high priestess

the thing that sucks the most about visiting sukuro is how much we’ve always wanted to go, if that makes sense. 

we’ve seen so many pictures online, coveted the sterling silver replica jewelry and the resin statues that are gift shop exclusives. the domed foyer ceiling that seems to make its way into every one of the ultima reverie games. the life-sized bronzes, one of a kind. 

i am trying really hard to feel well, and i can feel rez’s sidelong look too long on the side of my face. we’re walking now, escorted by some customer service suits, down this long hallway upholstered in silver-gray and lined with tiny lights. if this were a normal day he’d be gamboling around all over the place and embarrassing me. i feel irrational guilt for his somber look. 

it is only a game and i’ll be okay if i can’t get my songstress character back. it is only a game. it is only a game. 

astor. you can’t come to this place without thinking of him. we climb stairs that surround a massive light-panel pillar, and one of the images shows the concept art for ultima reverie's high priestess, in her elaborate uniform. everyone cosplays her. when i see the colors and the veils and the big baubles on her head, all lit up and huge like that, it makes me feel a little younger. these days if you say you like this character everyone will make fun of you. it's a joke now. that's how people are.

her mouth is a tiny pink crescent, her eyes big glittering cartoon-blooms, and i remember she was born out of astor’s head. what must he have looked like, felt like, creating her?

he must have been very happy, once, to have made something like that.

return

i’ve been away again. sorry. i do that.

most of the time it’s because of these great, yawning spaces in my memory. there’s a hollow and a cramp, and the lingering sting of something that’s been scraped where it ought not to’ve been. i find myself blinking awake in the soft white light of my screen, thumbing through timestamps and trying to make sense of what they say.

this time it’s because i haven’t had any online. the null trashed all my data, because of something to do with video of mirrorverse world protesters that i uploaded to my server. 

i had no idea they were even watching me. are they watching all of us? they’re supposed to be our people.

the mirrorverse worlders said something about astor, the designer of my favorite game, ultima reverie, who’s been missing for two years… was it two years? timestamps. 

timestamp. timestamp. i picture some undying administrator of life, behind some ethereal curtain, stamping on me. 

um. right. i was telling you about how rez and i were trying to see if sukuro corporation still had a copy of the ultima reverie character data that i lost to the null.

it seems like kind of a tacked-on mission, but the shock i’ve felt since losing everything makes it feel important. this small thing. i’m not going to say ‘second self’ because it sounds too much like those hippie mirroverse people i hate.

i’m not going to say ‘first self’ because that would be insane. 

a pilgrimage

glass doors part into a fantastical lobby, a bronze lace dome decorated with hung foliage, where a welcome center is the focal point of the room. sukuro’s headquarters is designed to be a destination for a pilgrimage, like all kinds of ultima reverie fans always wanted to come and get their picture taken here, take tours.

a woman with smooth, stick-straight black hair is behind the welcome counter, dressed as a flight attendant or something. oh yeah — she’s dressed like the ship staff from zenith fantasy 3. does everyone who works here have to cosplay? it somehow looks natural on her, although surreal.

flight attendant asks us if we want a corporate tour. by the way she smiles patiently at our overlarge eyes, our light-starved faces, she’s probably seen thousands of curious underworld tourists in her career. 

"actually, i’m a customer," i hear myself say, my hands pressing the resin gloss of this huge half-moon front desk that also looks like something out of zenith fantasy 3. ahead, a pavilion opens up; glass elevators glide soundlessly up and down like hydraulic pistons. there is some music, ambiently. i can’t place it just now but later i’ll remember it’s the sukuro server placement wait music. 

i wonder if flight attendant plays zenith fantasy or ultima reverie or if she totally hates it and thinks we’re all weirdos. 

"i lost my data," i tell her. my voice sounds profoundly hoarse to my ears, like it’s lost, too. 

thank hell for rez, who intercedes to ask about the backup servers and to explain ms. natchez has been a golden level sukuro customer for several years. this latter fact seems to mean something to flight attendant.

sukuro knows better than anyone about software-as-a-service, about turnover in online games. you get golden level if you’ve been paying premium for more than two years, like i have. i can’t remember not being golden level. she asks for my account number; i’ve memorized it, somehow, although it seems i’m not generally good at remembering things. i can’t even remember where i was when i started playing this game for the first time. 

she types something in her console and then she smiles at me.

