Chapter 7

The carnival levels were more or less complete – the sets were dressed, the rides were running. Once everything was ready for testing they discovered their real problem. It was awful. The game was a compromise the whole away thru, useless as a teaching tool and unplayable as a game.

Everyone seemed to think there was a real possibility the angel wasn’t real, their vision wasn’t true, and their last almost-year was a complete waste of time. Maybe Snake was right, God forbid. Maybe the angel was on the wrong side.

Dragoncon was coming up real soon now, and they weren’t ready. Everyone remembered their supernatural vision, and the levitation video had 150,000 hits. Their friends, and their friends’ friends, and their Facebook friends, all expected something wonderful.

Anomia began to get headaches, and felt a constant sense of impending doom. She sighed a lot, and if you caught her in the middle of something, she would look at you with an aggrieved, lost look in her eyes. She began to feel the same way she felt about her job, like it kept her from realizing she was wasting her life.

Kurt called another meeting in the foodcourt, this time to hand out the haptic game gear. Nathan watched it all unfold without being able to hear much of anything.

Anomia got there first, and was still talking to Nathan across the counter when Josh arrived. He looked at the salads and decided to get a pizza across the concourse, but doubled back to tell her that Snake had asked for another replacement tablet, and Kurt had thrown a fit.

Nathan rang up her total. She rapped her folded money on the glass in irritation. “Kurt’s right. He doesn’t deserve another one.”

Josh shifted from one foot to another. “If Kurt didn’t keep giving him shitty devices that don’t work right…”

She paid Nathan wearily, feeling the energy draining out of her. She sighed as she accepted the change. “What was it, a wristwatch? How’d he kill it this time?”

“Confiscated at the airport. He said it set off all the alarms.”

“Did they arrest him?”

“No, but they grilled him for hours. He didn’t say anything, tho,” he added hastily.

She frowned and dumped the change into the bottom of her bag. “Why would Snake say anything? It’s just a repurposed digital watch.”

Josh looked at her. “Yeah. No, it’s a DIY quantum computer with brand new quantum technology people would kill for.”

She picked up her container, glancing at him. “Don’t be silly.”

He shrugged. “You know. Corporate espionage, tech rivals squelching the competition, enemy operatives, that kind of thing.” He winked at Nathan.

Anomia turned away. “Maybe Kurt should patent his code.”

Snake arrived, and the boys went across the foodcourt for pizza. Fairy came running up, all out of breath, but relaxed when she saw Kurt was still missing, and got chinese. They all sat in the usual spot, working on the game while they ate, their tablets in front of them.

Except for Snake, who reluctantly brought out a Tamagotchi, a device that ran the software as well as everything else, but also needed constant feeding and toilet training. “Assholes,” he muttered when they laughed.

Fairy finished her drink, loudly sucking air thru the straw. “I had a Tamagotchi when I was, like, four,” she said.

Snake shot an evil look at her, then grabbed her tablet off the table and looked at the edge. “Look,” he showed Josh, “it’s the same thing you’ve got.” He thumped the tablet down and pushed it back toward her. “That oozing from the instabuttons,” he said dismissively, as Kurt came from the hamster tunnel and headed their way..”I hate do-it-yourself.”

Fairy inspected the sides of her tablet. “It’s not nano, is it? Will it get in your bloodstream?”

“Wait, I saw that episode,” Josh said. “It’s where swarms of nanobots take people over, and they give this guy gills and tentacles to improve him.”

“Stop that,” Kurt said, approaching the table. He picked up Fairy’s tablet and looked at it, then wiped the edge with his finger and tasted it. “Silicone oil. Wonder how that happened.” He put the tablet down and wiped his hand on his jeans. “The kernel’s not a nano swarm,” he groused, sitting down. “It doesn’t invade your body or grow in your brain.” It did a job on his nervous system, tho, but he wasn’t going to tell them. He tingled all over, like being plugged into the wall. He heard voices in his tooth fillings.

Kurt rummaged in his messenger bag, which was remarkably beat up for being almost new, pulled out a piece of copier paper and picked at it for a moment, then reached over and stuck a clear dot onto the bridge of Anomia’s nose. It pinched a little. She squinted and wrinkled her nose up trying to see it.

Josh peered closely at Anomia’s nose, crosseyed. “This is the haptic gear? Pretty fucking amazing.”

“That’s your eye tracker,” he explained. “For navigation, zooming, and selecting. I put in a heads-up display, and the dot picks up muscle tension in your face, so it reads your expressions, and it picks up subvocalizations. Plus it reads weak magnetic fields, including brainwaves. Yeah, and I made a bone induction sound system.”

Their eyes glazed over.

“Oh, and it communicates with the kernel wirelessly,” he added.

“Wireless?” Fairy drew back. “Can I get cancer?”

“Well, no, it’s not that kind of wireless, there’s no radiation. It’s entangled.”

Anomia picked at the dot on her nose. “Does it come off?”

“Yeah, you can peel it off. but don’t, because you’ll never find it again.” He reached up to touch his own nose dot. “You can shower and everything, it’ll stay on.”

He passed out dots to the team and the boys put theirs on. Fairy decided to wait until she could have a good look at it in the mirror, without makeup.

