The Vanishing Table

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As a Christmas treat, here’s a new Avatar Dining Club story.

– –

For the seventh meeting of the Avatar Dining Club – our Christmas meal – there was no avoiding it any longer: it was finally my turn to bring a guest. Whilst the rule established over the previous five meetings was that these diners attended virtually via a remote connection to a laptop placed in the empty spot at the end of the table, I decided to thumb my nose at this and actually bring someone physically with me. I liked that this appeared an act of rebellion, though in truth the reason was that I happened to know that ‘Deadly Number’ lived about a five minute walk from our regular venue, the L’Albero Verde, and the idea that we should go to all the trouble of setting up a video conference with someone who was just around the corner struck me as being plain bonkers.

Not that any of the regular group could know this. Real life information was strictly prohibited in our monthly meetings, at which everyone remained at all times – guests included – in their virtual world persona. But I will tell you that Deadly was an old school friend of mine, one of the small handful I’d bothered to stay in touch with over the years. He was also the person who’d first introduced me to the metaverse – hence my knowing him in both worlds.

Apparently, it being Christmas Eve meant that spoken hellos were no longer sufficient a greeting, and suddenly everyone was hugging and kissing each other. Being a steadfastly hug-averse individual, I was initially horrified at this turn of events, and rather stiffly returned the embraces of Indigo Williams and Mary-Anne Middlemarch. I must admit, however, that feeling Rainy September in my arms was a surprisingly pleasant experience, and for some time after her lips had pressed against my cheek I found myself wondering if there might be any way of repeating this event without having to wait another twelve months.

Once we’d sat, pulled the crackers laid out for us, donned our paper hats, read the terrible jokes and compared the dreadful gifts (I got the red curly fish thing, which decreed me to be ‘passionate’), Jennifer Bit made a grand announcement. “Seeing as how we’re all physically here today,” she said, “and seeing as how it’s Christmas – I thought I’d bring a board game for us to play once we’ve finished eating. She pulled out of her bag a well-worn Monopoly box.

Raw Concrete, the young metaverse builder who always sat to my left, nearly spat his cola out across the table. Meanwhile Edward, our white-haired and usually very genial host, looked quite aghast at this prospect. “My dear Jennifer,” he said hoarsely, “have you lost your mind? The staff here do have homes to go to tonight. And I really don’t want to see the side of anyone here that presents itself whilst playing that monstrosity of a game.”

“Well it’s either that or Snakes and Ladders,” she said, pulling a second box out of her bag.”

“Snakes and Ladders!” cried everyone. Everyone, that is, except for my companion. “What a shame,” he said. “Great game, Monopoly.” I happened to know that Deadly was an avid board games player in both worlds.

“So I have to ask,” said Indigo, as our food started to arrive, “what is the deadly number?”

Deadly smiled at what was clearly a question he’d been asked many times before. “It all depends,” he said, “on what number it is you need to roll – or what number it is you need someone else not to roll.”

“Deadly’s into board games,” I said, by means of explanation.

“Though when you think about it,” he added quickly, “there are plenty of instances in our wider existence where life or death itself all boils down to a number.”

“Like Russian Roulette,” Raw chipped in. “Which chamber has the round?”

“Precisely!”

“Still a game,” said Indigo, “albeit one played by dumb f-”

“Perhaps this is an excellent opportunity,” Edward cut in quickly, “for you to tell us about your virtual world activity, Deadly. You play board games inworld?”

“Not just play them,” he told us. “I make them.  ‘Deadly Number Board Games.’ I’m surprised you haven’t heard of me. My slogan is, ‘Dice. Table. Roll.’ Actually, that’s the phrase I use to commence every game inworld when I’m playing. It sort of became my ‘thing.'”

“Catchy,” said Rainy, putting no effort whatsoever into her feigned enthusiasm.

“I think so!” he replied. “Well, it hasn’t hurt my sales. I shift on average fifty games per week, and my lowest priced title is just shy of five hundred in cost.”

“Really?” she said, suddenly interested now.

“People are that into board games in the virtual world?” Jennifer asked, slightly incredulous.

“Why not?!” Deadly replied. “They’re a tried and tested way of bringing people together in real life – why shouldn’t that work in the metaverse too? People form connections with each other over board games. When you import them into the virtual world, you’re create a metaverse experience that comes really close to real life – especially if you have voice turned on whilst you’re playing so that you can talk to one another.”

“I never thought of it like that,” Rainy said, and I found myself slightly irked by how quickly Deadly had captured her attention.

“I must confess,” said Mary-Anne, who was sitting to my right, “I play board games inworld from time-to-time. They’re a lot of fun.”

“There you go!” he declared. “Don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it!”

“And what sort of board games do you create?” Edward asked him, a forkfull of turkey and stuffing pausing momentarily on its journey to his mouth.

“If it involves dice then I’ve probably created it. Ludo. Backgammon. Yahtzee. Snakes and Ladders. Cluedo. I used do a version of Monopoly based on popular metaverse regions, but I had to update it so frequently I gave up in the end.”

Raw asked him, “You animate the dice and everything?”

