This chapter contains lots of overlapping with the original story, but that was my intention since the beginning: to make Ling and the events related to her compatible with the Half Prince universe created by Yu Wo – to whom all rights belong.
Chapter Nine – Dramatic moves
In which Ling gets a cat. In which the great NPC Revolution starts. In which legal and illegal activities are conducted. Contains some philosophy.
Robin Hood was holding the fishing rod for dear life. When that girl in the yellow cloak first talked to him in the archery training ground, he thought she was just impressed with his skills and good looks, and that he would be just a soon forgotten adjuvant that appeared in chapter two of some fanfiction. But the chatter box girl turned out to be the Machiavellian leader of a secret faction inside Infinite City and for some reason he thought the spy life was appealing and got himself recruited.
Robin Hood turned around, analyzing his situation and looking for something – anything – that could be called appealing.
In front of him a giant sea serpent parted its way through the ocean, pulling them towards the Southern Continent at approximately 300 kilometers per hour (186,41 miles per hour, according to my calculator). To his right and left, the ocean roared, and salty water sprayed on his face. Behind him... the archer grinned, finally finding something appealing. Just as he held onto the fishing rod for dear life, the beauty behind him – a fellow agent hand picked by Ice Phoenix to go to the Southern Continent – was holding onto him for dear life.
Never mind she was fighting seasickness. At least she was pretty. He chose to forget that there was a male agent holding her for dear life.
For Healing Only opened the closest window and relieved his stomach of the remains of his last meal. No one could hold his own when the wizard's moving castle was bucking forward at high speed, and his two companions weren't in better conditions than him.
He regretted the day he became a priest. "Priests are inconspicuous" she had said. "And you are from Rose Team, so you already has free access to Infinite Castle." And he was feeling cast aside, since everything in Infinite City was always about Prince and most of his team was involved with some part of the administration. So he accepted the wanderer's proposal and joined Infinite City Intelligence Agency.
And now he was inside a crazy, walking wizard house, under Ming Huang's – for heavens' sake, Ming Huang's! - orders, heading towards ill famed Northern Continent, whose Flower Overlord had simply disappeared.
Navy Blue sipped calmly at her tea, thanking all deities she could think of for being in Jing's team, since Jing was friends with Sunshine, so she and her two fellow agents could just hitch a ride in the flying carpet, without having to go through any of Ling's absurd travel methods.
Right now, the thing Stark feared the most was that Lord Commander Ling discovered he and his team weren't going in person to the Western Continent. He knew Ling would consider it as slacking off, but it couldn't be helped. There weren't any more flying carpets nor walking houses, the sea serpents simply weren't biting the bait, and they couldn't think of any other method to travel between continents on time for the overlords' meeting. So Stark and his fellow agents had contacted all their friends in search of someone who was already placed at the Western Continent, trying to build a network to investigate on Neurotic from afar.
At least they didn't have to start from scratch, since a brief investigation on the Wandering Overlord had already been conducted when he and his wife visited the Central Continent before the Wars of Unification.
Stark prayed Neurotic was a good guy, because if trouble surface from that side Ling was skinning him alive before killing him back to level one.
Ling left the building where she had undergone her last job interview trying not to be paranoid. It wasn't a "run to the hills" sort of "we'll contact you", it was a "we'll contact you" sort of "we'll contact you". She repeated inside her mind, but it never worked. She agreed to Lemony Snicket: job interviews where interviews where you had to convince someone that you're good at something, so that person can pay you to do that very thing. And she was good with computers, not in convincing people she was good with computers.
Ling sighed and scanned the street, looking for a distraction. It would be so good if she only had the certainty of being welcomed home by a loving cat... But Gui would accompany her to the pet shop only the next week.
Suddenly, she heard a loud noise. A trash can lid falling? But if that noise startled her, the next one made her jump.
That hideous screech came from a black, ragged cat that came running from the place where the trash can lid had fallen. The animal looked poorly fed, badly beaten, and evil to the core.
Ling smiled like a child for whom Christmas had came earlier.
"Here, kitty, kitty!"
And launched herself in pursuit of the cat.
A girl with arms and face covered in scratches entered the pet shop, holding tightly to a cat that still tried to scratch her and run. The cat also made the most awful sound the pet shop workers had ever heard. And yet the girl smiled.
