They were never supposed to do this.
But a cancerous session manifests many glitches, she supposed, some more tragic than others. Perhaps this was their victory once masked by defeat. Or perhaps the looming recursion would be a mirror held up against themselves, to view their war from a player's perspective, and maybe find meaning in all the death.
No, she didn't suppose so.
She formulated tactics and strategies, dead-ends and fail-safes even as she stood, dusted off her knees, and returned to the camp with the discs in hand.
Three discs. Three players.
They all recognized the spirographs on the strange circular objects, but the heavy relevance and sudden sense of sickness and foreboding took a moment of explanation from the windswept woman.
Thoughts of armies scattered in piecemeal across a checkerboard battlefield tore through the Vagabond's mind. He couldn't do it again. He couldn't make a million more people just to kill them all again.
The Questant commanded nothing of them. She merely explained their situation. She gestured to the star newly looming in the sky, slowly growing larger. She told them their lives were their own to handle, but whatever their decision, it had to be all or none.
The Mendicant squeezed his shoulder and gave a nod. If he wanted to spare the future to die here, she could do that for him. And if he wanted to go forward and make a world with food and water plenty, she could do that too.
The worst was choosing who would play.
The worst was going through with it.
They had a visceral understanding of the deific discs that had spawned them, and the mechanics therein. Three sets of machines placed hurriedly in three small labs, three cruxite dowels extruded, three kernelsprites released.
The vagabond couldn't watch as his tiny ward buzzed into the abstraction, and its frantic glittering became a brilliant strobe, but having lost all semblance of sanity. Its crackling insectoid head bounced the way it was programmed to bounce, agitated by the countdown the way it was programmed to be agitated, a distant reminder of Serenity's panic just before the launch. Distant, dissimilar, disorienting. The light kept flashing, blinding him, pressing in on him with its buzzing, chattering form, it just wouldn't stop...
He lured the horrid thing that had consumed Serenity into another section of the lab and locked her there, and then sequestered himself in the bunker, sealing it and staying away from the outside. He didn't want to go out there. He didn't want to have to fight monsters. He didn't want to fight anything at all.
As claws scrabbled at the hatch, he crawled inside his wall-panel fort and didn't move for hours.
The Mendicant watched the monitor where Serenity's strange spritely form split in two like a dropped egg, and the torn, hollowed-out remnant of her soul expanded into -- something else. A winged, six-legged black-and-yellow thing resonated with a preprogrammed, condescending wisdom that knew too much and could barely understand itself. It rattled and flashed against the door, trying to impart its incomprehensible guidance on an obstinate Vagabond.
An aimless guide hovered like white oil on the air behind her, begrudging her coplayer for illicit dawdling. She calmly lead it outside.
The world smelled of old paper and stamp glue here. The crushed head of a metallic worm jutted out from beneath the base. She severed it at the neck with her sword, and lobbed it back without daring to look.
A familiar flash over her shoulder drew her eyes. A Renegade devoured; an Astute Radiciform born.
Playing alongside a disembodied, digitized ghost of her own husband unsettled her. Slaughtering dozens of creatures all bearing his likeness unsettled her more. Her regal shell may have cracked at times -- okay, many, many times -- but nowhere the other two could see.
The Worldly Quaintissa, as Seer of Hope, first heard the voice, the guide from futures past. A voice that matched her own... a younger Queen, not yet raw from hot dust, starvation and loss. It held a regality and a confusion not yet replaced by resignation.
It urged her on her duties. Only a Seer can steer them right. She knew where hope lay, and how to get them there.
A Wracked Voyager walked the rim of a dormant volcano. They'd told him he had to stoke it. He peered down into its grumbling depths, then out onto the world below, filled with frogs, and somehow, the thought of a million awful amphibians drowned under a cascade of hot lava thrilled him.
No! No. A Page of Space couldn't entertain such thoughts. He had made the mistake of eating handfuls of green slime already, to the strict, blinky admonishment of his Serenitysprite.
But at the same time, they disgusted him. Their wriggly little forms, gangly legs, slimy soft skin, bulging eyes and weird pupils. UGH. Something deep down in his core programming made him hate them.
It took a long talk with the Quaintissa to fully understand why.
Whatever he had made himself out to be, what Skaia had made him to be was an agent of destruction.
A Pioneer Machinatrix felt age pile on her too soon, so much of it as she went on for days inside their minutes, months inside their weeks. The Heir of Time, gently guided and encouraged by the Seer, made the corrections to their disfigured session, paved the way to perfection and solace through loops and wheels and cogs of endless bloody sacrifice.
And finally when the time was right, a patient and melancholy Seer carried her broken white body to its bed of stone. The world exhaled around her in a breath of swirling papers beneath three beacons of bright white hope.
She woke above a checkerboard in a billowing red uniform and sobbed at the sight below. Black and white, black and white, black and white. Smooth and orderly, made of laws and computations, and built on desecration. Clones that looked like people she used to know looked up at her and she simply turned and flew into the emptiness of the medium, missing sand and rags already.
To destroy Jack, to destroy the Black King and Queen, was so beautiful in their hearts they could have died happy. The Ultimate Reward was just the frosting on the cake.
Three heroes never meant to play stood on the lilypad of the cosmos and opened the door to an infant universe made just for them.
A rush of cool mist and lush green forests called them from beyond.
They were never supposed to do this.
But they were glad they had.