writing chapter 14.3
Perhaps you’ve wondered where the word “scree” comes from. There is the usual etymological explanation – landslide in Norse. But this is my theory – screeee is the sound your soul makes when the earth drops away under your feet. When glaciers stop holding the mountains up, they start crumbling, and filling in the gouged-out bottoms of those u-shaped valleys And until the crumbled mountain fills it right the way up and enough trees and grasses grow to stabilize it, it’s all loose rock slapped up against the side of really steep mountains. Just waiting to be dislodged by an earthquake, or torrential rains, or high winds. Or the inattentive footfalls of two people trying to hike down the mountain.
And so it happened that Josh and Anomia stopped to rest on a flat boulder halfway down to the valley floor, walked to the front edge of the boulder for a better look at the route down from there, and managed to upset the rock’s balance. Screeeee. With a heart-jolting shudder, the boulder tilted. They quickly moved back away from the edge, and the back end of the boulder thumped down, like they were on a seesaw. Then a few small rocks dislodged and rolled down the mountain. And a few more, making tinking sounds as they bounced off other rocks. Then the boulder moved, slipping a few inches. The couple looked at each other with wide panicky eyes. Should they jump off? Should they stay still? But the boulder slipped again, skewing slightly, grinding against its pebbly bed, and they fell to the surface and reached for something to hold onto as it lurched in slow motion, setting off the rocks around it on their way down the mountain. The tinking of rock on rock grew into a rumble as they began crashing and sliding down the mountain.
Screeee. Their hearts in their throats, Josh and Anomia crouched on the flat boulder as it slowly tilted down and began to slide. And the whole section of the mountain began to slide with it. House-sized boulders, statue-sized stones, breadbox – rocks, fist-sized shards, chess piece-sized pebbles, peppercorn-sized grains, gnat-sized dust, each size of rock providing a cushion of lubrication for the next largest size of rock. At first lurching and stopping, so that they had hope it would stop, then picking up speed until hope lagged behind them on their shortcut to the sea.
They held on to their puny handholds and crouched into the smallest target they could on top of the boulder as it surfed down the side of the mountain, rocks bounding and crashing all around them. The rest of the hillside gave way all at once, and suddenly they were riding a wave of loose rock down the mountain. An avalanche.
A pity that their first action in Antarctica was destructive. But humans are like that. It’s a miracle they weren’t overrun and crushed by all the rocks that came down after them as their boulder made its way to the valley floor. The kernel must have been watching after them.
It was a wild ride. And it took a long time because they were still a thousand feet above the valley when they’d stopped to rest. At moments it felt like they were still and the mountain was coming down all around them, but then the boulder would tilt or spin or threaten to flip over on them. Josh buried his head, as if that would save him. Anomia kept watchful vigilance in case she had to dodge a flying rock, as if that would save her.
They got pelted for sure, they got bruised and scraped and thwacked in the head by bouncing, flying rocks. Their hands and arms were battered, their backs were bloody. They never had time to change into battle armor (what was battle armor doing in the clothing choices of a violence-free videogame?), but could only cling to the boulder as it clattered and bounced down the mountain. But at last, with a screeeee sound that ended in a sigh, their boulder came to a shuddering halt at the foot of the mountain, rocks slamming or sliding or rolling to a stop all around them, dust rising to obscure all sight.
Gradually the noise subsided, hissing like the foam of a spent wave against the shore. The dust dispersed, and Josh and Anomia sat up and then stood on their boulder, covered with dust and grains and pebbles, which clattered sweetly off them – souvenirs of their escape. Anomia bent down and gathered a few and put them in her bag. Josh kicked a few off the edge of the boulder.
They had outrun most of the avalanche and found themselves at the outer edge of the rock slide, close enough to scramble out of the field and find firm ground. Only it wasn’t really firm, filled in by dust and sand and rock, scattered on top of the glacial till of the valley floor. There was just nowhere else for the rocks to go, so they didn’t.
The landscape around them was flat, -ish, with boulders and rocks of all sizes lying everywhere. They were hungry again after their wild ride, but except for an energy bar there was nothing in their bag.
“We should be able to download some food from the virtual store,” Josh complained.
“But obviously the store’s closed, or deleted, or locked or something,” Anomia answered shortly
“And whose fault is that?” he shot back. “You were in charge of supplies. You and fucking Fairy.”
