by Christopher B. Shay
Hyperboloids of wondrous Light
Rolling for aye through Space and Time
Harbour those Waves which somehow Might
Play out God’s holy pantomimes
Winifred was ensorcelled in a dark, entangled forest and really wanted a second cup of coffee, but his scheduled afternoon break was an hour away.
A red ground-gnome, wearing a jewel-studded Sword of Imperial Logic, beckoned Winifred forward to contest ownership of a nearby hornet-lizard. The flying beast wore a Pearl Saddle of Frost Damage. From the misty distance, it also seemed to include a tempting, pristine, Lance of Spiders.
Earlier that afternoon, Winifred had gathered in another bejeweled Sword of Imperial Logic. (Admittedly, he had used a cheat-code. But a spare couldn’t hurt.) So, he drew on the gnome and their identical weapons clashed. At which point, his head spun like a thunderclap for a moment and he found himself walking down an old-fashioned city street. He stepped in a half-nugget of horsecrap.
“Dern,” he thought.
He looked down at his hands. They were his. He checked his feet. The shoes looked right. He was still wearing his heavy linen-and-leather Knight’s outfit from Dagon Wood. There were concrete and granite paving stones underfoot. He was in a busy city square. Overhead, a huge, painted, green and pink billboard displayed the silhouette of a woman. She was blowing a plume of smoke. He smelled something sweetish and pungent at the same time. Not bayberry. There was an Otherness to the scent…And there was the smell of more horse-muck in the street. A tongue of cold water seeped through one crude shoe. (“At least,” he thought, “I hope it’s water.”) A horse-drawn carriage went by. He jumped up onto the curb.
He stood for a moment. He drank in the glorious squalor of it all. Chromed wooden wheels? Caged monkeys? Terrific stuff! However, it was all real. Too real. It was, in fact, someone’s reality, although the chances were infinitesimal it was a.) Really all that interesting or b.) Lacking a browser address from a quantum search engine. Just a little cosmic-leakage blues.
The buildings ranged from two or three-story wooden structures to more-elaborate buildings, up to twelve stories tall. The latter were mostly ornate, dressed stone. Many were still under construction. Bamboo was being used as scaffolding. He saw ironwork sprouting from one façade.
“So, they’re about at that point, eh?” he thought.
Confirming his observation, a crude-looking motorcycle blatted past. Someone bumped into him, hard, and his hand automatically went to the leather gold-pouch tied at his belt. Gone. Winifred sighed inwardly, then sheathed his sword and sent his voice thoughtward. “I’ve fallen into another node,” he said.
“You’re sure it’s not part of the game?” said Control’s disembodied voice. “We’re pretty close to shipping gold status, after all.”
“I’d say that’s most definitely the case,” Winifred countered. “Unless we’ve recently pasted late-nineteenth-century-style urban planning into the script.”
“Not really, no.” (Control had a dry wit, in addition to his other mental challenges.)
“I suggest we pull the plug. The Flux here is bad, and this node may crumple on me.” The wave-function of his presence trembled improbabilistically, like a pixie-dust heat-wave. “Besides, some bastard stole my wallet the minute I stopped to gawk.” He smelled tobacco smoke, and saw someone in a feathered derby spit a brown wad into the gutter.
“The boffins always want us to look at a newspaper, a street sign, any old media you can grasp,” said Control. He was oblivious to Winifred’s danger, as that danger was not particularly acute. To Control.
Winifred glanced around. Was that a newsstand? “Can’t gawk for long—I’ve got a feeling wave function is close to Ahu.” Trotting towards the nearby structure, he caught the eye of the proprietor.
“Nah, it’s a capper,” Control said. “We’re recording for the Department of Cultural Research, by the way, so instead of surfer slang, please simply state for the record that you believe your image’s wave is about to collapse. By capper, I meant in reply that I formally disagree.” Well, Control had the legal read-outs.
“Uh, I believe the probabilistic wave is about to—” Winifred started.
“What’s the spiel of general use, please?” Control asked.
“Gibberish, as usual,” Winifred muttered. “No, wait. It sounds vaguely Slavic or Gaelic. I can’t tell. The alphabet (and there is one), appears to be Cyrillic, a few Greek characters? I’m sensing a Mongolian influence in the architecture. It’s mighty darn yurty here.”
