Category Archives: Dailies

Daily writing, as it flows from my fingers.

writing chapter 17.3

Safely down on the ground, C3ll3r!, Evryplaya and Random joined the thousands of players milling around. There was little organization and no direction – the definition of a sandbox game, you could do what you liked. They all wanted something to eat, and quickly depleted the few food items in their virtual bags. But this only gave them enough energy to feel how hungry they were. Just surviving the fall took all they had.

C3ll3r! suggested they join a group making shelter, and Random thought this was a good idea, because maybe the workers would be fed.

Evryplaya complained bitterly but tagged along as the other two sought out something to do. “I’ll die of hunger before agreeing to lift a finger, ” she promised. “I can’t do any work before I eat.”

They ignored her. They changed their costumes, ditching the modified flying gear for carhartts – overalls and work boots with triple insulation, fur lined parkas and electrically heated gloves.

Evryplaya took the the opportunity to change her avatar as well, picking a big blonde brunhilda type that came with bronze breastplates and a horned fur lined helmet over the work clothes. “Gives me strength,” she explained.

“Gives you cold breasts,” C3ll3r! supposed.

Evryplaya shruged. “Beauty hurts, huh? How do you like the braids?”

They joined a group that was engaged in hut-raising. Several players stood surrounding a large flat boulder, concentration their attention on its weight. Together they imagined it was made of styrofoam, then bent to wedge their hands under it, and lifted it gently into place on top of boulders similar shapes and sizes, again and again until they’d constructed a round wall higher than their heads, with a single opening.

Then they ranged around for the perfect capstone, and finding none, carved one out of the flank of the mountain. They weren’t the only group quarrying. Some players were digging caves into the cliffs.

A settlement was developing. Dozens of workgroups were creating streets of little houses, each with its own little garden area. Other groups were going along persuading things to grow, having been shown secret stashes of seeds and starter plants that Fairy had laid down while they were still building the game. Grasses, sedges, tiny little spruce and birch trees, moss. Soon there would be herbs and flowers. Soon there would be hardy vegetables. Potatos, cabbage, carrots and onions, spinach and brocoleli, angelica, rhubarb. Soon the first restaurant would open. Everything was supposed to be cooperative, everything was supposed to be free. This was according to one of the rules hastily developed by Anomia and Fairy, who took note of the penguins’ larceny and took steps to halt the unsocial behavior. Fairy kept herself busy going around reminding people that cooperation and a generous spirit were key to a successful settlement and a happy life.

Evryplaya was totally convinced of this after Fairy touched her in passing, totally smitten by Fairy’s avatar – an angel in pink fur wafting a strong rose smell and transferring intense warmth with her touch. After Fairy moved on, Evrypaya dropped all pretence of working and contented herself with urging the others to peace and happiness thru submission to the greater good.

This lasted until dark, when a storm enveloped the settlement and the wind started howling with a force, howling with the force of freezing rain. Then it was Evryplaya for herself, as she beat the others into the shelter they’d made and sat closest to the fire.

The hut was larger on the inside than out, and a tiny fire of twigs was enlarged to fill the center of the space, smoke exiting neatly thru a carved hold in the capstone. At first the draft from the wholes in the holes in the walls threatened to blow the fire out, but the occupants increased a handful of moss and closed off the holes. Everyone downloaded sleeping bags and floor rugs, hung tapestries over the door opening, switched on lanterns. changed out of their work clothes into wool and down outfits.

Evryplaya, breastplates gleaming in the firelight, trying to look sexy, tried to convince the players nearest her that a quick fuck underneath the quilts would make them warmer. Nobody paid any attention except to move out of reach. She tried a joke – “You can eat me, if you’re hungry,” but nobody took her up on that one, either.

They were all hungry, but had nothing to eat, and nothing to eat it with. Some group concentration produced pots and pans, bowls, cups and utensils out of shells and twigs, so they were more than ready when Anomia came by with a team of people pulling a sledge with a huge, steaming cauldron on it, and ladled out a potful for each hut – a pot that remained full until everyone was stuffed and ready for sleep. Then there were shared beds and stifled sounds of satisfaction all around Evryplaya, who remained alone, complaining loudly about all the noise and how come she couldn’t get any.

Then it was light outside, the pot was empty and the fire only embers, and they all got up and went out to build shelters for the thousands of new players arriving on shore, cold and wet. Very quickly there would be a sizeable settlement, stone huts of every design lining streets that followed the contours of the little valley they were in.

They would call it Prime, the first town. It was a teardrop shape, roughly, the edged rising steeply above the valley floor. The houses on the hill had a good view and didn’t seem quite as crowded, but suffered from the constant wind, while trees would begin to rise in the town center, and the risk of avalanche kept the sensible players away.

A branch of the river would soon be diverted thru town and bridges would be built on the streets to allow channels to flow to every part. Then a team of engineers by inclination or training would discover hot water deep under the surface and dig a borehole, and use enlarged fluted shells for pipes, and soon there would be hot and cold running water. Another team would soon design sewage treatment, so there would be compost for the slopes of the upper valley, and another team would start a farm. A team of absolute geniuses would reverse-engineer a sheep, a goat and a cow from various leathers, and soon there would be flocks grazing on the shoulders of the mountain.

It was becoming a prosperous, vibrant community. Someone was even figuring out how to make paint and was going to start slapping up murals on the walls.

Fairy and Anomia could be proud of themselves. Except they weren’t.

writing chapter 17.1

And thick and fast they came at last, and more and more and more.  This line kept occurring to Anomia as she watched an endless parade of players come ashore. 

Those less injured helped those more injured, those now able to fly went out beyond the breakers to pluck (drag) drowning players out of the drink.  Some smart person figured out how to use the size function to enlarge the driftwood and seaweed and shells to big huge enormous, and built rafts and shell coracles with which to rescue others.  The cloud of falling players continued to rain, but no longer were most of them dying on impact as their superpower training kicked in. But this presented a bigger problem.  Now that they weren’t all dying, what to do with them? 

Beyond the cloud of players, more clouds were looming.  Storm clouds.  The wind picked up.  It got really cold.  And there was no shelter, no food.  They’d lived thru the fall only to risk dying of exposure.  Anomia went around and urged the heated arctic gear on everyone, deputizing each to go tell others, but it wouldn’t be enough. 

Great masses of players thronged the shore like a vast colony of seals.  But they weren’t sunning themselves, they were cold and hungry, and there was nothing to give them but hot cups of tea and energy bars from their own virtual bags. 

Somewhere in the middle of this exodus from the sea, the leprechaun npc disappeared, and was apparently replaced by penguins speaking gibberish.  This annoyed Anomia, who saw no point in npcs that couldn’t make themselves understood.  How were they supposed to answer questions?  But she put several of them to work rescuing those players stuck offshore.  The penguins clapped their little flippers together and squawked some sort of answer and waddled down to the shoreline to swim out and catch players. 

She suspected something was wildly wrong with the penguins when they started bringing back fish instead of players.  “People, people,” she screamed at them.  “Not fish.” 

But Josh saw the answer to their immediate problem, and tried to collect the fish they’d brought back.  The penguins didn’t like this, and set up a big racket, attacking Josh with his armload of fish and running back in to the water with them.  They brought back a good few survivors, but more often than not they’d be halfway back with their rescued players and would then let go of them to chase a fish. 

Anomia was wild.  “Where did they come from?  Why aren’t they helping?  What’s wrong with them?”  But nobody could answer her.  The onscreen help files were finally available, but had nothing about the demented penguin npcs.  She didn’t have time to figure it out.  There were thousands of players on shore now, and they needed her help. 

It was an epic scene, featuring enormous ice carved mountains as the backdrop, and twisted, meandering glacial rivers scouring the valley, cascading with unbelievable power thru the ever-deepening gorge. 

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People trying to get to this fresh water were continually being swept away by the forceful flow.  Anomia used her returning powers to materialize danger signs along the banks. 

Perhaps inadvisably, because requests began pouring in from the players.  “We’re cold, we’re hungry, we’re hurt.  Help us.”  They surrounded her, waiting for her to save them. 

“This isn’t how it works,” she tried to explain.  “You need to do it yourselves.” 

But this only made them more insistent.  “We can’t,” they wailed, pushing closer, reaching out to touch her. 

But the touches turned grasping, and soon players were tugging at her, pulling at her.  At the point where she was being stretched between them by her arms and legs, she decided she’d had enough.  She flung herself into the air, initially lifting the closest players with her, still attached to her limbs.  She spun in midair until they dropped off.  She felt panicky, looking down into a sea of faces.  Most of them looked beseechingly at her, patient, expectant.  Some were clearly angry.  She didn’t know why.  It wasn’t as if their situation was her fault. 

She called again to the kernel for help , but there was no response.  She called on xKurt, and felt a wave of amusement, but then it vanished, leaving her alone to deal with the thousands of hungry, cold players who looked at her as if she was their mom.  She decided the best thing to do would be to treat it like a Dragoncon seminar.  Locating an isolated stack of rocks a little way up the valley, she drifted over to stand on top of it.  The players followed like a flock of sheep. 

Then she spotted Fairy and waved her over to join her on the stack.  “I’ve never been so glad to see anyone,” she said as Fairy landed next to her, giving her a big hug. 

“I just flew in,” Fairy said, “and boy are my arms…” She stopped, taking in the crowd massing around them.  “What do they want?” Fairy asked in a low voice. 

“There’s no food or shelter and most of them don’t seem to have any powers.” 

“Well, that’s wrong,” Fairy responded.  “Let’s fix that, shall we?” and flew off to circle around the rock stack above the players, telling them to sit on the ground and make sure they were touching the people around them.  Wave up on wave of players sat, until there were several acres of seated players all crammed together.  Then she flew back to join Anomia, who felt a wave of relief.  She felt rescued.

A little less panicked now, she led the players in a round of quantum exercises, thinking happy thoughts, visualizing their goals, concentrating on their intentions.  Nothing happened until she got down off the rock and touched the closest players.  Then it became like a mosh pit, the players closest to her raising her over their heads with their arms, and she was passed one to the next until she was deep in the crowd, thousands of hands holding her up and moving her around.  She felt the frustrations and longing of the players turning into something more loving and accepting.  Less rapacious.  More generous.  Sharing. 