"welcome to sukuro corporation," she says, and then she bows a little. "let’s see if we can help you."

a building

sukuro corporation, which makes ultima reverie, has distribution offices in the underworld, but their corporate headquarters is here in santa rosa. we can see the building from far away, a monolithic silver slab that blends in with others like it, faceless places where who knows who does who knows what.

it’s such a strange and empty feeling: like, oh, it’s just a building.

when we finally get close, though, i see there are bronze space birds arranged as if frozen, mid-run, from the entryway across the paved lot. like they’re making a break for this ordinary fountain spouting perfectly-chlorinated water.

rez stops and uses his portable to snap pictures of the space birds. we’ve seen pictures of these particular bronzes online tons of times, circulating the meme engine, so it seems redundant — even a little cliche, probably — to take more pictures just because we’re actually here. especially when i feel so absolutely unreal. 

maybe i’d like it better if i knew i had my identity, my way back ‘in’ to the real space birds in the game.  it’s sort of hard to ‘forget about astor,’ like the null wants me to do, when you know none of this would exist without him. 

then rez takes a picture of some little gleaming coins that look pink and white inside the bluish fountain. we only have digital money in the underworld. rez tells me overworlders throw coins in fountains to make wishes. littering of any kind seems to defy their whole obsessive philosophy, as does wasting anything, especially money.

but as i’m staring at my blurry image reflected in the bluegreen water i kind of suddenly feel like i already knew they did this, the coin-throwing. i must have seen pictures of it online or something, which is why i feel like it’s my own knowledge, my own memory, somehow. 

rez cranes his neck to look up at the flat, pallid, silver-mirror face of the sukuro building. we look tiny and twisted reflected in the building’s face alongside the space birds, like looking at characters on a screen. the sun is killing my eyes.

"want to go in?" he asks me, rhetorically.

my mouth feels dry when i say, “yeah.” 

congestion

lumi managed to get me an extra overworld pass so that rez and i can go to sukuro corporation’s head office and ask about my ultima reverie data. the commodore twins at the exchange station look dubiously at my used-up card, but when i ask them to check my account, blaming my temporary ID, they put their pale faces side by side up to their screen and one nods, then the other, and i get a new passcard.

standing in line to have it verified, i stare at the incandescent little star of light winking through the new, single hole in the plastic.

rez wears his black q-team shirt that he always wears, with the same little spike bracelet. his hands only come out of his pockets to spread for the security check. i have a gray smock dress and leggings. lumi had looked at me a little bit disapprovingly but she hadn’t said anything this time. 

i manage to sleep on the monorail, like the long ride up through that sick canal that turns my knees to water had drained away the last of my tension. finally knocked me out. i’ve never slept on the overworld monorail before, but this time i black out for the whole ride. 

when i wake up we’re in the overworld exchange, metal skeletal architecture and peaceable white dome looming too-bright outside the monorail window. i hear some distant advertisment murmuring about prescription somnivere or something like that. it’s disorienting. 

rez sits next to me quiet, like he knows i need a second for everything, for why we’re here. to come back through some kind of fog that’s seemed to grow more and more dense since i lost my data, my meme engine and basically everything. my eyelashes feel as stiff as ghost miku’s. 

in the central district promenade of santa rosa, people stare at us like they just know by the pale of our skin, the tendon of our hands, where we’re from and what we do. they have renuzepam smiles, clean and bright, oxygenated and green and just a little breath from my germy underworld lungs could kill them, they think. 

meanwhile rez and i are afraid of whatever overworld super-virus they’ve been breeding by spraying disinfectant on everything. what carries in the crowd is xenophobic contagion. rez cleaves close to me, pragmatically.

one song

a while ago there had been this one song.

nobody could say whether it was a particularly special tune, and it seemed nobody really would have chosen it on their own. it was hollow pop, a far-off bubblegum voice, a distant tapping rhythm. it was just people on tv that liked it, it was just noise you heard at the laundromat, in line at the grocery.

then it was somebody’s best friend’s favorite song, it was on social media. then a mother calls her kid from wherever she still lives to ask him if he’s heard of this phenomenon, this song.

