For one shining moment on her two hundred seventy eighth birthday, Neria Ciao was the most important person in the world. That was the day her level-500 Seelie Huntress ascended into the Keep of Eternal Silence to do battle with Zirnitra, the Black Dragon of Sorcery.
It was a difficult fight; she used every hard-won trick and trophy she'd ever earned, spent all her potions and salves, used up her last precious Wish and cracked her lone Egg of Eritanus. Her heart beat faster; her muscles burned; sweat trickled down her ribs from beneath her breasts. She nearly died four times, saved only by luck, timing, and an incredibly rich supply of Sacred Essence of Golden Lotus.
In the end, it was all worth it. Zirnitra went down thrashing and wailing. It fluttered its wings once, twice, struggled back onto its hind legs. It collapsed again. Spears of light pierced through the spaces between its scales and then consumed its husk from the inside out.
Neria Ciao was the first to ever defeat it.
She posted the video of the fight before the dragon could even respawn. Predictably, her views and comments went wild. "Incredible!" "Great work!" "Never thought I'd see someone take down old Zirny!"
She even got a personal congratulations from the Vanished Lands dev team in Finland, who, it turned out, had checked in to watch her battle as soon as Zirnitra's health dropped below thirty percent. That had only happened twice before.
By the time she went out to treat herself to birthday cake, she'd received three hundred million views, forty thousand messages and comments, nine hundred interview requests, and alerts that her name had appeared in four hundred news articles.
Not all of this feedback was positive, of course. Usually her systems would filter out the worst of it — the vitriol for its own sake, the jealous rage, the troublemakers looking for any soft target.
One, from a stranger, slipped through her filters because it wasn't offensive. Not… exactly. It troubled her all the same. "You have all eternity before you," it said, "and this is how you choose to spend it?"
"Forget about it," Kanus told her. "You did an amazing thing today. You should celebrate!" He signaled to a drone for another round of drinks.
The restaurant Neria had chosen for her birthday party had seated them in a rooftop garden. Terra cotta tiles painted with vines and flowers paved the courtyard, and potted trees lined the patio's low walls. Their boughs were filled with jewel-like fireflies, modified to have enormous wings and soft blue-white lights.
"I know." Neria watched a firefly crawl around the edge of her empty glass. "Just… do you remember what you thought it was going to be like?"
"Mmmm." Livia tapped at her chin slowly. "I used to think that I would change the world. Read to the blind or help to clean up polluted rivers or something."
Kanus snorted. "Why would you need a person for that?"
Livia smiled politely. Kanus was some decades younger, and didn't really understand what it had been like. "There was a time when machines couldn't do those things."
A boy with a wide smile came over and stood by their table, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. He couldn't have been more than forty-five; an infant, really. "Are you Neria Ciao?" he asked, breathless.
She nodded, glowing a bit from the warmth of his regard. "Yeah, I sure am."
"Congratulations," he said. "I just… wow, that was incredible. And — oh! Happy birthday!"
"Thank you." She inclined her head graciously.
"You're such an inspiration. It's so great to meet you." The boy fluttered, overcome by his own enthusiasm, and then returned to his own table. The heads of his group all bowed together as he shared the video of his short conversation with them.
Kanus smirked. "Looks like you have a fan club now, Neri." He took his fresh glass from the back of a drone, then handed Neria's to her as well. "I'd say that's a sign you're doing something right. What are you so worried about?"
"It's just — got me introspective. Maybe it's hit me harder because it's my birthday."
Livia patted her hand. "You can still do everything, Neri. You have all the time in the world."
Neria sipped her new drink, something fizzy and radiant peach. "I was going to read all the classics," she said. "And learn to… I don't know, keep bees or something. Calligraphy. Sewing my own clothes."
"So the thing I realized was this." Kanus leaned forward to jab the table for emphasis. "When was the last time you regretted not doing any of that stuff?"
"…Never, I guess."
Kanus leaned back again and cradled his glass against his sternum. "Well there you have it. There's no need to keep any of that in your brain. You're just romanticizing the obsolete skills of the past. Let it go!"
"He's right, Neri. You're making yourself unhappy for no reason." Livia bobbed her head. "Now come on, we have a lot of celebrating to do. Who wants pastilla?"
The next morning, Neria checked into The Vanished Lands for a quick victory lap. The dev team had erected a monument to her outside the causeway to the Keep of Eternal Silence. It captured her at the moment of victory, bloody and defiant, the cracked Egg of Eritanus sparking in one hand.
It was magnificent.
Gifts had come in overnight, too. Soon she had as much gear as she had before she'd entered the dragon's lair, if not more. Each item was accompanied by a kind message telling her she was inspiring, delightful, amazing. Would she like to join their guild, or their team, or just hang out sometime? She sorted through these, declining almost every offer as politely as she could.
