writing chapter 13.1
OMG it was Dragoncon again. The third one in this story. How did it creep up on them? The testing had not gone well – everything worked now but it just wasn’t the game they built. The testers and their preferences, the differences between the alphas and betas, the budding wars, (their own personal styles,) nothing was how the team wanted it and the things to bring back within parameters had ballooned and bubbled up into something monstrous. But it was Dragoncon, and they’d scheduled final testing and GoLive, and everything was waiting. They were screwed.
The boys had sponsors lined up and waiting, the girls had their schedules full of panels and workshops on quantum stuff in as many different program tracks as they could fit. They had several interviews scheduled and people kept coming up to them to share, or ask questions, or touch them. They were popular, sought after. It was unnerving. To Anomia and Josh at least. Fairy and Snake soaked it up.
They met Friday morning to stand in line for their badges together. They were all wearing their game avatar costumes, or approximations thereof. They didn’t have time to put a lot of work into their costumes. So Anomia was just wearing the long skirt and bodice of the Seekers from the third ring of the Antarctica level, and Josh wore jeans and a pair of boots and wore an eye patch as a member of the Seafaring Clan from the second ring. Fairy and Snake wore costumes of the Carnival and Carneytown levels, both master of ceremonies tuxedos and top hats, but Snake’s looked more like James Bond dinner clothes and Fairy’s more like Marlene Dietrich with a whip.
They were near the back of the line, moseying forward a step or two every minute. It was early in the day, and the air was still cool, except in the direct sun. Half the people in line were in regular street clothes, so costumes still stuck out and everybody took a look at the Quantum Antarctica costumes, lame as they were, as the line inched around the block.
Nathan saw them coming. The anticipation of their getting close enough to talk to made him lose track of what he was doing for a moment. Based on his experience at last year’s Dragoncon, he’d persuaded his boss that it would be better for the business for Nathan to run a coffee stand near the registration line, instead of being in the way while the wife and daughters finished prepping for lunch. So he’d dragged a table and two coffee urns over and set up early, and had been selling coffee since the registration office opened. His money belt was heavy and he needed to brew another pot and replenish the creamer.
By the time he’d done all that, the team was getting close enough to see clearly. It had been a very long time since they’d sat around his food court. He missed them. He missed Kurt.
He looked over at the team and noticed a new avatar costume, very professional. A real fan, probably spent several months on his costume. Look at that plumed turban. Then he realize d that it looked just like the costume his testing buddy Random wore. They’d just finished testing the week before, and he and Random had traded emails and were Facebook friends. He hadn’t mentioned coming to Dragoncon, his email provider was in India and Nathan figured they’d never meet. Now he was greeting the team members and joining them in line with profuse apologies and thanks to those in line after him.
Nathan watched him greet everyone on the team as if he knew them, bowing to Anomia and Josh, kissing Fairy’s hand and shaking Snake’s. He was being very formal, just like his character. Nathan wished he had that kind of dignity.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Random said something to both Fairy and Snake. Snake drew himself up while Fairy turned red. Then Random turned to Fairy, bowing low, and Fairy looked smug for a moment, but then caught Snake’s eye and began to shake with fury as Random continued to talk to her. Then everybody paused as they took a step or two closer, and Nathan could begin to hear them talking.
Josh and Anomia were in front, going over the million and one things they needed to do before GoLive. Josh was managing the final candidate testing and Anomia was still trying to finish installing her quantum lessons.
“We’ve been thru a dozen builds of the final candidate already, and testing doesn’t begin until ten,” he complained. “Like there are invisible testers in there while we’re sleeping or something.”
“I guess we’re nowhere near bug free yet?” She looked at him.
“Well, how are we supposed to lock it down if you won’t stop messing with things?” He looked away.
They moved a step.
Behind them Snake was protesting his innocence. “Fomenting rebellion among the testers? Ridiculous. I’m far too busy launching the product. It sounds more like something you’d do.”
Fairy had a screen shot of a recruitment poster she’d found in a Carneytown bathroom, calling for a strike against the cold. “Freeze Out! Alphas and Betas unite against unfair working conditions. Fuck testing until we get a raise in temperature!”
Snake was disavowing all knowledge with his hands raised in protest and surprised concern on his face. “I most certainly did not.”
