writing chapter 12.1
Finally the game was almost ready for release. All the major glitches were fixed and the assets were locked in. All that was left to fix were bugs. They called up the beta testers. This time both Nathan and Radhu were selected, just because their names were on the list. They were contacted by an email form letter and downloaded the beta version of the game, then waited for their 3D gamegear to be printed and sent to them. When it came, Nathan slipped on the wristband and slapped on the nose dot and got ready to log on.
The final splash screen graphics weren’t ready, so there was a plain black placeholder with the game’s logo and Quantum Antarctica passing over their heads. Gradually the black screen developed some texture, there was a sense of movement and the flatness slowly resolved into a tunnel which he’d been traveling down for some seconds.
Meanwhile a voice – not quite Anomia’s – introduced the game. “…Not an ordinary game, exercises to help you develop superpowers. Based on ancient wisdom and real life experience, we’ll help you explore the quantum universe…”
So the tunnel thing didn’t get too boring, there were storyboard drawings of the rides, but Anomia’s intro pertained to the Antarctica level and the quantum lessons, and the current version might as well have been an entirely different game (“Maybe they should have released it separately”, Anomia said later. “Maybe we should have abandoned it altogether,” Josh replied.)
Going down the tunnel, he realized he was very small when he saw others going down the tunnel with him, being swept along by something invisible that isn’t wind and isn’t water. Then, after a long time, being aware only of movement, the feeling of his own body, the sight of others, and surrounding enclosure, he and everybody else became aware that they were standing around inside the clouds.
It was wet inside clouds, and cold. But there were endless choices of things to wear, and even the most flimsy clothing could be weatherproofed with the right quantum skill (to be announced). Nathan used his gamegear to pick handsome Arjuna hunting clothes, pants and a decorated vest, with soft leather boots. He regarded himself in a mirror. He was Nathan, as he always had been, almost 17 and still rail thin and sheltered looking. He thought the muscles larger, and developed strong biceps and a six pack.
A placeholder card came up to tell him about the avatar he’d chosen, and that he’d selected a game of adventurous quests and self mastery. Well, maybe not. Too much like what Dad would pick. He scrolled thru the avatar choices, and picked a nerdy female scholar type, with short hair and glasses. It felt more honest than going around looking like a hero. He never felt like a hero.
Radhu picked Krishna, a more lordly avatar in the same family as Nathan’s almost choice. Krishna was his favorite of all the avatars he’d designed; he’d put extra work into his clothing and accessories, and gave him a lot of aspects other avatars lacked.
Radhu met Nathan in the Tutorial Hall. All the beta testers assembled there before going on into the game. It was a very large Steampunk-themed convention floor with a stage at one end, lined with booths and tables, with overstuffed chairs scattered here and there. The wall beside the entrance held a buffet and open bar.
Testers mingled, introducing each other by their handles. Radhu introduced himself as Random. He was going to call himself Prince Random, or either Sir Random, but hesitated at the last minute and signed on as just Random, because for all Fairy or Snake thought of his efforts, he was just a random tool they could use up and throw away.
Random swept back his glistening black hair and struck a pose, offering his hand to Nathan, who’d sat for some time before entering a screen name, and finally had decided on c3l3r! He liked celery, he’d been playing with leetspeak, he’d been practicing with graffiti writing. So Nathan, (c3l3r!) took Random’s (Radhu’s) hand. Random swept up her hand to his lips and swore an eternal bond of friendship to c3l3r! (Nathan).
Testers were actually supposed to find a buddy to go thru orientation with. Some of the betas were clumping up into groups at the bar, or as couples having sex in the booths. Random and c3l3r! quickly established that they were serious game fans who took the quantum superpowers seriously and weren’t interested in how much better everything was ingame. So they left the room together and took all the tutorials which hadn’t been ready for the alphas.
The lecture on karma by an Anomialike avatar felt like Mom explaining the rules so the kids wouldn’t get hurt. “It’s all up to you, behave as you see fit, but realize that it’s all analyzed and depending on how you score, your gameplay, your circle of friends, your options and your quests can be diminished or enhanced. Your karma governs your game as much as your current gameplay. The only penalties are karmic consequences. But profile blah and health and longevity blah”
They took the physics workshop that encapsulated everything taught on the Carnival and Carneytown levels. They took the Intro to Quantum Lessons three times. They signed up for the Mystery School Camp and became Jedi Bene Gesserit Kabbalah Sufi yoga judo masters for awhile.
