Category Archives: Chapter

The entire chapter in first draft, written, assembled, and edited.

Chapter 7

The carnival levels were more or less complete – the sets were dressed, the rides were running. Once everything was ready for testing they discovered their real problem. It was awful. The game was a compromise the whole away thru, useless as a teaching tool and unplayable as a game.

Everyone seemed to think there was a real possibility the angel wasn’t real, their vision wasn’t true, and their last almost-year was a complete waste of time. Maybe Snake was right, God forbid. Maybe the angel was on the wrong side.

Dragoncon was coming up real soon now, and they weren’t ready. Everyone remembered their supernatural vision, and the levitation video had 150,000 hits. Their friends, and their friends’ friends, and their Facebook friends, all expected something wonderful.

Anomia began to get headaches, and felt a constant sense of impending doom. She sighed a lot, and if you caught her in the middle of something, she would look at you with an aggrieved, lost look in her eyes. She began to feel the same way she felt about her job, like it kept her from realizing she was wasting her life.

Kurt called another meeting in the foodcourt, this time to hand out the haptic game gear. Nathan watched it all unfold without being able to hear much of anything.

Anomia got there first, and was still talking to Nathan across the counter when Josh arrived. He looked at the salads and decided to get a pizza across the concourse, but doubled back to tell her that Snake had asked for another replacement tablet, and Kurt had thrown a fit.

Nathan rang up her total. She rapped her folded money on the glass in irritation. “Kurt’s right. He doesn’t deserve another one.”

Josh shifted from one foot to another. “If Kurt didn’t keep giving him shitty devices that don’t work right…”

She paid Nathan wearily, feeling the energy draining out of her. She sighed as she accepted the change. “What was it, a wristwatch? How’d he kill it this time?”

“Confiscated at the airport. He said it set off all the alarms.”

“Did they arrest him?”

“No, but they grilled him for hours. He didn’t say anything, tho,” he added hastily.

She frowned and dumped the change into the bottom of her bag. “Why would Snake say anything? It’s just a repurposed digital watch.”

Josh looked at her. “Yeah. No, it’s a DIY quantum computer with brand new quantum technology people would kill for.”

She picked up her container, glancing at him. “Don’t be silly.”

He shrugged. “You know. Corporate espionage, tech rivals squelching the competition, enemy operatives, that kind of thing.” He winked at Nathan.

Anomia turned away. “Maybe Kurt should patent his code.”

Snake arrived, and the boys went across the foodcourt for pizza. Fairy came running up, all out of breath, but relaxed when she saw Kurt was still missing, and got chinese. They all sat in the usual spot, working on the game while they ate, their tablets in front of them.

Except for Snake, who reluctantly brought out a Tamagotchi, a device that ran the software as well as everything else, but also needed constant feeding and toilet training. “Assholes,” he muttered when they laughed.

Fairy finished her drink, loudly sucking air thru the straw. “I had a Tamagotchi when I was, like, four,” she said.

Snake shot an evil look at her, then grabbed her tablet off the table and looked at the edge. “Look,” he showed Josh, “it’s the same thing you’ve got.” He thumped the tablet down and pushed it back toward her. “That oozing from the instabuttons,” he said dismissively, as Kurt came from the hamster tunnel and headed their way..”I hate do-it-yourself.”

Fairy inspected the sides of her tablet. “It’s not nano, is it? Will it get in your bloodstream?”

“Wait, I saw that episode,” Josh said. “It’s where swarms of nanobots take people over, and they give this guy gills and tentacles to improve him.”

“Stop that,” Kurt said, approaching the table. He picked up Fairy’s tablet and looked at it, then wiped the edge with his finger and tasted it. “Silicone oil. Wonder how that happened.” He put the tablet down and wiped his hand on his jeans. “The kernel’s not a nano swarm,” he groused, sitting down. “It doesn’t invade your body or grow in your brain.” It did a job on his nervous system, tho, but he wasn’t going to tell them. He tingled all over, like being plugged into the wall. He heard voices in his tooth fillings.

Kurt rummaged in his messenger bag, which was remarkably beat up for being almost new, pulled out a piece of copier paper and picked at it for a moment, then reached over and stuck a clear dot onto the bridge of Anomia’s nose. It pinched a little. She squinted and wrinkled her nose up trying to see it.

Josh peered closely at Anomia’s nose, crosseyed. “This is the haptic gear? Pretty fucking amazing.”

“That’s your eye tracker,” he explained. “For navigation, zooming, and selecting. I put in a heads-up display, and the dot picks up muscle tension in your face, so it reads your expressions, and it picks up subvocalizations. Plus it reads weak magnetic fields, including brainwaves. Yeah, and I made a bone induction sound system.”

Their eyes glazed over.

“Oh, and it communicates with the kernel wirelessly,” he added.

“Wireless?” Fairy drew back. “Can I get cancer?”

“Well, no, it’s not that kind of wireless, there’s no radiation. It’s entangled.”

Anomia picked at the dot on her nose. “Does it come off?”

“Yeah, you can peel it off. but don’t, because you’ll never find it again.” He reached up to touch his own nose dot. “You can shower and everything, it’ll stay on.”

He passed out dots to the team and the boys put theirs on. Fairy decided to wait until she could have a good look at it in the mirror, without makeup.

Then Kurt handed out silicone wristbands. Snake looked amused. “Right there’s your gesture control and your wearable mouse and keyboard,” he announced. Anomia put hers on and turned her wrist over and back, looking at it. “I’ve got it rigged for feedback,” Kurt said. He held his palm toward hers. She felt a kind of wind pushing her hand back. “Feel that pressure? It knows how your hands are positioned, it knows what you’re touching and it interprets your intentions from your muscle tension.”

“How’s it powered?” Snake asked.

“It’s kinetic. Your movements power a nano heat converter that generates enough power to run your interface and the nose dot, too.”

Snake was skeptical. “And it all goes thru the kernel?”

“Sure. The gamegear, the game, it’s all routed thru the kernel. It’s like a quantum server.”

Snake stroked his chin. “That makes the kernel a pretty damned vital speck of dust, doesn’t it?”

Kurt shook his head in awe. “The quantum kernel has depths I’m only becoming aware of.”

“If the military ever got their hands on it…” Snake began.

“I’ve made sure they won’t,” Kurt replied shortly.

Snake looked at him and said nothing.

Anomia fiddled with her wristband, turning it around and around on her arm. “How will this help players learn superpowers?”

“They probably can’t learn superpowers without it, actually. When you imagine doing something, your brain fires up in the same places as when you actually do it. The kernel establishes a feedback loop, and you learn how to control your energy.”

Fairy wanted to know if the gamegear could read auras, so Kurt made his excuses and escaped, offended by her silly questions.

He stopped by Nathan’s shop to show him the gear.

“You said I’d be able to make it myself?” Nathan asked doubtfully, staring at Kurt’s wristband.

“Yeah, well, that’s kind of a problem at this point,” Kurt replied, gazing into space, his fingers twitching madly as he raised the subject with the kernel. “I’ll have to work on a DIY dot. I’m not actually sure how I came up with it.” It was, in fact, another round of chemically-enhanced sleep-inventing, this time involving Kurt-cooties, ramen noodle starch, MSG and unidentified nanostuff floating around the dream-Airstream.

The others got up to leave, and Fairy sashayed past Kurt to get a refill on her drink. He checked the time on his wristphone and rushed off. When she returned to the table her dot and bracelet were gone, along with the empty food boxes and drink cups. She texted Kurt right away, hoping she could get him to meet her somewhere private, like her place. But he was nearby, smoking a cigarette, and was back in only moments.

She arranged herself into an attractive pose, draped over Nathan’s display case showing plenty of leg, but Kurt hardly noticed, thrust a dot and bracelet into her hand like she was a beggar on the street, and turned to Nathan.

“I’ve been thinking about that problem,” he said. “You can replicate both the dot and the wristband. I’ll post the code when I get home, and then it’s just a simple mod of your inkjet printer. Here.” He leaned over and spat into a cup. “Use this, it’s concentrated.”

Nathan tilted the cup to look inside. Spit mingled with the ice like an oil slick, faintly iridescent. Tiny particles of smoke-stained lung jelly.

“Nano backwash,” Kurk said. “Open up a Coke can and pour it in, and let it sit until it goes flat. Then shake it up good, inject a little of it into an ink cartridge, and you’re good to go.” He thought about it for a moment. “You should save a little in the fridge. As a starter. So you can make more.”

Nathan said thanks, and eyed the cup, feeling like a freak.

Kurt turned to Fairy, who suddenly felt ill. She searched for something to say. “The wristband. Can you change the color?” she asked.

Kurt looked puzzled.

She rattled the bangles on her arm. “Fashion?”

“Oh, right. You can have it any way you like. I can make it out of diamond dust.”

She smiled unevenly, glancing at the cup, and fled the scene. Some body fluids were just too gross.

Caroline came up as Kurt walked away, having witnessed his donation of precious bodily fluids. “He’s just fucking weird, that’s all,” she commented, leaning on the display case and wrenching her foot up past her knee for a discrete foot rub. She glared into the cup, and Nathan carefully put the lid on and moved it out of reach, thinking he should stash it in the back of the cold box and hope the health inspector didn’t come by.

“You know,” Caroline began expansively, sticking her thumb into her chest, “not to change the subject, but this old girl’s a fucking security genius. Let me tell you, I personally foiled a terrorist plot yesterday. Myself.” She looked around and said in a whisper, “Right here in Peachtree Center.” Nathan rinsed his rag in bleachwater and started on the counter. “Yep,” she contorted to pat herself on the back, “the old bitch has life in her yet.”

She returned to her massage, stabbing her thumb into the bottom of her foot and letting out a big groan. Nathan worried in case someone thought she was puking on the case. “I was following behind these criminal types,” she continued. “You know.” Nathan wasn’t certain which minority she was referring to, but nodded to keep her on track. “Yeah, and they were talking some evil shit. It was so Iron Man. So I fell back, and contacted HQ to advise as to my situation and request backup. And then I trailed them to the exit, and the big boys took over.”

She cracked her big toe with a vicious snap, and switched to the other foot. The air smelled like rising yeast and bleach. “I followed the miscreants right outside to make damned sure the boys had them, but I couldn’t join in on the kill because I had to come right back inside. My asthma, you know. I can’t take that filthy, boiling hot street air.”

She put her shoes back on and groaned, stretching. “I forgot to tell you the best part. Didn’t they get hold of me later on to tell me what a fine job I done? They sure did. Too bad I’m retiring, right?”

Nathan had to know. “Were they terrorists?”

Caroline put her shoes back on. “Nah, turns out they was just foreigners in town for some convention. But boy, that was exciting. They called me personally to commend my perspicacity.”

Nathan was impressed.

She rubbed her hands. “You know, I been thinking about keeping my hand in after I retire. I might get bored sitting at home all day doing nothing. I’ve got too much experience to just fade away, know what I mean? It’s the call of adventure, the lure of great riches.”

She looked all around and then leaned in. “See, there’s this outfit that’s been sniffing around, a real modern security bunch with military connections. Gray ops kinda folks. I’d get to wear a taser and carry tear gas.”

Nathan looked around at the pristine corporate environment. “In here? To catch shoplifters?”

“To apprehend potential terrorists. And I am allowed to tell you they’re looking at me for the job. At a substantial increase in pay.” If you could swagger sitting down, Caroline would look cool. But it’s hard to do, so she looked drunk to Nathan. Maybe it was the pain pills.

***

Before the gamegear, they sat with their tablets, aware of their surroundings, controlling their avatars with virtual buttons, watching the action on the screen. But now there were no surroundings, there was no screen. They loaded the carnival level to begin testing and the gameworld grew to lifesize around them, and it was all real.

They spawned in the middle of Midway, a vast mall-like cavern hollowed out under the Transantarctic Mountains. They were standing inside it – digitized versions of themselves. The caverns went on for miles, but the group was hemmed into the middle by giant stalagmites, artfully directing them toward concession stands resembling inflatable zodiac boats, with gift shops and restaurants set inside antarctic huts.

Kurt was used to the gamegear’s sensitivity. He checked his wristphone, then gingerly clambered over a low cliff and disappeared into the cavern’s depths. Josh and Anomia adjusted to it shortly after, ramping their skills all the way up and flying around the cavern like bats.

But Fairy and Snake only got the hang of it one overreaction at a time, the gamegear’s feedback loop enhancing their clumsiness and punishing impulsiveness.

Anomia was embarrassed for them, and turned away, but Josh gave her a running commentary. “Snake’s bashing himself into the wall again.”

“The sound is nauseating. Is he okay?” she peeked. “Ohmygod he’s bleeding. Can’t you stop him?”

Josh crossed his arms and leaned against a rock. “He’ll get it eventually.”

She winced as Snake launched himself again, this time into a stalagmite. “Yes, but it hurts.”

“Yeah, he’ll probably have bruises when we’re finished. That’s Snake for you,” he said admiringly. She looked at Josh, appalled. He shifted his attention to Fairy. “She’s got the opposite problem, huh?” Fairy sat slumped against a rock bench, her head lolling on her chest, bobbing with each heartbeat.

Anomia flew over and picked her up, wiping away the drool. “It’s really easy,” she said encouragingly. Fairy’s face was impassive, but her eyes glared. She tried a peptalk. “Come on, you and Snake are both core gamers, you’re smarter and faster than most people. You should flying like us. But nothing happens if you don’t concentrate.”

“I’m already sick of the effortlessness,” Fairy said thru her teeth.

“Sorry,” Anomia shrugged. “It was hard for us too, at first.”

Of course we got it a lot quicker than this, Josh thought.

This pissed Fairy off. Her avatar bolted upright and stalked over to Josh as if she’d been walking around all day. “I heard that,” she snarled.

Anomia clapped her hands. “See? You did it. You just have to put some feeling into it.”

“Oh great,” Snake mumbled around a bit lip, slowly putting one foot in front of the other. “You’re training her to use her bitch face all the time.” Then his avatar slowed to a stop and wouldn’t move, hung his head and whined like a child. “Enough of that,” Snake snapped, struggling to lift his foot again. “Virtual buttons are less trouble,” he complained.

Fairy sidled up to him, the queen of control. “We’re not using buttons, sweetie,” she chided gently. “You have to be sensitive.” She reached out to pat his arm, bumping into him and pushing him off balance.

He grunted, righting himself. “Not going to happen.”

“Emotions are just as available to guys as girls. If you think some roleplay or cross dressing would help…” she offered.

“No thanks,” he said, generating enough emotional energy to move away.

Anomia reached the end of her patience. “Okay, I guess everybody’s up and walking now. We should all pick a destination and start testing.”

Josh went across the midway to sample the funnel cakes. Snake disappeared down the tunnel toward Rolarkosturland. Fairy stood admiring the hub’s decor, looking to see what she wanted to change first.

Anomia sat at a table with her head in her hands. The cavern made her claustrophobic. After a moment she raised her head and looked around. “Why are there no trashcans?” she asked, dismayed at being reduced to inventory control.

Fairy checked. “Duh, because they never made it into the master asset list.”

“Can you please take care of it for the next build?”

“Sure thing. I’ll comment the bug database.” She fiddled with the menu until she found the list of bugs and glitches and wrote a quick note. After a moment, a bunch of stalagmite trash bins popped into place. “Huh. I guess it’s doing instant updates,” she said, impressed.

“Whatever,” Anomia responded, lowering her head and rubbing the back of her neck with both hands, worried she might be getting a migraine.

Fairy took in Anomia’s clothing – corporate drab – then looked down at her own clothes – Little 5 Points skank – and made a face. Then she figured out how to bring up the costume menu so she could select an appropriate apres-ski ensemble.

Fluffing a new pink fur collar, she turned to the bug database and complained about the dull, unobtrusive look of the stalactites, noticing with pleasure as they shaded a bit redder, to complement her outfit.

Except for the rocks, the hub reminded Fairy of the foodcourt. The same kind of sterile white vacantness. But the foodcourt only had plants, whereas the cavern floor had an antarctic themepark map showing the locations of all the rides in tasteful inlaid stone. That was her work. Longitude lines radiated from the middle, numbered from 0 to 360 degrees, and every line was marked north. She smiled to herself.

She left Anomia to sulk, and wandered a bit. The caverns went on behind and in front of her (north and north), fading into the darkness between attractions. A glacial tongue intruded, making a wall of glowing ice that colored everything blue. Smaller branch caves led off to the ride islands, or opened out onto a clifftop or the foot of a pass, for that scenic view around the lagoon.

Fairy decided to have a look at Halamirrurland, and figured out how to bring up her map display. It seemed to be back the other way, past the Midway foodcourt, down to the end of the main cavern, and a hook and jog to the left. She was going to have to retrace her steps; over a mile, and her in high heeled snow boots. Maybe she should figure out how to fly.

She changed shoes and turned back, and started the long trek to her destination. Curious, she brought her finger to her heads-up dashboard. A red tracer appeared under her finger, and a soft voice explained how it worked.

She passed Anomia, who sat there rubbing her temples. “Tutorials in my head’ll take a minute getting used to,” Fairy remarked. Anomia stared at her blankly. “I just had a tutorial about the navigation system. Whose voice is that, anyway?”

Anomia shrugged. “The kernel’s voice, I guess.”

“No, I mean who did Kurt get to record it? Because I’m jealous, he should have used me. I have a perfectly wonderful phonesex voice.”

Fairy felt a pang of sympathy, seeing Anomia clutching her head. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’ll all work out fine.”

“I don’t have the energy to worry,” she replied. “I’m too tired. I’m being forced to compromise every step of the way. Sometimes I think the only reason I’m doing the Antarctica level is so I won’t fight the boys over the carnival levels.”

Fairy made elaborate guilty gestures Anomia didn’t notice. “I was just on my way to test Halamirrurland,” she said, clearing her throat.

Safely away, Fairy peered around the cavern for a moment, then made a note in the bug database about the lighting, and watched the ceiling recede further into the gloom, making the stalactites glow. Happier, she walked off down the hub, ready to find and fix every flaw in the gameworld, starting with the ghastly blue of that ice wall.

Anomia sat, alone. She listened to faint drips echoing thru the cavern. Nothing moved. She felt the weight of the mountain above her. It was almost comforting, in a terror of being crushed kind of way. After awhile, she decided she probably wasn’t going to get a migraine after all, and made herself go test the tilt-a-whirl. The sidecave that led to it was rocky and dark, and smelled of cold dirt. The cave’s shape suppressed the sound of her office pumps crunching on the path.

The ride itself took up most of the island it was on and looked incredibly dangerous. She got on and strapped herself in, then ran the ride over and over again, checking the parameters, checking the possible variations of tilt and whirl. It was boring. She was unsurprised to find that gravity was within nominal limits, and momentum, and centrifugal force. Check, check, and check. It was all classical physics, as regular as clockwork. There was no room for consciousness anywhere. She hoped it made them all sick to their stomachs.

Fed up, she abandoned testing and flew up to the skydome to get away. She tried to imagine the place full of players, millions of excited people developing an intuitive knowledge of classical physics and relativity. But she couldn’t see it. It was just a kitschy pink ghost town full of stupid rides and games.

She looked down at Fairy, who was slowly walking around Halamirrurland, changing things. She watched Snake and Josh playing with the bumpercars, Josh was the mark in the car and Snake was the carny messing with the settings and trying to crash Josh into a pole. Kurt was across the skydome from where she sat, peering into an open hatch. He straightened up and they waved at each other. What does he need a virtual hatch for? she wondered, and his thought came back, It’s a metaphor.

It had started as a rumbling itch behind their ears, but the team was beginning to hear each other’s thoughts. Anomia and Josh had been talking to each other in their heads ever since their vision, but now that they were all in the gameworld, Snake and Fairy communicated almost as well as she and Josh did.

Tweaking the game also improved their quantum abilities. Josh and Anomia took it for granted that they were physically transferring their abilities to the others, while Fairy and Snake figured it was a computer trick, and ignored it, dismissing the symptoms as afterglow. Only Kurt had a deeper understanding. He believed that all good things flowed from the kernel, and tried to become one with it, in his tripped-out fashion, putting kernel-dust in his cereal and pouring it into his shampoo and sprinkling it on his pillow. He even packed his e-cigs with it, tho it was like smoking singed hair.

Inside Kurt’s mind there was a constant stream of programming language Anomia couldn’t understand, a droning recitation of his work of the moment; whereas Fairy’s mind was like a kitten’s; she ran several trains of thought in her head at once, all commentaries on what she was doing, mostly admiring.

Snake was full of righteous enthusiasm about the game, which surprised Anomia. There was also a barely controlled fury in him. Normally he was so guarded, so snide. She was pleased to see him passionately involved, and began to dislike him a little less.

She watched and listened to Josh for a long while, content to gaze at him and hear him enjoying himself. Josh loved testing. He would play a game until it broke or he found something he didn’t like, and then he would call the kernel’s attention to it, wait a beat for the fix, and then play it again. He was working his way right thru Arkaydland, tuning each game just the way he liked it. He radiated happiness.

***

Fairy and Snake ran around the carnival levels and did various things in secret. Snake set up a hideout under the roller coaster, with a weapons generator and a pwnshop, where the more adventurous players could have access to back doors and cheat codes. Fairy installed caches of health points and magic jewels, cutting virtual stashpoints into the sides of landmarks.

Fairy tried to help with the testing, but she had no head for physics, and the thought of arcade games bored her. She hated rides. Being strapped into a box and flung about the place was undignified. To be honest, Fairy was only interested in appearances. Surface decoration, props, staging, lighting. As for physics, she wasn’t going to look like a fool. Let Josh and Snake tinker with gravity and momentum and shit.

This led to Snake’s suggestion that they dumb down the whole physics thing. She agreed with little protest, just because it was easier, even tho she immediately felt bad about it. But she had other vital details to deal with. And everything would work out fine as long as Anomia didn’t find out.

In fact, once Anomia stopped caring, Fairy and Snake started taking the easy way out whenever possible, and got Kurt to activate the artificial intelligence so they could use nonplaying characters to do the testing. Fairy selected leprechauns, and Snake rolled his eyes and gave them over-the-top accents. Kurt winced and went back to his arcane adjustment of the kernel.

Fairy and Snake made the NPCs test everything, which meant they had to manage the NPCs. One of them had to run hordes of marks riding the rides, playing the games, buying stuff and dropping trash, while the other directed an army of carnies who ran the rides, fixed the games, sold stuff and cleaned up.

They would have created a manager class of NPCs to run the teams for them, but Kurt put his foot down.

Fairy and Snake finally called the others to see the carnival levels, but only because the work was getting lame, rather than because they’d fixed everything. They all stood on a cloud and gazed down at their bustling antarctic amusement park, jammed full of leprechauns scurrying this way and that, standing in long lines, screaming as they went over the top of the roller coaster. Little ‘Weee’ sounds.

Anomia and Josh looked at each other. They were starting to think the carnival levels were a mistake.

Anomia shook her head. “It’s no use. You can’t reach quantum reality using regular physics.”

“Yeah,” Josh added, explaining to the others. ‘Quantum’s not like messing with gravity in the pendulum ride. You change the whole universe with quantum. So, like this.” He waved his hand and the world turned to ice. Again. Mile-thick glaciers scoured the amusement park clean. Icicles grew from their noses and eyebrows. They shivered in their summer clothes (except for Fairy, who put her hood up and snuggled into her handwarmer).

Anomia was annoyed. “Why did you do that?”

“I just wanted to,” Josh said, looking like a little kid.

“I thought we weren’t going to do frigid,” Anomia said scornfully, casting her arms about like Agnes Morehead and waving the cold away. Palm trees grew and waved in the breeze.

Josh frowned. “I like the cold,” he said, disappointed.

Fairy looked at Snake and challenged him. “I hate showoffs, don’t you?”

Snake wound himself up and made a big gesture, stiffening with the effort, sweat pouring off his brow. The wind came up, and up, and up, and blew the sun out. Total darkness blasted all life.

“That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.” Fairy blinked, and the sun returned to the sky, bigger and brighter than ever. The plants perked up and grew like weeds.

Then Kurt yelled at them to stop fucking around, and things went back to normal.

Josh and Anomia looked at each other in dismay. It was just like their vision. The bad part, where they pissed the angel off and got kicked out.

“What are we doing?” Anomia fretted. “We’ve got like a month until Dragoncon, and except for being able to move the avatars, all we have is a regular videogame.”

“And a crappy one at that,” Snake added.

She nodded bitterly. “We have nothing in here that even remotely resembles our vision.”

“But with a good working knowledge of classical physics…” Fairy began dutifully.

Snake said, “I hate to say I told you so, but haven’t I always said you were wasting time making an educational videogame?”

She didn’t listen. “Coming, Josh?” She blinked her eyes to exit the level, and her avatar shrunk rapidly down to the scale of the Antarctica level and disappeared. Josh hesitated, then shrugged at Snake, and followed her.

***

The seven rings of continental Antarctica were way too much for the pair to be working side by side, so they split up and paralleled each other across the archipelago, talking to each other in their heads, settling the landmarks and commenting the database with the details. Their adventures were easy to recall, but they were kind of fuzzy on exactly how they honed their powers, and weren’t sure what went on between quests, or what happened to people after they’d moved on.

Working together required continuous mental contact, and they soon found themselves avoiding each other’s voice in their heads, ignoring it, damping it out. Lalalala I can’t hear you.

They wasted a lot of time arguing and redoing each other’s work. Their relationship became less passionate. In fact, being entangled became rather painful. They felt each other’s frustrations and worries, and witnessed each other’s pettiness and anger. Whose love wouldn’t tarnish once they knew what you were really like?

Damping down the other’s voice in their head meant they could continue to think they were on the same page. Each of them were sure they knew what was best, and did a lot of things they forgot to tell each other about. Left to themselves, it seemed, Josh and Anomia were working on two different Antarcticas.

One day, Josh was busy hiding password sniffers in the brush, and stumbled upon Anomia erecting consciousness chinup bars on the road into town.

Quickly hiding his tools, he walked up and said, “Hey what’s up?”

She started guiltily, then ran her fingers thru her dreads and composed herself. “Oh, I’m just making sure players have their skills down before they go to the next ring.”

He stood with folded arms. “We agreed we were going to leave that out.”

She stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“We’re leaving the physics out,” he repeated, shaking his head.

She gestured at the landscape around her. “Not here we’re not. I agreed to omit quantum skills from the carnival levels. But when the players get to Antarctica, everything works by quantum effort, whatever you call it. Just like in our vision.”

“No,” he waved dismissively. “We agreed to make it a sandbox game.” He spoke as if she were a child. “Tho okay, having quantum powers will win you some points. But you signed off on the idea of cutting the physics.”

She stiffened. “Not quantum physics. I never did that.”

“Whatever. The point is you don’t have to use quantum powers to play this level.”

“You’re ruining the game,” she seethed.

“No, you’re the one who’s ruining it.”

“It’s not the same thing at all,” she said indignantly. “I’m trying to save it.”

“So am I.”

“But you’re perverting the whole thing.”

“And you’re poisoning it. Anyway, I don’t think it’s wrong to edit out the psychobabble.”

She sputtered at the description. “Ignoring the quantum skills goes against everything we learned.”

He scowled. “Call it a sacrifice to playability.”

“It’s a sacrifice of our vision, our mission. Our dream quest.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged. “It’s a sandbox game, for fuck sake. All toys, no rules. No goals. Anyway, how will being correct bring anybody closer to quantum consciousness?”

She pointed down the trail to the next adventure. “Because by footstepping our vision we’re taking the players thru the same process,” she said patiently

“I’d like to remind you that we’re simulating the process. Our Antarctica level is clunky and obvious. Stupid.” He kicked a rock. “Boring.”

“That’s because we’re forgetting things. But I know it’ll work. If you follow the footprints and the music, you learn to dance.”

“Look, it doesn’t matter what we teach people,” Josh said, trying to mollify her. “Or how we try to teach it. Just like when it was our turn, the lessons will teach themselves once they learn how to use the energy.”

She turned away, implacable.

He shrugged. “We’ve had this argument before. Here is where you drive your audience away before they learn anything.”

They went on for a while without talking. The sun moved a little lower and the colors began to grow golden. “I’ve been thinking,” Josh said casually. “If this whole videogame thing goes bust, we can always pass our powers the old fashioned way.”

She saw the image in his mind – Zeus and the young maidens. “You want to set yourself up as a sex coach?”

He grinned. “Sure, sex is much better when you’re entangled, isn’t it?.”

“Hmph.”

“I’m serious. You could do all the men, and I’ll do the women, and six degrees of separation, and then the whole world is one.”

“One venereal disease.”

Another long silence followed. The crickets started making buzzy scrapey sounds. Josh felt bad seeing her so miserable. A quiet Anomia was a depressed Anomia. “Maybe we should trip again. To help get it back, whatever it is.”

“Except we don’t remember what drugs we did. Anyway it’s never the same trip twice.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

She made a fist and hit at a branch they were passing. “Why can’t we make it right? Doesn’t the kernel get what we’re trying to do? Or is it our fault? Are we not pure enough?”

“We’re already never having sex, what more do you want?”

She looked away. “I’m thinking of becoming a vegan.”

“Shoot me. I like you the way you are.”

“No you don’t.” She lowered her voice, ashamed of sounding jealous. “You spend too much time with Snake.”

He ignored her. “Maybe we’ve lost confidence in what we experienced,” he suggested softly. “It sure seems like just a dream. I’m not even sure of the details anymore.”

“That’s why we wrote it all down right after we had the vision. And I’ve tried to stick to it thru every part of making the game.”

“I don’t really believe it anymore, is the thing.”

“Then why are we doing this?”

“You’re doing it,” he said gently.

She thought for a moment. “That’s right, I am. And I think it’ll make a great videogame, and we’ve put all this time into it, so we’re going to finish it, and release it, and it’ll be great.”

“It’ll sink like a stone,” he said sadly.

“No it won’t. If people can’t handle quantum reality, the answer is total immersion. The same way it worked in our vision. Bam, you’re in another world, with special powers. Get to know them, have a nice day. It works in Minecraft.”

“You still believe in it?”

“Yes I do, That’s the thing. Everything tells me what we’re doing is the right thing.” Except she couldn’t come up with a single thing that wasn’t vague. “Because it’s time for such a thing, because the world’s changing and the angel’s message needs to get out. Because the angel said so. Because I have to. Because things have come together like they have. Because Kurt made a quantum kernel and now we have this kickass software and tablet, and because we’d be idiots not to finish what we’ve put so much effort into.”

He patted her shoulder and kissed her forehead. “I love you,” he said. “You just do what you have to do and let the rest slide. Quantum can take care of itself.”

***

Now that the game was in testing, there wasn’t much administrative work to be organizing. No more backoffice stuff for Radhu to do, so Fairy stopped giving him work. As if he was a clerk at a store that no longer stocked her brand, she walked away without a word. Eventually he complained and she felt pressed to text him about it.

sry i bn neglcting u. vry busy, nt alot 4 u 2 do. so ++thx, will snd u copy of gema. + tshrt

“But I’ve put my life into it,” he typed, then backspaced it out. He’d done more than put his life into it, he’d taken on a second job with his cousin, and ruthlessly pursued this year’s best employee contest with its (almost) all expenses paid convention trip to Atlanta (and Dragoncon). He already had his costume. “Are you firing me?” he wrote anxiously. It took her some time to reply. Maybe she was doing other things.

coars nt, slly. jsut movng 2 nxt step. u cn hlp w/…

“I can help with testing,” he suggested.

But that would mean introducing him to the others, and then they’d know she didn’t do all the work she was taking credit for. So don’t do that.

sory, nd testrs in atl. tym dif…

What a lame excuse. Radhu had been working on eastern standard time from the beginning.

u cn hlp localyz teh gema 4 wrldwyd distrib. u b big hlp thn. asian mkt ++big

“I don’t speak Asian very well,” he wrote archly.

watevr. u cn b mgr. title, credits. on teh team. u hav 2 take glory & brag rites tho. no $$$, noone gttng pd

Except as a percentage of future sales, already divided up, that didn’t include him.

Radhu studied patience and believed that every good thing would come to him in time. Well, it was time now. He was guaranteed that trip to Atlanta, and if they needed local testers, he could arrange to stay for awhile – he had a second cousin in Decatur.

So he sent an email to Snake, introducing himself and mentioning his contribution, asking how he could help now that Fairy had stopped dumping work in his lap. Snake asked for particulars, and Radhu sent him his copy of the asset database, highlighting his work in soft blue.

His version was much more complete than theirs, mainly because Fairy had neglected to synch the files. She’d simply filed Radhu’s updates away unopened – hundreds of them.

Snake sent a copy of Radhu’s version to the boys in the basement.

He offered to let Radhu be in charge of localization, but Radhu insisted that he wanted to be recognized as part of the development team. “In fact, I am almost certainly going to be at Dragoncon this year.”

“Is that so?” Snake wrote back. “Well, we’ll see if we can’t get you some of the good shit when you get here, k?”

***

One day, as he was starting his pre-pre-closing routine, Nathan saw Anomia coming down the center of the foodcourt. She was looking around as if she’d never been there before. It had been several weeks since he’d seen her, but surely she recognized the place, unless she had amnesia. But she recognized him, and headed straight for the B’stro D L’te. She knew what she wanted to eat, too, and Nathan could see no obvious reason for her wild stare, so he relaxed. She must have been cooped up in her cubical too long.

“Oh, we’re online now,” she said when he commented on how long it had been. “We never meet physically anymore.”

Nathan only ever saw Kurt these days, but he and Caroline discussed them all the time. “Dragoncon starts in like a week,” he said conversationally, trying to hold back his excitement. She blanched. He didn’t understand her reaction. “I’m all ready to go,” he continued, “and I’m going to come straight to your fan table, first thing.” He looked doubtful. “Unless I have to work.”

She saw his concern. “Of course you’ll come see us,” she said. Then she saw the others approaching. “We’re having a final meeting to plan our presentation,” she said, looking worried, and hurried to a table.

None of them were very talkative, but they glanced at each other frequently. They all acted distracted, like they should be somewhere else, and ate as if the food wasn’t very good.

Snake had lost his nose dot getting a facial, and made a big deal about it when Kurt got there until he whipped out a sheet of dots and a bag of wristbands from his courier bag and handed them across the table. “These are for the demo,” he said. “You can give them out. I ran them off while I was making you another dot.”

Snake muttered his thanks and stuffed them into his satchel. They continued sitting there looking at their tablets (or whatever, in Snake’s case), silent and moody.

Nathan watched with concern; they were so on edge. Maybe they were all getting sick. He didn’t really understand the cold sweat of unpreparedness, because he studied all the time and got straight As. So he couldn’t tell that the whole group was suffering from exam-night jitters. The fans were expecting a magical game that would give them superpowers. But they had nothing. An arctic themepark where one side played hapless riders and the other side practiced cheating. As the time drew closer, they started to mumble and swallowed their words nervously. Guiltily.

Sitting at the table among half-empty styrofoam boxes, Snake quietly sent a copy of the bug database to himself, and then uploaded Radhu’s copy of the asset database, along with a few lines of nicely crafted code. “Hey,” he said conversationally. “I found an updated asset database in my inbox this morning. I’m synching it now.”

Nobody paid any attention. Kurt was offline and out on the cancer deck having a real smoke, looking at videos on his wristphone. Anomia was cramming quantum principles into the Antarctica level, and Josh was playing Captain Fantastic in Arkaydland.

Josh and Anomia noticed the gameworld suddenly bloom with new and previously unseen assets (looking vaguely Hindu). Then the system crashed. When it came back up, the kernel was screaming for Kurt and the bug database was gone.

Fairy had been working in the bug database when the system went down. She looked at Snake in surprise. “You were just in the database,” she said. “I saw you.”

“What do you mean? I just updated the assets. I never touched the bug database,” Snake said, looking puzzled.

Kurt stared at him absently, his fingers twitching intense queries to the kernel.

Snake threw up his hands defensively. “What? The kernel can read my mind now, huh Kurt? Hey, maybe I pressed the wrong button, know what I’m saying?” He picked up his Tomagotchi and waved it around. “These fucking things are so tiny. How can you not expect errors with the shitty stuff you make me use?” He turned to Fairy and lowered his voice. “Maybe your Indian friend had something to do with this.”

Fairy froze, feeling the blood drain from her face. “Why, whatever do you mean?” she managed.

He considered a moment. “Yeah, why go that far? You’re right,” he said. “We can just blame your sloppy work habits. You could drive a truck thru the holes in the asset database.”

“That’s because you couldn’t be bothered to document your work like I’m always reminding you,” she retorted.

“No,” he spat. “It’s because you find the routine boring, and stick your nose into other people’s work instead.”

It was true, Fairy had so many irons in the fire that she had to let a few things slip. Things she forgot, lost track of, had no idea where she put, trusted to memory and didn’t write down. But it wasn’t her fault. Her behavior was above reproach.

“So,” he continued, “we have no need to blame some nameless call center guy who lives with his mother, do we? We can blame you for what happened to the bug database. And if we have to start over, it’s because of you. Just remember that.”

“We don’t have to start over,” Kurt said, fixing things from his wristphone. The bug database is,” he checked something, “unavailable, so the kernel is just going to use the current settings and go on from there.”

“That’s a relief,” Snake said. “Wouldn’t want anything bad to happen, not this close to Dragoncon. Maybe you should have backed up the database.” he said to Kurt, who scowled and brought up another tab on his wristphone.

“So, enough drama,” Snake continued, turning away from Kurt. “Let’s get down to business. We’ve got our table at DC-MMO, and we load in on the Friday morning. Someone’s got to be there the whole four days. We need to set up a schedule. I’m busy that morning, but I plan to be there during peak flow. And of course I’m working the floor during cocktail hour.”

“I’m making a poster of the themepark map,” Fairy offered, “and Anomia is going to do up a table banner with one of the background landscapes.”

“Window dressing. Very nice,” he said dismissively. “We’ll run the demo of the carnival level on one of your tablets.” He glared at Kurt, then turned to Anomia. “You’re printing blowups of the art and the world diagram, right?” Then he added, like it was a special favor, “Maybe we can show the Antarctica level storyboards.”

“The Antarctica level isn’t a secret,” she scowled. “Why can’t we show a walkthru?” She nodded bitterly. “Nothing else even remotely resembles our vision. We’ve got to have something to show the fans.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I’m not sure if you want to alienate your so-called fans with a shitty half-finished…” he searched for the word, “concept. Let’s stick with the demo of the carnival levels. It’ll be much less off-putting.”

“As for the gamegear, I’ll handle that,” he continued. “My marketing plan includes various hooks, depending on the audience. I’ve put quite a lot of thought into it. The fans’ll go for that if nothing else.”

“Who put you in charge?” Fairy asked.

Snake folded his arms and turned around until he was sitting with his back to the table. “Okay, you do it. You’re so prepared.”

Fairy steamed.

“So, the quantum superpowers,” Anomia said. “Your hooks. Are you going to tell them the powers are real, or magic, or just a programming trick?”

Snake turned back to face them, chuckling. “Magically good graphics, how about? Anyway, it won’t matter. In my hands it will all turn into marketing mystique. I’ll tell the newagers it’s expanded consciousness, and the bornagains that it’s a miracle.”