“Absolutely. Actually, that sort of thing is the easy part. The hardest thing to code is the listening scripts for when a player has to make a decision in chat – like, for example, in Cluedo when you have to announce who killed the victim in what room and with what weapon. That’s a lot of work – first to work out the logic and then to optimise the algorithm so the code isn’t so long it lags out the whole region.”

“I might need to talk to you about that,” Raw said.  “I have to write a listening script for a guest book someone commissioned me to build.”

“I’d be delighted,” Deadly replied. “I’ll give you two pointers right now. First, don’t have the thing listening all the time, it consumes resources and increases lag: get the user to click on it before it starts listening. Second, once it’s working then clean up your code! You’re going to be creating all sorts of backdoors along the way so you can check the various states – get rid of them when they’re no longer needed. It drives me nuts how many coders leave their over-bloated devices permanently in listening mode, slowing everything down around them. It’s just lazy programming.”

“Well this is all very festive,” Indigo said, her eyes half closed.

“Perhaps you should tell everyone your problem, Deadly,” I said. “That might liven things up. We do like a good mystery to get our heads around here.”

“Oh yes!” Raw cried, eagerly. Edward rolled his eyes slightly, but this time declined to deliver his we-are-not-a-mystery-solving-group speech.

“Oh well,” Deadly said, looking faintly embarrassed, “it’s not exactly a mystery of the solving kind – just a mystery to me, really. I can’t imagine it’s going to be of any interest to you guys.”

“We’ll be the judge of that!” Raw declared. “Let’s hear it!” The young man was already halfway through his ‘Christmas Pizza,’ a bizarre toppings arrangement of turkey, sausage slices and sprouts. He waved his current slice enthusiastically in the air as he commanded our guest to speak.

“Well it’s just that I’ve lost something that I put out in my inworld house. A table. I rezzed it a couple of months ago and last week I discovered it had completely vanished.”

“A missing inventory item,” Indigo said, deadpan. “How thrilling. You must be desperate to write that into one of your stories, Leonard.”

“Ignore her,” Rainy said to him. “That must be very frustrating for you, Deadly.”

“It’s especially annoying,” he continued, “because I’m hosting a Christmas lunch at my place tomorrow for me and my other single friends.” When he said the word, ‘single’ he looked briefly in Rainy’s direction. “I’d hoped to use it. Of course, I’ve plenty of other tables in my inventory I could rez, but I bought this once specifically for the event because it has lots of great animations.”

“A table with animations, eh?” Indigo said.  “Now you’re talking.”

Our guest blushed slightly. “Not those sorts of animation,” he clarified.

“Oh,” she said glumly. “Sad emoji.”

“Is that a thing now?” Jennifer asked, “naming emojis?”

“Why not? Deadly brings real life board games into the virtual world; I bring online communication aids into the real one.”

“What animations did it have?” Rainy asked, smiling at our guest. “Kissing under the mistletoe, perhaps?”

“Yes actually I think it does have that one,” Deadly replied. “And also pulling crackers, guffawing with laughter at the jokes and carving the turkey. Also, if you type in the name of a Christmas carol it plays the first verse so you can all sing along.”

“So it just disappeared?” Raw said. “Sounds like you just took it back into inventory by accident.”

“I’ve checked and double checked and triple checked,” Deadly told him. “It’s not there. I found the folder it came in: the instructions are there, the landmark to the store is there and the picture of what it should look like is there. What is not there is the table.”

“No copy, huh?” Indigo commented. “Gacha item?”

“Indeed,” he replied. “And it’s a rare. So it’s not like I can easily buy a replacement.”

A thought occurred to me. “It was definitely yours?” I asked him. “It didn’t belong to a friend who rezzed it for you and then took it back again? Maybe you just forgot.”

Rainy tutted. “Leonard, If it wasn’t his then how did the folder get into his inventory?”

“Oh yes,” I said quietly. “There is that, I suppose.”

“Then you must have deleted it,” Indigo stated. “There’s no other explanation. Look in your deleted items folder. Nobody ever bothers to empty that. I guarantee you it’ll be there.”

“I already did that,” Deadly replied. “And it isn’t there.”

“Actually,” said Raw, “there is another explanation. You must have given someone permission to edit your stuff and they accidentally deleted it. That would explain everything.”

“There are only two people inworld that I’ve given that permission to and they both swear blind they’ve not been anywhere near my place in the last couple of weeks.”

“They probably lying,” Indigo said. “You shouldn’t believe a word of what anyone ever says to you in that place. I learned that lesson the hard way.” At our previous meal, Indigo had found out that her long-term business partner in the metaverse had secretly manipulated her into their arrangement.

“Or,” said Raw, “someone hacked into their account.”

“Why would anyone who hacked into a metaverse account bother to delete some other person’s furniture,” asked Rainy, “and then stop at just the one piece?”

“How should I know?” the builder replied. “People do all kinds of crap that makes no sense to me.”

“In any case,” Deadly said, “I checked my security logs and no-one entered my place during the time that the table must have disappeared.”

“But if they had edit rights,” Raw continued, “what’s to stop them from deleting their entry from the security log?”