As she was passed from hand to hand, her face to the sky, beginning to trust, to let go, to relax, she could feel the power flowing thru her into the players.  A vibration began in the crowd and quickly spread thruout the seated players, extending to the edge of the circle and beyond.  It built up, making her body tingle like a low voltage short.  She could hear – feel – a hum.  She could feel the crowd begin to rise off the ground and float alongside her, their quantum power reactivated at last. 

Then the air grew brighter and more intense, the sun hotter and more searing.  Then the air popped, like a bubble bursting, and everybody dropped to the ground.  Anomia lost consciousness, falling deeply asleep, where she dreamed she was walking up the valley with xKurt, who was giving her advice about what to do next. 

While she slumbered, Fairy instructed the crowd.  “You’re all fully charged,” she told them, standing on the stack and amplifying her voice to reach them all.  “Here’s what you need to do.”  She split them up into teams and addressed them by turns.  “You folks find something that’ll float – a piece of driftwood, a shell, something.  Enlarge it until you’ve got boats and go out and rescue the players who are still falling.  You guys over here find something that’ll burn – driftwood, seaweed, and multiply it until you’ve got enough to make a strand of bonfires along the shore.  You people over there start building shelters with the rocks around you.  And you all over here take some of the fish from those nasty little penguins and increase them and start cooking them up.  If you’re having trouble, remember there’s strength in numbers.  Oh yeah.  You people over in this section are now deputized to spread the quantum powers.  Go out among the players and share your abilities with them.  Let’s turn this place into a proper settlement.” 

They sat there looking at her as if she was speaking another language. 

“What’s wrong with you?” she screamed, pointing to a bank of storm clouds coming over the mountain and streaming down toward them.  “Do you want to be caught out in that?” 

The wind picked up.  Hail began to fall. The players rushed to their feet and streamed off in approximate groups, and began to get organized. 

Anomia woke up.  She and Fairy had the ability to grow the shells large enough for boats, and start waterlogged timbers burning, and pile up rocks to make stone huts.  But the players could only summon the strength when they worked together, and this was fine with the girls. 

There was a little trouble when small groups of players stood around each work group, criticizing and deriding, but they couldn’t withstand Fairy’s wrath, and slunk away whenever she approached. 

The penguins were worse than useless.  They were now hoarding the fish and misdirecting players who came to them for help.  And where was Josh?  Anomia didn’t recall the last time she’d seen him.  And Fairy hadn’t noticed him at all. 

There were still injured players being pulled out of the water, and Anomia went around trying to help them.  She wasn’t exactly obeying her own rules on doing things themselves, but the injured didn’t seem to have any quantum powers, so she went around touching them, lending them some of her power.  This resulted in more than just a few miraculous healings, with players going around telling everybody how she’d pulled them back from death’s door. 

She confided her concerns to Fairy, who took the pragmatic approach.  “Heal them or let them die, do what you want.” 

Soon the area was covered with clouds as a fog bank rolled in off the ocean, and Anomia felt less conspicuous going around laying hands on people, so she continued, nonchalantly walking thru the triage area by the shore. 

Fairy, meanwhile, had taken a small group of players down to the water’s edge where they were busy trying to call the fish out of the ocean and get them to offer themselves as food.  It met with early success, but then the penguin npcs came along took the self-sacrificed fish for themselves.

writing chapter 14.4

As Josh and Anomia were staring out to sea, watching the black rain of players falling to their deaths offshore, they were startled by a noise.

“Sure and might you be looking for a wee spot o’help now?” It sounded like one of Fairy’s non-playing characters.

They looked around and saw no-one, then turned back toward the rain of death. They felt a tug on the legs of their pants and looked down to see a leprechaun with a long flowing white beard, no higher than their knees, dressed in a tiny little green and brown woodland outfit with pointy red shoes and a pointy red hat.

He swept off his had and bowed. “Darby O’Gill, at your service,” he said gallantly, fitting the hat back on his balding head. They stared at him. “And isn’t it lovely weather?” he asked rhetorically. They failed to respond. He stared back, tilting his head expectantly, “Have yez no tongues in your heads?” he asked finally.

Anomia shook her head. “It’s just that we thought we were alone here, that’s all,” she said.

“Are you an npc?” Josh asked hopefully.

The leprechaun swept his hat off his head and bowed low. “Darby O’Gill, at your service,” he repeated in exactly the same way as before.

Josh and Anomia looked at each other. “Where were you when we were stuck up on the mountain?” Anomia demanded. “We needed help then.”

“Yeah, we almost died,” Josh added.

The leprechaun looked hurt. “Ah now, stop. I’m brought low by your displeasure,” he lamented. “Begging your pardon, many apologies, no excuse. I am your humble servant.”

“Well, how about getting us some food?” Josh suggested, whereupon the leprechaun whipped out two mugs of steaming tea and handed them to the couple.

“Would you ever care for a wee drop of the creature?” he asked as they took their mugs, pulling a hip flask out form under his vest. “For the cold,” he explained. Anomia declined warily. Josh eagerly accepted. The leprechaun drained the bottle after tipping a few glugs into Josh’s mug and gave a great gasping sigh as he put the empty bottle away. “Better than food,” he pronounced.

Anomia rolled her eyes. “Why are you here now, then?” she asked.

The leprechaun shrugged. “Mine not to reason why…” he started.

Josh pointed at the cloud of falling players. “Maybe he’s here because of them,” he suggested. They looked at the leprechaun.

“No rainbow, no pot of gold,” he said cryptically.

“Now what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Josh asked. The leprechaun looked sheepish.

Anomia pointed at the cloud of falling players. “Can you help us or not?” she demanded. “People are dying out there.”

The leprechaun took his hat off and held it over his heart. A tear rolled down his cheek. “A terrible terrible predicament,” he said mournfully.

Anomia looked at Josh. “I’m not sure he’s going to be any use,” she said.

“Maybe we’re going about it the wrong way,” he suggested. “Now see here,” he addressed the leprechaun, who looked at him expectantly. “What can you tell us about what’s going on here?”

The npc immediately began reeling off a lot of technical details about the players’ fall – the distance of fall and rate of descent, prevailing winds, water temperature, probability of surviving the landing, concentration of predator species waiting beneath the surface, probability of survival in the water, chance of survival until individuals could reach shore, probability of reaching shore before drowning or being eaten – all given in a mournful monotone in a thick brogue they could barely understand. The specs were all very depressing.

Anomia cut him off. “Is there any way we can rescue them?” she asked.

The leprechaun brightened. “Sure you could try looking in your wee bag o’tricks and see if there’s anything you could use to make a seaworthy vessel,” he suggested.

They pulled up their virtual bags and looked. Driftwood, fish bones, shells, seaweed. “But this is useless. What can we do with shells and seaweed?” Anomia asked.

The leprechaun tapped the side of his head and winked. “Use your noggins,” he replied. She scowled at him.

Meanwhile, the cloud of falling players had moved closer to shore, and now they could see the hapless players falling into the water just beyond the breakers, making huge fountaining splashes. Most of them disappeared into the water, but a few bobbed back up – still alive – and struggled feebly toward shore. Most of these were swallowed by the breaking waves, but some were swept to shore and washed up on the rocky beach. A few of them seemed to be moving, or was it just the waves rolling their limbs around?

Josh and Anomia went to look, Josh hoping to find them ready to eat, Anomia hoping to find them alive. The leprechaun followed, twisting his hat with worry that he might have to offer a wee drop of poteen to everyone.

The dead players faded out as soon as they were truly dead. Most of the badly injured ones followed soon after, but a very few struggled to their feet and staggered up the beach to dry land.

Anomia raced from one to the next, trying to help. The leprechaun followed, trying to make conversation about the weather and solicit questions like a good npc.

Still the cloud of players fell, but it never came onshore, which was fortunate for those few that survived the fall into the drink. Now and then a player managed to flare to a safe landing as most of them continued to drop to their deaths.

Anomia noticed this improvement and asked the leprechaun, “Is it because there are more players that you suddenly appeared?”

The leprechaun nodded sagely, “Safety in numbers, madam. Power with, not power over.”

This was one of the tenets of the philosophy Anomia tried to teach in her Dragoncon seminars. Dragoncon seemed so far away, even tho it must still be going on in the realworld. She wondered why the npc would quote her to herself, but figured Fairy must have programmed him with various other pearls of wisdom as well.

“But what do you mean?” she asked.

“Safety in numbers,” he repeated, twirling his hat.

She wondered if he was talking about the idea of critical mass, which was the main goal of getting people to play the game. The more people, the stronger the group consciousness they participated in. Maybe there was hope.

She scanned the cloud of falling players. Some of them appeared to be flying, more were gliding, exerting some sort of control over their fall. She wondered if that meant their own abilities were coming back, hers and Josh’s. She turned her attention within and began searching for happy thoughts. Players were surviving; there was hope after all. She felt a bubbling feeling near her heart.

“Josh,” she called.

He was looking out to sea, wondering if he could reach the drowning players before they were rendered inedible thru death and fadeout. “What?” he snapped, turning to glower at her.

“I think maybe we can fly again.”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Idiot,” she said, losing her temper. “It means we have our powers back. It means the game’s not broken.”

“Okay, I don’t think I care at the moment. I’m starving.” He thought. “No wait, maybe we can materialize something to eat.” He concentrated and a mug of beer appeared in the air in front of him. He grabbed it and chugged it down, instantly refilling it. “Oh yeah,” he sighed with satisfaction. “Who wants a burger?”

writing chapter 14.3

Perhaps you’ve wondered where the word “scree” comes from.  There is the usual etymological explanation – landslide in Norse.  But this is my theory – screeee is the sound your soul makes when the earth drops away under your feet.  When glaciers stop holding the mountains up, they start crumbling, and filling in the gouged-out bottoms of those u-shaped valleys  And until the crumbled mountain fills it right the way up and enough trees and grasses grow to stabilize it, it’s all loose rock slapped up against the side of really steep mountains.  Just waiting to be dislodged by an earthquake, or torrential rains, or high winds.  Or the inattentive footfalls of two people trying to hike down the mountain.