“Ah, yes. I’m just afraid that…” She trailed off.

“Nobody wants to hear how the angel told you to teach quantum physics,” he said angrily. “Quantum physics is totally irrelevant at the macro scale. It works at the level of single atoms, for godsake. Not in the real world. These quantum superpowers you keep insisting on are simply too bizarre to be possible. In fact, they’re so impossible that we have to simulate them inside a computer.” He slammed his Tomagotchi on the table. “Anybody who actually believes the shit you’re peddling is certifiable.”

In a show of pique, Snake snatched up the trash on the table and furiously shoved it into the nearest trash bin. The others avoided his eyes.

Josh tried to distract him, eager to dampen the hostility. “Hey, man, let’s blow this joint and go have a drink.”

Snake grudgingly said maybe.

“What do you think,” Josh asked as they moved away from the table, “downstairs to the pub, or across Peachtree where we can sit outand watch the office girls getting off of work?”

Snake considered. “Nah, there’s too much traffic, and it’s too hot, and the panhandlers’ll be terrible. Let’s go downstairs.”

Josh marched off with him, relieved. “Yeah, duh, it’s air conditioned.”

They found a table in the corner, and Josh realized he didn’t have his tablet.

“You must have left it at the table,” Snake said, concerned. “Hey, this is my fault. If I hadn’t thrown a tantrum, you wouldn’t have forgotten it. You sit there and order for us, and I’ll run back and get it.”

“Okay.”

Snake hurried back to the foodcourt and rooted thru the trashbin. The others had gone, and the kid was still closing and didn’t see him. He found Josh’s tablet, wiped it off and put it in his satchel, then sauntered back to rejoin Josh with a sorrowful expression on his face. “No, man, it’s toast,” he said as he sat down. “You order yet?”

Josh put his head in his hands. “That’s just great. I lost my tablet. What’s Kurt going to say?”

Snake patted him on the back. “He’ll probably give you a solar calculator.” He looked around for the waitress and made impatient gestures.

Their drinks came. “So, where did you look?” Josh asked, worrying. “I should have gone back myself.”

“Relax, there’s nothing you could do. I looked all over, even in the trash. Maybe that kid took it. He must have noticed it sitting there.”

“Let’s go back,” Josh decided, and got up.

“In a minute,” Snake said, downing his beer. “We’ll be back,” he signaled to the waitress, dropping ten bucks on the table. “Save our drinks, okay?”

Josh and Snake returned to the foodcourt, and found Nathan sitting at a table, doing his homework. He hadn’t seen the tablet.

“Maybe you noticed it when you took out the trash,” Snake suggested. “The thing weighs a ton.”

Nathan offered to go thru the trash himself, and the boys accompanied him downstairs to the dumpster, where he went thru all the bags at their insistence, even the trash from other vendors. Filthy, he found nothing. Snake was withering in his thanks, implying that Nathan stole it and was covering it up with a show of diligence.

***

The boys in the basement pored over Fairy’s nose dot and wristband ever since Kurt first passed them out, and they still couldn’t make heads or tails of them.

“I think he slipped us a dust mote,” Larry had said, mournfully looking for the nose dot.

So they had mixed feelings when Snake presented his latest goodies, keeping Josh’s tablet for himself.

“That’ll wow them down at the labs,” Larry said dubiously, eyeing the bag o’bands.

“They probably be looking at the military applications,” Curly said. “Like quantum radar, where your entangled particles give you the range and the resolution at the same time., so you can like see teacups on Uranus, and shit.”

“Yeah, I’m betting entanglement’s not real,” Larry stated confidently. “They’ll find out it’s just a glitch in the theory.”

Moe came in, and the pair pretended they were waiting for him. They reported that they got the bug database and were close to unlocking it using Snake’s password and his old Gameboy. They swore they would have it open any moment now. They showed him the bag of quantum devices. This seemed to make Moe happy, and he settled in at his desk and put his feet up, looking at the page of dots as if he could read it.

They hated to break the mood. “Sir, it happened again,” Larry said, after losing a quick game of rock paper scissors with Curly.

Moe swung his legs down and sat up. “What did?”

“Antarctica thawed and refroze, sir.”

“Same thing?”

“Yessir, only it happened faster this time.”

“What did?”

“The thaw. And the refreeze. It seems to have gone thru several rounds of thawing and freezing in just a couple of minutes. But that’s not the interesting thing.”

Moe leaned forward in his chair and put his hands on top of the desk. “It’s not?”

“No, sir. Altho we’re not set up to monitor these things, Curly says several observatories noticed the sun apparently flickering for a moment.”

“It flickered?” Moe scratched his head.

“Well, actually, they’re saying it went out, sir,” Curly said.

“Tell me you’ve been smoking crack, boys.”

Larry took a breath. “The sun apparently blinked, sir. It came on again at a higher intensity. Brighter, sir. A higher solar constant, sir.”

“Solar constant?” he repeated. “Is it still like that?” he asked fearfully.

“No, sir,” he replied. “The values are nominal.”

“Is anybody worried about this?” he asked Curly, who had his head down, monitoring the internet.

“Um, nothing, sir. A few squawks about crazy readings and reset equipment. There’s barely any talk about the changing universal constants. Nobody is taking it seriously.”

“Then neither should we. Right, boys?”

“Nosir.”

Moe thought for a moment. “You’ve got a time stamp on this event, don’t you?” They did. “See if you can match up the anomalies with the bug database Snake sent us.”

So Larry and Curly halfheartedly paged thru the spreadsheet, doing their best to dismiss the evidence.

“After all we pretty much understand the nature of reality,” Curly said conversationally, knowing Moe was listening.

“Yeah,” Larry agreed in a loud voice. “In principle, all that’s left is filling in the gaps.”

“And so-called quantum reality – things like variable constants – that’s not part of what we understand as reality,” Curly said.

“It’s impossible, inconceivable.”

Moe nodded in agreement.

“Just a trick of the light.”

“These anomalies have nothing to do with some terrorist plot,” Larry explained. “They’re just instrument glitches.”

“If there are problems,” Larry reminded them, “they’re psychological, rather than physical, and we don’t want to open that can of worms, right sir?”

So the tension eased, and Moe busied himself reviewing Snake’s reports, so he’d have background if anybody higher up asked him about it. What stuck in his mind after reading them was the girl’s peace and love agenda. It reeked of a vast left-wing conspiracy. Moe liked conspiracy theories.

“Back in Vietnam,” he started, and Larry and Curly prepared for a story, cocking one ear so they’d be able to answer spot questions, and trying to get their work done without seeming anything less than fascinated. Fortunately, all Moe required were oohs and ahs and attaboys. They were good at giving affirmations.

“My boys in the Pentagon had a plan for the hippie uprising back in the ’60s, you know. These ‘we’re all one’ ideas are like a virus, boys, and if you don’t kill them while they’re still small and weak, they’ll destroy the patient. One sneeze, and the next thing you know you’re in your grave. You have to take drastic measures, while they’re still telling themselves it can’t happen. You’ve got to destroy the virus, and inoculate the patient so they’re immune to further assaults. And this, gentlemen,” he indicated the gamegear, “is such an assault.”

“A videogame?”

“No, the ideas behind the videogame, you cretin. Those are the kind of ideas that could destroy the world. Normally the Pentagon boys would just back a military coup and help some fundamentalist dictator slaughter the opposition, uh virus.”

“But this is America, and we don’t just go installing dictators here, right, sir?”

“Would it be so bad? Put things in order, get the kinds of things done that elected officials could never do.”

***

Meanwhile, across town…

Nathan got home from work reeking of garbage, his shirt stained with ground-in salad and dried-on mayonnaise. Dad caught him coming in. “Where you been? Why are you so filthy? And you smell.” Nathan mumbled something about a vicious soccer foul that left him covered in dirt and grass stains, and fled to his room. Dad laughed at him and held his nose. “Must have rolled in dogshit, too, huh?”

Nathan took a shower and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. He snuck into the kitchen, past Dad and Sis, their faces glowing blue in the darkened living room.

On Fox, the news anchors look like they’re keeping secrets. The ageless black woman turns to the middle-aged white guy and winks, then faces the camera. “A few weeks ago we reported on an apparent glitch affecting scientific instruments all over the world.” A graphic appears behind her – sprung clocks going boing. “Well,” she continues, “it happened again.”

Her coanchor snickers as he takes over. “After careful examination of thousands of instruments, investigators concluded that it was…wait for it.” They both laugh, then she gazes at him as he winds up for the finish. “The cause of near panic in the scientific world was…an electrical short. Due to a faulty plug.” They look relieved.

Back to the anchor in her perky yellow jacket. “In just a few days, Atlanta will be invaded by hordes of costumed superheros,” she says. “Labor Day weekend is the I don’t know millionth annual Dragoncon convention.” Footage of last year’s Saturday morning parade, showing wave after wave of stormtroopers in formation, followed by winged fairies and dancing elves, with hooded reapers riding on motorcycles behind them.

Sis loved the bikers. Dad hated the fairies. Nathan stood in the hall and worried about being found out. He sidled into the kitchen, rubbing his damp, spiky hair, smelling of soap. Mom was making dinner. Frozen macaroni and cheese with boiled hotdogs and old buns.

Mom shook her head when he said something about the parade. Later. Dad might walk in looking for his dinner, and hear them talking. So they talked around it.

Nathan’s boss had asked him to work Labor Day weekend. “I really need you, Nathan, he’d said plaintively. “You wouldn’t believe the crowds.”

Nathan had hesitated, every nerve screaming NO. Then he’d said, “Okay,” hoping his face showed how much it would cost him. “I guess I can come in and help out for the lunch rush. But then I’m going back to Dragoncon.”

His relief had been obvious. “Sure, when things die down. Heh heh. Why don’t you wear your costume to work? Who you dressing up as, anyway? Nothing you can’t put in a hairnet, I hope.”

Thinking about it later, Nathan wasn’t sure he should have agreed, and turned to his mother for advice. “He wants me to work,” he whispered. “But I don’t know. He really depends on me. Maybe I’d be letting him down if I didn’t.” His face fell. “Maybe it’s okay if I only watch this time.”

“No, it’s not okay,” Mom insisted, keeping her voice down. “I don’t want to go by myself. What about all those fan tracks you’re so excited about? What about that new game you’re always talking about?”

He chuckled wryly. “Maybe I can get to a few late night panels and parties after the restaurant closes.”

Mom frowned. Nathan grinned. Of course he wouldn’t go to any parties. They had to be home by dinnertime or there’d be hell.

They were going to have to make some excuse for their absence all weekend, and they didn’t want to risk a complicated lie. So, a trip to the beach was out. There’d be no visiting Aunt Maud in Valdosta. They were thinking about making up a school field trip, but Dad would say no if Mom asked to go as a chaperone, even last minute. Who would make dinner? They finally decided to extend Nathan’s excuse for being out of the house during summer break – a full scholarship soccer day camp – and turn it into a regional tournament in…Birmingham on Labor Day weekend. It was only a two hour drive, they could be back for dinner every day. They looked at each other. It could work.

Dad got up to go to the bathroom, pausing by the kitchen door to hurl his empty can at the trash bin. They busied themselves with the dinner while he made a few jokes about the Dragoncon parade, and tried not to look guilty.

Once he’d walked off, Mom asked, “How’s school this year? Get any of the teachers you wanted?”

Nathan shrugged. All the good ones quit during the summer. “There’s a bunch of new teachers.” He was a junior now. “Some of them won’t last very long.” Fresh out of college, they couldn’t take being shoved against a wall by kids who didn’t want to sit down.

Dinner was almost ready, so Nathan went out to the living room and set the coffee table with a stack of plates and a handful of forks, a roll of paper towels and an array of condiment bottles. Dad moved his head and bitched at Nathan to get out of the way of his ad.

On TV, dark shapes move across the screen; dramatic, edgy music droning in the background. The title: BlackOps, enormous, red on black letters. The voiceover: gruff, a master sergeant. “They’re ruthless mercenaries. They enjoy pain. They lack empathy.” Sounds of a scuffle. Cut to extreme closeup of knife fight. “Blood on their hands? It’s a fashion accessory.”

The camera pans over a pack of snarling he-men, with a deadly-looking dominatrix type here and there among them. “We’ve recruited a squad of security personnel who are hungry for power, glory, and lots of money.” Extreme closeup of snarling mouths, staring eyes, sweaty brows, cleavage. “You’ll witness them cutting their chops on fast, far reaching, and deniable piratelike undertakings on behalf of the big boys.” Cut away to show a panorama of their equipment, then a cut to the interior of a troop transport, the recruits jammed together, bristling with weapons, sweat, more cleavage. “Ride shotgun with the squad leader as we put these recruits thru high-stakes, high-stress operations. Under inhuman conditions,” the master sergeant said gleefully. “Agonize with them as they make split-second decisions with life or death outcomes. Join them as they take their game to the top in a deadly struggle to survive and win.” A montage of dirty, gritty hand fighting in the shadows, knives glinting, grunting and thudding. “Constant jeopardy. Cutthroat rivalries. Sudden elimination. Venomous judges and death panels.” The voice turns callous. “You will seriously pee in your pants.”

Nathan was grateful to be going to college, while Sis thought how much she’d like to date a mercenary.

During dinner, Nathan ignored the program and the food, and fretted about his job. The office workers talked fearfully about layoffs in the big corporate cube farms and suites upstairs. Nathan sympathized, convinced he was just one mistake from unemployment. He may have straight As in school, but if he didn’t get thru college, he could end up like those grungy men who huddled in the corners of the foodcourt until Caroline ran them off.

Dad’s dark fantasies were never so genteel. He pictured himself hanging around Home Depot all day with the Mexicans, fighting like dogs for a chance to clean out a backed-up sewer for twenty bucks.

In reality, Nathan’s boss worshipped the rags he cleaned with, and was considering Nathan for his youngest daughter, who was almost old enough to marry. And Dad’s boss looked forward to getting rid of him with a particular pleasure.

Nathan finished his dinner and went to the kitchen with his things. Mom joined him, happy to move to a well-lit room where the TV didn’t blare so relentlessly. They worked together cleaning the dishes.

Dad came in on his way to the bathroom, and announced that his new district supervisor had just fired the weekend manager and added his hours onto Dad’s regular shift, effective yesterday. “Until they get somebody down from Corporate to take over,” he said, unsure what it might mean for his job.

Mom congratulated him, assuming it was a promotion, and Dad’s mood grew instantly dark.

Nathan had already started to ask a question. “The store closes at 9 on Saturdays, doesn’t it?”

Dad hunched over, his arms crossed on his chest, squeezing the beer can in his fist. “They’ve switched to a new accounting method, too. The books will take me an hour to finish and now there’s all these week-ending procedures I have to deal with.”

Mom looked concerned. “Oh dear. We’ll wait dinner for you.”

He growled and turned down the hall. “Don’t bother. I’ll get something at McDonalds. Your food sucks, anyway.”

Nathan finished washing down the counter and turned to clean the kitchen table. He found a brochure under some bills, something Dad brought home from his second interview with the security company.

“Huh. The Call of Adventure. Pro-X SecurTM,” he said, looking at the bottom for the company name. “A friend of mine – um,” he winked at Mom, “the security guard at school – she was thinking about getting a job with these guys. She wasn’t sure, tho. It sounded like a lot of following people around and going thru their garbage. And she was hoping for a desk job, but they’re going to start her on patrol. So she’s not sure.” He put it down. “Is Dad looking for another job?”

Dad came around the corner. “No, Dad is not looking for another job,” he said, cuffing Nathan on the back of his head. “Mind your own business, Nuthin. Your dad’s doing goddamn wonderful right where he is.” He got himself a beer and stood looking down at his son while popping the top. He took a deep draught and burped. “Ahh. A cold beer is worth two of you.” He pulled out a chair and sat backwards on it. “Why do you ask?”

Nathan shuffled, staring at the floor and trying not to mumble. Dad hated mumbling. “I was thinking of quitting soccer this year and getting a job after school. So I could help with the bills and maybe save up for college,” he finished, trailing off.

Dad scowled, insulted. “I don’t need your help. You just continue right on wasting your time planning to go to college. They probly love soccer fags,” he mused, taking another drink and burping. “I keep telling you, Nuthin, you leave real work to real men. Your kind never has to get your hands dirty,” he said resentfully, and then laughed. “Except when you go rolling around in dog shit cuz some real man beat you up.”

Mom shook her head. “He’s afraid you’ll compete with him,” she whispered as Dad got another beer from the fridge.

Nathan bristled. “I don’t have to do your job in order to be a real man, Dad. Real men go to college, too.”

Dad reached out to cuff him again, but Nathan was too far away. “Idiot. My point is, is real men don’t need to go to college. Being a man means you go out there and win. College helps some people win, but not you.” He pointed at him with his beer. “You’re wasting everyone’s time going to college. You might as well save everybody a lot of time and money, and just work at a convenience store.”

Mom stifled an impulse to say something risky. “I’m sure whatever Nathan does, he’ll make us proud,” she commented mildly.

Dad frowned at her and turned back to Nathan. “No, he won’t. Nobody’s proud of a loser.”

“I’m not a loser,” Nathan said, perhaps unwisely.

Dad shook his head sadly. “Stupid, you’re either one or the other.”

“But Dad, there’s a whole range of things in between.”

“No there’s not, there’s only two choices. One’s good, one’s bad. And I can tell just by looking at you that you’re bad. Know how I know? Because good people look good. Bad people have warts and crooked teeth and look scruffy. Or queer. I’m telling you appearances don’t lie. You should watch TV once in a while. It’s full of common sense.” He leaned against the fridge and drained his beer. “Sharing values we can all believe in.”

“I think Nathan’s quite handsome,” Mom said meekly. Dad glared and threw his empty at the trashcan.

“You should stop wasting time with your mother and come on out here for some family time with me and Sis,” Dad said, reaching into the fridge for another beer.

“You might as well be alone when you’re watching TV,” Nathan remarked sullenly.

“You’re never alone,” Dad protested. “You’re sharing it with millions of other people at the same time. They’re all out there, one big happy family. The trouble with you is,” he waved his finger in Nathan’s face, “is you don’t watch enough TV. You’re always holed up in your room by yourself. God only knows what you get up to in there. You need to get out more. Make some friends.”

He went to lay a sympathetic hand on his son’s shoulder, but Nathan twitched out of the way. “I know it’s tough, Nuthin,” Dad continued, feeling fatherly. “I got picked on a lot when I was your age.” He stood tall and thumped his chest. “But look at me now, at the top of my game. And, I have to say it, your father is equal to any man that ever lived. If only…” He stopped, out of breath.

If only he got the recognition he deserved at work. If only he had better kids and a wife who didn’t spend all his money. If only he could get a break. He never complained, he did what he was told, he was reliable and trustworthy. As loyal as a dog. Lately he felt like he was being punished for it.

Dad left, and Nathan and Mom talked about the police who patrolled the halls. They’d started hassling him as he was leaving for his job, even tho they watched him check out in the school office every day. “Maybe they think I’m a gang member. They go thru my backpack every afternoon. They want to see my cellphone.”

“You don’t have a cellphone.”

He nodded. “They think it’s suspicious. They think I’ve hidden it somewhere, like maybe it’s timed to go off or something.”

The police mistook Nathan for other kids in his school, who talked on their cellphones in class and ignored the teachers, skipped every other class, came to school fucked up on someone else’s pharmaceuticals, smuggled in all sorts of contraband, and didn’t care about school because they didn’t care about having careers. Gangstas don’t do work ethics. In Nathan’s school, winners didn’t go to college. Which reminded him.

“Oh my God, Mom, you need to know about the gang kids Sis is hanging out with at school.”

Mom looked at him warily. “You have gangs?”

“A couple. That’s why the cops patrol the halls.” He lowered his voice. “I think Sis is dating someone in one of the gangs.”

Dad came in for a beer, and Mom expressed her concern without mentioning any names.

Dad laughed dismissively. “Not in my baby’s school,” he declared.

Nathan snorted. “Yeah, right. Hey Sis,” he called into the living room, “know any gang signs?

Sis appeared in the door and posed menacingly with fingers splayed and a sullen look on her face.”

Mom frowned. “Are there gangs in your school?”

“Oh, Mom, you’re so lame,” she whined. “There are gangs in every public school in Atlanta. In the country. We didn’t have any in my old school, of course,” she reminded Dad, shooting a vengeful look at Mom.

“I don’t want you having anything to do with gang members,” Mom insisted.

Sis sneered, “Of course not. I would never do that.” She drew herself up. “They’re gangsters,” she said with disgust. “How could you think that of me? You’re just prejudiced against me. You’re never happy with anything I do.” She was on a roll. “I need parents who can appreciate how hard I’m working.” She raised her hands in horror. “I’m doing my best to avoid contamination from the scum you force me to associate with in this horrible school.” She started wailing, “I already know how bad it is. You’re just rubbing it in. You’re trying to discourage me. You want me to fail. You’re the worst mother ever.” She flounced out.

And caught Nathan in his room a few minutes later. He was arranging his books on the bed, ready to study. She picked up a heavy textbook and ripped out a handful of pages, glaring at him. “That’s for snitching,” she hissed.

He gathered the pages protectively. “You know, you’ll never learn how to do it yourself if you keep playing people like that.”

She came close and punched him in the chest. “I never want to do it myself, you idiot.” She turned to the mirror above Nathan’s dresser and pushed back a loose strand of hair. Then she turned on him. “I can’t believe you would tell on me. My own brother. Do it again and I’ll kill you.”

“I’m trying to keep you out of trouble at school. You don’t realize how dangerous those kids are.”

“Oh, grow up.” She made a disgusted face at him. “I know what I’m doing.” She poked his chest hard with her finger. “You don’t. You,” she poked him again, “have no idea how dangerous they really are.” Her eyes gleamed. “They’ve killed people.” She poked him once more, and he backed away, rubbing the spot. “I don’t need you making trouble for me at home. They would never understand what I have to go thru to survive.” She unfolded a handful of bullets from her left pocket.

Nathan stared.

She grinned. “They hide their guns in my locker, too. Nobody looks there. They’re that stupid.”

Nathan covered his eyes.

“You just don’t know what I have to deal with,” she continued, looking in the mirror again. “Poor me, driven from my normal, safe private school and forced to go to a ghetto prison school…” She sighed dramatically and clutched her stomach. “You need to feel bad about hounding me, Nathan. This is no time to tell lies to Mom and Dad, and get me in trouble with them, too.” She started to cry. “It’s cruel to taunt me about things I don’t have any control over. You’re just trying to undermine my confidence. I don’t have a choice,” she choked back a sob. “They’re animals at that school. It’s okay for you, but I don’t belong there.” She checked her pose in the mirror. “I can’t be blamed for using protective coloring. And it’s not just a gang member, FYI. I’m dating the head of the gang. Nobody fucks with me now.”

She sauntered into the kitchen for a coke and stuck her tongue at Mom on her way back to the living room. Dad came in a few moments later.

“I’m just sick of all the lies,” Mom sighed in a whisper as Dad rummaged thru the fridge for something else to eat.

He settled on a beer and shut the door. “What’s Nuthin lying about now?”

She reddened. “No, not Nathan. I just think…maybe Sis is more involved with bad people than she wants to admit.”

“That’s a bunch of bullshit,” Dad said heatedly. “She’s right, you know. You’re just trying to get her into trouble with me. And I told her she was making it up. You’re jealous of her because you’re getting old and she’s young and cute. Well, let me tell you something. You were never cute.” He laughed. “Just joking. I thought you were a real hottie at the time, didn’t I?”

She straightened up. “I want you to stop calling Nathan names. It hurts when you make fun of him like that.”

“Stop? What are you talking about?” He loomed over her and she cringed. “I don’t have to stop. He deserves it. If he wasn’t so stupid, I wouldn’t have to treat him like that.”

“But you’re just being mean,” she said, almost defiantly. “You don’t have to pick on him.”

He moved around to her side and gathered her hair in one hand, the other clutching his beer. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Complain again,” he tugged on her hair so her face turned to the ceiling, “and it’ll go ten times worse with him.” He pulled some more and she arched her back over the top of the chair. They stared at each other upside down as he yanked on her hair for emphasis. “You know better than to tell me how to raise the kids,” he said in a low, reasonable, menacing voice. “I’ve told you over and over again. That’s my job. You’re there to make dinner and clean clothes and do what I tell you. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been slacking off. Don’t tempt me to fire you,” he warned with a final pull, and let go.

Mom straightened up and sat rubbing the back of her neck. She avoided looking at him. He stomped around for a few minutes, yelling at the kids for something, while she massaged a spasmed muscle and fought down nausea.

Then he was back, getting himself another beer. “You know, if you just keep your mouth shut, I wouldn’t have to – you know,” she flinched as he stroked her head, “I wouldn’t have to be that way with you. I mean, it’s really stupid to question my rules. You can see that.” His hand dragged heavily down the back of her head, pulling out a few strands at a time with long screeches of pain. “You just push me to the breaking point.”

Nathan walked in and saw Dad petting Mom like she was a dog.

Dad scowled at him. “It’s not your fault.” He stroked her hair once more. “I’m just trying to keep Nuthin in his place, and you keep getting in the way.” He laughed and drained his beer, moving away from Mom. Nathan moved to stand next to her.

Dad lumbered off for a piss. He couldn’t help it, they drove him right to the fucking edge and then kept pushing. These days he was trying to avoid the thought that he could lose everything one unlucky day, like tomorrow. And they just had to keep reminding him that beside his castle, all he had was his ungrateful wife and his burdensome daughter and his worthless son. And unfortunately, Dad’s castle was now in a bad neighborhood. That’s why Sis had been going to a private school.

Later, between shows, Dad gave his darling daughter some fatherly advice. “Sweetie, you should really just stay away from gangs.” <

“I wouldn’t associate with people like that, Dad,” she said, in shock. “Some of them work for you, okay? I shouldn’t have to associate with them in school, but that’s out of my control, isn’t it?” She put a construction lien on his most expensive property, costing him all the collateral that was backing the project. “It’s not my fault. You should have saved me from all this.”

chapter 6

start at the beginning
read chapter 5

*******************

Kurt called a meeting. Nathan realized it when Anomia came charging around the corner heading for his lunch counter, her hair flying and her heels clacking. He almost never saw her.

But today she had seized the excuse to flee from the snarling managers and their hellish project. She said she was going to the bathroom, but punched the elevator button instead, leaving a pack of barely-civil minions swarming around her desk.

Freedom washed over her as the elevator opened on the lobby. There was nobody there; all the office droids were back at work and the foodcourt was dead, with only the slams and rattles of vendors closing up shop. She sailed thru the corridors as if she were on an empty ocean.

She got something from Nathan’s salad bar and settled down to eat, staring off into space and slipping back into her vision. It was something she did whenever she felt stressed. Their Antarctica, surrounded by a deep silence, and cut off from all the daily nonsense.

She was floating a couple of thousand feet above her favorite island, the last of the Transantarctic chain, with an intricate little harbor on the leeside. She daydreamed the view from her wide porch, sitting in her rocking chair looking across a vivid green lawn down to the boats bobbing at anchor. The sea sparkled. The mountains swept on beyond the curve of the earth. She felt the warmth of the sun and the wind blowing thru her hair. A bird called – what kind was it?

***

Nathan precleaned the surfaces of the B’stro D L’te, wiping down things he might or might not have to clean again – counters, drink machine, display case.

Caroline walked up and leaned against one of those spots, sticking her hand way down the back of her shirt to scratch between her shoulder blades, grunting with every scritch. “So,” she said, lowering her arm and peering under her fingernails, “I got assigned to work Dragoncon, did I tell you?” She gazed over the top of his head at the cookie case, feeling peckish. “Unfortunately it’s floor work again. I’ll tell you something, they’re going to have to pay me extra this time.”

Nathan nodded. “You deserve it,” he said. He scrubbed something gooey off the door. “I’ll be at Dragoncon, too. It’ll be my first year – I’ve already bought my ticket.” He dipped his rag into the tub of bleach water and squeezed it out. The sharp smell of bleach made his nose sting. He knelt down and started wiping the back of the case, wondering if he should discuss his costume ideas with her.

Yeah, no.” She laughed, “Sorry, kid, everybody works Dragoncon. You’ll probably have to work all four days. Maybe you’ll get Monday off.” She shook her finger at him in warning, then reached over to the cookie case and pried the door open, leaving grubby prints all over it.

Nathan jumped up and dropped his rag into the tub. He grabbed the tongs and got Caroline a cookie. “I guess I’d better talk to my boss. I got Mom a ticket, too.” He wrung out his rag and recleaned the cookie case.

I’ll have a word,” she assured him, leering at him as she took a large bite.

Um,” he tried to decline, “I’ll be okay.” He’d be fired on the spot.

***

Down at the other end of the foodcourt, Fairy came flouncing down the aisle, swinging her arms and hips, making sure everybody who wanted to could enjoy her catlike grace and captivating beauty.

Caroline watched her dawdle past a display rack. “Here’s someone I want to meet,” she said, grabbing her crotch and squeezing. “I sure hope she tries to steal something so I can apprehend her.”

Nathan rolled his eyes. :roll:

Fairy came up to the counter and leaned against the glass, accentuating her ample cleavage. “Hi,” she smiled at Nathan, who blushed. She nodded to Caroline, then scanned the salads in the display case. “Can I have the chicken penne pesto, please?”

Sure thing.” Nathan loaded a box.

Caroline sniggered and elbowed Fairy. “Penne. That’s mexican for cock. Didja know that? Don’t they look like little dicks?”

Fairy looked her up and down and turned back to Nathan. “Can I have a diet smartwater, too? Thanks.”

Caroline caught Nathan’s eye and mimicked doing Fairy from behind. She smiled at his discomfort and would have kept on, but she spotted two suspicious guys entering the far end of the hall, and headed off to surveil them. “I’ll be back for dessert,” she called, pumping her fist suggestively.

***

Anomia was in a pine-scented clearing on the crest of the hill, tending her garden and enjoying the sun. She could hear seals barking in the harbor. She pulled the weeds and ate the ripe berries, listening to the bees buzzing, scrabbling in the soft dirt with her bare toes. She was happy.

Suddenly a cup of coffee plunked down on the table next to her, like a firecracker going off in her face. She started violently.

Sorry. You must have been really far away,” Fairy said, sitting next to her and piling her things on the table.

Anomia shook herself, and started to rub her legs, which had fallen asleep. “I can’t come of out of it sometimes. Hours go by and I’m still in there piddling around. And I never remember what I was doing.”

***

The boys came into the foodcourt together, ignoring the girls and heading for the coffee stand. Snake whipped out a flask and spiked their coffee at the condiment counter, winking at Caroline as she passed by with a scowl on her face.

Let’s go off to the smoking balcony and burn one,” Snake suggested.

Nah,” Josh said, resigned. “They’ve seen us.”

Snake looked around. “Yeah? Well, where’s the star of our show? Come on.”

And they ducked out into the open air with their coffees. It was hot and humid as only Atlanta air can be, and noisy from the traffic below, and smelly from the exhaust, so they powered thru the joint and got back into the air conditioning. They joined the girls, and spent a few minutes watching them eat, then went and got their own stbx food from the chinese express in the corner.

***

They sat together at a table near the center aisle, waiting for Kurt. Anomia kept checking the time and wondering if they missed her upstairs yet.

Fairy noticed. “Got a date?”

“A deadline, of course,” she smiled grimly. “A vitally important deadline. And I’m risking my job to be here.”

“Poor you,” Fairy sympathized, checking her phone for messages. “I’m waiting on a date.”

The boys were playing football with the garnish from their coffees, flicking roasted beans across the table thru goalpost fingers, their open food containers lining the field like stands.

“What’s all this bullshit, anyway?” Snake grumbled, missing his shot. “Don’t we all have better things to do?”

“He must have finished the game engine, or he’d have never called us,” Anomia reasoned as she ate one last bite of salad and closed the container.

Snake laughed as Josh’s shot went wide. “I was not at all impressed with the quantum speck he showed us last time.”

“I must say I’m looking forward to the next phase,” Fairy confessed, eyeing Snake’s goopy chicken. She leaned over and used her extra long fingernails to spear a big piece. “While we’re at it,” she complained, “nobody’s filling out their progress sheets. You have no idea how hard you’re making it for me.” She licked the sauce off her fingers and reached for another.

“Do it yourself if you want them filled out,” Snake snapped, moving the box out of her reach.

Fairy sulked. Anomia checked the time. Snake made smacking noises as he ate.

***

“I wonder what’s keeping him,” Josh said, breaking an extended silence.

“He’s being very secretive,” Fairy observed. “He hasn’t answered any of my emails.”

“I wouldn’t either,” Snake said. “I mean, it’s not like you ever get to the point.” He made a face at Josh. “If I wanted missives I’d read a blog.” Josh grinned.

“Wow, that’s really insensitive, Snake,” Anomia protested.

“Sorry,” he sneered.

Nathan was sweeping the front of his store, just a few yards from their table. “Kurt talks to me,” he said.

They turned to him in surprise.

“So how’s he doing, then?” Snake asked, one side of his mouth curling up.

“Fine.” Nathan continued sweeping.

“With the project, I mean.” Snake made hurry-up motions with his hand.

“Well, he’s about finished with the game engine.”

“I knew it,” Josh said.

Snake looked incredulous.

“And he’s updating the interface…”

“Do you know why we’re sitting here right now?” Snake interrupted him.

“Uh, no?” Nathan was round eyed.

“You do know what we’re working on, don’t you?” Snake demanded, his voice rising. The boy nodded. “Isn’t this some sort of security breech?” he asked the others, outraged.

“Snake,” cautioned Anomia.

But Nathan wanted to show off. “You’re making a videogame based on that vision you had that gave you special powers,” he said. Josh and Anomia nodded. Snake was still. “And Kurt made a quantum computer, and now he’s making a bunch of game development apps for it. That’s about it, right? Oh yeah, and he’s working on an immersion rig, too.”

Snake made a fist and pounded the table. “He’s telling everybody. I thought he had some discretion. Way too many people would be interested in our little project. And he’s blabbing to fucking kids.”

Nathan put his head down and moved away to sweep somewhere else.

“Chill out, dude,” Josh said. “I just hope he’s not expecting us to work on that weak-ass phone he showed us last time. My eyes’ll go bad laying down static mesh.”

“Phones would be hard to work on,” Anomia agreed. “We use Wacom tablets and 22-inch monitors upstairs.”

“Hush up,” Fairy said. “Here he comes.”

They turned, but it wasn’t Kurt. It was some IT manager on his way to a meeting. He was built like Kurt, but didn’t shamble. His glasses were unbroken, his hair was neatly pulled back.

“It’s not him,” Josh said. “Kurt never trims his beard.”

“He’s wearing corporate casual,” Anomia laughed at their mistake. “Those are pressed slacks.”

“And new shoes,” Fairy said. “Hey, I want a messenger bag like that.”

Snake asked, “Is that a phone velcroed to his wrist?”

The closer he got, the more confused they were. He never looked like Kurt, but he walked like him, and finally he veered right at them and slowed to a stop in front of their table, glancing at each of them in turn.

***

After weeks of work, Kurt emerged from his magic Airstream with a quantum operating system that ran on ordinary computers. He was very pleased with himself. Whatever else happened during those weeks (which he would never remember), he returned from his shamanic idyll clutching a full-featured quantum tablet.

He was horrifying to look at after weeks in his van. He was sticky, his eyes were glopped closed at the corners, his clothes were on wrong. Shards of ramen dusted his hair. Several incomplete tattoos peeked from the edges of his shirt. They puzzled him. And they itched.

Kurt drove to the factory outlet mall, bought new glasses and a bunch of new clothes, showered at a truckstop, medicated his tattoos, washed his van, and gorged himself at a buffet restaurant. Then he came back to town, got his split ends trimmed, and went for a mani-pedi. He felt that good about himself. He indulged in fantasies of saving the world with his quantum kernel and being crowned chief genius.

He gave himself a fright seeing his reflection on the way back to his van. Jesus, I look like a narc, he thought, noticing a tag dangling from his collar. He yanked it off, ripping the seam. Oh well. He stopped for a cup of coffee on the way to the meeting, suddenly nervous about handing his precious kernel over to the philistines. He started to regret getting so pimped out, but felt better once he spilled coffee on his pants.

***

Snake was the first to recover as Kurt stood there looking from one to the other. “Ah, that’s why he’s late – he was taking a bath.”

Kurt frowned and thumped his carrier bag onto the table, flipping the lid over to rummage thru it. Fairy fingered the leather admiringly.

“Hey Kurt,” Snake said, pointing at Nathan. “Who’s the knowitall kid?”

Kurt straightened up. “That’s my apprentice.” He saw them exchanging looks. “What, you think I talk about this with everybody? I never talk to anybody.” He reached back into the bag. “I brought stuff,” he said, passing out four tablet computers.

“Not iPads?” Snake asked sadly.

Kurt shrugged. “They’re ten-inch android tablets with some useful freeware I installed, a custom game engine I wrote, stickon solar batteries I printed, and this cool reactive touchscreen I hacked. Everything you need.” He handed out diy stylus pens, and closed his bag.

“Did you buy them?” Snake asked. “They’re refurbished,” he replied vaguely.

Snake turned his over, suspicious. “Tell me, was it new before you started ripping it apart? Because, I mean – duct tape? It didn’t break when it fell off the truck, did it?” “Everything runs a bit differently with the kernel,” Kurt continued, ignoring Snake. They sat staring at their tablets. Nobody had a question. “I’ve read your emails,” he continued.

Fairy shot a victorious look at Snake – my emails.

“You’re complaining about having to do a lot of subplots and miniquests,” Kurt indicated Josh, “and how repetitive the design process is,” he nodded at Fairy. “So I put a lot of autocomplete into it. The kernel kind of lends itself to that.”

“Don’t tell us it looks like a paper clip, or talks,” Snake muttered.

Kurt shrugged. “I haven’t tackled any of the complicated stuff, so the game engine is pretty basic at this point, but I’m happy with it.” The truth was that he’d been sleep programming, and when he awoke with his face in a bowl of coffee ramen, the game engine was written.

The girls made awed and grateful noises. “Amateurs,” Snake muttered, lifting his tablet by its duct tape tail and letting it thump back onto the table. “I’m curious,” he said. “Where’s the kernel? Is there only one?”

“It’s a meaningless question.” Kurt replied shortly, and then reconsidered. “Okay, yes and no. There’s kind of only one, because I only made one, and it’s a physical thing. I showed it to you.”

Snake shook his head. “We failed to see it, but that’s okay. Go on.”

“Well, inside the kernel there are millions of seeds, I guess you’d call them. Plus, it’s been uploaded to your tablets, so now there are copies of the software portion.”

“I guess that’s a ‘no it’s not the only one’,” Snake said impatiently. “Except for the actual chip, which is still taped to your wristphone, right?”

Kurt frowned. “No, that wasn’t a good idea. The tape came unstuck and I had a hard time telling which speck of dust it was, so I just put the whole thing somewhere safe. The tablets use wifi, or strictly speaking, entanglement.”

“I mean, you’ll have a working prototype to show investors, right?” Snake reminded him. “And when you patent it.”

