writing chapter 8.2
Dad was late getting home from work and in a horrible mood. Everybody tiptoed around him, afraid to set him off. But he was looking for a fight. First he picked on Nathan’s clothes. Then he had a look at Nathan’s room and only Nathan’s immediate surrrender and a quick and thorough cleaning averted an angry outburst. His room was so clean that Dad could only grumble and threaten during his surprise inspection.
Nathan quivered in his room until Dad staggered off to sleep, then retrieved his costume from under the bed and pieced it back together. He was going as Spiderman, and the leotard made him feel exposed and uncomforatable, but his self consciousness went away when he tugged the mask on over his head and peered out thru the eye slits at his reflection in the mirror. At 16, he was still scrawny and awkward. He poked at his shoulders, wondering if he should pad them to make him look more muscular.
Next morning, he and Mom waited for Dad to leave for work, then quickly got into their costumes – Mom dressed as an suburban middle aged gypsy witch, with colorful rags, disheveled hair and heavy makeup. Then they scurried to the car, grateful that Sis was still asleep (she’d gotten in around 4 the night before, and would be sleeping it off until 2 in the afternoon.) They drove to the subway and took MARTA in, hoping to find a good vantage point to see the parade. They were early, but the crowds on the platform at Peachtree Center were horrific, so they traveled on to the next stop and walked back to the parade route.
But there were thousands of people waiting to see the parade, and they weren’t letting anyone in front of them, so Mom and Nathan had to circle the outside of the crowd and look for a break. That didn’t work – the people at the periphery stood with hard backs and sharp elbows and wouldn’t let them past. So they gave up on the parade and just headed for the Sheraton to pick up their membership badges. They couldn’t do that, either. Not without going blocks out of their way, so they ducked in thru an open door on the far side of the Nathan’s building, and made their way up thru the levels of the parking deck to get to a hamster tube and start working their way over top of the parade route.
Then they stumbled upon a vantage point on the third level, and hung out over the barriers, sandwiched between cars, watching a few minutes of the parade. But how many hundreds of Harry Potter, Dr. Who, stormtroopers and galactic warriors can you watch without getting edgy? So they went to get their badges, joining the conga line of people going from one building to another, and finally found the back of the line to get their badges. This line went all away around the block, slowly, and they listened as the people around them compared this year to last year, made plans for meeting friends, talked about their hangovers, discussed arcane points about their costumes. Nathan spotted two other Spidermen in line, and felt ashamed of his homemade costume. He was glad he had his mask on so nobody could see him blushing.
When their feet started hurting, they were only halfway around the block. Mom was starting to lean on Nathan by the time they reached the entrance, and then it was one line after another until they reached the booth and got their badges. Nathan felt a wave of pride as he clipped his to a lanyard around his neck. Mom looked weary. Then they got their pocket programs, and found a low wall outside to sit on, ignoring the crowds that passed by – the parade had ended and thousands of people were flooding the surrounding streets.
They leafed thru the crowded program, overwhelmed by the choices, shocked by the visuals all around them, awed by the sounds. It was nervewracking. Everywhere you looked there were fantastic costumes, a strange and wonderful blend of genres and themes – Viking warriors and Mario brothers next to medieval babes and Wookies. All colors, all manner of commotion, all noises, all at once, all the time. And too many choices of things to do.
Mom decided finally to go to a bellydance workshop, and Nathan realized it was time for him to get to work, so they figured out where Mom’s workshop was, got lost twice trying to find it, and finally got there in the middle of the class. Nathan left Mom standing at the back in her colorful rags, her arms waving in the air, doing dance steps. And got lost trying to find the secret food court, where he worked.
The crowd was worse on Saturday. He had to go in thru the back door in order to approach the shop, and it was only because the boss’s wife and daughters were there to hear his knock that he got in at all. The boss put him right to work, but Nathan insisted that he had to get out to meet his mom between panels, so the boss reluctantly agreed to drag one of his daughters up front, warning Nathan that they’d only screw things up.
But his boss promptly forgot his promise, and when Nathan said, “Okay, I’m leaving now,” he had a screaming fit right there behind the counter, to the amusement of half a million customers. Cowed, Nathan stayed, but at the next panel break he quietly insisted, and left thru the back entrance. The boss’ wife glared balefully at him. “I’ll be back in half an hour,” he promised. He burrowed as fast as he could thru the crowds, worried that he’d never find Mom.