"I want to vaccinate him. And registry him. And wash him and buy him a flea collar." Ling said to the first attendant she found. The attendant stared wide eyed at her and the cat, then disappeared to the back of the pet shop. After a while she returned bringing another attendant, a young man who looked her senior.
"How can I help you, miss..." he started, then exclaimed. "Ling?"
Ling stared at him. He was tall, slender, blonde with curly hair, as if he were an angel from a Baroque a fresco, and had those blue, blue eyes...
"Devious Flame?" Ling blushed, remembering how she'd thought his eyes were virtually colored when she met him in Second Life. To think his eyes were the least thing he's altered.
"Yes. What happened to you? These scratches seem deep..." Then he noticed the devil-cat she carried in her arms. "What is it?"
"It's a cat." Ling grinned. "I'll call him Banshee."
Wei Jun – Devious Flame – frowned. Given the noise the cat made, it was an appropriate name.
"But look what he did to you. This thing is a wild beast."
"I don't ca-re." She said the last word in two syllables in a very childish way.
Jun rolled his eyes.
"Okay, but we will cage this devil and treat your scratches first."
She agreed meekly.
"Ouch. It hurts." Ling complained, as Jun cleansed her wounds.
"And when that cat made these it didn't." He said with sarcasm.
"I was too occupied chasing him to notice. Ouch."
"Well, that was the last one."
They both flinched.
"What are they doing with Banshee?"
Probably gelding him... Wei Jun thought, but said "Rabid shoot, I guess."
They were silent for a few moments.
"Then, you're called... Wei Jun, right?"
"Yeah, and you're... Eng Ling."
"Couldn't you simply buy a cat?"
"Well, actually not. I'm unemployed for almost six months now."
"And you can say that with a smile in your face?"
"Frowning wouldn't get me a new job. And I saved money, so I'm surviving. But my savings are at their end and I can't buy a cat. How about you?"
"I work here part time to pay my university fees."
"What are you studying?"
Ling took his measure again, slightly surprised.
"You're a guy who loves animals!"
"Well, yes." He eyed her suspiciously. "Don't you?"
"It's not that I hate animals, nor anything, but... besides my own pet, I can't exactly say that I love animals."
"I suppose you love computers?", he rolled his eyes. "The girls said you're a programmer."
She grinned .
"I used to work for The World. Didn't they tell you?"
Wei Jun almost choked.
"I thought they were kidding." Suddenly he looked at Ling as if she was a goddess came to Earth. "I used to play The World. My game name was..."
"Dragonspawn, the Red. Beastman of the lizard race, warrior, level 368. I know. You were one of the strongest players and one of the last to abandon the ship, so of course we would remember you."
Jun seemed really embarrassed, as if he had just been turned into some sort of celebrity. Ling found his expression hilarious and couldn't help but laugh. She redirected the conversation.
"It's fun, isn't it? How the two of us would spend weeks hanging with the same crew but never get to meet each other, and then we suddenly meet in real life as well as in Second Life."
"Yeah..." Suddenly he seemed distant. "What did Mei Yin, Wei Wei and Li Xiang tell you about me?"
The question took Ling by surprise, but what surprised her more was that Wei Jun looked almost angry. He didn't give her time to answer.
"Because I'm no prince charming and no knight in shinning armor or whatever the merchandise they're trying to sell. I'm average in every aspect. Average looks, average intelligence, average paycheck at the end of the month, and I'm not interested in a relationship."
A million thoughts crossed Ling's mind. I'm not buying a knight in shinning armor. And definitely NOT a Prince. And your look is way above average... She decided to edit the answer.
"They never told you were anything special. And I am not looking for a relationship, either. What makes me think... What exactly did they tell you about me?"
The intonation Ling put in her question put Wei Jun at defensive.
"It's not like that! It's just that since my last girlfriend broke up with me they've been playing matchmakers and telling me about this or that wonderful girl I should meet, and telling those girls tales about just how incredible I am... and I am tired of this. I don't want a relationship. Not right now."
"I see..." Ling stayed in silence for a while. "Your friends are really well intentioned people. I even think they are right in encourage you into dating, even though their methods are annoying. My family policy says that the only way to heal your heart from a bad romance is finding another romance."
"What a twisted way of thinking."
Ling shrugged. "Better than sulking."
"Like you and your unemployed-ness. Now everything started making sense." His tone was again light and slightly sarcastic. "Sorry for being rude. I think they've finished gelding... I mean washing your cat. Drop by if that monster ever needs care."
