Thursday, 10 May 2012

An SL rail travelog

SL's latest free gift to Premium Members is a "fully interactive railcar that you can ride across more than 80 regions of the Second Life Railroad."  Woot.  To celebrate - in an entirely non-self-promotional manner - here's an extract from my 2008 novel, Be Right Back, in which Texter Triste follows an SL rail track from Calleta to Bhaga.

I TPed away from Redclaw straight away this evening, worried that each second spent there made it more likely that someone might appear and steal my time away.  I went to my original 'home' location, in fact, that hobo infohub in Calleta  It was somewhere to stand by myself where I wasn't known, where people wouldn't chat to me.  I wondered around for a bit, looking at some of the items I completely missed when I first rezzed into existence because I was in such a hurry to get to Redclaw.  Cardboard boxes to sleep in.  Breeze block seating around a cable spool table.  Oil drums.  Bits of steam punk paraphernalia.  Old sofas arranged around a blazing fire of abandoned fruit machines.  I say I looked at them, but it wasn't like I was actually all that interested.  I filled my SL time there, waiting for the IM that would whisk me away from it all.  Nothing came.  As time wore on I started to grow impatient.  I walked to the end of the railroad pier, looked out over the dock at the rusty ship, at the crane, at the locomotive sinking into the trash pile at the side of the shore, all abandoned to entropy.  Beyond the heaped garbage I saw there was a railway station.  I flew over and walked up and down its platforms for a while, mentally comparing it to Redclaw.  There were more trains there, and their exterior textures were beautiful, but there was no interior to the trains that you could sit in.  No seating.  No tables to sit at with your partner, nowhere to intertwine your fingers and your eyes and your thoughts.  And no cafe; just a large booking hall/waiting area.  Coloured pink.

That said, they do have one thing there that Redclaw doesn't: a railroad, and one which that stretches well beyond its boundaries.  I decided to fly along it, tracked it back to its termination in Cecropia first of all and then followed the line forwards, back into and across Calleta.  Into Oculea.  Into Neumoegen where it rose up a gradual hill and passed another, smaller station with a ramshackle building of wood and corrugated iron.  Into Imperial, where it crossed a small river waterfall that sent a fine particle spray into a clump of Eric Linden's Plumerias.  I followed the track across the south-west corner of Didugua and into Achemon, nipped the north-east corner of Vine and then moved into Obscure.  I passed a brutalist station there, and a plantation of sunflowers which made me think of a friend of mine who died some years ago.  The lag was bad.  Each time I crossed a sim boundary, the scene in my viewer froze for several seconds.  Then, Texter would be ten, twenty, thirty metres from where he should have been, and I had to backtrack to find the railroad again.  But it was always there.  I was always able to resume my course.  Onwards I pushed, through Horisme, Rivata, Epirrhoe, Jodis.  At Epirrhoe, the track followed the floor of a short valley and emerged to pass yet another station, this one looking like it had been made entirely from green plastic, and it had a wind turbine on the top of it as well.  I marvelled at the extent and variety of the imagination that I passed.  Into Aplasta.  Into Ribeta.  Into Idia.  Finally, the line terminated at a ruined station in Jublata.  Feeling slightly cheated, I flew across the next sim, Sinica, following the path that the line would have taken had it still been there.  In Torva, I saw not that far away what could only be a railway viaduct and experienced a little burst of pleasure at the re-emergence of what I now thought of as 'my' railroad.  I resumed my journey, flying through a delightful little station at the Spini border where a tiled roof actually covers a section of the track.  Into Athetis, along another, smaller viaduct and past a station where ivy creeps over the ironwork.    Across the corner of Deltote.  Across Parva.  Across Euclidia and Lota and Lunalis.  Across the corner of Fucosa.  Into Concinna, where the track passed a derelict motel and thick, wavy wheat had managed nature's reclaim.  Through Plebeja and into Lapara, where a set of steps led up to the grand gateway of an enormous walled estate and mist crawled around a selection of coffins and pumpkins on the ground for Halloween.  Into Arches.  Past another small station in Foxglove.  None of these stops were anything approaching the size or scope of the station which had caught my eye in Calleta – or, for that matter, of Redclaw, which I now thought of as something grim and gothic and gloomy compared to these cheerful little halts.  But Redclaw wasn't really a station in the same sense that these were.  There was no rail-road that you could follow out of it that led to anywhere.  It was a pretend station in a way that these pretend stations somehow weren't.  I found myself surprised at the annoyance I suddenly felt towards it, my home for all these weeks, viewed suddenly in a new light.  I thought, absently, of the theme that ran through Stop's top five movie choices.