Then Kurt handed out silicone wristbands. Snake looked amused. “Right there’s your gesture control and your wearable mouse and keyboard,” he announced. Anomia put hers on and turned her wrist over and back, looking at it. “I’ve got it rigged for feedback,” Kurt said. He held his palm toward hers. She felt a kind of wind pushing her hand back. “Feel that pressure? It knows how your hands are positioned, it knows what you’re touching and it interprets your intentions from your muscle tension.”

“How’s it powered?” Snake asked.

“It’s kinetic. Your movements power a nano heat converter that generates enough power to run your interface and the nose dot, too.”

Snake was skeptical. “And it all goes thru the kernel?”

“Sure. The gamegear, the game, it’s all routed thru the kernel. It’s like a quantum server.”

Snake stroked his chin. “That makes the kernel a pretty damned vital speck of dust, doesn’t it?”

Kurt shook his head in awe. “The quantum kernel has depths I’m only becoming aware of.”

“If the military ever got their hands on it…” Snake began.

“I’ve made sure they won’t,” Kurt replied shortly.

Snake looked at him and said nothing.

Anomia fiddled with her wristband, turning it around and around on her arm. “How will this help players learn superpowers?”

“They probably can’t learn superpowers without it, actually. When you imagine doing something, your brain fires up in the same places as when you actually do it. The kernel establishes a feedback loop, and you learn how to control your energy.”

Fairy wanted to know if the gamegear could read auras, so Kurt made his excuses and escaped, offended by her silly questions.

He stopped by Nathan’s shop to show him the gear.

“You said I’d be able to make it myself?” Nathan asked doubtfully, staring at Kurt’s wristband.

“Yeah, well, that’s kind of a problem at this point,” Kurt replied, gazing into space, his fingers twitching madly as he raised the subject with the kernel. “I’ll have to work on a DIY dot. I’m not actually sure how I came up with it.” It was, in fact, another round of chemically-enhanced sleep-inventing, this time involving Kurt-cooties, ramen noodle starch, MSG and unidentified nanostuff floating around the dream-Airstream.

The others got up to leave, and Fairy sashayed past Kurt to get a refill on her drink. He checked the time on his wristphone and rushed off. When she returned to the table her dot and bracelet were gone, along with the empty food boxes and drink cups. She texted Kurt right away, hoping she could get him to meet her somewhere private, like her place. But he was nearby, smoking a cigarette, and was back in only moments.

She arranged herself into an attractive pose, draped over Nathan’s display case showing plenty of leg, but Kurt hardly noticed, thrust a dot and bracelet into her hand like she was a beggar on the street, and turned to Nathan.

“I’ve been thinking about that problem,” he said. “You can replicate both the dot and the wristband. I’ll post the code when I get home, and then it’s just a simple mod of your inkjet printer. Here.” He leaned over and spat into a cup. “Use this, it’s concentrated.”

Nathan tilted the cup to look inside. Spit mingled with the ice like an oil slick, faintly iridescent. Tiny particles of smoke-stained lung jelly.

“Nano backwash,” Kurk said. “Open up a Coke can and pour it in, and let it sit until it goes flat. Then shake it up good, inject a little of it into an ink cartridge, and you’re good to go.” He thought about it for a moment. “You should save a little in the fridge. As a starter. So you can make more.”

Nathan said thanks, and eyed the cup, feeling like a freak.

Kurt turned to Fairy, who suddenly felt ill. She searched for something to say. “The wristband. Can you change the color?” she asked.

Kurt looked puzzled.

She rattled the bangles on her arm. “Fashion?”

“Oh, right. You can have it any way you like. I can make it out of diamond dust.”

She smiled unevenly, glancing at the cup, and fled the scene. Some body fluids were just too gross.

Caroline came up as Kurt walked away, having witnessed his donation of precious bodily fluids. “He’s just fucking weird, that’s all,” she commented, leaning on the display case and wrenching her foot up past her knee for a discrete foot rub. She glared into the cup, and Nathan carefully put the lid on and moved it out of reach, thinking he should stash it in the back of the cold box and hope the health inspector didn’t come by.

“You know,” Caroline began expansively, sticking her thumb into her chest, “not to change the subject, but this old girl’s a fucking security genius. Let me tell you, I personally foiled a terrorist plot yesterday. Myself.” She looked around and said in a whisper, “Right here in Peachtree Center.” Nathan rinsed his rag in bleachwater and started on the counter. “Yep,” she contorted to pat herself on the back, “the old bitch has life in her yet.”

She returned to her massage, stabbing her thumb into the bottom of her foot and letting out a big groan. Nathan worried in case someone thought she was puking on the case. “I was following behind these criminal types,” she continued. “You know.” Nathan wasn’t certain which minority she was referring to, but nodded to keep her on track. “Yeah, and they were talking some evil shit. It was so Iron Man. So I fell back, and contacted HQ to advise as to my situation and request backup. And then I trailed them to the exit, and the big boys took over.”

She cracked her big toe with a vicious snap, and switched to the other foot. The air smelled like rising yeast and bleach. “I followed the miscreants right outside to make damned sure the boys had them, but I couldn’t join in on the kill because I had to come right back inside. My asthma, you know. I can’t take that filthy, boiling hot street air.”

She put her shoes back on and groaned, stretching. “I forgot to tell you the best part. Didn’t they get hold of me later on to tell me what a fine job I done? They sure did. Too bad I’m retiring, right?”

Nathan had to know. “Were they terrorists?”