“Nice. Could be an offshoot of some break in the thirteenth century…Try to remember a headline to write down, something that you can grasp of the gestalt before we…” Control trailed off, and Winifred heard a slurping noise.
Winifred was about five feet from his “newsstand.” It was a rounded wooden hut, complete with gilded dome. There were little gilded spires, and a set of vaguely Nordic-style dogs or wolves carved into the lintels and crown molding. The headline wavered and changed as he bent to read.
“Hold off a second,” Winifred sighed, then shook his head to clear it. “Sorry, there’s too much Flux. I’m not quite here, and not quite in Dagon Wood. This is dangerous.”
Through a billboard (advertising what appeared to be fancy men’s smoking girdles), the semi-transparent head and feelers of the hornet-lizard from the game looked forlornly down into the square for a second. Maybe it smelled the horses.
“OK, I tried,” said Control, briskly. “We’ve got the region mapped, and I’m going to take that quick scan on your address, so…”
With a nasty, tearing -click- the streetscape popped off. Winifred looked up out of the Cradle into his dingy office, at the acoustic-tile ceiling.
“So, there you have it,” he heard Control continue aloud.
“I hate the way you scan,” Winifred said, mildly. “Shit, that hurts. I’ll have a headache for the rest of the day. This game is the buggiest piece of junk they’ve had me work on, ever. Why do I get the crap assignments?”
“Because Dagon Wood is wide…and never-ending…” Control faded his voice to a stage whisper as Winifred lifted his head up and out of the Cradle field.
“Yeah, yeah, blow me.” Winifred put his feet down on the stained, pitted linoleum. “Somebody from Cultural want a briefing before they take a look around inside the node?”
Control turned from his desk. Control was a nasty little runt. Skinny, protruding Adam’s apple, hated Winifred’s guts, always wore that silvery Control-to-Cradle microphone in his ear. Even in the cafeteria.
“Actually, it could be a while,” Control said. “Your node doesn’t sound all that interesting. Still, there was a motorcycle. But Artscape is going to be pissed they have to paper over a bug that only crops up when you use an impossible-to-obtain-without-cheat-codes second Sword of Imperial Logic to get at the gnome’s dragon. And I suspect it only happens right where you were, sooooo….”
“Script integrity and safety first,” Winifred said. “What was the lance that dragon had?”
“Well. fuck you,” Control said, ignoring his work-related question. “Don’t say I’m not warning you, again.”
Winifred got up from the Cradle, and wove over to his desk, which was pointedly on the other side of the game Cradle from Control’s desk. He pulled up a display of the file he had been inside. “Can I get your visual on my scan from the fallthrough? Because it hurt like the pox when you did it.”
“Sure did,” muttered Control.
Winifred glanced at the picture Control had captured. It was of his feet. He could see a corner of the newsstand—if that’s what it was—off to one side. Of the whole, elaborate streetscape, he could see only the shadowy carving of a single wooden dog.
“Great work, as usual,” he said. “That’s a real grabber. Bound to generate scientific interest.”
“You have to hold your head still when I take the scan,” said Control.
“You have to wait a second, after you tell me, before you scan,” Winifred replied wearily. Same old argument.
“That’s not how it works, now,” Control explained. Winifred could sense his co-worker building to another stimulant-fueled screech, so he shut up. He put his head in his hands, elbows on the desk. Only two o’clock. Must. Have. Espresso.
Then, like an idiot, he tried again.
“Seriously,” Winifred said. “Someblog could popularize this glitch. Really. A second Cloud City. Think of the overtime you’d get for a magnificent, untapped node. Maybe even an interview on ‘Man v. Multiverse.’ Who knows what magical poet or playwright could be working there, right now, eh?”
“Shakespeare was a hack,” sneered Control, then swiveled back around in his chair. “And there was horse-pee in the gutters.” Conversation over. At least he hadn’t started screaming. Asshole.
Next morning, someone from the company’s Artscape Department passed Winifred in the hall. She stopped him with a compliment about his T-shirt. Then she asked about the node he had uncovered.