As I pushed on through the sims – Sagittata (a rather empty and desolate region at the foothills of steep mountains that shot up through the cloud line), Taeniatum (a rail yard of some description to the left of the track; a pretty little mill house below and to the right), Perizoma (a long, zig-zagged fence came up to meet the track), Immidae – I found myself wishing that an actual train might steam by below me.  It seemed wrong that I was able to defy the purpose for which the track had been created in the first place through my flight.  That single factor was why all the stations I had passed, of course, were empty.  No-one actually needed them.  They served no function.  Their only purpose was to beautify the scenery for passing explorers like myself.  At least that was one thing you could say about Redclaw: there were plenty of people who went there.  And yet this did not warm me back to Redclaw; instead it got me thinking that somehow flight itself is wrong.  It makes things too easy.  It actually reduces the degree to which we could become immersed in this environment.  Even with the lag problems I was experiencing, it was still only taking me seconds to fly from one border to the next; mile after mile of virtual land was passing me by below and I was sparing it only the most momentary of inspections.  I thought about that and decided that it was probably actually a lag thing in and of itself: a vehicle crossing borders could have been quite a messy affair, especially if the textures were detailed.

Nolidae.  Sabre.  Clearwing.  The terrain got less green and more yellow.  A station of four platforms straddled the Clearwing-Paranthrene border; my line ended on the Clearwing side but another began in Paranthrene.  In Crenulate, the track was joined by another track that came down from the middle of  Paranthrene.  I stood for a while outside of  Crenulate station, wondering whether to continue my current route or whether to track the new line back.  I looked on the map and saw another branch in the northern half of Paranthrene, which also came down into Crenulate: so there were actually three lines entering my current sim and two exiting it – mine into Burnet, the other into Hooktip.  They both crossed Leafroller, Lappet and Pini, but then the line that I was following went south to Agirus and the other went east into Pawpaw (where it split again, one line heading north to Maia, Owlet and Tussock, one line heading south-east into Tersa, Anilis, Nerice, Gluphisia and beyond).  I decided to stick with my line, walked into Burnet, my head reeling with the complexity and structure and sheer size of the system that I was trying to follow.  In  Leafroller, I got caught in a lag bubble that sailed me right through the sim completely, almost as though I'd been picked up by strange forces that didn't want me there and deposited on the far boundary (it out-spooked all the Halloween bits and pieces I'd seen on my way by a quite considerable margin).  In Lappet, a train for sale – the Flossberg Express – detected my passing and started chirping away in chat about it being the “cutest personal train in SL!”  That got me thinking again about the absence of actual trains and it occurred to me that there was nothing stopping me from buying a train vehicle and driving it up and down the lines myself.  Lag issues aside, it still didn't appeal to me: for a train to be authentic it needed to be scheduled!  And then late.  That also got me thinking.  I wondered why rail enthusiasts hadn't discovered SL yet and started scheduling services for the hell of it.  I wondered if that was why Linden had laid the track in the first place (hoping someone like that might come across it).  I wondered if rail enthusiasts had discovered SL but dismissed it on a point of technical detail.  I wondered if there was another part of Second Life somewhere where they all congregated, where they had built their own railroad 'properly'.  Or something.  I tried to think if there were any rail enthusiasts I knew in RL so that I could ask them.

Pini, Agirus, Aglia; I kept checking to see if I'd received a message from Stop that I'd missed somehow, and each time I checked and saw that I hadn't I started to feel a little grumpy again.  The journey – now a pilgrimage, of sorts, that I wanted to see through to the end – helped to distract me.  I stopped in Aglia to look at a beautiful halt made from triangles of glass and wood.  I crossed Nessus, Celerio, Velox.  In Tenera, a three-eyed Iron giant stooped as though to lift a little oval shaped station from the ground.  In Crumbi, another line joined mine again, and when I checked the map to see where this had come from I felt an odd delight to see that this was actually the line I'd previously tracked as far as Gluphisia.  Past another  Flossberg Express vehicle, downhill into Mocis and another border lag bubble managed to sink me below the track, where my avatar walked on the spot until I extracted it by TPing to a position a few metres away.  Past a small halt in Zale in front of an amphitheatre and across the south-east corner of Fishii (I rather fancied something smelled funny there).  Finally, in Bhaga, the line came to an end, and there was no suggestion of any resumption further on, where the land met the sea in a cluster of islands and small land masses.  I stood in Bhaga station, an odd sort of construction, coloured brown (but not in a nice way); I thought about the number of sims I'd crossed and then flicked back to map view and zoomed slowly out.  The map window started to fill with shrinking squares, each one a sim; by the time the entire area of my journey filled the screen the squares were too small for the sim names to display.  I continued to zoom out – slowly, so that the detail got a chance to rez.  Then the continent filled the window, then that got smaller and smaller still.  Then other continents crowded for room and they shrank.  Still I zoomed out.  Still there was more to look down upon.  Finally I reached the full extent of the zoom and still there was yet more: I clicked the map and held down the left mouse key, grabbed the map, moved everything in view to the right, revealed more, and then more still, and then more still.

And that's how big Second Life is.

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