And so it happened that Josh and Anomia stopped to rest on a flat boulder halfway down to the valley floor, walked to the front edge of the boulder for a better look at the route down from there, and managed to upset the rock’s balance.  Screeeee.  With a heart-jolting shudder, the boulder tilted.  They quickly moved back away from the edge, and the back end of the boulder thumped down, like they were on a seesaw.  Then a few small rocks dislodged and rolled down the mountain.  And a few more, making tinking sounds as they bounced off other rocks.  Then the boulder moved, slipping a few inches.  The couple looked at each other with wide panicky eyes.  Should they jump off?  Should they stay still?  But the boulder slipped again, skewing slightly, grinding against its pebbly bed, and they fell to the surface and reached for something to hold onto as it lurched in slow motion, setting off the rocks around it on their way down the mountain.  The tinking of rock on rock grew into a rumble as they began crashing and sliding down the mountain.

Screeee.  Their hearts in their throats, Josh and Anomia crouched on the flat boulder as it slowly tilted down and began to slide.  And the whole section of the mountain began to slide with it.  House-sized boulders, statue-sized stones, breadbox – rocks, fist-sized shards, chess piece-sized pebbles, peppercorn-sized grains, gnat-sized dust, each size of rock providing a cushion of lubrication for the next largest size of rock.  At first lurching and stopping, so that they had hope it would stop, then picking up speed until hope lagged behind them on their shortcut to the sea.

They held on to their puny handholds and crouched into the smallest target they could on top of the boulder as it surfed down the side of the mountain, rocks bounding and crashing all around them.  The rest of the hillside gave way all at once, and suddenly they were riding a wave of loose rock down the mountain.  An avalanche.

A pity that their first action in Antarctica was destructive.  But humans are like that.  It’s a miracle they weren’t overrun and crushed by all the rocks that came down after them as their boulder made its way to the valley floor.  The kernel must have been watching after them.

It was a wild ride.  And it took a long time because they were still a thousand feet above the valley when they’d stopped to rest.  At moments it felt like they were still and the mountain was coming down all around them, but then the boulder would tilt or spin or threaten to flip over on them.  Josh buried his head, as if that would save him.  Anomia kept watchful vigilance in case she had to dodge a flying rock, as if that would save her.

They got pelted for sure, they got bruised and scraped and thwacked in the head by bouncing, flying rocks.  Their hands and arms were battered, their backs were bloody.  They never had time to change into battle armor (what was battle armor doing in the clothing choices of a violence-free videogame?), but could only cling to the boulder as it clattered and bounced down the mountain.  But at last, with a screeeee sound that ended in a sigh, their boulder came to a shuddering halt at the foot of the mountain, rocks slamming or sliding or rolling to a stop all around them, dust rising to obscure all sight.

Gradually the noise subsided, hissing like the foam of a spent wave against the shore.  The dust dispersed, and Josh and Anomia sat up and then stood on their boulder, covered with dust and grains and pebbles, which clattered sweetly off them – souvenirs of their escape.  Anomia bent down and gathered a few and put them in her bag.  Josh kicked a few off the edge of the boulder.

They had outrun most of the avalanche and found themselves at the outer edge of the rock slide, close enough to scramble out of the field and find firm ground.  Only it wasn’t really firm, filled in by dust and sand and rock, scattered on top of the glacial till of the valley floor.  There was just nowhere else for the rocks to go, so they didn’t.

The landscape around them was flat, -ish, with boulders and rocks of all sizes lying everywhere.  They were hungry again after their wild ride, but except for an energy bar there was nothing in their bag.

“We should be able to download some food from the virtual store,” Josh complained.

“But obviously the store’s closed, or deleted, or locked or something,” Anomia answered shortly

“And whose fault is that?” he shot back.  “You were in charge of supplies.  You and fucking Fairy.”

“No, I wasn’t,” she snapped.  “I don’t know why you’re so quick to blame me.  I wasn’t in charge of provisions.  It was…”  She paused, unable to remember who’d had the responsibility for populating the virtual stores and standard supplies.  “I don’t know.  Anyway, you can’t blame me for not thinking of everything.  I did everything I could think of.  I did other people’s jobs.”

“Then it must be your fault, since you were in charge of all the details.”

“The landscape details,” she protested.  “I can’t be checking everybody else’s work all the time.”  But she had been.  She hadn’t had any trouble picking up the others’ slack, to the point where they didn’t bother doing the boring things, knowing Anomia would come along and do it all her way anyhow.

But now they had empty bags and no food.  There was no food to be had in their environment.  The ground was barren.  There were no birds.  They had nothing to catch fish with, assuming there were fish to be caught.  They walked around, picking up anything nonlapislike they found – a piece of driftwood, the vertebra of a seal, washed up seaweed – and depositing them in their virtual bags.

“I’m really worried about the game,” Anomia confessed as they rounded a headland and stopped to look out over the blue-black Southern Ocean.  Black rain was still falling out to sea.

“What the fuck is that?” Josh wondered.

She continued her train of thought, ignoring the horizon.  “I mean, how can we go-live with the game when this level’s still so buggy?”

“What do you mean, this level?” he retorted.  “The whole game’s so buggy it’s embarrassing.  Why, potential sponsors…”  He swallowed his words.  He wasn’t supposed to have been making sponsor deals.

But she wasn’t listening.  She had her heads up display running and was trying to figure out how to login as admin.  “Huh?” she said when he fell silent.

“Oh, nothing, just famished is all.”  He glared at her, still convinced it was her fault.

“Well, go try to catch a fish or something,” she replied peevishly,  “I’m trying to do something and you’re interrupting me with your petty complaints.”

“Petty?”  His voice rose.  “You’re just sitting there trying to shift the blame, like you always do.  You’re never at fault, while the rest of us…”  He was looking at the black rain, seeing individual drops now, drops that were changing shape as they fell.  “I think the cloud is getting closer,” he said, looking around for shelter, which of course there was none.  “I’m not sure I want to get whatever that is on me.”

She looked up, staring into the dark rain.  “Oh no,” she whispered to herself, then turned her attention back to the HUD, frantically opening the help files.  Which were empty.  She looked up again.  The individual drops were clear now, individual, and moving as they fell, turning, spinning, twisting and gesticulating.

“Oh no,” Josh whispered.  “That’s not rain,”

“It’s players,” Anomia finished, getting up and standing beside Josh.  They held hands and watched as figures without number fell into the sea,  “Where did that many people come from?” she wondered,  “We’re only doing final candidate testing now.  Go-live isn’t until…”

He looked at her.  “What day is it?  How long have we been here?”

She checked her HUD.  “Oh my god,” she said.  “It must have already gone live.  Those must be real players, not just the testers.”

“Shit, what an introduction,” he said, dismayed.  “They’ll die, of course.  That’ll make the game real popular.”

“Maybe they’ll figure out how to land, like we did.”

“What are you talking about?” he answered.  “What makes you think they can fly if we can’t?  And how many of them have the presence of mind to adjust their costumes or figure out how to slow down?  Look at them, they’re dropping like lead weights.”

And they were. The water underneath the playerfall was churning and white as they smashed into the surface of the water.  Whatever sea life was out there was having a feeding frenzy.  “Even if they survive the fall and avoid the sharks, they can’t live in water that cold.  Unless of course you remembered to put wetsuits into the costume inventory.  Oh yeah, not your department.”

She shot him an angry look.  “The cloud – the players – are getting closer to land,” she said.  “Let’s go and see if we can help any of them.”

“Yeah, right,” he sneered, but followed as she made her way to the rocky shoreline.

“Maybe they’ll remort on land,” she speculated without much hope.

“Yeah, with arms and legs missing from where the sharks tore them off,” he added.

“Please,” she said, “your urbane comments aren’t helping.”

“Well, I think they’re funny,” he said.  “Just because you don’t have a sense of humor…”

“I do so,” she protested, tho she’d been entirely humorless ever since they’d started working on the game – two years now?  Three?

“Look on the bright side,” he said as the black rain of players approached the shore.  “We’ll have loads to eat once the tide starts bringing the bodies in.”

“Josh!”

“Just kidding,” he assured her, tho his empty stomach had him wondering whether they’d taste more like pork or chicken.

writing chapter 14.2

Upon investigation, they discovered that there was a little food in their storage bags, so they ate, a sort of MRE, otherwise known as lunchables.  Not very nutritious, not very tasty, not very filling, and full of chemicals, but they didn’t care at all, and scarfed it down.  Anomia carefully put the wrapper back into her bag, and scowled at Josh as he let his go into the wind.  Then they sat there on the snow covered ledge and looked out on the view.

If they’d been on the highest peak of the mountain, they could have seen the sea, way off to the north.  But from where they sat, all they could see was a great ice sheet, fed by glaciers coming off their mountain, part of a range of mountains going east to west.  Far, far to the south they could see another range of black mountains stretching as far as they could see along the horizon.  These were totally denuded of snow in places – just black rock, with thready glacial tongues descending from the passes and peaks and plummetting to the ice sheet below.

Then the sun became covered, indistinct as clouds topped the range behind them and snow began to swirl and updraft all around them.  Night was falling rapidly and they were sitting in the open.  The wind picked up, howling, and suddenly they could hardly see each other.  Now what?  They had no tools in their bags, no tents, and sitting still was allowing the frostbite to attack even the bits inside the heated suits.  So they crawled back into their snow holes, scooping and packing the snow to make a den of sorts, where they huddled together until morning, alternately pleading with and cursing xKurt and the kernel.

When it grew light they emerged to find the sun up and the sky clear, tho the wind still howled.  They ate another lunchable for breakfast, and as they were sitting there wondering what to do, the ice vanished once again.  They saw their mountain chain looming high above steep valleys leading to the shores of an inland sea which stretched all the way to the black mountains on the horizon, which now looked twice the height.

“I think I know where we are,” Anomia said.  She’d drawn most of the maps for the Antarctica game, and hadn’t recognized the terrain when it was covered by ice.  “I think we’re in Marie Byrd Land, or somewhere close to it.  See, that water is the Ross Sea, and those mountains are the Transantarctic range.”  She pointed to an active volcano halfway along the huge southern mountain chain.  “That’s Mount Erebus.  I think that’s where McMurdo would be if this were the realworld.”

“Yeah, too bad it’s not there now.  We could use a rescue.  Not that we could get there from here, ” he finished bitterly, measuring the distance between their mountain and the Transantarctics.

And then the ice was back, like snapping a white plastic lid on the world.