Kurt chuckled dryly. “Yeah, like I could document any of it,” he said. “Anyway, I’d release it open source.”

Snake winced. Open source meant free. He tossed his tablet on the table with a thunk. “I don’t know, you’re a genius and all, Kurt, and quantum is really earthshaking, but we’re just making a videogame. Why can’t we just use something that’s had all the bugs worked out, something with a label on it, and 24/7 customer support?”

Because we don’t have a budget?” Anomia said. “You’d think that would be clear enough. The cheapest, barest version of Maya is four thousand dollars a seat. And training is just as expensive.”

“We could use unlicensed copies.”

“You mean pirated ones.”

Snake shrugged.

“We can’t afford it,” she stated. “We’ll do the job with what we’ve got. There’s no shame in that.”

“There is so,” Snake protested. “I’m ashamed, personally and professionally. And I blame the person with the tight purse strings and no foresight.”

She shook her head firmly. “We’re not going into debt. We’re not selling control. We’re going to use the tools we have, and just make a simple game, like the angel said.”

“I can’t tell you how tired I am of hearing about that angel,” Snake whined. “We are not in it for your vision.” The others looked at him. “Okay, whatever. I thought you were more sophisticated than that. All’s I’m saying is, it’s shameful how much time you’re wasting doing it the hardest possible way, when you could be having a blast developing this game.”

He threw up his hands and looked around at them. “You’re just not serious, or you’d patent the kernel and trademark the engine, and get investors and buy proper tools. Pay yourselves a salary. Eat decent food.” He gestured at their surroundings. “We could be in a conference room over at the Marriott having this little presentation, but no, we have to do our business in front of all the homeless people in Atlanta.” He pointed contemptuously at Caroline sloughing across the atrium. “What does she possibly have to invest?”

“There’s no need for investors,” Kurt said. “Everything’s ready to go, you just have to make your videogame.”

Snake gagged himself.

The tablet makes my fingers tingle,” Anomia said, flexing her hands.

I don’t notice anything,” Fairy said. “And I’ve got lots of experience with low voltage electric fields.”

Snake rolled his eyes. “I’ll bet. Therapeutic, right?”

As well as,” Fairy said, looking him up and down.

“It makes my palms itch,” Josh said.

Snake made a rude gesture.

“The kernel does biofeedback,” Kurt explained, his right hand twitching. “It’ll make superpower training a snap.”

Snake turned to Kurt. “When you want to manifest something, the kernel reads your, what? Your intentions, your thoughts?”

Kurt fiddled with his wristphone. “Whatever you want, wherever there’s a sensor. Tiny movements, like nerve impulses or muscle tension. Brainwaves. It’ll know when you’re lying, it’ll know what you’re feeling, it’ll know when you’re dehydrated or running a fever. Hell, it’ll finish your sentences after you’ve had it on awhile.”

He showed off his experimental haptic glove. They hadn’t noticed it yet (Fairy thought he had palsy), but Kurt’s right hand was covered with tiny wires, clipped to his fingertips and held to his wrist with a rubber band. “I haven’t quite decided on the design specifics yet.” It would depend entirely on what he could find lying around the magic Airstream. “You’ll be able to make them yourself, tho.”

“Yay,” Snake said without enthusiasm.

“Well, that problem’s solved,” Fairy said. “The kernel picks up the right vibe, your character develops superpowers.”

“But how does it know what you’re thinking?” Snake repeated. “I mean, whether you’re trying to manifest a beer or a blow job? Does it see the picture in your mind?”

“That’d have to be pretty sophisticated,” Josh agreed.

Kurt shrugged. “Maybe it picks up subvocalizations.”

Fairy felt her throat.

Okay, maybe it can pick up your thoughts somehow,” Snake said, “which I have trouble believing. But how do we tell it how to respond?”

“Well, obviously, it knows the intent of the game,” Kurt extemporized, “and knows that you want to facilitate it whenever possible, so it probably goes out of its way to enhance what you’re looking for.”

“I’m not sure that was an answer. How do you get the kernel to materialize something?”

Kurt just looked at him. “I don’t know,” he said honestly.

But Snake didn’t believe him. “How can they do it?” He pointed at Josh and Anomia.

“Anomia answered. “Because the angel gave us powers that you obviously don’t believe in. So we can talk to each other in our heads. And we can make stuff out of nothing. And we can fly.”

“Oh, right, that,” he said bleakly. “How come you’re not manifesting cups of coffee then? I’m thirsty.”

Anomia and Josh looked at each other.

“It doesn’t feel right,” she finally said.

“It doesn’t work very well,” Josh said at the same time.

***

Once the quantum kernel came online, they practically sprayed their gameworld from a firehose. It took all their work, all the thousands of files and the contents of spreadsheets, their search results, even their chat messages and browser history, and transformed it all into the gameworld, just like that. The kernel optimized everything, so Fairy’s (Radhu’s) characters were completely lifelike, and Snake’s awkward animations were smooth and graceful.

They could walk thru any area of the gameworld and alter its properties with a wave of their hand. But the kernel’s quantumagical powers were no match for the dysfunction. The team changed goals and mileposts arbitrarily, colonized overlapping areas of responsibility, and discouraged feedback. Communication sucked. Fairy put pink gingerbread trim on all the buildings on the carnival level, and Snake came along after her and aged everything until the color bleached out and the trim broke off. There was a flurry of rapidly changing game sets until Anomia put her foot down.

“I don’t know,” Anomia said in a chat meeting a week or so later. “What we’ve got works great as a carnival, really. It’s just that it’s so slick, so commercial. It looks like…I don’t know, a theme park. I half expect to see parking lots when I look out to sea.” She looked a little sheepish. “I’ve been thinking,” she started.

And thus began a downward spiral toward chaos, as the team prepared to totally rearrange their world on a whim. Once again.

This time the idea was to turn it into a winter wonderland. “After all, Antarctica is cold, right?” she argued. “And the kernel does biofeedback, so we could feel the cold. And if you eliminate friction, the rest of classical physics is emphasized. Wait a minute, maybe we should set this level in space, where there’s no gravity.”

They voted down the space idea right away, but toyed with the frozen wasteland theme, going as far as testing the carnival level in the snow. But icicles and frost made it look abandoned and spooky. And they had to drag themselves thru snowdrifts.

They found themselves dressed in pink snowsuits, with thick steam billowing from their lungs as they shuffled toward the entrance of the hub. Their eyebrows formed icicles. Cold wind blasted them and snow whited out their vision. Their noses dripped and the snot froze on their faces.

Can we kill the blizzard?” Snake asked, coughing. “I just hate this.”

Fairy tried to argue that wind resistance would help build up their psychic muscles, but the rest agreed that subzero temperatures weren’t very much fun.

The sun came out and the snow melted.

Snake was disgusted, and left for a meeting.

***

Twenty minutes later, Josh got a text. “Snake lost his tablet,” he reported to the group.

Anomia was alarmed. “He what? When?”

“Just now, on the train,” he said, tho the message clearly read ‘bar’. “It just disappeared. He says the guy next to him stole it.”

“Hmph,” she said.

He looked at Kurt. “He asking if you’ll make him another one.” Kurt shrugged and gazed off into space, his fingers twitching.

Fairy saw Kurt’s passivity and frowned. “And why can’t he face Kurt and ask him himself?”

Oh, come on, he’s embarrassed,” Anomia said. “I wouldn’t want to ask for another one if mine got stolen.”

Fairy softened. “I’m sorry I’m so hard on him,” she confessed. “He’s just so lazy and negligent. I mean, he hasn’t done much work at all on this project, but he criticizes every little thing.”

“You know he’s busy with other stuff,” Josh defended him. “He’d like to put in the hours, but he’s got a life.”

Anomia stiffened. “I work overtime at my job,” she pointed out, “and here I am, working full time on the game too.”

“Where does he get off,” Fairy muttered.

“Cut him some slack, you two. He’s really valuable, you’ll see.”

“Hmph.”

***

Kurt hoisted his messenger bag and left before they started asking questions, but paused to say hey to Nathan, who was hauling trash to the service elevator.

“So, what are you going to do now that you’ve got a working game engine?” he asked, swinging the trashbag thru the open door.

Kurt shook his head. “I’m not finished, even tho it’s pretty awesome just as it is.” He paused, leaning forward. “The important thing isn’t this silly game software I wrote in my sleep one night, or this next generation haptic gear that will totally change the industry. The important thing is the quantum kernel and the operating system, the features of which I’m only just discovering, to be honest.” He scratched his head. “It’s so intricately wrapped around a tiny quantum instance, it’s the largest computer in the universe. It’s…” he almost said ‘alive’. He shrugged. “It’s pretty damned intuitive, but I’m not sure exactly how it works.”

“The fairies made it while you were sleeping, huh?”

“What do you mean?” he asked sharply, thinking of Tesla and Reich.

“No, it’s just a saying Mom uses,” Nathan said, flustered. “It means you probably spaced out and don’t remember doing whatever it is.”

“Right, that’s the point. I don’t remember writing it. It was all finished and locked down when I woke up.”

“Locked?”

“Yeah, and I don’t know the password. And because the encryption is way fucking quantum, I’ll never break it.”

“Oh.” He pressed a button inside the elevator and came back out. The trash went to the basement.

Kurt scratched the same spot. Wisps of hair came loose from his ponytail and floated around his temple. “There’s so much to learn, I’ll never be able to document it. Plus,” he leaned closer, looking worried, “I’m not sure it isn’t changing.” He grimaced. “Getting smarter.”

Nathan wiped his hands on his apron. You mean, like Hal?”

Kurt waved the idea away. “Nah, I don’t mean to scare you.”

Joshua in War Games?”

“No, stop. Not like that. More benevolent, like the Oversoul in the Homecoming Saga. Maybe. Tho how I can possibly know at this point…” He trailed off. “And anyway it’s locked, and there’s only one of them, so what harm can come?”

***

Fairy got the message she was waiting for, and left with a swing in her step, blowing a kiss at Nathan who was studying at his table.

He watched Josh and Anomia sit and stare at their tablets for a long time, looking like public art. They were breathing, and their eyes were open, and they were holding onto their tablets, but they might as well have been asleep. He walked around them, cleaning off a small pile of drink cups and food boxes, and peered at their tablets, which were running screensavers.

He pointed them out to Caroline when she came skulking thru on her rounds.

“What are they doing?” she asked, sitting down opposite him and prying her shoes off for a quick footrub.

“They’re videogame developers,” he said with pride. “I’m going to do that someday.”

“I don’t know,” Caroline said, wincing with pain as she jabbed her thumbs into her feet. “Sounds like a hobby. Weren’t they all sitting there playing videogames?”

“No, they were trying out new software. I wish I could have seen what they were doing.” Nathan gazed at Anomia with concern. “I think she gets lost in there. She was supposed to go back to work.”

Caroline gawked hungrily. “Spooky. They must be really fucked up, ya think?” She rubbed her hands together, staring at Anomia’s frozen back.

Nathan looked at his homework. “She says strange things have been happening since…this all started,” he fudged, not wanting to gossip.

“Since their so-called vision, you mean?” She knew all about it. “Brain damage from drug abuse, that’s how I see it. We should go do something to them while they’re like that,” she smirked at Nathan.

“Those tablets are completely experimental,” he said, sighing. “They have no idea how advanced they are. I want one so bad.”

“Story of my life,” Caroline said, and levered herself upright to continue her rounds.

***

Kurt made his way back to his van, dosed up, and stretched out with his seat reclined all the way back. He hated sleeping. Not exactly that; he hated having to relearn the same lessons every day, one twitching synapse at a time. Oh yeah, lighters are bad for mustaches. Duh, ignition turns clockwise. Whoa, is that me, how’d I get so old? He endured the physical pain of being conscious only with tremendous willpower, and hours of grumpy moping over coffee and cigarettes.

Rather than living with the torture, Kurt decided to eliminate sleep, and replace it with perpetual insomnia. It would take something to keep him up and functioning for long periods of time (provigil). He could use OTC aids in a pinch (caffeine and decongestants), and when that didn’t work anymore, go for a controlled crash, with steroids and opiates to suppress slow wave sleep, and parasomniaids like ambien and propranolol so he could sleep-program (a productive use of otherwise wasted downtime).

If he got it wrong, he could end up like a meth addict. If he tweaked it right, he should be able to stay up for a month at a time, only nodding off for short, precisely orchestrated baths of sleep, with a good amnesiac to blank out the howling nightmares.

A few days passed.

Except that time was different for Kurt. With an enthusiast’s history of drug use and his growing mental connection to the quantum kernel, time passed every which way, like corn in a popper, the chain of events all jumbled together in his memory. Sometimes time ran backwards. Sometimes shit sprang into existence, did its thing, and then disappeared, and he was the only one who noticed.

At the moment, there was a red light blinking in the upper left corner of his glasses, which may have been going on for a long time. It was the incoming mail signal on his prototype headset, a message from Fairy. He got nervous whenever she tried to contact him. He could never tell if she was going to be annoyingly businesslike, or send him a nude photo of herself. This time it was a request for an updated list of game assets. He ignored it. That was something the kernel kept up with.

***

Fairy emailed everybody as she pulled into the parking lot of her ancient apartment building in Little Five Points. She got out of the car, avoided the needles and used rubbers on the path, and jiggled and kicked the front door open. The hall was painted dirty cream and smudged at waist level all along its length. Worn hardwood floors shot splinters into bare feet (Fairy was wearing stilettos). A fluorescent bulb stuttered and hummed. She grabbed her mail and went thru it briefly as she walked the twisting hall to her door, noted the shutoff notices and tax bills, then dumped it all in the trash and fished around for her keys, not sure if she’d put them in her bag or her pocket, or if maybe she was clutching them in her other hand. The key turned on the third try, and she entered her dark and cozy apartment, a shrine to the 1930s, a study in reds and blacks, with thrift store furniture, ancient appliances, painted-shut windows, old wiring, and noisy pipes. The warm fragrance of the cat box surrounded her like incense.

Fairy fed her cats, checking for signs of human food, then changed into something more comfortable (her satin Marilyn Monroe bathrobe) and checked her Facebook page. Not her personal page, but her BDSM page, where her screename was Nightmare. She discovered a client waiting, a guy she actually enjoyed picking on. Which would pay one of those bills nicely.

She’d been planning to work on the videogame – the pesky asset inventory nobody wanted to complete. With fresh meat waiting to be scourged, all she had time for was a followup message while she changed into her work gear and ran back out to the car.

“peeps, VITAL i gt yr updatd list of assets by FRI. includz UUID. Peace, ^F^”

***

Josh made a bothered noise. Anomia glanced over as she cruised the parking lot for a space. “It’s Fairy again, bugging us about the asset database.” He walked around theghetto Kroger, filling in the spreadsheet with a bunch of made up assets. Then he sent it back with a savage grin on his face. Anomia thought to chide him, but let it go. She tried to remember what she’d completed recently, but it was all a blur.

“Did Snake get another tablet?” She asked Josh at the checkout.

Josh laughed and grabbed the magazine with a half-naked girl on the cover. “Get this, Kurt gave him an iPhone with the kernel installed on it.”

She shrugged, loading the groceries onto the belt. “He wanted one, didn’t he? Does it work?”

He paged thru the magazine absently. “The back was scratched, but otherwise it’s fine. He says Kurt’s going out of his way to dis him.” Snake had gone on at length about what a mistake it was to insult the team’s marketing genius.

She fished her wallet out and hoped the total wasn’t too high, shifting the nonessentials to the end in case she ran out of money. “Yeah, well, I guess the lesson is don’t lose your custom equipment, eh?”

***

Snake drove to tony Buckhead after a meeting. He was always very careful not to be followed. He stayed in an anonymous townhouse in a gated community where nobody knew anyone else, and he could drive unseen into his one-car garage and be safe from prying eyes behind privacy blinds and never-opened windows.

There was a well-worn path from the garage door to the stairs thru an empty kitchen and an unlit hall and a vacant livingroom. Upstairs, he used one bedroom as his office, the bookshelves stuffed with computer manuals but also showing an interest in the occult, manipulating friends and influencing people, making millions in real estate, illuminati conspiracies, body language and psychology. A second bedroom was always locked with a padlock. Snake didn’t go in, didn’t even think about it as he went past.

The master suite was decorated in jungle predator, with an emphasis on leopard prints and spears. No books, but an inhome theater with all the trimmings, and cameras all over the house and grounds. He had everything he needed to make his own porn, but he never had visitors. Snake didn’t want anyone getting to know him. He was too dangerous and important for that. He wanted a series of conquests and pleasant memories with zero calories and no aftertaste.

He ate something random from the freezer, and then worked silently, lit only by the screen of his iPhone. He was supposed to be animating characters for the game, but he spent his evening looking at what the others were doing, heaping scorn on their work with an enthusiasm he usually tried to hide.

Finally he opened Fairy’s message. Asset counts. Her tone offended him, so he deleted it and blocked her address. He’d already hacked her account; why be tormented?

***

A few days later, Snake met Josh at the pub. Snake was late, of course; he was out being a playa. Josh was deep into his work on the gameworld when he arrived. Snake sat down beside him and noticed that his beer was flat. “Hey, man, you going to drink that? It looks like it’s been sitting there all day.”

Josh made no response. He was staring into the display, moving his stylus up and down slowly, adjusting a minute detail at high magnification. Then another. Finally satisfied, he saved his work, put the stylus down, and reached for his beer. Only then did he notice Snake sitting next to him, studying his face.

“Tell me, do you have these spells a lot?”

“What are you talking about?” He drank the rest of his beer in one pull. “Wow, I’ve got to pee.”

“I’m talking about you sitting there for almost an hour, with your hands twitching and your eyes blank. I tried to get your attention forever. Even the barman was worried.”

Josh looked around. The pub was full of office types drowning their corporate sorrows. It was dark outside. He checked the time. “No wonder I’ve got to pee,” he said, and got up.

“What were you doing?” Snake asked him.

“Editing the level, of course,” Josh said, and disappeared into the crowd, feeling light, as if he were on stilts.

Snake tried to pull up Josh’s work, but the screensaver rained code until Josh returned and brushed his fingers over the surface. Snake picked up the tablet, which instantly returned to the screensaver. He turned it over and examined the sides, then ran his thumbnail under the edge of the screen and showed Josh something sticky. “Look, it’s leaking. See this gunk? It’s that gel stuff that expands to make the keyboard. It’s oozing out. It’s probably radioactive, and you’ve got it all over your hands.”

He looked sideways at Josh, who was sniffing his fingers. Then he sighed and dropped the tablet back on the table. “As defective as they are, I’ve got to have a proper tablet. I can’t do my work on that tiny little screen he forced on me.” He worked himself up slightly. “It’s getting ridiculous. It’s all Kurt’s fault.”

“What is?” Josh was puzzled.

“If he supplied me with adequate tools, everything would be fine.”

“What, you lost your iPhone already?” he guessed. “It broke?”

“It was knocked out of my hand.” Snake delivered an involved tale about the weather, a bus stop, hostile passengers, and a blind bus driver. “A thousand bits of plastic lay scattered on the ground,” he finished sadly, spreading his hands. “I need another one. Tell him a real one this time, okay?”

***

A few days later, Anomia came home ‘early’, evading pressure to stay until 10 (midnight) on a vital project they’d left until the last minute. There were dishes piled up in the sink, an overfull trashcan, half a container of milk on the counter. And the dog had peed on the floor.

Because Josh didn’t technically live there, she was always somehow not supposed to ask him to do any of the work that obviously needed to be done. Normally she just went ahead and did it herself, hoping he’d notice, feel guilty, and pitch in. It was easier to do it all than to get into repeated discussions about why he should give a fuck.

They’d been together long enough for the shine to wear off. She loved him deeply from the moment he backed into her at the video store and slung an arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. He was warm and protective, and in the early days wouldn’t let her lift a finger, as if she might shatter under pressure. After a couple of years, he turned out to be not quite as bright as a lightbulb, and she wasn’t as helpless as he thought. At times his attention was cloying and restrictive, and she was a real bitch. But he still traded on how much he loved her and all the things he did for her, even tho he didn’t actually do anything these days. Now that he was hanging around Snake, he’d gotten kind of insulting and swaggering, as if it were his apartment and she was the freeloader.

He all but moved in when they started on the project, six months ago, eight months ago. And she paid all the bills and bought his beer and probably cigarettes, now that she thought about it. The ones he’d been sneaking, after telling her he’d quit. She could sense it, even tho he denied it. She could feel him edging away emotionally, hiding like a little kid. But she kept giving him the benefit of the doubt because she could very well be wrong, a possibility which was stressed heavily during every one of their discussions about why he didn’t give a fuck.

***

Anomia trudged up the stairs to where Josh was lying on the bed playing World of Warcraft on the largest cheap flatscreen TV she could afford. “I called for chinese,” he announced, blasting the hell out of an opposing position. “General Chao for you. No MSG.”

He looked like he wanted praise for his thoughtfulness, but Anomia counted up the bill in her head, plus tip, and decided she’d have to put it on the credit card, which was getting close to its limit. She’d suggest a home cooked meal, but they both knew she wasn’t serious. She’d be serious when she brought home the groceries and cooked the food, and then cleaned up after it. Until then it was a choice between going out, delivery, and frozen.

He continued to play his videogame while she put away her things and changed her clothes, patting the bed next to him and inching over, still firing at enemies. She powered up her tablet and selected a carnival asset. She was working in the arcade, doing an art pass on the Break-a-Plate game. Picking the pattern for the china, to be precise. Her only fun these days was in disregarding the presets and specifying everything herself.

The kernel indexed 5 million images of china, displaying an array of Anomia’s likely choices. Which she couldn’t argue with. She sighed and picked an absolutely wonderful pattern. Specifying the size of the plate, its fragility, and its condition, she assigned it a unique identifying number, saved it, and closed the file. She signed again and picked the next asset – a throwing hammer.

“What’s happening with Snake’s replacement iPhone replacement tablet?” she asked to distract herself.

Josh laughed, pausing between battles. “Kurt gave him a gameboy this time.”

She looked at him. “You’re kidding. Does it work?”

Josh shrugged. “Amazingly, yes. It’s slow, of course.” He killed another boss and gore exploded all over the screen.

“Do you think Kurt’s punishing him for losing them?”

Snake’s convinced, anyway” Josh answered, changing weapons for the next battle. “He says he’s too humiliated to pull it out of his pocket.”

She sighed and frowned at her work. “Well, it doesn’t much matter, because he’s not doing any work on the game.”

“He is too,” Josh protested. “He’s been animating characters like crazy.”

“Yeah, and they all move just like him.” Anomia sighed again. “He’s overdone the ragdoll animation. I’ve tried to tell him he needs to make them move from their core so players can practice generating chi, but I don’t think he understands.”

Josh avoided her eyes. Snake understood what she wanted, but thought the whole concept was nonsense and refused to go along with it. The big boss appeared. Josh blasted him with everything he had.

The food came, and Anomia jumped at the sound of the bell. Josh put his game aside to eat, but she worked right thru dinner, fiddling with the shorelines.

***

In the glaring light of their subbasement security office, Larry (or Curly) returned from each drop wondering what he was bringing back to the lab to analyze. The reports made it seem so powerful, and they studied each version six ways from Sunday, but were never less than perplexed and frustrated by Kurt’s innovations.

“They’re just cheap devices with plain vanilla warez on them, plus some custom code we’re not sure about,” Larry reported to his boss, Moe. He and Curly were standing almost at attention in front of Moe’s desk.

“Might be an app,” Curly added.

Moe snarled, “Of course it’s an app, what does it do?”

Larry ducked his head. “Like I said, sir, we’re not certain. We’ve tried numerous times to copy it, but the code is corrupted during the transfer. There’s also a firewall we haven’t been able to get thru, and we’re not sure what’s behind that.” It was sheer hell getting thru the screensaver.

Curly summed it up hopefully. “Might be gibberish, sir. Or a joke.”

Moe snapped, “Or part of a goddamn terrorist operation, which we will assume is the case until we get evidence to the contrary.”

Larry ventured, “I don’t know, sir, a lot of these computer geeks are completely clueless about national security and terrorism. They just want to see what they can make a computer do, is all.” He saw Moe’s face squinch up. “Sir.” he added, just to be safe.

***

Fairy sat in the Star Bar in Little Five and nursed a drink, waiting for her date to show up. A pitiful worm who needed as much correction as he was willing to pay for. She spent the time doing her bit as a forum moderator, delightedly punishing spammers who dared to come on her forum and pollute the pure communication of like-minded people on serious topics. She actually saved up her frustrations to take out on these online miscreants, furiously cutting off users, writing curses and insults in the ban notices and righteously purging them from the system.

The spammers were the volume posters, and they didn’t bother to hide it. Usernames like asdfasd6789 and topics such as qwerpoiu uipreq. Email addresses like fsdf@dc.best-carpetcleaningreviews.com. Posts filled with random snippets of English, embedded with links to shoe outlets and viagra suppliers. She perused the flagrant user data with boiling hatred, then in rapid succession, banned the username, the email address, the IP address, deactivated the account, and deleted all the posts. Are you sure? the dialog box asked her. “Yes I am,” she thundered.

She drummed her ultralong fingernails on her tablet, waiting for the server to update so she could ban another poor working stiff. She adjusted her stocking seams impatiently as 6743 posts and 4970 threads went up in virtual smoke. She might have felt sorry for the users, they were probably getting paid forty cents per thousand posts, and it was probably the only work they could get in their poor backward country. She should admire their persistence. She snorted. Better luck next life, she thought viciously, and deleted another account.

***

Halfway around the world, Radhu used his family’s ancient desktop computer to lighten Fairy’s work on the game. These days, during his few hours away from his job, he was compiling sound effects and composing incidental music online.

He got an email from Fairy asking for an asset update, but it was redundant, because he sent her an update every day.

He was considering a second job as an internet marketing tech. There was big money to be made; his cousin insisted on that. It was a great job for an intelligent man who could find creative ways to get past the censors and communicate their clients’ messages. If he did really well and became a star poster, perhaps he could make enough to move into his own flat. He could see himself firing off a steady stream of link-rich forum posts between his normal dayjob and his nightly devotion to the game. If he was diligent, he could afford to buy a ticket to this year’s Dragoncon, because he was almost positive he was going to Atlanta again as the number one customer service agent (India) at his employer’s annual meeting.

***

Fairy drummed her fingernails, this time with impatience. Where was her date? She read Radhu’s flowery reply to her email. She smiled to herself, then indulged her bile at the others, because she knew before she sent it that they wouldn’t respond.

Fairy was becoming dependent on Radhu. It was like having an extra set of arms. He was always asking for more to do, never wanted anything but her thanks, and always did professional work she was not ashamed to call her own. He was willing to be used, and she was ready to appreciate him for it.

She’d sleep with him if they were in the same country. Theoretically.

***

Meanwhile, across town…

Nathan came home to a crisis. Sis had been expelled from her private school for smoking cigarettes. Two weeks ago. The school had just now sent a letter home. Mom also had the latest credit card bill, which explained some of what Sis did during her impromptu vacation.

Sis was sobbing pitifully on the couch, vibrating with anxiety and fear. “Dad’s going to kill me,” she wailed, one eye on Mom for her reaction. Mom instinctively agreed to shield Dad from the real reason – getting caught with her pants down in front of five very excited schoolboys. “It’s not my fault. They all hate me.” Maybe she could guilt Mom into keeping quiet about the credit card, too.

Mom sat rubbing her temples with one hand over her eyes, peering out between her fingers at her daughter overacting on the couch. “You have to return all the things you bought,” she began. Sis wailed. She waved the bill. “Like this iPad, We just can’t afford things like that, sweetie.”

Sis immediately put on a pouty face. “It got stolen,” she mumbled, looking away.

Mom gasped, but kept going thru the list of expensive items. Hundreds of dollars to stores in the mall, more hundreds online, too many cash advances to count, and a slew of payments to sketchy-sounding entities.

Mom persisted, despite a sudden headache, but for everything she suggested returning, Sis had an excuse – lost, stolen, missing, damaged, used up.

Nathan went to Sis’s room and rounded up the iPad, a bag full of shoes in their boxes, and a pile of clothes with the tags still on them, and brought them out to the living room. Sis screamed at him as he dumped them on the coffee table, and lunged for the phone, but he sidestepped and handed it to Mom.

Sis got up, leaned over Mom, and shouted into her face. “You’re evil!” She shoved Nathan into the coffee table, and stamped off to her room, slamming the door and rocking the pictures on the wall.

Nathan and Mom looked at each other. “I guess it would be too much to ask her to return them herself,” Mom remarked.

“I’ll put them in the car,” Nathan said. “They’ll be safe there until we can take them back.” He went for a plastic bag. Mom matched the price tags to the credit card bill. Sis found the purchases Nathan missed and cut them into little pieces.

Dad got home a few minutes later. The air was still thick with hostility. Fortunately, he was preoccupied with the rumor of more layoffs at work. The whisper of industry changes. The specter of outsourcing. Haunted by his future, he didn’t notice his family walking around on tiptoe, fetching his beers (Nathan) and rubbing his shoulders (Sis). He sank into the cocoon of his comfortable home and forgot about his problems, finding refuge in the little things – his favorite ads, the heft of a full can of beer, the stupidity of others.

Like the latest news on TV. A lot of panicking for NFR – no fucking reason. He settled in; this was going to be good. The graphic said “Whoops,” and the perky anchor smoothed out the smirk on her face as she read the copy. “Everything was upside down in the world of science and commerce today,” she said, and looked concerned. “Clocks ran backwards and measuring instruments went off the scale all over the world.” The screen showed footage of people standing around the trading floor on Wall Street, looking bewildered, giant blue screens of death shining down at them.

She continued, her voice serious and soothing. “Communications were interrupted for a few seconds, causing many systems to automatically reboot, but the Internet was ‘reassuringly resilient’, according to a top security spokesman.” She looked at the camera with a bright smile. “Experts are calling it a ‘transient measurement problem’.” The anchor reminded Dad of his fourth grade teacher. He’d had a crush on her.

“It lasted for less than a minute,” she continued, wrapping up, “and no one knows what caused it. Possible explanations include solar activity, or a surge in the earth’s magnetic field. The damage is still being assessed.”

Her serious look brightened as she ended on a chirpy note. “Up next, are garden gnomes evil?”

They broke for an ad and Dad got up to pee. “Some idiot probably pulled the wrong switch,” he chuckled. He would never do that.

***

The news segment was somewhat misleading. Instruments all over the world didn’t just go off the scale, the qualities these instruments were measuring went off the scale. Seismic monitors, electronic sensors, radio receivers, satellites.

The temperature suddenly soared in Antarctica. A hundred degrees Fahrenheit. For a moment, palm trees appeared. The icecaps turned to slush.

And then it dropped back to fucking freezing again, and the ice recrystallized, just like that. Emergency workers pulled people out of suddenly half-sunken buildings. Research teams camping out on the ice shelves vanished with all their gear.

Behind the scenes, they were calling it the Minithaw, and scratching their heads, but not a single editor considered it newsworthy, and only rumors made it to the crank feeds.

However, they traced a concurrent energy fluctuation to Atlanta, and down in the dark subbasement Moe rushed around, certain that Curly and Larry were somehow responsible. They shrugged their shoulders. “You’re telling me it was nothing?” Moe screamed, but they pointed to the lack of news reports, and encouraged him to accept the fact that a surge like that was impossible. Inconceivable. Couldn’t happen.

***

After dinner, Nathan did the dishes by hand. He complained at first: he was already too busy with his job and all his advanced placement classes – why couldn’t Sis help? But she’d had a word with Dad, who’d brought home a huge sack of plastic plates from Walmart and insisted on throwing them out after one use. Nathan couldn’t bear to think about the waste, and did the dishes silently from then on.

Mom sat at the kitchen table with the bills. They heard laughter from the living room as Dad and Sis enjoyed their together time watching a sitcom.

“I’m really looking forward to Dragoncon,” he said, as he rinsed a glass. “They should be sending us our tickets pretty soon.”

“Yes, that’ll be fun,” Mom responded, trying to reconcile the checkbook with the bank statement.

Nathan was worried about having to work Memorial Day weekend, and missing Dragoncon. He wanted Mom’s advice, because he’d asked his boss, who said maybe he could have the time off. And this worried him because in his family, maybe meant no.

But Mom wasn’t really listening, so he told her the latest about Kurt and the videogame. How he’d finally worked up the courage, and they said they’d let him be a tester when the game was ready. Mom made vague sounds of approval, and Nathan resolved to tell her again when she was less busy.

Mom was freaking out. Not just about the shocking difference between recorded and actual bank balances. Not just about her daughter’s insane spending spree. Dad still hadn’t learned of Sis’s expulsion, and would throw a fit when he found out. And not at Sis, either. How do you break it to a doting father that his princess has fucked up? You may as well not bother. Since he’s the boss, if he doesn’t see it, it’s not there. His assessment is correct, and Mom would be disrespecting his authority if she challenged it.

If she were willing to take the coward’s way out, she would simply keep the news from him indefinitely, and use the tuition money to pay off a good chunk of the debt every month. But when the truth came out, he’d be dangerous, and she knew better than to let it go that far.

Dad came in for a beer. “Okay, time to sign some checks,” he said, “my show starts in a couple minutes. Whatcha got?” He looked at Nathan. “Scram, Nuthin, I’m doing grownup things with your Mom, here.” He sat down and grabbed a pen.

This time it was the utilities and the minimum on a couple of credit cards, plus the mortgage. Everything else had to wait. Mom waved at the bills. “I’ve been looking at our spending,” she said. “The mortgage and insurance are almost half of what we bring home. And the car payments, and the credit cards…” She was thinking how many credit cards they could pay off with the tuition money. “We’re about $1500 short every month.”

She tried to make her voice smooth and persuasive. “We should really think about putting the house on the market and finding a cheaper place.” She looked for a bright side. “If we rented, we wouldn’t have to pay interest, or insurance.”

He loomed over her. “Never,” he said. His voice had an edge to it. “We’ve been thru this before. This is my house. I own it, and I’m going to live here forever.” He crushed the empty beer and threw it at the trashcan.

“Really, dear,” she said mildly, carefully. “We’re not even paying the principal because we keep refinancing. We don’t really own anything.”

“It’s my house,” he shouted. He got another beer out of the fridge and popped the top. After a long drink, which gave him a chance to calm down, he tried to talk some sense into her. “Renting is just going backwards,” he said. “Because you’re at the mercy of your landlord, and you never have any equity. It’s fine when you’re young and stupid, like Nuthin, but it’s a mark of failure for a real man.” He finished his beer and went for another. “I’m staying right here.” He popped the top, taking a deep draft.

His TV show came on. He and Sis enjoyed the hell out of it. Mom and Nathan sat in the kitchen speaking in whispers.

***

He didn’t mention it, but Dad had an interview that morning. Testing the waters. It was a security firm with an aggressive new concept, public private security. They weren’t just going to respond to crimes after they were committed, they were going to eliminate the threat of crime. Dad didn’t have a law enforcement background, but the guy seemed pretty impressed when he told them some of the shit he’d caught people trying at work, employees and customers alike.

“It’s like mall security,” the guy explained. “Only we’re putting a network of guards on street corners, and in supermarket aisles, and places like libraries, schools, and churches. Just think of the difference we’ll make to parking enforcement and animal control. A great source of revenue for the city.”

And Dad’s job would be…?

Oh, you’re management material, definitely,” the guy said. “Given your track record. But, no offense, we start everybody off on patrol. How’re your arches?”

***

In the kitchen, Nathan argued for drastic action. “What if we just stopped listening to him? What if we stopped doing it his way?”

Mom looked frightened. “Don’t talk so loud. Your father gets angry when we don’t do it his way.”

Nathan snorted. “He loves to get angry, we’re like his big excuse to get violent.” He looked at his Mom pleadingly. “We can stop him by just not playing his game anymore.”

She looked at him for a long time. “Are you ready to walk out of the house and stay at a shelter, and never come back?”

He said yes, but he could picture it, and didn’t really want to leave his home. He wanted Dad to leave. He wanted Sis to leave. And that wasn’t going to happen, so he would just have to grow the hell up and move out.

Mom went to the bedroom for a moment, and Sis came into the kitchen for a beer for Dad. “He smells,” she complained, leaning against the sink. “I hate it here.”

Bitter enemies most of the time, they were both impatient to escape. Nathan couldn’t wait to go off to college to get away from Dad’s badgering. But Sis planned to live at home until Mom and Dad croaked and left her the house.

“But how could you stand it?” Nathan asked.

“Why should I leave? They’ll always take care of me, I won’t ever have to do anything. I’ll just spend time somewhere else when it gets too much.”

“I can’t wait until I can be responsible for myself,” Nathan said.

“Killing the golden goose,” Sis remarked, and flicked his neck painfully with her finger as she left.

He sat and calculated the number of days until he graduated from high school. How many days until forever? He went to his room, settled in, opened his physics book, and lost himself in the science.

***

Dad stopped by Nathan’s room on his way for a piss. “How’s it going with the soccer thing?” he asked.

Nathan thought fast. “Uh, Coach says we might win our next game,” he said feebly. He hated lying.

“Still losing to the girls, huh?” Dad laughed, and Nathan felt his ears turn red.

For a moment, he thought he heard Mom crying in the kitchen, but when he stuck his head around the corner, he discovered her laughing. It was a brittle laugh, a resigned laugh, a joke’s on me laugh.

She was looking at the bill listing Sis’s recent expenditures. She’d exceeded their credit limit by enough to make paying for anything else impossible. The card would be frozen, and it would be months before they could pay it down. It was their last card with room on it, only because it was the emergency card, the one they were saving for that car repair, that hole in the roof, that trip to the emergency room.

Maybe she could get a second job.

“You can catch up on the bills now that you don’t have to pay tuition anymore,” Nathan suggested, seeing tears forming in her eyes.

Dad came into the kitchen. “Hey, that’s none of your business,” he said, and whapped the back of Nathan’s head as he passed. “I handle the finances, and you do your homework.” He got a beer and stood over Mom. “What’s this about tuition? Did my baby get a scholarship or something?”

Mom’s only thought was how to get a safe response. “She’s not very happy there,” she began. “But she doesn’t want to upset you.”

Sis came bouncing in and hugged him. “I hate it there, Daddy. Please don’t make me go back.”

He wrapped his arms around her. “Sure, honey, if you really don’t like it.”

“I want to get a job and help you, Daddy,” she said earnestly, looking up at him.

He patted her back. “No, no, baby, you don’t have to lift a finger. We’ll get you into an even better school. Those bastards.”

“No, that’s okay, Daddy, I’m going to do homeschooling.”

Mom shook her head. “You’ll sleep all day and never do your homework,” she said. “You’ll have go to the local school, just like Nathan does.”

Sis looked panicky and clung to Dad, who wrapped his protective arms about her and told Mom not to be such a bitch. “Nobody has to go to public school,” he soothed Sis and glared at Mom. “It’s full of hoodlums. Just how much was tuition at that hellhole, anyway?”

“Nine hundred dollars a month.” Mom waited.

