An evil conspiracy…

Like most of the oldbies, he still had a place in the Old Grid, while keeping plenty of personas busy on all other parts of the Metaverse. I walked up to his shack, full of unfinished gadgets and devices — most of them were proofs-of-concept, most actually worked, but they always had an unfinished touch to them. “You didn’t have to come, Gwyn. A message would have been fine,” he said placidly.

“Oh, I wasn’t busy.” I walked across his place, eagerly watching all his experiments, and refraining from asking what they were for. They always amazed me when I visited his place, but one stood out from the rest. “Are these… prims?” I asked, baffled.

He slowly turned to face me. These days, he went back to his dark techno-angel look from the very early days of the Old Grid — just updated for modern CGI standards, of course. “No, Gwyn.” He looked at me with infinite patience. “They just look like prims. Have you never talked to the Primitar Group?”

I shook my head. Marv always assumed I knew everything; I always wondered how he never figured out that in most cases I absolutely had no clue about what he was saying. Or perhaps he was too polite to mention it. So he droned on, “The Primitar Group is doing some realistic replicas of the Old Grid, trying to recapture the experience from the first days… from old movies on OurTube, they even managed, after a few years, to get alpha textures to flicker properly — but that’s not important now. I didn’t call you to see these. Take a look at that.” He was pointing to what seemed to all purposes to be an old TV set from the 1980s or 1990s, like you saw at museums. It was showing a flat, 2D image of a strange plaza.

“What’s that?” I asked, almost regretting the answer.

“Something from the AstroGeeks.” He noticed my blank look. “Did I never tell you about the AstroGeeks before?”

“I have no clue who they are”, I admitted with a small smile. All our conversations went that way, and have been like that since the early days of the Metaverse.

“Remind me to give you a tour of their place sometime,” he said, matter-of-factly. Then he picked up a strange-looking device, a mixture of a remote control and a 1950s zap gun, and pointed it to the old TV screen. “Notice the pattern?”

“Well yes… what does it represent?”

“Phaylen told my wife that… well, nevermind what she told her. It’s supposed to be a representation of the confluence of all independent grids in the Metaverse.”

“A map.” This was familiar territory; SignpostMarv was always tinkering with maps.

“You could call it that, yes. But it’s a dynamic representation. It shows how people move around, how they interact, what the current trends are, and so forth. See that bright star? Probably a club or something; it will go nova in a while, and disappear, and be replaced by a million others.”

“Nice,” I said, not understanding what he was aiming at. “Just another geekish thing then, make the whole of the Metaverse look like a star map or something?”

“You don’t understand.” He was right — I didn’t. “By mapping dynamic social interactions from the Metaverse into what looks like a sky map, the AstroGeeks can apply astronomical pattern-matching algorithms — the same ones used for detecting civilisations on other planets, for example — and get a lot of interesting statistics that way from the Metaverse.”

“Like what?” I asked.

He didn’t reply. He tweaked with the remote control, or whatever it was, and just said: “Observe.” The image changed; I assumed he was zooming in to a specific area, but the way stars faded out into the background, just to be replaced by more stars, wasn’t making much sense to me.

“Star size and magnitude gives a rough approximation of the number of people and amount of interaction they have with each other; galaxies are people with repeated social interaction. Groups. They form and disband, thus you see stars swirling around and galaxies clashing and things like that. Very cool.” He was now turned back to me again, and manipulating the control so that the images were running faster and faster on the screen; I was getting dizzy. “But this is cooler.”

For me, it just looked like a field of stars like the others. I told Marv as much.

“Notice how the stars are sparser?”

“Well… a bit perhaps.”

“Watch this.” More twiddling with the controls. Now the screen showed clearly a hole in the sky — a dark area where few stars shone. “See?”