Caroline put her shoes back on. “Nah, turns out they was just foreigners in town for some convention. But boy, that was exciting. They called me personally to commend my perspicacity.”

Nathan was impressed.

She rubbed her hands. “You know, I been thinking about keeping my hand in after I retire. I might get bored sitting at home all day doing nothing. I’ve got too much experience to just fade away, know what I mean? It’s the call of adventure, the lure of great riches.”

She looked all around and then leaned in. “See, there’s this outfit that’s been sniffing around, a real modern security bunch with military connections. Gray ops kinda folks. I’d get to wear a taser and carry tear gas.”

Nathan looked around at the pristine corporate environment. “In here? To catch shoplifters?”

“To apprehend potential terrorists. And I am allowed to tell you they’re looking at me for the job. At a substantial increase in pay.” If you could swagger sitting down, Caroline would look cool. But it’s hard to do, so she looked drunk to Nathan. Maybe it was the pain pills.

***

Before the gamegear, they sat with their tablets, aware of their surroundings, controlling their avatars with virtual buttons, watching the action on the screen. But now there were no surroundings, there was no screen. They loaded the carnival level to begin testing and the gameworld grew to lifesize around them, and it was all real.

They spawned in the middle of Midway, a vast mall-like cavern hollowed out under the Transantarctic Mountains. They were standing inside it – digitized versions of themselves. The caverns went on for miles, but the group was hemmed into the middle by giant stalagmites, artfully directing them toward concession stands resembling inflatable zodiac boats, with gift shops and restaurants set inside antarctic huts.

Kurt was used to the gamegear’s sensitivity. He checked his wristphone, then gingerly clambered over a low cliff and disappeared into the cavern’s depths. Josh and Anomia adjusted to it shortly after, ramping their skills all the way up and flying around the cavern like bats.

But Fairy and Snake only got the hang of it one overreaction at a time, the gamegear’s feedback loop enhancing their clumsiness and punishing impulsiveness.

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 Josh, appalled. He shifted his 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 encouragingly. 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 flying like us. 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 a lot quicker than this, 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 snarled.

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.” 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 buttons are less trouble,” he complained.

Fairy sidled up to him, 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…” she offered.

“No thanks,” he said, generating enough emotional energy to move away.

Anomia reached the end of her patience. “Okay, I guess everybody’s up and walking now. We should all 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 wanted to change first.

Anomia sat at a table with 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, dismayed at being reduced to inventory control.

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

“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 list of bugs and glitches and wrote a quick note. After a moment, a bunch of stalagmite trash bins popped into place. “Huh. I guess it’s doing instant updates,” she said, impressed.

“Whatever,” Anomia responded, 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 – then looked down at her own clothes – Little 5 Points 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 only had plants, whereas the cavern floor had an antarctic themepark map showing the locations of all the rides in tasteful inlaid stone. That was her work. Longitude lines radiated from the middle, numbered from 0 to 360 degrees, 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 her heads-up dashboard. A red tracer appeared under her finger, and a soft voice explained how it worked.

She passed Anomia, who sat there rubbing her temples. “Tutorials in my head’ll take a minute getting used to,” Fairy remarked. Anomia stared at her blankly. “I just had a tutorial 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 sympathy, seeing Anomia clutching her head. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’ll all work out fine.”

“I don’t have the energy to worry,” 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 notice. “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 sat, alone. She listened to faint drips echoing thru the cavern. Nothing moved. She felt the weight of the mountain above her. It was almost comforting, in a terror of being crushed kind of way. 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 cave’s shape 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 the ride over and over again, checking the parameters, checking the possible variations of tilt and whirl. It was boring. 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 sick to their stomachs.

Fed up, she abandoned testing and flew up to the skydome to get away. She tried to imagine the place full of players, 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 behind their ears, but the team was beginning to hear each other’s thoughts. Anomia and Josh had been talking to each other in their heads ever since their vision, but now that they were all 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, while Fairy and Snake figured it was a computer trick, and ignored it, dismissing the symptoms as afterglow. Only Kurt had a deeper understanding. He believed that all good things flowed 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 there was a constant stream of programming language Anomia couldn’t understand, a droning recitation of his work of the moment; whereas Fairy’s mind was like a kitten’s; she 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 could have access to back doors and cheat codes. Fairy installed caches of health points and magic jewels, cutting virtual stashpoints into the sides of landmarks.

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 physics, she wasn’t going to look like a fool. 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 with little protest, just because it was easier, even tho she immediately felt bad about it. But she had other 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 adjustment of the kernel.

Fairy and Snake made the NPCs test everything, which meant they had to manage the NPCs. One of them had to run hordes of marks riding the rides, playing the games, buying stuff and dropping trash, while the other directed an army of carnies who ran the rides, fixed the games, sold stuff and cleaned up.

They would have created a manager class of NPCs to run the teams for them, but Kurt put his foot down.

Fairy and Snake finally called the others to see the carnival levels, but only 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 using regular physics.”

“Yeah,” Josh added, explaining to the others. ‘Quantum’s not like messing with gravity in the pendulum ride. You change the whole universe with quantum. So, like this.” He waved his hand and the world turned to ice. Again. Mile-thick glaciers scoured the amusement park clean. Icicles grew 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 was annoyed. “Why did you do that?”

“I just wanted to,” Josh 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 and challenged him. “I hate showoffs, don’t you?”