“No, I wasn’t,” she snapped. “I don’t know why you’re so quick to blame me. I wasn’t in charge of provisions. It was…” She paused, unable to remember who’d had the responsibility for populating the virtual stores and standard supplies. “I don’t know. Anyway, you can’t blame me for not thinking of everything. I did everything I could think of. I did other people’s jobs.”
“Then it must be your fault, since you were in charge of all the details.”
“The landscape details,” she protested. “I can’t be checking everybody else’s work all the time.” But she had been. She hadn’t had any trouble picking up the others’ slack, to the point where they didn’t bother doing the boring things, knowing Anomia would come along and do it all her way anyhow.
But now they had empty bags and no food. There was no food to be had in their environment. The ground was barren. There were no birds. They had nothing to catch fish with, assuming there were fish to be caught. They walked around, picking up anything nonlapislike they found – a piece of driftwood, the vertebra of a seal, washed up seaweed – and depositing them in their virtual bags.
“I’m really worried about the game,” Anomia confessed as they rounded a headland and stopped to look out over the blue-black Southern Ocean. Black rain was still falling out to sea.
“What the fuck is that?” Josh wondered.
She continued her train of thought, ignoring the horizon. “I mean, how can we go-live with the game when this level’s still so buggy?”
“What do you mean, this level?” he retorted. “The whole game’s so buggy it’s embarrassing. Why, potential sponsors…” He swallowed his words. He wasn’t supposed to have been making sponsor deals.
But she wasn’t listening. She had her heads up display running and was trying to figure out how to login as admin. “Huh?” she said when he fell silent.
“Oh, nothing, just famished is all.” He glared at her, still convinced it was her fault.
“Well, go try to catch a fish or something,” she replied peevishly, “I’m trying to do something and you’re interrupting me with your petty complaints.”
“Petty?” His voice rose. “You’re just sitting there trying to shift the blame, like you always do. You’re never at fault, while the rest of us…” He was looking at the black rain, seeing individual drops now, drops that were changing shape as they fell. “I think the cloud is getting closer,” he said, looking around for shelter, which of course there was none. “I’m not sure I want to get whatever that is on me.”
She looked up, staring into the dark rain. “Oh no,” she whispered to herself, then turned her attention back to the HUD, frantically opening the help files. Which were empty. She looked up again. The individual drops were clear now, individual, and moving as they fell, turning, spinning, twisting and gesticulating.
“Oh no,” Josh whispered. “That’s not rain,”
“It’s players,” Anomia finished, getting up and standing beside Josh. They held hands and watched as figures without number fell into the sea, “Where did that many people come from?” she wondered, “We’re only doing final candidate testing now. Go-live isn’t until…”
He looked at her. “What day is it? How long have we been here?”
She checked her HUD. “Oh my god,” she said. “It must have already gone live. Those must be real players, not just the testers.”
“Shit, what an introduction,” he said, dismayed. “They’ll die, of course. That’ll make the game real popular.”
“Maybe they’ll figure out how to land, like we did.”
“What are you talking about?” he answered. “What makes you think they can fly if we can’t? And how many of them have the presence of mind to adjust their costumes or figure out how to slow down? Look at them, they’re dropping like lead weights.”
And they were. The water underneath the playerfall was churning and white as they smashed into the surface of the water. Whatever sea life was out there was having a feeding frenzy. “Even if they survive the fall and avoid the sharks, they can’t live in water that cold. Unless of course you remembered to put wetsuits into the costume inventory. Oh yeah, not your department.”
She shot him an angry look. “The cloud – the players – are getting closer to land,” she said. “Let’s go and see if we can help any of them.”
“Yeah, right,” he sneered, but followed as she made her way to the rocky shoreline.
“Maybe they’ll remort on land,” she speculated without much hope.
“Yeah, with arms and legs missing from where the sharks tore them off,” he added.
“Please,” she said, “your urbane comments aren’t helping.”
“Well, I think they’re funny,” he said. “Just because you don’t have a sense of humor…”
“I do so,” she protested, tho she’d been entirely humorless ever since they’d started working on the game – two years now? Three?
“Look on the bright side,” he said as the black rain of players approached the shore. “We’ll have loads to eat once the tide starts bringing the bodies in.”
“Just kidding,” he assured her, tho his empty stomach had him wondering whether they’d taste more like pork or chicken.