“Ok, I’m assuming it’s just a place on the Metaverse with few people around…”

“Ah.” He picked up another device. Like most of his things, it had a crude look, with lots of shiny buttons, and glowing bits which had no purpose except to look cool. “I’m now running a sequence of the past few months, in fast-forward; one frame is about a day or so. Pay attention.”

The image flickered and jumped suddenly; the hole disappeared. But the sequence was very strange. All of a sudden, stars collapsed, crushed into each other, went nova for a few frames, and a hole was growing. And growing and growing. Until the sequence stopped and there was nothing left.

“Ok, I got it, I think”, I said, rubbing my chin. “So an area of the Metaverse suddenly became empty. So what? I guess it happens all the time. Vast areas of the Old Grid have been empty for decades, and the other grids are not much different.”

“Well, sort of. The difference is that this happened in months, and it affected twenty million people. Or rather, their avatars”.

I still missed the point. Twenty million was not much; people logged in and off the Metaverse all the time.

“They are missing, Gwyn. They’re simply not there any more,” said SignpostMarv ominously.

“What do you mean — ‘not there any more’? They come and go, I suppose that they went someplace else?”

He shook his head sadly. “Not in this case. The AstroGeeks are sure about the numbers. In a few months, this area of the Metaverse simply emptied all of a sudden. The avatars are missing. They did not go anywhere else on the Metaverse. They’re simply not there. Gone.”

I frowned in concentration. These days, everybody was on the Metaverse. “Maybe they just died or something?” I tried to calculate how many people died every day. Twenty million didn’t seem much for a few months.

He looked at me with a strange gleam in his eyes. “Doesn’t this remind you of anything?”

I shrugged. “Refresh my poor memory, or what’s left of it…”

“Think back. Twenty million people leaving an area in a few months.”

“I give up, Marv, you tell me…” But as soon as the words left my mouth I remembered. “Before the Riots.”

“Right. When everybody left the Old Grid and the Lindens were forced to connect it to the rest of the other grids. It was pretty much the same thing back then: over a few months, avatars simply failed to appear on the statistics. Well, we didn’t have such nice tools to show statistics, of course. We just had graphs and charts…”

Tateru’s population charts,” I remembered.

“Before they stopped giving access to their data, yes.”

I nodded. I also remembered that. “So… where are all these people going to? There is just… the Metaverse. There is nothing else beyond the Metaverse. I mean… everything is interconnected… every computer online is on the Metaverse, you cannot just be ‘outside’ it, it makes no sense, if you’re online, you’re on the Metaverse. It’s not like in the old days at all. Things are different.”

“Nevertheless, that’s what’s happening. People are leaving. Somehow, they’re not being tracked any longer.”

“But that’s… not possible!” I cried.

It was his time to shrug; he was not a natural shrugger. His oversized raven wings did a complex motion, one that threatened to topple my avatar. “I just show you what I found out. But there is something else. There is a… uh, let’s call it an event horizon, although it’s not really a ‘horizon’. More like a group of places that are always threatening to disappear but never really disappear.” He turned his attention back to the TV. “I’m running a filter, tagging those stars, see which ones actually move and which are replaced by others. See the red markers? These are loci which constantly remain away from the black spot. But they act as attractors. Somehow.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, baffled.

“I don’t know what I mean. I think these places attract visitors, avatars who go there, interact briefly, then disappear — sucked into the void, if you wish. We don’t see them again. But those places on the ‘horizon’ remain. They keep attracting people.”

“But that makes no sense! Why would they attract people for? To ‘suck them into the void’? That sounds like a conspiracy theory to me! I think it’s more reasonable to admit that this is just a wild interpretation of some data, or a side-effect of some of the algorithms used by your friends.”

“Phaylen’s friends, not mine.”

“Right, whatever… Look, this is all fascinating, but… what’s your point? A lot of strange things happen all the time. This is the Metaverse, after all.”