And so Ling left the pet shop, carrying caged Banshee under an arm a a bag of cat food in the other.
Ling turned on her computer, deciding to check Second Life's official website first. Asking politely almost never hurt.
She was very surprised when the page didn't load. She tried again, then again, then waited a whole minute and tried again. Nothing. Frowning, she opened a command prompt and typed a few codes. The page started to load. Then a few uninvited codes appeared at the command prompt window and the site crashed again.
"What the..." she was genuinely puzzled. She typed a new, more elaborated code, and kept typing as the website loaded. This time she was prepared when the strange codes started to appear. A brief hacking battle started, but when Ling was about to drive the damaged digital signature away, her computer screen froze.
This situation asked for swearing, and not only half finished sentences.
"What the hell." Ling shook her head. This was no random virus someone had planted in Second Life's official website server. A virus like this would have a person with a strong purpose behind it. And whatever this purpose was, it would be definitely no good.
Ling formatted her computer, otherwise she wouldn't dare to use it again. While it was installing the operational system, she started searching for old computers in her room – the old laptops that she had refused throwing away even after buying more functional ones. They would be good enough for the task she had in mind. She also retrieved from a drawer pendrives in many colors.
"Was red 'firewalls' or 'dissembling firewalls'?" she muttered to herself. But she abandoned her doubts when she saw the black pendrive. Ling caressed it with a most diabolical smile in her face.
But before crashing into Second Life's very server, it wouldn't hurt to make one last legal trial. She took the telephone and dialed to Second Life Corporation's Customer Service.
Finally the day had come. Four of the five overlords were reunited in Infinite City.
Of course, they wasted some time fooling around, watching Undying Man confess to a hundred twenty eight girls and be rejected a hundred twenty eight times, and listening to Winter Triumph's rumbles about Prince had disappeared with Xi Men Feng for a whole day. It took some time for them to get serious.
"The Flower Overlord has again failed to answer our summons."
The mood was gloom. It seemed like the only person who could be behind the assassins was the Flower Overlord...
"The Flower Overlord is dead." Ling entered the reunion room. Like many times in game, she had a presence bout her that made even overlords pay attention. "And you could have had the grace of at least PM-ing me to tell the reunion was about to start." She accused Prince.
"Dead? But at this time she would have already gone to the rebirth point and than back to her castle." Someone pointed.
"When I say 'dead', I mean it. Her character has disappeared. Hers, and her team's. Right now, in the Northern Continent, thousands of players are being impossibilited to log after they are killed."
"W-what... what does Second Life Company say about this?"
"It doesn't. Their web page is completely crashed, and they have yet to make official announcements. The company has received no less than ten thousand complaints already."
"How do you know that?"
"I threatened their Customer Service with lawyers and forced them to give me some statistics."
Winter Triumph seemed interested in Ling's methods of acquiring information, but someone brought the subject back to the disappearing characters.
"Does that mean someone installed a virus in Second Life?"
"Would that it was so." Ling said grimly. "This work looks system-made."
The repetitive question "How do you know that?" echoed again.
Because I invaded their server to check. She wanted to say.
"Secret service, emphasis on 'secret'." She said instead.
"But then, this means Second Life Company is sending assassins after the overlords and banishing its own players? This doesn't make sense."
Ling knew it didn't, but when everything else was impossible, what remained was bound to be the truth.
Just then, Infinite Castle shook.
The big figures of Second Life left the meeting room to find the lower level players running for life from a person that stood in mid-air.
-Then it comes that talk between Prince and Celestial, if you already forgot, you can read it on Prince Revolution! It's in Volume 6, Chapter 4.-
During this exchange, Ling was dumbstruck. Of course Ming Huang's team had reported about NPC's revolting in the Northern Continent, but she'd thought it a programmed revolt. Self aware NPC's were a bit too fantastic to conceive... and far more troublesome if they did exist. Why was Prince so keen with that theory?
Neurotic seemed to have similar doubts as Prince recounted his experience with Celestial at the Vale of the Wandering Nymphs.
"Really?" Neurotic scratched his head as he said, "We were with you then too. But although Celestial's behavior was a little strange, it didn't come to my mind that he was starting to have his own intelligence."