Then they learned to fly, starting with mental and body disciplines and working on a footloose gnostic nonchalance, a Hitchhiker’s Guide kind of attitude where it’s all too bizarre to get upset about. Flying was the first of the quantum skills – movement – they learned, and Random and c3l3r! stayed in flight school until they were nudged out the door by a leprechaun.
Back in the Tutorial Hall, they noticed that most of the testers were forgoing the various lessons and heading straight for the diving platform on the edge of the blackest space. As many as disappeared over the edge, that many remorted back into the Tutorial Hall, stopped to load up on food and alcohol, and raced over to stand in line for the edge again.
Random and c3l3r! went over and read the instruction wall, because the testers were raucous and they couldn’t hear could be Anomia saying the same instructions over the loudspeaker. Then they went to the edge of the platform and out onto the diving board and bounced a few times to test the spring, and launched themselves one after the other into the air, arms spread, heads up, chests out, flying.
Second star to the right and straight on til morning, flying around the hapless testers who were spinning endlessly thru space. Random and c3l3r! flew as if they were born with wings; such a feeling of grace and power, their desires to move instantly translated into loops and dives and climbing curls. It was like dream jetting thru space.
They were completely comfortable with their skill, and gave each other high fives as they went speeding thru the cosmos.
“Yes, we are.”
They reached Antarctica, which was looking more and more like a theme park from far off, the surrounding ocean sparkling like a sea of parked cars beyond the gates. A sparkly blue sea of cars all around them to the horizon. Inside, a circular themepark Antarctica. The left half of the park was jammed with monster rides and pavilions, while the right side, tho obscured by lower clouds, was more bucolic, with winding paths and small scattered buildings, and cute little trailers with laundry fluttering in the wind.
Random and c3l3r! landed on the clouds that were coasting along several thousand feet above the area, and watched as one after another beta tester streaked across the sky and plunged thru the clouds into the ocean (of parked cars). Whatever, they died.
They watched the spectacle for a moment, speechless. They could see small figures moving in the themepark, so they flew down to the Midway and would have landed gently in front of the gift shop , near the food court.
Except for other beta testers – who had learned how to fly and made it to the Midway, motivated by too many painful deaths – only to be immediately pounced on by alpha testers and dragged off.
So they moved on and landed in a less vulnerable spot and ducked into an alcove between two stalactite formations. Random and c3l3r! knew something was wrong with the Carnival level.
It was cold. They changed costumes to full winter clothing, but it was still cold.
Huddling close for warmth, they pulled up the guidelines for the level and found Anomia’s hard fought-for list of rules stressing cooperation and nonviolence. There were tips on how to activate the quantum lessons she’d managed to insert, instructions on how to understand the physics principles underlying the various carnival rides and games, and suggested they ask helpful NPCs for advice – a picture of a dancing leprechaun jiggled about. The instructions had lots to say about how players were supposed to help each other. There was nothing about roving gangs of alpha testers robbing and beating up betas as they arrived.
There weren’t even supposed to be any alpha testers there. This was a different build of the game. But there they were, acting like they owned the place. They reported this to the bug database, but nothing happened.
The alphas didn’t disappear or behave any better. A group of about eight or nine testers came into view, grabbed a beta who had landed poorly and threw him thru the window of an antarctic merchandise hut. Instantly the group were thru the window looting things, leaving the beta to die broken and bleeding on top of a rack of polar hoodies.
Random and c3ll3r! were very still, willing themselves to not be the droids. Shouting came from the other direction, and the sounds of gunfire. Testers ran past their position in a panic, and they smelled burning plastic. They looked at each other in consternation.
“I think we’re in trouble,” c3l3r! said softly.
Random was moved to comfort her, but remembered his dignity and tried to think of a way out. He looked around. Smoke was roiling thru the corridor coming from Rollurkosterland. Sprinklers were raining cold water down on everybody. People stopped running by.
Random peeked out and surveyed the moderate destruction in the hall, already being mopped up by a small cleaning crew of leprechauns. “It’s okay, there’s nobody here,” he assured c3l3r!, and they approached a cleaner and asked for advice.
“Your karma determines your gameplay,” he remarked in stage Irish, stopping to twirl his pointy hat before continuing to stuff trash into a plastic garbage bag.
They approached another. “Why is everyone being so violent?” c3l3r! asked. “Why are the alpha testers still here? Why aren’t they testing?”
The leprechaun winked at her. “Sure they’re just doing their jobs they are madam. Coming back to this level to help guide beginners so they are, teach ’em what they’ve learned, like.”
