Writing Chapter 7.2

carnival-level

Before the gamegear, they’d been conscious of sitting there with their tablets, controlling their avatars with virtual buttons. But now there was no separation. They loaded the carnival level to begin testing, and the gameworld grew to lifesize around them.

They spawned in the middle of Midway, a vast mall-like cavern hollowed out under the Transantarctic Mountains. They were standing inside it, and it was closer to real than any of them had ever experienced. The caverns went on for miles, but the group was hemmed into the middle by giant stalagmites, artfully directing them toward concession stands that looked like inflatable zodiac boats, with gift shops and restaurants set inside antarctic huts.

Their avatars were digitized versions of themselves. At first they could only stand, shaky and wobbling, as the gamegear responded to every tiny muscle twitch, enhancing their clumsiness and punishing spontaneous gestures.

Kurt recovered in moments, by now used to the gamegear’s sensitivity. He checked his wristphone, and then gingerly clambered over a low cliff and disappeared into the cavern’s depths. Josh and Anomia adjusted to it shortly after that, then ramped their skills up where they were at the end of their vision, and took off flying around the cavern. But Fairy and Snake only got the hang of it one overreaction at a time, and the gamegear’s feedback loop made sure they felt every mistake.

Anomia was embarrassed for them, and turned away, but Josh gave her a running commentary. “Snake’s bashing himself into the wall again.”

“The sound is nauseating. Is he okay?” she peeked. “Ohmygod he’s bleeding. Can’t you stop him?”

Josh crossed his arms and leaned against a rock. “He’ll get it eventually.”

She winced as Snake launched himself again, this time into a stalagmite. “Yes, but it hurts.”

“Yeah, he’ll probably have bruises when we’re finished. That’s Snake for you,” he said admiringly. She looked at him, appalled. He shifted the attention to Fairy. “She’s got the opposite problem, huh?” Fairy sat slumped against a rock bench, her head lolling on her chest, bobbing with each heartbeat.

Anomia flew over and picked her up, wiping away the drool. “It’s really easy,” she said to encourage her. Fairy’s face was impassive, but her eyes glared. She tried a peptalk. “Come on, you and Snake are both core gamers, you’re smarter and faster than most people. You should already be there. But nothing happens if you don’t concentrate.”

“I’m already sick of the effortlessness,” Fairy said thru her teeth.

“Sorry,” Anomia shrugged. “It was hard for us too, at first.”

Of course we got it much quicker, Josh thought.

This pissed Fairy off. Her avatar bolted upright and stalked over to Josh as if she’d been walking around all day. “I heard that,” she said.

Anomia clapped her hands. “See? You did it. You just have to put some feeling into it.”

“Oh great,” Snake mumbled around a bit lip, slowly putting one foot in front of the other. “You’re training her to use her bitch face all the time,” he warned. Then his avatar slowed to a stop and wouldn’t move, hung his head and whined like a child. “Enough of that,” Snake snapped, struggling to lift his foot again. “Virtual button controllers are less dangerous,” he complained.

Fairy sidled up to him, acting like she was the queen of control. “We’re not using buttons, sweetie,” she chided gently. “You have to be sensitive.” She reached out to pat his arm, bumping into him and pushing him off balance.

He grunted, righting himself. “Not going to happen.”

“Emotions are just as available to guys as girls. If you think some roleplay or cross dressing would help…” Fairy offered.

“No thanks,” he said, gathering his emotional energy and moving away.

Anomia reached the end of her patience. The clock was ticking. “Okay, I guess everybody’s up and walking now. We might as well pick a destination and start testing.”

Josh went across the midway to sample the funnel cakes. Snake disappeared down the tunnel toward Rolarkosturland. Fairy stood admiring the hub’s decor, looking to see what she could change.

Anomia sat down at a table and put her head in her hands. The cavern made her claustrophobic. After a moment she raised her head and looked around. “Why are there no trashcans?” she asked Fairy, dismayed at being reduced to inventory control.

Fairy checked. “Duh, because they never made it into the asset database.”

“Can you please take care of it for the next build?”

“Sure thing. I’ll comment the bug database.” She fiddled with the menu until she found the master list of bugs and glitches and wrote a quick note. After a moment, a bunch of stalagmite trash bins popped into place. “I guess it’s doing instant updates,” she said, impressed.

“Whatever,” Anomia said, lowering her head and rubbing the back of her neck with both hands, worried she might be getting a migraine.

Fairy took in Anomia’s clothing – corporate drab – and wrinkled her lips, then looked down at her own clothes – Little 5 skank – and made a face. Then she figured out how to bring up the costume menu so she could select an appropriate apres-ski ensemble.

Fluffing a new pink fur collar, she turned to the bug database and complained about the dull, unobtrusive look of the stalactites, noticing with pleasure as they shaded a bit redder, to complement her outfit.

Except for the rocks, the hub reminded Fairy of the foodcourt. The same kind of sterile white vacantness. But the foodcourt had plants, whereas the cavern floor had a themepark map of Antarctica showing the locations of all the rides – in tasteful inlaid stone. That was her doing. Longitude lines radiated from the middle, numbered from 0 to 360, and every line was marked north. She smiled to herself.