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 bad part, where they pissed the angel off and got kicked out.

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

“And a crappy one at that,” Snake added.

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

***

The seven rings of continental 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. Their 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’d 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 became 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 knew what you were really like?

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

One day, Josh was busy hiding password sniffers in the brush, and 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 landscape around her. “Not here we’re not. I agreed to omit quantum skills from the carnival levels. But when the players get to Antarctica, everything works by quantum effort, whatever you call it. 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. “Tho okay, 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 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. “It’s a sandbox game, for fuck sake. All toys, no rules. No goals. 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,” she said patiently

“I’d like to remind you that we’re simulating the process. 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.”

“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 turned away, implacable.

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

They went on for a while without talking. The sun moved a little lower and the colors began to grow golden. “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, isn’t it?.”

“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.”

“One venereal disease.”

Another long silence followed. The crickets started making buzzy scrapey sounds. 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 at a branch they were passing. “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.”

He ignored her. “Maybe we’ve lost confidence in what we experienced,” he suggested softly. “It sure seems like just a dream. I’m not even sure of the details anymore.”

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

“I don’t really believe it anymore, is the thing.”

“Then why are we doing this?”

“You’re doing it,” 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,” he said sadly.

“No it won’t. If people can’t handle quantum reality, the answer is total immersion. The same way it worked in our vision. Bam, you’re in another world, with special powers. Get to know them, have a nice day. It works in Minecraft.”

“You still believe in it?”

“Yes I do, That’s the thing. Everything tells me what we’re doing is the right thing.” Except 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 like 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. + 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 can help with testing,” he suggested.

But that would mean introducing him to the others, and then they’d know she didn’t do all the work she was taking 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 second 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 weeks since he’d seen her, but surely she recognized the place, unless she had amnesia. But she recognized him, 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 physically anymore.”

Nathan only ever saw Kurt these days, but he and Caroline discussed them all the time. “Dragoncon starts in like a week,” he said conversationally, trying to hold back his excitement. She blanched. He didn’t understand her reaction. “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 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 when Kurt got there until he whipped out a sheet of dots and a bag of wristbands from his courier bag and handed them across the table. “These are for the demo,” he said. “You can give them out. I ran them off while I was making you another dot.”

Snake muttered his thanks and stuffed them into his satchel. They continued sitting there looking at their tablets (or whatever, in Snake’s case), silent and moody.

Nathan watched with concern; they were so on edge. Maybe they were all getting sick. He didn’t really understand the cold sweat of unpreparedness, because he studied all the time and got straight As. So he couldn’t tell that the whole group was suffering from exam-night jitters. The fans were expecting a magical game that would give them superpowers. But they had nothing. An arctic themepark where one side played hapless riders and the other side practiced cheating. As the time drew closer, they started to mumble 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 real smoke, looking at videos on his wristphone. Anomia was cramming quantum principles into the Antarctica level, and Josh was playing Captain Fantastic in Arkaydland.

Josh 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 working in the bug database when the system went down. She looked at Snake in surprise. “You were just in the database,” she said. “I saw you.”

“What do you mean? I just updated the assets. 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? The kernel can read my mind now, huh Kurt? Hey, maybe I pressed the wrong button, know what I’m saying?” He picked up his Tomagotchi and waved it around. “These fucking things are so tiny. How can you not expect errors with the shitty stuff you make me use?” He turned to Fairy and lowered his voice. “Maybe your Indian friend had something to do with this.”

Fairy froze, feeling the blood drain from her face. “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.”

“That’s because you couldn’t be bothered to document your work like I’m always reminding you,” she retorted.

“No,” he spat. “It’s because you find the routine boring, and stick your nose into other people’s work instead.”

It was true, 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. Maybe you should have backed up the database.” he said to 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 of course I’m working the floor during cocktail hour.”

“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.”

“Window dressing. Very nice,” he said dismissively. “We’ll run the demo of the carnival level on one of your tablets.” He glared at Kurt, then turned to Anomia. “You’re printing blowups of the art and the world diagram, right?” Then he added, like it was a special favor, “Maybe we can show the Antarctica level storyboards.”

“The Antarctica level isn’t a secret,” she scowled. “Why can’t we show a walkthru?” She nodded bitterly. “Nothing else even remotely resembles our vision. We’ve got to have something to show the fans.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I’m not sure if you want to alienate your so-called 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. The fans’ll go for that if nothing else.”

“Who put you in charge?” Fairy asked.

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

Fairy steamed.

“So, the quantum superpowers,” Anomia said. “Your hooks. Are you going to tell them 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 the newagers it’s expanded consciousness, and the 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 keep 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 the shit you’re peddling is certifiable.”

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

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

Snake grudgingly said maybe.

“What do you think,” Josh asked as they moved away from the table, “downstairs to the pub, or across Peachtree where we can sit outand watch the office girls getting off of work?”

Snake considered. “Nah, there’s too much traffic, and it’s too hot, and the panhandlers’ll be terrible. Let’s go downstairs.”

Josh marched off with him, relieved. “Yeah, duh, it’s air conditioned.”

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

“You must have left it at the table,” Snake said, concerned. “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 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, even in the trash. Maybe that kid took it. He must have noticed it sitting there.”

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

“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?”