“Wow, that’s a lot of money,” he mused. Then his face brightened and he looked down at his daughter lovingly, “Looks like we can get you that car now, sweetie.” Mom stared at him with her mouth open. Sis looked like she didn’t believe her luck, then like she’d just won the lottery, jumping and screaming and loving on her daddy. Nathan went to his room, mortified.

Dad and Sis went out to buy a bigger TV set before the stores closed.

***

They were in a great mood when they returned, until they noticed Mom’s silent disapproval. Then they soured, started bickering about how to program it, and soon abandoned their new TV and went to bed, leaving Mom to clean up the packing material they’d spread all over the living room.

But it wasn’t over. Dad was still awake, fuming. He watched silently as she undressed and got into bed.

“I want to know where you get off even thinking about selling the house,” he said in a low, droning voice. “I’ve told you again and again this is my castle. And in case you don’t realize it, it’s my decision where the kids go to school.” He ran his hand thru his hair, clenching it in his fingers. “Why are you trying to undermine me? And you’ve been discussing our finances with Nuthin, too. He’s too young to be involved.” He folded his arms. “I forbid you to talk about it.”

“But dear…” She bit her tongue. She was just about to say, ‘but he’s learning about money – he’s got a job’. She shut her eyes and shuddered. He would go berserk if he found out Nathan was lying to him about soccer. Sweat broke out on her forehead.

“You obviously can’t be trusted with the checkbook,” he continued. “You don’t understand anything.” He looked aggrieved. “I’ll have to take care of the bills from now on. As if I didn’t have enough to do.” He grumbled a few beats to himself. She quaked beside him. “You know,” he said in a normal voice, “I was going to do something nice for you. This weekend. I had it all planned, just the two of us. It would have been great.” His tone grew harsh. “But you don’t deserve it, and I’m not going to waste my time. You cause more trouble than you’re worth.”

She wondered reflexively if she could do it over, if she could do better, and they could go back to the part about him doing something nice for her. It would be great. If only she were good enough. Her stomach clenched.

Mom should have dismissed his threat to take over doing the bills, but her stomach was knotted and acidic, and she couldn’t think fast enough to call him on his inconsistencies. Besides, that would just set him off. She was better off keeping her head down, apologizing, and waiting for the storm to blow over.

You’d think she’d see the pattern and act differently when he was ramping up to hit someone. But she was caught up in the moment, in the air of threat and danger, in the panic of not knowing when the blow would fall. Sure, she could stop the tyranny today if she just sat back and laugh at him, refused to get with the program, refused to react the same way she always did.

But if she was going to do something that out of character, then she might as well shoot him and be done with it.

**************

read chapter 7

chapter 5

start at the beginning
read chapter 4

***************

Kurt signalled Nathan to sit down. “Remember those folks I was with the other day? They want me to program a game engine that will simulate a quantum world. And, normally, you know, it’s childsplay to simulate, ‘cuz you’re just manipulating pixels to act quantum. But I’ve been thinking. A classical computer program isn’t good enough for what they want to do.” He toyed with his Ecig. “I’ve actually been looking for an excuse to build a quantum computer, really just so I can design a quantum programming language. If I were to sit down and whip one up, I’d beat absolutely everyone to the punch. Hah. With a videogame.” He took a drink of cold coffee and wiped his lips with a finger. His mustache held drips at both ends. “That’d show them. Not a banking application, not encryption, not military. Gaming.”

Kurt whipped out a notebook and showed Nathan his schematics. Nathan didn’t understand a thing. “With current technology, you’d need shitloads of money and a kickass lab. It’s a lot like those folks’ chances of making a hit game with no budget. I can’t build a quantum computer in the back of a van, you know,” he said. Nathan looked disappointed.

“For one thing, you need a cryostat, which means your business end has to be encased in liquid helium inside a thermos bottle, inside another thermos bottle, and cryocooled to within 1 millikelvin of absolute zero. And that would be…what?” He paused, gesturing with his Estick for Nathan to answer.

“Um…” Nathan felt stupid. He aced high school physics, but on the spot he was brainless. “I know this.”

“Just shy of minus 460F,” Kurt continued after taking a final drag and putting his Ebutt back into his pocket. “At that temperature, everything stops moving except for quantum particles. That’s where you manipulate whatever you’ve chosen as your qubit until it reaches a state of superposition and you can measure it. For instance, a laser-to-mechanical oscillator that turns light to vibration and back so fast it’s in two places at once. But you have to keep the whole thing supercold or you’ll lose your superconducting state, and your qubits will decohere.

“Uh huh.”

“If it warms up even a little bit, the coolant evaporates and your vessel explodes.”

Nathan looked dubious. “A quantum computer sounds like a lot of trouble.”

“Yes, but.” He pulled his Efag back out of his pocket and puffed on it some more. “We need it. Because we can’t get much smaller with the current circuitry, but mainly because we’ve got substantially more complex problems we want to solve, and we’ve reached the limits of how much we can do with just ones and zeros.” He put his Enail back into his pocket and started fumbling for his cigarettes. “Duality was fine when we thought the world existed separately from us – out there – following its own unvarying rules and never minding us humans. But duality is a habit that limits you to binary opposites. Like beauty is good and ugly is bad.” Kurt noticed a figure skulking behind the trash bins. “So someone who looks like that,” he indicated the lurker, “is judged at first sight as disreputable and probably criminal, definitely a drug addict and probably a pervert.”

Nathan turned around to see. “Oh, that’s Caroline,” he said. “She hangs out here, like you do.”

“Huh. She looks like a cop.” He put his pack away and fished in his shirt pocket for his Egasper.

“She’s okay.” Nathan waved at her and Kurt nodded politely. Caroline scowled and moved away.

Kurt returned to the subject. “With quantum computing, you’re not limited to binary opposites. It’s not black or white, it’s both black and white, and technicolor, too. Calculations run in parallel, simultaneously instead of one at a time. You can ask different kinds of questions, and there’s a greater range of answers.

“So how are you going to do it?”

“I haven’t quite decided.” He took a few puffs and exhaled steam as Nathan looked on in awe. “I know a dozen people who are working on quantum computers, and each one approaches it differently. One’s using quantum optical fields in curved spacetime. Another’s trying to make fluorescent DNAzymes in liquid.”

Nathan pictured swirling baths of green soup. “That’d be cool.”

“Real magic, I know, right? Or you could use molecular switches made out of sticky nanoplates that assemble themselves. Most of the guys are working with silicon transistors because it’s what we’ve already got, but I don’t think it’s going to work in the long run. Personally, I’m going for a total rethink.” He sat back and vaped contentedly.

“What kind of quantum computer will you make?”

Kurt took a drag of his EstowG. “I’m interested in wetware.”

“In what? That sounds kind of zombie.”

“Well, sort of. After all, neural nets are synthetic brains. Neurons in the brain show lots of quantum effects – wavefunction collapse at the presynaptic axons, proteins that act like qubits. They’re looking at the electrical resonance between the thalamus and cortex as the root of consciousness, modulated by neurotransmitters.” He leaned closer. “To tell you the truth, the consciousness aspect is my main interest in quantum computing.”

Nathan shuffled his feet under the table. “I guess,” he said doubtfully.

“Neural nets are the shit,” Kurt said. “You grow them. They make copies of themselves. They self-install, they customize, they correct themselves. They learn. Neurons only fire a thousand times a second, but millions of them fire at once, so they’re massively parallel. Classical computers separate the calculator from the numbers, but everything is jammed together in your brain. The main problem is thermal noise – heat, which causes decoherence. And at the moment,” he sighed, reaching for his cigarette pack once more, “the best way around decoherence is to cool everything to absolute zero.”

“Decoherence is bad,” Nathan summed up.

“It’s the bane of my existence. It’d be easy to make a quantum computer if the macro world didn’t keep getting in the way.”

“So you’re going to grow Frankenstein’s brain on ice. Can I watch?”

Kurt laughed. “It won’t look like a brain. It won’t even be visible until it’s embedded on a chip and assembled onto a component.” He turned to the schematic and smoothed it with his hand, and they bent over Kurt’s quantum computer diagram again: a tangle of lines, squiggles and numbered labels, with notes scribbled all around the margins. Kurt put names to the squiggles, but Nathan didn’t understand it any better than before. “Don’t worry, experts say that’s a good sign,” Kurt said soothingly.

All the quantum inventors Kurt knew were jealous and snippy, and loved to trash each other’s ideas and ridicule each other’s mentors. Nobody discussed the particulars of their work, or told the truth about how things were going, or even hinted about anything patentable. Nobody worked to a standard, nobody collaborated. And the hype was nauseating. Like Edison’s big box discount approach over Tesla’s geekier, more advanced vision – the team with the steampunk star wars look would win, while Kurt built a computer in his van. Out of trash.

“The more I think about it, the more I wonder if I couldn’t build it in the back of my van.” He was thinking aloud while Nathan looked on with a slack jaw. “If I didn’t need all the cryonics, if I could make a room temperature superconducting magnet, room temperature superconducting wires, room temperature qubits…The key is isolation, of course, shielding it from heat so it doesn’t decouple.” He drifted off in thought. “What if I made a virtual cryostat from graphene and a high magnetic field?”

Nathan nodded his approval speculatively. “Sure thing. Graphene?”

“Another form of carbon. It’s a layer of graphite one atom thick. That’s basically just two dimensions,” he gestured at the surface of the table top. “It does some interesting tricks. You can make balls, and ribbons, and tubes.”

“If it’s two dimensional, wouldn’t it be flat?”

“No, planar surfaces are only a convention. It comes from drawing everything out on a piece of paper.” He shrugged dismissively. “Classical thinking, definitely. I want a topological computer.” He could see it. “Superconducting graphene ribbons with semiconducting edges. Quantum knots. Plectonemous and toroidal supercoils…” Nathan coughed politely. Kurt put it into words. “I could make a braid, and join it in a ring, and put a mobius twist into it. And it’d curl up, which under the right circumstances would create a compact field around itself and keep decoherence at bay.”

“Okay,” Nathan said. He’d played with mobius strips. “It’s a ribbon that doesn’t start and doesn’t end, and it’s only got one side, and there’s only one edge.”

“Right. And if the ribbon is made of qubits, then once you twist it, you’ve got an infinite quantum loop, which means infinite qubits in an even tinier fucking space, because a mobius strip has no volume and no dimensions.”

Nathan tried to imagine something smaller than invisibility. “How many molecules would it take to make a mobius strip?”

“Huh. I guess I’d have to make one before I could count it.” He was starting to need a smoke really bad, and got up to leave.

Nathan headed back toward his table. It was time to be getting home. “What are you going to put it in?” he asked.

Kurt edged toward the door, fishing his smogs out of his pocket and holding them at the ready. “It’ll need some sort of shell that’s shielded from just about everything, I guess.” He fumbled for his lighter.

“But how will it communicate with the outside?” Nathan asked as he sat back down in front of his books.

“Oh, scalar waves will go right thru the most efficient shield,” he said offhand. “I’ll put an oscillator-receiver on the outside of the shell, and link that up to everything else.” He shrugged. “Anyway, a miracle will happen,” he said, and headed off to the subway with a wave of his notebook.

Caroline came up carrying a box of STBXfood. “Was he bothering you, kid?” she asked with a mean look at Kurt’s back. “Because if he’s trying to sell you drugs, or come on to you…” She opened the box and poked her food with a finger, frowning. “You just let me know and I’ll take care of him. By the way, that was a load of bullshit from start to finish, what he was saying. I didn’t understand a goddamned word.”

Caroline ate her food and talked while Nathan tried to concentrate on his homework; voicing dark, detail-free stories of her life in law enforcement, relieved by monotonous anecdotes of failed relationships and abuse. In the few weeks Nathan had known her, he’d found her bitter and self-absorbed. She loved to whine about her love life. And the devil in her wanted to shock him with her swaggering tales of butch lesbian conquests. But Nathan was okay with whatever sexuality she wanted, just as long as she kept away from him.

***

Kurt went home to his van and built his computer. Started to build his computer. Came smack up against the lack of materials and supplies with which to build his computer. But he wasn’t daunted. Kurt had contacts all over the place.

He was always getting to gawk at prototypes in fancy funded labs, sometimes received samples of new materials, and every once in a while got hold of a nifty instrument nobody needed anymore. So when he was ready to build his quantum computer, he called up his friends to see about access to their labs and maybe a couple of spare parts. Most of them were apologetic; one said something snippy about the last time. So Kurt did a quick inventory of parts and labor and decided he could damn well build a quantum computer himself, with things he probably had around the van.

In fact, the back of his van was the kind of DIY physics lab a geek would drool over, with handbuilt multimeters and oscilloscopes, a bench power supply, a dc power supply, function generators, pulse generators, and an entire range of lasers. He also had a nearby storage unit filled with everything from old PCs, microwaves, TVs, CD and DVD players to smoke detectors, camera lenses and optical filters.

Kurt’s van was also full of food wrappers and printer paper and well-thumbed manuals, with a gun under the driver’s seat and a stash of pharmaceuticals in the glove compartment, and it all had to be cleaned up, because the first thing he needed to do was shield his van from prying eyes and electromagnetic interference. As a metal box on insulating tires, his van was a natural faraday cage anyway, but Kurt was a firm believer in the efficacy of tinfoil hats and shielding paint.

Then he needed a DIY scanning electron microscope, because even a starter desktop unit cost twenty times the trade-in value of his van. Once these simple tasks were accomplished, he parked in a quiet, secure location with wifi, hooked into the electrical grid, put up his privacy shade, and settled down to create his masterpiece.

First he made a supply of DIY exfoliated graphene, using scotch tape to peel layers of graphite off of a chunk, samples which were enriched with both Kurtskin and vangrunge. Then he sat and debated which of several substrates to use, and where he might obtain a smidgen. This proved to be some trouble, so he sat thinking in front of his computer screen, bathing his face in radiation which btw he was convinced kept his skin looking fresh and youthful. And probably increased his baldness, but oh well. The answer continued to elude him. There were so many choices and so few cooperative sources. He smoked a few cigarettes and thought. He ate a bag of corn chips and cruised the internet, waiting for inspiration. He smoked some more. He tossed a coin. He took a walk to the corner store for more cigarettes. He pondered into the night.

Finally he gave up and decided to get some sleep. So he got out and watered the wall one last time, turned everything off, locked his door, put his seat down, and settled in behind the wheel of his van with a pillow and blanket. Then he unlocked the glove compartment and rummaged thru his stash, considering his evening soporific.

He started with two zolpidems and a tramadol. Then he smoked some weed, then popped an oxycodone and closed his eyes. Kurt was an experienced and responsible pharmaceutical user. He took antianxiety drugs when he had to go out in public, because he was an isolator, antidepressants because he couldn’t get going without them, sleeping pills because he was insomniac. He did psychostimulants when he speed-coded a project, took antipsychotics when he needed to control the shaking, and smoked a blunt whenever he needed to level it all out. He had a standing order for anything psychedelic, and was a big fan of mixing meds in the spirit of scientific inquiry.

This is not to make Kurt sound like a drug addict. Kurt was studying the role of chemicals on consciousness, using himself as the subject, and always searching for the perfect high. He was an armchair expert on neuromodulators like dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. He had mindguard installed on his Bluetooth, and wore funny underwear to eliminate psychotronic radiation. He had a mystical attitude toward quantum mechanics that the system discouraged. As a DIY electrical engineer and programmer, he taught himself on his Commodore 64, and dropped out of Tech after a fight with the head of the department over some point of orthodoxy Kurt just couldn’t stomach. Years and years and years ago.

Kurt was asleep. He slept soundly for about an hour, and then, istill asleep, he got up from the driver’s seat and went back to his computer desk, neatly avoiding the sharp things and hard obstacles, obliviously stepping on soft squishy articles and trash. In his sleep, he sat down, flipped on the computer, lit a cigarette and got to work. Fast asleep, he was sitting at his kick-ass computer, typing as fast as he could think. In his sleep, Kurt was feeling good, his mind was being its brilliant self and he was cruising along feeling how good it was to be really smart. How righteous it felt to just snatch ideas out of the air and transform them into reality with a few stabs of his fingers. Like a boss. In his dream, he inhabited a cloudlike mental/computer space where the kernel of his quantum computer formed, with only a little bit of help, into a massive tangle of purposeful connections and chunks of functionality, a beautiful, symmetrical organism that rolled up into a perfectly reflective egg

Kurt knew he was sleeping. He turned over in his reclined driver’s seat and smelled the nastiness of his overflowing console ashtray. But he never minded that, because he was also sitting in his chair in the middle of his dream computer lab, using only the eloquence of his coding, programmagically creating a vessel which suddenly appeared when he hit enter, and spun slowly, gleaming on the desk between his keyboard and the monitor, right next to his bottomless pot o’coffee.

The egg was about eight inches tall, tho Kurt could never be sure of the scale. It shimmered softly. It didn’t actually touch the table, but hovered a tiny way above it, pointy end up, wobbling slightly as it turned. Kurt leaned in to examine it and saw himself reflected back from thousands of tiny nubs, like kernels of corn on a cob. How aerodynamic, he thought. He reached for his dream cigarettes and sat back in his chair. What’s it for? he wondered.

He let it sit there, spinning slowly, wondering what to do next. He dozed for a moment, the cigarette in his hand slowly moving toward his leg as he fell back to sleep.

In his sleep, Kurt sat in front of his computer, in his pimped out office chair, staring at the gleaming egg silhouetted against his monitor. Kurt’s dream computer was DIY state of the fucking art, and his van was an Airstream decked out like NORAD, and was parked in Yosemite, under a tree, in the light of the full moon. Nicola Tesla was sitting on the banquette talking to Wilhelm Reich. They wore rumpled suits and were speaking animatedly in German. They turned to Kurt and paused for a moment, watching him doze. They bet on whether he would burn himself. Tesla got up and put on a kettle for some coffee while Reich rummaged thru the cabinets for something to add to it. Kurt’s dream Airstream was well stocked. The pair made a mess of the kitchen area.

They were talking about fabricating on a nanometer scale. Reich wanted to strip a regular silicon transistor down atom by atom. Tesla wanted to scale up, one atom on top of another. Where they speaking in English now? Kurt stirred, sprawled in his task chair. He smelled the coffee. He heard Tesla suggesting pre-programmed building blocks that would self-assemble, and Reich argued for growing it from seed with cell division and dendritic growth. Kurt wanted to join the conversation, but was only able to rouse himself for coffee.

Tesla brought him a mug that reeked of whisky and tasted like chocolate pudding. Kurt slugged it down while they leaned over his shoulders to peer at his shining egg. “Good,” they both said, then had different suggestions for his next step, and started arguing again. Kurt got up for more coffee and sat at the banquette to roll a spliff.

They worked all night. Actually it was over the course of several weeks, but thru the miracle of modern medicine, it all went by in a single burst of effort that Kurt hardly noticed. His dream Airstream had a pantry full of coffee and ramen noodles, a fully stocked bar, and a machine that dispensed cigarettes, weed, and pharmaceuticals. With Tesla and Reich around he didn’t have to get up except to medicate and pee.

Reich worked with him on the bioengineering portion, while Tesla played solitaire at the banquette. With a hit of acid just coming on, Kurt’s hands – normally a little pudgy – expanded into big heavy slabs, while his knife started to bend and ripple as he used it.

“You oaf,” Reich berated as Kurt cut himself and bled all over the graphene he was prepping.

“You are contaminating the samples at every step,” Tesla complained, re-sorting the deck and dealing himself better cards.

“That’s perhaps not all bad,” Reich mused as he went thru the pantry again. “Happy accidents, you know.”

Kurt sucked his bloody thumb and reminded them that he never picked a substrate to deposit the graphene onto.

“How about this?” Reich asked as he stood up in the kitchen, wearing a package of ramen noodles on his head like a hat.

“Ramen for the substrate? Starch?” Tesla wondered.

“MSG?” Kurt guessed. “Don’t we want something rigid?”

“Nonsense. That’s two dimensional thinking. We’ll just take a twist of dried noodle, like so, two of them, twist them together, and you’ve got a double helix.” Reich held the broken pieces of ramen in his palm and turned to Kurt. “Is your finger still bleeding? Open that cut up and squeeze a few drops on this. The protein will bind the energetic essence of your blood to the helix, then we’ll twist it down and mush it hard, into paste.”

“Bloody paste.” Kurt was dubious.

“Of course,” Reich sniffed. “Ramen retains its helical structure and its matrix of embodied life essence even when broken down into its component molecules.” He lapsed into German to explain it to Tesla, which was good, because Kurt’s brain wasn’t doing rational very well at the moment, and didn’t need to be burdened by details. And I’m afraid that if Kurt missed out on it, then so did I, and we’re just going to have to conjecture a little blob of magical realism here.

They smoothed the graphene down on the kitchen counter and smeared mushy orange ramen over it. All sorts of crud came unstuck from the counter and mixed with the slurry.

It was visibly riddled with contaminants. “We have to throw it away,” Kurt said, embarrassed to be picking hairs out of it.

“No don’t,” Tesla said. “We can make use of the different properties.” He pointed to objects in the hardening sludge. “This bit here is semiconducting. This is ferromagnetic.”

Reich leaned over and had a close look, then motioned Kurt down beside him. “Here’s how you alter the conductivity,” he said. “Breathe out slowly.” Kurt’s breath fogged and floated over the solution in waves and tendrils. “You’re adding oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen to the mixture.” The breeze created lines and fernlike spiraling ribbons on the surface. “Those are insulating lines you’re etching into the substrate,” Reich said. “The dendrites are semiconducting.”

Kurt poured himself more coffee, did up some designer ketamine, and rolled another joint. Tesla was sweeping the floor, which made Kurt feel a little guilty about the mess, but then Reich scooped up a handful of dust out of the pile and dumped it on the cooled sludge. Tesla lightly folded and kneaded the mixture a few times, and Reich explained that they were layering semiconducting graphene with insulating graphene to make an orgone accumulator. Kurt was impressed at how easy it was.

Reich took the floury doughlike mixture and flattened it with his hands, bending down to peer closely at it. He twisted specks of contaminant off and separated them. There were a lot of them, and they were plumper and more hydrated than when they’d first gone into the slurry. “Graphane, graphone,” he named the bits as he sorted them. “Graphyne, graphoon.’ They were in shapes now, triangles, rhombuses. He pointed to the piles of blocks in turn. “Insulating on the counter, conducting next to the stove, magnets on the floor, superconductors on the table, semiconductors on top of the microwave.” The piles were tiny little dust motes. But the scale kept changing, and Kurt could see them as clearly as if each one was the size of his hand.

They did a lot of work with Kurt’s handmade scanning electron microscope, using tweezers to work a small piece of graphene into position under the lens. With a tiny pair of nano hands, Kurt tore off strips until he had a long, thin ribbon of graphene. His physical dexterity fading fast, he had a hell of a time taking one end and joining it to the other with a mobius twist.

When he was finished, Tesla clapped him on the back and congratulated him on his first real act of genius – making the seed of his quantum computer. So they had a little party with brandy and cigars and blow all around.

They looked at the mobius strip. “That’s the qubit?” Kurt asked, not entirely remembering.

“Certainly,” Tesla replied. “Actually, it’s a qubit array, since each molecule of graphene contains either a flux qubit or storage.”

“Say what?” Kurt was starting to get a little fuzzy.

“You’ll see. Now, we’re going to wrap it up in a buckyball. You can build a generating chamber, can’t you?”

“Maybe I need a little nap first.”

“No need, I’ll build it. Why don’t you freshen up a little?”

Kurt took a shower, then made microwave popcorn, popped a pilsner, and got out the bong and the good weed.

In twenty minutes they had a jar full of buckyballs that smelled like artificial butter. They’d used the mobius strip as a seed inside the generating chamber, and when they opened the jar and scraped the smudge on the inside, they had about a gram of C60 fullerene with mobius qubits trapped inside. Like magic.

Reich mumbled around a mouthful of popcorn. “So, it’s getting late. What’s next?”

“Uh, we need to embed it onto a chip,” Kurt said, seeing Tesla nodding off at the banquette.

Reich came over. “Here’s how you grow transistors. Give me one of your hairs.” Kurt plucked a hair from his chest – there weren’t that many on his head. Reich went over to the banquette table and dragged the hair thru the pile of semiconducting powder. Then he gave the hair back to Kurt, who put it under the microscope. Reich showed him where to position the scalpel. “Tiny slivers,” he advised. “Thinner.” When he was satisfied, Kurt picked up a cross section with a tweezer, and put it under the microscope. “OK that’s ten thousand transistors,” Reich said.

“Yeah, that’s a metaphor, right?” Kurt retorted. Onscreen, the crossectioned hair broke up into thousands of pieces and grew legs, crawling offscreen. “That’s pretty illustrative,” Kurt mused as Reich gathered them into a test tube.

Tesla moved in next to Kurt. His breath smelled like stale cigarettes. “Here’s how you make an integrated circuit.” He put a piece of treated graphene under the microscope. “Hold your thumb in the middle.” Kurt objected that he couldn’t fit his thumb under the eyepiece of the microscope, but there was his thumb onscreen, measuring roughly 10nm at the nail, while it still felt the normal size on the end of his hand. He wiggled his thumb. It wiggled onscreen. “Hold still,” Tesla snapped. Kurt’s nanoscale thumb hovered over the graphene, almost touching it. His thumb throbbed, the cut oozed over an enormous area. A faint electrical corona grew visible on the graphene and began casting sparks. It looked like lightning onscreen.

Kurt pulled back to 10,000x magnification. There was a glowing ring around his thumb at the gap between it and the graphene. “Just hold it there, and we’ll coax these little fuckers onto the surface,” Tesla said, as Reich bent over with the test tube and flicked a few specks out onto the graphene. Onscreen, a shower of invisible transistors rained down, and like ants in search of food, marched across the surface toward Kurt’s thumb, leaving little glowing tracers. Their movement slowed and stopped as they packed themselves in and took root in the graphene.

Then Reich came over with the mobius buckyball smudge, and Kurt selected a single ball and placed it in the center of the still-glowing ring. “And there you have it,” Reich said proudly. “A quantum integrated circuit.”

Kurt removed the chip from the microscope with tweezers. An invisible glint shone at the tip. “This is pretty cool for a prototype,” he said. “But I’m wondering how we’ll do it on a production scale.”

“Don’t worry,” Tesla assured him, “we’ve already thought of that. We’ll clone them.” He waved at the far end of the Airstream, which was now the size of an Amazon warehouse, with thousands of workstations and millions of qubits performing billions of actions.

“Bits of Kurt on every chip,” Reich said merrily.

Kurt thought that was hilarious. “Cloned Kurt sandwiches.” He was giggling now.

Tesla walked over to Kurt’s computer and grabbed the egg that was still floating, gleaming and slowly spinning in front of the monitor. He brought it over to where Kurt was sitting holding the quantum chip. “Here’s your home,” he told the chip, introducing it to the egg. “Now put yourself around that,” he told the egg. Ripples appeared on the surface of the shell, and the chip passed thru into the center.

“Just like that, huh?” Kurt said caustically. “If only I’d known before. How simple.” Tesla and Reich both nodded impatiently, and Kurt felt stupid.

Tesla pressed the point. “Okay, now we need to shield it. How simple. Let’s review our options?” He raised an eyebrow at Kurt, who remained silent. “We’ll use an optical coating, of course.” Kurt steamed. “Let’s see, dissipative, reflective, dichroic, I think.” He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a small vial that he began to shake.

Kurt balked. “No please, just tell me what this is a metaphor for so I can cut thru all this bullshit.”

Tesla put the vial back in his pocket. “Okay, fine.”

Reich looked disappointed. “We still need to coat it.” He went to the counter and took a bit of the doughy stuff, balled it up and gave it to Kurt. “Here, gob this up in your mouth for a minute. Nice and gooey. Okay,” he held out his palm. “Spit it out.” He went over to the stove and rolled it in the conducting powder, then smeared it over the egg. “Right. Then we heat set it.”

“Can we do that here?” Kurt was perplexed. “Don’t we need an anealing oven?” He followed Tesla’s eyes. “The microwave, duh.”

Kurt set the timer and pushed the button, watching anxiously thru the door, then impulsively canceled it and pulled out the dish, peering at its diminishing smallness for signs that he’d overcooked it. It spun slowly, gleaming richly in the light of the open microwave door. “Okay, it’s shielded. Now what?”

“Now we power it,” Reich said.

“Where are we going to fit a battery?” He looked at Tesla, who only winked. “Oh yeah. We’ll make it a wireless transmitter. It’ll resonate with the earth’s frequency and get its energy from that. That’s how it will communicate with the peripherals, too. We’ll wrap it with a coil made from a ferromagnetic graphene nanotube, and that’ll generate a scalar wave to cancel out the interference, and the resulting superconducting magnet will act as a diode.”

Tesla beamed. “You will go down in history!” he exclaimed.

“You will go down in flames,” Reich added.

“What the fuck,” Kurt shrugged.

They gave each other high fives. Tesla handed Kurt his hip flask. Reich offered him another line.

The rest was easy. They embedded the quantum egg onto a standard chip, set onto a standard motherboard, linked to standard devices, and wifi enabled. Then they all turned in for a few winks. Kurt crawled into his king-sized waterbed and fell back to sleep, and dreamed about the whole night all over again.

When he woke up, he was cold and cramped in the front seat of his grimy, filthy van, parked in a basement garage, cars pulling in all around him and slamming their doors. He tried to go back to sleep. The egg was shining, floating in the dream space inside his mind, pulsing with his own brainwaves. He stood in front of it and said, “Open sesame,” and it opened up and let him in, enveloping him like a living suit, making him physically infinite, indeterminate, fuzzy.

When he woke up for real, the inside of his van was trashed, there was green vomit in the wastebasket, he had bruises on his leg and scratches on his arms. There were a couple of dozen ramen noodle packages on the floor of the van, stamped flat and torn open. His tools had hardened doughy fingerprints all over them. His computer screen showed a videogame with a message saying, “Banned for Teamkilling.” He stared at the screen for a long time, drinking cold coffee and smoking cigarettes, eating two provigils and an adderall. He had no idea what he’d done. His tremendous, earthshaking revolution in quantum computing was a complete accident, a product of a lost month of hacks and fabrications.

He got to work programming an operating system to translate quantum into something a regular computer could work with. Alone in his messy van, sitting in the back on a broken swivel chair in front of a bank of computers and screens, surrounded by cables and computer junk, trash, cigarette butts, plastic coffee cups, fast food wrappers, and a big half-empty pee-jar, he did what he did best, lit by garish monitor-light, oblivious to the world outside.

He was in the flow the moment he began creating the game engine. The hours passed, and he slapped the code down as fast as it came to him, and it was a thing of beauty. The program just flowed out of his fingers and went where it needed to go as if it were predestined. No mistakes, no debugging, no rewriting. His best work ever.

Then he encrypted it so nobody else could mess with his quantum kernel.

***

Kurt texted the others to meet him at the foodcourt, and left his van for the first time in weeks. Standing at the counter choosing his bargain lunch, he saw Nathan eyeing the cellphone velcroed to his wrist.

“Oh wow, what’s that?” Nathan looked at Kurt’s face hopefully. “Did you make…? No, you couldn’t have.”

Kurt raised his arm and showed off his new quantum computer. “Not available in stores.”

During the night, he’d finished debugging the operating system, adapted it for his android phone and wrote a basic app to show that it worked. Nathan’s admiration made him feel very pleased with himself. Yes, he was a genius.

Josh and Anomia were waiting for him with half-drunk cups of coffee. Fairy and Snake came in arguing a few minutes later, having both gone to the other food court by mistake.

They weren’t quiet as impressed as Nathan.

Kurt was supposed to be coming up with a software engine, and they were annoyed when he showed them a klugy wristphone that didn’t actually do anything.

“What do you want from a quantum computer?” Kurt demanded, a bit put out. “I could crack all your passwords,” he offered. They looked dubious. “Look how fast a search works,” he said, getting the results the moment he hit enter. “I’ve written an algorithm. You can tell it the problem you’re trying to solve and it’ll design and implement a search for you.”

“You mean like Siri,” Snake said, his lip curling.

“Well, if you want spectacular, there’s always instant communication and teleportation,” Kurt said sarcastically. They brightened up. He looked away. “I’d need to construct a receiver. There would be difficulties” They looked disappointed. “But really, what I’ve done is perfect for exactly what you want it for. A quantum computer is best at doing quantum simulations.”

“You’re saying it can really simulate a quantum world?” Anomia asked. “Like, players really would be able to alter game reality with their minds?”

“Yeah,” he said after thinking for a moment. “No reason why not, and convincingly, too.” He shrugged and went back to his lunch. “With processing power to spare.”

Anomia sat back, happy, tapping her empty cup against the table. “So we’re really making a game where you immerse yourself in a quantum world, and get used to it, and pretty soon you’re using the same techniques at home, and school, and work. The whole world will change.”

Snake and Fairy looked at each other, Fairy to catch Snake scoffing, and Snake to catch Fairy getting teary.

“Where’s the actual chip?” Josh asked. Kurt showed them a little piece of black tape on the back of his phone. “I could have left it back in the van, ‘cuz it’s wireless, but I wanted to show you. The quantum part is actually too small to be described.” He indicated a slight lump under the tape, and lifted one edge. “You can see the integrated circuit it’s on, sort of.”

They bent over to peer at it. “It’s a speck,” Snake observed.

“Take a picture with your phone and zoom way in.”

They did. “It’s a pixelated speck.”

He shrugged. “Ten million of today’s transistors are only the size of a grain of salt. A state of the art processor has two and a half billion.”

Josh picked at a corner of the tape. “So how big is your quantum processor? How many qubits?”

Kurt smoothed the tape down with the back of his thumb. “I wasn’t sure at first, because of course the mobius loop is an infinite sheet of carbon molecules.”

“Duh,” Snake mouthed.

“But I finally counted them, sort of, in one state, and came up with five hundred qubits, which by the way would use up ten terabytes of normal, classical computer storage.”

Kurt needed a smoke, so they all trooped out to emphysema alley, where Fairy bummed a cigarette from Kurt, Josh lit up a little guiltily, Snake looked superior, and Anomia looked pissed off at Josh.

Kurt recounted what he remembered about his endless fabrication and programming sessions, and the antics with Reich and Tesla. Fairy got breathless about Reich, and Josh swooned over Tesla. Anomia was cold and wanted to go back in. Snake made hallucination jokes.

“So how do qubits work?” Fairy asked.

Anomia sighed. “Oh, look it up.”

Kurt said, “I’m still figuring out how to train them.”

“Train the qubits?” Josh asked.

Snake laughed. “Sparky the Wonder Qubit.”

Kurt lit another cigarette off the stub. “It’s a neural system. It learns.” Fairy nudged him until he offered her a second one. “You should see the machine language I’ve developed. It’s very paradoxical. Like poetry.” He nodded at Snake, “You probably wouldn’t get it.” Snake drew himself up and flipped his hair. “I’m trying to process a huge number number of complex variables at once,” he continued, “and organize it so that everything flows smoothly thru the system. It’s all trial and error – the wrong rules will kill the buzz entirely. Because it’s Bayesian.” He looked down at Fairy. “The operating system has only a few simple and comprehensive ground rules, and they are very adaptable.” She beamed at him.

“You should patent it,” Snake suggested.

Kurt was dismissive. “I couldn’t possibly document it well enough to fill out a patent application.”

“What will you call it?” Fairy asked, cuddling close to him for warmth.

“Hmm, a name. They’ve built neural networks before. They always name them, for some reason. There was the Perceptron in 1958, the Orgasmatron in ’73, the Cognitron in ’75. In 1980 they built the Neocognitron, and the multilayer Perceptron in ’86. I don’t know, maybe this time we should call it the Groktron.”

Snake made a face.

“Whatever.” Kurt smiled down at Fairy. “Why don’t you name it?” he said graciously as they went back inside.

She batted her eyes at him. “Too bad Orgasmatron is taken,” she mused.

“So, what’s next?” Snake said, eager to shut Fairy down.

Kurt turned to him. “I figure you could all use individual quantum computers, rather than trying to network thru a server. It’ll give me an opportunity to tinker. A personal quantum device should make your work easier.” He drew out a much-folded piece of paper with notations scribbled all over it, and tapped at a complex circuit diagram. “It reads your mind, kind of. Minds. Anyway, it’s all drag and drop and tools I borrowed from the gimp. Intelligible design. You basically describe or draw what you want, or find a reference, and the programming happens automatically.”

They were stunned.

“And it’s cheap. With my invention, you can make your indie videogame, and it won’t take a hundred people and cost ten million bucks the way it does these days. It’ll just take you guys, right here, and about a thousand dollars. Most of that spent on coffee, no doubt.” He checked the time and got up, feeling a little allergic. He hated talking to people and wanted to be back home in his van, right now, where he could relax, pop a Xanax, and get back to work. And he needed a cigarette. He walked over and dumped his trash in the bin.

“How’re we gonna come up with a dime?” Josh whined.

“I’ll get a job as a stripper,” Anomia suggested jokingly. Josh and Snake looked expectantly at her. “Not,” she bristled.

Kurt turned back and said, “You don’t have to worry about money. A quantum computer can handle something like bank rounding errors in its sleep.”

Snake stared at him. “Could we ask it to figure out the stock market and recommend a few things? Could it do that?”

Kurt shrugged and left for the subway. “Maybe I’ll write an app.”

Anomia and Fairy started to gush, so Snake became the voice of reason. “Perhaps you didn’t notice, but Kurt’s really into this woo shit. I hate to pop your bubble because you’re depending on him for miracles and all. I think he’s just another metaphysical flake who sounds good but doesn’t know what he’s doing.” He spread his hands persuasively. “Else he’d be making the big bucks in a government funded lab.”

The girls defended Kurt, and even Josh thought his physics was sound, but Snake pointed out a dozen basic fallacies and departures from standard quantum physics. “Orgone – please. Tesla fields. Totally unsubstantiated. And what did he show us that was at all quantummagical? Nothing. A search algorithm. Wow.” This dampened their enthusiasm. “We’ll just have to see what he comes up with. A quantum PDfuckingA, huh? Well, I’m sure we can make it sound great, no matter how eyerolling it actually turns out to be.”

***

Going home on the subway, Nathan sat in back of two men who were worriedly consulting their phones and talking in hushed tones.

“Just the one blip about 12 hours ago?” asked one, a black guy with a shaved head. Nathan was reminded of Curly.

“And nothing since,” the other one responded, an old guy with gray frizzy hair Nathan decided to call Larry. The old guy cracked a knuckle. “The grid lit up like Christmas, then went out altogether, and then right back to normal.”

They were both dressed in tan windbreakers and khaki pants with topsiders. Curly checked another site. “Nope, not a solar storm. There’s a couple of sunspots but they’re quiet, and not pointing in our direction anyway. Plus the satellites are unaffected, and our phones still work. What about earthquakes?”

Larry checked and shook his head. “The usual range of fours and fives around the Ring of Fire, twos in Iceland and the Mediterranean.” He checked something else. “Looks like the rest of the world isn’t directly affected. Probably the outages around the Great Lakes are just cascading effects.”

“I mean earthquakes here, in this time zone.”

“Oh, only a bunch of fracking-related twos and threes from Maine to Texas, nothing unusual.”