She left Anomia to sulk, and wandered a bit. The caverns went on behind and in front of her (north and north), fading into the darkness between attractions. A glacial tongue intruded, making a wall of glowing ice that colored everything blue. Smaller branch caves led off to the ride islands, or opened out onto a clifftop or the foot of a pass, for that scenic view around the lagoon.

Fairy decided to have a look at Halamirrurland, and figured out how to bring up her map display. It seemed to be back the other way, past the Midway foodcourt, down to the end of the main cavern, and a hook and jog to the left. She was going to have to retrace her steps; over a mile, and her in high heeled snow boots. Maybe she should figure out how to fly.

She changed shoes and turned back, and started the long trek to her destination. Curious, she brought her finger to the display floating in front of her. A red tracer appeared under her finger, and a soft voice explained how it worked.

She was passing Anomia, who still sat there rubbing her temples and gazing at the stalactites. “Yeah, tutorials in my head’ll take a minute getting used to,” Fairy remarked. Anomia stared at her blankly. “I just had one about the navigation system. Whose voice is that, anyway?”

Anomia shrugged. “The kernel’s voice, I guess.”

“No, I mean who did Kurt get to record it? Because I’m jealous, he should have used me. I have a perfectly wonderful phonesex voice.”

Fairy felt a pang of empathy, seeing Anomia clutching her head. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’ll all work out fine. ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate; our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure,'” she quoted. “Nelson Mandela said that when he was a political prisoner.”

“I don’t have the energy to be afraid,” she replied. “I’m too tired. I’m being forced to compromise every step of the way. Sometimes I think the only reason I’m doing the Antarctica level is so I won’t fight the boys over the carnival levels.”

Fairy made elaborate guilty gestures Anomia didn’t see. “I was just on my way to test Halamirrurland,” she said, clearing her throat.

Safely away, Fairy peered around the cavern for a moment, then made a note in the bug database about the lighting, and watched the ceiling recede further into the gloom, making the stalactites glow. Happier, she walked off down the hub, ready to find and fix every flaw in the gameworld, starting with the ghastly blue of that ice wall.

Anomia listened to faint drips echoing thru the cavern. Nothing moved. She felt the weight of the mountain above her. After awhile, she decided she probably wasn’t going to get a migraine after all, and made herself go test the tilt-a-whirl. The sidecave that led to it was rocky and dark, and smelled of cold dirt. The shape of the cave suppressed the sound of her office pumps crunching on the path.

The ride itself took up most of the island it was on and looked incredibly dangerous. She got on and strapped herself in, then ran it over and over again, checking the parameters, checking the possible variations of tilt and whirl. She was unsurprised to find that gravity was within nominal limits, and momentum, and centrifugal force. Check, check, and check. It was all classical physics, as regular as clockwork. There was no room for consciousness anywhere. She hoped it made them all puke.

She stopped testing and flew up to the skydome to get away. She tried to imagine the themepark full of players, marks and carnies interacting, millions of excited people developing an intuitive knowledge of classical physics and relativity. But she couldn’t see it. It was just a kitschy pink ghost town full of stupid rides and games.

She looked down at Fairy, who was slowly walking around Halamirrurland changing things. She watched Snake and Josh playing with the bumpercars, Josh was the mark in the car and Snake was the carny, messing with the settings and trying to crash Josh into a pole. Kurt was across the skydome from where she sat, peering into an open hatch. He straightened up and they waved at each other. What does he need a virtual hatch for? she wondered, and his thought came back, It’s a metaphor.

It had started as a rumbling itch in their ears, but the team was beginning to hear each other’s thoughts. Anomia and Josh has been able to do it since their vision, but in the gameworld, Snake and Fairy communicated almost as well as she and Josh did.

Tweaking the game also improved their quantum abilities. Josh and Anomia took it for granted that they were physically transferring their abilities to the others, and Fairy and Snake figured it was a computer trick, and dismissed the symptoms as afterglow. Only Kurt had a deeper understanding. He believed that all good things flow from the kernel, and tried to become one with it, in his tripped-out fashion, putting kernel-dust in his cereal and pouring it into his shampoo and sprinkling it on his pillow. He even packed his e-cigs with it, tho it was like smoking singed hair.

Inside Kurt’s mind was a constant stream of programming language that Anomia couldn’t understand, a droning concentration on his work; whereas Fairy was as flighty as a kitten, and ran several trains of thought in her head at once, all commentaries on what she was doing, mostly admiring.

Snake was full of righteous enthusiasm about the game, which surprised Anomia. There was also a barely controlled fury in him. Normally he was so guarded, so snide. She was pleased to see him passionately involved, and began to dislike him a little less.

She watched and listened to Josh for a long while, content to gaze at him and hear him enjoying himself. Josh loved testing. He would play a game until it broke or he found something he didn’t like, and then he would call the kernel’s attention to it, wait a beat for the fix, and then play it again. He was working his way right thru Arkaydland, tuning each game just the way he liked it. He radiated happiness.

***

Fairy and Snake ran around the carnival levels and did various things in secret. Snake set up a hideout under the roller coaster, with a weapons generator and a pwnshop, where the more adventurous players would have access to back doors and cheat codes. Fairy installed caches of health points and magic jewels, cutting virtual stashpoints into the corners of buildings.