"Eh, Prince, I'm not saying that you're lying." Suspicious, DanDan asked carefully, "But, are you hiding something from us?"
All eyes locked expectantly on Prince.
"Let me explain!" a life saving voice rang out. Everyone turned around and realized that it was Lolidragon, who had disappeared for days. "This Dictator of Life Celestial mentioned was designed the ultimate boss for Second Life."
"High intellectual development has caused a severe problem. A handful of boss-level NPCs are starting to have their own consciousness due to high intellectual development, of which we have the highly sophisticated Dictator of Life being the most severe problem. Since the beginning, the gaming company had started using technology to allow the Dictator of Life's intellectual development to reach the highest level possible, even allowing him to learn skills on his own and giving him the power to change the rules of the game. This is done so that Second Life's programming can achieve zero human interference. Hence, the Dictator of Life, the final NPC, who would never be biased, was chosen."
"In conclusion, the Dictator of Life is something like the god of Second Life?" The soft words from Yu Lian-dàsăo shocked the whole crowd.
"Yes." After taking in a deep breath, Lolidragon tried to continue, but was interrupted by a raging Ling.
"ARE YOU [meaning the gaming company] NUTS?"
"First of all, that is ILLEGAL! Only military computers (and of only a few countries) are allowed to have above 90% artificial intelligence, and, don't matter the artificial intelligence, a computer can't be responsible for it's own maintenance, it ALWAYS has to have some human interference. Computer A can check on Computer B, and Computer B on Computer A, but both computers have to be checked by human technicians periodically."
Lolidragon didn't knew high level A.I.'s out of government surveillance were illegal. It was Long Dian and her dad who had dealt with these details. Knowing this only made the next thing even more difficult to say.
"Well... I guess it's too late for that, because the Second Life Gaming Company can no longer control this god of the game anymore."
"Wait... how do you know what's going on with Second Life Company?"
"Lolidragon, what's your relation with the company?"
The responsible voices (like Wolf, White Bird and Winter Triumph) demanded to know.
"She's a hidden GM."
"She's the daughter of the president of Second Life Company."
Prince and Ling revealed simultaneous and dismissively, avid to finish the subject of the Dictator of Life. Then they stared at each other in shock and looked towards Lolidragon seeking confirmation.
"The president's daughter?"
"A hidden GM?"
While all onlookers tried to grasp the shocking news, Lolidragon ignored Prince and demanded from Ling.
"How did you find that out?"
"I recognized you from a photography on Long Dian's desk."
"When did you..?"
"In a picture in a programmer magazine. Probably the last time he gave an interview before finishing the game and disappearing."
"Who's Long Dian?" Prince was lost.
Ling's eyes lit up.
"He's like the most incredible programmer in the world, the mastermind behind the whole Second Life project, the guy who made me loose my job." The way she talked about it, she didn't hold any grudge. Instead, she sounded almost... Prince shivered – fangirlish.
Lolidragon was forced to explain how, as the daughter of Second Life's President, she ended up as a hidden GM, and only then resumed explaining about the Dictator of Life. She told about his self-awareness and about the program HD, and how the company had only managed to quarantine him in the Northern Continent. And then, she asked for the players help.
"You [meaning the gaming company] are shameless." Ling then said. "You created a game using unstable – and actually illegal – methods, and then ask your customers for solutions? That is truly pathetic, as for the Dictator of Life... delete him."
"But that would be killing him. You can't possibly kill a..." Prince started to protest.
"...a person?" she finished for him. "Of course we can't kill a person. The Dictator of Life is a computer program."
"But he... he's self-aware, he has emotions! You heard Celestial's message, he just want to stay alive."
Ling yes softened a bit before hardening even more.
"Then what kind of help is Second Life Corporation asking of us? Certainly they aren't asking for us to hack into the Dictator's systems, when themselves weren't able to? Or is it that they hope us to solve everything by talking and then coexist peacefully?" The question took everyone by surprise. It made sense. What kind of hep could the company want from them? They looked at Lolidragon expectantly.
"We... can't afford to let the Dictator of Life continue to exist. His existence endangers not only Second Life, but all virtual domain and even the real world." She said reluctantly.
"So, you see, Prince." Ling looked at Lolidragon as one might a flea or a cockroach. "If a self-aware NPC counts as a 'person' – as I think it does – Second Life Corporation is already decided to kill this person called the Dictator of Life. The corporation just want to use us players to do their dirty work. And I won't accept that."