They kept shaking their heads in wonder and peering at each other’s phones. “Look at that signature. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Like a billion lightbulbs. They can’t find a source.” Larry cracked another knuckle. “This guy here’s saying it was like the earth got a shock of static electricity.”

Curly sighed with exasperation. “What could it be? Cyberattack?”

They traded puzzled looks, then went back to their phones.

“Huh. We don’t have anything capable…?” Larry asked.

“Not even close.”

“That’s what I thought. And them?”

Curly snorted. “Not unless they’re space aliens. Everybody’s looking at this, it’d be obvious if it was planned.”

“But it’s not the sun.” Larry bent his head to check as a new message dinged. “Fuck.”

“What?” Curly kept his attention on his phone.

“I’m being reassigned.”

They looked at each other. “When?” Curly asked.

“Effective the middle of the goddamned night, apparently.”

Curly got a message. “Fuck. Me too.”

They dialed presets on their phones and got off at the next stop. Nathan watched them gesturing as the train pulled out of the station.

***

He was way late getting home, and arrived with his head full of dreams. He loved the kind of world where a guy like Kurt could make an insanely powerful nanocomputer at home, and just wear it on his wrist. Something you could never buy. something custom made, that nobody else in the world had.

It was so different from the world Nathan lived in, where everything came from Walmart and Ikea and Target, and before that from some factory in Asia where little kids were chained to their machines and beaten for lunch. Everything – cheaply made, easily broken, never as advertised. Nathan wanted to live in a world where things were custom made, and people did things differently, worked things out for themselves, made their own decisions. That’s why Dad was so hard to take, because he forced everybody to do everything his way. The stupid way.

Nathan was fascinated by Kurt’s prototype, and covered a sheet of paper with scribbled notes all the way home. He was still pulling it out of his pocket and adding thoughts when he walked thru the front door into the living room.

Dad snatched it out of his hand. “What’s this bullshit? Math?” He pointed to a sentence. “What’s this? Does this say quasiparticle? Haha.” He turned the page all around to examine the notes. “Infinite sheets of superconducting qubits? You must be kidding me. Orgone? Flux/charge transistor? Online electronics course?” He crumpled the paper and tossed it back. “Your handwriting really sucks, you know. It looks like you were running when you wrote this.”

“I’ll take a calligraphy class,” Nathan offered as he edged toward his room.

“Get me a beer. Smartass. Not pansy handwriting,” he explained. “Just legible. My writing’s not great, either,” he confessed as he popped the top. “I guess you must get it from me. Why don’t you print instead of trying to write, like I do? Then everybody could read it.”

“Like I want you reading my stuff,” Nathan mumbled from his room. He barely had his backpack off his shoulders when Dad came barging in. “I heard that.” He reached out and grabbed Nathan’s hair and yanked his head back. “If I want to know what you’re reading, you’re damn well going to show me.”

Nathan stood there wincing, his shoulders hunched to protect his neck, waiting for Dad to let go. He noticed that he was tall enough to look Dad in the eye. Dad smelled of beer, sour sweat, and orange hand cleaner.

“It’s my house, you’re my kid, it’s my money, my food, my car,” he said, shaking Nathan with every beat. “You got nothing that don’t come from me. I’m in charge of what you can do, who you can talk to, what you read, and where you go. And I’ve started to think you’re doing something behind my back, without checking with me first. Isn’t there something you’d like to confess before I beat it out of you?” He let go Nathan’s hair and whapped him on the back of the head, chuckling. “Haha just kidding,” he said playfully.

Nathan backed away, rubbing his head. “Well, I know I’ve been late getting home a lot,” he started, looking at his feet and shuffling awkwardly.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Dad said with satisfaction.

“It’s because,” he looked at Dad, “‘cuz I’ve gone out for sports.” He shrugged and folded his arms.

Dad bobbed with happiness. “That’s my boy.” He put his arm around Nathan and walked him back to the living room. “Wait. What coach in his right mind would have you?” He stopped and looked his son over. “You surely didn’t go out for football, did you? Or basketball?”

Nathan shook his head.

“Nah, they wouldn’t let you. Baseball?” he asked hopefully.

“No?” Nathan said. Dad would insist on showing up for games.

“Wrestling?”

Dad would challenge him to a match and try to teach him something. Dad’s beer breath, his hairy arms, his bulging stomach, being pinned; it made him shudder. “Uh, soccer,” he said.

Dad frowned. “What? That’s almost funny. You’re so puny you have to play with the girls.”

“Huh?”

“Your sister played when you were little. Soccer’s for sissies. Nobody plays that game.”

“It’s more popular than…,” Nathan started to say football, but Mom cut him off.

“Actually, dear, some of the world’s most macho sex symbols are soccer players,” she said.

Dad frowned and eyed Nathan suspiciously. “Go get your dinner. And get me a beer while you’re in there. Faggot,” he said to Nathan’s back.

“He’s such a bully,” Nathan complained as he reheated his pot pie. Mom had followed him into the kitchen and was loading the dishwasher. “We can’t just let him win all the time, Mom. Nothing’ll ever change if we don’t make him stop.” He poured himself a glass of milk. “He’s so mean, and he’s wrong, and you still let him have his way.”

“We just have to put up with it,” Mom said sympathetically. “He may be wrong, but he’s the head of the family, and he needs to do as he thinks best.”

“But he’s wrong,” he protested. “He treats you badly. We don’t have to put up with it. It’s not like it’s okay for him to be wrong. Aren’t we supposed to do what’s right no matter what?”

“Not if it goes against your father.”

“So it’s not no matter what, then.” They looked at each other for a moment.

“No. You’re right. But we have to excuse his maybe slightly abusive actions, because he’s only trying to do what’s right for us.”

Nathan made a noise. “No, he’s suiting himself. He doesn’t care about us. We’re his servants.”

“Your father loves you, in his way. Call it crazy wisdom. You have to trust him.”

“Well, no I don’t, either. He’s abusive.”

“He knows best, you know.”

“Didn’t we agree that he doesn’t?”

She shrugged and patted his shoulder. “Let’s go sit down and let you eat.”

Dad was cruising thru the channels with his remote and passed a sports channel down in the foreign part of the cable spectrum. He watched long enough to get the gist of professional soccer, and after that called Nathan a Mexican faggot. Nathan accepted this meekly because Dad hadn’t actually forbidden him to play, and that meant he could disguise his work as something Dad wasn’t the least bit interested in.

Dad left the TV on Fox News and went to the bathroom. Nathan sat and ate while Mom and Sis had a quick, fierce argument about the new speeding ticket Sis brought home. Nathan tried to ignore them, but heard Sis threaten Mom if Dad found out. Then Dad was back and they shut up.

The news graphic showed a satellite picture of the eastern US with the words “LIGHTS OUT” in big red letters splashed across the top. The anchor appeared, a chirpy young woman with pink hair, one corner of her mouth turned up in a slight smirk. “Our top story tonight. They’re calling it the Big Glitch.” She turned grim. “The lights flickered out over the entire eastern third of the country last night, in an incident experts are calling a transient electrical surge, possibly the result of a solar storm. The storm interrupted the electrical supply of hundreds of millions of electronic systems in the most populated and interconnected part of the country” The anchor did a sincere face. “At a press conference this morning, the president’s spokesman assured the country that everything will be okay.”

The video showed an official standing at a podium answering inaudible questions with prepared talking points. “There was never any danger of radiation…No, at this time, the event is not thought to be the result of a terrorist attack…Most devices successfully reactivated or rebooted or restarted after the event…It only lasted a fraction of a second…I’m afraid it will take weeks to assess the extent of the damages…Undoubtedly. Billions, yes. And possibly months to recover.”

The anchor was back on, reading from her pages. “Among the local stories we’re tracking, the power is still out in Midtown after a substation exploded. There have been numerous reports of crashed computer systems, lost or canceled financial transactions, traffic accidents due to non-working signals, and hospitals having to manually restart vital life support systems when their backup generators failed. There was a frightening near miss at JFK airport after radar tracking equipment malfunctioned, and over Atlanta, the crew of a cargo flight experienced a frantic few seconds as they restarted their engines in midair. We’ll be covering these stories and more at eleven.” She looked at the camera and smiled brightly. “Next up, will naughty children ever learn? Stay tuned.”

They cut to an ad and Dad made Nathan get him a beer. He dawdled, putting things into the dishwasher while Dad yelled at him to hurry back for what promised to be a teaching moment.

The news graphic showed a ten-year old boy in handcuffs and an execution hood, with the words BAD BOY in big red letters splashed over the top. The anchor looked harsh but loving. “Today, the president signed a controversial new bill confirming parents’ absolute right of authority over their children. The ‘Papa Bear’ law provides the death penalty for rebellious children, and is modeled on Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Critics decry it as neolithic and morally backward, but supporters hail it as a powerful incentive to get kids to respect authority.”

Dad leaned over and slapped Nathan’s leg. “Well,” he said triumphantly, “there it is, in black and white. Disobey and die.” He drained his beer. “I’ve been trying to get it thru your head. It’s serious. The foundation of civilization is obedience and discipline at home.” He drew himself up. “Because, dammit, I not only have the right, but the duty to teach you to respect your betters, and if you disobey me I will not hesitate to make an example out of you. In fact, you can be the first. You can stand as a lesson to all children about the importance of family discipline.”

Sis looked superior, an angelic sneer on her face. Nathan felt like saluting his father, but didn’t dare. He got him another beer without being asked, and slipped away to the kitchen, where Mom was organizing the bills.

“Mom, if you need it, you can have the rest of my paycheck. For, like, Sis’s traffic ticket.”

“No, sweetie, you’re doing enough already.”

Sis swaggered into the kitchen for a coke, leaving her dishes in the living room, as usual. They started in on each other in low voices, Mom disapproving of something Sis wanted to do, and Sis being darkly threatening without actually referring to anything specific. Mom just sat there while Sis stood over her and told her she was stupid and disgusting, someone who made dinner and dragged Dad down.

“You need to pay my fine,” Sis insisted. “It’s your fault, I wouldn’t haven’t gotten stopped if the car wasn’t ugly and beat up because you got rearended that time. It’s a wonder they let you keep it on the road. No wonder I get hassled all the time.”

Mom didn’t look up. “The ticket said you were speeding. 80 in a 45 mile zone.”

“I wasn’t speeding,” she said vehemently. She wasn’t racing everyone else simply because the road was too crowded. Instead, she was gunning it right up to the back of people’s bumpers, and then lurching out around them when there was an inch to spare, viciously swerving to teach the other driver a lesson.

“Well, we can’t pay it.” Mom gestured at the pile of unpaid bills.

“Well, I can’t pay it either. And you’re responsible for me, so you have to do it. So there.”

Mom put the bills down and looked at her. “Honey, this is serious. If you can’t stop speeding, you’re going to lose your license, and we really can’t afford the fines you’re bringing home. You’re going to have to get a job after school or something if you want to keep getting speeding tickets.”

“I promise. Tomorrow. You’ll pay my fine, right?”

Mom turned back to the bills. “I think you should go to court and stand in front of the judge yourself.”

Sis made a face. “Don’t be cruel. Why do you want me to suffer? You can pay it online.”

Mom hesitated. Guilt alternated with anger. It stopped her every time. She was obsessively worried about Sis even tho her behavior was outrageous, because soon her daughter would be trying the same thing on people who wouldn’t tolerate it and there would be hell to pay. Sis had such potential, but she deliberately ruined every opportunity she was given. She was smart, uniquely intelligent, vivacious. But all she wanted to do with her abilities was skate whenever possible.

“By the way,” Mom wondered. “Where are those expensive jeans you begged me to get you? I haven’t seen them on you in a while.”

“I lost them,” Sis said casually. “They were stolen.” Actually, they got tossed on a bonfire after somebody puked on them. And she didn’t give a fuck because cool girls wouldn’t be caught dead in A&F. “I really need you to take me out and get me another pair, now,” she said. “They were my best pants, I urgently need another pair.” She looked anxious. “I’m doing a photo shoot at school. Tomorrow.”

Mom paid over a hundred dollars in cash for prebeatup scrap denim. And had to deal with a mall, loud music and sullen teenaged cashiers. “I’m sorry they’re gone, sweetie, why don’t I look for another pair at the thrift store?” Tho she wasn’t sure they’d sell jeans with that many holes in them.

Sis looked at Mom as if she lived under a rock. “What a toadlike thing to do,” she said angrily. “You can’t get me used clothes. Gross.”

“It’s just that if you want me to pay your fine, we have to find the money someplace, and right now we don’t have a spare penny.”

“We could have meatless dinners once in a while,” Nathan suggested. Sis turned to glare at him. “We could stop buying soft drinks and junk food.” He was getting enthusiastic, picking thru the bills. “We could stop getting cable. Wow, that’s a hundred and fifty dollars a month.

“No we can’t, everything’s on cable now,” Sis protested. “There’s no such thing as regular TV anymore.”

Nathan looked at the penalty minutes on the phone bill. “We could stop talking on the phone so much and having to pay fifty cents a minute.”

Sis stuck out her tongue. “No, idiot, we need to get unlimited minutes.”

“We could always do the dishes by hand and save lots of water,” Nathan said. Sis eyed him disdainfully. “We could take fewer showers, and not flush the toilet as often.”

“Eww,” Sis shrieked, and punched him in the shoulder. Her cry brought Dad into the kitchen to get another beer. She told him in despairing tones how Nathan hated her and Mom treated her like a servant, complaining that she was being punished over a pair of jeans, begging him to come to her rescue and make everything better.

He put his arms around her and glared at them over her head. “Don’t get depressed, sweetie,” he soothed. “I’m sure Mom just doesn’t understand how much those pants mean to you.”

“They want me to live like a serf,” she wailed. “We can’t take showers, everything’s got to be washed by hand, we can’t eat meat, and we can only wear rags. We can’t even have a TV. I can’t live like this.” She started to sob. “They want to stop buying beer and cokes.”

Dad was alarmed. He noticed the bills spread out on the table. “Have you spent too much again this month?” he accused.

“It’s not that, dear,” Mom said mildly. “We’ve been discussing ways of saving money by cutting back.”

“Why would we cut back if we weren’t in trouble?”

“To live within our means?” Nathan suggested.

“Why should we do that when we can put it on a credit card?” Sis demanded scornfully.

“Because it’s better for the earth,” Nathan said.

Dad chuckled. “Well, hell, boy – get me a beer since you’re by the fridge – if you’re so environmental and all, you can be responsible for doing all the dishes by hand, every night.” He checked with Sis, who nodded enthusiastically. “From now on, since the washer’s already loaded.

Dad winked at her and gave her his car keys so she could go to a friend’s house and cram for a test. “We’ll get you another pair of pants, don’t worry,” he burped, downing his beer.

Nathan escaped to his room. He’d hoped to have enough time alone with Mom to talk about his work and discuss their costume plans for Dragoncon. Even giving Mom half of his pay every week, he’d already saved up enough money for his ticket, and now he was saving to get Mom’s so they could go together. But tonight was obviously a bad time.

Getting a fresh beer, Dad sat down at the kitchen table next to Mom. It was their monthly ritual. Mom wrote out all the bills, and he signed all the checks. He did enough recordkeeping and number crunching at work, and it gave him a big pain in the ass, so it was Mom’s job. And he had to treat her like an employee because tho Mom was smart enough, for a girl, she didn’t understand finance, and constantly went over budget. She had a woman’s brain and couldn’t help spending money. So he watched her, looking for wrongness to correct, anxiously waiting for her to fuck up and, realizing her incompetence, look to him to fix it. “What’s the bad news this month?” he asked with choleric humor.

She looked at him sideways. “The credit card is maxed out,” she said casually.

He shrugged. “Get an extension.”

“I called,” she sighed. “They said no.”

He snatched up the check register and looked at the calculations. “It’s short. Again.” He put it down and looked at her, waiting for an explanation, his fingers squeezing the sides of his beer can.

“Well, there were some purchases on your debit card that I guess maybe you forgot to write down,” she explained.

He took a drink and brought the can down hard on the table. “They show up on the statement, don’t they?” he said dismissively.

She grimaced. “Yes, dear, a month later. By that time we’ve sent out the regular bills, and they hit the bank when there’s no money in it.”

“That’s your fault.” He sat back and drained his beer.

She paused. “But it’s because the card got used without anyone recording it in the checkbook, so it seemed like there was money there when there really wasn’t.”

He reared back. “Are you accusing me?” he asked in a raised voice.

“No, dear,” she said quickly. “I’m just saying…”

“I don’t want to hear it,” he said, staring at his beer.

“It might be Sis. Some of these merchants are at the mall…”

Dad crushed the can and threw it into the corner. “You know, it’s hilariously funny that you overdraw our bank account with impulse buys and bad accounting, and then have the nerve to blame me for it. Or worse, my daughter, who never did a thing to you.”

There followed a restrained discussion of the relative merits of maintaining the current standard of living as opposed to the idea of curtailing consumption and unnecessary expenditures. Nathan couldn’t help but hear it from his room. Voices were raised, the table was thumped a bunch, things were slung around the room, and someone got slapped.

Dad stopped by Nathan’s room on the way to the bathroom. Nathan was reading up on circuit diagrams. “What’s this? Is this that demonic writing shit? What’s it called, sigils. I saw it on some show. You a satanist, boy?”

“No, Dad, it’s electronics,” he explained.

“You planning on being an electrician, Nuthin? Or maybe a cable guy, huh? I’m not sure I want you growing up to be a cable guy. I think maybe you need to come and work for me.”

“Dad, I’m kind of tired, okay?” Nathan said, closing his laptop and yawning.

“Huh. Whatever, I gotta pee anyway. Here’s a bedtime story for you, okay?” Dad said. “Once upon a time, there was a good kid, and a bad kid. We’ll call them Goofus and Gander. Is that right?” he called out to his wife in the kitchen.

“Yes dear, it was Gander,” she called back.

“Gandalf?” he wondered. “No, it was Gander. Gambler. Something. Anyway, the good kid did what he was told. He showed respect for adults and knew his place, and he didn’t go around asking for things. He just worked hard and looked forward to his reward in heaven. Now, the bad kid, he thought for himself, and did what he wanted, and didn’t pay attention to what anybody told him. Anyway, shit happened, and the bad kid ended up really really scared and then died in agony because he was too smart to follow orders. The end.”

“Wow, Dad, that’s quite a story.”

“Think about it, why don’t you.” He continued down the hall, unzipping as he walked.

Nathan snuck into the kitchen. “Mom, are you okay?”

She looked up from the checkbook. “I’m fine, son.”

“I heard him slap you.” He looked anxiously at her. “Did he hit you?”

She chuckled bitterly. “No, he punched the wall.”

“Did he break it this time?”

“He might have hurt his hand, I don’t know. Hurry back to bed now,” she said, as Dad flushed the toilet and came back for round two, in which Mom soothed the savage beast.

She had better things to do, but tried to think of it as quality time with her husband, time out from her busy day in order to pay a lot of attention to him and let him make all the decisions, because it made him feel better, even tho she risked getting pushed around. She let him decide which bills to pay and which ones to put on the long finger. She trotted out all the frugal purchases she’d made, and complemented him on his good taste, wisdom and beneficence. She did it to salve his poor ego, which suffered so much at work. It was good for him to be the head of the family, to feel like he had some control over his pathetic life of servitude.

Mom didn’t suffer from the insecurity that ate at him, and considered it part of her role to placate him, dance around and manipulate him, keep him from working himself up and getting out of control. It wore her out, tho. At this point in their marriage she couldn’t say she felt much affection for him. It was rather like dealing with a surly older dog that liked to pee in the house. She walked around on eggshells, waiting for something to set him off and explaining every little move so he didn’t get the wrong idea.

Dad got set off a lot these days, now that there was an ominous silence coming from corporate. He jumped thru all the hoops, got his reports in on time, and made a show of cost cutting and efficiency improvements, proud of the money he saved making his crew work thru lunch. But where was his raise, where was that attaboy, where was the official notice of his many contributions?

His boss wasn’t returning his calls.

***

Kurt spent several more weeks not answering his phone or emails while he created the game engine and level editor. He modified a bunch of android tablets to run them. He created the first quantum internet so his new quantum computers could talk to each other.  He also spent time tweaking his quantum computer. He got to know the quantum kernel like the back of his hand. He did a lot of psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants. As well as the usual regimen. He neglected to eat.

He had Tesla and Reich over for a party. His dream Airstream took a lot of abuse when they drove it down to Cuernavaca. He had some trouble with an alien reptilian portal that opened up in the sand next to his van, and built an orgone generator app for his phone to neutralize it. After that his mood grew lighter, and he slept better and didn’t make as much of a mess when he sleep-programmed.

Someone else, Snake maybe, would have marketed it. But Kurt just moved on to something challenging.

***************

read chapter 6

chapter 4

start at the beginning

read chapter 3

***************

Whatever is past is gone beyond recall; whatever is future remains beyond one’s reach, until it becomes present.” – S.N. Goenka.

The present moment is like a great crucible. All the myriad possibilities of the future are transformed in this cauldron of now, stripped down and distilled into a single strand, which becomes the immutable past as soon as it forms. That’s how we understand it using classical physics. Time is a continuous one-way path, and the present moment moves forward like Ms. Pacman, eating her way into the future.

It’s just that it’s not true in quantum physics.

The reason it works in classical physics is the assumption that there is a universal present moment, a one true now that everyone experiences at the very same time.

In quantum physics, there is a different now for every observer, just like seeing rainbows. Plus, time is as likely to move backwards as forwards. The present is local, not universal; relative rather than absolute. And all moments are real, whether they physically happen or remain imaginary. Time is no longer a constant; it has become a variable, an illusion, the effect on the observer as you move from point to point in a universe where everything has already happened. It’s like living in the pages of a book.

***

Flipping a couple of pages, then, we find Josh, Anomia, and Fairy with their heads together, designing their videogame while waiting for Kurt to build the game engine. You’d never know they were working together, because they were always in different locations, but they were coediting spreadsheets in realtime, discussing things in chat windows and text messages, and talking to each other in their heads.

Most videogame development teams are familiar with project plans, schedules, milestones, contingency plans, budgets, priorities. But not this one. They were going strictly on their vision and a quickly fading hubris. It was scary, so nobody thought about it. They just left blank spaces labelled ‘miracle,’ and assumed they would somehow fill themselves in.

Anomia was in the bowels of her corporate day job, stressing out as one of the last graphic artists at Big Behemoth, Inc, the partners having cut her nice bustling department of twenty down to only three in order to stoke their double digit profits. She was working on three proposals at once, and every now and then frantic management droids would come rushing in waving their hands with a crisis for her to fix before she could go home. But she still had downtime, because she was fast, and they dithered making their changes. She kept her game behind the boss-key, and turned to it whenever she got a chance.

She was working on the background scenery for each level, pouring endlessly over stock landscapes and google image results. She was also supposed to be storyboarding and writing scripts for the intro and the cut scenes, but she hadn’t touched them, altho she insisted they were coming right along when the others asked. They were the least of her problems. She had to think about everything, because nobody else did. The box art, the press releases, the demo and screenshots. That’s why she was so stressed out – the success or failure of the game rested on her shoulders.

Josh was sitting in a cafe, looking cool while he tooled with the level design. He was supposed to be specifying the climate and geology of each level, how much rainfall, types of flora and fauna. Things that actually bored him to tears. But he spent most of his time working on his easter eggs of mayhem, featuring evil alien vampire zombies and hidden tunnels. He was also putting in pirates. He could do it, because it was all part of the level diagram, and that was his baby. He got to say where the desert started and where the glaciers stopped, when the seasons changed, what the prevailing winds were like. But it was tedious and repetitive, so he kept coming back to the evil alien vampires.

Fairy was sitting up in bed with her animals around her, tracking the assets in her world diagram – giving each asset a universally unique identifier, determining its place in the game’s flowchart, working up style sheets and pantones, deciding on sounds and musical themes. She was responsible for the non-playing characters, too, their functions and actions; she was looking forward to drawing up a list of NPC animations that she and Josh could fight about at some point.

Fairy wondered about the objectives, currently a blank column in the spreadsheet. What are the players doing in all these different environments​? The disciplines you want them to learn?

The girl reeled it off. First you master your mind and your body, and then you develop your consciousness, and after that you learn to control your subtle body. Once you’ve built up your etheric muscles, you learn how to move and fly, develop your intuition and clairvoyance, and learn how to manifest things.

We learned a mnemonic, the boy added. CNNGSPP.

Fairy snorted into her teacup. That’s not a mnemonic, it’s a collection of consonants. What’s it mean?

Create, name, nurture, guide, share, preserve, pass on. Those are the objectives on each level. The girl repeated the list for Fairy to write down, sounding pompous.

And the lessons?

OWWKRPATO.

Bitch, please.

All one way, all knowable, all relative, all possible, all alive, all together, all one.

Fairy sat there and shook her head.

Don’t worry, the boy soothed. We’ll work the bodymind exercises into ingame rituals, and embed the lessons in the theme of each level.

Who’s we, kimosabe?

***

Trying to fill in the details of her diagram, she grilled the couple about their experience, using interrogation techniques she learned from a jealous cop exboyfriend. After awhile, the repetition annoyed everybody. Especially when they were reduced to txt spk.

GRL: lvl 1. roks + watr far as i cn c, v cold, v hungry, v wet. 2. huge mtns blocking passag inland. 3. lowlands, v fertil, w/mkt twns. 4. ++ plains, wetlnds, desrts 4evr. 5. mining twns @ far edg of continnt, industrl citis. 6. megacity of futur, ++ wondrs. 7. inaccessibl mtns. we died
FER: assum deth sene not obligatry all playrs
BOY: evry lvl diff paramtrs, ++ resorcs, ++ nvirmnt
GRL: r task bild + organiz + make sur ppl hapi, = lvl up. main diff = tec advancs.
BOY: go thru ea lvl, cre8 + name + tell ppl what 2 do. chooz setlmnts, rearang condits, fuk w/ppl piss us off
GRL: teh gema s/b big nuff 4 evry xperiens

Okay, you might not understand a lot of that. Neither do I. My mind glazes over when I see words mangled like that. Eventually they learned to discuss the finer points in their heads, because txting sux, and the chat window thing got crazy with six divergent conversations going on at once.

***

Fairy consulted the level diagram, parts of which were cribbed from a game development website. A list of the game’s environments and missions, and the characteristics of each mission. She went thru the levels sorting it out. The first level was…she prompted.

The boy answered. The rocky shore of this huge, uninhabited continent, and we had nothing but the clothes on our backs and our new powers, which weren’t very strong at that point.

Fairy made a note about feebleness in the avatars.

We had nothing, the girl whined, and it was so cold. And it was really hard for a really long time, like we had to do things by hand, and the best we could manage was drafty huts and weak fires.

That helpful skua, dropping food into our camp, the boy remembered.

Their digressions weren’t helping Fairy organize her spreadsheet. So the first level is all stone knives and bearskins. I’m guessing Animism for the belief system. And your skills all have to do with manifesting food and shelter the old fashioned way, with your hands – this is magic?

We made sparks with our hands. We talked to the animals, Anomia thought. Fairy oozed doubt.

We kind of tamed the fish, Josh explained. They agreed to be dinner.

Fairy scoffed. What, they jumped into the pot for you?

The girl thought for a moment. Well, we didn’t have pots yet. They jumped into the coals.

Fairy winced. Ooh. Didn’t you feel sorry, or squeamish, or guilty?

The boy snorted. We didn’t cry over them, if that’s what you mean. We were hungry.

But we thanked them, the girl protested, and we did favors for their relatives.

This is too Walrus and the Carpenter for me, Fairy thought in disgust. Can we move on? The next period, that’s kind of Viking, right? Everybody loves the Viking esthetic. Should they be Pagans or early Christians? She answered her own question and scribbled a note, Gotta have Druids. You control the waters and the winds on this level, right?

We made the trees grow, the girl thought.

Right, Fairy responded, adding a question mark, not sure how we’re going to animate that.

Yeah, and they grew everywhere, the boy added. And the huts grew into mountains.

The girl felt sheepish. That was a problem. We could make things happen, but we couldn’t stop them, so in the end we had to kill all the trees.

But that’s why the lowlands were agriculture-ready, the boy pointed out.

Yeah, but it also meant thousands of miles of grassland and desert. Those kinds of problems got more complicated as we went on, she remembered bitterly. We obviously didn’t learn by fucking with the trees and the mountains.

Mosquitoes. They remembered experiments gone wrong. Rabbits. They radiated horror. Fairy squirmed uncomfortably.

Then the sound of the girl’s thoughts faded as a message popped up in their chat window.

GRL: ffft, consultants. brb.

***

Leaving Josh and Fairy to go over the game’s attributes. Okay, then we figured out how to make pottery and glass, and simple machines and tools. We discovered the wheel. The boy was proud of himself because he’d figured it out and the girl thought he was a hero.

So that’s the third level. Medieval. Priest-ridden, with saints and witch hunts and walled cities and serfs and plagues and bad hygiene. You learned agriculture, and I suppose invented writing and math, and supported cities and government and commerce.

Maybe, the boy agreed. He never paid much attention to the details when they were playing the game. He found something to do and did it without trying to understand the story or finesse the rules. If anything, his contribution was a snarky comment and some daring do.

Fairy was growing concerned. She was being left to construct a compromise world out of Josh and Anomia’s wildly different experiences, but she had a good grasp of where it was supposed to go, and knew it was her job to make it happen. By the goddess, she was going to be their fairy godmother, and save the project with crazy hard work and brilliant organizational skills. Anomia and Josh obviously appreciated what she was doing, and she was gracious about it, because of course she was the one actually holding it all together while they buried themselves in minutiae. In anxious midnight musings, she wondered if she shouldn’t copyright the game in the morning, to keep it out of scheming hands as yet unknown.

***

She pressed on.  Now this fourth level I don’t understand. I’m not really down with the endless fruited plain motif.

Well, it was full of game and nomads and there weren’t many trees, and after awhile the water ran out and it was cactus and shit. He was getting bored.

No, I mean I don’t understand why it’s such a mashup. like the court of Henry the Eighth at Burning Man. There are social experiments and harnessing nature and science and stuff, like the Enlightenment. But it’s in the desert, so it’s kind of like the Crusades meets the Golden Horde. I don’t think it works, that’s all.

Their spreadsheet was seven game levels across and seven rows of aspects down, and they’d already run into trouble over basic things, like the religion and philosophical belief of each level, their economics, their politics. It was a mess. They had no idea how to make the game conform to their vision. There were no words for what they went thru. Everything was connected, and trying to divide it up into rows and columns drove them all nuts.

Anomia cut back in, bitching because the stupid consultants had pushed right past their deadline, and she had to stay late again. They’re calling out for pizza. At least I’ll have more time to work on the game, the girl thought, what a consolation prize. Where were we?

Whoopee, you can help now, Fairy thought without enthusiasm. Going on to level five, then…

Well, technology really took off when we discovered iron and coal in the far hills, the girl remembered.

Steel, engines, the industrial age, added the boy. Electricity. Nuclear fusion.

Fission, the girl corrected him.

Whatever.

The way society was organized, the girl added. That was the other difference between each level. Each was bigger and more advanced, so we went from tribes to nations, and from serfs to citizens.

Kind of. Not exactly.

I’m too busy to be interested unless you can be more specific. Fairy was getting a headache. Those Victorian cities on level five, they’re in the age of Revolutions? That’s a stretch, but okay, Victorian makes a good visual – cool costumes, we can do Steampunk. This is where you organize society instead of tinkering with the resources, right? She paused, looking at the row of belief systems. Fundamentalist? I guess revolutionaries can be fundamentalists, she thought doubtfully.

No they can’t, they’re opposite, the girl objected. Fundamentalists are reactionary.

Hmm. Fairy made a note. I see a kluge coming on. I guess we’ll use a tech tree, she suggested, where you have to choose between technological advances, which influences the choices you get down the line.

Um, sure, the girl responded, then got revisions and had to brb. She tried to listen along in her head, but the edits distracted her.

Fairy made a pot of tea and brought it back to bed, careful not to disturb her laptop balancing on the back of a Hello Kitty pillow. The sixth level is Totalitarian breakdown, that doesn’t sound very nice.

It was great if you were rich, the boy protested. I was rich. There were loads of advances. Jetpacks. Replicators.

According to the girl, it was way overcrowded and very unbalanced economically, Fairy grumbled. Their lack of agreement again; it was getting to her. Slaves, global wars, crashing civilizations, being forced to rethink everything. Sounds fucked up to me. She paused. The religion is Antichrist, huh? I’m not sure I even know what that means. The boy was evasively silent. Fairy sighed and reached for her teacup. Maybe we’ll figure it out later. And what happens in the inaccessible mountains? she continued wearily. Oh yeah, nothing. Epic battles are totally uninteresting. Is this how we’re supposed to end the game? I don’t like it.

They changed the subject and complained about Anomia while Josh moved into the wifi cone of the bar next door. She’s tactless, they agreed. And a bitch.

***

While Anomia was looking the other way, Fairy altered the economics from endless wealth to faucet and drain, and rearranged the belief systems. Anomia called for an immediate reversion when she noticed it. Fairy argued that her improvements made more sense. Anomia insisted that they were supposed to recreate their experience, not interpret it. Fairy complained that they were making it up as they went along anyway. Josh argued that they were going to have to sacrifice accuracy to make the game playable. Then Anomia, who had a wicked sharp tongue and was convinced she was right, forced a no edit-wars rule, and went back to her paid labors. Fairy fumed and whined, and Josh had another beer and waved off his irritation because he had to live with her.

The horse trading continued. For keeping Josh’s easter eggs hidden from Anomia, Fairy could adjust the world diagram as she saw fit, a fact that was also to be kept from Anomia.

Then there was the character design battle. Anomia threw her hands up in horror when it came time to hand out responsibility for the avatar design. 😯

Josh said he’d do it, and made a show of incompetence, and as he obviously knew nothing about style, Fairy was forced to take it over. But Josh wanted to keep as much control of the game as possible, so they had a turf battle, and finally Josh gracefully surrendered everything – the avatars’ shapes and appearance, their skin textures, their clothes, their animations, the squeakiness of their voices, their backstories and personality quirks.

But now that she had the responsibility, Fairy realized what a huge task it was. Millions of players meant infinitely customizable avatars, and that boiled down to thousands of costume parts and body types. She was great with individual styles, based on her intuitive knowledge of the person she was styling. But working up 1,286 textured fabric swatches was not her thing. She’d rather spend her efforts slipping a few dragons into the game.

So she started a child account and secretly handed the entire avatar portion of her workload to Radhu. They chatted a lot, and became good work friends, but Fairy kept her world diagram to herself and didn’t give him access to the collaborative document, or let him chat with the others. The others had forgotten all about Radhu, so Fairy got to keep him as her little secret.

***

Radhu worked nights in his Bangalore call center, trying to be top scorer again so he could go back to Atlanta on next year’s trip and ditch his telecom conference for Dragoncon. He was hooked on comic book conventions after his experience, and had already booked his ticket for the only con in India, but it was only a couple of years old and a hundredth the size, and he was planning to go back to the states for another hit.

He began playing videogames in his spare time, something he’d never done before. He liked adventures, but didn’t enjoy shooters at all, even tho the Panchen Lama played them. There was something too disturbing about all the blood and guts, and he tried to avoid the adrenaline rush – his guru had advised him that negative emotions were disruptive to good health, so he played management and social games.

He was delighted when Fairy asked him to help design the game, and began staying up all day to work on the avatars. While he worked, he constantly meditated on creating his future, generating images of success, putting energy and enthusiasm into the fantasy, knowing that his beliefs shaped his life. It was already going to be totally great.

He rejected Fairy’s idea of deriving the avatars from the tarot’s 78 cards. With 14 cards in four suits, plus 22 trumps, he could only expand it to around 1200. So he decided to base his avatars on Hindu gods, which were infinite. The only problem was that Radhu’s avatars were more Bollywood than Vogue, and Fairy had to own the design because she was taking the credit.

***

Several months came and went, like Fairy’s boyfriends. Josh unwisely handed his level diagram to Anomia for an art pass, but she’d been proceeding with her own plans, so they had a fight, and he ended up spending a few days back at his parent’s house.

Then Snake reappeared.

They were in their usual places, working on the usual things. Anomia was drinking free coffee and eating out of the vending machine at work as she shuffled between revising a proposal and mashing up tudor and thatched cottage styles for medieval market towns.

Josh was tinkering with weapon designs for battling evil alien vampire zombies and drinking beer with pretzels in his local wifi bar.

Fairy was propped up in bed eating microwave popcorn and guzzling energy drinks, working on dragon NPCs to replace Radhu’s Ganeshas.

Why dragons instead of Hindu gods? Because Fairy couldn’t explain to the others why talking elephants should hand out information, quests and rewards. She hated Babar as a child, and wanted friendly dragons instead, zen dragons with ancient wisdom and knowledge – believable characters who would teach skills and quantum thinking, and startle the wayward minds of the player, keeping them on track and directing them down the paths they needed to follow.

That doesn’t answer why dragons, the boy pointed out.

No reason, Fairy fudged. I like dragons.

Fairy and Josh argued over attributes. She was in favor of completely defining every NCP – stats, skills, gear, appearance, moves. Josh wanted to use general descriptions and draw from a pool of random attributes as needed, later. Anomia was distracted by a hovering droid demanding changes to the changes.

Their ideas were vague. Their objectives were as simple as ‘training minds and bodies’. They took comfort in the fact that all the mystery schools were vague – Dune, Star Wars, Harry Potter. Zen was obscure on purpose, just like the Sufis, just like the Christian mystics. ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ How vague can you get?

Okay, after players interact with a given NPC, Fairy asked, what do they do then? Go on the quest or go off somewhere else to explore? Or some other independent behavior? There are so many choices.

Behaviors aren’t independent, Josh reminded her. Games are linear. Players only think they have a choice.

Not in this game, Anomia insisted. Real choice is a feature of the game, not an illusion. Everything depends on what you do from moment to moment. It’s cumulative.

But you can’t script that, Fairy protested. You can’t flowchart it, you can’t possibly tell what players are going to do with real choice. It’s too complicated.

You have to set limits, Josh agreed. But where you put your limits determines the flow of the game. Having no limits means players accumulate infinite wealth and power. But too many limits leads to profiteering and slavery. How you do it matters, too. If you tax wealth, players get resentful. If you cap it, they’ll cheat or quit.

So where do we set the limits? Fairy demanded.

Everything costs something, the girl said. Call them energy points. You can use item converters, or trade for assets in the markets. The more you own, the bigger your emotional investment.

Fairy wrote, Resource management => player involvement.

Then Snake appeared out of nowhere in the chat window of their collaborative spreadsheet. Having physically showed up in the bar where Josh was working on the game, Josh gave him an account and started bringing him up to speed.

SNK: y flesh out npcs at all?
FER: wtf who r u?
BOY: old programr frend gonna wrk on gema
SNK: nobdy cares npc dtails. + mprtnt wrk 2 do
FER: +real npcs => ++ vivid gema. s/b photoreal
SNK: southpark. dnt wast ur time. new esthetic betr. ur silly dtails r just showing off
BOY: wat he sed
SNK: fuk hello kitty brony shit. y not use evil vampr aliens?

