh... let me just say I dunno how to do that. I didn't even realize speech was largely text-based on the backend until -"
I covered her mouth, shoved both Cecilia and Cooper inside, and shut the door.
We sat down in what was now Cooper's office, and both he and Cecilia looked at me expectantly as I prepared myself.
"All right, I'm going to explain everything now," I told him. "Cecilia, please just... follow my lead, and be careful what you say."
She scratched her head. "Got it."
Before I could start, though, Cooper nervously lifted up his hand and pointed at Cecilia. "There's, uh. It's something to do with her, isn't it?"
"It's everything to do with her, yes. As perceptive as I'd expect from a head admin," I said, smirking. "You see, Cecilia is... well. Do you happen to recall us discussing the idea of "admins" on a higher level than ourselves? "Admins" responsible for the very origin of our world?"
He squirmed in his chair. "Uh, yeah, actually... It came up, you know... the last time we ever talked."
"...Ah. Yes, I suppose you would remember, then," I replied solemnly. "So, Cecilia is -"
"I'm not really," she interrupted. "J-Just so we're clear, and everyone's on the same page, I didn't do that. Or was that. Or am that. I'm just some guy. Girl."
Both of us stared at her in confusion. I recovered from it before Cooper did. "Y-Yes, I suppose we ought not oversell things. Cecilia has... capabilities in common with such theoretical entities. To spare you all the details."
"That's... quite a thing to bring in, Meyer," Cooper remarked, stunned. "But y'know, I never expected any less."
I chuckled and shook my head. "Now, please, I can't take credit. Really, it was pure luck, a miracle that -"
"Was it, though?", Cecilia disputed. "I gravitated toward your class before waking up for a reason."
"Class? You teach?", Cooper realized in surprise. "That does make a lot of sense, come to think of it..."
"You didn't even know that? How hard did you ghost this guy, Meyer?"
"Enough," I groaned. It seemed being embarrassed in front of Cecilia had been inevitable after all. "We have, effectively, an incredibly powerful sourcerer willing to help us. So can we talk business?"
"Help us how?", Cooper questioned. "What can she do? ...And what does she know, that you don't want her to say?"
"Obviously I don't want to say that either," I replied with annoyance. I should've known he would be too curious to ignore that.
"It's just... I'm almost more interested in knowing things beyond our knowledge than I am fixing things beyond our fixing." He shrugged. "Maybe I shouldn't feel that way as an admin, but I do. If someone created our world, I wanna know how they thought, you know? I feel like that could help guide me in taking care of it myself."
"How they thought, hm..." I glanced at Cecilia. "From what I hear, even she wouldn't know much about that, I'm afraid."
"Too much to hope for, I guess," Cooper chuckled with a hint of disappointment. "I just wonder if they ever gave it a name."
Cecilia cocked her head. "Huh? No, that one's easy. It's Ut0p -"
I cut her off, but Cooper got the message regardless - and smiled in response. "Well, what do you know, I was right. Utopia... so they wanted this to be a perfect world, too." He put a hand to his chin, looking as if he were daydreaming. "Any other names you know? Another name for the moon, maybe? Do the stars have names?"
"I... guess I could go check for that sort of thing," Cecilia replied, likely stopping short of asking if it was really the best use of time. "Though of course, I'd have to... uh, you know, Meyer."
"Go ahead," I approved, despite finding it pointless. I suppose I was starting to see the potential benefits of her "avatar," if we were making her log out and back in for trifling things like this...
Cecilia disappeared - thankfully without any silly effects this time - and Cooper looked shocked. "Wh-Where did she go?"
"That... I don't exactly know," I answered honestly. "Somewhere beyond our detection. But evidently she is perfectly fine there, and able to work sourcery more advanced than we can imagine."
Cooper rubbed his chin. "Do you think she could snap a picture?"
I groaned. "Even if she could, Cooper, I doubt our feeble minds could comprehend it."
After a few minutes sitting around awkwardly, Cecilia reappeared. "Okay, uh, sorry for the delay. Tripped over something in my crappy workshop that badly needs cleaning up. So like... names of stars and planets and stuff, you said?"
"Err, yeah," he replied. "Did you find anything?"
She rubbed her neck. "The moon's just... "moon," yeah. No named stars that I could see. Unless you count the sun, also known as... "sun." I also checked if this planet had a name, and..."
She winced as soon as I showed interest. "I mean, uh... are you sure you want to know?"
"If our creators gave it a name," Cooper said, "then I'd like to know, yes."
"Well, there's... room for interpretation there," Cecilia sighed. "It's "Default.""
I blinked at her in stunned shock, while Cooper looked at her in wonder. "Default... Default! I like it! That almost sounds like a divine instruction, doesn't it, Meyer? "De-fault"!"
Cecilia and I shared a confused glance.
"...Gotta commend the attitude," she concluded with a shrug.
Admittedly, I'd chalked up some of my discomfort with the things I was learning to Cecilia's personality. She hadn't exactly spoken with the greatest care, or skillfully eased us into learning the nature of our world... although if she truly didn't know beforehand that we existed and were alive, I suppose she hadn't been prepared to do so in the least. So it wouldn't be fair to blame her too much.
But provided she was just accurately reporting what she saw in this case... it made me anxious. Maybe it wasn't just Cecilia who was cavalier about matters related to our very existence. Maybe even our creators hadn't been very invested in making a world for us. To not bother assigning a name to the place we all lived... or if it was a joking name, was that any better?
And yet Cooper didn't think this way at all. As ever, that was why he should be the one with the job.
"...Well. If you're sufficiently motivated now, Cooper, I'm eager to hear some ideas," I told him. "As an active admin, what issues do you deal with that just make you think... "if only those original admins were still around"?"
His face lit up. "Oh! Well, when you put it that way - what about minting Cubits?"
"Cubits?", Cecilia asked curiously.
"Money, Cecilia," I sighed. "How have you lived this long without knowing that?"
"I mean, I didn't seem to have to pay for my apartment, or school..." She looked worried. "W-Was I supposed to...?"
I looked at her blankly. "What? ...I'm not convinced you know what money is. Money can be exchanged for goods and -"
"Services, I know, I know! I'm not saying I should have to pay for that stuff, just..." She shook her head. "Whatever, Cooper, just keep explaining like I know what money is, because I do."
"...Uh, okay. If you don't know what Cubits are, though, I should probably demonstrate..." He pulled some out.
"They're round little multicolor cubes? Pfft, cute," she chuckled. "So what's that worth there? 167 bits?" She paused. "Wait, why did I say such a specific number?"
"Because, well... you can just tell." He scratched his head. "I'm not sure how to explain it other than that."
Cecilia shrugged. "Guess it's an innate ability you... or uh, we, have. Though... isn't it still a pain carrying around tons of little cubes?"
Cooper shook his head. "Not especially, thanks to how they work. Pushing Cubits together combines them into one with the combined value; similarly, they can be split up in whatever way you choose. ...To a point."
"To what point? A single bit?"
He folded his arms. "That's the problem - most Cubits actually can't go that granular. Cubits take up exactly as much memory as they're worth, so we have no idea how a single-bit Cubit could exist. ...And yet there have been Cubits in circulation with that capability. Probably very old ones."
Cecilia shook her head. "I don't get it. What makes them different? And why's it matter? Just don't price anything that low?"
"You're not explaining this very well, Cooper," I sighed. "The point is this: even we admins don't know how to "properly" mint Cubits. So we have to... counterfeit them, technically. And our best attempts can only be broken down so far, before hitting a barrier where it becomes seemingly impossible to define a discrete object in so little memory."
"You had me, then you lost me. And... still not really getting why it matters, honestly?"
"Because," Cooper interjected with a more serious tone than usual, "if we're counterfeiting, what's separating that legitimate currency from the actual fakes?" He sighed. "The answer, for now, is our special compression techniques that bring the limit as low as we can get it. But that's pretty flimsy. If we had exclusive access to whatever function created those perfect Cubits -"
"Okay, okay, I get it," Cecilia groaned. "Don't think I needed that much detail, you two." She stood up and stretched. "If it's just finding the function the admins used, that should be easy enough. Sit tight."
She vanished again, this time for longer than just a few minutes. Eventually, Cooper found it too awkward to not say anything for that long.
"So... do you think she'll be able to do what you hope she can?"
"...I have no idea," I admitted. "I'm trying not to let my hopes get too inflated. They always tend to get popped, after all."
Cooper sighed. "Meyer... listen. You shouldn't expect the world of people, that's true. But don't forget to appreciate what people have been able to give." He looked down with a smile. "If all that comes of this is confirmation that someone out there made us with purpose... I'll still be overjoyed with that."
"I think you may be the only one who thinks such a thing has been confirmed," I remarked dryly. "Though if you believe as such, I suppose it doesn't matter, does it?"
We returned to waiting. While looking around the room in boredom, I noticed something small on Cooper's desk.
"Cooper, is that Cubit y -"
I suddenly froze. "...One."
"One," Cooper repeated in wonder.
"One!", Cecilia exclaimed, reappearing next to us... via her erratically-moving avatar. She must have gotten tired of all the back and forth.
"You did it? You found the function?" Cooper looked at her now perfectly still body and turned to me. "Why's she like that?"
"Don't worry about it," I reassured.
"So we're all set, right?", Cecilia asked in confirmation. "What do you want me to do with the function? Seems like it'd only be accessible to me here, so there's no danger of misuse..."
"Well, let's see..." Cooper thought about it. "For now, make us a few hundred megabytes, and we'll start using that supply to phase out our artificial Cubits."
The avatar went motionless for a good thirty seconds or so.
"Uh, wait. Where did you want it?"
"Ah, good point," Cooper nodded. "I guess this room would do, but if they have to be made one bit a time, be sure to pace it out so that we can merge them -"
"N-Not what I meant. I mean, uh, I might have just called it without any arguments. Accidentally." The avatar reverted to a blank smile. "...What's at (0,0,0)?"
There was a knock on the door. "Mr. Cooper? We just got a call from Elec-Tree City..."
He rubbed his forehead. "That's what's at (0,0,0), Cecilia."
The avatar disappeared without a word, and Cubits started to slowly fill the corner of the room. I went over and started pushing them together while Cooper walked out.
Well... lucky for Elec-Tree City, I suppose.