“But aren’t they supposed to be helping with the quantum lessons?”
Here the leprechaun stuttered a bit, and turned back to his mopping. “Nothing you can do about the cold. Sorry sorry sorry, I’m so fucking sorry.”
“I guess we’re on our own,” Random remarked, remembering that Snake talked about making adjustments to the NPCs.
“What do we do now?” c3l3r! asked.
They thought. As beta testers, they were supposed to go on the rides and play the games, buy and consume things, win prizes, build up their scores high enough to get to the next level – Carneytown – which was apparently what the alpha testers were doing there, testing Carneytown.
(Anomia had just finished fucking with Carneytown and had just opened it to the alphas on the current build. She’d tried so hard to re-rig it as a quantum level that she broke it, and they had to back out her changes to the old, relativistic level.
So the alphas were playing at being carnival employees. But since the kernel was adapting the game to enhance everyone’s gameplay, it was not exactly the same level as before.)
Instead of selling tickets and working the concessions, alpha testers were overcharging, making imprints of the betas’ credit cards, misdirecting people for money at the information booth. Instead of customizing the rides to maximize safe thrills, they were setting the controls to kill and main betas. The Carnival level had become a lawless melee pit.
In the shadows, watching them from across the cavern, Evryplayar stood planning her move. (Caroline couldn’t spell very well, so she had chosen a screen name that disguised her in ordinariness. But then she’d gone and changed her avatar for this build.
She was now what is in the gaming community is referred to as a Fighting Fuck Toy. A hypersexual female, with huge tits and ass, wearing fuck me shoes, with hair you could hold her by and a face that said “blow job.” She had the latest hardware and could use it, and took no nonsense from anybody, but it was hard to kick ass when everyone wanted to fuck her. It guaranteed male attention, which made her role as secret agent harder to pull off, and made a joke of her screen name as well as her mission.
She approached them slowly, her hips wagging as she walked on six inch heels. “I can help you get out of here,” she offered in a sultry voice. Random puffed out his chest and tossed his lustrous mane. C3l3r! looked on, her eyes wide, her teenage hormones going crazy standing so close to such a powerful, such a statuesque sex goddess.
Evryplayar moved closer, her eyes telegraphing urgency, her voice husky with desire. “Come with me if you want to live,” she breathed. Then she turned and ran off. Spellbound, they dashed behind her, not knowing where they were going.
The cavern turned and twisted, and they thought they’d lost her and stopped at a fork in the path. The walls dripped around them. The shadows were black.
“Over here,” she whispered. They saw a movement in the shadows, and started toward her. “Stop right where you are,” she snapped. A long, elegant hand with a bright red manicure extended from the shadows. “Give me all your points,” she demanded.
Random, who practiced the buddhic precept of virtue thru compassion, handed everything over willingly. “Thank you for rescuing us,” he said. “I offer my undying support and friendship.”
Evryplayar smiled graciously and turned to c3l3r!, wiggling her shapely fingers impatiently. “Your turn,” she said, sweet as syrup.
c3l3r! shook her head slowly. “Are you helping us or robbing us?” she asked.
Evryplayar’s smile broadened, showing rather sharp teeth behind her plump, juicy lips. “Welcome to the game,” she said, smoothly.
“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Random protested. “We’re supposed to learn mechanical skills, play with the laws of physics on this level.”
“Oh don’t worry, you’ll learn all that first hand.”
“We’re supposed to be testing gameplay, but everything I’m seeing is against the rules.”
Evryplayar looked c3l3r! up and down. She’d rejected an avatar like that at the end of alpha testing because it gave her a sweet, innocent character, and Caroline was anything but naive and innocent. She hated sweet. She looked at c3l3r!’s profile. “What kind of satanic name is that?” she purred, bringing her heaving chest closer to Random.
“You pronounce it ‘Celery’,” he said helpfully.
Evryplayar stepped back. “I detest celery,” she stated, wiggling her fingers again. “Come on, pay up. We don’t have forever.”
C3l3r! glared at her and shook her head.
“Fine, fuck you,” Evryplayar said, turning to walk back in to the shadows. “Come along, boy toy,” she said to Random, who followed her into the gloom.
C3l3r! hesitated, then started after them. And fell into an endless crevasse. And died.
“Why didn’t you warn her?” Random demanded fiercely.