Random looked stern. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to voice my concerns,” he said. “There is altogether too much violence in the game right now. I’m sorry to say it, but…”
Snake cut him off. “I notice you didn’t mind decorating all the drug dens and sex parlors,” he said to Fairy. “Isn’t it kind of hypocritical…”
Fairy cut him off. “You’ve got a nerve. I must have destroyed a hundred caches of weapons in Carneytown alone.”
They moved closer to Nathan, who was running out of cups and had to dart under the table to get more. Fairy moved to stand with Anomia and pulled up the schedule grid. Josh moved back to talk to Snake. Random hovered like a puppy. Fans came up and chattered animatedly while the line moved another step closer to Registration.
Nathan served coffee, planning a greeting for each of them as they passed. Maybe he could get them over to give them free coffee. The fans moved on and they moved a step closer. They were almost in reach. Nathan ducked under the table for more napkins and stirrers. They moved a step.
“My costuming panel is at 1:00,” Fairy said. “You’ve got Quantum Superpowers 101 on the Armory track at 10, then a quantum movement workshop on the Silk Road, that’s one level down. That’s at 11:30, and your Quantum Age panel is at 1. When are you going to eat?” Anomia didn’t respond. “I’ve got to go see if I’ve got any takers for my custom gamegear over at the Art Show. I guess I can look in on our display, too (prints of Anomia’s luscious Antarctica backgrounds). I think we should do the Dealer’s Hall for this stuff next year, don’t you?” Anomia wasn’t listening.
They took another step forward. Nathan was losing sight of Anomia. But he wasn’t looking at her now, because Fairy was getting heated, overhearing something Snake was telling Random. She turned quickly around to face them. “I did not,” she said hotly. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” She moved in aggressively. “You’ve been sabotaging this game from the beginning, and now you’ve got…” She couldn’t remember his name, “the raja here doing your dirty work.”
The raja tried to defend himself. “I have been trying to call your attention to a certain degradation in the validity of the science behind the rides and games,” he sputtered.
“The game sucks,” Josh agreed.
“Yes it does,” Snake said, talking over them. “That’s why I’ve been putting so much effort into beefing it up. Putting in more controls to counteract all this criminality.”
“You’ve been cheating,” shouted Fairy. “You’ve been sabotaging the game.”
“Saving it,” Snake clarified.
It was the same argument. Nathan had heard it before. But this time Random was in the middle, and Nathan watched them both turn on him, blaming him for sabotaging the game.
“But I was only…” Random protested, and Snake and Fairy began screaming at each other in line, in front of a few hundred people, many of them fans.
Nathan missed his chance to greet the team as they moved step by step away fro m him, arguing fiercely about who’d done the most damage. Even Josh and Anomia were bitching at each other. The last Nathan saw of them was Random’s blue feather bobbing atop his turban as he tried to explain himself.
They wouldn’t have stopped at Nathan’s booth, anyway. Josh and Anomia were sipping from coffee cups that refilled themselves. Fairy and Snake were hitting off of flasks.
Nathan glimpsed Caroline in the crowd, wearing camouflage, but wasn’t able to wave. She was following Anomia.
It got vicious out of Nathan’s earshot. Fairy decided that Random had betrayed her, and first by innuendo and then in his face, she decided that Snake and Random were gay lovers and had sold out to THEM and that she was the only one standing in the way of their destruction of the game.
Anomia and Josh got involved, trying to calm her down, but she got hysterical insisting that Snake had spent most of his time disabling links to quantum aspects and sabotaging Anomia’s work on quantum Carneytown. (Which he had.)
Then Anomia and Fairy faced down all three of the boys with their betrayal of the essence of the game. The snarling pack of sometime friends moving forward step by step to pick up their badges. Eventually an uneasy truce was formed, as they were passing a camera crew interviewing people in line for Dragoncon badges, and the discussion turned to the boys’ panels, with final candidate testing all day, and preparation for GoLive, scheduled for Sunday. Josh was doing a Paranormal track demo of his quantum abilities, Snake ws going to do another Skeptic track presentation, and both of them were going to attempt to bullshit their way thru an EFF track panel discussion. They spent the rest of their time in line trying to get Anomia to take the Science track discussion of the Quantumization of the Classical World, which none of them understood, but had sounded good way back in March when they’d signed up to do as many presentations as they could in the effort to publicize their game.