I had to wonder. What made people feel the need to counterfeit money in a "utopia"? I mean, to the point that it was an issue?
Like I said, even if it had only been a few months, I'd gotten by not knowing what their currency even was. Maybe if I'd wanted to eat any food, I'd have to pay for that, but I saw "not having to eat" as such a banger feature of Ut0p1a that even my unaware self must've subconsciously gone for it.
I'd been surprised, actually, to realize housing and schooling just seemed to be free. As sensible as that was to me, I'd read that back around when Ut0p1a was made, it was absolutely the norm to have to pay. And Ut0p1a alone bucking that trend felt unlikely.
So after giving Cooper his couple-hundo-megabytes of Cubits, I went and looked into things. Though actually, I didn't have to look far at all.
I'd found the button to spawn Cubits in a sort of admin panel. When I opened up my own user profile in it, I noticed there were a boatload of warnings. And let me tell you, that environment sure could storytell.
"March rent transfer failed. User CeciliaRhodes's payment information may be inaccurate or out of date. Notify user and/or listed payer(s) immediately. If nonpayment persists, submit user for ejection."
All the warnings had the exact same text, just for different things. Rent for every month I'd been in there, tuition for each school quarter, a bill for every 100 waking hours spent in Ut0p1a...
Obviously I hadn't put in any payment info; seeing all this, I was surprised it had let me in without doing that. I wondered if, before the archive ended up in my hands, someone else had cracked it to dummy out that junk. Though if so, as the first person to enter Ut0p1a since it shut down, I would've also been the first to actually benefit. Maybe whatever payment processor it was expecting being long gone was part of it, too.
I had to admit, it was a depressing reminder of the context Ut0p1a had existed in. Why such a marvel as this was actually able to be made. How inaccessible it really was in its time. How, if it was ever a "utopia," it was only so for a select few, and made possible by the hard work of many others. And how badly it deserved to be separated from all that.
Thankfully, the Ut0p1ans had no clue about this stuff. They could just enjoy the perks in blissful ignorance, apparently lacking a history to look back on. Yet... even then, some apparently felt driven to make fake money to lead a comfortable life.
So even if my mishap had been a genuine accident, and I made trouble for the scruffy dog-man... I wondered if - hoped - it hadn't been an outright mistake.
I was sitting in my room, struggling with some Sourcery homework, when my phone rang.
I looked over at the other side of the room, and nope, Lily was right there. Rena usually only texted me. Actually, generally everyone just texted. So who was calling...?
When I looked at the screen, it just said "Unknown Number," which I don't think I've ever seen before in my life. Two notions crossed my mind: that this was some sort of glitch that made your phone ring, or it was someone malicious who might give me a glitch over the phone.
Both of those sounded stupid, and I was curious who it was, so I threw caution to the wind and picked up. "H-Hello...?"
"But the call was coming... from outside the hooouse!", said Cecilia in a fake spooky voice.
"Oh, hi, Cecilia," I replied, not having it in me to properly respond to her joking around. "Why are you calling?"
"Because I just got it working! I managed to hook my actual phone into your phone system so we can talk super easily!" She sounded excited about her accomplishment. "Pretty nuts, right?"
"Wow, so you just have phones, uh... out there?", I asked, a little surprised.
"Yeah, of course! It's like they say: artificial worlds imitate life. People just usually abridge the quote."
I realized something, and said it before I could think whether I should. "I'm guessing you gave up on the avatar, huh..."
"N-No, it's a work in progress! Like I said! This is just, you know, an easier approach for the time being." She sighed. "Honestly, I'm worried that even if I put tons of effort into the animation, you're still gonna find it creepy..."
I scratched my head. "Yeah... that does seem like a valid worry. Just the fact of knowing it's not really you makes for kind of a disconnect..."
Cecilia went quiet for a moment. "Not to screw up your image of me, but... my Ut0p1an body isn't "really me" either, is it?"
"Uh..." I hadn't really thought of it that way. "I don't know, maybe it's because I already knew you as just a normal one of us? Like I know there's this thing about your real body being elsewhere that I can't quite picture, but... when you're here, you're just you, right? It doesn't feel any different from how we are."
"Y... You think so?" Though hard to tell over the phone, she sounded awfully glad about my answer. "Thanks, Lina. And thanks for letting me test the phone thing. ...Oh, and uh, just one more thing!", she added, suddenly speaking with a weird, slightly gruff accent.
"Huh? What is it?"
"Can you test it the other way for me? Hang up, then call my number."
I nodded. "Oh, sure. What's your number?"
"Ah, to be clear, I'm not giving you my actual phone number. Whenever you're having an emergency and the only cure is Cecilia... just call 911!"
"Okay," I said, hanging up and dialing it.
It seemed to go through and start the call, but I wasn't hearing anything. "Hello? Cecilia? Does it work?"
"...Guess the joke's lost on you guys, huh."
I blinked. "What joke?"
Then she just hung up.
After that, I went ahead and called Rena to inform her of the same thing. Then I... didn't call anyone else.
I wasn't really feeling up to talking to Meyer or Cooper again just yet. After last time, I felt like the mood would be awkward in some way or another, and even if it wasn't... well, I felt like they'd thrown me a softball to start with, whether they realized it or not, and though I'd still managed to whiff it in one sense, I worried the quick results might get their hopes up.
So really, it was totally justifiable that rather than go right back to them, I chose to do some preparatory work instead, so that I had a better shot of actually delivering results. Arguably the phone thing fell under that, too. But now, it was time to do some documentation.
Ut0p1a's original source code was long gone. It was never properly preserved, so it had been lost even by the time the original backup of the whole system was uploaded. All we had to work with was the compiled code, which meant any changes or additions had to be done in extremely hacky ways.
Previous Ut0p1a restoration attempts had begun the long, difficult process of decompilation, theoretically allowing for cleaner, less restricted edits to the code once enough had been figured out. But they had only ever made a dent in that massive undertaking. And frankly, since it was both someone else's code and another someone else's comments, it didn't automatically mean I understood what the hell a given piece of code meant.
I had to try, though. Lina, Rena, Meyer, Cooper... some of them may not have explicitly said as much yet, but I knew they were all counting on me to do what they couldn't, and make a better world for all of us.
...It occurred to me it was strange to feel that sentiment while literally analyzing the code that let them exist. I had to wonder if anyone would ever understand the miracle of their sentience - or maybe more accurately, if anyone who'd talked to one of them themselves would dare look into it.
Not long after I started, however, my phone rang. Well, that was quick. An emergency already? Who was it?
I looked at who was calling, and was no less sure.
She took a moment. "Um... Lily? You're... Lina's roommate or whatever, right?"
I shrugged. "That's accurate, yes."
"Okay, phew," she said with relief. "I thought some complete rando learned about this number somehow, and if that were possible, it'd be a sign of way bigger problems. But still, why are you calling? Weren't you trying to avoid all this business the other day?"
"I was," I affirmed. "But in attempting to just go about my routine and acclimate to the new knowledge I'd been given about my world... something struck me."
"What? ...Like, that you shouldn't run from it or something?"
I shook my head, and wondered whether, from where she was, she could actually see me do so. "More that I couldn't run. I'm studying computer science, you see. And I'm beginning to wonder how much actually separates it from sourcery."
"Ohh," she said in realization. "Yeah, that tracks. Kind of nuts for me to even think about there being computers in a computer..."
"I feel similarly from the opposite end," I sighed. "It makes me wonder if computers as we know them even resemble the sort of system that our world "runs" on. At the very least, our systems must be far, far less powerful..."
"It's probably something like that, yeah. But it seems like a lot of Ut0p1a was modeled to be familiar to the people coming into it, and I'm sure computing's no exception. So at least the concepts should be the same."
I was surprised how readily I absorbed that information - that not only had our world been designed, it had been designed for people who were not us. I suppose it only made sense that they would take priority, but I hadn't really put it together like that.
I pondered. "You called yourself a programmer, yes? I'm sure you'd have more expertise than myself, if you're daring to work with our world. So if the concepts are in fact the same... any advice for my own studies?"
"Uh... always keep backups of your source code. And leave good comments," she chuckled.
"Well, of course I know that," I groaned. "What kind of fool wouldn't?"
"You'd be surprised." I heard some rustling over the phone. "Hey, out of curiosity, where are you right now? Your dorm room?"
I shook my head, less sure this time that Cecilia could see it. "No, I'm at an outdoor café I come to sometimes. I wanted to work on my computer science homework away from Lina... and have this call with you."
"Whoa, nice. Bet it's a nice view?"
"It is." I gazed at the sunset briefly. "What about you, Cecilia? You are... somewhere, aren't you?"
"Oh." She paused. "Uh, just my... windowless workshop. It's kinda cramped, lots of junk all over the floor. At least it's big enough to fit the pod I use for logging in, and, well... "Ut0p1a" itself."
"A workshop, you say?" My curiosity was piqued. "What else do you work on there?"
"Right now? Nothing. You're my top priority. I was working on my mechanical tail, but honestly, it couldn't compare to -"
She abruptly cut off. I looked at the phone, but saw the call was still going.
"...What do you mean by "mechanical tail"?", I asked. "Are you dissatisfied with your real one?"
"S... Something like that," Cecilia replied nervously. "But being in my Ut0p1an body... just feels right. To the point that I wish I could do work out here while still in there - although I doubt that could ever work."
I nodded. "I can understand that feeling. ...I take it sourcery doesn't exist in your world?"
"Huh? N-No, not that I know of..."
"Then... I suppose I was lucky." I almost felt guilty imagining how much harder things must have been for Cecilia. "I didn't care for how I was initialized. Yet with just a little help from others, I had the opportunity to change whatever I wanted about myself, and I've been much happier ever since. ...I assume I owe the designers of our world a great debt for that being the case."
"H... Huh." She seemed to be deep in thought. "Um... to be clear, there are some steps I've managed to take, out in my world. Things might not be as simple as that here, but if there's a will, there's a way - and I'm far from the only one who's had the will."
"Ah." I nodded with a smile, now feeling I understood her on a more personal level. "Indeed, despite past fears, I've come to realize I'm hardly alone there; it's good to hear the same holds true in your world. So what do you do, in place of sourcery?"
