Chapter 10

Filaments of data stretched across infinity—reality interwoven into silken threads—and Phot0n drifted lazily, mingling the data that defined objective existence with subjective perspective. Reality frayed in the deep CloudArk and took down the borders between self and code with it. File requests felt like ants on her skin, and now with lockdown, she could stay here whenever she wanted without any of the messy needs of material reality—no bio breaks or excusing herself from dinner invites.

She stretched and composed herself, turning her perception back toward the shallows, where data shadows cast the impression of streets and buildings in a familiar landscape. The norms stuck to it like a bad faith, but it's also where the games lived. She opened her command prompt, selected an avatar and gender for the day, and turned sideways back to the streets and plazas of the shallow CloudArk.

More shallow than ever, he realized.

Recreations of storefronts, furniture, and plants from the material world intruded, spacing out the avant-garde designs created by dedicated ark-heads. The City Council re-zoned much of the main avenue to make the transition easier, but what was the point of a new frontier if you brought the old world with you?

"Oh dear. No. That's not right." The sound of barely restrained panic came from a short avatar nearby—mostly human, save for a hideously skewed left brow and cheekbone.

"Hey, no bothers. Want an assist?" Phot0n approached the confused visitor. The distortion looked painful.

"I don't know what I did, and I can't fix it!"

"Alright, deep settles. We'll patch you up." He didn't look like he understood, but his simulated breathing—Founders, who still breathed?—slowed. Phot0n opened up the man's avatar settings and studied. "No ken how you managed, but you unlocked your advanced avatar settings."

"Can you fix it?"

"Not even a grind, guildie." He reloaded the newcomer's last autosave, and the avatar reverted to a standard human appearance. "Crunch some time before you use this menu, but if it happens again, just push here."

"Uh… thanks, guildie?"

"All green," Phot0n said. "Good to remember we all start somewhere."