writing chapter 14.1
ring 1, the island
Down they fell, plummeting toward an Antarctica that was now so much larger than the theme-park sized island they’d been watching from the cloud layer. They attempted to turn their fall into a glide, tried to fly out of their headlong race to the surface, but their ability to fly was somehow broken – switched off. Was it fear? They’d always been able to fly before in the game. It was one of the essential skills, and since it was their game, it was something they’d taken for granted. But now they felt like the testers who chose to fall to their deaths instead of flying, and it was not fun. It was frightening. Panic inducing. Below was Antarctica, white ice gleaming like the top of a cloud. But they weren’t going to sink gently thru it, they were going to be slammed suddenly, with great force, as their hapless free fall brought them ever closer to the surface. And the surface kept enlarging. Now it extended far beyond their field of view, over the curve of the planet. The surrounding ocean appeared only as a black perimeter around a continent of ice.
They had time to notice – an eternity of falling – that the ice seemed to be fading in and out, as if the kernel was uncertain about which state to be in. One moment it was miles-thick icecaps, and the next it was all black, barren rock.
“Something’s wrong,” Anomia shouted.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Josh yelled back.
They were falling spreadeagle thru the air, the wind snatching their words, their breaths out of their mouths. Their clothes whipped around in the wind with an awful racket. And it was cold, so cold. Ice was forming around their eyes, in their noses, inside their open mouths. They couldn’t feel their faces, their fingers wouldn’t work.
Finally Anomia thought to adjust their clothing choices. She pulled down the menu and selected the warmest polar expedition clothes available, so now she was speeding toward the ice in a heated snow suit and fur lined parka, with thick bunny boots and high tech gloves. But she was still freezing. Josh, falling beside her, did the same. The suits provided some wind resistance, and this allowed them a modicum of control, so they angled off together toward the coast.
Maybe they could manage a glide, maybe they could manage not to kill themselves instantly when they hit the ice. And the ice was coming up faster and faster. They could see features now, ice ripples and icefalls as the glaciers flowed around underlying mountains, horns of black rock sticking up out of the ice, carved into grotesque shapes by the relentless scraping of the glaciers as they moved toward the sea. And every now and then the ice faded out and they could see enormous glacial valleys, mountains scoured and bare, deep ragged chasms where the ice had a moment ago been marching toward the ocean. Then the ice was back, closer than ever.
“We’re going to die!” she shouted at him.
“It’ll hurt,” he replied.
“But it’s real now. Will we remort or do we just die?”
“We’ll find out.”
She couldn’t see him shrug, but she knew his nonchalance was fake. They cursed Fairy (Radhu) for not including wing suits in the costume choices, and adjusted their outfits again, giving themselves decorative capes that came down to the middle of their backs and attached to their upper arms. Now they could steer a bit better, aiming still for the coast, and a rocky mountainous outcrop that looked to be a hundred miles away and maybe fifteen miles below. But how could they tell, when it was all black and white, with no scale measurement and no altimeter? Anomia made a mental note to have the kernel include these things in the next build of the game.
Endlessly falling, they had time to wonder at what had happened. At xKurt with his pull my finger joke. At the sudden vascillation in the landscape between ice and barren rock. And this raised all sorts of questions about how the Antarctica level had come to be covered in an ice sheet, the way the realworld Antarctica was covered. Why did xKurt or the kernel decide to cover their carefully (?) designed temperate Antarctica with a mile or two of ice sheet? Was it the kernel? Was it xKurt? Who was in control of the game anyway? Not the pair of them, hurtling toward the rocky summits below. Was it a glitch, a bug? How would they fix it? Cuz it wouldn’t do to kill all the players at the beginning of the level.
As the ground came rushing closer their anxiety grew. Anomia felt like she was going to throw up, Josh felt like he was going to pee in his pants. And still they fell. The ground kept getting bigger and more detailed, and they kept thinking they were going to crash into the rocks, but kept discovering that their idea of scale was off, that the mountains below them were bigger and farther away than they looked. This gave them time to reach full blown panic. She did throw up. He peed himself. The liquids turned to ice immediately and began to frostbite her face, his crotch. And no amount of resetting their clothing options made any difference.
It no longer felt like a game. The game controls weren’t working; there was no pause, no undo. And their avatars were real. They were present in the game physically, not virtually, and they were going to fall to earth and die. Any old time now. And still the earth came rushing up to meet them and still they fell with the wind howling all around them. Like blocks of ice they fell, helpless to do more than take aim for a flat area of ice at the foot of a rock that might have been a few feet high and might have been a thousand feet or more.
They kept trying to think happy thoughts so they could fly, but if you don’t want to die, your approaching crash landing isn’t going to make for ecstatic glee. They were crying now, clutching each other and swearing eternal devotion, still frantically trying to find the escape button, still screaming for xKurt to save them. And still they fell. But the Hitchhiker’s Guide had it right – flying is simply aiming at the ground and missing.
So at the very last moment they separated from their tight embrace and spread their arms wide, hoping to flare their capes and land softly on the ice. Which didn’t quite happen. But they didn’t hit the ground perpendicularly, but at an angle. And the ice wasn’t exactly level, but fell away from the mountain above it at a steep angle. So they grazed the ice.
The first touchdown was very hard. It jolted their frozen bones and bounced them back into the air. The second touchdown was brief, but they were parallel to the ground now, and so it tore off the bottom layers of their clothes, and in their panic they flung themselves back into the air. But only for a moment. Then they were on the ice, sliding down the steep incline that went many hundreds of feet almost straight down onto the main ice sheet.
With difficulty they veered away from the ice chute like body surfers, and managed to bury themselves in the snow topping a little shelf most of the way up the mountain. It would have hurt crashing thru the ice, but they were completely numb, little selfsicles stuck in the snow. At first they didn’t try to extricate themselves, they just lay there, absorbing the quiet, the lack of movement, the absence of wind. It was dark, and still, and silent.
As they lay there, not sure if they were alive or dead or stuck somewhere in between – back on the cloud level perhaps – they began to take in the sounds of their environment. Buried in the snowy back of the ledge, they could faintly hear water dripping, and beyond that, water rushing and tumbling down the mountain beneath the ice. They heard the ice moving down the mountain, griding and scraping away the rock. They heard the glacier moaning and booming, cracking and screeching. They heard the cry of a bird, muffled thru the snow.
So, they were alive after all. And eventually, reluctant to leave their snowy blanket, they dug themselves out and sat blinking in the blinding, achingly cold sunlight. Anomia thought to check her heads-up display. It was -20F, the wind was coming out of the south at 30 mph, the forecast was for snow showers. She shook her head. This was not in the specs for the Antarctica level at all. She checked another stat. It seemed to be early spring, with lengthening days and almost 12 hours of sunlight in 24. But so what? How were they going to survive on top of a glacier?
They were three quarters of the way up the mountain. Around them were silent black peaks sticking up out of the ice, with ice oozing down the mountainsides on all sides. Below coursed a glacier, and they could hear the trapped rocks scraping away the mountain as the glacier made its glacially slow way to the sea. Now and then a snap, crackle and popping sound as bits of ice broke up, and booming sounds as fragments the size of houses snapped away from the rest of the ice.