“What did you do?” Josh asked.

Anomia looked at him in surprise.  “What?  I didn’t do anything.  It’s been coming and going like that since we got close enough to notice.”

“What does it mean?  Is it a glitch?”

“I don’t know.  It ‘s sure not supposed to be happening.  I”ll report it as a bug.”  She brought up the bug database – but it was gone.  Empty.  File not found.

“What, don’t we even have administrative privileges anymore?” Josh asked, looking at his own display.  A dreadful thought occurred to him.  Maybe he and Snake broke the game doing something sneaky and underhanded.  “Fucking Snake,” he muttered.

Anomia heard him.  “What did you boys do?” she asked shrilly.

“What?” he responded, offended.  “It was that Fairy – and Radhu – fucking around with the game parameters.”

“But the kernel would have caught any attempt to change the program.”

Josh stayed silent and avoided her eyes for awhile.  Anomia regarded the scene.

The ice continued to flicker in and out.  It seemed to pulse for a minute, the ice rising and falling as if the ground were breathing in and out.  The clouds came lower and hovered just above them, grazing the peaks, foaming over the passes and shedding tendrils of snow, like mist curling in the wind.  The clouds capping the sky, the snow capping the earth.   It was like being underwater and watching the surface ripple and surge with the passing waves, as if the clouds were echoing the ice’s movements, a dance of the watery elements.

But then everything changed.

The world seemed to flutter, to shine, to fast-flicker all around then.  As if the kernel was changing its mind (?) and changing it again, going back and forth between the two states – frozen and thawed – flicking between them in the process of making up its mind, onoffonoffonoff.

And then it decided.  Like flushing a toilet, suddenly all the ice – the glaciers descending from the peaks, the ice caps covering the sea, the icefalls and ice tongues coursing between high and low, all began to liquefy and swirl inside whatever configuration of mountain that held it.  Like a time lapse film of the retreat of the ice.

Suddenly their butts were wet as the snow underneath the turned to slush.  The snowy slopes around then went gray and brown and translucent, and holes started appearing here and there.  The sound of dripping water became a roar as the ice melted from the top down and the bottom up.  Ice began slipping downslope, gaining momentum like a snowball made of melting snow, sloughing off like a reptile’s skin in molting season, peeling off the mountain.

Some of the liquid turned to fog, and Josh and Anomia were enveloped in a fine mist of embedded drops that spattered their faces and dripped off the fur lining of their parkas.  They began to slip toward the edge of their rock shelf.  Afraid of avalanches, they pulled themselves back to safety in the center of the ledge, but it wasn’t all that safe, because the ice and snow above them was beginning to slump, curling onto their ledge like boiling milk overflowing the mug in the microwave, threatening to push them over like a wave breaking on shore.

They scrambled to the high spot on the ledge, and the slush wave broke to either side of them and went dripping off the edge with sickening plopping sounds,  The sound of rushing water was deafening.  The booms and cracks alarmingly violent.  They looked out into the far distance and saw the continental ice cap coming – first oozing and then spouting – thru the passes and down the mountainside, glopping onto the thinning ice shelf which broke up into enormous state-sized icebergs that spun and drifted out to sea.

All of this extraordinarily rapid, like putting an already abbreviated timelapse on fast forward.  They sat and stared for the couple of hours it took for the whole mess to melt  They felt privileged to witness the transformation.  Like witnessing the total destruction of a planet would be a privilege, of sorts.  And when it was melted, there was no more flickering between states.  The ice was gone, the mountains were bare, black rock, the Ross Sea was dark blue with white flecks bobbing on the tide.

At last they looked at each other.  “Now what?” Josh asked.

“I guess we get down off the mountain?” Anomia offered.

They looked down.  “It’s thousands of feet,” Josh observed.

“It’s all loose rock,” she observed, “and if I remember, it’s really dangerous to try descending a scree slope.  Maybe we’ll start an avalanche.”

“We could fly down?”

“Can you think happy thoughts at the moment?” she asked.

“I’m happy we’re not stuck on a glacier,” he began, but stopped.  “We might have been able to ski down if it were still snow.”

“Well, I don’t think we ought to chance running down the hill and jumping up to fly, do you?”

“I guess not.  If we weren’t able to lift off we’d end up rolling all the way down.”

“With those big rocks coming down after us,” she added.

They examined the mountain below them for a viable route down.  The slope was still wet, maybe from the melted slow but certainly from the dripping fog bank that continued to pour over the peak and course down the mountain all around them.

“Well, let’s start,” he said, getting to his feet.

But Anomia still sat there.  She was distracted by a puzzling sight.  Over their shoulders, to the north and mostly obscured by the mountain behind them, there seemed to be a heavy rain of almost individual drops, something that shouldn’t have been discernible at that distance.  It was like seeing individual drops of dark oil in a rainstorm.

“What the fuck is that?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” she mused.  “It almost looks like falling rocks.”

“It’s far,” he observed.

“It’s out to sea,” she observed.  “Rain doesn’t look like that.”

“Well, I don’t care,” he said, reaching down to grab her hand and pull her to her feet.  “I’ve seen enough strange shit for one day.  Let’s get down the mountain and see if we can make it in one piece.”

writing chapter 14.1

ring 1, the island

Down they fell, plummeting toward an Antarctica that was now so much larger than the theme-park sized island they’d been watching from the cloud layer.  They attempted to turn their fall into a glide, tried to fly out of their headlong race to the surface, but their ability to fly was somehow broken – switched off.  Was it fear?  They’d always been able to fly before in the game.  It was one of the essential skills, and since it was their game, it was something they’d taken for granted.  But now they felt like the testers who chose to fall to their deaths instead of flying, and it was not fun.  It was frightening.  Panic inducing.  Below was Antarctica, white ice gleaming like the top of a cloud.  But they weren’t going to sink gently thru it, they were going to be slammed suddenly, with great force, as their hapless free fall brought them ever closer to the surface.  And the surface kept enlarging.  Now it extended far beyond their field of view, over the curve of the planet.  The surrounding ocean appeared only as a black perimeter around a continent of ice.

They had time to notice – an eternity of falling – that the ice seemed to be fading in and out, as if the kernel was uncertain about which state to be in.  One moment it was miles-thick icecaps, and the next it was all black, barren rock.

“Something’s wrong,” Anomia shouted.

“No shit, Sherlock,” Josh yelled back.

They were falling spreadeagle thru the air, the wind snatching their words, their breaths out of their mouths.  Their clothes whipped around in the wind with an awful racket.  And it was cold, so cold.  Ice was forming around their eyes, in their noses, inside their open mouths.  They couldn’t feel their faces, their fingers wouldn’t work.

Finally Anomia thought to adjust their clothing choices.  She pulled down the menu and selected the warmest polar expedition clothes available, so now she was speeding toward the ice in a heated snow suit and fur lined parka, with thick bunny boots and high tech gloves.  But she was still freezing.  Josh, falling beside her, did the same.  The suits provided some wind resistance, and this allowed them a modicum of control, so they angled off together toward the coast.

Maybe they could manage a glide, maybe they could manage not to kill themselves instantly when they hit the ice.  And the ice was coming up faster and faster.  They could see features now, ice ripples and icefalls as the glaciers flowed around underlying mountains, horns of black rock sticking up out of the ice, carved into grotesque shapes by the relentless scraping of the glaciers as they moved toward the sea.  And every now and then the ice faded out and they could see enormous glacial valleys, mountains scoured and bare, deep ragged chasms where the ice had a moment ago been marching toward the ocean.  Then the ice was back, closer than ever.

“We’re going to die!” she shouted at him.

“It’ll hurt,” he replied.

“But it’s real now.  Will we remort or do we just die?”

“We’ll find out.”

She couldn’t see him shrug, but she knew his nonchalance was fake.  They cursed Fairy (Radhu) for not including wing suits in the costume choices, and adjusted their outfits again, giving themselves decorative capes that came down to the middle of their backs and attached to their upper arms.  Now they could steer a bit better, aiming still for the coast, and a rocky mountainous outcrop that looked to be a hundred miles away and maybe fifteen miles below.  But how could they tell, when it was all black and white, with no scale measurement and no altimeter?  Anomia made a mental note to have the kernel include these things in the next build of the game.

Endlessly falling, they had time to wonder at what had happened.  At xKurt with his pull my finger joke.  At the sudden vascillation in the landscape between ice and barren rock.  And this raised all sorts of questions about how the Antarctica level had come to be covered in an ice sheet, the way the realworld Antarctica was covered.  Why did xKurt or the kernel decide to cover their carefully (?) designed temperate Antarctica with a mile or two of ice sheet?  Was it the kernel?  Was it xKurt?  Who was in control of the game anyway?  Not the pair of them, hurtling toward the rocky summits below.  Was it a glitch, a bug?  How would they fix it?  Cuz it wouldn’t do to kill all the players at the beginning of the level.

As the ground came rushing closer their anxiety grew.  Anomia felt like she was going to throw up, Josh felt like he was going to pee in his pants.  And still they fell.  The ground kept getting bigger and more detailed, and they kept thinking they were going to crash into the rocks, but kept discovering that their idea of scale was off, that the mountains below them were bigger and farther away than they looked.  This gave them time to reach full blown panic.  She did throw up.  He peed himself.  The liquids turned to ice immediately and began to frostbite her face, his crotch.  And no amount of resetting their clothing options made any difference.

It no longer felt like a game.  The game controls weren’t working; there was no pause, no undo.  And their avatars were real.  They were present in the game physically, not virtually, and they were going to fall to earth and die.  Any old time now.  And still the earth came rushing up to meet them and still they fell with the wind howling all around them.  Like blocks of ice they fell, helpless to do more than take aim for a flat area of ice at the foot of a rock that might have been a few feet high and might have been a thousand feet or more.

They kept trying to think happy thoughts so they could fly, but if you don’t want to die, your approaching crash landing isn’t going to make for ecstatic glee.  They were crying now, clutching each other and swearing eternal devotion, still frantically trying to find the escape button, still screaming for xKurt to save them.  And still they fell.  But the Hitchhiker’s Guide had it right – flying is simply aiming at the ground and missing.