He stopped for a moment, looking at the horizon. I waited patiently; the storm outside my window was finally abating. It still rained, but not as strongly as before. I realised that I had always loved the sound of the rain, but only when I was at home, and usually in bed reading a good book. In a sense, the force of the rain told me how cool we are with our technology, but Nature still beats us in special effects using simple things like H2O.

“Aren’t you curious?” Marv suddenly asked, looking over his shoulder.

“Not particularly curious, no,” I admitted.

His voice lowered. “I would like to see what is happening out there, but…”

“But?”

“Well, this dynamic representation is not about places. It’s about people. Yes, the place is important, but what the stars show are people disappearing. And to find out why, you need to talk to people.”

I was slowly starting to understand what he had in mind. “And you think I should talk to them and ask around.”

“You’re good at that,” he said simply. I protested, but he ignored me. “Have you seen Torley lately?”

“Torley? No…” I tried to remember when had been the last time I had talked to Torley. The Soul of SL, I used to call him. Gosh, but that was ages ago!

“Nobody has. I’ve been asking. He doesn’t reply to messages, and hasn’t done so for a while.”

I was a bit confused about the turn in the conversation. “So? I sometimes don’t reply immediately either.”

He smiled briefly. “For the past four months.”

“Oh…” I started to make a mental list of people that hadn’t replied to me in the past months. There weren’t many, and I told Marv: “Well, for your ‘conspiracy’, you’d need a lot of missing people that don’t reply to any messages. Most of everybody I know have been in touch!”

“How many of those are digital personas, proxies, multiple-entities, and so forth?”

“Oh… most of them I guess. These days, everybody has them. It’s impossible to track down everything without them!”

“Nevertheless, you seem to be able to manage.”

It was a plain statement. I blushed — and this was picked up by the haptic devices too, so my avatar blushed as well. “Well… I was never very eager to try those things, you know. It sort of feels weird, having computer software interacting with others on your behalf, pretending to be you.”

“But you just said…”

I cut him short. “Never mind what I said; just because everybody uses them, and I’m fine with the concept, that doesn’t mean I like the whole idea!”

“Right. My point was, it makes it harder to find people who are ‘missing’. Because most people will be in touch, all the time, even if they are just in touch through their digital personas, their digital proxies, their AIs. Correct?”

“Well, aye…” I was still confused. “Marv, I don’t get it. What do you mean? It’s true that these days I have no clue if I’m talking to a human or just an AI; I talk to people who are supposed to be dead every day, and I’m used to that; and I’m assuming that one day people will continue to talk to me long after I’m gone. It’s just… the way things are…”

“I wasn’t discussing that,” he said, facing me again. “I’m just saying that it’s hard to miss people these days because everybody is talking to everybody else’s proxy or digital persona. So there is way more communication going on. The communication flow is seldom interrupted. Even, as you say, when people die.”

“So…?”

“So how do we account for twenty million people — or at least their avatars — that stopped interacting on the Metaverse in just 3 or 4 months?”

All right, that made me think. “I don’t know.”

“Neither do I. But it is an interesting problem. I thought about doing a chart about the amount of agents that a physical human being has on average, but it’s hard to calculate. There is no method to differentiate agents from physical beings; the Turing tests all fail. So we can only rely on statistical methods based on what people say.” He frowned. “I just have your word on it that you don’t use any proxies; you could just pretend to do so and I would never find out.”

“Well yes… but I’m not… and I’m sure there’s a point somewhere in your argument?”

“I’m not good at coming to the point,” he said in a sad tone. “To make an avatar disappear completely from the Metaverse takes a lot of effort. You’d have to hunt down all its agents, proxies, personas, and so forth. And the semi-conscious or not-conscious systems that track messages down: the auto-responders, the in-world presence trackers, and so forth.” He pointed to the black hole at the screen again. “That’s a lot to be wiped out to show up like that. Remember, Gwyn, none of those people are interacting on the Metaverse at all. They’re simply not there.”

And I understood now.

Not there.

Marv dropped me a location for one of those “attractor” points and let me muse about it for a while.

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