But she was where they’d agreed to meet, and he slumped down beside her on a banquette, his costume stained, his mask askew, his tights chafing. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here before, the boss wouldn’t let me go. What did you do?”
“Oh, I just sat here, dear,” she said calmly. She rooted around in her bag and brought out a couple of sandwiches and they sat watching people walk endlessly by on the way to the escalator or wherever they were going. They listened to a traditional music band playing ballads that had pointed lyrics. The leafed thru their pocket programs to find Mom’s next panel – something about developing superpowers – down in the same area as her earlier workshop. They split up, Mom looking rested, Nathan dragging his sagging leotarded body back into the breach.
An hour and a half later, his boss threw his hands up and protested as he tried to leave to rendezvous with Mom, and Nathan made him a bargain. “I’ll stay until next break, but then I’ve got to go.” His boss wouldn’t understand, but if he got to Dragoncon and never saw how his friends were doing with their videogame, he’d never forgive himself. So he worked like a dog for another hour and a half, serving the endless hungry Powerpuff Girls and Stargate recruits and Jokers and zombies. And a Spiderman, who winced as he studied what had become of Nathan’s costume.
His boss threw up his hands and yelled at Nathan in another language, but let him go for two hours only – “One more minute and you’re fired.” So he was out. He grabbed Mom and they went to the Teh Gema panel and rumored demo. It was full, so they sat by the door with their backs to the wall and listened. There was a map projected behind the table in front, but Mom and Nathan couldn’t see it. It showed screenshots of the carnival level, starting with the splash screen menu, the game areas all laid out on top of a scaled-down Antarctica without ice. Roughly circular only in the upper right half was solid land, the rest was an island archipelago, connected to the continent on both sides by the towering Transantarctic Mountains.
The game areas were descriptive – Arkaydland, Rollurkosterland. Mom misspelled each one in her mind as Anomia named them; Nathan got several of them right. He was surprised to find that their Antarctica was an amusement park. Over the months of development, he’d gathered the game – Teh Gema – was a Jedi mind meld edugame, but here were pinball and whack a mole, and rides. Maybe he’d gotten the wrong impression – he knew more about the kernel and the tablets and the politics of the team than what Teh Gema was actually about. He’d never even seen the scenery or the layout. So when they started flashing up screenshots of the landscape, he crawled over to the aisle to look. It was breathtaking – the mountains were so clear, so enormous, the sky was so huge. He got cold shivers.
The audience loved the background art. But not the clunky details. They loved the smooth passage of the clouds overhead, but thought the water sucked. Josh and Anomia sat in front at the table, accepting praise and suffering criticism. Snake was manning the demo down in the gameroom; nobody knew where Kurt or Fairy was.
“The backgrounds are gorgeous but the tiling is cheap and badly fitting. Why is the quality so uneven?”
Here they were tempted to point fingers but signaled to each other to be the grownups. “Okay, the architecture’s a little boxy, and the lighting’s kind of flat. And, yes, we had some trouble with the object database, so there’s some limited functionality and there are some objects missing. We’ll take care of that in the next build.”
Anomia ducked her head. “There are some glitches with the more advanced levels, so we’re only showing what we’ve got closest to completion. But I’ve got the layouts for everything finished. Here are some details of what it looks like in the Antarctica level.” She showed them settlements, towns, ports, cities, a megalopolis. Seven levels of civilization in meticulous detail. “But we’re having technical difficulties,” she finished. Organizational difficulties, she meant. Political infighting and sabotage.
“What about superpowers, how do you get them by playing the game?”
She started to explain, but Josh cut her short. “That’s over in the Hyatt, next session. Anomia’s doing a couple of workshops about it. Check it out.”
But they kept asking about it. So they put on a video of them messing around on the cloud layer, something they’d done months ago before abandoning the other levels to concentrate on the carnival level.
There they were in their avatars, which the audience really appreciated. Nathan and Mom edged toward the aisle to see. “The cloud layer isn’t ready yet,” said Anomia’s avatar, and first you have to get thru the two carnival levels and learn a bunch of stuff about physics.” Josh’s avatar rolled his eyes. “But Josh and I thought we’d show you what you’ll be able to do when you reach it.”