Fairy tried to help with the testing, but she had no head for physics, and the thought of arcade games bored her. She hated rides. Being strapped into a box and flung about the place was undignified. To be honest, Fairy was only interested in appearances. Surface decoration, props, staging, lighting. As for learning physics, she wasn’t going to be made a fool of. Let Josh and Snake tinker with gravity and momentum and shit.

This led to Snake’s suggestion that they dumb down the whole physics thing. She agreed to it with little protest, just because it was easier, even tho she immediately felt bad about it. But she had vital details to deal with, and everything would work out fine as long as Anomia didn’t find out.

In fact, once Anomia stopped caring, Fairy and Snake started taking the easy way out whenever possible, and got Kurt to activate the artificial intelligence so they could use nonplaying characters to do the testing. Fairy selected leprechauns, and Snake rolled his eyes and gave them over-the-top accents. Kurt winced and went back to his arcane adjustments of the kernel.

Fairy and Snake made the npcs test everything, which meant one of them had to manage hordes of marks riding all the rides, playing all the games, buying stuff and dropping trash, and the other directed an army of carnies who ran the rides, fixed the games, sold stuff and cleaned up the trash. They would have created an manger class of npcs to run the teams for them, but Kurt put his foot down.

They finally called in the others to see the carnival levels, but because the work was getting lame, rather than because they’d fixed everything. They all stood on a cloud and gazed down at their bustling Antarctic amusement park, jammed full of leprechauns scurrying this way and that, standing in long lines, screaming as they went over the top of the roller coaster. Little ‘Weee’ sounds.

Anomia and Josh looked at each other. They were starting to think the carnival levels were a mistake.

Anomia shook her head. “It’s no use. You can’t reach quantum reality by learning regular physics.”

“Yeah,” Josh added. ‘Because quantum’s not like messing with gravity in the pendulum ride. You change the whole universe. So, like this.” He waved his hand and the world turned to ice again, mile-thick glaciers scoured the amusement park clean. Icicles started growing from their noses and eyebrows. They shivered in their summer clothes (except for Fairy, who put her hood up and snuggled into her handwarmer).

Anomia looked annoyed. “Why did you do that?”

“I just wanted to,” he said, looking like a little kid.

“I thought we weren’t going to do frigid,” Anomia said scornfully, casting her arms about like Agnes Morehead and waving the cold away. Palm trees grew and waved in the breeze.

Josh frowned. “I like the cold,” he said, disappointed.

Fairy looked at Snake. “I hate showoffs, don’t you?” she challenging him.

Snake wound himself up and made a big gesture, stiffening with the effort, sweat pouring off his brow. The wind came up, and up, and up, and blew the sun out. Total darkness blasted all life.

“That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.” Fairy blinked, and the sun returned to the sky, bigger and brighter than ever. The plants perked up and grew like weeds.

Then Kurt yelled at them to stop fucking around, and things went back to normal.

Josh and Anomia looked at each other in dismay. It was just like their vision. The part where they pissed the angel off and got kicked out.

“What are we doing? We’ve got six weeks until Dragoncon, and except for being able to move the avatars, all we have is a regular videogame.”

“And a bad one at that,” Snake added.

She nodded bitterly. “Without the cloud level, we have nothing in here that even remotely resembles our vision.”

“But with a good working knowledge of classical physics…” fairy began dutifully.

Snake said, “I hate to say I told you so, but haven’t I always said you were wasting time making an educational videogame?”

She hung her head for a moment. And then the pressure built inside her. “No.” She stamped her foot. “The answer is to make it the way we were told to make it.” She looked around at the carnival trappings. “You can finish this. I’ve got to bring the Antarctica level as far as I can so we’ve got something to show the fans.”

Snake backed off and raised his hands. “Oh no, you’re not serious. They’ll just laugh.”

“Look, it doesn’t matter what we teach people,” Josh said, trying to mollify her. “Or how we try to teach it. Just like when it was our turn, the lessons will teach themselves once they learn how to use the energy.”

She didn’t listen. “Coming, Josh? She blinked her eyes to exit the level, and her avatar shrunk rapidly to the scale of the Antarctica level and disappeared. Josh hesitated, then shrugged and smiled at Snake, and followed her.

***

antarcticalevel

Josh and Anomia stood on the south slope of the Transantarctic Mountains, within sight of the South Pole, which was somewhere beneath the waters of the majestic inland sea before them. Gray mountain spires towered up and up behind them. Over the mountains lay the northward isles, scattered in the Ross Sea.

Across the inland sea yawned the huge vastness of the interior. Grassy tundra went on forever toward the north, parching to desert in the lee of the mighty Gamburtsev Mountains, which ran northward thru the middle of the continent. The land softened and greened on the windward side, as limitless wetlands stretched north toward the ring of snow-capped mountains that bound the entire land into a huge semicircle, thousands of miles to the north.

Josh pointed to a deep peninsula jutting into the inland sea, dry scrubland framed by deep blue waters. “There’s where that warlord came by and asked us to join his band, right?”

Anomia shaded her eyes with her palm. “Wasn’t it closer to the Gamburtsevs? In the middle of that plateau?”