Josh elbowed Snake and reminded him the aliens were a secret.

Anomia was on a tight deadline, and the consultant was standing at her shoulder being anxious, but she picked up on Fairy’s distress and decided to look into it. Sending something to print and telling the consultant to go fetch, she restored her chat window to have a look at the conversation.

She wanted photorealistic and as close to real as possible NPCs, and was fine with Fairy’s ideas about dragons, even tho she would have used unicorns and gnomes if it was up to her. But her stomach instantly soured as she saw the boys preparing to dumb down her game with crappy graphics. Then the consultant came trotting back with the papers and she had to break away.

GRL: angel sed no evil. s/b angel npcs.

Snake winked at Josh and they changed the subject.

***

Over a beer, Snake wanted to know why they were bothering with a point system.

“Points reflect your mastery of quantum skills,” Josh said, downing his drink with enthusiasm. “Health points, skill points, experience points, adventure points. They all roll into an overall karma score that influences your passage thru the game.”

Snake fiddled with his phone and didn’t say anything.

“It’s sort of a feedback loop,” Josh continued. “Everything you do affects your karma, and your karma affects everything you do. There’s instant karma and judgment day karma. So, like, you can build good karma by practicing your quantum exercises, or playing the game every day, or going out of your way to help other players.” He drained his beer. “These are small glasses.”

Snake rolled his eyes. “And if you’re a good boy you get to unlock special areas and get prizes, right? How predictable.” He waved at the bartender for another round, clearly bored. “Tell me it gets all touchy feely newage, please. I want to hear that your relationships with others count toward karma points, I want to hear that every time I crush a blade of grass I’m mounting up my punishment points in hell.” He motioned again to the bartender, trying to hurry him up. He looked disgusted.

“The whole idea is what goes around comes around,” Josh said, feeling defensive. “The game gets harder or easier, depending on your karma.” None of the details were actually his idea, and he felt foolish explaining them. “It’s supposed to show in your avatar, too, like wealth and social status.”

“What, like halos and horns? Pinocchio noses? How fucking stupid,” Snake huffed.

Josh shrugged. “There’ll be some sort of complex algorithm, I suppose. The girls were talking about karma as a gameplay quality as well as a measure of the player’s spiritual development.”

“Did they say spiritual? In a shooter?”

That’s when the boys decided to turn the game back into a traditional videogame, the first step being to take NPC design away from Fairy. So Snake made a big thing out of the too-fucking-PC ethnic design of Fairy’s (Radhu’s) character designs, and Josh insisted he was crazy busy with the specs for the animations, so Fairy reluctantly handed the NPCs to Snake, who proceeded to ignore all the guidelines and implement his own designs.

And continued to torment Fairy about points.

SNK: in trad vgame u get pts 4 kilz, xtra pts 4 hedshts, pts 4 surviving wav, xtra pts 4 defeat boss. y reduce it 2 arcade game?
FER: angel = no violens
SNK: = no fun. y bothr targt practis at all?
FER: use fors luke
SNK: so u cn move pixls w/mind? cuz not like ur using real wepns (+ u banned wepns rembr). just illusn
FER: not illusn. pwrs real

Anomia found them arguing again. Don’t make me come over there, she thought.

GRL: angel sed no violens
SNK: fuk angel. vgame not bk of spelz, not drug inducd visn

***

“They’re doing this ass backward,” Snake bitched to Josh over a joint they were smoking behind the dumpster. “They’ve been concentrating on the details – the environment, the terrain – and they haven’t even designed the geometry. They have no idea what the gameflow is supposed to be like and they’re fucking around with the idealism level of the fucking NPCs, shit that’s bound to change.”

“Maybe they should have blocked everything in first,” Josh agreed.

“And why hasn’t anybody playtested the map yet?”

“I can answer that,” Josh becoming a little offended by Snake’s accusations. “It’s because we don’t have enough people to sit there and play with something we’re still trying to figure out. We’ll know what it looks like when we see it,” he said, starting to cough from the smoke. “When we get it right.”

Snake looked impatient. “What’s your focal point on the first level, then? Just off the top of your head. From your vision.”

Josh thought for a moment. “The rocks?”

Snake rolled his eyes. “You’re not getting the idea of focal points. Usually it’s a big object in the middle of the level that’s there just so you know where you are.”

“But there are no objects on the first level, just rocks, water, and the sky. Would the sun be the focal point?”

Snake smoked up the end of the joint and tossed it into the dumpster. “The skuas,” he said as if anybody would know. “They hold the keys to your survival and you have to defeat them to move on.”

“What? The skuas are the bosses and we have to fight and kill them, is that what you’re saying? Anomia’s not going to like that idea. The skuas were our friends. Even tho they weren’t very nice, and we had to bribe them.”

***

Snake didn’t really give a damn about the integrity of the couple’s vision. He was in it for the glory, and didn’t look past the rather narrow goal of getting rich off of game production. To Snake, and millions of the world’s male population aged 13-48, the whole point of a videogame was to give boys something to destroy, and the idea of using it to raise consciousness seemed ludicrously idealistic. Another good reason to subvert it.

There are many ways to cheat in a videogame. Most players are familiar with currency farming and camping in front of respawning lairs. There are cheat codes, written as shortcuts so testers can get to where the trouble is without having to play all the way thru a level. Cheats can throw up a minimap to show where everybody is. Cheats can put a glow on characters and objectives. Wall hacks make obstacles invisible or bring objects out in front of whatever they’re hidden behind. There are social engineering cheats, including infiltration and betrayal, scamming, suicide ganks. Strategy freaking, it’s called – why work for something when you can steal it? The boys saw nothing wrong with including it, even tho Anomia and Fairy would go ballistic if they found out.

“We can work around the girls,” Snake assured Josh as they knocked a few more back at the bar. They’d taken to meeting at the pub, because Snake sneered at coffee when there was real go juice available. “We know more about games than they do, and it’ll be easy to do it our way. Because the girls are going to ruin it with their insanely inappropriate ideas.” He watched himself in the mirror as he spoke, thinking how handsome he was in a dangerous way. He brushed his lanky hair out of his eyes. “I mean, their idea of an intro is a lecture on doing good. Nobody wants to hear that. You’ll lose players as they come in the door. They make a character and go on a quest, then you praise the shit out of them, give them something useful, and send them on another mission. That’s how you snare them.  The girls want to bore them to death with maybe if they behave rewards.” He finished his beer and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “It’s too goddamned religious.”

***

Over another drink, Snake laid out his argument for traditional videogame values. “You absolutely have to cater to every type of player, but there are only four types of players, so it’s no biggie. Diamonds want to win something, and show off their points, and beat other Diamonds, and impress Hearts. So we’ll need a scoreboard and achievement points, and we can give out titles and pimped out rides as concrete proof.”

Josh wished the others were listening, but the others could only sense his awe of Snake’s expertise.

“Spades like to map out everything and dwell on the details and backstories, so you give them things to dig up and let them explore their environments. Hearts are social, and they don’t much care about the game itself, as long as they can have relationships, even with the NPCs.” They both snickered. “And then there’s Clubs. They like to compete like Diamonds, but really they just want to kill something, and they’d rather fight player versus player than just kill bosses. They like carnage and destruction. Or just being the bad guy. I’m a little like that myself,” he confessed. So was Josh. “And, Clubs are socially dominant. They’re the ones who do empire building and terraforming, and bring order to sandbox games, and corner the markets.”

“But the whole idea is to teach players how to be magical,” Josh protested, knowing damn well that Anomia wasn’t going to go for Snake’s ideas.

“Fuck it,” Snake said. “You’re talking about hand-waving mages, exactly the same thing as warriors swinging swords. None of it is real. If you want to be a real magician, you have to study for years. You can’t just select powers and then go out and battle monsters. Besides, it’s not magic if everybody can do it.” They ordered another round. “What we should be talking about is funding. How are we going to make this game pay?”

“Hmph.” Josh considered. “The angel said…” Snake made a face so violent that Josh winced. “Okay, whatever. The idea is to make the game completely free. We’re working for nothing, after all, so it’s not like we need tons of bucks to get it going. We’ll make what we need.”

Snake scowled. Josh sounded like the girls. “I’ll agree this isn’t a triple-A title we’re making,” Snake said dismissively. “We’re not working with a hundred people and we don’t have investors and there are no sunk costs. We couldn’t attract an investor if we had to – they don’t like risk, and there’s a good chance this game will never get off the ground. But if it does, I plan to make millions of dollars for my efforts, don’t you?”

They discussed whether it was better to sell the software up front, with incremental sales on expansion packs down the road, or go freemium and give the core of the game away with a monthly fee to play. Or set up micropayments for everything but the most basic items and restricted gameplay.

“We could make money trading items ingame, too,” Josh suggested, energized by the idea. “We could take percentages of every player transaction. We could charge leveling fees.”

“There you go,” Snake said approvingly. “We could sell ads, and do product placements. We could sell insurance. But we’re not making shit if nobody will play it because it’s fucking boring. I gotta pee,” he finished, leaving Josh sitting at the bar looking into his beer, wondering how he could save the game from certain doom.

***

Snake managed to bring everybody down in the short time he’d been active on the project. He led the criticism of Fairy’s (Radhu’s) character designs and Anomia’s backgrounds, and never let up about the shitty idealism that would ruin the game for any serious player. Behind their backs he was vicious. But he never criticized anyone to their face. In person, he was concerned and kindly, offering expert tips and praising their amateurish first attempts as if they were limited but earnest and he was a sorely put-upon genius.

During their next face to face meeting – a video chat that Snake was too busy to attend – Josh voiced the thoughts they’d all been having.

“I don’t think we can do this,” he said, looking away from the camera. “We’ve got shit to show for months of work, and I’m running low on funds.”

Anomia looked steadily at him. She was paying his expenses at the moment. Was he suggesting she pull more overtime to keep him in coffee?

Fairy tried to say something positive, but she was almost ashamed of the cartoonish characters she’d (Radhu’d) designed, and couldn’t think of anything that didn’t sound stupid.

“The whole thing is clunky,” Josh continued. “We don’t know what we’re doing. Videogames take millions of dollars and hundreds of artists and programmers to create. Our stuff is just a mashup, a half-assed collage of the worst cliches. Why are we bothering? I’d be better off if I just said never mind and got a job.” He was hardly serious, but it made his point.

“We have to teach the essence,” Anomia insisted quietly. “We have to go on as if it mattered, because it does.”

“What she said,” Fairy agreed without much conviction.

“I don’t know. Maybe I can take my new found mystical powers and develop some sort of mumbo-jumbo exercise ritual filled with abstract newage concepts,” Josh suggested. “Magical sex therapy or something,”

Anomia bristled. “We were specifically told to make the damned game.”

Josh frowned. “I know. I just hate doing something that’s going to turn out like drunk Southpark.”

“You just want to be Walt Disney,” Fairy accused.

Josh retorted, “No, I want Walt Disney to buy it.”

“The angel said to create the game,” Anomia said.

Josh lost his temper. “Look, it’s a videogame. Videogames are for murder and mayhem, not teaching enlightenment thru physics. Go write a book if you want to put all this peace and light shit into it. Go develop a religion.”

They continued to argue for awhile, but Josh ended it and logged off. “The most important part about what we’re allegedly supposed to do is give people superpowers. All we know is that it’s some kind of quantum entanglement pixie dust, and we don’t have a fucking clue how to do it.”

***

So they bummed out about their own ineptitude and foolish ambitions for awhile. Anomia worked longer hours on fancy sales pitches for Big Behemoth, Inc. Josh retreated into videogames and porn with beer chasers. Fairy slept for 28 hours three days in a row. Nobody was sure what Snake did.

Fairy was the first to come around. She was no stranger to depression, in fact she had a good working relationship with it. Depression is a great excuse to toss all your responsibility out the window for awhile and really indulge yourself in a childlike state of rest and sleep. Depression is suppressed anger. Depression is a form of emotional compression, and can be used like force field power.

So Fairy directed her energy back to her work using affirmations, which never had enough oomph to do any good. “Let it be easy and fun to create the most ingenious world-changing and unexpected consciousness-raising evolutionary videogame possible of all time. With healing light and delightful blessings for all.”

Snake scoffed at the idea of affirmations and teased Fairy about it every chance he got.

Josh couldn’t understand how affirmations worked because he didn’t believe in psychology except where it involved pharmaceuticals. He was happy being depressed, because he secretly relished being a loser and felt anxious about giving it up for the rigors of success. Playing videogames all day was a slacker’s paradise, and since his whole life was a waste of time, he didn’t see any problem wasting it on creating a videogame, and worked on it, or not, as it suited him.

Anomia cringed when Fairy talked about cognitive shifts and affirmations. She felt she deserved her depression as punishment for thinking she was chosen for some cosmic mission, for dreaming she could escape the life of a corporate droid – scraping by on a hundredth the salary of partners her own age.

It was actually dangerous for her to make a cognitive shift, as a droid. When you reframe a problem from a new angle, it looks completely different, and you can see new pathways thru what looked impassable before. You begin to feel hope and relief, you entertain less guilt and self blame. Your self-talk changes and your attitude improves; you attract better outcomes, and rise to a stronger position in your environment, spreading your purpose and infectious energy to others who are stuck in fruitless efforts. You tell the partners off for being idiots and assholes and only thinking of themselves. You get fired.

***

After several conference-skypes, the three friends faced the fact that they didn’t know how to teach real superpowers. At best they might encourage a different way of seeing the world. Anomia knew about altered states from getting lost when she painted pictures, and Fairy actively meditated most days when she was in the mood. They wondered if they should use soundwaves and embedded subliminal messages. Josh wanted to shortcut the process by playing the game on mushrooms.

They decided they could develop consciousness in stages, linked to changing physics on each level. First classical physics, and then relativity, and finally quantum physics. Josh and Snake hated the idea. But Anomia pushed for it, remembering a platformer with altered physics that was really rich in player choices. To her, more complicated was better, more reflective of the world the angel wanted them to design than the corridor setup the boys kept arguing for.

For once, Snake and Fairy put their heads together on it. They added on a couple of amusement park levels, where players would take rides and play games with everyday classical physics like gravity and centrifugal force, and on the second level, the players – acting as carnival workers – would tweak on the settings using relativity, throwing black holes into the center of the tilt a whirl, for instance. A third level was all clouds, where players would learn the basics of quantum physics by making things out of cloud fluff.

Snake presented it as if it was all his idea and Fairy went back to hating him. “The constants on each level are mere variables on the next level,” he pronounced.

Leaving Fairy to explain. “F’rinstance. On the carnival level you can physically change the roller coaster track – the height, the path, and even the weight and shape of the cars. Those kinds of variables. But on the carney level you can do things like change gravity and dilate time. And on the clouds you just manifest things with your mind.”

“The physics of each level is exposed and turned on its head by the discoveries of the next,” Snake edified.

“A different understanding allows new possibilities on every level,” Anomia mused.

“Whatever,” Josh said.

“The first level’s mechanistic,” Fairy said, ignoring him. “There’s one system, everything’s based on fixed principles that are repeatable and predictable. Conventions and rules, and everything makes sense. And it all breaks down into simple, repeatable parts, so you can figure it out.”

“Mass, speed, momentum,” Snake offered, “vectors. Things you’d use to throw a ball, or drive a car. The amusement park is an illustration in classical physics. Like roller coasters,” he waved, listing the rides before Fairy could. “Arcade games, tilt a whirl, bumper cars, merry go round, the hall of mirrors, even the funhouse.”

Anomia doodled on her graphics tablet. “And you have to complete those rides before you can move on?”

“Right,” Fairy said. “We’ll grow the avatars as players gain experience points, and then when they’re tall enough, they can level up.” She made a note. “So the players start level one as kids.”

“What,” Snake asked, “they’ll be teenagers in level two? Like being chained to their desks in science class? That’ll impress your demographic. It’s drudgery.” He laughed. “You want to go shoot aliens, but no, you have to learn fucking physics. Stand here and pull this lever. Because you’ll need it when you grow up.” He made a face. “Shoot me, please.”

Fairy drew herself up. “We can surprise ourselves by finding a creative way to ingeniously and unexpectedly succeed. We’re going for the best possible outcome – not just survival, but thriving beyond anything we could hope for.”

So they reorganized the game, archiving many gigabytes of work and starting over with a different structure. The levels they’d been designing were shoved to one side and cannibalized when needed to design a game of games, tutorial levels that would eventually win a nobel prize (after certain initial, mostly political and moral, objections). They each stuck to their old tasks. Anomia tried to get the artwork right, leaving the layout to Josh (constantly urged by Snake to make it more battle friendly), and the design to Fairy, who wanted way too many tchotchkes for Snake’s taste. Anomia kept reminding Josh of the real meaning of the game, and Snake kept reminding Josh that angels were figments, and the real meaning of the game was market share. Radhu toiled in silence, alone in his room.

***

Meanwhile, across town…

Nathan had his after-school job, on two conditions – that he keep his grades up, and that his dad didn’t find out. He qualified for work study, so he’d go to his first couple of classes and then be out the door for the foodcourt, where he worked from 11:30 until 2:30. Then he sat in the empty atrium doing his homework, and got home in time for the mandatory family dinner.

This night, Dad beat him home. Dad turned around in his chair and caught Nathan edging silently to his room. “Why you creeping around, boy? Come here and let me see what you’ve got in that backpack of yours. You’re not doing drugs, are you, kid?” He kept up a patter of suspicious questions while rummaging thru Nathan’s book bag, and fished out his laptop, smirking. “I didn’t give you no laptop, where’d you get this?”

“It’s the school’s, Dad. See, there’s the sticker on the back. Property of.”

“Don’t smartmouth me. What are you doing with a computer?”

“It’s for doing my homework. It’s for my advanced placement classes.”

Dad smirked and raised his eyebrows. “What else you do with it? Play videogames? Watch porn movies? Flirt with old lechers pretending they’re teenage girls?” Nathan froze for a moment when Dad asked about videogames. How much did Dad know? “You better not be doing any of those things, or I’ll connect it to my portable battery charger and run some volts thru it.”

“Dad, you can’t. It’s not mine.” He edged toward his room.

“You’re right it’s not yours. In this house, it’s mine. Hand it over.” Dad didn’t let up until Nathan gave him the laptop. Then he had to show him how to open it. Then he had to show him how to turn it on. And then he had to identify all the icons. And then the low battery noises started, and Dad got nervous and let Nathan have it back, suddenly wondering if his son was plotting to blow something up. Dad picked a book out of the backpack. Quantum Physics for Idiots He thumbed thru the book, which was mostly equations. “What kind of language is that?” he asked. “This what you learn in school?” He pointed at the illustrations of goofy teenagers doing impossible things. “Are you sure this isn’t a comic book? It looks like an asian comic book. They’re the worst. Where’s the sex?”

“No, Dad, it’s a math book.” Nathan reached to take it back. “Everybody studies quantum physics in high school,” he added, so Dad wouldn’t start up about being smarter than everybody else.

At work he’d gotten used to civilized treatment from adults, but Dad operated under a different code – Father Knows Best, otherwise known as Jerks Win. When they were younger, Dad insisted they only watch reruns of black and white TV shows, and blew up at the mention of Bart Simpson. Usually his king of the castle rant irritated Nathan, but his new job made him more confident, and Dad’s taunting wasn’t bothering him.

Still, the less Dad knew in general, the easier it was to get around him. He brought Dad a beer and escaped to his room with his things.

***

The reason for Dad’s shrillness these days was his job, where the pressure had notched up. He had to supply an exhaustive breakdown of every single thing he did for an updated job description. And because corporate also increased their sales quota over last month’s, he had to bust his ass dragging in more business, all the while working up the same stats on all his employees.

He felt so discouraged. The American dream was all about independence and freedom, self-reliance and strength. Here he was trapped in a job that only valued fearful, dependent obedience. Work hard and be a good wage slave, keep your head down, never try to out-think the boss, and never show an original thought or they’ll use it against you. No wonder he got so irritated with Nuthin; whose dreams were just going to get him into trouble.

Dad’s attention was caught by an ad for a movie he couldn’t wait to see.

The scene opens on a long view of a steamy city at night. A dark stranger stalks thru gloomy urban shadows. A gravelly voiceover: “He’s fabulously wealthy, a financial wizard, a job creator.” The camera focuses on the face – punishing, cruel, hyper-masculine. “He’s a one man army, fighting to win in a ruthless world where only the fittest survive.” The camera pans over razor-wire enclosed factory prisons, military patrolled city blocks, land-mined parks and neighborhoods. “Now he’s going to take his revenge on the diseased vermin that infest his city.” The scene shows food lines, refugees, piled-up bodies. The titles come up. “Run. Batman‘s Coming This Way.”

Dad was excited. He loved action movies the way he loved cliches. Greed was good. Revenge was sweet. Every man for himself. Unlimited wealth and power was a great idea. He admired the rich and powerful – look how much they made. Only the strong and ruthless, survival of the fittest, American Way.

“I’ll tell you what freedom is,” he said as they sat and ate pot pies with macs and cheese. “It’s being able to look after myself and my family without being persecuted by haters because I might offend some whining scumbag welfare rat, or endanger some goddamn salamander or something. I don’t care about them. It’s not my job to solve America’s problems. My only responsibility is to feed my family.”

“But why does it always have to be your way?” Nathan complained. “You’re not the only one who’s ever right.”

“But I am right, by definition. God told me to make the decisions and shoulder the burdens for this family. I’m strict because I’m your father, and it’s my job to beat responsibility into you from an early age. Your place is to stop bucking my authority and do what you’re told.” They’d had this argument before. Nuthin was growing stubborn.

“But why do I have to obey you without question? I know right from wrong, too. Why can’t I use my own judgment?”

“You were born bad.” Dad reached over and pinched Nathan’s arm, hard. “I’m the head of this family, and we’re going to do it my way.” He pinched again. Nathan squirmed. “You’d jump off a roof if someone told you to, and it’s my responsibility to protect my kids from evil, so you’d better fucking obey me if you want to remain safe.” He pinched once more and let go. Nathan rubbed the welt. Dad reached for his beer. “You need to obey me so you’ll learn discipline, so we can trust you to go out in the world and do the right thing. If you don’t want to listen, the Bible says I should beat the living shit out of you, as an incentive for you to get it right the next time.”

***

Nathan went to his room after dinner instead of watching the tube with his loving family, and, inspired by Kurt, studied quantum computing online. Half an hour later, Dad stopped by on his way to the bathroom. He walked in without knocking, hoping to surprise Nathan jerking off to some diseased internet slag, but his son was fully dressed and sitting with his back against the headboard, reading his physics book. “So tell me about this quantum physics,” he said, plopping down heavily on the edge of the bed.

Nathan drew a blank. Where to start? There was his dad, weaving back and forth like he was going to fall off the bed. Nathan searched for something that would satisfy him and get him out of there and back to his couch. But how to simplify it so Dad could understand it without making it sound like magic?

If he said anything about the role of the observer, the idea of being able to influence reality would be vaguely threatening, and Dad would get mad. If he talked about multiple universes, Dad would get pissed off thinking of certain things being allowed. If he said everything was relative, Dad would be outraged to hear there wasn’t a single, absolute right and wrong. Worst of all, he would look at Nathan as if these poisonous lies came from him. So, instead, he talked about transistors and satellite TV and the GPSs Dad sold at work, and Dad nodded comfortably, patted Nathan on the head, and staggered off to the bathroom.

Sis came in while Dad was taking a pee. She was wearing black leather and chains, and swaggered into the kitchen. Soon she and Mom were having a fight about the speeding ticket she came home with. You could have heard them outside. Dad broke it up by telling Mom to get Sis’s dinner and bring him a beer, and steered Sis into the living room to ask her about her day.

Mom would have liked to keep fighting with Sis, who made a face at her over Dad’s shoulder, but Dad didn’t tolerate sass from anybody, so Mom meekly heated Sis’s pot pie and fussed around mollifying Dad as he and Sis sat whispering to each other, saying mean things about Mom right in front of her.

Dad took care of the ticket, of course, and Sis had no trouble convincing him that it was the first time she’d done anything even a little bad. She was hiding the fact that her grades were bottoming out, mostly because she was sleeping right thru her early classes, and then either sitting in class texting people or going awol. She liked to hang out with members of the local gang who went to her high school, and who were much more exciting than other students. She liked to take their dares and pull fire alarms in the halls, and race between cars at the stoplights. She got in the guys’ faces and acted as tough as they did, and while they laughed at her, they all jostled to get next to her, and were even a little afraid of her. Of course they all wanted to fuck her, but she was playing the head of the gang off against his closest rival, so they kept an uneasy distance, as both carried guns.

Nathan stayed away from Dad and Sis and studied late into the night, then dragged thru school and work the next day, and only hit his stride sitting in the atrium doing his homework. He looked up from his book to see Kurt sitting a few tables away, puffing absently on an electronic cigarette and scribbling on a pad of stickies, his wispy hair falling into his eyes over and over. He reached stubby fingers up and tucked loose strands behind his ears.

Nathan left his things at the table and walked over to say hi, weaving around awkwardly for a minute trying to make conversation. They talked about how his job was going, and about saving up for next year’s Dragoncon, and then Nathan asked Kurt what he was up to.

***************

read chapter 5

chapter 3

Read Chapter 2

***************

Dragoncon was over, and Josh and Anomia slunk home on Monday with a couple of $25 t-shirts, a lightsaber, and an outrageous hotel bill. They spent a couple of days recuperating.

Anomia kept thumbing thru her notebook. It sucked how little they knew. The angel’s quest might have been doable if he’d given it to an established videogame developer, but of the two of them, only Josh had ever programmed a game, and it was an asteroids ripoff way back in high school. Anomia knewPhotoshop and Flash, but that was just scratching the surface.

Josh chatted up his hacker friends to see if they’d be interested in helping, but when he mentioned the game’s parameters, they shook their heads and said they were busy. They kept pointing to Kurt, an esoteric coder who was too bright to hold a steady job, and who’d worked on lots of programming teams for twenty minutes before walking out over some disagreement with the project manager. Kurt was working on a quantum computer, and everybody thought he’d be perfect for a videogame designed to give players realworld superpowers, with about the same chance of success. So they went and talked to Kurt.

Kurt lived in his van, and spent his non-programming hours riding the subway and hanging out in foodcourts all over town. They met him at the Suntrust foodcourt, in the heart of the Dragoncon hotel district, recovering nicely as the costumed hordes receded into memory. The place was mostly empty, in fact, the office droids having returned to their cubes from lunch and the vendors busy closing up.

Josh and Anomia sat at a table under the skylights and explained their idea over coffee. Kurt drank and listened, fidgeting for a cigarette.

Nathan Rotenhals watched them talking as he waited for his third fast-food manager to tell him he wasn’t old enough to get a job there. But he simply had to, so he was prepared to go thru the same speech with all 196 vendors in the two block area. He could weasel his way into a job a lot closer to home, if it was only about the money, but he needed to be right here, where even if his dad wouldn’t let him go to next year’s Dragoncon, he would be in the middle of it anyway.

Caroline Street watched the group as she wandered around pretending to be a shopper. There weren’t too many pickpockets or merchandise boosters in the mall today, and she noticed right away that the chick at the table was the same girl she took notes on at Dragoncon. So she loitered and listened, but mainly watched, enchanted. What a spoonful of jelly the girl was.

The middle-aged fat guy had a patchy beard and a ratty ponytail that was graying at the top. He had granny glasses that kept slipping down his greasy nose; he kept pushing them back up with pudgy, nicotine-stained fingers. In contrast, the boy was almost unbearably handsome, with chiseled features and fashionably tousled hair. They were both programmers, but one was the very picture of a socially inept geek, while the other looked like he could play one in the movies. The girl was just plain gorgeous, with smooth, coffee skin, an athletic little body, and her hair in dreadlocks. Caroline was in love.

“Yeah, i’m working on a quantum computer,” Kurt was saying. “There are still a few kinks. But once I’ve got them figured out, videogames will never be the same again.” He paused, considering their polite looks. “I know you won’t understand it,” he began, “and it’s okay. I’m used to dumbing it down for people.”

“Thanks,” said Anomia. “I like to think of myself as blonde.”

Caroline, lurking behind a potted plant, suddenly walked away to spend some quiet time thinking of the girl just like that.

“To begin with,” Kurt said, “a bit in a classical computer can be either one or zero, so there are two choices per bit. But a quantum bit can be one and zero, or any number of states in between. A classical computer might seem like it’s doing a bunch of things at once, but it’s really only one step at a time. With quantum computing, you can branch out into parallel universes, and run endless calculations in linear superposition.” He sat back, looking happy. “Do lots of steps at once,” he explained, seeing their pupils shrink. “The 64-qubit quantum computer I’m working on will be 18 billion billion times faster than a 64-bit classical computer.

“Whoa,” Josh said, turning to Anomia. “That means you could have really complex objects in the game, and tons more of them, and they could do lots more things.” She rolled her eyes.

“And you’ll be generating actual random numbers,” Kurt continued, “so gameplay will be a lot more realistic. Your AI and NPCs will have much broader capabilities, and they’ll be smart enough to teach you what you need to know without your having to ask. Your sound and graphics will be incredibly rich and lifelike. And, oh yeah, you’ll never have another security problem.” Kurt reached into his jacket for his cigarettes and rose from the table. “That’s just off the top of my head,” he said, heading for the smoker’s balcony.

Josh and Anomia followed him outside. Josh began a long-winded attempt at recruitment, but he was awed by Kurt’s programming chops, and Anomia could see he was never going to come to the point. “We need someone to program a game that will give players superpowers,” she said, “and people told us you might be interested.”

“Not ‘might be interested,'” Josh protested. “They said you were the only one who could do it.”

Kurt considered this, staring out over the traffic. He took a couple of drags and slowly shook his head. “You don’t need me for that. You can do everything you want with a classical computer. Two reasons – it’s child’s play to simulate quantum reality with a computer, and most of your superpowers boil down to some version of nonlocality, which is an intrinsic feature of classical computers – so you don’t have to look any further.”
They made him explain nonlocality. Otherwise called action at a distance, or teleportation – where an object jumps instantaneously from point A to point B, or entanglement – where two particles separated by as much space and time as you want still act in unison. “You want to fly, you just write it that way.”

“No,” Anomia insisted, “we want to do it for real. Everything you can simulate in a game, we want players to learn to do for real.”

“F’real?” he said, taking a long drag and staring at the traffic below.

“We’re not talking about a game that you can fly in, we’re talking about flying in the real world.”

Kurt took another quick puff and ground his cigarette under his shoe. He thought about having another. “A nonlocal real world,” he mused. “A world where everything’s entangled. Are you sure you want a fart on the other side of the world to affect the taste of your coffee?”

“You’ve got me,” she said after a moment. “How does being able to fly affect my coffee?”

He shrugged. “Everything’s connected. Mostly we don’t notice it. But if you start enabling people’s awareness of it, you could change everything. In the world according to quantum physics, what you expect to find is what actually happens.”

Josh and Anomia exchanged glances. “That’s kind of where we were heading with this,” she replied.

They went back inside, and Kurt led the way to a lunch place in the far corner, where the day’s leftovers were cheap.

Nathan was trying to talk the manager into hiring him. He’d been making a case for how hard he could work and how the customers would love him. And the man hadn’t said no yet, so he was still there.

The manager was busy fiddling with the frozen yogurt machine, so he said hello to Kurt and nodded to Nathan, “Okay, here’s your trial run. Go ahead and help these folks.” Nathan grabbed a styrofoam box and waited for Kurt to choose, gulping back his nervousness. Anomia and Josh stood apart, discussing their game.

Kurt watched the kid ladling his salad and wondered. “You play videogames, right?” he asked.

“Sure,” Nathan said, and shut up, wondering if he should be talking to customers.

“What do you play on, console, handheld?”

Nathan closed the box and looked at the manager to see if he minded, but he was ignoring them. “I can only play on my desktop. Downloaded games, mostly, or online,” he said, handing Kurt the box. “My Dad doesn’t approve of videogames. And my computer’s old, so only a few games will run. Are you going to make a videogame?” he ventured as Anomia moved to the counter.

“Yes we are,” she answered, looking at the food. “A quantum videogame. We’re going to change the world.”

“Quantum’s cool,” Nathan said. “I want to play.” She ordered a box full of salads, and then it was Josh’s turn.

Nathan offered them cookies, and got them bottled drinks, and the manager was happy to ring up such a healthy sale so late in the day.

“The kid’s good for business,” Kurt commented. “Better hire him.”

Back at their table, they ate quietly for only a moment before Kurt put his plastic fork down. “Why you can’t fly in real life,” he said, “is partly because of the consciousness problem.” Josh and Anomia looked obligingly blank. Kurt gestured at the nearly empty foodcourt. “We assume that space, time, and matter are fundamental. We trust our senses, which tell us that the world we experience is real, with solid objects that exist outside of us.” He waved his drink bottle. “And everything works according to fixed laws, like a machine, and we could master it all with enough knowledge.” He took a drink and picked up his fork. “But it’s not like that at all.”

Everyone knows that. They teach it in high school.” Josh indicated Nathan, sitting nearby filling out papers. “The table is really empty space, you could put your hand thru it, we’re nothing but vibrating energy in flux. All that shit.”

“But that’s not what I was saying,” Kurt said, twisting his fork into a pile of curried spaghetti salad. “Consciousness is the fundamental principle. Space and time and the material world arise from that.” In the silence, he ate the salad in three bites and studied the container, trying to decide which one to eat next.

Anomia finally swallowed. “I thought they’d decided consciousness turned on and off like a switch at some level of brain activity,” she said, taking a drink. “You’re not conscious when you’re sleeping, and when you wake up you suddenly are.”

Kurt made his choice and speared a hunk of chicken salad. “That’s because they’re still trying to treat it like classical Newtonian physics, where consciousness isn’t real and doesn’t affect reality.” He took a long drink. “But ‘objective reality is a flawed concept.’ Quantum physics is based on the observer – which is consciousness – and that makes them nervous, so they try to keep it out of their equations. But they can’t.” He wiped his mouth and smoothed his mustache with two fingers. “The material world is an illusion. The universe is a giant mind.”

Fairy, occupied with her own pursuits somewhere else entirely, commented in their heads. That’s what my guru says.

Anomia and Josh looked at each other. Who else is in here with us? they wondered, and voices sounded enthusiastically from all over, with grumbling from the skeptics.

Kurt worked thru the chicken salad and started on the coleslaw. “And okay, physicists have sort of made their peace with quantum reality, but people in the macro world are in total denial. They continue to insist that there’s one true reality – one right way – even if nobody can agree on what it is, and if you don’t conform to it then there’s something wrong with you, ignoring the big huge glaring anomalies in their lives in order to do so. But there’s not just one reality. It’s a subjective universe.”

“We want people to accept quantum reality on the scale of,” Anomia looked around, “sitting here eating our food, and not just down at the level of our atoms?” she asked doubtfully.

“Right. Then people could fly.” He shrugged and drained his drink. “All it requires is a paradigm shift. You think about the world differently, a new way of looking at it becomes clear, and different things become possible. Wishes come true in a quantum world.”

“Like in dreams,” she said.

Kurt tilted the box and scooped up the last bits of salad. “Where do you go when you dream? Is it a real place with solid things? They feel solid. You take it for granted that they’re solid. But they’re just electrical activity in your brain, just waves and clumps of energy.”

Josh shrugged. “So what? Dreams aren’t real.”

“In quantum physics, the possible and the actual worlds exist at the same time. My point is that when you become aware that you’re dreaming, you don’t have to follow the script anymore. The dream world is nonlocal, and there you are inside it, awake. You can do whatever you want.”
“So we want people to be like they are in dreams, but in real life.” Anomia was puzzled. “Are we talking about trancing people out, or putting them to sleep?”

Kurt held the box up and drained every drop of dressing into his mouth, then snapped the lid closed. “No, just the opposite. We want them to think quantum while they’re awake.”

“That’ll be a big change.” The thought scared Anomia. What about bad dreams? “Maybe people would rather believe things are solid than live where everything’s magic.” She turned to Josh. “Remember the constant effort it took in our game? We had to make the sun come up every day.”

Josh patted her arm. “Don’t forget, we’re the ones who are betting people will want to live in a magical universe.”

Kurt stood up and gathered his trash. “Once you get people out of the rut of least resistance, and teach them to catch themselves when they backslide into unconscious habits, they can achieve quantum mastery. It’s that easy.”

Josh and Anomia sat there with glassy eyes. Kurt got up and walked over to a trash can, leaving them to think about it. It would take awhile for them to assimilate it, of course, but they had his number if there were any questions.

He walked by Nathan’s table and stopped for a moment.

Nathan looked up and smiled. “I got a job.”

“Good for you,” Kurt said. The kid looked about twelve years old. “Aren’t you still in school?”

“Yeah, well, I can do work study. If I can talk my teachers into it.”

They looked at each other for a few moments and hesitated, not sure what to talk about. “Well, see you around, then,” Kurt said, starting toward the subway.

Immediately, he started thinking about the quantum computer he was going to build. As he cut thru the hamster tubes and halls, he thought about the various substrates he could use, not sure if he wanted to use quantum dots or electron spins as his base.

Walking the last block outside so he could smoke, he thought about how to fit quantum nano-oscillators into classical computer chips.

He rode the long escalator down he thought about scaling everything up to room temperature, and avoiding noise and decoherence.

As he tapped his transit card and pushed his bulk thru the double doors, he fantasized about conscious computers, and about making a computer out of a brain.

Standing on the subway platform, he thought about microtubules in the brain, with folded proteins that could be in two states at once.

While the train doors were opening, he thought about the brain was less like files and physical addresses and more like a cloud network, where everything was everywhere.

Sitting on the swaying subway train, he thought about links between the thalamus and cerebral cortex, where consciousness might be anchored. He thought about synchronizing those neurons with his quantum computer. Plugging in memory sticks. Hooking up smartphones. Wifi.

***

10,000 nautical miles southeast of Atlanta’s subway system, 124 degrees around the globe, 17 hours of flight time and a six hour layover in Frankfurt; Radhu Trivedi was still mentally back at Dragoncon. The parade, people flying their geek flags, the intense discussions about videogames and possibilities, the women in superhero costumes – he’d felt really comfortable being in such odd surroundings, welcomed and appreciated. Loved. Best of all, he was returning from a boring telemarketer’s convention, not as a lowly employee who beat out all the other employees for this trip, enjoying a whirlwind boondoggle before resuming the shackles and trying to beat them again for next year. No, he was reborn, transformed, into a groundbreaking videogame developer.

So, he was going to realize his dream after all, Radhu mused as his taxi lurched from traffic jam to traffic jam on the way home from the airport. He’d gotten so close the last time, only to be let go with the others when the project finished. But now he had another shot. Finally, he could escape from his typical middle class Indian life in his typical Indian family with his typical Indian mother pressuring him to marry a typical Indian girl and his typical Indian call-center boss demanding typically impossible Indian standards for typically low Indian wages. To hell with all that. He was going to be a rich American game developer. Just as soon as he wrapped things up in India.