Final candidate testing went on all day and into the night. It was chaos. The kernel kept making adjustments, they kept having to restart the timer on bug free play, shit kept happening that required the kernel’s intervention.
Josh sat on the cloud level and watched the final testing. He and Anomia still couldn’t interact with the testers without turning them into zombies, so they stayed away and did what they could from a distance. Anomia was off giving lectures and panel discussions, and only checked in now and then.
They sat on the cloud level and listened to the noises assaulting their ears. The Carnival level and Carneytown had morphed from a tiny little western style winter carnival to Las Vegas engulfed by a glacier, with neon signs and glitter, banners, rock music blasting from hidden speakers, roving spotlights.
Anomia materialized dark glasses and earplugs. Nothing was going right.
The landing area next to the gift shop looked like a finish line and people cheered as the final candidates were captured while landing. Roving gangs of alphas and betas met each other in the middle of the carnival and battled until there were no more adversaries. Somehow they had weapons (Josh looked conscious when Anomia pointed out the assault rifles and rocket launchers.)
“It’s all sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Anomia remarked quietly.
Josh rubbed his hands. “It’s going to win Game of the Year,” he said excitedly.
“Not like this, it isn’t,” she said. “How are we supposed to get it back the way it’s supposed to be at this point?” She felt like crying.
He looked at her in annoyance. “What are you talking about? It’s working great. The fans love it. It’s yout own fault if the quantum crap doesn’t work. I told you it’s impossible to teach that stuff in a videogame. You should have written a book instead. (Writing Quantum Antarctica Fan Fiction – on the SFF Literature track, scheduled for Monday at 11:30 am).
They were interrupted in their sniping at each other by a band of cloudy testers, translucently running past them in the clouds. “There aren’t supposed to be testers here yet. We haven’t opened the cloud level to testing.”
Josh looked after them as the fog curled in their wake. “WTF,” he mused. “Don’t wait test in secret, no. Involve the fans,” he said sarcastically.
A bomb went off below. They looked over the edge of the cloud and saw Arkaydland on fire. They heard shouting behind them, in the mist. Josh went to investigate as Anomia watched her game fall apart.
He came rushing back aghast. “You don’t have to worry about people not getting the quantum lessons,” he said. “Whoever they are, they’ve figured out how to materialize shit on the cloud level. They’ve got a dungeon back there. All sorts of tortures. And alternative universe pits with all kinds of hells in them.”
“They’re torturing the final testers, aren’t they?” she asked bleakly.
He nodded, sitting next to her. They were the only sane beings in the game, and it felt awful. What were they going to do about this travesty?
Random had excused himself from his company’s employee award dinner, saying he had the flu and going back to his hotel.
Nathan fled for home the moment his boss ran out of food and rolled down the steel doors, and told his family he’d been throwing up, and that it might be contagious.
Caroline hobbled back to her apartment and got in the bathtub. She felt the flu coming on. Fucking disease ridden crowds.
They logged into the game anxiously, having waited all day to join the throngs of final testers and help ready the game for GoLive. They met up in the bar of the Tutorial Hall, which was now a gambling casino, but at least it still had tutorials. Evryplayar started right in picking on c3l3r! but Random talked some sense into her.
“Look around,” he said. “The place is different than in the last version.” There were armed security guards at the exits. “We need to be a team and work together. Like it says in the rules.” He indicated the instruction wall, but it had been shot out, and was pockmarked sheetrock at that point. “If we die, we meet back here, okay?”
They left quickly, but Evryplayar hadn’t learned to fly (tho she claimed to be an expert), so she fell to her death as Random and c3l3r! circled above her helplessly.
“I can’t,” c3l3r! said. “I’ll get in trouble if I make any noise.”
“I’ll be right back.” Random dived down into the water and drowned so he could meet Evryplayar in the Tutorial Hall and make sure she passed the flight tutorial. C3l3r! prepared to wait a long time, circling.
Caroline dropped her tablet when she died. The shock was so great it flew out of her hands, and she slipped under the water for a moment as she thrashed with the pain of being detached from the game. She considered calling 911 again, but by the time she got out of the bath to pick up the phone she knew she hadn’t drowned and wasn’t having a heart attack. She had a couple of pills to calm her down and warmed the water up some, then sank back into the game and met Random in the Tutorial Hall.