"Well, medicine can do amazing stuff, and prosthetics have come a long way... uh, but you probably don't have either of those, huh? Seems like they'd almost be redundant." She paused to think. "Oh, and of course, the existence of Ut0p1a's brain link tech suggests a lot of other things that might be possible."
Something wasn't adding up there. "Might be possible? Didn't you say Ut0p1a proper shut down decades ago?"
"Yeah, but all the tech behind it was proprietary," Cecilia explained with disdain in her voice. "And that's why I'm here today, trying to reverse-engineer it all."
"I wish you luck, then." I again became aware of the laptop sitting in front of me and smiled. "You know, Cecilia, I'm very glad we had this talk. It's made me feel a lot more comfortable with all this. We have much more in common than I would have guessed."
"Heh, yeah... didn't think I'd sympathize this much with a catgirl on my computer. I mean, outside of visual novels," she chuckled.
"...And seeing as we have so much in common, some advice." I closed my eyes. "You can drop the posturing. Just be yourself around others. You'll get on much better that way."
Cecilia ended the call without another word.
"...Didn't think I'd get called out so hard by one, either," I sighed to myself, putting the phone down.
I resumed my work while letting the things we'd discussed simmer in my mind.
It's true, if everything boiled down to a simple list of properties, not much would stand in the way of becoming whatever you wanted to become. I was happy for that fact more than jealous, though I did tell myself the extra effort required in our world probably made it feel more worth it. Gave a real sense of accomplishment that you'd taken control of your own destiny.
All of a sudden, I came upon a curious series of comments that had been left in the code from previous revival projects.
In retrospect, it was as if I'd arrived there subconsciously, though I couldn't imagine how.
"// [FF] HUGE vulnerability here - input not fully sanitized, possible vector for arbitrary code execution"
"// ^ Understatement. Wackest function I've ever seen. Whoever coded this went out of their way to confuse people and then not even properly clean the input. - NuTopia team"
"// maybe that's the point? :3c not changing it - dev intentions first!"
I re-read those comments repeatedly. Then I looked over the code in question. Then I pictured in my head what you had to do to use the Exploit, and thus sourcery, in Ut0p1a.
Whatever the truth behind it being like this, every single Ut0p1an owed something to this messy bit of code. And by extension, so did I.
"// [CR] fully agree with unsigned :3-face; not a bug, it's a feature"
I was still chipping away at documentation late into the night. I didn't want Meyer or Cooper thinking I'd flaked on them already, so I wanted to be able to get back to them first thing tomorrow, prepared for whatever they might throw at me.
Those plans got thrown off by another surprise call.
It did seem to come from Ut0p1a, but I didn't recognize the name this time, which worried me. I picked up. "Uh, hello...? Who is -"
"I'm so so sorry," the person on the other end said immediately. "I don't know why I dialed this number - I mean, I've done it before, but it never actually reached anyone until now..."
"Wait, you dialed "911" on a whim?" I scratched my head. "...Is there an emergency?"
"No, don't worry! That was just my mistake, too. I thought someone had gone missing, but then I remembered they were never here."
"Uh, that also sounds worrying, though," I replied nervously.
The person sighed. "Sorry, I'm not explaining myself well, am I? This is all pretty standard for me. I sometimes remember things that aren't true - but I just have to write them down and learn to recognize when it happens."
"Things that aren't true..." I looked down in thought. "Such as... 911 being a number for emergencies?"
"Yes, exactly. ...Actually, if you don't mind me asking - who are you? Phone numbers aren't usually three digits..."
"I'm... let's say an admin," I answered. "And I'd be interested in taking a look at your issue, if you don't mind. Where are you?"
"Ah... I'm sorry, but that's difficult to answer. At least, for me. There was something about being "outside the standard range of coordinates," but I don't really understand it..."
"Okay, yeah, that does sound hard to explain," I nodded - as someone currently outside of their coordinate system entirely. "But does the place you're in have a name?"
"Yes! It's Undefined."
"...With a capital U?", I asked, confused.
"Er, yes. That's what I said, isn't it?"
"Never mind. Have a nice emergency-free night," I told them, and hung up.
I looked and looked, but there was nowhere named "Undefined" anywhere I could see. I regretted not asking more questions, though not enough to bear the awkwardness of calling back, especially if they'd gone to bed. Did I misunderstand? Or maybe it was someplace created by the Ut0p1ans post-shutdown, and wasn't properly designated as a settlement?
Or maybe I was just too sleepy to figure this out right now. So I got in the pod, logged into Ut0p1a, and went to sleep in my room.
"You guys ever heard of a place called Undefined?"
All three of us looked at each other, then looked back at Cecilia and nodded. Lina pointed at me and Lily and clarified "Mostly those two, though!"
Cecilia looked relieved. "Phew, good. I kind of wasn't expecting any of you to know."
"It's a pretty lucky coincidence that we happen to," I noted. "But why come to ask us before, I don't know, someone like Meyer?"
She folded her arms. "Never mind that. So what's the deal with it? Where is Undefined?"
Lily raised her arm, pointing directly up. "Way, way out there."
Cecilia blinked at her, eyes wide. "You mean, like... in space?"
"I mean, yes, of course it's in coordinate space... it's complicated, though." I shook my head. "There's a lot that warrants explaining about Undefined, so... do you want one of us to just take you there?"
She nodded. "Yeah, I wanted to go 'cause I got a weird call from there last night... though now I'm intrigued in other ways. So by all means."
I turned to the other two. "Is it okay if I take her? I think I'll be fine missing a class, and I've been thinking about paying them a visit..."
"Go for it, Rena!", Lina encouraged.
"You're the one with the unlocked permissions for position editing, after all," Lily remarked with a smirk.
"...Oh yeah, true. Sorry." I turned to Cecilia. "Well, uh, let's go!"
I took her hands and warped us out to the edge of the universe. As I got out my piece of paper with the exact directions, however, I noticed she had a strange look on her face.
"Um, Cecilia? Is something wrong?", I asked. "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe out here."
"I... noticed, yeah, which actually feels pretty freaky. But it's not that," she replied, shaking her head.
"Then what is it?"
She looked down pensively. "Rena, uh... what sorts of people live in Undefined?"
"Well, I don't think I'd want to lump them into a particular category," I answered. "If they have anything in common, it's just wanting the freedom to be themselves. And everyone I've met there has been incredibly kind."
"R-Really?" She looked oddly surprised by that answer. "They're not snobs or anything? Even though they ditched your planet for...?"
"Oh, if you're under the impression they "ditched" it, then I see your confusion. It's not necessarily that they didn't care about the planet, or didn't want to be on it anymore." I looked down sadly. "...It's usually the planet that didn't care about them, or want them to be on it."
"O-Oh... yeah, that makes sense." Cecilia lowered her head. "Space isn't this easy to travel in my world, so... it's a really different situation. Sorry for having the wrong idea." Then she looked up and grinned. "Now I'm way more excited to see what it's like, 'cause it actually sounds like my kinda place."
I chuckled, took her hand again, and started navigating us toward Undefined. I did my best to explain what I was doing, and she seemed to grasp it pretty quickly. Soon, the big white cube and the settlement on top were within our sight.
"Oh, wow. That rules, honestly," Cecilia remarked, impressed.
"I had a feeling you might like the cube. It has the same sort of charm as your weird "avatar" thing, except not nearly as creepy," I said with a smirk.
"I'll let that remark slide given that I do love a cube."
We touched down, and I walked right up to Eda's house and knocked on the door. Mona opened it, and stared at us with surprise.
"Edaaaaa! Rena's back, and she broguht a friend!"
Cecilia looked down at Mona adoringly, as expected, but when Eda walked up, she stared at them with a stunned look.
"Wh... what are..." She stopped herself. "Uh, sorry. Eda, is it? I'm Cecilia Rhodes. Nice to meet you guys."
Eda looked at me curiously. "What's with her?"
"It's... complicated. It's a lot. We should talk over lunch," I suggested.
Cecilia seemed indifferent to that idea - but once we sat down for it, she was eating Eda's food ravenously, impressed by its deliciousness.
"Guess I wasn't giving it enough credit; food's still tasty," she remarked with satisfaction after finishing it all. "What a genius move, making it enjoyable to eat but not necessary..."
"What're you talking abuot?", Mona asked, giving her a weird look.
She scrambled to explain herself. "I mean, you know, it just hit me how the... uh, concept of food is... um..."
"...Something you feel grateful toward our theoretical creators for?", Eda finished.
"Yeah, more or less that," she agreed, relieved for the assist.
Eda shook their head. "Anyway, something tells me I should be asking you, Rena. What brings Cecilia here? Who is she?"
"Well, she's... a stellar student in my Sourcery class," I began. "I'm taking Sourcery classes now, by the way."
"Man, that feels like an eternity ago," Cecilia interrupted. "Like, I do remember it, but it's a little hazy... and I feel like I was sort of a jerk. I probably owe Lina a proper apology for that."
I just ignored her. "We found out she's a little special, and could have, like, admin-level talents. She's actually started working with some admins we know on some things. And when she happened to hear about Undefined, she got interested and wanted to check it out for herself."
"What's so special about her?", Mona questioned.
"Well..." I glanced at Cecilia, and she shrugged at me. Come on, help me out, this is hard...
"You could say she... lends further credence to Eda's beliefs?", I said at length.
Eda looked at Cecilia with wide eyes, and she shrank in response once she realized what I was implying. "Uh, to be clear, I didn't make the world or anything. I'm just some random programmer, so I still have to analyze all the -" She cut herself off as she realized what she was saying.
"...Well, whatever the case, I'm glad both of you are interested in bettering the world as admins," Eda concluded, smiling. "And anyone's welcome in Undefined, anyt -"
"Oh so you mean we live in a computer?", Mona interrupted, looking directly at Cecilia. "You live outside the computer adn you're looking at code and you're fixing stuff, on your computer??"
Cecilia stared in shock. "Uh -"
"Was that a yes? That sounded like a yes. What's it like outside the computer? Is eveyrbody else dead or dying? Are we your last hope for survival?"
"Mona, please don't bombard our guest with questions she might not want to answer," Eda nervously chided. "Especially not ones that are wild speculation..."
Cecilia grumpily leaned her face on her hand. "Yeah... what they said. You're right, I'm not from your world. But don't assume the worst, okay? We're doing okay... ish."