He looked. “No, it was by the river, just past that settlement.”

“But wasn’t the settlement closer to the mountains?”

“Well, maybe…”

They felt the earth grinding under their feet, and the air shimmered with dust clouds as the settlement shifted further up the valley.

“Okay, never mind.”

They were caught up in the details and spread way too thin. There were large gaps. Not in the fabric of the gameworld, but in their understanding and their wisdom.

They’d made their personal quantum breakthroughs and all, but after a year of game development drudgery in the real world, they’d lost an important piece of their vision. They’d forgotten how to get back inside so they could teach it to others. Their explanations were nothing but mumbo jumbo.

The seven rings of Antarctica were way too much for the pair to be working side by side, so they split up and paralleled each other across the archipelago, talking to each other in their heads, settling the landmarks and commenting the database with the details. The adventures were easy to recall, but they were kind of fuzzy on exactly how they honed their powers, and weren’t sure what went on between quests, or what happened to people after they moved on.

Working together required continuous mental contact, and they soon found themselves avoiding each other’s voice in their heads, ignoring it, damping it out. Lalalala I can’t hear you.

They wasted a lot of time arguing and redoing each other’s work. Their relationship became less passionate. In fact, being entangled was rather painful. They felt each other’s frustrations and worries, and witnessed each other’s pettiness and anger. Whose love wouldn’t tarnish once they know what you’re really like?

Damping down the other’s voice in their head meant they could continue to think they were on the same page. Both were confident they knew what was best, and did a lot of things they forgot to tell each other about. Left to themselves, Josh and Anomia were working on two different Antarcticas.

In one session, Josh was busy hiding password sniffers in the brush, and he stumbled upon Anomia erecting consciousness chinup bars on the road into town.

Quickly hiding his tools, he walked up and said, “Hey what’s up?”

She started guiltily, then ran her fingers thru her dreads and composed herself. “Oh, I’m just making sure players have their skills down before they go to the next ring.”

He stood with folded arms. “We agreed we were going to leave that out.”

She stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“We’re leaving the physics out,” he repeated, shaking his head.

She gestured at the arctic landscape around her. “Not here we’re not. I agreed to omit quantum skills from the carnival levels.” She snorted. “For all I know, those two have stripped it of anything useful by now. But when the players get to Antarctica, everything works by quantum motivation, motion, movement, intent, just like in our vision.

“No,” he waved dismissively. “We agreed to make it a sandbox game.” He spoke as if she were a child. “Admittedly, having quantum powers will win you some points, but you signed off on the idea of cutting the physics.”

She stiffened. “Not quantum physics. I never did that.”

“Whatever. The point is you don’t have to use quantum powers to play this level.”

“You’re ruining the game,” she seethed.

“No, you’re the one who’s ruining it.”

“It’s not the same thing at all,” she said indignantly. “I’m trying to save it.”

“So am I.”

“But you’re perverting the whole thing.”

“And you’re poisoning it. Anyway, I don’t happen to think it’s wrong to edit out the psychobabble.”

She sputtered at the description. “Ignoring the quantum skills goes against everything we learned.”

He scowled. “Call it a sacrifice to playability.”

“It’s a sacrifice of our vision, our mission. Our dream quest.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

She shook her fists like she was rattling the bars of a jail cell. But she didn’t have the energy to fight him. She yanked on her dreadlocks instead, then dropped to the ground and leaned against a boulder. “It makes me crazy. What’s the use? I don’t know even how to talk about it. I don’t even know what to call it – a vision or a dream or maybe just a fantasy.” She felt close to tears.

“Try drug induced coma with hallucinations.”

“Stop that. You know it happened. But it just doesn’t feel real anymore. It’s like it was someone else. I don’t even remember it all – like back at the inland sea, that Genghis Khan type we almost went off with. I know the meeting was a test, but I don’t remember what the lesson was.”

He shrugged. “It was just to get us to the next quest.”

“Was it?”

He sounded wise. “All roads lead to the next level.”

She slumped, feeling hopeless. “If there’s no point then why bother including it?”

“We don’t have to, you know,” he said gently, crouching down to comfort her. Then more eagerly, “We can just make it up as we go along.”

She almost growled. “No, we can’t. It has to be as correct as possible.”

He stood up. “It’s a sandbox game, for fuck sake. All toys, no rules. You don’t have goals in a sandbox. Anyway, how will being correct bring anybody closer to quantum consciousness?”

She pointed down the trail to the next adventure. “Because by footstepping our vision we’re taking the players thru the same process we went thru.”

“I’d like to remind you that we’re simulating the process, and we’re not doing a triple-A job at it. Our Antarctica level is clunky and obvious. Stupid.” He kicked a rock. “Boring.”

That’s because we’re forgetting things. But I know it’ll work. If you follow the footprints and the music, you learn to dance.”

“We’ve had this argument before. Here is where you drive your audience away before they learn anything.”

They went for a while without talking. “I’ve been thinking,” Josh said casually. “If this whole videogame thing goes bust, we can always pass our powers the old fashioned way.”

She saw the image in his mind – Zeus and the young maidens. “You want to set yourself up as a sex coach?”

He grinned. “Sure, sex is much better when you’re entangled.”