They were standing on clouds, in the midst of clouds. Now and then a wisp of cloud came streaming past their heads and shoulders. “Once you get here,” she continued, “it all works by magic – your magic. So you can do this,” and materialized a beach ball out of the fog and threw it at Josh, who formed a bat out of the mist and hit it away.
“Or this,” Josh said, and condensed a beach scene out of the fog, and the ball came rolling back again. “Or even this,” and they floated into the air above the sand..
Then they went to work on the area, and shortly there was a tropical island with palm trees and a hot sun, crashing waves and surfers out in the water. The beach was crowded with sunbathers and kids ran shrieking down along the water’s edge. Then high rise hotels sprang up and parasailers filled the sky.
Everybody in the room smelled the salt air and felt the sea breeze. The ones in front got splashed by the waves. It was the very kind of thing that got them kicked out of the Garden. But the audience loved the promise that they could do it too the moment the game was released.
“Why is it called Teh Gema?”
“That’s Fairy’s fault. One of the developers. She can’t spell for shit, and I guess it just caught on. We’ve always just called it the game, and never got around to changing it.”
“When’s the release date?”
Anomia and Josh looked embarrassed. “We’re almost ready for alpha testing,” Anomia said. “There’s a signup sheet here.” A dozen people got up to volunteer.
“If it’s supposed to give you superpowers, how come we have to mess with games and rides and shit?”
They didn’t really have an answer for that, they’d never been able to articulate their reluctance to go quantum from the beginning of the game. “We really had to feel our way to quantum. It was a process of building a world we understand, with rules, and then branching out from there.”
“It wasn’t until our programmer developed the quantum kernel that we figured out what a quantum world really looks like.”
This was all bullshit. They didn’t understand quantum even tho they were working with it. Broad concepts like being in two places at once didn’t really sink in in any practical way. But the angel told them to do it, and Kurt made a computer that could not just simulate it but make it real, and who were they to denigrate it when it was working? They just hoped it was still working that way when the game was finished.
“And what was keeping them?” They were stuck in their own mediocrity. The game was too compromised, too disabled by deliberate infestations of bugs. Important features of the kernel were ignored or compromised by conflicts. Everything the angel had told them to include had been disabled, dumbed down, or sabotaged. The environment was like something you’d see in Heaven, but the game itself was hellish.
What could they say? “We’re working on it. Testers will speed the process because your feedback will go right to the kernel.” There wasn’t enough of them to catch everything, especially given the egos and alternative agendas. Another dozen people came up to the front.
Then they put up a slide showing the gamegear. “You connect to the server and you can play it on whatever device you want. And you can play it with a minimum of three buttons. But you’ll get the best experience with our custom game gear.” The audience stared at a silicone bracelet that said Teh Gema and an arrow pointing at an invisible eye dot, circled in red. “Not very impressive, I know. But the less equipment, the less intrusive the interface. And since at this point we can’t just think things done, it’s still only virtual, and we think it simulates best when you forget you have it on.”
Kurt was there, diddling with the controls of the video equipment. “We’re trying to rig a live demo of the gear, but there’s a gremlin.” The gremlin was in the equipment. Kurt was there writing a tunnelling connection between the kernel on his phone and the video player.
They got it going and there were their avatars on screen, in the cavernous hub of the carnival level. They were moving around and talking, interacting with people in the room, while their real selves sat up front at the table, their hands visible and still, their mouths quiet. Like zombies, but their eyes moved, they looked at the people who were talking.
“Yes, it’s us. We’re moving our avatars with tiny movements in our hands and arms, and subtle movements of our facial muscles and eyes.”
“And because it’s quantum, we can do all the stuff we demonstrated on the cloud level.” They levitated off the ground and started darting around. “Any requests?”
“Manifest something. How about beer?” Suddenly everybody in the room has holding a mug of cold beer. Most of them downed theirs hurriedly.
“How about weed and some X?” Most people had a few tokes and pinched theirs out for later, some passed theirs down the row.
Nathan gave his to Mom, who passed them both on and got up to leave. “It’s okay, Mom, I don’t smoke.” Sis smoked enough for both of them, and whatever Sis felt it was okay to do, Nathan disapproved of.