So at the very last moment they separated from their tight embrace and spread their arms wide, hoping to flare their capes and land softly on the ice.  Which didn’t quite happen.  But they didn’t hit the ground perpendicularly, but at an angle.  And the ice wasn’t exactly level, but fell away from the mountain above it at a steep angle.  So they grazed the ice.

The first touchdown was very hard.  It jolted their frozen bones and bounced them back into the air.  The second touchdown was brief, but they were parallel to the ground now, and so it tore off the bottom layers of their clothes, and in their panic they flung themselves back into the air.  But only for a moment.  Then they were on the ice, sliding down the steep incline that went many hundreds of feet almost straight down onto the main ice sheet.

With difficulty they veered away from the ice chute like body surfers, and managed to bury themselves in the snow topping a little shelf most of the way up the mountain.  It would have hurt crashing thru the ice, but they were completely numb, little selfsicles stuck in the snow.  At first they didn’t try to extricate themselves, they just lay there, absorbing the quiet, the lack of movement, the absence of wind.  It was dark, and still, and silent.

As they lay there, not sure if they were alive or dead or stuck somewhere in between – back on the cloud level perhaps – they began to take in the sounds of their environment.  Buried in the snowy back of the ledge, they could faintly hear water dripping, and beyond that, water rushing and tumbling down the mountain beneath the ice.  They heard the ice moving down the mountain, griding and scraping away the rock.  They heard the glacier moaning and booming, cracking and screeching.  They heard the cry of a bird, muffled thru the snow.

So, they were alive after all.  And eventually, reluctant to leave their snowy blanket, they dug themselves out and sat blinking in the blinding, achingly cold sunlight.  Anomia thought to check her heads-up display.  It was -20F, the wind was coming out of the south at 30 mph, the forecast was for snow showers.  She shook her head.  This was not in the specs for the Antarctica level at all.  She checked another stat.  It seemed to be early spring, with lengthening days and almost 12 hours of sunlight in 24.  But so what?  How were they going to survive on top of a glacier?

They were three quarters of the way up the mountain.  Around them were silent black peaks sticking up out of the ice, with ice oozing down the mountainsides on all sides.  Below coursed a glacier, and they could hear the trapped rocks scraping away the mountain as the glacier made its glacially slow way to the sea.  Now and then a snap, crackle and popping sound as bits of ice broke up, and booming sounds as fragments the size of houses snapped away from the rest of the ice.

writing chapter 13.2

Nathan spent the rest of the evening with his family, under the watchful eyes of Mom, who thought he must be getting sick, and Dad, who was worrying his son might be gay. (is it saturday or friday?) Nathan hid behind his usual responses and thought about the game he was testing.

Only when the news came on and they featured Dragoncon (is there a local 10-11 news?) did he pay attention to what was happening. They were demonizing gaming (insert section here) on the TV, and Dad was trying to turn it into a lecture on why he was right to keep them from going.

Mom and Nathan had already bought their memberships. With the same costumes, not because they learning nothing from being outed by the press last year, but because they never made new ones. Mom with her third job and Nathan with his full days of schoolwork and extracurricular exercises (lifting garbage bags at the food court).

They had an elaborate discovery-proof plan in place for the day – they were visiting colleges. Sis was extra vicious about it because nobody took her around to colleges (because she never showed any interest), but Nathan already had the brochures in an envelope at work, and he planned to go get them very late in their day at Dragoncon (can you preorder 1day badges?)

Like everyone attending the convention, they’d looked forward to it all year, planned activities with their friends and wondered about the panels on their favorite tracks. So it was hard to take Dad’s sitting there making fun of them by proxy, ridiculing them with it. “Got your badge yet, Nuthin? Wonder what this year’s badges look like. What do you think, Nuthin?”

In fact, this year it was a great illustration of a goth girl in a sexy pose, but they wouldn’t have theirs until tomorrow. It only took getting thru this evening.

During the ads, Dad dug at Mom about being away from the house all day. Dad was around all the time, and noticed Mom’s absence – nobody to get his beers and listen to his rants. But with three jobs, she was gone all day every day, and Nathan had to get the dinner most nights. (pharmacy clerk, ?, ?)

Lots of times, Dad would go to bed before Mom got home, and the whole house would be peaceful and quiet, with Dad snoring, Nathan in his room studying, and Sis gone out with some friend or other.

With Dad home all the time, they walked around on eggshells. Dad was really fragile these days. His life was random, with no security, and no regular thing to get up and do every day, no order. He hated that. He wanted certainty, regularity, reliability. Dad was not a dynamic paradoxicalist. He couldn’t take freedom or ambiguity.

writing chapter 13.1

OMG it was Dragoncon again. The third one in this story. How did it creep up on them? The testing had not gone well – everything worked now but it just wasn’t the game they built. The testers and their preferences, the differences between the alphas and betas, the budding wars, (their own personal styles,) nothing was how the team wanted it and the things to bring back within parameters had ballooned and bubbled up into something monstrous. But it was Dragoncon, and they’d scheduled final testing and GoLive, and everything was waiting. They were screwed.

The boys had sponsors lined up and waiting, the girls had their schedules full of panels and workshops on quantum stuff in as many different program tracks as they could fit. They had several interviews scheduled and people kept coming up to them to share, or ask questions, or touch them. They were popular, sought after. It was unnerving. To Anomia and Josh at least. Fairy and Snake soaked it up.

They met Friday morning to stand in line for their badges together. They were all wearing their game avatar costumes, or approximations thereof. They didn’t have time to put a lot of work into their costumes. So Anomia was just wearing the long skirt and bodice of the Seekers from the third ring of the Antarctica level, and Josh wore jeans and a pair of boots and wore an eye patch as a member of the Seafaring Clan from the second ring. Fairy and Snake wore costumes of the Carnival and Carneytown levels, both master of ceremonies tuxedos and top hats, but Snake’s looked more like James Bond dinner clothes and Fairy’s more like Marlene Dietrich with a whip.

They were near the back of the line, moseying forward a step or two every minute. It was early in the day, and the air was still cool, except in the direct sun. Half the people in line were in regular street clothes, so costumes still stuck out and everybody took a look at the Quantum Antarctica costumes, lame as they were, as the line inched around the block.

Nathan saw them coming. The anticipation of their getting close enough to talk to made him lose track of what he was doing for a moment. Based on his experience at last year’s Dragoncon, he’d persuaded his boss that it would be better for the business for Nathan to run a coffee stand near the registration line, instead of being in the way while the wife and daughters finished prepping for lunch. So he’d dragged a table and two coffee urns over and set up early, and had been selling coffee since the registration office opened. His money belt was heavy and he needed to brew another pot and replenish the creamer.

By the time he’d done all that, the team was getting close enough to see clearly. It had been a very long time since they’d sat around his food court. He missed them. He missed Kurt.

He looked over at the team and noticed a new avatar costume, very professional. A real fan, probably spent several months on his costume. Look at that plumed turban. Then he realize d that it looked just like the costume his testing buddy Random wore. They’d just finished testing the week before, and he and Random had traded emails and were Facebook friends. He hadn’t mentioned coming to Dragoncon, his email provider was in India and Nathan figured they’d never meet. Now he was greeting the team members and joining them in line with profuse apologies and thanks to those in line after him.

Nathan watched him greet everyone on the team as if he knew them, bowing to Anomia and Josh, kissing Fairy’s hand and shaking Snake’s. He was being very formal, just like his character. Nathan wished he had that kind of dignity.

Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Random said something to both Fairy and Snake. Snake drew himself up while Fairy turned red. Then Random turned to Fairy, bowing low, and Fairy looked smug for a moment, but then caught Snake’s eye and began to shake with fury as Random continued to talk to her. Then everybody paused as they took a step or two closer, and Nathan could begin to hear them talking.

Josh and Anomia were in front, going over the million and one things they needed to do before GoLive. Josh was managing the final candidate testing and Anomia was still trying to finish installing her quantum lessons.

“We’ve been thru a dozen builds of the final candidate already, and testing doesn’t begin until ten,” he complained. “Like there are invisible testers in there while we’re sleeping or something.”

“I guess we’re nowhere near bug free yet?” She looked at him.

“Well, how are we supposed to lock it down if you won’t stop messing with things?” He looked away.

They moved a step.

Behind them Snake was protesting his innocence. “Fomenting rebellion among the testers? Ridiculous. I’m far too busy launching the product. It sounds more like something you’d do.”

Fairy had a screen shot of a recruitment poster she’d found in a Carneytown bathroom, calling for a strike against the cold. “Freeze Out! Alphas and Betas unite against unfair working conditions. Fuck testing until we get a raise in temperature!”

Snake was disavowing all knowledge with his hands raised in protest and surprised concern on his face. “I most certainly did not.”

Random looked stern. “I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to voice my concerns,” he said. “There is altogether too much violence in the game right now. I’m sorry to say it, but…”

Snake cut him off. “I notice you didn’t mind decorating all the drug dens and sex parlors,” he said to Fairy. “Isn’t it kind of hypocritical…”

Fairy cut him off. “You’ve got a nerve. I must have destroyed a hundred caches of weapons in Carneytown alone.”

They moved closer to Nathan, who was running out of cups and had to dart under the table to get more. Fairy moved to stand with Anomia and pulled up the schedule grid. Josh moved back to talk to Snake. Random hovered like a puppy. Fans came up and chattered animatedly while the line moved another step closer to Registration.

Nathan served coffee, planning a greeting for each of them as they passed. Maybe he could get them over to give them free coffee. The fans moved on and they moved a step closer. They were almost in reach. Nathan ducked under the table for more napkins and stirrers. They moved a step.

“My costuming panel is at 1:00,” Fairy said. “You’ve got Quantum Superpowers 101 on the Armory track at 10, then a quantum movement workshop on the Silk Road, that’s one level down. That’s at 11:30, and your Quantum Age panel is at 1. When are you going to eat?” Anomia didn’t respond. “I’ve got to go see if I’ve got any takers for my custom gamegear over at the Art Show. I guess I can look in on our display, too (prints of Anomia’s luscious Antarctica backgrounds). I think we should do the Dealer’s Hall for this stuff next year, don’t you?” Anomia wasn’t listening.

They took another step forward. Nathan was losing sight of Anomia. But he wasn’t looking at her now, because Fairy was getting heated, overhearing something Snake was telling Random. She turned quickly around to face them. “I did not,” she said hotly. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” She moved in aggressively. “You’ve been sabotaging this game from the beginning, and now you’ve got…” She couldn’t remember his name, “the raja here doing your dirty work.”