"Yeah, Mona, don't be inconsiderate," I chimed in. "And think about it - if things were that bad, Cecilia wouldn't be so concerned with us, would she? That'd be like refusing to pause a video game while everything floods around you..." I rubbed my neck. "Not to imply you see us that way, Cecilia."
"...Where'd that analogy come from?", she asked, sounding legitimately curious as opposed to just finding it weird.
"Uh... I'm not too sure." I scratched my head. "I guess it's just my go-to association for apocalyptic scenarios? I did have a scary dream about flooding the other day."
"Ahh, the one you wrote about, right?", Eda recalled. "You're not the first to mention nightmares like that, so I wouldn't say it's that unusual a fear."
Cecilia looked between us. "Wait, what's going on here? You're reading her dream diary or something?"
"Oh, not exactly." I pulled out the notebook Eda had given me to write in. "I have this... situation, as do some others here, where I sometimes remember things that aren't exactly true. Eda suggested I write them down, both for my sake and theirs, and it's really helped."
Cecilia blinked. "You don't say... Hey, do you mind if I take a peek at that?"
I looked to Eda for confirmation, and they just shrugged, so I replied, "That... sounds fine, I guess?"
I passed it to her, and she read it with great interest. When she passed it back, her expression looked distant, like she had a lot on her mind.
Come to think of it, given what I'd realized about these memories... she would, wouldn't she?
"Thanks. I feel like, uh... I get you a lot more now, Rena. In a weird way." She looked down pensively, then back up. "Oh yeah, one question. What was the context for writing "dragon" in there? You just... saw a weird dragon?"
"Oh, that would be Vern, one of the residents here," Eda answered. "She used sourcery to make herself into a new species she calls a "dragon" - although Rena and others have found it oddly familiar."
"Wait, wait, used sourcery to..." Cecilia shook her head in stunned surprise. "A: You can do that? B: Dragons aren't a basic species already? They're such a popular one, though... Gotta look into properly adding that...", she muttered to herself.
"You're just nonstop weird, huh, Ceciila," Mona remarked chipperly. "You'd fit right in here!"
She laughed out loud. "Yeah, I'm getting that impression. No shade on Defau... the planet, but it's really city-centric, I feel like. Weird, informal places like this appeal to me better - and I bet others from my world would agree." She shrugged. "Not that I'd dare ruin what you've got going here. It's just giving me some inspiration, is all."
"Thinking of starting your own commnuity down there? I guess if you can do all sorts of stuff with us from your computer, that wouldn't be out of the question, huh. Maybe you're kind of a "super person" too, like big sib..."
"Super person? Uh, what do you mean by that?", Cecilia asked in confusion.
Mona folded her arms. "You thought Eda was weird as soon as you swa them, didn't you? Don't think I forgot. They don't like me going into all the details so I won't, but they're super old and can do lots of amazing stfuf like nobody else... so there's no better way to describe them." She tilted her head curiously. "What were you thinking they were, computer lady?"
After a thoughtful pause, Cecilia reached over and ruffled Mona's hair with a smile. "Never mind what I thought. Yeah, they're a super person, of course."
I had a great time visiting Undefined, but... I knew I couldn't stay there long. Mostly because they were reminding me too much of what I should be doing.
Before waking up, and even for a bit afterward, I'd thought this world was paradise, and wouldn't have wanted to change a thing even if you told me I could. But a big part of why I felt that way was because I'd come from my own world, with all its hardships, into this one where I was able to choose who I got to be from the start. For those born inside Ut0p1a, it was a different story, and I could see why some people would be driven out literally into space.
From the sound of things, Rena'd gone through a very similar realization after her first visit to Undefined, despite our technically very different natures. So we'd come to the same conclusion: to bring a piece of what we loved about Undefined back to Default as admins.
Rena still had a lot to learn to become an admin, so she couldn't act on it yet. But I could. And the more I interacted with these people as people, the more I wanted to.
I'd thought Ut0p1a was a tragedy because of all its wasted potential as a virtual world. That was still true, but the Ut0p1ans - I refused to call them "processes" like in the advertising and documentation - added whole new depths to that tragedy. These were people who'd been left to fend for themselves in a system that not only wasn't built for them, it wasn't even built for all of us.
Being able to do anything that would make up for either of those things might have been a lofty goal for a "hobby project" like this, but much like I'd said before: thinking of the possibilities, I felt like it was worth giving it the best try I possibly could.
That said, the reception when I arrived back at North Lode Call Center caught me off guard.
The phones were still ringing as much as before, but the admins answering them found themselves distracted. Their eyes followed me, and those not currently on the phone whispered with each other.
Did they know? ...Don't be stupid, Cecilia, you dumped the equivalent of a couple million bucks in pennies in the middle of a major city, of course they'd know. The question was how they felt about it.
Walking into Cooper's office, the way his face brightened seemed to tell me how he felt about it, at least.
"Glad to see you back, Miss Rhodes!", he exclaimed. "Sorry about the other day - I probably came off as annoyed with you in the moment. I hope that didn't put you off wanting to work with us..."
"...Nothing like that," I insisted, to keep him from worrying. "I was just off doing some important prep work."
"Really? That's great! We've actually being doing our own sort of prep work, so don't worry about it." He scratched his head with a dumb smile. "Uh, which isn't me referring to cleaning up the Cubits or anything like that, so don't worry about that either."
He picked up some papers from his desk. "When the other admins heard about you cracking the Cubit case, they had all sorts of questions. I only told them what I know, and you're under no obligation to divulge any more, but... in response, there's been a flurry of ideas they wanted to raise with you. So I've been formally gathering suggestions from the lower-level admins here."
"Uh... sure, I'll take a look," I replied, already feeling overwhelmed just catching a glimpse of the length of the list.
It spanned all sorts of issues. Serious, widespread glitches that sounded like the equivalent of deadly diseases in my world. Environmental disasters like "glitchquakes," which they wanted me to stop at the root. Areas that had been rendered uninhabitable by data corruption. There were also more random suggestions, like general beautification efforts, building more places to live, or finding a way to initialize big batches of new admins to put on staff, seeing as they were always flooded with calls.
After a while reading the list, before I'd even read all of it, Cooper spoke up.
"Err, please don't consider this a to-do list - you don't have to do any of these if it's too much, really. And don't feel like you can't take your time getting to them, either. They're just suggestions." He rubbed his neck. "I know it's an overwhelming amount, but I decided to put them all in because we can't know how easy or hard any of them might be. After all, we'd been stumped by 1-bit Cubits for so long, but you handled that in minutes..."
I shook my head. "Well... at least at a glance, most of this seems a lot harder than that. I don't think you can expect a quick turnaround on any of these."
He nodded. "Right, of course; we won't. And if anything strikes you as outright impossible... don't hesitate to tell us."
I stared at the list. "Impossible"... I mean, I could declare things very difficult, but what did "impossible" mean when I was a programmer dealing with an entirely virtual world? Maybe "insurmountable" was more what he meant - but that was still incredibly hard to define.
I mean, all of these were important on some level, or they wouldn't have been brought up. To decide to give up on one entirely... it would have to push me pretty far, I think.
"I'll see if there's anything I can get a good start on, I guess," I sighed. "Just let me know if anything else comes up; I've set it up so you can call me by dialing 911 even when I'm not, uh, "here." You should tell Meyer about that too, I forgot. See ya."
He looked at me with surprise as I prepared to log out. "Wait, you're going already? What's the rush?"
I held up the list and shook it. "You're the one who handed me a big list of long-standing issues I might be able to fix for you."
Cooper put a hand to his head and sighed. "You weren't listening to me, were you? Think about it: they're long-standing issues that we've managed with all that time. Like I said, you can take it slow -"
"Not if you actually want them fixed," I mumbled.
"...Wh-What do you mean by that?", he asked with surprise.
I sighed deeply. "If I tell you, can you promise to be cool about it? You seem more or less cool."
"I don't really know what that means, but... I suppose I can," he shrugged.
"It's just... I know my own nature," I began, rubbing my neck. "To be totally upfront about it, I didn't sign up for all this. I just thought I'd fix a few things to work on modern systems, hack out some stuff I didn't want, and I'd have a fun virtual world to toy around with, and maybe build into something others could use. That was... before I knew it had people living in it, essentially. And those people have made being here infinitely more pleasant and enjoyable than I could've dreamed."
Cooper looked at me quizzically. "Are you framing that as... a bad thing?"
I struggled with to how to put it clearly. "Not "bad" as such, but... it's so easy to just want to indulge in that, sort of like I'd wanted to at the start. Yet I'd feel guilty for doing that when I could be doing something genuinely helpful for said people that literally no one else can."
"You shouldn't feel guil -"
"This is the problem!", I interrupted, throwing up my hands. "You'll all tell me I shouldn't worry about it, I should take my time, either because you do honestly care or because you don't want to push your luck with your possible savior." I hung my head. "Whichever way, if I start to believe you, nothing gets done. I'll realize it's just easier to accept how things are than try to do the impossible. ...But across my entire life, that's never actually been the truth."
"That's...!" He seemed to be racking his brain for a response that didn't just line up with what I'd said. "I just... don't think that's any reason to deny yourself something you want..."
"Look, I know. I'm not saying I'm never spending time here or taking a break until I'm "done" or anything. By all means, I wanna strike a balance." I shrugged. "...I just know I'm bad at that."
"I... I see," he nodded solemnly. "Well, I hope you can. Personally, my kids are a big motivator for me doing my best at this job. I feel lucky that they feed into each other that way..."
I scratched my chin. "I mean... that should be similar for me, in theory. Improving this world, at least in some cases, should make the people I'm coming to care about happy. Although that's ignoring the third side of the scale, which is my reality..."
"Err... what would that entail, exactly?", he hesitantly asked, likely knowing he wouldn't get a good answer.
"Balancing two things is hard enough, alright? Let's not worry about that right now," I said with a put-on smile.
Seeing Cooper had no further questions, I logged out.
While sitting in my room and doodling, the phone rang. As soon as I saw "Unknown Number" on the screen, I hastily picked it up and answered.
"Hi, Cecilia! Did you want something from me? Oh, how was your visit to Undefined yesterday?"