He got up moments later as Kurt made his way to the door. He followed, and then stood in the hall talking for a few minutes, Nathan bouncing from foot to foot because his legs were asleep. Kurt was unhappy about the game’s appearance. He was worried about how to improve it. Nathan tried to say how impressed he was, but Kurt was contemptuous. “It’s embarrassing how bad it is. The quantum kernel makes actually finishing the game a snap. But these nitpicky, argumentative know-nothings keep changing their minds and going back on negotiated – settled – positions. I’m sick of it!” And more, chain puffing on his E-cig and fingering his nicotine patches the whole time, pacing back and forth across the hall outside the room, looking caged. Then he went back inside to explain how to download and 3D print the game gear.
Nathan ducked back inside to consult with Mom, who was going to follow Anomia down to her workshop. She was spending all day on one track, the Silk Road, first doing bellydancing, and then an exercise class: using the Force, and now Anomia was going to talk about the philosophy of living in Teh Gema’s quantum universe.
So Nathan left her there and ran back – slogged back – thru the milling crowds to the secret foot court and his poor hapless boss. The place was a wreck, and the boss was on the edge of collapse. So Nathan took over, and as the food ran out and the crowds shifted to the bars, Nathan gradually brought the Bistro D’Lite back to its usual bright sparkly closing state. There was no delivery to put away, so once he took out all the trash and pulled the shutters down, the boss let him go for the night, even tho he could tell by the tired, dour looks on Mrs. Boss and her eldest daughter that they were in for another night in the kitchen.
He found Mom in their meeting place, resting her head against the wall, her eyes closed. Nathan found a seat within view of Mom’s dozing form, and leafed thru his pocket program until she woke up. The panels sounded more interesting the later it got. The racy ones – the ones that sounded the most fun – weren’t scheduled until 10, and the programming went on all night – the drum circle, the movie marathons.
But they couldn’t afford to stay much longer, because Saturday was a short day for Dad – the store shut at 9 and he didn’t have to fuck with bookkeeping. So he’d be home and ready to get fed and get drunk, relax and watch the tube until he couldn’t stay awake any longer. And with his mood so dark lately, they’d better be there to make his evening a smooth one.
So they tore themselves from the crowd, tucked their badges away, peeled off their costumes, went by the thrift store on the way home and got a few things, then arrived home to find Sis sitting on the edge of the couch, talking into her cellphone. She glared at Nathan once, waved away the offer to show her what they’d bought, and locked her door as she flounced thru it and slammed it shut. Mom and Nathan sighed with relief, put their things away carefully, then started dinner together, softly discussing the events of their day. But when Sis got off the phone, she went thru Mom’s stuff and found her badge.
Later, after dinner, she asked Mom where they’d been all day.
Dad picked up his ears. “All day?”
“Yeah, they were gone, like, right after you left, and only came back five minutes before you got home.”
Nathan and Mom were horrified. Nathan sputtered about his clothes. Mom reminded Dad about his demand that Nathan look more normal. Together they invented a trip to the outlet store, 40 miles away.
“I tried to call you like a hundred times,” Sis whined. “You never answered once.”
“It was so loud,” Mom lamented.
“The Muzak in the outlet store was too much for you, huh?” Sis sniffed.
“We had car trouble,” Mom confessed.
“I, we, dropped out of range, I noticed, right, Mom?”
“Not going to the outlet store, you didn’t,” Sis observed. “What, your trouble happened when you were out of range, right?” She elbowed Dad.
Dad steamed. “What were you doing going to the damned outlet mall for? That’s half a tank of gas the way you drive, and then you go and break the car, too. What were you thinking? Why the hell didn’t you take him to a secondhand store? He’s not worth buying Hilfigers for. Let him wear rags.”
Mom and Nathan fled to the kitchen as soon as they could, but Dad called them back. It was family night all of a sudden, and he wanted them right there in the living room with him, watching what he thought they should be watching, going to bed when he said it was time. Meekly they obeyed, and laughed when he laughed, then rushed to clean up while he was in the bathroom.
After Dad went to bed and the lights went out all over the house, Sis came into Nathan’s room with the badge she’d filched from Mom.