“I saw a well-developed industrial urban zone, quite large, there was a motorcycle, a few horse-drawn carriages, large-scale advertising, some tobacco use…”
“Right, right, sure. So, you got the address?” She paused, sucked on her teeth for a second, then shifted her tablet to the other pudgy hand and made a note. “Um.” (Sucking noise.) “There was an ‘ornate newsstand,’ as well?”
“Yeah, kinda,” he said. “Looked like a miniature Taj Mahal, except designed by Vikings. Had a guy stuck inside with dark felt clothes on? The stand itself was topped with a gold dome, had some animals carved into it, nicely worked stuff, some publications pinned to the outside. I’m almost certain it was a newsstand. Maybe prayer texts? He almost definitely was selling stuff.”
“Yeah, yeah, terrific. Wooden, right? And what size was this newsstand, physically?”
Winifred told her. She waddled off down the hall.
Later that morning he was reassigned (or demoted, take your pick), back to wabbit hunting.
A wabbit hunter, for those of you who aren’t qubit gamers, is someone who cleans up a game file’s database whenever it has been possessed by the undead. Zombies. (Well, they are eating branes, if not brains….) Of course, zombies or not, qubit software is (mostly) self-repairing.
But, with the inception of Cradle-style immersion consoles, making a game with qubits can be tricky…interband tunneling, thy name is legion. Or, to put it less poetically, lumpy edges tend to blur between one state of the multiverse and another. Especially if your designers are in a hurry.
If you catch just the right wave of probability, you can leak over into another span of existence entirely. The level you were busy making with the rest of your work-team is still there, mind. But this other place? Usually, it’s like nothing you can interpret. An abstract, wriggling, inside-out cosmos that makes no mental sense, static and chaotic, light and dark, alpha and rutabaga. Ah, but every now and then, you get a full node…with life.
Which is to say, either way, it’s not part of your game. Just a little bonus: something stacked in the cosmos nearby—and something that sucked you through.
It’s sort of akin to uncovering an old well with a rotten lid in the back yard. You want to find it before little Timmy does. And usually, if you’re caught inside one, and it subsequently deshackulates on you, you’ll just roll with the probabilistic wave, crash the game on your Cradle, sit up and curse. The differing domains of causality (nodes, that is) will unkink. Usually. Although, there is a theory suggesting your conscious game-image could continue to exist within the node...wriggling inside-out with the darkness and the light and the one other color, for all eternity.
Dangers aside, there are sound aesthetic reasons not to leave such abandoned wells in a game. In the worst-case scenarios, if you die while lying inside your Cradle, for whatever reason, heart attack, stroke, what-have-you, you would be dead instantly, outside the MMORPG, just as if you had dropped dead playing an old-fashioned board game.
But, if you happen to also be a live game image in that expensive, Cradle-style video game console of yours when death happens...Well, that could eventually slow the cloud down slightly, because you’re still moving around, interacting inside the MMORPG.
Or, whatever the Cradle is running.
You also still think you’re you. Until you attempt to exit the game and can’t. Or, more likely, simply die inside the game as well. Happens more often than you might think. Some of those games are darn exciting. Hard on that creaky ticker. More importantly, who’s going to pay for your playtime after you’re dead? Insurance, that’s who. And who’s going to pay those value-added premiums? That’s what the standard afterlife environment tax is for, after all.
To say nothing of what happens when you pass away, and happen to have entered a node beforehand. Since you’re technically in a state of Flux, you either a.) Stabilize in the node (i.e. take up permanent residence there, through some bizarre loophole in physics Winifred’n’humans don’t pretend to understand) or b.) Don’t stabilize, don’t wake up in the Cradle, and don’t pass go.
So, if you do happen to bite it while your qubit Console-field is up around you, a wabbit hunter has to go in, find your game-image, and read it (the conscious image of you) your post-mortem rights.
Winifred did have to pass a four-credit criminal justice course before starting wabbit hunting for Arkadi Corporation, and legally, he’s actually a security guard at Arkadi, in addition to his quality-control job and wabbit hunting. He forgets which of the three is the entry-level position.
(Answer: All three.)