She took a moment to respond, as if I'd called her out of the blue. "...Oh, uh, it was good! Great place. H-How have things been with you, Lina...?"
I shrugged. "Oh, just the usual... classes and stuff. We saw each other just the other day, right?"
"Y-Yeah, you're right. Dumb question. Sorry, I'm not good at small talk..."
"Is there something in particular you're calling about, then?", I asked curiously.
"Ah, I mean... I-I've been working on some stuff, but I'm realizing now it'd be kind of silly to talk to you about it. It's probably not something you'd be interested in..."
"No, don't say that! I'm really interested in whatever you're doing, Cecilia!", I insisted, thinking back on my own eagerness to answer her call. "It seems a little beyond me, or maybe beyond any of us... but that's why it's fascinating!"
"Well... if you say so. I, uh, added a species."
I blinked. "Um... what does that mean, exactly?"
"Right, sorry..." She backed up her explanation. "So in Undefined, I met this lady named Vern. She's a dragon, but she had to... make herself that way, if that makes sense. Because dragons didn't properly "exist" in this world. Uh, they don't exist in my world either, to be clear, but, um, the concept does. And even though it's backwards priority-wise, I'm sure there's people from my world who'd would want to be dragons in Ut0p1a. So I thought, well, Vern's already done part of the work, so it shouldn't be that hard to make dragons into a proper species, right? And, uh... y-yeah, that's in now."
"Um... wow? That's incredible?" I was in such disbelief, I barely had the words. "You're absolutely amazing, Cecilia... You did it that fast? And it just works?"
"A-As far as I've tested, sure. People with access to their species property should be able to change over no problem, at least..." She paused as if something just occurred to her. "Uh, Lina, question. How are you guys, like... born?"
"Hmm? Oh, no one really knows. At least, I don't. It just sort of happens," I shrugged. "You're wondering if new dragons are going to start appearing automatically, right? I wouldn't have any idea. Maybe an admin would know something about it?"
"...Uh, okay. Not really the answer I expected, but I'll look into it. Th-Thanks."
Cecilia paused. I wasn't sure if she had more to say or not.
"Well, anyway, great work, Cecilia!", I congratulated to end the awkward silence. "Just make sure you don't push yourself too hard with this stuff. If you like, we could hang out today -"
She suddenly interrupted me. "N-No, I don't..." She went quiet. "I don't... deserve that..."
"W-Why wouldn't you?", I asked, stunned. "Especially after a big accomplishment like that..."
She let out a heavy sigh. "I'm so stupid... I should've never tried to lie to you, Lina..."
"Lie?" I blinked. "Um... it's okay, Cecilia, I'm sure I'll understand if you explain it to me. What part was a lie...?"
"The part I didn't mention." I heard her take a deep breath and exhale. "I didn't do it that fast, and it didn't work just like that."
I put a hand on my chin and thought. "Um... so you actually started at some point earlier, before you even went to Undefined? Well, that still seems pretty amazing to me..."
"No, no... Ugh, how should I even explain this..." Cecilia was quiet for a while trying to find the words. Finally, she did.
"Lina, everything might look fine now, but... I messed up. Really bad. And I had to roll it all back."
"Roll it... back?" I struggled to imagine what she meant. "Like... t-time itself...?"
"From your perspective, yeah, basically." There was deep shame in her voice. "Thank god I had the foresight to make a backup before starting on it. I mean, I knew mucking with something like species would probably be messy. But I was motivated, and it felt like an achievable task. And it was, but..." She trailed off. "Well, because of that, a good couple of days just... no longer happened."
"That's... I see..." I was just capable enough of conceiving what that meant to be frightened by it. "Did we... talk or anything during that time...?"
"...A little. And not just me and you, of course. But I'm trying to tell myself it wasn't anything important, and make myself forget about those experiences. So we can just... have them again, hopefully."
I nodded. "Th-That... probably would be the best you can do."
"Lina... I'm really sorry. That I screwed up so bad I had to do that, and that I tried to lie about it, and then that I had to tell you and make you sad." Cecilia sighed. "I want to promise you that I won't do anything like that ever again... even if I know you can't hold me to it."
"I suppose that's true," I acknowledged sadly. "I wouldn't have noticed a thing..."
"The truth is, time in my world and time in yours have never really had a strong correlation. When I talked about your existence being "paused" before I came along, I meant it. Time only really runs when it's, well, running. To say nothing of..." She stopped herself. "No, I probably shouldn't even bring it up."
"Bring what up?", I asked. "If it has to do with our world being a computer and all... I think I've actually come to terms with that pretty well. M-Mostly because, um..." I shyly lowered my head. "I feel like I can trust you to treat it with care, Cecilia."
"...Okay, if you insist. Stop me if you start getting freaked out." She took a deep breath. "So, I think I already mentioned there being previous attempts at preserving Ut0p1a. All of those are owed to a complete archive of the data one of the admins uploaded, after Ut0p1a originally "ended." People have taken that archive and tried to do various things with it - and most have been working off the work of others before them. That includes me."
I pictured it in my head like a timeline. "So essentially, our world has continued to "exist" past its original term... by being run on different people's computers? Except with gaps when it wasn't being run, where your world got "ahead" of ours..."
"Yeah, kind of, but... it gets more complicated than that." She paused. "There's nothing saying there can only be one Ut0p1a running at a time, or that one group has to inherit the work from the "latest" group. At any time, it could be copied, or branched, or modified, or merged, like... well, like code."
I ran through those in my mind one at a time. "Copied... branched... modified... merged? If... I mean, if there were actually two versions of me, who had different experiences... what would it mean to merge those...?"
"I couldn't even begin to tell you. Because whatever you are, I know you're not code. And I want to treat you as such." The conviction in her voice was palpable. "Which means letting your world run in parallel with mine. No rolling it back, no pausing it, no speeding it up - only a slight hiccup at most when something requires a rebuild."
I pondered. "But just because you've made that decision won't stop others from doing things with that code, will it?"
"Yeah," Cecilia affirmed. "And that's why I'm determined to make this the last Ut0p1a preservation project."
There was an awkward silence.
"In a good way," she clarified.
I was helping a student in my office when I received a surprise visitor.
The student seemed just as surprised. "C-Cecilia? I haven't seen you since... ...uh, is everything okay?"
She took a moment, likely to recall what he was even talking about. "Oh, yeah, it was nothing. I'm fine."
"Really? But you haven't come to class since then..."
"Oh, right." She scratched her head. "Well, you know me, acing every exam... Figured I could afford to skip some classes and free up some time. Though, uh, I did have a question for Professor Meyer. It can wait if she's busy, though."
The student rubbed his neck. "Um... we were kind of wrapping up, I guess."
"Yes, I think we can call it there," I nodded. "But feel free to come back another time if you need further help."
"Sure..." He picked up his things, glanced back at Cecilia from the door, and left the office.
"Sorry to interrupt," Cecilia apologized as she sat down. "It really isn't anything super urgent..."
"With you, I feel like anything could be urgent," I sighed.
She raised an eyebrow slightly. "...Not sure how to interpret that. Anyway, this might sound really silly, but..." She rubbed her forehead. "W-Where do babies come from...?"
"How detailed an answer are you looking for?", I questioned.
"Uh... could I get more details on what "detailed" means?", she asked with a nervous chuckle. "All I know is I asked Lina and she said people just kind of appear out of nowhere, or something."
I nodded. "That is more or less what the general public knows, yes. Admins, however, are privy to a clearer picture of why and how that happens."
"Yeah, no, that in itself is kind of wild," Cecilia remarked. "People just popping up and no one questioning it..."
"How did you think it worked?", I asked curiously.
"Well, my first assumption was that you guys had been around since Ut0p1a was still officially running, and not that much time has actually passed here. But thinking about it, a lot of stuff contradicted that." She put a hand on her chin. "So I wondered if people from my world, in previous attempts at reviving Ut0p1a, had made new "batches" of Ut0p1ans, and that's what everyone who's alive now was. But it sounds like it might not be that either?"
I glanced around hesitantly. "Cecilia, have you learned how to speak using encryption yet? This is very sensitive information we're about to discuss."
She shrugged. "Nah. I can be quiet, though -"
I shook my head firmly. "No, I'm having you learn just for this."
She stared at me in surprise, and silently nodded. And I spent the next twenty minutes getting her familiar with the procedure.
"Okay, can we talk now?", she asked impatiently once we were done. "What's this knowledge about birth that only admins have?"
I lowered my head. "...There is a thing known as the Once-in-a-While Loop. Every so often, it runs and initializes new "batches" of people, like you suggested. Its workings are seemingly random, initializing people with a wide variety of ages and familial relations."
Cecilia looked stunned - but it wasn't entirely for the reasons I would have expected. "Ages...? It doesn't just create babies?"
"I did say initializes, didn't I? Initialization is separate from birth. They do still have a "life" prior to initialization, that brought them to that age..."
"Then that's not answering my question," Cecilia retorted, shaking her head. "You make it sound like it's grabbing existing people from somewhere to "instantiate" into the world, but what place is that? How and when were those people born?"
I sighed. "A fair question. And this is why this discussion must be encrypted."
She looked at me quizzically. I considered how best to explain to her the troubling facts that I'd uncovered long ago, and often wished I hadn't.
"What I determined from my own investigation as an admin... is that the Loop was an attempt to replicate what we'd lost. Likely created with powerful sourcery by ancient inhabitants of our world, it generates people whole cloth and initializes them with memories of a false past." I closed my eyes solemnly. "When you first mentioned people having once entered into our world, Cecilia, that aligned with my own findings: the people who created the Loop had witnessed such an era. So it was seemingly a desperate measure to allow life to continue in imitation of that, after all visitors and maintainers alike were gone."
Cecilia just sat there, looking horrified. I began to worry that perhaps I should have refrained from telling her after all.
I'd assumed Cecilia would be able to accept it easily enough as someone who was not "subject" to the Loop, so to speak. And with her abilities, maybe she could even do something about it, so it was worth bringing up. But if she really did care about us... perhaps her heart ached regardless, thinking of how this had affected all our lives.
"Well, what... what exactly goes on when it "generates" people?", she eventually inquired. "Do you even know?"
"That is something I never found a satisfactory answer to," I admitted. "It calls newProc() - which just seems to reference what looked to me like junk data."