“Hmph.”

“I’m serious. You could do all the men, and I’ll do the women, and six degrees of separation, and then the whole world is one.”

“The whole world is one venereal disease, you mean.”

Another long silence followed. Josh felt bad seeing her so miserable. A quiet Anomia was a depressed Anomia. “Maybe we should trip again. To help get it back, whatever it is.”

“Except we don’t remember what drugs we did. Anyway it’s never the same trip twice.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

She made a fist and hit something nearby. “Why can’t we make it right? Doesn’t the kernel get what we’re trying to do? Or is it our fault? Are we not pure enough?”

“We’re already never having sex, what more do you want?”

She looked away. “I’m thinking of becoming a vegan.”

“Shoot me. I like you the way you are.”

“No you don’t.” She lowered her voice, ashamed of sounding jealous. “You spend too much time with Snake.”

“Maybe we don’t have enough confidence in what we experienced,” he suggested softly. “It sure seems like a dream now. I’m not even sure of the details anymore.”

“That’s why we wrote it all down right after we had the vision. And we’ve stuck to it thru every part of making the game.”

“But I don’t really believe it anymore, that’s all.”

“Then why are we doing this?”

“You’re doing it, mostly,” he said gently.

She thought for a moment. “That’s right, I am. And I think it’ll make a great videogame, and we’ve put all this time into it, so we’re going to finish it, and release it, and it’ll be great.”

“It’ll sink like a stone.”

“No it won’t.”

“You still believe in it?”

“Yes I do, That’s the thing. Everything tells me what we’re doing is the right thing.” Altho she couldn’t come up with a single thing that wasn’t vague. “Because it’s time for such a thing, because the world’s changing and the angel’s message needs to get out. Because the angel said so. Because I have to. Because things have come together the way they have. Because Kurt made a quantum kernel and now we have this kickass software and tablet, and because we’d be idiots not to finish what we’ve put so much effort into.”

He patted her shoulder and kissed her forehead. “I love you,” he said. “You just do what you have to do and let the rest slide. Quantum can take care of itself.”

***

Now that the game was in testing, there wasn’t much administrative work to be organizing. No more backoffice stuff for Radhu to do, so Fairy stopped giving him work. As if he was a clerk at a store that no longer stocked her brand, she walked away without a word. Eventually he complained and she felt pressed to text him about it.

sry i bn neglcting u. vry busy, nt alot 4 u 2 do. so ++thx, will snd u copy of gema. n tshrt

“But I’ve put my life into it,” he typed, then backspaced it out. He’d done more than put his life into it, he’d taken on a second job with his cousin, and ruthlessly pursued this year’s best employee contest with its (almost) all expenses paid convention trip to Atlanta (and Dragoncon). He already had his costume. “Are you firing me?” he wrote anxiously. It took her some time to reply. Maybe she was doing other things.

coars nt, slly. jsut movng 2 nxt step. u cn hlp w/…

“I could help with testing,” he suggested.

But that would mean introducing him to the others, and then they’d know she didn’t do all that work Fairy took the credit for. So don’t do that.

sory, nd testrs in atl. tym dif…

What a lame excuse. Radhu had been working on eastern standard time from the beginning.

u cn hlp localyz teh gema 4 wrldwyd distrib. u b big hlp thn. asian mkt ++big

“I don’t speak Asian very well,” he wrote archly.

watevr. u cn b mgr. title, credits. on teh team. u hav 2 take glory & brag rites tho. no $$$, noone gttng pd

Except as a percentage of future sales, already divided up, that didn’t include him.

Radhu studied patience and believed that every good thing would come to him in time. Well, it was time now. He was guaranteed that trip to Atlanta, and if they needed local testers, he could arrange to stay for awhile – he had a cousin in Decatur.

So he sent an email to Snake, introducing himself and mentioning his contribution, asking how he could help now that Fairy had stopped dumping work in his lap. Snake asked for particulars, and Radhu sent him his copy of the asset database, highlighting his work in soft blue.

His version was much more complete than theirs, mainly because Fairy had neglected to synch the files. She’d simply filed Radhu’s updates away unopened – hundreds of them.

Snake sent a copy of Radhu’s version to the boys in the basement.

He offered to let Radhu be in charge of localization, but Radhu insisted that he wanted to be recognized as part of the development team. “In fact, I am almost certainly going to be at Dragoncon this year.”

“Is that so?” Snake wrote back. “Well, we’ll see if we can’t get you some of the good shit when you get here, k?”

***

One day, as he was starting his pre-pre-closing routine, Nathan saw Anomia coming down the center of the foodcourt. She was looking around as if she’d never been there before. It had been several months since he’d seen her, but she should certainly recognize the place, unless she had amnesia. She knew him, tho, and headed straight for the B’stro D L’te. She knew what she wanted to eat, too, and Nathan could see no obvious reason for her wild stare, so he relaxed. She must have been cooped up in her cubical too long.

“Oh, we’re online now,” she said when he commented on how long it had been. “We never meet in the foodcourt anymore.”

Nathan only ever saw Kurt these days, but he and Caroline discussed them all the time. “Dragoncon starts in like ten days,” he said conversationally, trying to hold back his excitement. She blanched. He didn’t understand that reaction, either. “I’m all ready to go,” he continued, “and I’m going to come straight to your fan table first thing.” He looked doubtful. “Unless I have to work.”