surrounded by this song on this periphery without really hearing it, most people steel themselves to hate it. something everybody else likes is no good, it can’t be good. the singer was a girl with green hair and everybody knew her on sight, but nobody knew the words until websites started spinning their headlines around the lyrics, to be current.

all it really takes, then, is one moment. everybody’s at a party drunk, and someone puts the song on and someone else just screams. that’s when they realize that they love it. they know all the words all of a sudden, when it’s time to get crushed into a crowd all singing them, making a time capsule for unity. when everyone is calling the same words, their arms around friends of friends.

that song becomes an entire generation’s first kiss, long commute, dinnertime after dinnertime. for a while. nothing is cool forever, and one song can only save the world for so long. 

strings

lumi’s face is a strange anime hue in the light of her portable as she tap-touch-clicks through it. we can get me set up with emergency services from the exchange. she seems to be talking to someone in that weird emoji shorthand that she and her friends all use.

"as for your game data," she says, "sukuro’s last backup purge was months ago. they might still have your data." 

"really?" says rez. "she can get it back?"

lumi purses her glosslips and shakes her pink wig head after a moment. i don’t know why she looks so interesting, instead of like one of those internet weirdos playing dress-up, but she does. 

rez is idling. he’s not especially logical in a crisis. but then, he did know to call for lumi asap, so i can’t be frustrated with him.

"it would take a while for me to emulate sukuro’s remote permissions," she says. "you should just go up there to the headquarters." she looks pointedly from me to rez, you should take her there, she’s telling him with her eyes. i feel like a child. 

i remember, “i don’t have any punch passes left.”

lumi cants her head at me and says, “i can pull some strings for you.”

she manages to get miku’s arm joint at the right angle, and with a sharp little pop, she fixes the doll. i feel incredibly disoriented for a second, like i must never have had hands as small as lumi’s, like maybe i was never that young.

what was i like when i was seventeen? i have no memory, i realize. it must just be the grief. i mean, i have to have a past, don’t i? it seems strange that right now the thing i feel most anxious about is the loss of my character from ultima reverie.

"we’ll go, natch," rez says. 

lumi hands the doll back to me. it doesn’t actually seem like the kind of thing i should own. 

so look

rez’s sister lumi bursts in with a flurry of black lace. she has a black eyelet petticoat dress and a red beret over a pink wig.

the red and pink would have looked awful together if it wasn’t lumi wearing them. but if she does something, everyone does it. people will start pairing red  and pink wristbands; red bakelite rings with pink plush bracelets, pink shoes and red laces. lumi’s boots are black.

rez puts bloodlines ii on pause when she comes in, tulle crinkle-crowding her way onto the couch right next to me. lumi is a teen genius, so she knows better than to say are you all right.

"you look awful," she says. 

right now she feels like she’s older than me, even as petite as she is. she’s wearing false eyelashes and pale makeup that give her a doll look. my dislocated ghost miku is staring at her enviously from where she’s crumpled on rez’s floor.

"so look," lumi begins, squaring her puff-sleeve shoulders to face me. i’m looking at the filigree loops hanging down her white arms. underworlder skin through and through with her bluish veins kind of glowing in the fake light in here. she was born here.

"so look," she says again. i must be spaced out. i notice shiny red cellophane thread stitched through the hem of lumi’s petticoat dress. 

so look, it’s like her mantra.

"one of my friends at the dog and pony boutique, they say he’s null," lumi tells me, whispering real low. like the living world has the same kind of tendrils and contrails of permanence that spiral off every pixel-blot world when you type it someplace. like whispering will keep something from being cached.

they say, she says, a they who is not me, and i never minded that until today. i look at the pattern of her dress. rez, folded oddly into the chair opposite with a controller lying in his lap, is listening, half-lidded.

"who’s they?" i ask. 

lumi wave-wave-waves her hand in its pink satin glove. rez also makes the same kind of gesture when he’s being dismissive, but much more slowly. brother-sister meme. “you know,” lumi says, abstractly.

"so i’m going to find out what happened, okay, juneau?" she says, when nobody says anything. i find it hard to focus my eyes, staring instead at the mad spirals knit into her lace.

i lean off the couch to pick up my ghost miku from the floor and press the pad of my thumb into her little rubber hand. the ghost edition was a limited miku. i think i bought it on auction. i wonder if i can pop her arm back into its socket. plastic and rubber click together as i start to try. 