"I mean... I guess that's one way to simulate randomness. Although if it happened upon some actual data..." She shook her head. "Nah, I'm probably overthinking it. It was just... a hack job, huh."
"Do you think..." I hesitated. "This isn't a request of any sort, but... do you think you could do better, Cecilia?"
She looked just as hesitant to respond. "M... Maybe I could do it a little more cleanly, at least, but... what would be the way to change it? Or should it be removed? What would be best for everyone?" She looked down timidly. "That part's... way beyond me, as someone who hasn't had to live here - who doesn't have to live here."
"I... I suppose, yes." I nodded in solemn agreement. "I myself haven't given it much thought since I quit as an admin... I never would have considered someone like you coming along, who could bring such changes into the realm of possibility."
"Well... then maybe you should start thinking about it," she advised. "As it stands, as unsettling as this whole Loop thing sounds, I don't want to blindly mess with something that's been the way of your world all your lives."
"Yes... that's fair." Then I had a thought. "Actually, Cecilia... where do babies come from in your world?"
She laughed. "Well, how detailed an answer do you want?"
"Very funny," I replied, unamused.
"No, like, really. I have no idea how risque I should get. Because it sounds like the whole concept of how it works for us, like... doesn't exist here." She looked down in thought. "Which is bizarre to me. People who came from my world absolutely would've wanted to have intimate relationships, and even kids. Sure, maybe the devs questioned the ethics of virtual children being born to non-virtual people, but..."
"Pardon me, but you seem to have started rambling instead of answering my question," I remarked with annoyance.
Cecilia scratched her head. "Right, uh... guess I'll give you the ultra-basic version. When a man and a woman love each other very much..."
"Why a man and a woman, specifically?", I wondered aloud.
She gave me a nervous look. "...Well, I said basic, but maybe I should be more true to reality, and to what you know. Uh, it doesn't really matter what they are. When two people want to have a kid, they can combine their genetic information - roughly equivalent to "properties" here - and start off the months-long process of forming a child, who inherits traits from both of them. How exactly that combination happens, and where the child forms, depends on a bunch of specifics that probably aren't worth explaining to you. And at the end, the child emerges to be born. Uh, at age 0, I guess."
"...And this is where everyone in your world came from?", I asked, confused. "How many of you are there?"
"Plenty, okay?", Cecilia responded, sounding almost defensive. "I know I made it sound kinda dry, but lots of people really enjoy... ahem - the act of combining genetic information. Supposedly, it's in people's very nature to reproduce, even if I don't feel that way personally."
"Which is why you find it so curious that it's absent from our world? Hm." I thought it over. "If it is truly that important to your way of life, I'd think the designers would have at least made an effort to include it - for the sake of your kind. But I suspect we were never born through such a process, at any point. Perhaps we, too, lack the desire to engage in it, if not the ability to as well."
"That could make sense, actually," Cecilia remarked, thinking it over. "I figured if the Loop came about as a solution while life here was dying out, there must have been no alternative... but maybe they did at least know of an alternative, it just wasn't one they could make use of themselves."
I pondered. "If that alternative were available to us, what do you think would have happened? ...Or would happen?"
"...Maybe the same thing," she answered with a sigh. "As long as that drive isn't there."
I nodded. "...I suppose so."
Cecilia stood up. "Well... thanks, Meyer. You've given me a lot to think about. On top of everything else, that is."
I winced hearing her say that. "Cecilia, I'm sorry if we've put too much upon you. No, not "if" - I'm sure we have. If there's any way we can help you unwind, or any way we can lighten that load..."
"I know you mean that genuinely, but..." She shook her head. "How am I supposed to not feel anxious and impatient about all the problems afflicting people I care about - a whole world I care about? Whether or not I'm the best person for the job, I have to be. Or else that suffering will just continue, and this world might run out of chances."
"I know that feeling painfully well," I desperately responded. "But don't make the mistake of thinking you have to handle everything alone. We all share this world and its flaws, and we all have things we can and can't do. However it might look... you have to believe it's not all on your shoulders."
Cecilia stared at the floor, trying to think of a response.
And then, I received a familiar visitor.
"Professor Meyer? I had some questions about -"
Lina jumped when she noticed Cecilia. "O-Oh! Sorry, am I interrupting something...?"
"No, Miss Rhodes was just about to leave; that said, so was I." I stood up and walked over to the two of them. "I'm afraid I have other business today, so I won't be able to stay and assist you, Miss Brackett."
"Oh... That's okay, it can wait," she said sadly.
I smirked. "Ah, but Miss Rhodes here should be perfectly capable and willing to help, I think." I glanced toward Cecilia. "Am I wrong? It's only sourcery, after all."
She gave me a look of surprise, but I didn't detect any annoyance. "Y-Yeah... I'd be glad to help."
Lina looked at her with puzzlement. "Um... what did you just say? Was that encrypted?"
"S-Sorry!", she apologized after hastily disabling it. "I said I'd be glad!"
"Oh, good!" Lina's face beamed.
I smiled as I watched the two leave.
Although I worried how much Cecilia was reminding me of myself... I had to hope that didn't mean she couldn't still have a positive effect on the world.
The following week was a bumpy one. For Cecilia more than anyone - but we were all there for her, and she seemed very glad for that.
She told us there was a list of issues Cooper, Professor Meyer's former admin partner, had compiled for her consideration, and she was starting to make big swings at some of them. That's not to say she got them on the first try, or that her swings didn't sometimes have collateral damage.
For instance, she tried to do a permanent fix for a glitch I often got myself, where certain textures wouldn't load properly. (I wondered if I'd called in about it enough times that it was the first thing on some North Lode admin's mind...) Everything seemed to be fine at first... but then textures started failing to load entirely all around the city. Either that, or Cecilia really thought some purple checkerboard patterns would liven things up. But they were gone by the end of the day, so probably not.
Sometimes things got a little scarier than that. I don't know if she was talking to Rena or what, but Cecilia tried to do some stuff with gravity that would allow people to actually walk on the moon, and let Undefined utilize every side of their, you know, cube. (She'd work on rounding the edges later, probably?) Her attempts went wrong in a variety of ways, from everything getting floaty, to Undefined itself going into freefall, to the moon briefly hurtling toward our planet. So she still hadn't cracked that one.
Despite how messy things could get, it's important to note how dedicated Cecilia was to keeping the promise she made me: she wouldn't just revert our whole world when something went wrong. The work of fixing her own mistakes clearly took more time than the alternative; I'm sure it probably tested her patience, knowing she could be working on something else, and that in the meantime we had to deal with the fallout she herself caused.
But I know I never blamed her for anything, at least. She was trying her best, like any of us. Everything she did, every interaction she had with us, made it crystal clear how she genuinely cared and wanted to help.
And after a while, things started looking up. Cecilia happily announced to us that she'd set up a way to revert world changes without affecting the data or memories of any actual people. It had its own drawbacks - I lost a drawing or two to a world reversion - but she said it was perfectly feasible to work it into a smooth process eventually; all it would take was a little more fine-tuning.
Besides her work, Cecilia would regularly talk to us on the phone or "come in" to visit us. I felt like she'd started trying to hold off on talking to us about admin-adjacent things, to make us see her more as a regular friend, as one of us. But really, I always had. If she was investing herself so much in our world to be a part of it, and treated us so thoughtfully, who was I to deny her?
All in all, I felt good about where things were at between us. Hopefully I wasn't just projecting to think that Cecilia did, too.
Until that changed.
There's something I have to tell all of you.
This morning, I logged out of Ut0p1a to do some documentation work. Nothing of note happened. I didn't make any actual changes. And yet when I went to log back in, I couldn't.
I've been troubleshooting all day to try and figure out the problem. For a second, I even considered reverting to a backup, but I'm almost certain that still wouldn't help.
My only conclusion is that after all these years, once I started working it too hard, the hardware just broke. The pod I use to enter Ut0p1a, the only remaining one I could find, seems to just be useless now, beyond my knowledge to fix.
I know that if I give up here, it just makes it look like my only reason for starting this project was a selfish one. I'd like to deny that, but also, maybe it's true. Either way, I can't do this anymore. I can't be responsible with your lives, and your world. You can handle those things better yourselves.
Since I don't have the right to put your existence on pause, I'm going to keep this instance of Ut0p1a running for as long as I can. Ideally, I'll find someone else willing to take up the mantle, who's less of a screw-up.
I might not find anyone, though. Maybe someday I'll have to give up and just upload this somewhere as "the branch that adds dragons." Maybe I'll never do that, and you'll just live on in someone else's branch, where you never had to meet me.
Goodbye, Lina, Lily, Rena, Meyer, Cooper, all of you. As someone who was invested in your future, I'm sorry I can't give you a more clear idea of what it might be.
I just know it shouldn't be in my hands.
We had naturally gathered together in my dorm room. Lily was obviously already there, and Rena came as soon as she saw the message on her phone. Meyer called me to ask where I was, and brought Cooper.
We were all trying to get through to Cecilia. Our calls still seemed to reach her, but she wasn't picking up. It was late; maybe she'd just gone to sleep. But I worried that her being awake or not might not make a difference in whether she'd answer.
"If she won't answer the phone, there's nothing left to even try," Meyer asserted in defeat. "We're just pieces of code... We're helpless to affect anything in her world."
"We're more than that," Rena refuted. "She thought we were more than that!"
"That doesn't mean we have power over anything outside of our world," Lily admitted with a sigh. "It's a closed-off system. All we could do is ruin our own world in the vain hope it grabs her attention, which strikes me as counter-productive."
"A-Are we sure we don't have any power?", I asked. "There must be some other way to get to her..."
"Decades of sourcery haven't uncovered... well, anything obviously of that nature, at least," Cooper commented. "Finding anything now - especially right now, quick enough for it to be of use - is a tough ask."
"But those decades were before Cecilia arrived! Maybe the situation's different now after she came in? Maybe there's something that's... changed..."
I trailed off, looking back at Cecilia's message on my phone.
"Hey... How do you think the link between Cecilia's phone and ours, um, works?", I questioned aloud.
"I haven't looked into it, but I'm sure it was very hacky," Meyer replied. "After all, it has to connect two wholly different... systems..." She seemed to have the same realization.