After a sex tutorial – Intro to Tantric Practice – Evryplayar let him drag her thru a flying lesson, and then declared she was ready to go kick some ass. She fell most of the way to Antarctica, but c3l3r! and Random were able to catch her (c3l3r! by her long golden hair), and they landed safely at the Midway, where they were corralled by a welcoming committee of Alphas.
“Welcome to the Midway,” an alpha intoned, “Your mission is to make it thru the to the next level. To do that you need to accumulate lots of points, so you’re going to go on all the rides and play all the games, and we’re going to go along with you to make sure you enjoy your stay here. There are some risks, which we’ll do our best to mitigate, and by popular demand we’ve raised your available number of lives from three to nine.”
“You must be mistaking us for final candidate testers.” They were suspicious, but Evryplayar managed to swagger around enough to convince them she’d captured these betas on the way down and was going to put them to work in the gallium arsenide mines beneath Carnetytown.
They were impressed, and let her take them away, smacking c3l3r! with her whip.
“Take me,” one of the alphas suggested hopefully. Evryplayar blew him a kiss as they turned down a branch cavern.
They used the same ruse thruout the carnival level, Evryplayar acting like an alpha on a secret mission, Random and c3l3r! acting like listless betas. Because they weren’t really hapless saves, Evryplayar won all her bets, and they were soon approached by the Carneytown recruiter, gratefully accepting and thinking they were out of danger.
They stood in front of the signboard at the portal. “Quests, it says. Not jobs,” noticed c3l3r!.
“Hmm, CEO,” Evryplayar mused, but Random and c3l3r! went thru the list and saw a couple of new categories.
“There are your vampire alien hunters, Evryplayar,” Radom said. “Looks like you were right.”
“Let’s just pick something unobtrusive and look around,” c3l3r! insisted. “We’re testing.”
“We’re trying to escape,” said Random.
“I hear someone coming,” Evryplayar said.
“Right, we’ll be corpse robbers.”
“What? HOw disgusting. Those are real corpses, please let me remind you.”
“Would you rather kill a bunch of testers instead?”
“No,” Random cut in. “We’ll take the noble path and pick over what violent people have wasted.”
So they snuck in after battles and went thru the pockets of the newly dead, before their bodies faded out. It wasn’t a bad living.
“Why do we need to collect all this wealth?” c3l3r! asked at last. They looked at each other.
“Don’t the rules say something about riches?”
“I think it says something about how you can’t take it with you to the next level.”
“Oh. How do we get to the next level, anyway?”
C3l3r! remembered suddenly, “The rabbit hole. The big one.”
“Is it open yet, do you think?” So they made the perilous journey back thru the portal to the Carnival level, where armed guards blocked their way. (When Josh and Anomia kicked everyone out and fixed things the last time, they’d installed a skill test.) If they wanted to go back to a lower level, they didn’t just go thru a turnstile anymore, you had to scale your avatar to fit the level’s scale. It was a mental concentration, a dehydration and shrinking of mental spaces, a feeling of everything growing larger around you. It was easy for Random, who’d been practicing the exercises faithfully since he started working on the game. It was harder for c3l3r!, who didn’t have much body wisdom yet, even tho it was only a small change of scale: 3 inches, 20 lbs. Evryplayar flat out couldn’t do it, even when they tried to coach her.
So they left Evryplayar in the little grove ad the tip of the peninsula, where she and the leprechaun had lots of sex and did some role playing, and raced for the Fun House, which was now called the House of Horrors. Everything was different. The house itself was falling down, with peeling wallpaper and uneven floors, giant splinters in every board, missing steps and broken glass, traps and tripwires and booby traps. Adhoc explosive devices. Don’t go into the kitchen.
Except for a pile of possible torture victims in squirming body bags, the attic was empty and still had the pair of rabbit holes and the drink me items. But the bottle was getting empty, and the cookie was half eaten.
So Random went thru to check out the next level (“It’s open!”) and c3l3r! went back to the Tutorial Hall to get help.
Random put a morsel of cookie in his pocket for Evryplayar and started back to the portal.