“The security system is set to owner edit only,” Deadly replied. “Edit rights or no edit rights, no-one can interact with that system but me.”

Raw looked suddenly smug. “I’m surprised that someone as accomplished as you at scripting should make such a rookie error. The menu might be owner-only, but someone with edit rights could still look inside the log – it’s only a text card.”

Deadly sighed. “I’m sorry, Raw, but you’re on the wrong track. I wrote that system myself and the log is held on my Google Drive so that I don’t have to be inworld to check it. There’s just no way that anyone could have changed it.”

Raw’s triumphant smile disappeared. “Oh,” he said.

“I once lost something by accident,” Mary-Anne said. “I was placing a sofa and I clicked on a vase by mistake whilst in edit mode. The next thing I knew, the stupid thing had shot up into the air, out of view. I don’t know what I did. I was searching for days for the damn thing. In the end, I found it a thousand metres above my skybox.”

“Yes,” said Deadly, “I’ve had that sort of thing happen to me a couple of times before. I think it’s that the surprise of clicking on the wrong object causes your mouse hand to move involuntarily – which the system interprets as a sort of ‘flick’ in whatever direction your hand moved in. Something like that. The thing is, both times it happened I knew immediately that it had happened. I can’t imagine doing it and not noticing.  It’s a thought, though, I suppose. I haven’t searched the area of space above and around my house.” His face fell. “It’s several million cubic metres to cover, though.”

Really?!” Rainy said, leaning in towards him a little. I decided never to bring a guest to the club ever again.

“Did you check your returned items folder?” Indigo asked.

“Yes I did,” he replied. “Not there.”

“Well that’s it then,” she said, “I’m all out of ideas.”

I said, smiling, “We haven’t heard yet what Ed-”

“I know!” Raw blurted. Across the table from him, Indigo’s hands went up instinctively (Raw had a tendency to turn chewed food into projectiles when excited).  “Someone hacked into your account and deleted the table!” His big, victorious smile had returned.

“Why in God’s name would someone hack into someone’s account just to delete one thing?” Rainy demanded.

“Once again,” Raw said, “I have no idea.”

“Just because something’s technically possible,” Jennifer told him gently, “doesn’t mean it’s probable.”

“Actually,” Deadly said, looking suddenly thoughtful, “he might just have something there. I split up with my girlfriend about a month ago and it was very vitriolic. This is just the sort of thing she’d do to mess with my mind.”

“Breakups are hard,” Rainy said, putting her hand on his forearm. “I had a bad one recently too.”

Raw punched the air. “At last I solve one of these mysteries!” He stood up and did a little dance on the spot.

“Is that meant to be the floss?” Indigo asked him. “You do realise it doesn’t involve twerking, right?”

“I don’t care I don’t care!” he sang. “I solved the problem I solved the problem!”

“Maybe you have, Raw,” I said, “but we still haven’t heard if Edward has any thoughts on the problem. Edward?”

Our host waited for Raw to sit down. He leaned forward thoughtfully. “Well I’m really not sure at all,” he began. “All this scripting business is a little too technical for an old man like me.”

“Scripting?” said Raw. “What has scripting got to do with it?”

“Well, my boy, our guest was telling us earlier that lots of coders leave their listening scripts on all the time.”

“And?”

“We know the table must have had a listening script in it because it recognised carol titles.”

“So what? What if it does?”

“Deadly also told us that lots of coders often don’t clear up the little bits of scripting they write to help them work more effectively.”

Raw screwed up his face for a moment. “I still don’t get it,” he said finally. “Sorry Edward, but I think this time the kudos goes to me.”

“If you don’t let him finish,” said Indigo to him, “I swear to God you’ll be wearing this salad on your head.”

Edward laughed. “Thank you, my dear, but young Raw might yet be right. It’s a bit of a wild idea. I just found myself wondering if sometimes a coder might include script in something that deletes the whole object when it hears a particular phrase.”

Deadly nodded slowly. “Actually, I’ve done that myself a couple of times.  It saved me the bother of having to locate a particular item I wanted to get rid of when I was worried its script might interfere with the thing I was working on. I called it my ‘kill script.’ I’d just type in the word ‘kill’ followed by the name of the item and poof – it was gone. Of course, I had backup copies in my inventory. Are you suggesting I might have accidentally triggered a kill script in the table?”

“It’s a possibility,” Edward said.

Deadly said, “Well I’m pretty sure I never said anything like ‘kill the table.'” He laughed.

“I wonder, though,” Edward continued, “if, around about the time that the table went missing, you were playing a game of – let’s say – Ludo.”

Deadly thought for a moment. Suddenly, he exclaimed, “Oh my God! You’re right – I was!”

“Why Ludo?” I asked.

“Oh that was just a guess, my boy – the first game I could think of that doesn’t use two dice, but one die.”

“My slogan!” cried Deadly.

“I assumed a man with your passion for board games couldn’t possibly have announced, ‘Dice Table Roll’ at the commencement of a game with only one die.”

“Die Table Roll,” Deadly said, smiling as he shook his head.

“But most importantly of all,” said Edward, “Die Table.”

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