Josh and Snake returned to the foodcourt, and found Nathan sitting at a table, doing his homework. He hadn’t 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, even the trash from other vendors. Filthy, he found nothing. Snake was withering in his thanks, implying that Nathan stole it and was covering it up with a show of diligence.

***

The boys in the basement pored over Fairy’s nose dot and wristband ever since Kurt first passed them out, and they still 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 they had mixed feelings when Snake presented his latest goodies, keeping Josh’s tablet for himself.

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

“They probably be looking at the military applications,” Curly said. “Like quantum radar, where your entangled particles give you the range and the resolution at the same time., so you can like see teacups on Uranus, and shit.”

“Yeah, I’m betting entanglement’s not real,” Larry stated confidently. “They’ll find out it’s just a glitch in the theory.”

Moe came in, and the pair pretended they were waiting for him. They reported that they got the bug database and were close to unlocking it using Snake’s password and his old Gameboy. They swore they would have it open any moment now. They showed him the bag of quantum devices. This seemed to make Moe happy, and he settled in at his desk and put his feet up, looking at the page of dots as if he could read it.

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, sir.”

“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.”

Moe 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 higher solar constant, sir.”

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

“No, sir,” he replied. “The values are nominal.”

“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 the 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 us.”

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, knowing Moe was listening.

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

“And so-called quantum reality – things like variable constants – that’s not part of what we understand as reality,” Curly said.

“It’s impossible, inconceivable.”

Moe nodded in agreement.

“Just a trick of the light.”

“These anomalies have nothing to do with some terrorist plot,” Larry explained. “They’re just instrument glitches.”

“If there are problems,” Larry reminded them, “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 reading 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 were oohs and ahs and attaboys. They were good at giving affirmations.

“My boys 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 you’re in your grave. You have to take drastic measures, while they’re still telling themselves it can’t happen. You’ve got to destroy the virus, and inoculate the patient so they’re immune to further assaults. And this, gentlemen,” he indicated the gamegear, “is such an assault.”

“A videogame?”

“No, the ideas behind the videogame, you cretin. Those are the kind of ideas that 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.”

***

Meanwhile, across town…

Nathan got home from work reeking of garbage, his shirt stained with ground-in salad and dried-on mayonnaise. Dad caught him coming in. “Where you been? Why are you so filthy? And you smell.” Nathan mumbled something about a vicious soccer foul that left him covered in dirt and grass stains, and fled to his room. Dad laughed at him and held his nose. “Must have rolled in dogshit, too, huh?”

Nathan took a shower and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. He snuck into the kitchen, past Dad and Sis, their faces glowing blue in the darkened living room.

On Fox, the news anchors look like they’re keeping secrets. The ageless black woman turns to the middle-aged white guy and winks, then faces the camera. “A few weeks ago we reported on an apparent glitch affecting scientific instruments all over the world.” A graphic appears behind her – sprung clocks going boing. “Well,” she continues, “it happened again.”

Her coanchor snickers as he takes over. “After careful examination of thousands of instruments, investigators concluded that it was…wait for it.” They both laugh, then she gazes at him as he winds up for the finish. “The cause of near panic in the scientific world was…an electrical short. Due to a faulty plug.” They look relieved.

Back to the anchor in her perky yellow jacket. “In just a few days, Atlanta will be invaded by hordes of costumed superheros,” she says. “Labor Day weekend is the I don’t know millionth annual Dragoncon convention.” Footage of last year’s Saturday morning parade, showing wave after wave of stormtroopers in formation, followed by winged fairies and dancing elves, with hooded reapers riding on motorcycles behind them.

Sis loved the bikers. Dad hated the fairies. Nathan stood in the hall and worried about being found out. He sidled into the kitchen, rubbing his damp, spiky hair, smelling of soap. Mom was making dinner. Frozen macaroni and cheese with boiled hotdogs and old buns.

Mom shook her head when he said something about the parade. Later. Dad might walk in looking for his dinner, and hear them talking. So they talked around it.

Nathan’s boss had asked him to work Labor Day weekend. “I really need you, Nathan, he’d said plaintively. “You wouldn’t believe the crowds.”

Nathan had hesitated, every nerve screaming NO. Then he’d said, “Okay,” hoping his face showed how much it would cost him. “I guess I can come in and help out for the lunch rush. But then I’m going back to Dragoncon.”

His relief had been obvious. “Sure, when things die down. Heh heh. Why don’t you wear your costume to work? Who you dressing up as, anyway? Nothing you can’t put in a hairnet, I hope.”

Thinking about it later, Nathan wasn’t sure he should have agreed, and turned to his mother for advice. “He wants me to work,” he whispered. “But I don’t know. He really depends on me. Maybe I’d be letting him down if I didn’t.” His face fell. “Maybe it’s okay if I only watch this time.”

“No, it’s not okay,” Mom insisted, keeping her voice down. “I don’t want to go by myself. What about all those fan tracks you’re so excited about? What about that new game you’re always talking about?”

He chuckled wryly. “Maybe I can get to a few late night panels and parties after the restaurant closes.”

Mom frowned. Nathan grinned. Of course he wouldn’t go to any parties. They had to be home by dinnertime or there’d be hell.