She saw his concern. “Of course you’ll be able to come see us,” she said. Then she saw the others approaching. “We’re having a final meeting to plan our presentation,” she said, looking worried, and hurried to a table.

None of them were very talkative, but they glanced at each other frequently. They all acted distracted, like they should be somewhere else, and ate as if the food wasn’t very good.

Snake had lost his nose dot getting a facial, and made a big deal about it until Kurt whipped a sheet of dots and a bag of wristbands out of his courier bag and handed them across the table. “These are for the demo,” he said. “You can hand them out. I ran them off while I was making you another dot.”

Snake muttered his thanks. They continued sitting there looking at their tablets (or whatever), silent and moody. Nathan watched with concern; they were so on edge. Maybe they were all getting sick.

Nathan didn’t really understand the cold sweat of unpreparedness, because he was an A-student who studied all the time. The whole group was suffering from exam-night jitters. They weren’t ready for the public debut of their much discussed videogame, based on their supernatural vision and validated by their undeniable, documented power of levitation. The fans were expecting a magical game that would give them superpowers. And they had, all of them, been talking about just that to people, in various degrees of confidence and bluster, all year long.

As the time drew closer, they started mumbling and swallowed their words nervously. Guiltily.

Sitting at the table among half-empty styrofoam boxes, Snake quietly sent a copy of the bug database to himself, and then uploaded Radhu’s copy of the asset database, along with a few lines of nicely crafted code. “Hey,” he said conversationally. “I found an updated asset database in my inbox this morning. I’m synching it now.”

Nobody paid any attention. Kurt was offline and out on the cancer deck having a smoke, looking at videos. Anomia was in the Antarctica level cramming in quantum principles, and Josh was playing Captain Fantastic in Arkaydland.

He and Anomia noticed the gameworld suddenly bloom with new and previously unseen assets (looking vaguely Hindu). Then the system crashed. When it came back up, the kernel was screaming for Kurt and the bug database was gone.

Fairy had been in the bug database when the system went down. She looked at Snake in surprise. “You were just in there,” she said. “I saw you logout.”

“What do you mean? I just updated the asset database. I never touched the bug database,” Snake said, looking puzzled.

Kurt stared at him absently, his fingers twitching intense queries to the kernel.

Snake threw up his hands defensively. “What? Is the kernel reading my mind now, Kurt? Hey, maybe I pressed the wrong button, know what I’m saying? They’re so tiny. How can you not expect errors with the shitty stuff you make me use?” He turned to Fairy. “I’ll bet your Indian friend had something to do with this,” he said in a low voice.

Fairy froze, feeling her face redden. “Why, whatever do you mean?” she managed.

He considered a moment. “Yeah, why go that far? You’re right,” he said. “We can just blame your sloppy work habits. You could drive a truck thru the holes in the asset database.”

She sputtered. “That’s because you couldn’t be bothered to document your work.”

“No, it’s because you find your job too boring, and stick your nose into other people’s work instead.”

It was true that Fairy had so many irons in the fire that she had to let a few things slip. Things she forgot, lost track of, had no idea where she put, trusted to memory and didn’t write down. But it wasn’t her fault. Her behavior was above reproach.

“So,” he continued, “we have no need to blame some nameless call center guy who lives with his mother, do we? We can blame you for what happened to the bug database. And if we have to start over, it’s because of you. Just remember that.”

“We don’t have to start over,” Kurt said, fixing things from his wristphone. The bug database is,” he checked something, “unavailable, so the kernel is just going to use the current settings and go on from there.”

“That’s a relief,” Snake said. “Wouldn’t want anything bad to happen, not this close to Dragoncon. Didn’t you back up the database?” he asked Kurt, who scowled and brought up another tab on his wristphone.

“So, enough drama,” Snake continued, turning away from Kurt. “Let’s get down to business. We’ve got our table at DC-MMO, and we load in on the Friday morning. Someone’s got to be there the whole four days. We need to set up a schedule. I’m busy that morning, but I plan to be there during peak flow and again to work the floor during cocktail hour all weekend.”

“I’m making a poster of the themepark map,” Fairy offered, “and Anomia is going to do up a table banner with one of the background landscapes.”

“Fine. Window dressing. We’ll run the demo of the carnival level on one of your tablets.” He glared at Kurt. “You’re going to print pictures of the art and the world diagram, right?” he asked Anomia. Then he added, like it was a special favor, “Maybe we can show the concept drawings and storyboards for the Antarctica level, too.”

“It’s not a secret,” she scowled. “Why not show a walkthru?”

He raised his eyebrows. “I’m not sure if you want to alienate your fans with a shitty half-finished…” he searched for the word, “concept. Let’s stick with the demo of the carnival levels. It’ll be much less off-putting.”

“As for the gamegear, I’ll handle that,” he continued. “My marketing plan includes various hooks, depending on the audience. I’ve put quite a lot of thought into it.”

“Who put you in charge?” Fairy asked.

Snake folded his arms and turned around until he was sitting with his back to the table. “You do it. You’re so prepared.”

Fairy steamed.