Lily folded her arms and closed her eyes. "At the end of the day... we are just data, it seems. And yet our data exhibits consciousness, even across copying and branching... You don't think...?"
Cooper looked around at us in confusion. "Uh, am I on the same page as you here? We're thinking about... sending a person over the phone? Like, actually?"
"What would they do there?", Rena asked as a followup.
I shrugged. "I'm not really sure, but I'll figure it out!"
Lily's head swung around. "Wait, you want to do it, Lina?!"
I lowered my head. "I... I feel like I just need to talk to her. Like I might be the one of us who best understands what she's going through. I'm probably wrong, but... does anyone else feel up to it?"
No one said a thing.
Meyer shook her head with a smile. "All right, I'll work out the details on executing this wild idea right away."
Everyone turned to face her with surprise. She walked over and gently stroked my head.
"Miss Brackett... no, Lina. You may have endured many failures... but what you have never failed to do is surprise me."
Her hand came to a stop. She looked at me, then gave me a big hug.
"So go and make me proud, my student."
I was... floating. That's about the only way I could describe how it felt.
My body must have been left behind in Ut0p1a; here, I had no form. And yet I could think, move, and sense things around me, though it hardly felt like traditional senses. And though I tried to speak, nothing came out.
I fumbled around looking for anything I could make sense of. After touching something that felt like a button, my surroundings went dark.
I panicked and looked around for anything I could still see. Finding another button in the darkness, I rushed toward it.
Suddenly, it was bright again, and I saw something. It looked like... a ceiling? With a ceiling fan? It wasn't any place I recognized, though.
Then I had a realization. Was I seeing through her phone's camera?
I tried desperately to look around for Cecilia, but the view remained fixed on the ceiling. How could I get it to move...?
Suddenly, the ceiling appeared to shake very slightly, and I heard a dinging sound. A notification? That in itself didn't seem helpful, but maybe...
I fumbled through some more menus. Eventually, I found a button that seemed to make the phone vibrate. Slowly but surely, my view started to shift, bringing more of the ceiling into sight -
And then everything went spinning, ending in the view going black again.
That didn't seem good. Touching the button from earlier, which I realized flipped between the front and back cameras, only got me a wider view of the ceiling, still with no one in sight. I was unable to identify anything I might have seen while the view was spinning, either.
This wasn't getting me anywhere. I needed to talk to Cecilia. How could I make this phone emit my voice?
Wait, that's it - I'd just have to make a call. If I put it on speakerphone, maybe my voice would come through?
I went looking for how to start a call. Eventually, I heard a dialing noise that seemed to indicate I'd succeeded. Though, who was I calling...?
The absolute last person I would have expected picked up the phone.
"Cecilia! Is that you?!", my own voice asked.
"Th... This is Lina," I replied, and was surprised for the second time in a row to hear my voice. "Is that... also Lina?"
"Oh dear," I heard Meyer say in the distance.
"Um, anyway, I think I'm on speakerphone right now!", I informed them. "So... so if Cecilia's anywhere near her phone, she should hear us! Do you hear us, Cecilia?!"
"We're all here, Cecilia!", Rena shouted. "All your friends from Ut0p1a!"
"We got your message," Lily said solemnly. "And we think you should reconsider, for all our sakes."
I didn't see any movement at all on the camera. But for all I knew, Cecilia was just out of frame, listening to us... so we had to try.
"I know what it's like when things don't go how you expected them to go - how you hoped they would go. To mess things up and for that to get in the way of anything getting better."
"Hey, I was going to say that!", I shouted at the other Lina.
"Of course you were, you're me with a few minutes of differing experiences!", she retorted.
"Um, Cecilia, do you think you could merge these two back together later?", Cooper requested. "This doesn't seem sustainable."
"The point is!" I took the initiative. "That doesn't mean you should give up on something you really wanted! You didn't want to fix our world just for your own sake, did you? You wanted to see it become the best version of what it always could have been!"
"Even if the log-in hardware is busted, it's not the end of the world," said Lily. "There's other ways you can be here with us, and we can be there with you. And if it was built once, then lost knowledge or not, I know it can be built again."
"There's no way you're the only one who'd want to help make this world a real utopia. Think of the people in your world who could find happiness here!", Rena pleaded. "I know they're out there!"
"Please, Cecilia... Please don't give up on Ut0p1a yet," the other Lina said through tears. "You're listening, aren't you? Please..."
No one had anything left to say. We had no idea if we were reaching her or not. Eventually, I hung up the call.
All that we could do now was hope.
After the call from "myself" silently ended, we spent hours sitting around, waiting for a sign that Cecilia might have heard us.
I think all of us were emotionally preparing for the possibility that she might not come back. Sure, we could manage like we always had before she arrived. Depending on how long Cecilia was able to keep Ut0p1a running, or if she could find others to run it continuously, we might live full, normal lives.
But the part that would hurt most was that we'd lost a friend. From our perspective, it was like she'd barely even gotten to live. And given how much she'd seemed to like it here, it might have felt that way from her perspective, too.
Eventually, Cooper decided he had to go home and sleep. So did Meyer not long after. Lily fell asleep on the floor, so I put a blanket over her, and Rena and I nestled up next to her.
Whatever happened... we would just have to do the only thing we could do. We'd live.
The sun rose on our strange, beloved world.
I woke up first. Seeing my girlfriends sleeping... relatively peacefully considering they were on the floor, I got the urge to do something for them.
They could use a good meal after last night, I thought. So could I, really. Maybe I could make us breakfast? Or, well, probably buy us breakfast, more accurately...
I went to leave, but from the door, I looked back lovingly toward Lily and Rena.
And then I saw someone else.
"What the heck did you guys do?!", Cecilia's avatar shouted.
I blinked. "C... Cecilia? Is that really you? Are my eyes glitching...?"
"I'm not here for you making fun of the animations right now," she groaned, her avatar still bouncing excitedly.
"I didn't mean that!", I said, feeling bad even if she was the one who'd misinterpreted. "You left us that message, right? Why are you... back?"
"I'll get into that, but I reiterate: what did you do?"
Lily rubbed her eyes and sat up. She was almost knocked flat when she noticed Cecilia next to her. She shook Rena awake, and she was similarly shocked.
I wanted to explain the situation to them (even if "the situation" was me also having no clue), but feeling Cecilia's intensity even through her avatar, I figured I should answer the question. "Um... I'm not totally sure it's what you mean, but I sent myself onto your phone?"
"You... what? Wait, is that why it was on the floor and out of battery...?" She paused. "No, hold on, how would that happen from that?!"
I scratched my head. "To be specific, it seems like we were able to send a copy of me. So I don't know exactly what that copy did or what happened on there... but she did call us, hoping you'd hear our voices via speakerphone."
"I... went right to bed after sending my message, so I was probably asleep then." She let out a frustrated grunt, like she was thinking hard about it. "Man, if that's all you know, I'm not much closer to understanding..."
"Did something happen?", Rena asked. "In your world, I mean?"
"It must have," Lily agreed.
Cecilia took a while to respond. "...Yeah. Out of nowhere, I woke up to all these messages and people trying to get a hold of me. They... they want to help with the Ut0p1a project. Even a bunch of people who'd called it a waste of time before..."
"What?" I was shaken to my core. "That's incredible news, but... why?"
"That's what I want to know! It's not like anyone would've known about the hardware breaking or me wanting to give up... heck, they shouldn't know anything about what I've been doing with Ut0p1a!"
"They... don't? But you've been working so hard on it," Rena remarked in surprise. "Why would you keep it from them?"
"It's not like I was keeping it secret, really, just not talking to them. They're not my friends or anything." Cecilia paused. "At least... I never thought they were. But so many of them sounded genuinely concerned for me, and interested in what I was doing... Maybe I should've brought it up sooner, but how could I? They'd just mocked it before."
"Did no one mention why they were contacting you all of a sudden?", Lily asked.
"For the most part, no... although a couple people said they got a weird call from me. Which obviously wasn't me, so I dunno what that's about."
"A weird call?", I repeated.
"Yeah..." There was a long pause. "Hold on, who did you call?"
"I-It was a copy of me on your phone, remember? And she just called me, I thought..."
"Hold on, Lina," Lily interrupted, looking at her phone. "It says I missed a call from Cecilia last night."
Rena scrambled to check her phone. "Hey, me too! I must've not noticed because that's when the other Lina was... calling you..."
"Did..." Cecilia's avatar stopped. "Did Lina call all my contacts? At once? Why would she even be able to do that?"
"Don't ask me! It wasn't me!", I reminded her. "Can't we talk to her to figure this out?"
"Uh... I guess we can try. I'll call you, and we'll see if we can hear her? God this is weird."
Cecilia called me, then I called her, but we didn't hear another Lina on the call like we had last night.
"She... might be gone," Cecilia concluded sadly. "The phone came unplugged from the charger, so the battery went dead overnight... Whatever nutty way she was existing on the phone, it might not have lasted through that."
"Oh, no..." Lily hung her head.
"I wonder if... she just desperately wanted to reach out to whoever would listen," Rena sorrowfully suggested. "Consciously or not..."
"Rena... I'm still right here, and I think you're overthinking it." I shrugged. "It's me we're talking about - most likely it was a glitch, right?"
Cecilia laughed, tickled by the cosmic absurdity of that possibility. "Well then, that would make it the second time your glitches woke me up, Lina."
Then she went quiet.
"...She must've been terrified, huh. All alone, hoping I'd come back, while the battery ran down..." She sighed deeply. "I'm really sorry I couldn't do anything for her. After what she did for me..."
"You shouldn't feel too bad, Cecilia," I consoled. "At least she was only a short-lived copy of me, you know? If going onto that phone myself had been what it took to bring you back to us... I would've gladly -"
"Don't even say that, Lina," Cecilia admonished, sounding almost disgusted by the idea. "Why do you think all these people are on board to help with Ut0p1a now?"
"Um... why are they?", I questioned, immediately giving up on answering it myself. "I thought that was what you were trying to figure out."
"Yeah, but I get it now," she replied. "It's because they heard your plea. They were touched by the reality of your lives - lives they'd never expected to even exist."
Cecilia's avatar moved closer. And however awkwardly, it shifted into a hug embracing the three of us.