They were going to have to make some excuse for their absence all weekend, and they didn’t want to risk a complicated lie. So, a trip to the beach was out. There’d be no visiting Aunt Maud in Valdosta. They were thinking about making up a school field trip, but Dad would say no if Mom asked to go as a chaperone, even last minute. Who would make dinner? They finally decided to extend Nathan’s excuse for being out of the house during summer break – a full scholarship soccer day camp – and turn it into a regional tournament in…Birmingham on Labor Day weekend. It was only a two hour drive, they could be back for dinner every day. They looked at each other. It could work.

Dad got up to go to the bathroom, pausing by the kitchen door to hurl his empty can at the trash bin. They busied themselves with the dinner while he made a few jokes about the Dragoncon parade, and tried not to look guilty.

Once he’d walked off, Mom asked, “How’s school this year? Get any of the teachers you wanted?”

Nathan shrugged. All the good ones quit during the summer. “There’s a bunch of new teachers.” He was a junior now. “Some of them won’t last very long.” Fresh out of college, they couldn’t take being shoved against a wall by kids who didn’t want to sit down.

Dinner was almost ready, so Nathan went out to the living room and set the coffee table with a stack of plates and a handful of forks, a roll of paper towels and an array of condiment bottles. Dad moved his head and bitched at Nathan to get out of the way of his ad.

On TV, dark shapes move across the screen; dramatic, edgy music droning in the background. The title: BlackOps, enormous, red on black letters. The voiceover: gruff, a master sergeant. “They’re ruthless mercenaries. They enjoy pain. They lack empathy.” Sounds of a scuffle. Cut to extreme closeup of knife fight. “Blood on their hands? It’s a fashion accessory.”

The camera pans over a pack of snarling he-men, with a deadly-looking dominatrix type here and there among them. “We’ve recruited a squad of security personnel who are hungry for power, glory, and lots of money.” Extreme closeup of snarling mouths, staring eyes, sweaty brows, cleavage. “You’ll witness them cutting their chops on fast, far reaching, and deniable piratelike undertakings on behalf of the big boys.” Cut away to show a panorama of their equipment, then a cut to the interior of a troop transport, the recruits jammed together, bristling with weapons, sweat, more cleavage. “Ride shotgun with the squad leader as we put these recruits thru high-stakes, high-stress operations. Under inhuman conditions,” the master sergeant said gleefully. “Agonize with them as they make split-second decisions with life or death outcomes. Join them as they take their game to the top in a deadly struggle to survive and win.” A montage of dirty, gritty hand fighting in the shadows, knives glinting, grunting and thudding. “Constant jeopardy. Cutthroat rivalries. Sudden elimination. Venomous judges and death panels.” The voice turns callous. “You will seriously pee in your pants.”

Nathan was grateful to be going to college, while Sis thought how much she’d like to date a mercenary.

During dinner, Nathan ignored the program and the food, and fretted about his job. The office workers talked fearfully about layoffs in the big corporate cube farms and suites upstairs. Nathan sympathized, convinced he was just one mistake from unemployment. He may have straight As in school, but if he didn’t get thru college, he could end up like those grungy men who huddled in the corners of the foodcourt until Caroline ran them off.

Dad’s dark fantasies were never so genteel. He pictured himself hanging around Home Depot all day with the Mexicans, fighting like dogs for a chance to clean out a backed-up sewer for twenty bucks.

In reality, Nathan’s boss worshipped the rags he cleaned with, and was considering Nathan for his youngest daughter, who was almost old enough to marry. And Dad’s boss looked forward to getting rid of him with a particular pleasure.

Nathan finished his dinner and went to the kitchen with his things. Mom joined him, happy to move to a well-lit room where the TV didn’t blare so relentlessly. They worked together cleaning the dishes.

Dad came in on his way to the bathroom, and announced that his new district supervisor had just fired the weekend manager and added his hours onto Dad’s regular shift, effective yesterday. “Until they get somebody down from Corporate to take over,” he said, unsure what it might mean for his job.

Mom congratulated him, assuming it was a promotion, and Dad’s mood grew instantly dark.

Nathan had already started to ask a question. “The store closes at 9 on Saturdays, doesn’t it?”

Dad hunched over, his arms crossed on his chest, squeezing the beer can in his fist. “They’ve switched to a new accounting method, too. The books will take me an hour to finish and now there’s all these week-ending procedures I have to deal with.”

Mom looked concerned. “Oh dear. We’ll wait dinner for you.”

He growled and turned down the hall. “Don’t bother. I’ll get something at McDonalds. Your food sucks, anyway.”

Nathan finished washing down the counter and turned to clean the kitchen table. He found a brochure under some bills, something Dad brought home from his second interview with the security company.

“Huh. The Call of Adventure. Pro-X SecurTM,” he said, looking at the bottom for the company name. “A friend of mine – um,” he winked at Mom, “the security guard at school – she was thinking about getting a job with these guys. She wasn’t sure, tho. It sounded like a lot of following people around and going thru their garbage. And she was hoping for a desk job, but they’re going to start her on patrol. So she’s not sure.” He put it down. “Is Dad looking for another job?”

Dad came around the corner. “No, Dad is not looking for another job,” he said, cuffing Nathan on the back of his head. “Mind your own business, Nuthin. Your dad’s doing goddamn wonderful right where he is.” He got himself a beer and stood looking down at his son while popping the top. He took a deep draught and burped. “Ahh. A cold beer is worth two of you.” He pulled out a chair and sat backwards on it. “Why do you ask?”