“So, the quantum superpowers,” Anomia said. “Your marketing hooks. Are you going to say the powers are real, or magic, or just a programming trick?”

Snake turned back to face them, chuckling. “Magically good graphics, how about? Anyway, it won’t matter. In my hands it will all turn into marketing mystique. I’ll tell newagers it’s expanded consciousness, and bornagains that it’s a miracle.”

“Ah, yes. I’m just afraid that…” She trailed off.

“Nobody wants to hear how the angel told you to teach quantum physics,” he said angrily. “Quantum physics is totally irrelevant at the macro scale. It works at the level of single atoms, for godsake. Not in the real world. These quantum superpowers you’re insisting on are simply too bizarre to be possible. In fact, they’re so impossible that we have to simulate them inside a computer.” He slammed his Tomagotchi on the table. “Anybody who actually believes that shit is certifiable.”

In a show of pique, Snake snatched up all the trash on the table and furiously shoved it into the nearest trash bin. The others avoided his eyes.

Josh, eager to dampen the hostility, tried to distract him. “Hey, man, let’s blow this joint and go have a drink.”

Snake grudgingly agreed.

“What do you think,” Josh asked, downstairs to the pub, or across Peachtree where we can sit out and watch everybody getting off of work?”

Snake considered. “Nah, there’s too much traffic, and it’s too hot, and the panhandlers are terrible this time of day. Let’s go downstairs.”

Josh marched off with him, relieved. “Yeah, right, it’s cooler.”

They found a table in the corner in the dark, and Josh realized he didn’t have his tablet.

“You must have left it at the table. Hey, this is my fault. If I hadn’t thrown a tantrum, you wouldn’t have forgotten it. You sit there and order for us, and I’ll run back and get it.”

“Okay.”

Snake hurried back to the foodcourt and rooted thru the trashbin. The others had gone, and the kid was still closing and didn’t see him. He found Josh’s tablet, wiped it off and put it in his satchel, then sauntered back to rejoin Josh with a sorrowful expression on his face. “No, man, it’s toast,” he said as he sat down. “You order yet?”

Josh put his head in his hands. “That’s just great. I lost my tablet. What’s Kurt going to say?”

Snake patted him on the back. “He’ll probably give you a solar powered calculator.” He looked around for the waitress and made impatient gestures.

Their drinks came. “So, where did you look?” Josh asked, worrying. “I should have gone back myself.”

“Relax, there’s nothing you could do. I looked all over, and even in the trash. Maybe that kid took it. He must have noticed it.”

“Let’s go back,” Josh decided, and got up.

“In a minute,” Snake said, downing his beer. “We’ll be back,” he signalled to the waitress, dropping ten bucks on the table. “Save our drinks, okay?”

Josh and Snake returned to the foodcourt, and found Nathan sitting at a table, doing his homework. He denied having seen the tablet.

“Maybe you noticed it when you took out the trash,” Snake suggested. “The thing weighs a ton.”

Nathan offered to go thru the trash himself, and the boys accompanied him downstairs to the dumpster, where he went thru all the bags at their insistence. Filthy, he found nothing. Snake was withering in his thanks, implying to Josh that he’s sure Nathan stole it and was covering it up with a show of diligence.

***
Snake had turned over Fairy’s nose dot and wristband when Kurt first passed them out, and the boys in the basement couldn’t make heads or tails of them.

“I think he slipped us a dust mote,” Larry had said, mournfully looking for the nose dot.

So Snake had bugged Kurt for another one, and presented the bag of wristbands and sheet of nose dots with a victorious smirk.

“That’ll wow them down at the labs,” Larry said dubiously.

“They probably want to look into the military applications,” Curly said. “Quantum radar and things, so you get both your range and your resolution at the same time, using entangled particles.”

“Like seeing teacups on Uranus, right?” Larry asked.

“Yeah, I’m betting entanglement’s not real,” Curly stated confidently. “They’ll find out that it’s just a glitch in the theory, nothing more.”

Moe came in, and the pair pretended to have been waiting for him. They informed him that they got the bug database and were close to unlocking it using Snake’s password and one of his old devices, the Gameboy. They promised they would have it open any moment now. This seemed to make Moe happy, and he settled in at his desk and put his feet up.

They hated to break the mood. “Sir, it happened again,” Larry said, after losing a quick game of rock paper scissors with Curly.

Moe swung his legs down and sat up. “What did?”

“Antarctica thawed and refroze.”

“Same thing?”

“Yessir, only it happened faster this time.”

“What did?”

“The thaw. And the refreeze. It seems to have gone thru several rounds of thawing and freezing in just a couple of minutes. But that’s not the interesting thing.”
He leaned forward in his chair and put his hands on top of the desk. “It’s not?”

“No, sir. Altho we’re not set up to monitor these things, Curly says several observatories noticed the sun apparently flickering for a moment.”

“It flickered?” Moe scratched his head.

“Well, actually, they’re saying it went out, sir,” Curly said.

“Tell me you’ve been smoking crack, boys.”

Larry took a breath. “The sun apparently blinked, sir. It came on again at a higher intensity. Brighter, sir. A different solar constant, sir.”

“Solar constant?” he repeated. “Is it still like that?” he asked fearfully.