The raja tried to defend himself. “I have been trying to call your attention to a certain degradation in the validity of the science behind the rides and games,” he sputtered.

“The game sucks,” Josh agreed.

“Yes it does,” Snake said, talking over them. “That’s why I’ve been putting so much effort into beefing it up. Putting in more controls to counteract all this criminality.”

“You’ve been cheating,” shouted Fairy. “You’ve been sabotaging the game.”

“Saving it,” Snake clarified.

It was the same argument. Nathan had heard it before. But this time Random was in the middle, and Nathan watched them both turn on him, blaming him for sabotaging the game.

“But I was only…” Random protested, and Snake and Fairy began screaming at each other in line, in front of a few hundred people, many of them fans.

Nathan missed his chance to greet the team as they moved step by step away fro m him, arguing fiercely about who’d done the most damage. Even Josh and Anomia were bitching at each other. The last Nathan saw of them was Random’s blue feather bobbing atop his turban as he tried to explain himself.

They wouldn’t have stopped at Nathan’s booth, anyway. Josh and Anomia were sipping from coffee cups that refilled themselves. Fairy and Snake were hitting off of flasks.

Nathan glimpsed Caroline in the crowd, wearing camouflage, but wasn’t able to wave. She was following Anomia.

It got vicious out of Nathan’s earshot. Fairy decided that Random had betrayed her, and first by innuendo and then in his face, she decided that Snake and Random were gay lovers and had sold out to THEM and that she was the only one standing in the way of their destruction of the game.

Anomia and Josh got involved, trying to calm her down, but she got hysterical insisting that Snake had spent most of his time disabling links to quantum aspects and sabotaging Anomia’s work on quantum Carneytown. (Which he had.)

Then Anomia and Fairy faced down all three of the boys with their betrayal of the essence of the game. The snarling pack of sometime friends moving forward step by step to pick up their badges. Eventually an uneasy truce was formed, as they were passing a camera crew interviewing people in line for Dragoncon badges, and the discussion turned to the boys’ panels, with final candidate testing all day, and preparation for GoLive, scheduled for Sunday. Josh was doing a Paranormal track demo of his quantum abilities, Snake ws going to do another Skeptic track presentation, and both of them were going to attempt to bullshit their way thru an EFF track panel discussion. They spent the rest of their time in line trying to get Anomia to take the Science track discussion of the Quantumization of the Classical World, which none of them understood, but had sounded good way back in March when they’d signed up to do as many presentations as they could in the effort to publicize their game.

Final candidate testing went on all day and into the night. It was chaos. The kernel kept making adjustments, they kept having to restart the timer on bug free play, shit kept happening that required the kernel’s intervention.

Josh sat on the cloud level and watched the final testing. He and Anomia still couldn’t interact with the testers without turning them into zombies, so they stayed away and did what they could from a distance. Anomia was off giving lectures and panel discussions, and only checked in now and then.

They sat on the cloud level and listened to the noises assaulting their ears. The Carnival level and Carneytown had morphed from a tiny little western style winter carnival to Las Vegas engulfed by a glacier, with neon signs and glitter, banners, rock music blasting from hidden speakers, roving spotlights.

Anomia materialized dark glasses and earplugs. Nothing was going right.

The landing area next to the gift shop looked like a finish line and people cheered as the final candidates were captured while landing. Roving gangs of alphas and betas met each other in the middle of the carnival and battled until there were no more adversaries. Somehow they had weapons (Josh looked conscious when Anomia pointed out the assault rifles and rocket launchers.)

“It’s all sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Anomia remarked quietly.

Josh rubbed his hands. “It’s going to win Game of the Year,” he said excitedly.

“Not like this, it isn’t,” she said. “How are we supposed to get it back the way it’s supposed to be at this point?” She felt like crying.

He looked at her in annoyance. “What are you talking about? It’s working great. The fans love it. It’s yout own fault if the quantum crap doesn’t work. I told you it’s impossible to teach that stuff in a videogame. You should have written a book instead. (Writing Quantum Antarctica Fan Fiction – on the SFF Literature track, scheduled for Monday at 11:30 am).

They were interrupted in their sniping at each other by a band of cloudy testers, translucently running past them in the clouds. “There aren’t supposed to be testers here yet. We haven’t opened the cloud level to testing.”

Josh looked after them as the fog curled in their wake. “WTF,” he mused. “Don’t wait test in secret, no. Involve the fans,” he said sarcastically.

A bomb went off below. They looked over the edge of the cloud and saw Arkaydland on fire. They heard shouting behind them, in the mist. Josh went to investigate as Anomia watched her game fall apart.

He came rushing back aghast. “You don’t have to worry about people not getting the quantum lessons,” he said. “Whoever they are, they’ve figured out how to materialize shit on the cloud level. They’ve got a dungeon back there. All sorts of tortures. And alternative universe pits with all kinds of hells in them.”

“They’re torturing the final testers, aren’t they?” she asked bleakly.

He nodded, sitting next to her. They were the only sane beings in the game, and it felt awful. What were they going to do about this travesty?

Random had excused himself from his company’s employee award dinner, saying he had the flu and going back to his hotel.

Nathan fled for home the moment his boss ran out of food and rolled down the steel doors, and told his family he’d been throwing up, and that it might be contagious.

Caroline hobbled back to her apartment and got in the bathtub. She felt the flu coming on. Fucking disease ridden crowds.

They logged into the game anxiously, having waited all day to join the throngs of final testers and help ready the game for GoLive. They met up in the bar of the Tutorial Hall, which was now a gambling casino, but at least it still had tutorials. Evryplayar started right in picking on c3l3r! but Random talked some sense into her.

“Look around,” he said. “The place is different than in the last version.” There were armed security guards at the exits. “We need to be a team and work together. Like it says in the rules.” He indicated the instruction wall, but it had been shot out, and was pockmarked sheetrock at that point. “If we die, we meet back here, okay?”

They left quickly, but Evryplayar hadn’t learned to fly (tho she claimed to be an expert), so she fell to her death as Random and c3l3r! circled above her helplessly.

“I can’t,” c3l3r! said. “I’ll get in trouble if I make any noise.”

“I’ll be right back.” Random dived down into the water and drowned so he could meet Evryplayar in the Tutorial Hall and make sure she passed the flight tutorial. C3l3r! prepared to wait a long time, circling.

Caroline dropped her tablet when she died. The shock was so great it flew out of her hands, and she slipped under the water for a moment as she thrashed with the pain of being detached from the game. She considered calling 911 again, but by the time she got out of the bath to pick up the phone she knew she hadn’t drowned and wasn’t having a heart attack. She had a couple of pills to calm her down and warmed the water up some, then sank back into the game and met Random in the Tutorial Hall.

After a sex tutorial – Intro to Tantric Practice – Evryplayar let him drag her thru a flying lesson, and then declared she was ready to go kick some ass. She fell most of the way to Antarctica, but c3l3r! and Random were able to catch her (c3l3r! by her long golden hair), and they landed safely at the Midway, where they were corralled by a welcoming committee of Alphas.

“Welcome to the Midway,” an alpha intoned, “Your mission is to make it thru the to the next level. To do that you need to accumulate lots of points, so you’re going to go on all the rides and play all the games, and we’re going to go along with you to make sure you enjoy your stay here. There are some risks, which we’ll do our best to mitigate, and by popular demand we’ve raised your available number of lives from three to nine.”

“You must be mistaking us for final candidate testers.” They were suspicious, but Evryplayar managed to swagger around enough to convince them she’d captured these betas on the way down and was going to put them to work in the gallium arsenide mines beneath Carnetytown.

They were impressed, and let her take them away, smacking c3l3r! with her whip.

“Take me,” one of the alphas suggested hopefully. Evryplayar blew him a kiss as they turned down a branch cavern.

They used the same ruse thruout the carnival level, Evryplayar acting like an alpha on a secret mission, Random and c3l3r! acting like listless betas. Because they weren’t really hapless saves, Evryplayar won all her bets, and they were soon approached by the Carneytown recruiter, gratefully accepting and thinking they were out of danger.

They stood in front of the signboard at the portal. “Quests, it says. Not jobs,” noticed c3l3r!.

“Hmm, CEO,” Evryplayar mused, but Random and c3l3r! went thru the list and saw a couple of new categories.

“There are your vampire alien hunters, Evryplayar,” Radom said. “Looks like you were right.”

“Let’s just pick something unobtrusive and look around,” c3l3r! insisted. “We’re testing.”

“We’re trying to escape,” said Random.

“I hear someone coming,” Evryplayar said.

“Right, we’ll be corpse robbers.”

“What? HOw disgusting. Those are real corpses, please let me remind you.”

“Would you rather kill a bunch of testers instead?”

“Fuck yeah.”

“No,” Random cut in. “We’ll take the noble path and pick over what violent people have wasted.”

So they snuck in after battles and went thru the pockets of the newly dead, before their bodies faded out. It wasn’t a bad living.

“Why do we need to collect all this wealth?” c3l3r! asked at last. They looked at each other.

“Don’t the rules say something about riches?”

“I think it says something about how you can’t take it with you to the next level.”

“Oh. How do we get to the next level, anyway?”

C3l3r! remembered suddenly, “The rabbit hole. The big one.”

“Is it open yet, do you think?” So they made the perilous journey back thru the portal to the Carnival level, where armed guards blocked their way. (When Josh and Anomia kicked everyone out and fixed things the last time, they’d installed a skill test.) If they wanted to go back to a lower level, they didn’t just go thru a turnstile anymore, you had to scale your avatar to fit the level’s scale. It was a mental concentration, a dehydration and shrinking of mental spaces, a feeling of everything growing larger around you. It was easy for Random, who’d been practicing the exercises faithfully since he started working on the game. It was harder for c3l3r!, who didn’t have much body wisdom yet, even tho it was only a small change of scale: 3 inches, 20 lbs. Evryplayar flat out couldn’t do it, even when they tried to coach her.