Then she traveled the world, from the dim glow of the Sea of Twilight to the craggy peak of Mount Ironskein. After a few hours, the shine of victory wore off. She'd done everything she could in the Vanished Lands. She knew every inch of terrain. She'd bested every villain and won every achievement. The work of fifteen years was complete. At least until they released some new region or event.
She set aside her glasses and stared up at the ceiling. She felt empty. It was time for a change.
She booked three weeks at a monastic retreat in the Napa Valley. Network access was heavily throttled there, and intermingling with other guests strictly forbidden. It was isolated, but not ascetic. The accommodations were more than comfortable, and meals and other needs were provided by drone. The idea was to clear her head and get in touch with her inner nature through a strict regimen of exercise, simple food, and quiet contemplation.
Neria had visited just such a retreat to celebrate her hundredth birthday. She'd hated it so much that she'd left after only two days. But now… well, now she was much more mature. More likely to benefit from the experience.
She pressed her head against the window of the car on the way there, watching the setting sun flicker through the tree trunks. She'd paid a little extra to have the car to herself. Neria felt it was more in keeping with the spirit of the retreat to arrive in solitude, already primed for contemplation. She'd even already killed her network connection.
It was really boring.
Boring, Neria thought, must be good for the spirit. She did her best to meditate on the orange of the sunset, or the feeling of her body pressing into her seat. She counted heartbeats. She thought about turning on the network again, but resisted the urge. Her sense of her own purity grew by the minute.
By the time an hour and a half had passed, she felt herself a paragon of virtue. Why did she think she'd needed three weeks? She was already more than half—
Sound. Impact. Dust. Something hit her nose, cheek, knee, shoulder.
Neria sprawled blinking and disoriented. Was she right side up? No, not quite, she was skewed sideways, somehow. Slowly she realized that the car's impact system had gone off. What had happened? She struggled to put the images together into something that made sense. There had been a rumble, a fall, the car had veered sharp to the right, and then it hit… something. A tree? Another car? How could that even happen, though?
She clawed aside a half-deflated airbag to see outside the windows. The front of the car was crumpled against a rock face along the side of the road.
"There has been an accident. Stay where you are," the car told her. "Help is arriving soon."
Neria's hands shook. She was so far from civilization, so far from help, but… it could have been worse. She wasn't hurt, she didn't think. She trembled. The worst was over. All she had to do now was wait. She tried to turn on her personal display, then realized it was missing from her ear. She spotted it fractured into three big pieces by her feet.
She waved on the car's display instead. Help would arrive in thirty minutes, it said. The screen flickered, then updated to say seventy minutes. Three hours. Nine. It finally settled on fifteen hours. But… that had to be wrong. How could she be stranded for such a long time? She wasn't as far away from town as all that. She forced a refresh, and then again, but the number stayed pegged at fifteen.
She scanned the news. Ah, that explained it: earthquake. And this earthquake had been quite bad, it turned out. There were more than a few transit accidents like her own, some might even be deadly. Barbaric, she thought, that a person might die in a car accident even now. She spent a moment lost in the unfathomable horror of accidental death.
Fires raged, too, and there were a not-yet-counted number of injuries. The worst news, though, was damage to infrastructure. Several of the old fiber lines had snapped in the quake, limiting network capacity. Worst of all, the regional power receiver had shifted in place, so no new energy could come in. Everything was running on backup until it could be repaired.
Not everything had a backup. An alert went out: avoid using critical network and power capacity for any non-essential purpose. Then the car's display blinked out.
She hadn't felt so alone in — she couldn't even remember.
She was also hungry, she realized. Ravenous, in fact. Alas, Neria hadn't brought a snack; the retreat was supposed to arrange for a meal to welcome her. She thought longingly of the cider she was missing, the biscuits, the dried lamb, the rambutan compote. It would have been delicious.
If she could make her way to the retreat, she could probably still eat it. She waved at the car display again to find out how far a walk it was. It ignored her. Well.
No map and no directions, so no walking to the retreat. She didn't know the way back home, either, even if it was close enough to walk.
She was on her own. Fifteen hours in a car with no display and no food.
But people hadn't always relied on such technology. Even she hadn't, not in her younger days. So her next steps should be simple enough. Find something for dinner, start a fire, shelter in the car, wait until morning. Like camping. She'd been camping before, as a child. How hard could it be?
She tried the door, then gasped with relief when it opened easily. She clambered her way out and stood, shivering, at the edge of the pavement. She breathed in deep, fortifying herself with the cool evening air.
