writing chapter 6.5
After they got used to the kernel’s magic, they were able to walk thru any area of the gameworld and alter its properties with a wave of their hand. This way, Fairy could put pink gingerbread trim on all the buildings on the carnival level, and Snake could come along after her and age everything until the color bleached out and the trim broke off. There was a flurry of rapidly changing game sets, until Anomia put her foot down. In the end, the carnival level became a blend of wild west ghosttown and fin-de-siecle filmset.
It was all amusement park physics – gravity, centrifugal force, momentum, vectors – things everybody forgot the moment they left school. Anomia never let them forget the purpose of the carnival level, tho she didn’t believe in it anyway, because it wasn’t quantum. Until players were making castles out of fog and flying around obstacles, her only interest in the carnival level was to keep it out of the boys’ hands. She had even less interest in Carneytown, which they’d already turned into a cheaters‘ heaven.
So she hardly blinked when the boys slipped in an extra choice of jobs on that level.
They were in the foodcourt again; another meeting. They were beginning to get tired of facetime. People were so annoying in person.
Snake picked at his nails with a blade, Kurt puffed on his ecig and paced, Anomia kept checking the time, and Josh texted, while Fairy read off the job categories in Carneytown. “Administration, customer service, finance, security, game master, miner, builder. Lots of subcategories, of course.”
“How plebeian,” Snake complained.
Anomia had a suspicious frown on her face. “Wait. Miner? What’s that?”
The boys exchanged glances. The miners were going to dig tunnels so the boys could run a hidden shooter game behind the girls’ backs. Miners as insurgents, miners versus aliens, whatever.
Snake swallowed. “To escape from the cold, of course,” he said virtuously. “We thought the ice age idea was cool. We were going to give players something they could do to improve their lot…”
Another good way to slip in thermal physics, she thought. “That sounds good.”
Snake turned his back and gestured to Josh to go for a cigarette. “I thought it would,” he said softly.
Fairy looked confused. “Are we doing bunny suits again?”
On the way home, Josh casually mentioned that Snake needed another tablet. Or iPhone. Whatever it was this time.
“Ah, God,” she said, shaking her head. They were stuck in traffic, and she crept along behind a truck with exhaust problems.
“Yeah, and Kurt doesn’t want to make him another one.”
“He’s right,” she said, rolling the windows up. “I don’t think he deserves another one.” They stopped in line at a stoplight. It was rush hour. People were driving like assholes.
Josh fiddled with his armrest. “Actually, Snake blames Kurt, because he keeps giving him these shitty copies that don’t work right.”
“How’d he kill it this time?” The light changed. She waited impatiently for the guy in front to take his left turn so the rest of them could go.
“It got confiscated at the airport. They said it looked funny on the scanner.”
“I find that hard to swallow.” She surged ahead, tailgating the car in front of her to get thru the intersection. “Did they arrest him?”
“No, but they grilled him for hours.” She swerved around someone else turning left. “He didn’t say anything,” he added hastily.
“What’s there to say?” she wondered, coasting to the next light. “We’re only making a videogame.”
He looked at her. “Yeah, only a quantum videogame, using brand new technology that probably people would kill to get hold of.”
She glanced at him. “Don’t be silly.”
He shrugged. “You know, corporate espionage, tech rivals squelching the competition, that kind of thing.”
She paused. “I suppose that’s a possibility,” she said. “Maybe Kurt should patent his code.”
Kurt got pissy about it, but finally gave Snake a tamagotchi. It ran the software as well as any of the other devices he’d loaded the kernel onto, but it also needed feeding and toilet training.
Snake did the same thing he did with all the devices he’d been given. And demanded another one.
This time he got a digital wristwatch, but something Kurt said convinced him he wouldn’t be getting any more replacements, so he kept it, and complained constantly about having to put up with it.
Kurt wasn’t trying to punish Snake, he was challenging himself to deliver ever-more elegant versions of the kernel and its software. He thought of it as the kernel’s software because by now it bore little resemblance to an off-the-shelf product. The kernel optimized any software he fed it, only sort of guided by Kurt, who was only suggested to by members of the team. But Kurt never minded what they wanted. What they wanted was silly, and he had a better vision. And the tools.
As time passed, Kurt noticed Fairy beginning to pick up on the kernel’s strange power. A purr in her voice told him that she felt it. She turned her head before people spoke to her. And she stroked her tablet as if it were alive. Snake said he felt a tingle, but Kurt wasn’t fooled. He was awkward with his copy of the kernel, and resistant to its energy. More importantly, the kernel wasn’t very fond of Snake.