So they left Evryplayar in the little grove ad the tip of the peninsula, where she and the leprechaun had lots of sex and did some role playing, and raced for the Fun House, which was now called the House of Horrors. Everything was different. The house itself was falling down, with peeling wallpaper and uneven floors, giant splinters in every board, missing steps and broken glass, traps and tripwires and booby traps. Adhoc explosive devices. Don’t go into the kitchen.

Except for a pile of possible torture victims in squirming body bags, the attic was empty and still had the pair of rabbit holes and the drink me items. But the bottle was getting empty, and the cookie was half eaten.

So Random went thru to check out the next level (“It’s open!”) and c3l3r! went back to the Tutorial Hall to get help.

Random put a morsel of cookie in his pocket for Evryplayar and started back to the portal.

C3l3r! ran to the information booth in the Tutorial Hall and rang and rang on the bell. “I need to talk to xkurt,” she demanded, but the leprechaun was glitchy and would only spin on his heels and click his teeth, winking kindly. Out of desperation, she tried to leave a message, but the touch screen wasn’t working and there the only pen was out of ink. So c3l3r! scratched a message into the countertop with the tip of the pen, apologized to the leprechaun and paid him with a ring she’d picked off a corpse.

Then she flew back to the Carnival level and hung there near the clouds, looking for Random of Evryplayar, watching to see when the portal was clear.

Josh and Anomia watched her hovering. “Why can’t they all do that?” Anomia complained.

“It she a final candidate tester?” Josh asked, curious to know what was happening to all his testers. They were dropping like flies.

“No, she’s a beta. She flies well.” They called her over.

C3l3r! flew up and stopped short of the edge of the cloud, looking over hher shoulder to catch sight of her friends. “I’ve been looking for you,” she said, not realizing that they didn’t know who she was. “They’re tearing the place to pieces down there. Can’t you do something? They’re killing all the final testers.”

Josh nodded sagely. “Ah,” he said. “Do you want to do some final testing?”

“No thanks, I’m already a beta tester. I hate to tell you, but they’re not learning any of the quantum lessons down there.”

Anomia sat passively, a lone tear crawling down her cheek.

“What’s wrong with you?” c3l3r! shouted. “”What’s happening?”

They remained quiet, meditative.

C23l3r! saw Random making his way to the portal and sped down to meet him. “We’re in big trouble,” she commented.

Random spied a mob with torches and pitchforks coming around the side of the administration building. “You’re becoming psychic,” he said approvingly, and led them off around the edges of Carneytown to the peninsula, where Evryplayar was asleep.

“Asleep in a game, how strange is that?” wondered c3l3r!.

Not strange at all. Caroline had done a few pain pills over the recommended amount and was snoring in the bath, her nose just above the water level, her tablet sitting on the edge of the tub, beginning to stutter and spit as drops of water condensed in its nooks and crannies.

Random lifted Evryplayar up and set her over his shoulder. C3l3r! stuffed the cookie morsel between her lips to lighten the load a little, and they took off for the portal.

There was rioting on the Midway, and black holes were opening in the streets as tunnels were brought to the surface by Carneytown miners, swallowing the hot dog and popcorn concession stands and threatening the sunglass booth.

Waiting in the shadows until a platoon of security operatives came thru mowing people down and firebombing buildings, they finally made it to the House of Horrors and walked into a firefight between alphas and betas. Both sides shot at them, and Evryplayar was wounded in the leg, which woke her up, and she had to be hauled kicking and screaming to the attic where the rabbit hole was still there.

There was just enough liquid to give Evryplayar.

‘You go,” cl3l3r! suggested.

“No, you go,” Random insisted. With some effort, he thought himself larger and grabbed Evryplayar, who was being pulled out by the invisible force. “Hurry.”

Cl3r! turned the bottle upside down, but nothing came out. So she concentrated very hard and breathed into it, where her breath condensed and formed one last drop of whatever magical elixir it was.

C3l3r! jointed them at the bottom of the large rabbit hole, where the leprechaun was spinning in circles holding his spear out like a turnstile. They squeezed thru, being several times larger than the leprechaun, and continued down the tunnel, which turned into a wormhole.

They began having to struggle against pressure, a current, what felt like invisible beings assaulting them. It was very crowded in the wormhole. The walls were pulsing, solid walls with no give in them, pushing and shoving and crushing. They stayed together and fought the pressure as a unit, arms wrapped around Evryplayar who was struggling against them.

Finally the pressure eased and the tunnel emptied out into the nothingness of the cloud level. Evryplayar continued to freak out.

“Is there a word for cloud phobia?” c3l3r! asked Random. To ease her suffering, Random sensed his way to the edge of the cloud, and they brought her to see that there was a world beyond the cloud.

Evryplayar took one look at the land so far below and panicked. Random and c3l3r! held her back, trying to talk her down. She rather enjoyed Random’s attentions, but the kid annoyed her, so she turned to c3l3ry and cut her throat with the knife from her bodice, pushing her off the edge and standing watching her fall, feeling vindicated. “I’d be fine if it weren’t for you,” she screamed.

“You’re a mess,” Random said, and sat down with his feet dangling off the edge.

Nathan shouted in his bedroom. Mom found him holding his hand to his throat, crying.

writing chapter 12.3

When the testing first started, the team had plenty of time, and it was okay that the alpha testers only had placeholder technical displays around their visual screens. Which means that where in a normal videogame, played with a normal consciousness and viewed on a normal video screen, the technical stuff is visually displayed around the edges of the screen. But in the game, players became so entrained that they never noticed a screen, or retained all but the most basic awareness of their real body playing a videogame. Like a dream. It was real.

So the alphas didn’t have access to a lot of the information the betas had, and the beta’s more functional displays were full of glitches. The team expected this would cause trouble, but not that much.

The alphas had a big hand in finishing the game, really, with the kernel using their input to make instant changes. Anomia and Josh were too busy making sure the lessons worked, so the alphas were free to rig the game to be faster and more risky, and easier to take advantage of the betas when they came along.

They learned the lessons, the ones that worked anyway; they at least knew about the importance of the lessons, that they were supposed to be like idealized high school kids running around discovering the wonders of science like mister wizard. But they used their testing time to carve out territory for themselves, to run things.

The betas never even knew about the lessons, all they wanted to do was play, just like a bunch of kinds. They came in and ignored all the hard work of the alphas to crowd everything up and cheapen it further. There was naturally war between the two groups.

The team didn’t really expect it to cause trouble. They were testing, after all, with clear procedures and goals, and the kernal could handle it. The team didn’t pay attention to the bug reports or review the kernel’s progress because it was all happening between the game and the kernel, too fast for anyone to keep track of it. Plus they didn’t really know how to stop the kernel, or redirect it. They’d pressed play (not) and it ran by itself.

Their quantum abilities had grown during testing, now that they were in the game all the time. They could use their abilities more and more in realworld situations – materializing cups of coffee. They felt themselves to be connected to the game, like its fingers and toes. They felt their connection as if the electricity moving down the wires was part of their neuron’s system, as if their blood moved between connections in tiny chips in billions of computers. (In xkurt’s case, his existence did indeed flow thru all the electrical wires and computer connections in the world. And not.)

Everyone who tested had this feeling to a certain extent. It was a side effect of playing. Some reported it, some didn’t. The testers that didn’t take any tutorials had difficulty picking up any quantum abilities – they couldn’t materialize shit. But most of them picked up a certain strength of intention just using the gamegear to move around.

If they’d had time to think about it, they would have despaired of ever teaching the quantum essence. The two of them had it, and it was getting stronger. People who spent time around them had it, but really had to practice the exercises. But the gamegear did a lot of the work for them, so they didn’t try as hard, and didn’t learn as much. The betas, with their technical displays working, could go back to the old regular way of playing videogames and refuse to learn anything.

If they’d thought about it. Once Josh and Anomia stopped using the gamegear it became apparent, and they realized they were going to have to get everybody off their reliance on it. Someday. But they didn’t think it would cause much trouble.

They saw enough testers being serious about the exercises to satisfy them, and the testers found enough quantum shit happening to them to build up the superpower buzz among the fans. They began, some of them, to find themselves using the gamegear to move in realife. It sped them up a little bit, walking down the street, gave the act of reaching for something a little more oomph.

xkurt’s fiddling with the efficiency of the cyber universe was a bit more apparent in the realworld, when everyday events became quantized (and not).

“Sir, gravity’s different.” “Sir, DOT is reporting that the stoplights in Atlanta have synchronized over the last 24 hours.” “Sir, there’s been more unexplained activity in the Marriott. Car crashes, sir. In the lobby. And not.”

The effects were fleeting, but they were real, and they had repercussions. Occupancy was at a new low at the Marriott and they had traffic cops stationed on the surrounding blocks.

Moe freaked out. “We need a current copy of the bug database.”

“We’re trying to get it from one of our testers, sir.” From Caroline, in fact, but good luck with that.

Moe was busy covering his ass with his boss, warning that they needed to be prepared for an outburst of quantum, which were known to have unknown effects (and not).

The media got hold of the reports of the shit happening downtown, and pundits started in ridiculing the immaturity and hooliganism of Dragoncon fans for causing damage and major inconvenience to commuters and scaring tourists away, blah.

Dad saw the news and gave Nuthin hell about those idiots tearing up the city like that.

writing chapter 12.2

Welcome to Carneytown,” the sign said. “Now go home,” someone had scrawled underneath. “We invite you to chose a job.” As they were reading, the wording changed from job to career to area of interest. They were evidently the first beta testers to make it all the way thru the Carnival level, and the kernel was using their responses as feedback, constantly jiggling the game to better suit the individual. The jobs were listed, starting with cleaning and maintenance, then work involving contact with the public, like tickets and information or ride operator, or concessions. Then there were park management positions like Operations, Finance and Personnel, with cute little graphics of each one.

C3l3r! thought of a warehouse full of people in cubicles doing office work, and shuddered.

Random thought a job in Administration, like Senior Vice President or CEO might be okay.

A map lit up showing Carneytown. It was laid out on the same underlying Antarctica template as the Carnival level, but the two levels were attached by a single portal at the northern end of the Transantarctic mountains. The map showed the administration buildings, workshops and storage areas, employee housing.

There were lots of gray areas on this map . Random wondered about them.

c3l3r! was listening to an Anomialike voice reminding them that they were there to go beyond classical physics, beyond the conception of a universe controlled by a three-dimensional existence.