C3l3r! ran to the information booth in the Tutorial Hall and rang and rang on the bell. “I need to talk to xkurt,” she demanded, but the leprechaun was glitchy and would only spin on his heels and click his teeth, winking kindly. Out of desperation, she tried to leave a message, but the touch screen wasn’t working and there the only pen was out of ink. So c3l3r! scratched a message into the countertop with the tip of the pen, apologized to the leprechaun and paid him with a ring she’d picked off a corpse.
Then she flew back to the Carnival level and hung there near the clouds, looking for Random of Evryplayar, watching to see when the portal was clear.
Josh and Anomia watched her hovering. “Why can’t they all do that?” Anomia complained.
“It she a final candidate tester?” Josh asked, curious to know what was happening to all his testers. They were dropping like flies.
“No, she’s a beta. She flies well.” They called her over.
C3l3r! flew up and stopped short of the edge of the cloud, looking over hher shoulder to catch sight of her friends. “I’ve been looking for you,” she said, not realizing that they didn’t know who she was. “They’re tearing the place to pieces down there. Can’t you do something? They’re killing all the final testers.”
Josh nodded sagely. “Ah,” he said. “Do you want to do some final testing?”
“No thanks, I’m already a beta tester. I hate to tell you, but they’re not learning any of the quantum lessons down there.”
Anomia sat passively, a lone tear crawling down her cheek.
“What’s wrong with you?” c3l3r! shouted. “”What’s happening?”
They remained quiet, meditative.
C23l3r! saw Random making his way to the portal and sped down to meet him. “We’re in big trouble,” she commented.
Random spied a mob with torches and pitchforks coming around the side of the administration building. “You’re becoming psychic,” he said approvingly, and led them off around the edges of Carneytown to the peninsula, where Evryplayar was asleep.
“Asleep in a game, how strange is that?” wondered c3l3r!.
Not strange at all. Caroline had done a few pain pills over the recommended amount and was snoring in the bath, her nose just above the water level, her tablet sitting on the edge of the tub, beginning to stutter and spit as drops of water condensed in its nooks and crannies.
Random lifted Evryplayar up and set her over his shoulder. C3l3r! stuffed the cookie morsel between her lips to lighten the load a little, and they took off for the portal.
There was rioting on the Midway, and black holes were opening in the streets as tunnels were brought to the surface by Carneytown miners, swallowing the hot dog and popcorn concession stands and threatening the sunglass booth.
Waiting in the shadows until a platoon of security operatives came thru mowing people down and firebombing buildings, they finally made it to the House of Horrors and walked into a firefight between alphas and betas. Both sides shot at them, and Evryplayar was wounded in the leg, which woke her up, and she had to be hauled kicking and screaming to the attic where the rabbit hole was still there.
There was just enough liquid to give Evryplayar.
‘You go,” cl3l3r! suggested.
“No, you go,” Random insisted. With some effort, he thought himself larger and grabbed Evryplayar, who was being pulled out by the invisible force. “Hurry.”
Cl3r! turned the bottle upside down, but nothing came out. So she concentrated very hard and breathed into it, where her breath condensed and formed one last drop of whatever magical elixir it was.
C3l3r! jointed them at the bottom of the large rabbit hole, where the leprechaun was spinning in circles holding his spear out like a turnstile. They squeezed thru, being several times larger than the leprechaun, and continued down the tunnel, which turned into a wormhole.
They began having to struggle against pressure, a current, what felt like invisible beings assaulting them. It was very crowded in the wormhole. The walls were pulsing, solid walls with no give in them, pushing and shoving and crushing. They stayed together and fought the pressure as a unit, arms wrapped around Evryplayar who was struggling against them.
Finally the pressure eased and the tunnel emptied out into the nothingness of the cloud level. Evryplayar continued to freak out.
“Is there a word for cloud phobia?” c3l3r! asked Random. To ease her suffering, Random sensed his way to the edge of the cloud, and they brought her to see that there was a world beyond the cloud.
Evryplayar took one look at the land so far below and panicked. Random and c3l3r! held her back, trying to talk her down. She rather enjoyed Random’s attentions, but the kid annoyed her, so she turned to c3l3ry and cut her throat with the knife from her bodice, pushing her off the edge and standing watching her fall, feeling vindicated. “I’d be fine if it weren’t for you,” she screamed.
“You’re a mess,” Random said, and sat down with his feet dangling off the edge.
Nathan shouted in his bedroom. Mom found him holding his hand to his throat, crying.