She'd earned all of the achievements for wilderness survival in dozens of separate games over the last century. She'd passed through the full-feel total immersion fad, the hyper-real skill simulations, she'd mastered tens — maybe hundreds! — of crafting minigames. This would be a piece of cake.
The sun would be gone soon, though, and she had nothing to light her way when it was gone. Best be quick. There was a stand of shrubs not too far off — probably the berrying kind. Upon investigation, though, the bushes were all sticks and thorns and a few brown, curled-up leaves. The next bush was the same, and the next one.
Everything she knew about survival in the wild, Neria discovered, was wrong. Berries didn't really twinkle at the edge of her vision; as far as she could tell, there were no berries. The birds didn't reliably hover over the very best mushrooms. She couldn't tap against an oak tree to make the acorns fall down.
It was all lies. And it was getting dark, and colder.
Her eyes stung a little. She pressed at her forehead with her knuckles and took another deep breath. A fire. She needed a fire.
She collected a few sticks and made a circle of rocks on the pavement. She took two of the larger sticks and sawed one against the other. Neria had heard that you could make a fire this way. She could swear she'd seen it in a video before. Something about the heat of friction?
Not a lick of flame, not even a curl of smoke. Her sticks splintered to pieces, eventually. She picked up a fresh twig and stared at it, trying to work up the steel to try again. The muscles in her forearms and biceps burned from the unaccustomed effort.
A too-familiar sound came from the tree line across the street: the rustling of leaves as something menacing passes over them. She looked up. A pair of eyes glowed yellow from the darkness.
She screamed and retreated into the car. She slammed the door shut behind her. She would be hungry, and she would be cold, but at least she would be safe from predators there.
It probably wasn't a bear, anyway. Maybe a dog, or a coyote. Maybe just a raccoon. But better safe than sorry; animals could have terrible diseases.
She stared up and out at the sky. She could see the swirls of distant stars and galaxies jumbled all together, freed for once of the dim orange glow that veiled them. She hadn't seen the real sky like that since she'd been in the double digits, except in satellite photos.
It was almost as lovely as the night sky in the Vanished Lands. Almost.
A memory came to her, unbidden. When she'd received her first extension treatment, back when she was a youthful and naive sixty-three, the doctor had asked her how she planned to spend eternity. "I'm going to learn everything," she said. "Salsa dancing, and fencing. Gardening. I'll learn to be totally self-sufficient — so I can handle any disaster, any emergency at all. I'll read all of the classics, and maybe write some of my own. I'll build a house with my own hands. I'll help the less fortunate — I'll have therapy — I'll climb mountains. I'll go everywhere, know everything. It's going to be amazing. Living in the future is amazing."
The doctor had smiled briefly. "Sounds like a great plan." He had sized up the injector, then pressed immortality into the veins of her thigh.
What on earth had she done since then? Was any of it worthwhile?
She spent the night shivering in that hazy space between sleep and waking. It was cold in the car, and damp. Time passed by without her.
The car display powered on by itself sometime in the gray of early morning. "Help is arriving," it said. "You may now exit the vehicle."
She pulled herself outside to find a new car waiting for her. She crumpled into it. There were bloodstains on the seat cushions shaped like smeared handprints. She averted her eyes and tried not to touch those places.
"Do you need medical assistance? Shall I take you to a hospital?" The car's speaking voice was calm, but under the circumstances Neria felt it should have been a little more concerned about her.
Neria briefly considered carrying onward to her retreat. "No, just take me home," she said.
When she crossed her threshold, Neria had never before been so grateful for the soft give of the carpet, for the air scented with green apple and green grass, for the lights that woke as she drew near and the oven that had chai and peanut noodles already prepared for her.
A new personal display was waiting for her in the maker, too, fabricated the instant it detected the failure of her last one. She slipped it on, and slipped back into the comfortable embrace of her friends.
Thousands of new messages, of course. Many asking after her safety in the disaster. She posted a quick response to let everyone know she was fine and home safely, and with quite a story to tell later, once she had recovered from her ordeal. She skimmed what had happened to her own friends in the aftermath of the quake, then pushed it all aside to catch up on later. Few of them, she thought, could possibly have had as harrowing a time of it as she did.
There was also one new message from the Vanished Lands. To celebrate Neria's achievement, they'd released a sprawling new game update. After the death of Zirnitra, the world had changed. Magic no longer worked the way it had. New lands had appeared and old ones dissolved into mist. Strange new creatures had crawled from deep below the earth.
Her hand hovered over the start icon. She should brush up on basic survival skills. Car repairs, foraging for food in the wild, maybe orienteering. She should learn maps and escape routes, so the next crisis wouldn't catch her so ill-prepared. She should. It would be wise.
But not yet — she could do it later. She pulled at the icon, and the Vanished Lands appeared all around her.
She had all the time in the world, after all.