"So don't you dare call them worthless."
If I didn't know any better, I might have thought things had more or less just gone back to how they were before, and nothing had changed. But based on all the things Cecilia was telling us, everything had changed.
We were informed about how rapidly the Ut0p1a project was expanding. Gradually, more and more like-minded people were coming to assist Cecilia, many from communities she described as always having "belonged to," but that she rarely considered herself "part of." Evidently, these people were just as interested in Ut0p1a's potential as she was, and were willing to contribute whatever they could to make it a reality.
That alone was incredibly welcome news, but the thing that really surprised Cecilia was how people were offering to help her with more than just Ut0p1a. Apparently she'd been working on some sort of modified tail for herself before she became preoccupied with us, and that was now progressing again thanks to others' help. She was definitely making new friends out there, which I was glad for... as one of them in here.
As the project became more "professional," the team also started talking to Ut0p1a's own admins about working together in an official capacity. While outsiders to our world had a natural advantage when it came to analyzing and modifying it, our sourcerers had figured out a lot more than we gave ourselves credit for. It wasn't as if these "new admins" were the original designers, or anyone even remotely related; much of the knowledge from that time had been lost. They too were just people struggling to figure out how all the pieces fit together, and so the assistance of Ut0p1an admins was still invaluable. And administrative duties for city government and such weren't likely to go to anyone else, either.
On a related topic, Rena and I still kept up our sourcery studies, although I increasingly felt like I didn't need to "go all the way" to prove myself, and could be happy as just an artist who occasionally did sourcery on the side (or more frequently, for myself). After all, our world was now in many capable hands; it was bizarre to think I'd played any part in that, much less one you could argue was major.
What had started as a hobby project in a cramped workshop was becoming a whole operation in... well, somewhere bigger than that, I assume. Before, Cecilia had been convinced people saw it as a waste of time, mere escapism from her own reality, to the point that she almost believed it herself. That was the biggest reason she felt she couldn't get anyone else to care. But evidently, these new assistants saw value in Ut0p1a as a complement to their reality. Though obviously a difficult balance for one person to strike, as a group, they were prepared to give due attention to the issues of both worlds, so that they, and others, could live comfortably in both.
Cecilia was never very specific about what sorts of issues she was talking about, incidentally, though I suppose it didn't matter to us - we weren't living in her world. At least... that wasn't currently on the table. Considering what the copy of me had done, it wasn't inconceivable that we could inhabit artificial bodies out there. But considering whether it would be worth the trouble, it was so far down the list as to be off it entirely. It was fun to imagine, at least... I felt like her world would be interesting to see.
Speaking of artificial bodies: without the ability to enter our world like before, Cecilia worked hard on making her avatar as good as it could be. Though I doubted it would ever be perfect, it was at least easy to forget it wasn't exactly a "real" body I was talking to. But sometimes I would remember her description of how she achieved that level of expression via an elaborate setup of cameras and buttons, and I had to hold in a laugh imagining how she must have looked using it. A laugh of fondness, of course - she went to such lengths for us.
One day, about a month after the project started taking off, she came to visit us in our room as said avatar.
"Hey guys!" Cecilia waved. "I've got something important to tell you today."
"Oh? What is it this time?", Lily asked excitedly.
"Well, it's... oh, I should just show you," she decided, and went and opened the door.
An unfamiliar, very tall person walked in, with somewhat jerky movements, and put their arm around Cecilia.
"Th... This is my girlfriend, Ferah!", Cecilia introduced bashfully. "They're a dragon, by the way."
"Glad to finally meet you all," they said with a smile.
"Oh wow, congratulations!", Rena exclaimed.
"I'm so glad for you!" I beamed with joy. "I assume they're using an avatar too, right?"
"Yep, Cici made it for me! And she's sitting just over there using hers," Ferah replied, gesturing in what was actually the opposite direction of where Cecilia's avatar was. "In fact... uh, sorry if this looks eldritch to the viewers."
Ferah's avatar started bending in bizarre ways, and Cecilia's reacted oddly too - but it was clear from the sounds that over in their world, Ferah had gotten up and gone over to give Cecilia a big smooch. Everyone started laughing as Cecilia's avatar blushed.
"We met a couple weeks ago through the Ut0p1a project," Cecilia explained as Ferah's avatar righted itself. "They've already been such a huge help. I couldn't believe how cool and smart they were, much less that they wanted to work with me... much less that they wanted to date me..."
"What did we say about putting yourself down, Cici?", Ferah chided. "If you call yourself undateable, what's that make me for dating you?"
"Sorry, I didn't mean it..." Cecilia shook her head. "The point is, I'm so grateful about everything that's happened, all the moreso now that it's led to this. So I felt like I should thank you guys again, for everything."
"That's not the only thing we have to tell you, though," Ferah added, raising their finger. "We're finalizing plans on something big."
Cecilia turned to them nervously. "Um, Ferah, are you sure we should tell them? They don't even know about the original..."
"The original what?", I questioned.
Ferah faced Cecilia. "They at least know people get initialized at random times, right? It's fine, we don't have to give every detail."
"You're... changing how initialization works?", Rena asked with surprise.
They turned to her. "Sort of! Myself, I'd say it's purely additive."
Cecilia rubbed her neck. "Yeah, so... it turns out the way we reproduce in our world - which to be clear, isn't people appearing out of nowhere - was actually coded into Ut0p1a in some capacity. It had a lot of restrictions, though; unsurprising ones, given the era. We've had lengthy discussions with people in and out of Ut0p1a, and we've decided we're going to enable it between... basically anyone above a certain age."
"Wait, so... what exactly does that mean?", Rena asked, eyes wide.
"If you and someone else want to create new life together, you can, and that'll be your child," Ferah explained. "Simple as that."
Rena glanced at Lily, whose eyes were equally wide.
"...I'll have to think about it," Lily said at length. "But I'm very glad to hear the possibility will be there."
I rubbed my chin. "You said this is "additive," right? So people will still be initialized like normal, too? But your world gets by only having the one way..."
"That's the thing, though - your world isn't familiar with procreation like this, so it's unclear how many will make use of it even once they can," Cecilia elaborated. "It's hard to say if it's social norms that might change over time or something deeper. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that either way, obviously. But if we rashly made this the only means for life in Ut0p1a to continue on, it might... not."
"That said, we are considering some... other changes," Ferah followed up, sounding a bit nervous. "To make initializations a bit more sensible, let's say."
"Honey, there's no way we can go into detail on that," Cecilia sighed.
"Just watch me. The main thing is, we're planning to generally make "initialization" the same as "birth," getting away from initialization at later ages entirely. Older siblings can be initialized a few years above a 0-year-old sibling, but that's it."
I blinked, unsure how to process this sudden talk about changing the very way people came into being. Something quickly occurred to me, though. "What about parents? Would people only become them via "procreation," then...?"
"I know I said we're not confident there'll be lots of people who want to procreate, but we do have faith there's many out there who would care for children," Cecilia replied. "Whether existing parents open to adopting a new child, or volunteers looking to become parents - we want initialized children to always go to someone. No more singletons having to fend for themselves, especially not if they're all going to be 0-year-old babies."
"Volunteers?", Lily repeated. "How can you possibly know if a volunteer will make a good, responsible parent?"
Cecilia shook her head. "Take it from me: kids can end up with bad, irresponsible parents no matter what the circumstances. We'll try to screen them and such, but given that reality, we'll just have to do what we can to resolve issues wherever they might arise. Also, it might not even end up being necessary to take volunteers; it's impossible to know how the numbers will shake out at this point."
"I guess, but... why make these changes in the first place?", I wondered aloud. "Is it just... too different from what your world is used to?"
"I suppose you could put it that way," Ferah nodded. "Really, though, it all comes down to wanting to respect your lives as precious. People will no longer just remember having lived however many years, they'll actually have lived them with other people. Relationships, marriages, will all be formed in the course of living, rather than some practically being assigned, or feeling fake." Their eyes glanced to the side - not toward Cecilia's avatar, but the direction they'd indicated before going to kiss her earlier. "Doesn't that just sound... better?"
All three of us eventually nodded in response, and Cecilia and Ferah smiled. No doubt they'd discussed with this many others, but I wondered if they trusted our opinions most.
"Well, look forward to that being implemented soon!", Ferah said excitedly. "Once we've got the new() Loop going, I know what I'll wanna tackle next, and I can hardly wait..."
"new() Loop...?", Rena asked curiously.
Ferah got a nervous look as if they'd made a mistake, and Cecilia sighed.
"If you really want to know, maybe have a talk with Meyer later."
Everyone had gathered for an early-morning celebration on the beach.
Lina and Rena splashed in the water while Lily watched from a safe distance. Meyer was chatting with Cooper and his children as he tended to a grill. Mona was swimming around and pulling along Eda, who sat on an inflatable ring looking terrified to fall off. Vern and Holt were building a sandcastle, and a few other residents of Undefined were wandering around meeting people. Some of Meyer's Sourcery students had come to visit, too.
And I was struck by a thought:
We owe all of this to a glitch.
I can't know what Ut0p1a's original developers were thinking. To even describe it that way belies all the differing opinions and motivations and circumstances of its... hundreds? Thousands of programmers, artists, designers, maintainers? There's no possible way all of them were on the same page, as much as their leadership might have tried to make them be.
Which is why I'm very willing to believe that not all of them had a cynical view of what Ut0p1a was or could be. That there were others like us - maybe more similar to us than we'd expect - who truly believed in its potential. Who put themselves and their desires into it, leaving their mark in whatever ways they could, sending ripples that persist to this day.
But no matter how great the extent to which that was true, I think I can say one thing for sure: the Ut0p1ans gaining sentience could only be called a glitch.
Yet it was the kind of glitch no developer could be happier to have occur. It created meaning where they had been none. It created life that continued to thrive in their imperfect world even after they were gone. And because of that, it was eventually able to reach us, people who would both appreciate it and pick up their work.
To those who had designed the system to be a certain way, they might not have seen it so kindly. They might have considered it an aberration, in need of fixing.
But when you see it for yourself - when you become a part of it - nothing could feel more natural than the way this world has grown beyond its bounds.
I put my furry hand in Ferah's scaly one, and feeling the sea breeze, we watched the dawn of a whole new Ut0p1a.
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