“No, sir,” he replied. “It has returned to previous values.”

“Is anybody worried about this?” he asked Curly, who had his head down, monitoring the internet.

“Um, nothing, sir. A few squawks about crazy readings and reset equipment. There’s barely any talk about changing universal constants. Nobody is taking it seriously.”

“Then neither should we. Right, boys?”

“Nosir.”

Moe thought for a moment. “You’ve got a time stamp on this event, don’t you?” They did. “See if you can match up the anomalies with the bug database Snake sent you.”

So Larry and Curly halfheartedly paged thru the spreadsheet, doing their best to dismiss the evidence.

“After all we pretty much understand the nature of reality,” Curly said conversationally, hoping Moe was listening.

“Yeah,” Larry agreed. “In principle, all that’s left is filling in the gaps.”

“And so-called quantum reality – things like variable constants – it’s not part of that.”

“It’s impossible, inconceivable.” Moe was nodding.

“Just a trick of the light.”

Larry explained to Moe. “It’s not logical. It lacks credibility, which means it’s incredible. There’s no proof. The very idea is nonsense.”

“The anomalies have nothing to do with some nefarious plot to take over the world,” Curly added. “They’re just instrument glitches.”

“If there are problems, they’re psychological, rather than physical, and we don’t want to open that can of worms, right sir?”

So the tension eased, and Moe busied himself reviewing Snake’s reports, so he’d have background if anybody higher up asked him about it. What stuck in his mind after them was the girl’s peace and love agenda. It reeked of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Moe liked conspiracy theories.

“Back in Vietnam,” he started, and Larry and Curly prepared for a story, cocking one ear so they’d be able to answer spot questions, and trying to get their work done without seeming anything less than fascinated. Fortunately, all Moe required was oohs and ahs and attaboys. They were good at giving affirmations.

“My contacts in the Pentagon had a plan for the hippie uprising back in the ’60s, you know. These ‘we’re all one’ ideas are like a virus, boys, and if you don’t kill them while they’re still small and weak, they’ll destroy the patient. One sneeze, and the next thing you know they’re putting you in your grave. You have to take drastic measures even before the civilians call for them, while they’re still telling themselves it can’t happen here. You’ve got to destroy the virus, and inoculate the patient so they’re immune to assaults on our way of life. And this, gentlemen,” he indicated the gamegear, “is such an assault.”

“A videogame?”

“No, the ideas behind the videogame, you cretin. They could destroy the world. Normally the Pentagon boys would just back a military coup and help some fundamentalist dictator slaughter the opposition, uh virus.”

“But this is America, and we don’t just go installing dictators here, right, sir?”

“Would it be so bad? Put things in order, get the kinds of things done that elected officials could never do.”

In a show of pique, Snake snatched up all the trash on the table and furiously shoved it into the nearest trash bin. The others avoided his eyes. zzzJosh, eager to dampen the hostility, tried to distract him. “Hey, man, let’s blow this joint and go have a drink.” zzzSnake grudgingly agreed. zzz”What do you think,” Josh asked, downstairs to the pub, or across Peachtree where we can sit out and watch everybody getting off of work?” zzzSnake considered. “Nah, there’s too much traffic, and it’s too hot, and the panhandlers are terrible this time of day. Let’s go downstairs.” zzzJosh marched off with him, relieved. “Yeah, right, it’s cooler.” zzzThey found a table in the corner in the dark, and Josh realized he didn’t have his tablet. zzz”You must have left it at the table. Hey, this is my fault. If I hadn’t thrown a tantrum, you wouldn’t have forgotten it. You sit there and order for us, and I’ll run back and get it.” zzz”Okay.” zzzSnake hurried back to the foodcourt and rooted thru the trashbin. The others had gone, and the kid was still closing and didn’t see him. He found Josh’s tablet, wiped it off and put it in his satchel, then sauntered back to rejoin Josh with a sorrowful expression on his face. “No, man, it’s toast,” he said as he sat down. “You order yet?” zzzJosh put his head in his hands. “That’s just great. I lost my tablet. What’s Kurt going to say?” zzzSnake patted him on the back. “He’ll probably give you a solar powered calculator.” He looked around for the waitress and made impatient gestures. zzzTheir drinks came. “So, where did you look?” Josh asked, worrying. “I should have gone back myself.” zzz”Relax, there’s nothing you could do. I looked all over, and even in the trash. Maybe that kid took it. He must have noticed it.” zzz”Let’s go back,” Josh decided, and got up. zzz”In a minute,” Snake said, downing his beer. “We’ll be back,” he signaled to the waitress, dropping ten bucks on the table. “Save our drinks, okay?” zzzJosh and Snake returned to the foodcourt, and found Nathan sitting at a table, doing his homework. He denied having seen the tablet. zzz”Maybe you noticed it when you took out the trash,” Snake suggested. “The thing weighs a ton.” zzzNathan offered to go thru the trash himself, and the boys accompanied him downstairs to the dumpster, where he went thru all the bags at their insistence. Filthy, he found nothing. Snake was withering in his thanks, implying to Josh that he’s sure Nathan stole it and was covering it up with a show of diligence.

About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on July 9, 2013, in Dailies, fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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