Larry (or Curly) returned from each pickup wondering what he was bringing back to the lab to analyze. They studied each version six ways from Sunday, but were never less than perplexed and frustrated by Kurt’s innovations.
They cringed all the way thru their report to their boss. “They’re just cheap devices with plain vanilla warez on them, plus some custom code we’re not sure about,” Larry said.
“Might be an app,” Curly suggested.
Moe snarled, “Of course it’s an app, what does it do?”
Larry ducked his head. “Like I said, sir, we’re not certain. We’ve tried numerous times to copy it, but the code becomes corrupted during the transfer. There’s also a firewall we haven’t been able to get thru, and we’re not sure what’s behind that.”
Curly summed it up hopefully. “Might be gibberish, sir. Or a joke.”
Moe snapped, “Or part of a goddamn terrorist operation, which we will assume is the case until we get evidence to the contrary.”
Larry ventured, “I don’t know, sir, a lot of these computer geeks are completely clueless about national security and terrorism. They just want to see what they can make a computer do, is all.” He saw Moe’s face squinch up. “Sir.”
Fairy sat in the Star Bar and nursed a drink, waiting for her date to show up. She spent the time doing her bit as a forum moderator, delightedly punishing spammers who dared to come on her forum and pollute the intelligent and caring discussion of like-minded people. She actually saved up her frustrations to take out on these online miscreants, furiously cutting off users, writing curses and insults in the ban notice and righteously slamming them into oblivion.
The volume posters were mostly spammers, and didn’t bother to hide it. Usernames like asdfasd6789 and topics such as qwerpoiu uipreq. Email addresses like email@example.com. Posts filled with random snippets of English, embedded with links to shoe outlets and viagra suppliers. She glared with hatred at the flagrant user data, then swiftly banned the username, the email address, the IP address, deactivated the account, and deleted all the posts. Are you sure? the dialog box asked her. “Yes I am,” she thundered.
She drummed her two-inch fingernails waiting for the system to update so she could ban another poor working stiff. She scratched the back of her neck impatiently as 649 posts and 497 threads slowly went poof. She might have felt sorry for the users, they were probably getting paid forty cents per thousand posts, she supposed, and it was probably all the work they could get in their poor backward country. She should admire their persistence. Better luck next life, she thought viciously, and deleted another account.
Halfway around the world, Radhu used his family’s ancient desktop computer to lighten Fairy’s load, compiling sound effects and composing incidental music online during his few hours away from work.
He was considering a second job as an internet marketing agent. There was big money to be made, his cousin insisted on that. He could squeeze in a steady stream of link-rich posts in between his normal dayjob and his nightly devotion to the game.
He got an email from Fairy asking for an asset update, but it was redundant, because he sent her an update every day.
Fairy was becoming dependent on Radhu, like having an extra set of arms. He was always asking for more work, never wanted anything but her thanks, and always did a professional job she was not ashamed to call her own. She appreciated him because he was so willing to be used. She’d sleep with him if they were in the same country. Theoretically.
Nathan came home to a crisis. Sis was expelled from her private school for smoking cigarettes. Two weeks ago. The school had just now sent a letter home. Mom had also just received the latest credit card bill, which hinted at what Sis did during her sudden vacation.
Sis was sobbing pitifully on the couch, bleeding anxiety and fear. “Dad’s going to kill me,” she wailed, one eye on Mom for her reaction. Mom had instinctively agreed to shield Dad from the real reason – getting caught with her pants down in front of five very excited schoolboys. Maybe she could guilt Mom into keeping quiet about the credit card, too. “It’s not my fault. They all hate me.”
Mom sat rubbing her temples with one hand over her eyes, peering out between her fingers at her daughter overacting on the couch. “You have to return all the things you bought,” she began. Sis wailed. “Like this iPad,” she waved the bill. “We just can’t afford things like that, sweetie.”
Sis immediately put on a pouty face. “It got stolen,” she mumbled.
Mom gasped, still going thru the list of expensive items. Hundreds of dollars to stores in the mall, more hundreds online, too many cash advances to count, and a slew of payments to sketchy-sounding businesses.
Mom persisted, despite a sudden headache, but for everything she suggested returning, Sis had an excuse – lost, stolen, damaged, missing, used up.
Nathan went to Sis’s room and rounded up the iPad, a bag full of shoes in their boxes, and a pile of clothes with the tags still on them, and brought them out to the living room. Sis screamed at him as he dumped them on the coffee table, and lunged for the phone, but he kept it out of her way and handed it to Mom.