His cousin Muttu would be very happy to hear about his trip. Mattu’s ties to the gaming industry were as bona fide as Radhu’s – he sold pirated videogames from a market stall. But he was ambitious, and had high hopes for their future. He would see all sorts of possibilities that Radhu didn’t have the head for.

Muttu loved to talk about how fat the kids were these days, and how much money they had, and how their parents indulged them with smartphones and PCs and gaming consoles. He loved to fantasize about standing under them with nets to catch the money. The Indian gaming industry was growing exponentially. Independent developers were springing up all over the place, and they were increasingly co-producing big American games. India was already second to none in outsourcing; with a pool of skilled professionals to do the work, they would soon surpass Taiwan and South Korea to become the number one top videogame developing Masters (by proxy) of the Universe.

Muttu was torn between starting up his own gaming company, opening an internet cafe, or starting a technical institute. The school seemed the safest bet, but he wasn’t cut out to be an administrator, and Radhu wasn’t leaving his call-center job for anything less than a ticket out of there.

***

Meanwhile, in another part of town…

Nathan got home burning with curiosity, and rushed to his computer to start googling things the computer genius guy’d said. If only he’d been less hesitant to speak, they could have talked – they actually shared some interests. He stayed in front of his computer until they called him for dinner. Quantum computing, quantum mind, qubits.

Dad got home with work on his mind. Corporate doubled the amount of time he had to spend on paperwork, effective immediately. He now had to account for every five minute segment of his day, and assign a job code to each one. Some of the job codes came out of the corporate budget, and some of them came out of the retail budget, and it was a big fat hairy deal because it all got whanged with a multiplier and was going to come out of his paycheck if the numbers weren’t good enough. He was getting too old for this shit, because no matter what the numbers were, he was going to end up doing more work for less money.

Mom got home and put her things away, and scurried around making Dad comfortable with a couple of beers while she got dinner ready. Tonight it was FamishedFamily(tm) dinners for everybody. She left one in the freezer, because of course Sis was not home yet.

Dad was sort of watching the news, the remote in one hand, a beer in the other, his feet up on the coffee table facing the new plasma TV they’d financed just last month. His favorite newsreader was on, an old white guy with a booze nose. He told Dad that the Board of Education was unveiling a bold new initiative to deal with the worsening public school crisis. He flashed a picture of a one-story compound surrounded by razor wire. Study after study has shown that high school is the gateway to jail for millions of kids. A ticking timebomb. He showed a loud, confusing graphic that Dad ignored to guzzle his beer. Concentrate on job training, enable successful careers, make useful contributions. He made some recommendations Dad approved of. The institutional life – cheap and effective. Respect for authority – discipline – regular schedules.

Dad drained his beer. “I guess they don’t learn that at home,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and turning to Nathan. “Where’s your respect for authority, huh? What useful contribution do you make? Get me another beer.”

“It’s already like that at school,” Nathan observed, getting up. “The doors and windows don’t open, and you have to go thru metal detectors, and there are police patrolling the halls.” He handed the beer to Dad. “They use pepper spray to break up fights. Kids get dragged to jail in handcuffs for throwing paper airplanes and running.”

Dad popped the top and took the first deep draft. “You don’t want cops in the halls? Obey your teachers.”

“But school’s a gateway to college and a job, not a life of crime,” Nathan protested, sitting down.

Dad leaned over and loomed, wafting beer fumes in Nathan’s face. “Tell me you know better than hundreds of experts who say you kids are a bunch of psychopaths.” He snorted, his nostrils flaring. “You’re so full of it.” He sat back and took another drink. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” He stabbed the remote to change the channel and waved at Nathan dismissively. “I should have hit you more when you were growing up, but your mother kept getting in the way.”

The beer went down and Dad motioned resentfully for another, glowering as his son slumped to the kitchen. “They’re talking about making the death penalty for rebellious children,” Dad said to his back. “You’d better watch out.”

Dad grew up watching All in the Family, and identified with the young rebel Meathead. But here he was doing a fair imitation of reactionary Archie Bunker. Back in the day he marched against the war and smoked pot and called for revolution; how did he get to be so conservative? If you asked him, he would point to his son and talk about the wrong headed attitudes kids have. No worries, tho, they’d grow up once they got any real responsibility, and end up just like him.

He popped the beer open and drained half of it. No matter how unique kids try to be, they’re just part of a herd, where it’s important to fit in and not go around thinking about things, because then you irritate people. His advice, should his shiftless son bother to ask, would be to blend in and be stupid. Dull and unambitious, that’s how you pass in today’s world. But Nuthin had gone back into the kitchen to help Mom with the food and missed his chance at enlightenment. Dad called him for another beer.

“What have you been doing since you got home, Nathan?” Mom asked as she sat down at the coffee table and handed the dinners around.
Nathan had forgotten about his new job, and opened his mouth to tell them about it, but realized that this wasn’t the time. “Studying,” he said, then lowered his voice and finished, “quantum entanglement,” and shut up, not wanting to talk over Dad’s conversation with the television. <
Sis came home in the middle of dinner and wanted to know where hers was. Mom got up to pop it in the microwave. “That way you can have it hot no matter how late you are,” Mom explained, bringing Dad another beer. Sis spent the time telling Dad how hungry she was and wondering if Mom had it on defrost instead of full power. Eventually she settled down with her dinner, complaining that it was too hot, but otherwise sitting quietly in front of the tube.

Dad’s other favorite news anchor was on, a chirpy little black woman with an ice-queen exterior that Dad saw right thru. She introduced an expert on the economy who explained the latest austerity measures, which were going to empower poor people to do better. Dad suggested a few examples of programs that needed cutting. He saw himself facing down some bum asking for a handout, or having the last word when his worthless family wanted something. It’s for your own good. It’s not revenge, I just can’t afford to carry your lazy ass anymore. He glared at his son.
“Daddy,” Sis said with her mouth full, “what’s austerity?”

“Oh, sweetie pie,” he said, “you’ll never have to worry about austerity, because you work hard and always do what you’re supposed to. You’ll go to college and get a good job and marry somebody who’s rich, and everything will be fine.” He waved to Mom, who got up and got him a fresh beer. He waited to explain until he popped it open and had a drink. “Austerity is for the lazy, dependent blood suckers who steal our hard earned tax dollars and buy plasma screens and smartphones. People who should be homeless, sucking the life out of hard working folks so they can sit on their butts and smoke dope. But with austerity,” he grinned, “moochers will have to work for a living like everyone else.”

He was on a roll. “We need to dismantle the nanny state and replace it with a pappy state.” Sis looked up at him adoringly. “It’s simple. We’ll just outlaw being poor, and send the bastards off to work camps. Kids and old people too. Hell, take them all, illegals, muslims, blacks, feminazis – the lot.” Dad and Sis looked darkly at Nathan, who might have taken this opportunity to mention his new job, but Dad continued without pause.

Mom hardly thought being poor should be a crime. “What if somebody loses their job?” she asked hesitantly. “Should they go to jail?” It was a ticklish subject because Dad was always afraid he was going to get fired.

“There’s no such thing as poverty in this country,” he stated firmly. “It’s a well known fact. Every so-called social problem can be traced right back to somebody’s individual screwup. Every single time, there’ll be something you should have done, and it’s only because you’re lazy – or stupid on purpose – that you’re in the hole you’re in. You’re responsible for the problems in your life.”

Mom took her tray into the kitchen. Dad yelled for her to bring him another beer.

I want to get a job,” Nathan ventured. “No way. You’re not allowed to get a job,” Dad said shortly.

“But you could use the help,” he protested.

“Listen, I work because I’m a grownup, and I have to work for a living. Your job is to help Mom and go to school. That’s the rules.”

“But that’s not a real rule. We can decide to change it if we want to. If it’s better for us.”

“It’s always been like this,” Dad said flatly. “The only reason I let your Mom work is because you kids are so damned expensive.” Nathan started to object, but Dad wasn’t having it. “You can’t change it, so you better get used to it.”

It wasn’t fair. It was a sour taste in Nathan’s mouth, being forced to be dependent on his parents when he had the ability, however small, to buy himself a taste of freedom. “I can’t wait until I’m grown up and can do things myself,” he sulked.

“Nonsense,” Dad insisted. “You’ve got loads more freedom right now, just because you’re a kid. I’ll give you more privileges when your judgment improves.” He saluted Nathan with his beer can, then shook it and looked meaningfully at his son, who got up to get him another. “In the meantime, I’m keeping you down for your own good.” Nathan avoided his eyes, glowering. Dad chuckled over the can. “You depend on me for the bread you eat and the roof you sleep under, so I have nothing to fear from Nuthin.”

“I just think…” Nathan started.

“All you need to do is what you’re told. You don’t have a choice, because I’m not giving you one.” Nathan took his tray into the kitchen. Dad called after him, “Don’t take it personal. I win, and that’s just the way it is.”

Dad turned his attention to the latest important newsflash. The whole world was watching Honey Boo-Boo Child! Stay tuned for the most important moment of her life!. Honey Boo Boo’s Hollywood screentest! Dad rose from the couch, hoping he had enough time for a quick piss and calling to Nuthin to hurry up and get him another beer.

Nathan discussed his new job with Mom as he helped her clean up after dinner. They wanted him ten hours a week, mostly during lunch and PhysEd. It cut into English and World History but he could work it out with the teachers. It was on the subway line ten minutes from school. He found himself pleading with her. Straight A’s – work study – extra credit – looking great on his college application.

Mom asked him why he wanted a job. “Are you trying to help us with the bills?” He twisted his hands and confessed that it was only because he wanted to go to Dragoncon next year. “I think that’s a great idea,” she said, relieved, putting an arm around him. “It’s a very responsible thing to do.”

“He always thinks he’s right,” Nathan whined, “and he never listens to anything I say.”

“Yeah,” Mom sighed. “I know.”

“But he’s not right, is he?”

She paused for a moment, feeling disloyal. “No, he’s not,” she said. “A lot of the time he’s just reacting.”

Nathan looked at her. “He repeats what he hears on TV. He doesn’t even get the details right.”

Mom brushed his hair where it curled up on the back of his neck. “He’s too busy to do a lot of thinking about things, and I guess he just figures if it wasn’t true they wouldn’t say it.”

Nathan scowled. “But even the most basic search turns up a hundred different facts and viewpoints. How can he just accept everything when it’s obvious the authorities are lying?”

“Well,” Mom said after a moment, “it’s kind of easier just to accept what they tell you after awhile.”

“But does he really think the world is like that?” Nathan persisted.

“Probably not, but he sure wishes it was simpler. And he thinks if everybody follows the rules it will be.”

“I don’t want to follow those rules. They’re stupid rules.”

Mom gave a big sigh. “I know. But they’re all he’s got.”

This made Nathan angry. “No they’re not. He won’t listen to anything else. He’s trying to force us to be the way he wants us to be, and it doesn’t work like that. I know that, and I’m only a kid.” He slumped. “It’s like he’s hypnotized.”

“No,” Mom said, patting his hand. “He’s just tired.”

Norman went to his room and looked up Pauli’s exclusion principle and quantum entanglement. Sis went over to a girlfriend’s house to study, taking Dad’s car and twenty bucks for gas.

The cops called the house at 3 in the morning and asked them to pick up Sis at the jail. She wasn’t under arrest, but the car was in the impound. Mom drove down to get her. Sis flounced out of jail and kept ahead of Mom all the way to the car, then sat and stared out the passenger window the whole way home, and mumbled something about not having her license as explanation for why the car was impounded. She snarled at Mom the one time she just tried to make conversation. “You don’t care about me,” she sneered, fleeing the car the moment Mom turned off the engine.

By the time she put her things away and went back upstairs, Precious Snowflake was huddled miserably on the floor next to Dad’s side of the bed, weeping and being comforted. Dad was nearly asleep, stroking her hair and mumbling about all things he was going to buy her when he got rich. Sis kissed him goodnight and got up when Mom lay down, and stuck her tongue out at her as she left. Mom pretended not to notice.

************

Read chapter 4

chapter 2

Read Chapter 1

***

The boy and girl were still dazed from their vision. Or hallucination. Or dream. It might have been the kink in her neck, or it might have been the drugover, but the girl felt especially horrible. She insisted on going up to their room and taking a shower, but couldn’t scrub off the pixie dust, and only felt a little better when they went down to the meeting place outside Comic Book Alley.

The boy: Josh Sterling, 27 year old white male, software engineer unemployed, resident Alpharetta area, Atlanta, GA.
The girl: Anomia Martin, 23 year old black female, Big Behemoth Inc graphic artist, resident Midtown area, Atlanta, GA.

A couple of friends came by and remarked how shaky they looked, sprawling on the floor next to them,. This morning you could see all the way across the hall, when 24 hours earlier you had to shoulder your way thru. Lots of people were in regular clothes, and some were already hauling rolly bags back to the airport.

“Well, it’s sure a slow start to the day,” their friend Fairy observed, sipping her machiatto. She had bags under her eyes and her curly red hair was frizzy and unbrushed. Her Manga costume was demented looking this morning, stains and wrinkles marring the waif look.

Fairy: Susan Delany, 34 year old white female, self-employed various, resident Little 5 Points area, Atlanta, GA. Priors.

Anomia gazed dully out at the crowd, sitting with her back to the wall, watching the legs walk by. She had a headache. She felt disoriented, like they were still in their dream, like they were dreaming they were at Dragoncon, sitting in a carpeted cave with a bunch of comic book characters, drinking coffee and feeling tired.

The boy thought, I’m kind of sad to be back here.

Do you think we could get there again? the girl wondered.

Do you think it’s real? he asked.

The girl slowly realized that she wasn’t actually speaking. She looked over at the boy. He agreed, bemused.

Anomia turned to Fairy. “Were you following that?” But Fairy hadn’t heard anything. She turned back to Josh. “You were talking to me, right?”

Josh grinned. “Just like in the game, we’re in each other’s headsets, or something.”

Fairy nodded. “You’re still fucked up from last night.” They looked at her in surprise. “Anyone could tell,” she remarked.

Anomia took a notebook out of her backpack and started writing down what she remembered of their adventures. Josh recounted the tale to Fairy and the others, describing their game and their world. How real it felt. How long it lasted. How involved they were. More friends dropped by, sitting in a group around the pair and beginning to edge into the path of the pedestrians.

“What was flying like?” someone asked.

Josh explained, sort of. “Kind of leaning into the flow, you know?” A couple of people nodded. “Pushing and being dragged along, both. It’s a funny feeling. A sort of twisting inside. Like your organs shifting.” There were some concerned looks. “But not painful at all,” he assured them. “Like holding back a reflex, I guess. Sneezing, for example.” He thought for a moment. “You sort of go along in the…the sweet spot of a wave of…emotional force?” He stopped, reaching for the words. There are no words.

But everybody knew dreams. People talked about how they flew in their dreams. Like dolphins swimming, like birds, like Superman. “After awhile,” Josh told them, “it got to the point where we didn’t even move. It was more like things coming to us. And in the end, it took no time at all.” He stopped again, at a loss.

Teleportation,” someone suggested, and people went Duh, Star Trek is real.

Anomia turned a page and began drawing a map of their gameworld. The boy kept adding bits she’d forgotten, and they argued silently about where to put the level boundaries. The angel said we could still fly, if we wanted to, she reminded him. He suddenly recalled the angel’s endless lectures while they were floating thru the universe. It all came back in a rush, and he bubbled over with everything he remembered. “The angel,” Josh began.

Fairy interrupted. “There was an angel?” she asked sharply. Others wanted to know, too.

The crowd got larger. People at the edges wanted to know all about the angel, and Josh had to start at the beginning. “This angel sprinkled pixie dust on us, I mean this disembodied hand did. We were tripping…” He stopped. “We had to think happy thoughts…” It sounded so stupid. Help, he thought, and the girl reminded him about the graffiti.

“We have pictures,” Josh announced brightly.

Anomia dug her phone out and pulled up her photo gallery. There were pictures of the hand, the message, the boy hovering over Dragoncon at night. There was the star, and the Garden. There was a very indistinct picture of the angel, all sparkly and overexposed. And the two of them standing together on the cloud, with flares around the edges – the angel must have taken that one. There was the boy with one of the tiny spinning worlds they made. There were their hybrid creatures being menaced by the T-Rex. There were a couple of photos that didn’t come out at all, and one last picture, of vast armies arrayed against each other in the high mountains, right before they killed each other.

She posted the album to her Facebook page. Her friends shared it. “We got this text message,” she said slowly, looking at it. “Maybe from the angel? It said to re-create the game.” She tweeted the message.

Josh was telling people, “Yeah, we made bunches of worlds, and they were completely real. People, civilizations, wars, all that. It was uber-Sim. Like Spore, only massively multiplayer.”

“The people we made were so cute – tiny little things,” Anomia remembered fondly. “They were purple, with big hair. They grew up and had kids and got old. They had rich, full lives.” Except for the ones we killed off, the boy mused. “I felt so responsible for them,” she said.

“Yeah, you were really angry when the angel turned it all off.” Josh turned to his friends. “You should have seen her. She stamped her feet and burst into flame, just like the angel’s sword.”

“I was, like, livid,” she admitted. “All those people, gone. All our work, everything, just like that.”

“I thought you were going to smite the angel, I really did,” Josh said admiringly. “So did he. He was impressed.” He turned to his friends. “We were in charge of them for, like, a million years. It was awesome. And we were famous and we were powerful…”

“But it was hard,” Anomia added. “We were really gods, so it was a lot of work, and we had to do everything.”

“But we really were gods,” Josh said, grinning, “and we could do anything. We had all the superpowers.”

“It was still just a videogame, right?” someone asked.

“No, it was a dream,” someone else explained.

“Yeah, how about a drug-induced hallucination,” a third person suggested.

“Whatever,” Josh agreed. “But it was real,” he insisted. “Really real.” He turned to the girl for help. Don’t we have any real proof?

Pictures and texts aren’t proof? she replied.

Josh looked embarrassed and shrugged. “I mean, what can I say? We were in kind of an altered state. You know when some tiny kid can lift up a car and get the guy out? Something happens in your brain, and all of a sudden you’ve got all sorts of abilities you never knew you had.” More nods as everyone inserted their favorite pop culture reference.

“It never got old,” Anomia said, looking around and feeling tired, “but here, being awake, it feels like something’s been amputated. Like I’m less of a person.”

“Well, we’re all feeling pretty bad this morning,” Fairy observed.

***

A bunch of people left for their 11:30 panel, and a bunch of others stopped by and sat down. Josh went to his tournament in the gaming room, but Anomia needed to rest. She felt half-stuck in their vision of the night before, as if she could roll over into it if she shut her eyes. She sat next to Fairy, wanting another cup of coffee but too lethargic to get up. Someone came by and brought her one, and a croissant. Walking thru the hamster tube to the Hilton, the boy tasted pastry and pleaded, I’m hungry too.

Somebody asked about the angel, and it was Anomia’s turn. “He’s kind of cranky,” she said, dreading talking to people. But they really wanted to know what the game was like, so she reluctantly answered. Yes, they could feel cold and heat. And hunger. Yes, they peed and shat. Sex was fantastic, much better than usual (don’t tell Josh). Injuries and dying – they tried to avoid them, cuz pain hurts like fuck.

“It was completely real; everything,” she insisted. “Real snow, real water, real rocks, real plants, real weather.” And the passage of years; the layers of life upon life, generation after generation, the vast ocean of memories and experience, it was all accessible to them; even now, in their ordinary consciousness. The boy, off fighting videogame enemies, paused to agree with her.

She wanted to explain that they’d reached a new level of understanding that changed everything, that the lessons were as clear as if they’d been written down. But the words were unfamiliar, as if her english diverged from theirs long ago. Anomia shut her eyes, and felt a familiar humming, vibrating deep inside her bones. It was a sound she’d grown used to in their gameworld, a hum that was loudest when she was flying, but was always there in the background, like crickets, like traffic.

The hum got louder. She leaned over and asked Fairy if she heard anything. Fairy touched her arm, and they both felt a vibration running down into the floor underneath. Suddenly the building was vibrating, too, and she felt queasy. Fairy removed her hand, and the feeling passed, but the hum was still there, louder than ever. She rubbed her eyes – she needed a nap.

Someone asked, “So, in your game, did you make your world from a template, or with rolls of the dice, or what?”

She sat up, yawning. “No, we built it with our hands. It was like making cotton candy. We scooped this fog stuff out of thin air and shaped it into whatever we wanted. And it was easy, because we were right at the intersection of matter and energy.” She stopped and tried again. “Surfing the point where the future turns into now. Where virtual movements cause real things to happen.” It was coming out all muddy, but the people around her didn’t look confused, they looked like they understood every word. And believed it. “We were like spiders in a web,” she said, “we could feel every movement. And when we reacted to it, we were also kind of controlling it.”

“And that’s the secret of magic in your game?” someone asked.

She thought about it. “I guess it’s magic. But not really. It’s just how the world works. Everybody’s magic, everybody can fly.” His eyes lit up. “There’s a learning curve,” she cautioned.

“Did you bring any powers back with you?” someone asked hopefully.

She thought about it. “Well, we…” We can read minds, the boy suggested. “Right, we’re still in each other’s heads from last night,” she said. “I’m talking to him now.”

“What’s he doing?” someone asked.

I’m losing, the boy replied, as his avatar was blasted. “He’s down to his last few lives,” she told them, “but at the moment his team’s ahead.” She used body english to help him jump back into action from the remorting area.

“Can you get into just anybody’s head?” someone asked.

She checked. There was only the boy, screaming at the boss he was battling. “Maybe it’s because we were together,” she started, and then fell silent and reached out with her mind…

There were other voices, other presences. She felt them all around her, individual points of energy buzzing with life. It was just like in their game. She closed her eyes and was instantly back there, listening to the thoughts of their little characters. At the same time, she was also hearing the people in the group around her. She looked deeper, and saw millions and millions of people, all playing the game, all full of serious intent. “I think I’m seeing the future. It’s like some galaxy,” she said, describing what she was seeing. “It’s much bigger than our game. You’re all in it…everybody’s playing.”

She had the sudden, utter conviction that the players’ actions were really important – vital. She saw herself in the middle, spinning and spinning, anchoring their energy. She saw the world, sparkling. “Everybody is creating the real world as they’re playing,” she whispered. Then she realized, as a bubble of energy built up in her chest, “That’s the secret. That’s why we have to make the game.”

The people around Anomia pressed in closer to hear her – she was speaking so softly – and the people behind closed in around them, touching at knees and hips and shoulders, arms around each other, heads on each other’s shoulders.

The people next to her felt it first, like the hum and buzz of a faulty streetlight. They felt it thru their butts on the floor, and thru the people they were jammed up against, and inside their heads. The feeling was like zotz on the tongue: tingly, sour, metallic. The hall grew silent, as if the sound was being absorbed within the circle. Passers-by stopped and crowded in, and a knot formed in the traffic, backing up all the way to the escalators. Movement in the hall slowed to a shuffle.

Everybody felt something. They leaned in, straining their ears to catch it, every nerve on alert, every muscle vibrating. People’s hands and feet starting tingling, genitals scrunched up, and there was a syrupy feeling on the tops of their heads. It felt nutritious; like warm sunshine running thru their veins. Nobody could say if it started inside of them, or if they were being shaken by some outside force or subaudible beat. It felt like the whole world was vibrating at one specific frequency they could all feel (not too fast and not too slow), and the more attention they paid to it, the stronger the feeling got, until several hundred people were all buzzing and snapping together.

The girl felt like she was a very small consciousness floating around in her own enormous body, small enough to fit into the palm of her own huge hand. Everything looked normal when she cracked her eyes open – she was as big as everybody else, even tho she felt tiny. It felt like everyone in the hall was breathing with her, buzzing with the same cosmic vibration. She reached out to them with her mind, and felt them focus on her, and then blend into her. Her body became vast without limit, and crowded at the same time.

The buoyant excitement in her chest slowly pulled her into the air. She felt herself straining against the people around her, like being tethered, but they bobbed up beside her as they noticed her rising, and a wave started, ring after ring of people bobbing and bouncing in the air around Anomia, the hum getting louder, the vibration deeper.

People looked down and wiggled their feet in the air. Some took pictures, but nobody panicked. It didn’t seem at all strange to be weightless, and if a reason had to be found, they could blame internal gases, or something – it didn’t matter. They were floating because they could. And communicating with each other, like an enormous chat room, even tho the hall was silent. They all remembered playing the very game the girl and boy were describing, and realized that they’d played it a million times. Everybody loved that game.

They were in the middle of reaching out to touch other minds, sweeping thru Dragoncon out into the world, and out into space, when it all came crashing to an end. Suddenly, in the midst of universal communication, the house lights went out, leaving a darkness broken only by blue cellphone lights and red exit signs.

A shock went thru the crowd like a jolt of electricity, and suddenly people snapped back into themselves, instantly thumping down onto the floor. The building trembled around them.

Maniacal laughter filled the air as a hooded figure flipped the lights back on and fled.

They looked around at one another, shaken. But hey, we were really flying, they thought.

“Let’s do it again,” somebody suggested, and they began to clamor for it, but Anomia had curled up in the middle of the crowd, groaning and shivering and wanting to be left alone. They covered her with hoodies and shawls, and sat discussing what they’d experienced, agreeing that they were pretty sure it was real, despite the asshole bit at the end.

People got up and went to their 1:00 panels, everybody buzzing with excitement, all of them calling or texting somebody else, posting pictures and clips. The boy could hear them in each other’s heads as he logged out of his game and rushed back. Strangers in the hamster tunnel smiled at him and thought, Hello.

People crowded into the hall from all corners of Dragoncon, eager to join the happening. Clumps of newcomers surrounded anybody who’d experienced the levitation, touching each other and concentrating on the humming vibration of the connection.

The crowd was so thick it was stifling. Anomia and Josh checked their pocket programs and found a vacant room nearby, and people piled into it, tweeting the change of venue. For the next few minutes, they tried to repeat the levitation or do some other spectacular thing, but the harder they tried, the more nothing happened. They could feel the energy gluing up with their efforts.

“That’s very zen,” somebody from the Silk Road track observed. “You must clear your mind.”

“Meditation,” Anomia mused.

“In the game, we just had to think about something, and it happened,” Josh complained. “It was only when we first started that we had the kind of trouble we’re having now.”

“We’re working too hard,” Anomia said. “I can feel the flow thinning. And I’m too self conscious.”

“What we need is more pixie dust,” Josh stated, rubbing his hands. “Shrooms and X for everybody.”

“Stop joking,” she said, “we’ve had our vision. We’re on a quest now. We’re supposed to make some sort of superpower edugame, not get wasted and dream about it.”

A few people left, late to their 1:00 panels, including Fairy. Some were heard grumbling, Too Newage, as they walked away.

***

Fairy took the escalator up to the next level, looking for the bathrooms. She’d noticed a funny buzzing electricity in the air around Josh and Anomia, and felt it slowly dropping off as she left. She stopped and shut her eyes, and could swear she knew the exact spot where Anomia and Josh were sitting on the level below.

Fairy ducked into the ladies’ room and gasped as she saw the long line for the stalls. She looked at her phone; she was running late. Walking down to the end, she joined several others doing the same thing, and stripped down to her underwear and Docs for a quick costume change. She pulled on medieval-type battle dress over her head, then put her flouncy red hair into a bun. She slipped on a brow ridge headpiece, then adjusted a close-cropped black wig on top of it. At the long mirror she applied bronzing liquid and scanned herself for errors. In only moments she had transformed from a Manga princess into a Klingon female. Growling at the girls jostling for mirror space, she stalked out of the bathroom and headed for the men’s room. The floor shook underneath her. bISovbejbe’DI’ tImer.

A guy bumped into her as she rounded the corner. “My kid’s taking too long,” she snapped, walking past the (much shorter) line of men who were waiting to pee. She clumped down to the handicapped stall and knocked gently. “Jimmy?” she said sweetly, bending down to child level to speak thru the door. It opened tentatively, and she slipped inside and latched it shut.

Inside was a Klingon male, standing stiffly at attention. Fairy looked him up and down and sniffed loudly. He looked straight ahead for a few moments while she inspected him more closely; then she backed off and turned away, clearing her throat. Embarrassed at his thoughtlessness and hot with a sudden rush of desire, the Klingon crumpled a teller machine envelope out of his battle dress and bowed, seeting with emotion as he cupped his hands to deliver it to her. Fairy checked the contents, twitched her skirts, and slipped the envelope into a spiked garter. Fishing a length of elastic band out of her bag, she made him sit, and secured his wrists and ankles to the commode. He sat there, twitching, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He began reciting Klingon love poetry in a low voice. With a shriek, she tore off his codpiece and stomped it into the floor.

Two Stormtroopers were standing at the urinals not watching each other pee. They stopped talking to listen to the sound. “I think I’ll go watch the robot battles for this next session,” one said after a moment.

“Yeah, that’s cool,” the other replied. “I’m going to check out costuming. There’s a foam sculpting demo, and I want to make my own helmet for next year.”

They heard a sound like someone being punched in the gut, and a resounding thump from somewhere down the row of stalls. Both of them choked off the stream and craned their necks to see. There was nothing. A deep voice intoned: “PIj QIch je ghoS ngeH bong ngeHmey Qoy yaghmey.”

“Did you hear the roof door was left open on top of the Marquis?” the first one asked, straining to finish.

The other one shook off and fastened his cup. “Maybe we should go check it out.” They clomped out of the bathroom just as a hurled toilet paper dispenser exploded against the far wall behind them. Vicious shrieks followed them out into the hall. People began to gather in front of the stall.

The sounds of the Klingon mating ritual start out loud, and quickly become piercing, as the female rages and the male ducks. You couldn’t help but notice. Howls, bangs, the sound of fingernails on the blackboard, ripping flesh. The poetry continued, tho in a somewhat strangled tone, rising sharply in pitch at one point, but mainly droning on in a deep bass. There was a pause, an extended period of scrabbling noises and low grunts, some obvious cursing in gutter Klingon, and then a complex set of cries in two voices, one of victory and one of passion, which was joined involuntarily by the Klingon voyeurs gathered outside the stall door.

Then there was silence. The waiting Klingons looked at each other, concerned. One raised his hand to knock on the door. “Are you okay in there?”

Suddenly the door burst open, smashing into the closest spectators, who fell backward against the others.

Fairy marched out of the stall, growling. “Nech nom, ghuy’cha’! QI’yaH!,” she snapped, making her way to the sink to wash her hands. She smiled apologetically at the Starship Trooper at the next sink. “The girls’ room is so crowded,” she explained, carefully scrubbing under her fingernails.

The door to the handicapped stall had swung closed behind her. It was silent inside. Cautiously, a tlhIngan yoHpeeled the door open and looked inside.

A battered Klingon warrior sat tied to the toilet, spreadeagled on the seat. His costume was ripped to shreds, there were thick red welts on his chest, and his cock and balls stretched down low over the water, wrung completely out. He had a silly grin on his face, tho. Stuck into the peak of his brow plate was a card:

Bad Fairy Services – Adult Roleplay.

Fairy crossed the hall toward the elevators. She enjoyed the air of power a Klingon costume gave her, and considered staying in character. But her next panel was an Apocalypse Now simulation, and she thought her Manga clothes would be more appropriate. Also, she was sweating under her brow ridges and wanted the wig off really badly.

She went up to her room for a quick shower, feeling great. Making people feel good was her favorite thing to do. In this case, it was catering to a special sci/fi flavor of kink, but Hoch ghot pIm ghob.

***

Back with Anomia and Josh, who were still fielding questions from friends and strangers in the audience. The room was set up for sound and video, but nothing was turned on. It was packed at the front, with people circulating at the back, and lots of coming and going in the hall outside. Josh was antsy with caffeine and no food. Anomia looked like she was coming down with something. She could hear people discussing it in her mind; some of them didn’t like her hair. She tossed her head defiantly, beads rattling in her dreads.

Someone remarked, “Okay, if it’s really true, and we can have superpowers, how in hell are you going to teach them?”

“There’re lots of methods,” Josh answered. “There’s the Jedi school, and the Bene Gesserit school, and other systems…” Then he drew a blank, and people responded from the crowd.

Hogwarts.”

“Lord of the Rings.”

“A Course in Miracles.”

“And it’s not just fictional,” Anomia pointed out. “Look at all the powers you can develop here in the real world.”

Mental exercises, suggested the voices inside their heads. Martial arts. Yoga. Tantric sex. Ritual magic. Drugs. Music and dance.

“But seriously, what about real superpowers?” someone complained. “Telekinesis, telepathy, and enhanced speed and strength, never mind the ability to heal, or drain someone else’s life-force, or warp time and space. How do you teach those?”

“The easy answer,” someone said, “is that it takes years of training and apprenticeship, whether you’re talking about Force powers or the Weirding Way or dragonriding.”

“I personally don’t want to spend a decade carting Yoda around on my back,” said someone else, standing up to leave.

“Never mind being celibate,” said a geek with pony hair.

“And I’m not doing the Gom Jabbar thing, either,” said a fearless Viking.

“Well, fine,” Josh agreed. “It wasn’t like that for us, anyway. There was nothing unpleasant about it.”

“But we can’t just sprinkle pixie dust on people,” Anomia said. “We have to show them how.”

“We should be able to do that.” Josh said, and turned to the crowd. “Who else floated up into the air with Anomia earlier?” There were lots of hands, and lots of voices. “See, the ability’s already there, people just need to develop it themselves, with willpower and self-discipline…” He trailed off. There were groans. “Okay, it’s boring,” he allowed, “but it’s the foundation of every spiritual practice there is.”

“But then we’re right back to ten year apprenticeships,” someone objected. “Players are going to want to level up to superpower status pretty quickly.”

“At any rate,” someone said, “you’re going to need something philosophical so that it all makes sense.”

“And secret teachings, as incentives.”

You could do a comic book.

Webcasts.

A fan track.

The crowd shifted because it was time for the 2:30 panels. A few people got up to leave, and their places were eagerly taken by a new crowd at the door. The internal buzz was deafening, mostly very excited, tho some left thinking the whole thing must be a racket. Secret teachings(tm), they thought. Pfff.

***

Sitting alone in the middle of the room, a nondescript girl named Caroline took notes while Anomia and Josh rambled about special powers and videogames. Things like flying, and psychic abilities, and teleporting. Some sort of essence. A so-called angel. She didn’t understand any of it, and it annoyed her, but she wrote down the important-sounding bits. She prided herself on being a hard-headed realist, and resented their devotion to fantasy. Unless you’re talking about sexual fantasy, of course.

Caroline wrote: “Energy feild created by all living beings. Surounds, penetrates, binds galaxy.”

She copied a diagram drawn by somebody from the Science track, explaining time and space as variables rather than constants. She hated math in school.

She copied most of Anomia’s map of their world from the whiteboard behind them. She hated art, too. But the girl sure was a drink of cool water for the eyes.

She listened incredulously as a bunch of costumed freaks talked about magic as if it were real. They were convinced they could walk thru walls if they tried hard enough. “Nu reality = a atitude ajustment away,” she quoted. Fucking hippies, she thought. “Learning curve,” she wrote, “teaching tool,” but she didn’t try to copy the drawing of a “4D leval diagram with gameflo vecters.”

Caroline noticed people fidgeting around her, cocking their heads like they heard something. Anomia tapped the mic, but it was off. They talked about a hum, but Caroline heard nothing.

Somebody mentioned quantum entanglement. Somebody else mentioned mystical experiences. “We’re all conected,” she wrote. “Virus thingys that make you psyckic. Force trainer mashines. Making key balls. Quantem consciesness. Everybody = superhero.”

Someone declared that there was no objective reality, someone else said you make your own reality, and she wasn’t sure who said nothing actually existed until it was observed. There was a bewildering argument between them, and Caroline spent the time fishing around in her bag for candy and checking her phone for messages.

She finally wrote, “Uncertenty = basis of reality. Observer colapses wave function. Conscious feild influenses events. Intent.”

Then someone finally spoke some sense. She scribbled his words down and circled them, because they had the weight of truth, “Observer only important very small scales. U don’t create ur own universe. Newage narcisism + quantam mechanics don’t mix.” Yeah, freaking weirdos.

Then people started getting mean to the skeptics, and insisted on airy fairy, but she heard more sense as the skeptics shot back. Caroline wrote faster. “Why no world peace if u make ur own reality? Sudo-sientific babble. Gulliver wishful-thinking.”

Somebody else got up and debunked the parlor trick they’d been calling levitation. It was really a near death experience, with the floating and the buzzing and the voices in their heads, but it wasn’t magic at all, just oxygen deprivation. She wrote, “Cascading nuro chemicals, serebral and oxia, brain cels dieing.” She hated science in school.

Then Anomia blew up at the skeptic guy. She looked really hot when she got mad, Caroline noted. Her hands went everywhere and her hair rattled, and she got all passionate about flying and real reality, and people in the audience got all excited agreeing with her.

Caroline got a little nauseous as the crowd got weird. She wanted to leave, but something held her in her seat. Anomia was yelling at the guy about oxygen starvation, and the people were taking deep breaths and blowing them out. She felt a wind in the room and kept her head down, trying to take notes while people huffed and puffed. Suddenly there was a sound that sent her stomach thru the floor. She scrambled for the exit, wondering how to spell ‘whump’ as she tried to keep her lunch down.

As Caroline was rinsing her mouth, people came into the bathroom on their way to their 4:00 panels, talking about hums and buzzes and voices in their heads. But she dismissed them as suckers and headed across the street for a therapeutic beer at the liquor store. Some people agreed that it was a bunch of hooey, tho Caroline couldn’t hear them in her head. Others uploaded their footage of Anomia with her head in flames as she cussed out the haters.

Caroline Street, 47 year old white female, [redacted] security tech I , resident East Point area, Atlanta, GA.

***

Back in the room, Josh and Anomia and the hundreds of people with them were being kicked out, and were on their way to an empty ballroom on the next floor, making a decent clot of people in a big room full of chairs. They were discussing what kind of videogame to make. The angel wanted everybody to play, so they started with a free-to-play, open source MMO that would run on all platforms. Mods would be encouraged. It would be an exploratory, emergent sandbox, role-playing, social game. An action, action-adventure, adventure, simulation, strategy game. A music, party, programming, puzzle, trivia, exergame

And it would also teach superpowers and quantum consciousness.

Someone wondered why shoot ’em ups weren’t listed, or brawlers, or even sports and racing games.

Josh confessed sheepishly that the angel warned them not to make a violent game.

“The trouble with that,” said a guy they knew as Snake, “is if you want a wide audience, you’ve got to include the most popular genres. If you ban violence then you miss three quarters of the market.”

“But violence hurts in the game we played,” Anomia protested. “You actually suffer when you get hurt.”

“You can make people go thru the motions of suffering if you like,” Snake offered. “But players get more satisfaction out of being bad.” A lot of people agreed. “If a bunch of nannies limit the opportunity for violence, players will just figure out new ways. Just look at your demographic – boys from eleven to forty who want to shoot things.”

Fairy spoke up, reminding everybody that girls now made up almost half of all gamers and that social gaming was getting really big. Snake replied that social games weren’t for serious gamers, anyway. Fairy said something ugly and Snake said worse back, then looked at his phone and left abruptly while Fairy was still spitting her drink.