Nathan shuffled, staring at the floor and trying not to mumble. Dad hated mumbling. “I was thinking of quitting soccer this year and getting a job after school. So I could help with the bills and maybe save up for college,” he finished, trailing off.

Dad scowled, insulted. “I don’t need your help. You just continue right on wasting your time planning to go to college. They probly love soccer fags,” he mused, taking another drink and burping. “I keep telling you, Nuthin, you leave real work to real men. Your kind never has to get your hands dirty,” he said resentfully, and then laughed. “Except when you go rolling around in dog shit cuz some real man beat you up.”

Mom shook her head. “He’s afraid you’ll compete with him,” she whispered as Dad got another beer from the fridge.

Nathan bristled. “I don’t have to do your job in order to be a real man, Dad. Real men go to college, too.”

Dad reached out to cuff him again, but Nathan was too far away. “Idiot. My point is, is real men don’t need to go to college. Being a man means you go out there and win. College helps some people win, but not you.” He pointed at him with his beer. “You’re wasting everyone’s time going to college. You might as well save everybody a lot of time and money, and just work at a convenience store.”

Mom stifled an impulse to say something risky. “I’m sure whatever Nathan does, he’ll make us proud,” she commented mildly.

Dad frowned at her and turned back to Nathan. “No, he won’t. Nobody’s proud of a loser.”

“I’m not a loser,” Nathan said, perhaps unwisely.

Dad shook his head sadly. “Stupid, you’re either one or the other.”

“But Dad, there’s a whole range of things in between.”

“No there’s not, there’s only two choices. One’s good, one’s bad. And I can tell just by looking at you that you’re bad. Know how I know? Because good people look good. Bad people have warts and crooked teeth and look scruffy. Or queer. I’m telling you appearances don’t lie. You should watch TV once in a while. It’s full of common sense.” He leaned against the fridge and drained his beer. “Sharing values we can all believe in.”

“I think Nathan’s quite handsome,” Mom said meekly. Dad glared and threw his empty at the trashcan.

“You should stop wasting time with your mother and come on out here for some family time with me and Sis,” Dad said, reaching into the fridge for another beer.

“You might as well be alone when you’re watching TV,” Nathan remarked sullenly.

“You’re never alone,” Dad protested. “You’re sharing it with millions of other people at the same time. They’re all out there, one big happy family. The trouble with you is,” he waved his finger in Nathan’s face, “is you don’t watch enough TV. You’re always holed up in your room by yourself. God only knows what you get up to in there. You need to get out more. Make some friends.”

He went to lay a sympathetic hand on his son’s shoulder, but Nathan twitched out of the way. “I know it’s tough, Nuthin,” Dad continued, feeling fatherly. “I got picked on a lot when I was your age.” He stood tall and thumped his chest. “But look at me now, at the top of my game. And, I have to say it, your father is equal to any man that ever lived. If only…” He stopped, out of breath.

If only he got the recognition he deserved at work. If only he had better kids and a wife who didn’t spend all his money. If only he could get a break. He never complained, he did what he was told, he was reliable and trustworthy. As loyal as a dog. Lately he felt like he was being punished for it.

Dad left, and Nathan and Mom talked about the police who patrolled the halls. They’d started hassling him as he was leaving for his job, even tho they watched him check out in the school office every day. “Maybe they think I’m a gang member. They go thru my backpack every afternoon. They want to see my cellphone.”

“You don’t have a cellphone.”

He nodded. “They think it’s suspicious. They think I’ve hidden it somewhere, like maybe it’s timed to go off or something.”

The police mistook Nathan for other kids in his school, who talked on their cellphones in class and ignored the teachers, skipped every other class, came to school fucked up on someone else’s pharmaceuticals, smuggled in all sorts of contraband, and didn’t care about school because they didn’t care about having careers. Gangstas don’t do work ethics. In Nathan’s school, winners didn’t go to college. Which reminded him.

“Oh my God, Mom, you need to know about the gang kids Sis is hanging out with at school.”

Mom looked at him warily. “You have gangs?”

“A couple. That’s why the cops patrol the halls.” He lowered his voice. “I think Sis is dating someone in one of the gangs.”

Dad came in for a beer, and Mom expressed her concern without mentioning any names.

Dad laughed dismissively. “Not in my baby’s school,” he declared.

Nathan snorted. “Yeah, right. Hey Sis,” he called into the living room, “know any gang signs?

Sis appeared in the door and posed menacingly with fingers splayed and a sullen look on her face.”

Mom frowned. “Are there gangs in your school?”

“Oh, Mom, you’re so lame,” she whined. “There are gangs in every public school in Atlanta. In the country. We didn’t have any in my old school, of course,” she reminded Dad, shooting a vengeful look at Mom.

“I don’t want you having anything to do with gang members,” Mom insisted.

Sis sneered, “Of course not. I would never do that.” She drew herself up. “They’re gangsters,” she said with disgust. “How could you think that of me? You’re just prejudiced against me. You’re never happy with anything I do.” She was on a roll. “I need parents who can appreciate how hard I’m working.” She raised her hands in horror. “I’m doing my best to avoid contamination from the scum you force me to associate with in this horrible school.” She started wailing, “I already know how bad it is. You’re just rubbing it in. You’re trying to discourage me. You want me to fail. You’re the worst mother ever.” She flounced out.