Sis got up, leaned over Mom, and shouted into her face. “You’re evil!” She shoved Nathan into the coffee table, and stamped off to her room, slamming the door and rocking the pictures on the wall.
Nathan and Mom looked at each other. “I guess it would be too much to ask her to return them herself,” Mom remarked.
“I’ll put them in the car,” Nathan said. “They’ll be safe there until we can take them back.” He went for a plastic bag. Mom matched the price tags to the credit card bill. Sis looked for the things Nathan didn’t find and cut them into little pieces.
Dad got home a few minutes later. The air was still thick with hostility. Fortunately, he was preoccupied with the rumor of more layoffs at work. The whisper of industry changes. The specter of outsourcing. Haunted by his future, he didn’t notice his family walking around on tiptoes, fetching his beers (Nathan) and rubbing his shoulders (Sis). He tried to sink into the cocoon of his comfortable home and forget about his problems, seeking refuge in the little things – his favorite ads, the heft of a full can of beer, the stupidity of others.
Like the latest news on TV. A lot of panicking for NFR – no fucking reason. He settled in; this was going to be good.
The graphic said “Whoops,” and the perky anchor smoothed out the smirk on her face as she read the copy. “Everything was upside down in the world of electronics today,” she said, and looked concerned. “Clocks ran backwards and scientific instruments went off the scale all over the world.” The screen showed footage of people standing around the trading floor on Wall Street, looking bewildered, blue screens of death shining all around them. She continued, her voice serious but soothing. “Communications were interrupted for a split second, causing many systems to automatically reboot, but the Internet was reassuringly resilient, according to a top security spokesman.” She looked at the camera with a bright smile. “Experts are calling it a ‘transient measurement problem.'” She reminded Dad of his fourth grade teacher. He’d had a crush on her. “It lasted for less than a minute,” she continued, wrapping up, “and no one knows what caused it. Possible explanations include solar activity, or a surge in the earth’s magnetic field. The damage is still being assessed.”
They paused for an ad and Dad got up to pee. “Some idiot probably pulled the wrong switch,” he chuckled, thinking I could never do that.
The news story was somewhat misleading. Instruments all over the world didn’t just go off the scale, the qualities these instruments were measuring went off the scale. Seismic monitors, electronic sensors, radio receivers, satellites.
The temperature suddenly soared in Antarctica. A hundred degrees. For a moment, palm trees appeared. The icecaps turned to slush.
And then it dropped back to fucking freezing again, and the ice recrystalized, just like that. Emergency workers pulled people out of suddenly half-sunken buildings. Research teams camped out on the ice shelves vanished with all their gear.
Behind the scenes, they were calling it the Minithaw, and scratching their heads, but not a single editor considered it newsworthy, and only rumors made it to the crank feeds.
However, they did trace the energy fluctuation to Atlanta, and down in the dark subbasement Moe rushed around, certain that Curly and Larry were somehow responsible. They shrugged their shoulders. “You’re telling me it was nothing?” Moe screamed, but they pointed to the lack of news reports, and encouraged him to accept the fact that a surge like that was impossible. Inconceivable. It couldn’t happen.
After dinner, Nathan did the dishes by hand. He had complained when he was first assigned the work: he was already too busy with his job and all his advanced placement classes – why couldn’t Sis help? But she’d had a word with Dad, who’d brought home a huge sack of plastic plates from Walmart and insisted on throwing them out after one use. Nathan couldn’t bear to think about the waste, and did the dishes silently from then on.
Mom sat at the kitchen table with the bills. They heard laughter from the living room as Dad and Sis enjoyed their together time watching a sitcom.
“I’m really looking forward to Dragoncon,” he said, as he rinsed a glass. “They should be sending us our tickets pretty soon.”
“Yes, that’ll be fun,” Mom responded, working thru the bills.
Nathan was worried about having to work Memorial Day weekend, and missing Dragoncon. He wanted Mom’s advice, because he’d asked his boss, who said maybe he could have the time off. And this worried him because in his family, maybe meant no. But Mom was doing calculations with the checkbook, and wouldn’t really be listening, so he told her the latest about Kurt and the videogame. How he’d finally worked up the courage, and they said they’d let him be a tester when the game was ready. Mom made vague sounds of approval, and Nathan resolved to tell her again when she was less busy.