Snake: Sam Smith, 27 year old white male, contract C++ programmer, resident Buckhead area, Atlanta, GA

Anomia quietly insisted that the game they played didn’t have battles or wars or competition or killing. But we killed each other in the end, the boy commented. Remember how awful that was? she retorted.

“Any violence in our game was brought in by us,” she explained to the crowd. “People built the best lives they could in the spots they loved the best, with people who made them happy. It’s the way life’s supposed to be.”

“So everything was fine until we got there and acted like stupid humans?” Josh sneered.

“And got kicked out,” she reminded him. “We got kicked out for wasting our time playing with toys when we should have been out in the world, using our abilities for the good of all.”

“The good of all,” he scoffed. “Well, I spent all my time leveling up, and you spent all your time in social gameplay, and ended up with a really low point score.”

“But scoring and winning was just a distraction. The real point was to share everything and raise everybody up.” She looked at him with annoyance. “Not to be the last man standing on a field of bones.”

In the end, they compromised. They would stick with the angel’s ideaversion, and the majority of gameplay would be peaceful. Violent play would be restricted to tutorials, arcade games and easter eggs. Josh planned to have lots of easter eggs, all very well marked.

The crowd suggested character attributes and superpowers, mostly regular abilities with “superhuman” in front of them. The basic abilities were strength, agility, intelligence, and magic, along with hunger, comfort, and fun. The godlike powers were variations on omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. Then there were special interest powers, like sex, and personality dysfunctions. Somehow this turned into a heated argument about the most powerful character, with Asura backers fighting Bayonetta fans.

They stopped to decide that players should have unlimited lives. Then they decided to count karma, determined by quests as well as attitude and environment, the food they ate and the quality of their ingame relationships – some complex algorithm somebody would work out later.

And what about rules? Well, why have rules at all, except for the golden one? At this point a bunch of macho first-person shooter fans walked out grumbling to themselves about furries.

They talked about level design. They talked about game engines. They talked about animation and character design and sound production. Anomia wrote a lot of it down.

They took a show of hands to see who had experience working on videogames, and an impressive number of them had. Most of the hands went down when they asked how many had worked on a game to completion, and pretty much everybody left when they asked for volunteers to devote a couple of years of work to a project with zero budget.

They were left with a rag-tag bunch of misfits, including a guy from India named Radhu, who wandered into Dragoncon from another convention entirely. He couldn’t volunteer because he had a day job back home, but his last job was as an educational game tester, and he’d briefly ended up on the development team, and helped with normalizing the finished product for international release, so he was an expert, and they signed him up. As Anomia and Josh flagged, Radhu and Fairy charted out the entire development pipeline.

Radhu Trivedi, 25 year old Hindu male, XYZ Services call center technician, resides Bangalore, India.

They opened up the bars in the lobby, and people drifted upstairs to start partying. People stood along the balcony railings, deeply involved in discussing the physics of the various game levels. There was a small but vocal bunch standing around the lobby talking about mystery school philosophy. Anomia’s map was dissected by an excitable bunch who decided it looked just like Antarctica without ice, and this generated a Twitter feed of its own. Anomia and Josh hung out on the pool deck/smoking gauntlet, and finally agreed there were seven levels to their game, with distinct cultures and historical periods, while Fairy sat crosslegged on the ground between them, drawing it all up into a complicated, cramped little chart.

Finally, enough was enough, even tho Anomia and Josh were following all these discussions in their heads, and there were lots of people wanting talk to them in all the hotel lobbies. But they couldn’t take any more excitement. They went upstairs to their room and fell asleep on the floor next to their bed while 67 of their best friends got ready for the masquerade ball.

***

Elsewhere

That evening, in a nearby basement surveillance center, somebody wrote up a report. Security footage showed a group of approximately 150 sitting on the floor in the hallway for almost two hours, collected around a female central figure. Approximately 30 seconds of footage were considerably degraded, perhaps as a result of camera shake(?). Subsequent video segment showed a brief incendiary display apparently involving the same female, but the effects may have been due to intermittent camera malfunction. Audio recordings were unrevealing due to high ambient noise. Wireless signal sniffing captured a surge in tweets and Youtube uploads about the alleged “levitation,” with a later spike in content concerning the incendiary display. Link

***

Meanwhile, in another part of town…

…a typical American family were sitting down to Sunday dinner. Dad was just home from work, and parked himself in front of the tube with a beer, while Mom, also just home from work, was busy dishing out microwaved food in the kitchen. Sis was still out, who knows where, and Nathan, the youngest, was in his room watching internet videos.

Mom put food on the coffee table and Dad yelled for the kids. Nathan came out of his room, and Dad found fault with his appearance and made him go wash his hands, then fussed at him for getting in the way of the TV. Mom came in and sat on the couch with an armful of condiments. Dad grabbed the catsup and the salt, and reached for the remote to turn up the volume.

The Dragoncon parade was being featured on the news, and Dad was enjoying taunting all the costumed geeks marching down Peachtree Street.

Nathan had been following the con all weekend, and twisted in his seat wanting to be there. Dad thought it was all perverts and anarchists, and wouldn’t hear of his going. But he’d already had a word with Mom, and she’d said maybe they could sneak out and go together next year.

Dad grumbled about drug addicts and socialists, and isolated possible terrorists in the crowd. Nathan pointed out the numbers of superheros and warriors, and insisted that every one of them was fighting for the American way. Mom added, “Superman’s a good guy, and Batman, too, even if he’s violent. Even Ironman is patriotic…”

Dad dismissed them. “Comics are the gateway to delinquency, and we’re not glorifying disobedience in this house.” He glared at his wife. “You’re too permissive. Stop encouraging him.”

“But Dad, it’s not like that,” Nathan protested. “They’re just fans.”

“I say they’re indulgent and entitled and don’t believe in discipline and hard work.” He whacked the table with his remote for emphasis. “They’re just anti-American criminals in tights,” he insisted, and that was the end of the argument.

Fox News talked about a group of costumed people floating in the air at Dragoncon, and speculated whether it was unscheduled performance art or spooky action-at-a-distance (evidence of a satanic cult). The filmclip was grainy and shaky, and Dad scoffed and pointed out wires and camera tricks while Nathan sat and stared, ignoring him, feeling a vibration coming from beneath the floor.

“Fans are expected to spend seventy million dollars this weekend,” said the announcer, and Dad was snarky about all those kids spending their parents’ hard earned money. “Police expect half a million visitors during the weekend,” he continued, and Dad muttered darkly about how bad the traffic was already.

Then the ads were on, and Mom distracted Dad by asking him how his day went. He told Mom about his work, how Corporate was starting another round of reorganization that might reach down to Retail this time. Dad was worried about his job again, and Mom tried to assure him he would work there forever. Dad was always worried about his job, always worried about money and the bills. He and Mom fought over expenses all the time.

Nathan always tried to help by being extra thrifty – stealing cable service for his family, downloading illegal movies and software – partly to make up for his sister’s extravagant spending. Sis had an iPhone. Sis wore Abercrombie jeans with holes in them that cost 27 times more than his thriftstore pants. Sis took Dad’s credit card out of his wallet and carried it around in her back pocket. And she never got in trouble, while Nathan was always being scrutinized and questioned, and grounded, and losing privileges. It was classically unfair. But Daddy’s Precious Snowflake was willing to milk it.

Sis came in halfway thru dinner, reeking of cigarettes, which she wasn’t allowed to smoke. She pecked Dad on the cheek and sat down next to him, and he never noticed she’d been smoking, and never said a word about her being late to dinner. She picked up her plate and complained that the food was cold, glaring at Mom, so Mom got up and reheated it while Sis snuggled in closer to Dad.

“Daddy,” she simpered, “I’ve got something to show you.” She beckoned him closer, then lifted the hem of her t-shirt to reveal a raw, freshly inked tattoo above her hip. Nathan cringed, anticipating Dad’s violent reaction, but the tattoo said ‘Daddy,’ and it just about melted Daddy’s heart. She showed him a tiny heart on one side, and a tiny rose on the other. “I’ll get it colored in when it heals,” she told him, frowning. “It really hurts.” She put a hand over the spot and whined.

Daddy hugged her sympathetically and cooed babytalk at her. “I’ll tell your Mom to give you one of my pain pills,” he offered.

Nathan rolled his eyes. Tattoos were so against the rules – even makeup and temporary hair dye was against the rules – and here was Dad dipping into his drugs for her, as if she didn’t already know where the stash was.

He watched Mom bringing the plate back. Mom was angry, but said nothing as Sis talked Dad into giving her fifty dollars from his wallet.

Sis beamed at him and kissed the top of his head, then took her plate and sat on the floor in front of the TV, pecking at her food while vigorously texting.

Dad went back to criticizing the tube, finally cursing and pushing his plate away. He got Mom to bring him another beer while she was up, and sat grinding thru the channels for something to watch. He stopped at a Weather Channel special on Dragoncon, and started ranting about freaks and what’s wrong with America again.

Then Fox News entertained him for awhile with the outrage du jour, and he had a good discussion with the announcers, and scored what he thought were some good points against the talking heads.

Mom hinted that he shouldn’t have given Sis so much money when the checking account was overdrawn, and Nathan was thinking that it might be nice if Dad gave him something once in awhile.

But Sis looked at Dad and blew up. “You never want me to have anything nice,” she accused her mother. “I work very hard around here and you treat me like a maid.”

Dad came to her rescue. “You do deserve nice things, honey,” he said. “If your mother didn’t keep bouncing checks, I might even be able to get you a car someday.” They both glared at Mom, who got up and went into the kitchen to do the dishes.

Dad turned on Nathan. “How about that, Nuthin? If your sister got a car? You could wash it for her.”

“He doesn’t need a car,” Sis said. “But I really do.” She squeezed Dad’s arm. “Are you really going to buy me a car?”

“I’d like a bike,” Nathan said in a small voice. He really wanted a copy of Mists of Pandaria, but Dad’s rule was absolutely no videogames.

“You’re just going to have to steal a bike if you want one that bad,” Dad retorted. “I’m too busy paying off your mother’s debts to spare anything for you. At this rate, I’m just working to pay the interest.” He sniffed into his beer. “There’s nothing at all left over for me, and you greedy little bastards just want more.”

Nathan retreated to his room, leaving Sis to work on Dad about her cellphone bill. Dad called out, “Yeah, go to bed. I don’t want to look at you.”

Sis mouthed “Loser.”

Back in his room, Nathan pulled up a shaky video of the crowd levitating at Dragoncon. Interference sounded like a hum, and he thought he felt a vibration thru the keyboard. He was transfixed. Then he found a chatroom where people were discussing the day’s events, and stayed up until dawn.

Stan Rotenhals, 49 year old white male, AutoPartsPlus store manager, resides East Cobb area, Atlanta, GA with:
Maryann Rotenhals, 43 year old white female, DrugEmporeum pharmacy clerk,
Cindy Rotenhals, 16 year old white female, student Wheeler High passing grades,
Nathan Rotenhals, 15 year old white male, student Wheeler High gifted track.

**********

read chapter 3

Chapter 1

Once upon a time, there was a boy and girl who lived for Dragoncon. They saved up all year for it, worked hard on their costumes and fan fiction, and sharpened their videogame skills. For years they’d spent every Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, acting like crazed insomniacs. They were science-fiction/fantasy geeks at a convention of 60,000-plus, and lots of their friends were there too.

They’d started their day at a parade, visited with all their friends, went to a few workshops and panel discussions, met with more friends for lunch, partied a lot, went to a screening, played in a tournament (the boy), met more friends and went to a party, went to another party and met more friends, went to a costume ball and won a prize (the girl). Then they went to another party. The night was still young. The indie film or the drum circle?

The boy got a wild hair, and they spent a lot of effort getting onto the roof of their hotel. The boy ran up the stairs from the 47nd floor; the girl struggled behind him, complaining. He felt a draft in the stairway down on the ground floor, and insisted all the way up the elevator that there was a reason for it. And there it was: the door to the roof was wide open, propped open. And that was surely a miracle, because what job-fearing employee would even unlock the roof access door during Dragoncon?

The boy and girl walked out into the balmy night, crunching over the gravel roof, the tops of other skyscrapers visible beyond the parapet. The wind was the loudest sound, but underneath they could hear thousands of costumed partiers in the streets of the hotel district. Sirens, gunshots or firecrackers, laughter, shouting, singing, the car horns of frustrated drivers. It was after 2 a.m. but this part of Atlanta was up all night.

Which is why the roof was such a great idea. They were alone at one end of the vast concrete roof, a block-long skylight glittering down the middle. “This is perfect,” the boy said, and sat down with his back against the skylight pediment. “Okay, then. Let’s get fucked up.”

This is what they did. The girl sat down next to him and pulled a couple of beers out of her backpack. He fished around in his pockets and found his pill bottle. She rolled a joint. He selected tonight’s entertainment from a fistful of different pharmaceuticals, and they shared mushrooms and ecstasy, with half an ambien to ward off the speedy jitters. Then they settled down and waited for the drugs to kick in.

Time passed.

The breeze was nice.

***

The girl realized that something was poking her. She shifted around to get away from it, but it kept nudging her side. Annoyed, she cracked her eyes open to see what it was, then sat upright in surprise. A giant hand was floating in the gloom of the rooftop, glowing softly, repeatedly jabbing her with its index finger. The fingernail was ragged and chewed-looking, and the size of her head. A real hand, not some smartass in a costume. And not some animatronic thing on a crane, either.

The finger continued to come at her. She hit it and scrambled away, and it started poking at the boy. Once they were both paying attention, the finger turned and began putting up graffiti on the retaining wall. It scrawled something in wild style, long and intricate and really hard to read, glowing and sparkling in the night.

They were arguing about what it said when they noticed the script beginning to fade out. “Quick,” the girl said, rummaging in her backpack, “retag it before it disappears.” She handed him her can of JIC spray paint and he ran over to trace the glowing letters, while she grabbed her phone and took a picture of the hand swirling along the wall.

The finger got to the end of its message, and turned to point at them, floating in the air. Then it twitched violently, and blasted them with sparkly stuff. It pointed at the wall, and suddenly they could read the message. “Second star on the right and straight on ’till morning,” they read. They turned to look at each other.

“Oh, please,” the boy scoffed. “Peter Pan meets Omar Kayyam.”

The girl started wiping the sparkly stuff off, then stopped and looked at it shining on her skin. “Wait,” she said slowly, “maybe this is, like, pixie dust.”

“Yeah, right,” he said, but stopped smearing it around his face. “Hmmm. Maybe if we thought happy thoughts…”

They stood there and thought for a moment while the hand bobbed in the breeze, waiting.

“How did it work in the movie?” the boy asked. They thought about it. Then the boy jumped up in the air, flinging his hands above his head. “Christmas!” he shouted. “Candy! Chocolate ice cream!”

“A free vacation!” she yelled, bouncing on her toes. “Canceled student loans! Bank error in your favor!”

They were both jumping up and down like children. “Minecraft!” “Guild Wars!” “World of Warcraft!”

The hand sagged onto the roof. “Maybe it wants us to get on its, um, back, and it’ll do all the work,” he suggested. The hand edged away.

The girl looked at the edge of the building, the parapet glowing in the darkness. “You’re not thinking straight,” she said. “It’s fifty floors down if it drops us.”

“I’m never wrong,” he said, sticking out his chest and rising gently into the air.

“How did you do that?” the girl demanded.

He floated a foot above her head. She reached for his feet but he bobbed away, ignoring her. “I’m the best,” he said softly, and rose a little higher. “I’m fucking awesome,” he shouted, and went zooming across the roof. He stopped at the very edge, his foot catching the top of the wall. He teetered on the edge like a balloon on a string.

“Be careful,” the girl shouted, running after him. “Grab onto me, I’ll save you.” Then she rose into the air herself.

They were flying. Sort of. They were hovering in the air, slipping slowly down until their toes scraped the roof. And then they were standing there, looking at each other.

“We can fly?” she asked.

He started jumping again. “Think happy thoughts.” But nothing happened. “Maybe we should try something else besides happy thoughts,” the boy suggested. He looked around and saw the cap of a vent system. “If we got up onto that and jumped off…”

The girl walked over to the edge of the building and looked down at the happy partiers wandering the streets. “What are we thinking? We’re hundreds of feet up. We can’t fly, we’ll just kill ourselves.” She shrank back, dizzy, feeling sick from the height. She felt foolish, and perhaps dangerously over-medicated.

“Yeah, but this is just a dream,” the boy reminded her. “We’re not really awake.” The boy pointed out their sleeping selves, slumped against the wall with their empty bottles around them.

The girl checked the time on her phone. Barely an hour after they left the party downstairs. “Oh.” She couldn’t come up with any good reasons why not, if they were really just dreaming. “Okay,” she agreed finally.

They gradually figured out how to control their movements, running the length of the rooftop, flapping their arms and jumping up, swimming thru the air kicking their arms and legs like frogs.

“This is the shit,” the boy said, grinning, and he flew over the edge of the parapet and kept going.

“Don’t look down,” she advised, still cautiously flying back and forth over the roof, but the boy didn’t hear.

He was staring down at the street. “I wish somebody would look up,” he said. “I wish someone would come out on their balcony to see this.”

“I’ll take a picture,” the girl offered, and the boy posed as Superman while she grabbed her phone and took a shot.

He landed next to her on the roof. “Let’s do something fun,” he said.

“Like what?” She looked at their bodies, and went over to twitch her sleeping self’s shirt into a more attractive drape around her waist.

“How about straight on ’til morning?”

They turned and looked at the graffiti. She walked over and peered down over the edge of the building. “You’re sure we’re asleep…”

“We’re either asleep or tripping, or both. What harm can come to us? Have you ever died in a dream?”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I have.”

“And?”

She thought. “I went into another dream,” she said. “Okay, fine.”

They launched off the roof and aimed for the nearest skyscraper. The girl had trouble keeping aloft. She kept sinking, closer to the ground every moment. When she was scraping the tips of the branches, she saw that people had noticed her descent, and were coming to catch her. She turned her face to the sky and kicked and pulled with all her might, imagining happy thoughts with a determination born of panic.

She was out of breath and exhausted when she finally landed on a tiny little platform at the top of the next skyscraper. The boy was waiting for her, smiling broadly. He’d been tagging the rooftop while she was fighting her slump toward the street and felt really good about his accomplishment.

They rested against the rooftop pillars. They boy scraped pixie dust off his arm and collected it in his hand. “You think maybe you didn’t get enough?” he asked, offering to shower her with it. She shook her head. It wasn’t the dose, it was the attitude; she could feel it. He looked at the pile of pixie dust for a moment, then raised his hand to his nose and snorted it, coming away with a sparkly face. “Wow,” he said, lying back on the roof. “I’m full of stars.” His body dissolved into galaxies and suns.

The girl watched the boy’s molecules spin for awhile, fretting about how they were going to get down off the building, and what the cops were going to say about their being up there. She felt herself shrinking into a tiny little worried clump inside of herself, like something she pulled up out of the bathtub drain.

After a few minutes, the boy condensed back into a single human body and sat up. “We’ve got to get flying,” he reminded her, standing up. “I don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere when morning comes.” He peered for the second star to the right, which seemed a little dimmer. There was a faint blue line on the eastern horizon.

“But we can’t really fly,” the girl insisted. “We were stupid to try it. And I’m all out of happy thoughts. “

“Well, I’m not,” the boy declared. He stood up and walked to the edge. The girl gasped as he dove off the tower. Thirty seconds later he was back, zooming circles around the platform where she sat hysterically crying. “Here I am,” he said. “Why don’t you take a picture. Think of what our friends will say when they see it on Facebook.”

So she shot a picture of him hanging in the air, and one of his tag on the roof, and that made her feel better. Until she looked down again. There was no room on the platform to get a good running start; she was going to have to launch herself right off the edge of the building, and that scared her. Her feet were like ice, and her stomach had seized into a knot. “I can’t,” she whispered.

The boy landed beside her and took her in his arms. He kissed the top of her head and rubbed her shoulders while she breathed in his warm smell. It always calmed her; their fights always ended with her nestled into his chest, overcome with the comfort of him. It was probably the pheromones, she thought. He broke away and took her hand. “We’ll go together.”

She looked at him wide-eyed, thinking about suicide jumpers, and tried to snatch her hand away, but he wrapped himself around her once again and gave her a big deep kiss, a kiss he meant, and by god she felt herself rising up off the roof.

Happy thoughts.

***

They flew on and on for hours.

They flew and they flew until they didn’t have anything else to talk about.

They flew and flew until they started to get hungry.

It was 4:30 a.m. and there was no sign of dawn. The second star on the right was still stubbornly ahead of them.

So they concentrated, and closed their eyes, and wished as hard as they could to be there already. And when they opened their eyes again, the second star on the right filled half the sky. It was blindingly white, and the sky around it was the darkest midnight blue.

“We’re almost there,” the boy said, and sped up. It was definitely a sun.

They flew closer and realized it wasn’t a sun, but a planet. They got closer, and saw it changing focus, rather than size. One moment they were looking at a huge ice planet that took up half the sky, and the next moment it was a rocky moon taking up half the sky.

They kept flying toward it, and it became a really large cloud-covered island, surrounded by a deep blue ocean. Then it looked more like a small sandy islandette in a big circular lake. As they got closer, it became more like a little ornamental gazebo on a hump of dirt in the middle of a large pond. And then it was more like a float in a swimming pool.

“We’re getting too close,” the girl said, as it resolved into a dark blue dinner plate with a lump of mashed potatoes in the middle. But they couldn’t stop, they could barely slow down. Now it was more like the kind of bubble kids blow with soap and a wand. They could see themselves reflected in its surface. And they were still heading straight at it at millions of miles an hour.

It was now the size of a cell, and they could see cilia waving on the fringes. Then it was more like a molecule, and the void began to have stars in it again. “It’s like the Incredible Shrinking Man,” the boy whispered. “We’re going into another universe.”

The girl nodded. “It’s an atom now. We’ve got to get out of here.”

They pushed back with all their might, and slowly the second star on the right reversed itself and began to get bigger, growing from atom to molecule to cell to soap bubble. They slowed to a stop in front of the large white continent surrounded by its dark blue ocean, then argued if it was really a planet sized object or a large blue marble. In the end they saw clouds swirling over the horizon and settled on planet.

They landed on a cloud, which continued swirling and sweeping across the continent below. The boy danced around, kicking up trails of cloud, while the girl kept sinking into the mist, and had to ask the boy for a hand. They never noticed the stranger flying in until he landed next to them on the cloud and arranged his robes neatly around his feet.

They gawked. He allowed it for a moment, but waved off a photo when the girl grabbed her phone.

The boy gave a thumbs up. “That’s a great costume, man.”

The girl asked, “How’d you attach the wings? Magnets or straps?”

He had expected to see shock in their eyes, followed by reverence and awe. He drew himself up. “I’m an angel,” he explained, drawing his fiery sword to intimidate them.

But they weren’t falling to their knees and hiding their eyes. He was astonished. They came up and actually tried to touch the sword. “It’s going to burn you,” he warned, moving it out of their way.

“Yeah, yeah,” the boy agreed. “I know it’s real fire and all, but it’s a prop, right? What I want to know is how you got that great orange flame – are you using calcium chloride?”

The girl studied it. “Maybe it’s virtual. Do you think it’s more like the fiery greatsword in Terraria, or the flaming sword in Oblivion?”

“Where’s the switch, under the guard?” The boy tried to take the sword from the angel, who twitched it away. “Can you adjust the flame? Does it have extra features? What’s it cost? I want one.”

The angel backed off the edge of the cloud and stood in the clear air. “I didn’t come here for you to covet my stuff. You can have your own stuff if you want.”

The boy pointed down to the continent. “What’s all this, anyway?”

The angel sheathed his sword and came back onto the cloud. “Okay. Just listen. That’s the Garden.”

“More like a frozen waste, but okay,” the girl observed.

The angel ignored her. “I”m supposed to give you your birthright in the form of mighty gifts and burdensome duties.” They looked blankly at him. “Your birthright comes with the Garden, here.” They didn’t understand. “There’s a quest,” he explained.

“Okay,” the boy said brightly, looking at the girl, who nodded. “What do we do?”

“Just wait. There are things I”m supposed to tell you.”

The girl interrupted again. “Are you an NPC?”

“What?” the angel snapped.

“Never mind,” she said.

“Be silent and listen.” The angel cleared his throat and continued. “I taught you to fly…”

“You did not!” The girl snorted. “We could have died.”

“That was you? The finger?” the boy asked. “Up on the roof?”

The girl looked at the angel’s hand. “Yep, same ragged fingernails.”

The angel slid his hands into his sleeves and cleared his throat again. “The power of flight. That’s part of your birthright.”

The boy looked hopeful. “There’s more?”

“Yes. You control the land and the skies and the waters. You rule over the Garden. Your powers are such that you will but think it and it shall be so, and you will but desire to go and you shall be there. You can take any form and accomplish any goal, and nothing can overcome the exercise of your will. You have the powers of the gods.”

The boy turned to the girl. “Okay, that’s omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, plus unlimited agility, strength, vitality and defense. Also infinite intelligence, with magic, luck and charisma. What am I leaving out?”

“Flight, teleportation, energy manipulation, shapeshifting,” she ticked off, “manifestation, weather manipulation, healing, regeneration, power amplification and negation.” She looked at the angel. “Did you say something about heavy burdens?”

The angel harumphed and fluffed out his robes. They were idiots. This was beneath him. “No doubt you will discover the limitations of all your newfound powers, and will come to feel the burden of all you create, and understand the chain of events that spring from each wish you make, and the loneliness of power.”

“No, that’s cool,” the boy said. “We already understand all that, and we’ll be just fine. Now, about that quest…”

“We’ll get to that later,” the angel replied, more irritated by the moment. “First I want you to go down and inhabit your dominion, discover your powers, and create. Since you know so much already, I will prepare to be surprised and amazed by your results.”

“Damn straight,” the boy agreed. “I’ve already got some ideas.”

The girl was silent. Nothing occurred to her. Maybe she could create something to eat. She turned to ask the boy if he was hungry, but he had already plunged off the edge of the cloud and was on his way to the surface. She turned to the angel instead. “Everything will be okay, tho, right?” she asked.

The angel made a face. “Maybe,” he said. “You two aren’t exactly the perfected beings I was expecting, but maybe you can pull it out of your ass before I get back.”

“You’re going?” she asked, panicky. “What are we supposed to do down there?”

He shrugged and began preening his wings. “Create. Make worlds. Use your powers to make it all wonderful.” He frowned and nudged a feather back into place. “There was one proviso, tho, let me think.”

“Don’t eat any apples?” she offered.

He snorted. “They’re organic heritage apples with no pesticides and no GMOs. You can eat all you want. No, the prohibition is about wasting time.” He walked to the edge and hiked up the bottom of his robe, glancing at her before launching into the air. “Don’t waste my time,” he said with a frown, and dropped below the cloud.

The girl was left alone, on top of a cloud swirling in the atmosphere, high above a large oceanic continent, traveling on a smallish planet somewhere in the universe. She took a picture with her phone. Then she wondered what she should do next, as she began sinking slowly thru the cloud. For a long time nothing happened. She wondered if she was between dreams, and maybe if she opened her eyes she would see the boy sleeping next to her on the roof. But if she was on the roof, it must be raining, because she was soaking wet, and cold, and water was running down her forehead and stinging her eyes.

She came out from under the clouds and saw a huge gray landscape – everything from mountains and valleys to deserts and plains and tundra. As she floated lower, she realized that there were no cities, no roads, no ships on the water. And no sign of the boy. There was no way to spot him in all that vastness, and she’d never find him if she searched on foot. So she pulled herself back up to a good height and tried to feel his presence, focusing her attention outward, searching for the imagined hint of his location. She picked a direction at random, closed her eyes and visualized him waving at her.

***

She opened her eyes, and found herself speeding thru the air. There he was, in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a couch in a field of rocks, a plasma screen in front of him, an array of videogame controllers and remotes on the ground around him. She tried to land on the couch beside him, but crashed into the table he was resting his feet on, scattering equipment.

“So much for the impressively sophisticated landing, eh?” he smirked. He could fly so much better than that.

“The angel told us to create worlds,” she said, settling down beside him. “Where’d all this come from?”

“I don’t know, I guess I created it,” he shrugged. “I wanted to play Grand Theft Auto, and here it was. But now I’d settle for lunch. And a doob.”

So they concentrated, and wished up their favorite lunch. When they opened their eyes again, there was a buffet in front of them.

“Okay,” the boy said, reaching for his bacon cheeseburger, “I don’t know about all this other stuff. Collards? Sweet and sour soup?”

The girl felt embarrassed. Who knew she was such a pig? She examined the bounty carefully and picked a spinach salad.

After lunch they spent a lot of time exploring their godlike powers. They created a bunch of animals, mainly from memory. Then they did a bit of terraforming, pushing up the distant mountains, manifesting a plunge pool beyond the plasma screen, making some trees which shot up to shade height. They whipped up a nice fresh breeze, and parked a thunderstorm where they could watch it but not get rained on.

They concentrated on creating a world, and when they opened their eyes, there was a little globe, about eight inches in diameter, spinning in the air between their outstretched hands. The boy stuck his finger underneath and mugged while the girl took a picture with her phone. Then he flipped the world into the air and it stuck, growing in size until it took up half of the sky, clouds beginning to form and curl as it rotated.

“How…?” the girl asked.

The boy tried to look nonchalant. “Just incredibly talented, of course.” He waggled his fingers at it, and cities formed and ships ventured across the oceans. “We’ll just let it go on for awhile and see what happens,” and turned his attention to hybridizing animals.

They made a few more worlds, materialized more food and drugs, messed with a few more animals, and then got bored. The boy went back to his video game, the girl wandered around making flowers grow.

***

The angel found them in a clearing of avocado trees in the middle of the Garden, watching a movie on the plasma screen. Hyenas fought over leftover food a short distance away. He looked around. There were animals cowering in the cleft of a valley, being threatened by dinosaurs with ugly teeth. In the other direction, an elysian field burned and smoke fouled the sky. Several created worlds hung in the sky above the Garden, in various stages of decrepitude. There was trash on the ground.

The angel stood in front of them and cleared his throat. The boy and girl passed a joint and ignored him, the boy waving him out of the way with his remote, the girl leaning sideways to see around his wings.

The angel fumed. He took out his fiery sword and gestured toward the plasma screen. It crackled and blew up; the plastic emitting a gungy black cloud that drifted toward one of the worlds and began wrapping around it. The world’s inhabitants wailed, making a squeaking sound, like millions of mice suddenly crying out in terror.

The angel threw a fit. “Look what you’ve done to this paradise…I turn my back for just…I can’t believe you’d be so…” he sputtered. “Do you know what you’ve done?” He waved at the maimed animals and smoking ruins. “Don’t you know what all this is for?”

The boy and the girl just looked at the angel. “Dude,” the boy said finally. “You brought us here.”

“We’re kind of waiting for you to tell us,” the girl added.

The angel was stunned. Were they all this lazy and self-centered? And clueless? Maybe he just didn’t explain it properly. Maybe he was just enabling them; maybe it was his fault they had no ambition. “I thought I told you to create worlds and learn to use your powers,” he began reasonably.

They waved at their half-hearted efforts. “We’ve been very busy,” the girl said brightly.

One of the worlds picked that moment to launch an interplanetary war against its neighbor. There were fireworks. “These are godlike powers I’ve given you,” he said. “And you’re showing the skill level – and maturity – of preschoolers. It’s not good enough,” he waved at the chattering spider monkeys in the avocado forest. “It’s not an improvement on anything. The poor things can’t even eat properly.”

Words formed in the angel’s mind – responsibility, compassion, giving a fuck – and he considered possible solutions, like imposing schedules and routines, and requiring reports and benchmarks. But the boy and girl were gazing at the place where their plasma screen had been, and idly passing the joint between them again. They weren’t going to follow any of the rules he might set for them, he realized. They would drag their feet and miss deadlines, with only lame excuses and out-of-proportion crises as reasons why not.

The angel lost his patience. “God sent me to tell you that you have to pay for all this,” he said, waving his sword at the destruction, which caught fire and disintegrated. “You owe him rent, too.” That got their attention. The boy and girl started to protest, but enough was enough, and the angel threw them out of the Garden. He used his fiery sword to raise up a barrier, then explained that they weren’t getting back in until they’d finished their quest.

“Yeah, but you’ve never told us what the quest is,” the boy insisted.

The angel paused with his sword ready to prod them along. “Oh,” he said, and dropped the sword point, scorching his hand as the flames crept up the guard. “Just answer a simple question,” he said, blowing on his burnt wrist. “Ow. What’s the point?”

“Don’t feel bad,” the girl said sympathetically. “Do you want me to kiss your booboo?”

“We all get frustrated,” the boy added. “You can’t let it get you down.”

“What’s the point of the game,” he clarified.

“Oh.” The boy and girl thought about it. “What game?”

The angel gestured to include everything.

“Oh.” They looked around, stumped.

“Okay, it’s a world management game, right? So the point would be…points?” the girl asked.

“Winning,” the boy suggested.

“What is behind that curtain?” the angel tried a metaphor, feeling overwhelmed and distracted by the pain in his hand.

“Huh?”

“Just answer Yes or No!” he yelled, but they didn’t understand.

The angel sighed, and waved the sword at them with his other hand, prodding them away from the fiery gates and into the bush. “You’ll figure it out.” The boy and girl stood outside the gates, whining, while the exhausted angel materialized a boulder, quenched his sword in it, and collapsed on the couch with his head in his unburnt hand. It started to rain.

“Let’s go, I guess,” the girl said, and started off in a random direction.

“No, wait,” the boy said. “I’m not leaving. He has no right to kick us out of there.”

“So? Who are you going to complain to? I’m hungry,” the girl said, wiping rain from her face. “I’m wet.”

The boy stood back and examined the fiery wall. Then he took a running leap and flew over it. The girl followed him, singeing her feet mid-flight as she dipped too close to the flaming wall.

The boy landed by the rock that held the quenched sword, and pulled it out easily. “Cool,” he whispered, looking over at the angel, who was still hunched over on the couch. “I wonder how you turn the flame back on.”

The girl spotted a feather from the angel’s wing nearby and picked it up. “We’d better leave before he notices.”

“Let’s go,” he agreed, and they flew out of the Garden and out into the landscape.

***

At first it was just a barren continent full of gray rocks and gray skies. The boy and girl did some redecorating, and fashioned vast forested mountains and lush valleys, rich grazing lands, wet jungles, gurgling waterfalls, shallow seas. They tempered the violence of the storms and decreed that the days would be mostly sunny and mild. Having played god games before, they knew better than to compete, because when you put two cities in a world they always end up going to war with each other. But the cooperation couldn’t last. Where the girl saw happy animals and peaceful coexistence, the boy saw resources he could turn into industrialized city-states. So eventually they split the territory between them. The world was enormous, and they could just do-over any mistakes; so they thought.

They ranged over their territories, creating settlements on the coast, going inland to plant cities next to suitable rivers, plopping nomads down in the desert and prospectors in the mountains. Wherever the girl swept her feather, people sprang up, families and tribes and civilizations spread out. Wherever the boy touched his sword, castles appeared, fortresses and walled cities, with vast armies on the march. All this took a very long time, and was very tiring. The world was so big that by the time they crossed the continent, things had gotten dicey in the earlier settlements, and they had to go around again, tweaking the conditions and intervening in the crises.

It was much more complicated than a videogame, and much more engaging. They’d never been busier. The boy and girl hardly ever crossed paths, but they were in constant contact inside their heads, and could watch and comment on the other’s progress. It was like all the great games rolled into one, with exciting adventures and challenging battles on every level.

As the world advanced into real trouble, they tired of always having to fly out to stop the latest catastrophe. It wasn’t fun anymore. But they couldn’t rest, because there was always something horrible about to happen to their world, and the boy and girl began stressing out over every boss fight. They couldn’t just give up playing, either, because the angel put them in charge and expected results. And they still had no idea how to complete their quest.

After awhile it became a blur. It was all very significant, but they stopped being able to recall the specifics. Lots of running around doing things. At some point the boy said fuck it and began fighting everyone he met, and he won every battle because he had the angel’s sword. He grew rich and powerful, and was feared and respected. The girl, feeling somehow responsible for the boy’s attitude, went around bending over backward to help everyone with her magic feather, and grew beloved and a little sanctimonious.

In time, his lands grew despoiled and his people sickly, and he cast his eyes on her rich and fertile lands, and her happy, healthy people. He massed his armies on her borders. She waved her feather, and the weapons grew heavy, twisted out of the soldiers’ hands, and turned into trees. His soldiers disappeared into the forest, and she was left facing him.

They fought. It was epic. They both ended up killing each other.

While they were dead, they could feel their bodies disintegrate, merging with the land beneath them. They felt themselves growing as big as the world, their bodies stretching out to the horizon and beyond, to the stars. They felt all the creatures of the world running around on top of them, tickling, and felt all the players swarming around their bodies like little cells. They witnessed the progress of civilization over and over again. The eons passed and the players enacted their human dramas in life after life after life.

Then all the drama ceased, and it was quiet for ages, just the boy and girl floating without bodies. Stars being born, growing old, dying. They gradually became aware of the angel, asking them if they knew the answer. They did, they just couldn’t put it into words. There weren’t any words. It was all just awareness.

An infinity dawdled past.

***

They remorted in the stairwell of their hotel at Dragoncon, with their empty beer bottles beside them. They were still lying curled up together, the way they’d been on the roof all those millenia ago. How did it get to be the next morning? How did they get all the way downstairs? The girl had a headache from a kink in her neck. She checked the time on her phone. It was after 9 in the morning; there were panel discussions to attend, and she needed a shower and some coffee. She nudged the boy, who was still holding on to sleep.

Her phone beeped a new message. She didn’t recognize the sender, and showed it to the boy.

WTF?” he wondered, reading: “Nw qst. Make teh gema. Sord/fthr.”

The girl shook her head. “IDK. New quest. Make the game. Sword/feather. No idea. From the angel, do you think?”

“Wow. A text message from a hallucination. Cool.”

“What?” the girl said, looking sharply at him. “How annoying. That was a really meaningful vision we just had. Don’t dismiss it as a drug-induced hallucination.”

“But it was,” he said reasonably. “I agree, tho,” he continued quickly, backing off. “It sure seemed real at the time. Maybe we can play it again sometime.”

She looked at him, wondering. “Maybe we should make it ourselves,” she said.

“Yeah. Like we can possibly make a videogame like that.”

As they collected themselves to leave, they looked back up the stairwell toward the roof. Fifty flights. There was a tiny spot of light at the top, where the door was still propped open. The gloom was filled with sparkly motes of dust, floating down toward them. And in the next moment, a feather dropped out of the darkness and landed on the concrete floor of the stairwell. The girl bent to pick it up.

“No,” said the boy, and pulled her back. “It’s just a pigeon feather. It’s probably diseased. Leave it alone.” He turned to go thru the stairwell door.

She scooped it up and hurried behind him.

***

In a computer-filled basement lit by multiple monitors, a security tech watched as the boy and girl materialized in Stairway C-8 of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. He played the clip several times, then made a notation and forwarded the clip to his superior officer.

**********

read chapter 2