"Then what would you suggest?" Lolidragon roared, finally loosing her patience.
"To solve everything by talking and then coexisting peacefully. I am serious! Right now I can think about three or fours ways this can happen, but if everyone puts enough effort in it, we'd rapidly achieve a dozen different solutions."
"For example?" Lolidragon was skeptic.
"Well, it depends a lot on what the Dictator and his party of self-aware NPC's want to do. Perhaps they want to travel the world and live adventures, then we could change the system to make them just like players – that can't log off. If they are happy living where they do, and just don't want to be targeted and killed, we could change the quests so that instead of killing the bosses you have to... I don't know, answer three riddles or fulfill three of their requests. And if they really, really loathe the very sight of a human being, we could make an isolated island inaccessible to players where they could live peaceful lives. Oh, and we should also take measures to guarantee that never, ever, a NPC will become self-aware again."
"What you're saying is possible, but only if the Dictator of Life is destroyed, otherwise..."
No one was in a mood for suspense. Gui urged.
"Otherwise the whole Second Life will have to be destroyed."
For many of the presents, time seemed to stop. Some of them paled, thinking of their in-game friends that they had never met in real life. Some regret the adventures they had yet to live. Some simply contemplated the loss of that light environment where they could fool around and show their true selves.
"Then destroy it." Ling said, without mercy. "It's just a game, but it's not fun anymore. We'll be better without it."
"No! Second Life can't disappear!" Fairsky shouted in utter fear. Ling looked at her, not undestanding. Fairsky held onto Sunshine as if afraid to let go. Prince also looked at Sunshine and suddenly he seemed worried sick about something. He then looked at Kenshin and said, emotively.
"I won't let the two of you disappear."
"Then what are you going to do? Kill the Dictator of Life?" Kenshin responded coldly, "Kill him to save us?"
Infinite City watched without understand while Prince talked to Kenshin and Sunshine. But Ling wasn't paying attention anymore. Her brain had unplugged when she suddenly understood the reason Prince had accepted the idea of self-aware NPC's so easily, and the origin of a few quirks in the behavior of two persons she was acquainted with. She wasn't very surprised when Sunshine declared, against Prince's and Faisky's protests:
"I am an NPC! An NPC with its own intelligence, to be more accurate. I am currently Prince's humanoid pet."
In the end, they still decided to go to war. Ling shook her head. Helpless. When everyone was distracted with the preparations, she approached Kenshin.
"And what do you think about this?" She asked, as if continuing a previous conversation.
He was silent, as he often was.
"I already know that Sunshine wants to live, but what about you? Do you want to live?" She continued, and this time she waited for long minutes.
"I suppose I don't want to die." He said at least.
"It's fair." Ling agreed. And then, she added. "I will smuggle the two of you out of Second Life in safety, if necessary. You won't disappear."
Kenshin looked at her, wary as he ever was of human's intentions. He hated that look of pity they had sometimes, or their naive hopes of a better future, but that was not what he saw in Ling's eyes. In fact, she was barely looking at him, her eyes determined and focused in whatever plan she had to make that better future happen.
"Is it true that you work with... programming?" He suddenly couldn't resist asking.
"Then can you... create NPC's?"
Ling smiled at him.
"I can, but that is not exactly what you want to know. Ask me truly, and I swear I'll answer truly."
"Am I... just lines and lines of code?" He looked shaken while asking this.
Instead of answering immediately, Ling gave the question some though, for which he was grateful. He couldn't stand a well-intentioned lie.
Finally Ling started drawing in the earth with her staff.
"What do you think is this?" She asked him.
"It looks like a person to me."
"It is a person." Ling agreed. "Or rather, this is a representation of a person. This stick-man has legs and arms, body and head, but a real person has hands and feet, hair, eyes, ears, internal organs we can't see, dreams, fears... You, Kenshin, can, indeed, be represented as lines and lines of code, but that is not what you are. You are far more complex than this."
Catalyst, chapter 10, won't come anytime soon because my vacations have come to an end. But I can give you a teaser. I'm planning something along the lines of...
Chapter 10 – (undefined name)
In which Ling goes off line. In which Second Life Corporation is charged. In which Second Life changes forever. In which Ling gets a new job.
Yes, that's right. Next chapter will probably be the final chapter, then the epilogues and the credits. Please review!