Mom was freaking out. Dad still hadn’t learned of Sis’s expulsion, and would throw a fit when he found out. And not at Sis, either. How do you break it to a doting father that his princess has fucked up? You may as well not bother. Since he’s the boss, if he doesn’t see it, it’s not there. His assessment is correct, and Mom would be disrespecting his authority if she challenged it.
If she were willing to take the coward’s way out, she would simply keep the news from him indefinitely, and use the tuition money to pay off a good chunk of the debt every month. But when the truth finally came out, he’d be dangerous, and she knew better than to let it go that far.
Dad came in for a beer. “Okay, time to sign some checks,” he said, “my show starts in a couple minutes. What have you got?”
This time it was the utilities and the minimum on a couple of credit cards, plus the mortgage. Everything else had to wait. Mom waved at the bills. “I’ve been looking at our spending. The mortgage and insurance are almost half what we bring home. And the car payments, and the credit cards…” She trailed off. She was thinking how many credit cards they could pay off with the tuition money. “We’re about $1500 short every month. It would really make sense to put the house on the market and find a cheaper place.” She looked for a bright side to give him. “If we rented, we wouldn’t have to pay interest, or insurance.”
He loomed over her. “No way,” he said. His voice had an edge to it. “We’ve been thru this before. This is my house. I own it, and I’m going to live here forever.” He crushed the empty beer and threw it at the trashcan.
She stifled irritation. “Really, dear, we’re not even paying the principal because we keep refinancing. We’re just borrowing our lifestyle, we don’t really own any of it.”
“But renting is going backwards,” he said decisively. “Because you never have any equity, and you’re at the mercy of your landlord. It’s fine when you’re young and stupid,” he pointed at Nathan, “but for a real adult, it’s a mark of failure.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the fridge long enough to realize there was a beer inside. Then he unhooked his arms and twirled about, yanking the door open and swiping one off the shelf. “I’m staying right here.” He popped the top, taking a deep draft.
His TV show came on. He and Sis enjoyed the hell out of it. Mom and Nathan sat in the kitchen talking quietly.
He didn’t mention it, but Dad had an interview that morning. Testing the waters. It was a security firm with an aggressive new concept, public private security. They weren’t just going to respond to crimes after they were committed, they were going to eliminate the threat of crime. Dad didn’t have a law enforcement background, but the guy seemed pretty impressed when he told them some of the shit he’d caught people trying at work, employees and customers alike.
“It’s like mall security,” the guy explained. “Only we’re putting a network of guards on street corners, in supermarket aisles, and places like libraries, schools, and churches. Just think of the difference they’ll make to parking enforcement and animal control. A great source of revenue for the city.”
And Dad’s job would be…?
“Oh, you’re management material, definitely. Given your track record. But, no offense, we start everybody off on patrol,” the guy said. “How’re your arches?”
In the kitchen, Nathan argued for drastic action. Again. “What if we just stopped listening to him? What if we stopped doing it his way?”
Mom looked frightened. “Don’t talk so loud. Your father can get violent when he doesn’t get his way.”
Nathan snorted. “He loves to get violent, we’re like his big excuse to get violent.” He looked at his Mom pleadingly. “We can stop him by just not playing his game anymore.”
She looked at him for a long time. “Are you ready to walk out of the house and stay at a shelter, and never come back?”
He said yes, but he could picture it, and didn’t really want to leave his home. He wanted Dad to leave. He wanted Sis to leave. And that wasn’t going to happen, so he would have to grow the hell up and move out.
Mom went to the bedroom for a moment, and Sis came into the kitchen for a beer for Dad. “He smells,” she complained, leaning against the sink. “I hate it here.” Tho bitter enemies most of the time, they were both impatient to escape. Nathan couldn’t wait to go off to college to get away from Dad’s badgering. But Sis was planning to live at home until Mom and Dad croked and left her the house.
“But how could you stand it?” Nathan asked.
“Why should I leave? They’ll always take care of me, I won’t ever have to do anything.”
“I can’t wait until I’m responsible for myself,” Nathan said.
“Killing the golden goose,” Sis remarked, and flicked his neck painfully with her finger as she left.
He ruefully calculated the number of days until he graduated from high school. How many days until forever? He went to his room, settled in, opened his physics book, and lost himself in the science.
Dad stopped by Nathan’s room on his way for a piss. “How’s it going with the soccer thing?” he asked.
Nathan thought fast. “Uh, Coach says we might win our next game,” he said.
“Still losing to the girls, huh?” Dad laughed, and Nathan felt his ears turn red. He hated lying.