“There’s nothing says I’ve got to stop people from being stupid and careless,” she assured him, with a hand on his arm. He felt warm for the first time since landing. Goosebumps rose in interesting places. “Since nothing prevents you, you can and must do what you feel is right.” She sighed sadly and turned away. “Come on,” she brightened, taking him by the hand and marching off. “Let’s go test some rides, just like you wanted.”
So she took Random around to all the rides and games and stood around with other alphas, betting on their betas as they got smashed up in the bumper cars or ground to paste in the tiltawhirl or dashed into pieces on the ground beneath the roller coaster.
Random died. (Radhu’s mom thought he was jerking off and left him be.)
When c3l3r! (Nathan) died, his mom came running into the room to see what was the matter.
“What happened?” she asked, out of breath.
Nathan was crosslegged on the bed, facing the computer, his face white. “It felt like an electric shock,” he said.
Sis poked her head thru the door. “What are you yelling about?” she asked, peering around his room.
“I yelled?” He was worried. “It must have been a short.” He picked up his laptop power cord.
Sis looked dubious. “It the computer fried?”
He looked down at it, still showing the caverns of the Midway. “I don’t think so.”
“Then maybe it’s not a short,” she snapped, and left to go report to Dad that Nuthin was acting weird.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mom asked. “You didn’t get much to eat tonight. Can I fix you a snack?” They were on reduced rations because Dad’s unemployment had run out, and the little money Mom brought home went to buy interview clothes for Dad, beer and little somethings to keep Sis’s spirits up. Of course, what could anyone know about Sis’s spirits – she was never home unless she was sleeping.
“No, Mom, I’m not hungry. I guess I’ll go back to studying now.” Mom shut the door and went back to the kitchen to finish writing out checks for Dad to sign. They were so far behind it was funny, but Mom felt so weak she just sat there and cried.
Nathan, unaware, squeezed himself back into the laptop and remorted in the Tutorial Hall. As c3l3r! made her way back to the carnival level to resume (start) testing, she noticed all sorts of lawless behavior going on around her. Everywhere, alphas were enslaving betas, running them thru games they’d made much more dangerous, and killing them off like they were experimental animals. And he saw the betas going along with their abuse, cooperating, getting the kernel to adjust conditions to allow more violence, more pain and death. It was normal to see a group of alphas clobber some passing beta and drag him into the bushes to rape and dismember.
c3l3r! went searching for Random, who’d been captured by Evryplayar again after she’d talked him into hot sex in the Tunnel of Love, and now she had him going thru the Hall of Mirrors avoiding booby traps. He was good at sensing them, and she was making money off him hand over fist.
Evryplayar was not happy to see c3l3r! and strangled her with her bare hands, propping the body up where Random would see it if he got out alive.
Nathan came back to himself again with a huge rush, like hitting a brick wall at 60 mph. He’d shouted again, involuntarily.
This time Dad slammed the door open. “What’s going on in here?” Dad yelled.
Nathan grabbed his foot, which was tingling and burning. “I’ve got a cramp in my foot,” he explained feebly.
Dad looked at him closely. “You better stop jerking off,” he warned. “I know what causes a cramp in your foot.”
Nathan lowered his eyes and mumbled, “Yes, Dad.”
He found Mom in the kitchen with her head down, asleep on top of the bills. He woke her, slipping money into her purse.
This time he put a sock in his mouth before going back into the game.
He took cold shield lessons in the Tutorial Hall. He waited on the tutorial level for Random to remort (Radhu’s mom had decided he must be sick and brewed him a turmeric and ginger drink, then stood over him while he drank it, running her hands thru this hair and wondering when he would get married to a good girl so she could relax and enjoy grandchildren.)
Random changed his avatar for an old man character, and he and c3l3r! sneaked past Evryplayar and accumulated enough points to leave for Carneytown.
This involved waiting around until a recruiter noticed their scores and came to them with job offers. “How would you lucky guests like to become part of our carnival family?”
They jumped at the chance to get out of that crazy, violent level. But first they had to take a few tests. So they answered a bunch of obvious multiple choice questions that revealed their personalities and indicated their fitness, and were asked to draw a map of the carnival level to show they’d been everywhere. Then they had an interview with the lady from Personnel, and talked about their game success and their personal goals. The Personnel lady didn’t seem to be listening. But it felt like the interview went well. Both Random and c3l3r! felt that they impressed the Personnel lady, and were not surprised to be offered a great job at a wonderful salary. They showed up at the entrance to Carneytown, presented their profiles and passed a “You Must Be This Big” sign to cross into the next level of the game.