And caught Nathan in his room a few minutes later. He was arranging his books on the bed, ready to study. She picked up a heavy textbook and ripped out a handful of pages, glaring at him. “That’s for snitching,” she hissed.

He gathered the pages protectively. “You know, you’ll never learn how to do it yourself if you keep playing people like that.”

She came close and punched him in the chest. “I never want to do it myself, you idiot.” She turned to the mirror above Nathan’s dresser and pushed back a loose strand of hair. Then she turned on him. “I can’t believe you would tell on me. My own brother. Do it again and I’ll kill you.”

“I’m trying to keep you out of trouble at school. You don’t realize how dangerous those kids are.”

“Oh, grow up.” She made a disgusted face at him. “I know what I’m doing.” She poked his chest hard with her finger. “You don’t. You,” she poked him again, “have no idea how dangerous they really are.” Her eyes gleamed. “They’ve killed people.” She poked him once more, and he backed away, rubbing the spot. “I don’t need you making trouble for me at home. They would never understand what I have to go thru to survive.” She unfolded a handful of bullets from her left pocket.

Nathan stared.

She grinned. “They hide their guns in my locker, too. Nobody looks there. They’re that stupid.”

Nathan covered his eyes.

“You just don’t know what I have to deal with,” she continued, looking in the mirror again. “Poor me, driven from my normal, safe private school and forced to go to a ghetto prison school…” She sighed dramatically and clutched her stomach. “You need to feel bad about hounding me, Nathan. This is no time to tell lies to Mom and Dad, and get me in trouble with them, too.” She started to cry. “It’s cruel to taunt me about things I don’t have any control over. You’re just trying to undermine my confidence. I don’t have a choice,” she choked back a sob. “They’re animals at that school. It’s okay for you, but I don’t belong there.” She checked her pose in the mirror. “I can’t be blamed for using protective coloring. And it’s not just a gang member, FYI. I’m dating the head of the gang. Nobody fucks with me now.”

She sauntered into the kitchen for a coke and stuck her tongue at Mom on her way back to the living room. Dad came in a few moments later.

“I’m just sick of all the lies,” Mom sighed in a whisper as Dad rummaged thru the fridge for something else to eat.

He settled on a beer and shut the door. “What’s Nuthin lying about now?”

She reddened. “No, not Nathan. I just think…maybe Sis is more involved with bad people than she wants to admit.”

“That’s a bunch of bullshit,” Dad said heatedly. “She’s right, you know. You’re just trying to get her into trouble with me. And I told her she was making it up. You’re jealous of her because you’re getting old and she’s young and cute. Well, let me tell you something. You were never cute.” He laughed. “Just joking. I thought you were a real hottie at the time, didn’t I?”

She straightened up. “I want you to stop calling Nathan names. It hurts when you make fun of him like that.”

“Stop? What are you talking about?” He loomed over her and she cringed. “I don’t have to stop. He deserves it. If he wasn’t so stupid, I wouldn’t have to treat him like that.”

“But you’re just being mean,” she said, almost defiantly. “You don’t have to pick on him.”

He moved around to her side and gathered her hair in one hand, the other clutching his beer. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Complain again,” he tugged on her hair so her face turned to the ceiling, “and it’ll go ten times worse with him.” He pulled some more and she arched her back over the top of the chair. They stared at each other upside down as he yanked on her hair for emphasis. “You know better than to tell me how to raise the kids,” he said in a low, reasonable, menacing voice. “I’ve told you over and over again. That’s my job. You’re there to make dinner and clean clothes and do what I tell you. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been slacking off. Don’t tempt me to fire you,” he warned with a final pull, and let go.

Mom straightened up and sat rubbing the back of her neck. She avoided looking at him. He stomped around for a few minutes, yelling at the kids for something, while she massaged a spasmed muscle and fought down nausea.

Then he was back, getting himself another beer. “You know, if you just keep your mouth shut, I wouldn’t have to – you know,” she flinched as he stroked her head, “I wouldn’t have to be that way with you. I mean, it’s really stupid to question my rules. You can see that.” His hand dragged heavily down the back of her head, pulling out a few strands at a time with long screeches of pain. “You just push me to the breaking point.”

Nathan walked in and saw Dad petting Mom like she was a dog.

Dad scowled at him. “It’s not your fault.” He stroked her hair once more. “I’m just trying to keep Nuthin in his place, and you keep getting in the way.” He laughed and drained his beer, moving away from Mom. Nathan moved to stand next to her.

Dad lumbered off for a piss. He couldn’t help it, they drove him right to the fucking edge and then kept pushing. These days he was trying to avoid the thought that he could lose everything one unlucky day, like tomorrow. And they just had to keep reminding him that beside his castle, all he had was his ungrateful wife and his burdensome daughter and his worthless son. And unfortunately, Dad’s castle was now in a bad neighborhood. That’s why Sis had been going to a private school.

Later, between shows, Dad gave his darling daughter some fatherly advice. “Sweetie, you should really just stay away from gangs.” <

“I wouldn’t associate with people like that, Dad,” she said, in shock. “Some of them work for you, okay? I shouldn’t have to associate with them in school, but that’s out of my control, isn’t it?” She put a construction lien on his most expensive property, costing him all the collateral that was backing the project. “It’s not my fault. You should have saved me from all this.”

About jeanne

artist, grandma, alien

Posted on August 6, 2013, in Chapter, fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

suggestions and comments:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s