A helpful leprechaun came up to them and informed them that they had to start with jobs in grounds maintenance because that’s where everybody started. “The grounds keeper’s shed is over there,” he said. “I know you’re wondering,” he said. “Everybody wants to be CEO.”

Then the leprechaun glitched, fizzed around the edges and wrinkled up for a moment. “You’ll be much better off in a grounds job,” he continued, stuttering. “Less to lose.” Then he turned around and moved off, kicking his heels and whistling merrily.

They weren’t really expecting new hires to show up at the grounds office. There were a bunch of alphas there, into their roles, busy having a few beers and a hand of poker. But they gave Random and c3l3r! some plastic bags and sticks, and found them caps and t-shirts and sent them off to the portal. “Go do something useful. Haha.”

So they were back in the carnival level, picking up trash. This time nobody molested them, mistaking them for alphas, probably. So they got to pick up trash and watch as the alphas victimized the betas. There seemed to be a tutorial going on, in a corner. They moved closer, but it was alphas giving other alphas the fine points of ripping off the betas.

And the betas were sitting ducks because none of them knew anything about the lessons and couldn’t begin to defend themselves.

They reported it, but nothing happened.

They went back to the grounds office. It had grown into a party, and it was too loud to ask anybody what was really going on there. All the signs and rules were set up plainly stating how things were supposed to be, but nobody paid the least attention, and the game was unrecognizable to both Random and c3l3r!.

They explored Carneytown, which was a dark and dangerous place, not at all cheery and homey the way it had looked from the clouds. It was a place where the alphas hatched dark plots against betas, where they stashed all the loot they’d taken off the newbies. Now they realized the alphas were also trying to take it from each other.

Carneytown was filled with muggings and kidnappings, extortion, torture, roving street gangs attacking anybody higher up on the food chain. They were hiring a new CEO, again, because the old was one was just assassinated. Jobs at the top were constantly open. There were always gunshots and firebombs. Park Security started a big recruiting drive. There were car chases and car crashes and rampaging lone gunmen and marauding packs.

They fled back to the Carnival level. There they watched betas being tormented, and picked up some trash. They worked their way past all the ride islands (until they ran out of trash bags), and narrowly escaped death when a whole carful of betas fell to the street from the top of the roller coaster. A group of watching alphas settled their bets, the losers moving off to gank a passing alpha couple.

Whatever physics skills they picked up went toward rigging new tools to use against the betas. They figured out a way to make hot spots in the ice, called them heated pools, and drowned all who came to get warm.

Random and c3l3r! picked up the trash, acting like NPCs. Evryplayar (Caroline) was one of the gankers. She recognized them right away, that luscious Italian stallion with the blue black hair and that snot nosed flatchested dork with him. She straightened up and struck a pose of surprise, one hand on her hips and the other on her lips. Looming over them, she cooed, “There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you. Come with me if you want to live,” she said urgently.

Random and c3l3r! looked at each other. Was Evryplayar an NPC or a real player.

“I’m real, all right,” she smiled as she pulled them by the hands (c3l3r! by the hair) and led them down a dark alley. “You have to help me,” she pleaded, turning to them and letting a tear of anxiety appear at the corner of her eye. She bit her lip. “I’m in terrible trouble.”

Random immediately softened, but c3l3r! was suspicious.

“I’m on a secret mission,” Evryplayar confessed, and “You’re in more danger than you know. I need for you to do a very small thing for me, and I promise I’ll make sure nothing happens to you.” She hugged Random’s arm.

“Why would someone be after you?” c3l3r! asked.

Evryplayar glared at her with fiery eyes. “You led them right to me,” she hissed. “You’ve got to help me. I’ve got important information. I’ve uncovered a conspiracy of global importance.”

Her huge breasts heaved in Random’s face. “I’m in,” he enthused.

C3l3r! said, “And that is? Your conspiracy?”

“They’ve invited in aliens to take over the game,” she said, looking deep into Random’s eyes. “Vampire aliens. And there’s a secret class of workers in Carneytown, miners. They’re digging tunnels. They’re using zombies.” Evryplayar and Random stood hyperventilating together, staring into each other’s eyes.

C3l3r! asked, “Who’s they?”

Evryplayar’s moist lisps were less than an inch from Random. He felt her sweet hot breath mingling with his. He felt her aura merging with his.

She ignored cl3r!. “We’re getting up an army to fight them, and I’ve got to get a report to HQ. All you have to do…”

C3l3r! looked around while Evryplayar was giving Random his quest. The sky was thick with clouds, glowing red underneath from all the fires and explosions. “There’s something wrong.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, idiot,” Evryplayar snapped, and repeated her earlier speech about vampire aliens and zombies in the same tone.

“Are you a real person?” c3l3r! asked. “Of course I’m real,” she hissed. “I’m under a lot of stress, that’s all. And you’re causing most of it right now.” She took a small poisoned blade from her bodice and flicked it at c3l3r!, but it went wide and clattered to the ground. Evryplayar sagged in defeat, starting to flicker. “I need you to do a little favor for me, save the world.” And then she died.

Caroline came back to herself with such a start that she was certain she was having a heart attack and called 911. It was a good thing she did, because tho they didn’t find any sign of heart trouble, her blood sugar was so low she was on the verge of a diabetic coma because she’d been inside the game for so long without food. Which was news to her, because she hadn’t known she was diabetic, because she would never go to a doctor.

Random and c3l3r! were left in deepest darkest Carneytown with Evryplayar’s secret. Figures appeared at the top of the alley, seeing the pair and deciding to have some fun. Desperate, Random and c3l3r! jumped into the air kicking and flapping, clawing and climbing up into the air above the alley, their attackers scrabbling at them and cursing their escape.

But they hadn’t really escaped, they couldn’t go anywhere. Both levels were becoming more violent and dangerous by the instant. They flew up near the skydome and made their way around to the northernmost point of Carneytown, way out at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was secluded, a nice little glade with a good view over the sparkling blue parking lot. The noises of mayhem and the smell of burning plastic drifted past them.

There they happened upon a leprechaun picking up trash. He seemed to be avoiding the rest of Carneytown too, glancing nervously over his shoulder and looking right and left before speaking. “Sure don’t I know why you’re here,” he said, “You’re looking for me pot of gold.”

C3l3r! asked him about treasure.

“No hidden treasure here, no,” he mused, scratching his chin under his pointing beard. “Only me pot of gold.” He handed them both a bud of strong smelling weed and had a laugh as they tucked it into their pockets.

“Thanks,” c3l3r! said. “Why is everything so strange here?”

The leprechaun looked around at the beautiful landscape. “This is only place it’s not strange,” he said. Then he whirled around and doffed his pointy hat. “What you want is something stranger,” he said. “Check out the Fun House if you know what I’m saying.” He looked over his shoulder and gave them a final piece of advice. “It’s not very nice here. Avoid dark places.” Then he ran merrily off, kicking his heels and waving his hat.

With the skills you were supposed to learn on this level, you should be able to alter the experience of your riders back on the Carnival level, to help them realize that the level they’re playing on is being influenced by other forces, and make them curious to know more about their world. How it really worked was different. Testers were learning about physics, but it was the physics of cheating. They learned sleight of hand as well as mechanics, how to be a con artist and a master manipulator. They learned cooperation, too, but it was the cohesion of the mob.

So they slunk thru scary sections and shouldered their way thru crowds. They passed Fairy, who was absorbed in her work tarting up the gaudy look of the carnival.

Finally they got thru the portal to the Fun House. One of Anomia’s only successful installations of the quantum lessons was the Fun House. Every other available lesson was ignored except where they aided cheating, but the Fun House was predicated on quantum effects. A variable gravity room, a hall where time ran backward, a room full of boxes that contained multiple universes.

In the attic they discovered a rabbit hole and a tiny door that led to a different, tiny rabbit hole, with a bottle on a table that said, “Drink me,” and a cookie on the floor that said, “Eat me.” (Unfortunately they both missed the reference. Josh would have won that bet from Anomia.)

A little experimentation led to the following discoveries. The large hole led to the next level of the game which wasn’t open yet and had a leprechaun with a spear who insisted that they were the wrong scale, and prodded them until they left. “You must be this tall to enter,” he should at them down the tunnel.

The small hole led back to the Tutorial Hall, which was now mostly empty, as testers were remorting in midair to better experience death by high velocity impact.

Random and c3l3r! approached the information booth and asked the leprechaun at the desk if they could talk to someone in charge.

The leprechaun gave a kindly wink and said,”I”ll be right with you now in a minute,” and pixellated out, morphing into a Kurtlike NPC. “Hey, kid,” xkurt said.

C3l3r! was overjoyed, and leaned over the desk to give him a big hug, but xkurt was only a projection, and c3l3r! grabbed right thru him. “You’re here in the game?” c3l3r! asked, explaining to Random that xkurt was responsible for the game and everything in it.

Random bowed and xkurt flashed a peace sign at him in return. “Are you having fun testing the game?”

C3l3r! felt embarrassed. “Not really. We don’t think it’s the kind of game you had in mind.”

xkurt shrugged. “Who am I to question the uses others put my talents to?”

C3l3r! protested. “That’s not right.”

Random spoke up. “Lots of people must have put a lot of hard work into it. Somebody needs to stop all this wrongness.” xkurt fiddled with his beard for the first time in ages, caught himself and dropped his hands, shrugging. “Nothing I can do, kid,” and morphed back into the leprechaun again, who acted like he’d never seen them before.

C3l3r! tried again. “Can I talk to Anomia?” he inquired, and the Tutorial Hall simulation came to a halt. “Please wait while your party is reached,” the leprechaun smirked. The paused action continued stopped.

C3l3r! felt Anomia’s presence, as if she were behind him. He told her about what’s they’d seen, Random filling in the details. They both felt Anomia grow heated, and agitated, and furious, without anything else changing. They felt her pause to plant a virtual kiss on the tops of thier heads, then she faded out and the Tutorial Hall went back to echoing emptily.

Anomia and xkurt appeared in the Carnival level and Carneytown and wreaked havoc among the alphas and betas, giving them a stern lecture on the meaning of the game and warning that their bad behavior would not go unpunished. Then they smote the worst offenders and threw everybody else out of the game so they could install a few safeguards and some more remedials.

Notice of xkurt’s appearance in the game went viral.