"okay, juneau?"

i nod. i feel rez staring at me. i don’t really know whether lumi can find out what the null’s vendetta is, but it’s probably pretty dangerous for her to go nosing around like she’s offering to do. “thanks,” i say.

"here," she says, reaching for the doll, tiny pink hands. "let me. this is a limited edition ghost, isn’t it?"

machine ghost

"want to sleep?"

i do, but i shake my head. dunno if i could. 

rez pushes his hand through his hair, boneless, helpless, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “damn, natch, i…”

"you play something," i tell him. "i’ll watch." probably the only thing that would help right now is for rez to stop fidgeting around worrying about me.

so i watch rez check on his simulpets and then play waitress warrior. he does some of the mining minigames from bloodlines ii — i think bloodlines ii is probably his favorite — and he uses its concert-maker to play me ultima reverie songs. 

for the first time in my life it just looks like pixels on a screen to me. means nothing. easier to stare until my vision hazes over until i can’t really tell what i’m seeing, than to think about it and remember i have none of my data anymore, none of my virtual selves. while rez is playing i just try very hard not to think about how these are worlds i no longer live in and people i no longer know. i try to think about how it’s just a game.

but it’s the first inkling of what being dead might be like. i hadn’t ever thought about it before. i think about what being dead really means, and i picture standing behind glass, like at a window looking at the exchange station, rez’s office, the arcade district, right nearby but untouchable, where no one can see or speak to me. 

i’d look around at everything here all dull and full of bad air and little colored lights, and i’d probably feel a little bit sad to be a ghost, but not really all that different from how i feel now.

i think about standing here with glass between me and a big, beautiful kingdom waiting for me to save it. i’m a ghost, and my body is on the other side, a beautiful green-haired songstress that can’t move without me. my avatar just stands there, and soon it’ll begin to disappear completely like it never even existed.  

i’m thinking about my ultima reverie character. did i leave a ghost in the machine? is she still there, frozen like a shocked doll with no soul? 

you can die in games, really die, and they’ll hold a little funeral of you, or add your name to a monument if your level was high enough. but i think i’m just gone, worse than dead, erased from the register.

will anyone i played with miss me, try to find me? of course not. they never knew my real name. 

lace fringe

rez decides to ask his sister lumi for help, and calls her to come over. 

lumi is only sixteen, but she’s some kind of child genius. not like, some troll who tells everyone he is a genius, but for real. she blew through online university in a year, but instead of becoming a computer scientist she decided to go to fashion school. it’s a big controversy in rez’s family.

she can do anything with a computer. but what she’s into is making clothes her friends. they make all this wild stuff, then they hang out in atoma with the cool people every night and stay out late and watch for trends.

like she’ll make a dress with a frock coat and a lace fringe, and then next week  everything will have a lace fringe, probably. but it might be on skirts, might be on hats, you never know. maybe instead it’s the frock coat people get excited about, and that catches on and nobody except for lumi and her friends really know they were the ones to start it. 

it’s like she makes a map of people’s taste that gets clearer and more exact with every item she creates. that’s a lot like what i do, with my meme engine.

what i used to do. oh, no. no, no. everything is gone.

i can’t remember if i’ve ever cried in front of rez before. about anything important. everyone knows i cried at the end of winter solstice war, when you have to kill your mentor. even rez misted up. my winter solstice war game data is gone, too, of course.

all i’ve got left was what was on my portable’s hard storage: vampire killer and an old, old version of craftworks party i didn’t have the heart to erase. and a copy of that rowena jujube interview that i’d probably better erase, before the null figures out i have it. 

"maybe there’s something lumi can do," rez says. 

well, what i wanted was to ask lumi to help me find astor, but not if we’re all going to get everything we have wiped out. if she can help me get it back, that’s fine with me. 

when i don’t say anything rez says, “don’t worry. we’ll figure it out. until then you  can stay here. it’ll be fine.”

"thanks," i tell him, my own voice sounding a little cottony.

"you wanna play something?" rez looks like he’ll turn on his console for me, gingerly uncertain. 

"nah."