For a moment, he thought he heard Mom crying in the kitchen, but when he stuck his head around the corner, he discovered her laughing. It was a brittle laugh, a resigned laugh, a joke’s on me laugh. She was looking at a scratch sheet of paper where she’d tallied Sis’s recent expenditures. She’d exceeded their credit limit by enough to make paying anything else impossible. The card would be frozen at its limit, and she would have to come up with enough to bring it back to zero before they could pay for anything else. Maybe she could get a second job.
“Maybe you can catch up on the bills now that you don’t have to pay tuition anymore,” Nathan suggested, seeing her near to tears.
Dad came down the hall and into the kitchen. “Hey, that’s none of your business,” he said, and whapped the back of Nathan’s head as he passed. “I handle the finances, and you do your homework.” He got a beer and stood over Mom, glancing at the bills. “What’s this about tuition? Did my baby get a scholarship?”
Mom though about exactly how to word it in order to get a safe response out of him. “She’s not very happy there,” she began. “She doesn’t want to upset you.”
Sis came bouncing in and hugged him. “I hate it there, Daddy. Please don’t make me go back.”
“Sure, honey, if you really don’t like it.”
“I want to get a job and help you, Daddy,” she said earnestly.
He patted her shoulders. “No, no, baby, you don’t have to lift a finger. We’ll get you into an even better school. Those bastards.”
“No, that’s okay, Daddy, I’m going to do homeschooling.”
Mom shook her head. “You’ll sleep all day and never do your homework,” she said. “You’re going to the local school, just like Nathan does.”
Sis looked panicky and clung to Dad, who wrapped his protective arms about her and scolded Mom about being such a bitch. “Nobody has to go to public school,” he soothed Sis and glared at Mom. “Just how much is tuition at that hellhole, anyway?”
“Nine hundred dollars a month.” Mom waited.
“Wow, that’s a lot of money,” he mused. Then his face brightened and he looked down at his daughter lovingly, “Looks like we can get you that car now, sweetie.” His wife stared at him with her mouth open. Sis looked like she didn’t believe her luck, then like she’d just won the lottery, jumping and screaming and loving on her daddy.
Nathan went to his room, mortified.
Dad and Sis went out to buy a bigger TV set before the stores closed.
When they returned, Dad and Sis were in a great mood until they noticed Mom’s silent disapproval. Then their mood turned sour, they started bickering about how to program it, and soon they abandoned their new TV and went to bed, leaving Mom to clean up the packing material they’d spread all over the living room.
But it wasn’t over. When Mom came to bed, Dad was still awake, fuming. He watched silently as she got ready for bed.
“I want to know where you get off even thinking about selling the house,” he said in a low, droning voice. “I’ve told you time and time again that this is my castle. And in case you don’t realize it, it’s my decision where the kids go to school.” He ran his hand thru his hair, clenching it in his fingers. “Why are you trying to undermine me? And you’ve been discussing our finances with Nuthin, too. He’s too young to be involved. I forbid you to talk about it.”
“But dear…” She bit her tongue. She was just about to say ‘but he’s learning about money – he’s got a job’. She shut her eyes and shuddered with the enormity of the mistake she’d been about to make. He would go berserk if he found out Nathan was lying to him about soccer. Sweat broke out on her forehead.
“You obviously can’t be trusted with the checkbook. You don’t understand anything.” He looked aggrieved. “I’m going to have to take care of the bills from now on. As if I didn’t have enough to do.” He grumbled a few beats to himself. “You know,” he said, in a conversational tone. “I was going to do something nice for you. This weekend. I had it all planned, just the two of us. It would have been great.” His tone grew harsh. “But you don’t deserve it. I’m not going to waste my time. You cause more trouble than you’re worth.”
She wondered reflexively if she could do it over, if she could do better, and they could go back to the part about him doing something nice for her. It would be great. If only she were good enough. Her stomach clenched.
Mom should have dismissed his threat to take over doing the bills, but she was more concerned with her own defense. Her stomach was knotted and acidic, and it was hard to think fast enough to call him on his inconsistencies. Besides, that would just set him off. She was better off keeping her head down, apologizing, and waiting for the storm to blow over.
You’d think she’d get used to it, see the pattern, be able to act differently when it became obvious that he was ramping up to hit someone. But she was caught up in the moment, in the air of threat and danger, in the panic of not knowing when the blow would fall. Sure, she could stop the tyranny today if she would just sit back and laugh at him, refuse to get with the program, refuse to react the same way she always did.
But if she was going to do something that out of character, then she might as well shoot him and be done with it.