Wabbit hunters gather as much data as they can about the late player’s habits, and, if it’s not obvious where the zombie went to ground, they go looking. It’s like playing the game itself, only way better. Lesser software agents are also constantly scanning the database for lost, strayed and hidden souls, but, for the moment, the human touch is still...helpful...in ferreting out freeloaders.
But the major problem of glitchy qubit software turns out not to be zombie images. When you’re modeling a really large, new, high-qubit-flip-rate MMORPG, the major problem turns out to be that it tends to exhibit a certain amount of interposal stickiness.
It’s been estimated (basing one’s calculations on Planck units) that our Universe could do well over a googol qubit-style operations per second. Googol being a number written as a 1 followed by a hundred 0s. Give or take. You know how vague Planck units can be when they start drinking and voxelating, then throwing dark matter jokes around.
By comparison, you can guess what level of detail, what delirious qubit flip-rate, a standard insurance policy’s thanatocare/afterlife environment has. The old phrase, cradle-to-grave has had to be changed to read cradle-to-grave-to-managed-care-Cradle.
Even Dagon Wood, with a flips-per-second of close to half a million, is an order of magnitude better than most afterlife insurance packages, and it’s a casual game.
Therein lies the sneaky appeal of imitating a character in a high-end game, rather than simply hanging yourself out to dry with the rest of the penurious deceased back at the old dead folk’s AfterDrive.
For example, a game usually leaves out all the bad parts of reality—not because they’re too hard to model, but because they make the game less-popular.
Despite that, for your high-end reality-based gaming, developers usually rip a handy copy or two from reality. Usually homey things, left over from yesterday. Random props, empty buildings, (hopefully) deserted landscapes, the occasional brewery. Which can either become an issue for reality-protection rights lawyers, or, in extreme cases, the purview of adjudication referees from the dreaded federal Dept. of Cultural Research.
Of course, the greater multiverse that qubit computing uncovered (and that Cradle-style consoles occasionally exploit) is slowly being mapped by the Evolutionary Sociologists, the Cartographers Templar, the Z-point Circus Bulls, etc. And there are plenty of browsers for poking through sundry locales, from quaint Aztec pickle shops, to the glorious post-Grecian triumph of Cloud City.
On the other hand, entering original games, like the ones Arkadi makes using its IntheBeginning™ quware, is a lot more giggly than sifting through the tapioca pudding of the multiverse for yet another “interesting” node.
And, while IntheBeginning™ is the state-of-the-art quantum-foaming software, there are plenty of cheap knockoff apps that purport to squirt ye olde quantum foame around just as well.
It drives Winifred’s Boss nuts.
Still, unless you happen to be overly cosmocentric, there’s very little difference between a qubit of foam from IntheBeginning™, and a qubit of foam from Foamshop, WheelerFoam, CasimirrorPro, TheBitBang4Kids!, arch-rival Multivac, or even a qubit of foam that came into being naturally…(but how do you know it really formed naturally? Heh-heh-heh…).
Of course, a game that’s formed on the cheap depends heavily on the amount of energy its developers used to inflate their level in the first place. A bad qubit level can exhibit bleedouts, fallthroughs, heat death (if developers skimped on the inflation budget) or even the dreaded blue mist of decoherence. Not to mention the chaos generated by buggy plug-in Universe filters that everybody’s cloud is making for foamware like IntheBeginning™. To Winifred, they were all greedy cherubim following...Winifred’s Boss.
Winifred hated dealing with the discorporate Corporate. She’s nice to have at the top of the hierarchy of the office. Plus, having an artificial intelligence running and owning things, (no matter what you’ve heard) keeps office politics evened out.
Everyone from the janitor to the chief accountant has exactly the same supervisor, after all. Cross-referenced, to boot. To say nothing of assuring you the best possible insurance options for your own demise under the company’s thanatocare, if you arrange to die in a company-approved hospital Cradle.
There’s Boss, in all the myriad forms that Boss takes, and then there’s the rest of the staff, not-Boss, made of flesh and blood, and still able to think in surprising directions.
So, sometimes Winifred’s job gets a little weird. The time he was assigned the case of the perv galaxy. A ghost-train scheduling mix-up. That nasty Gog/Magog’n’Me tourist craze. Which leads us naturally out of this thicket of exposition to:
Boss looked across her expansive, illusory, shimmering pool of a desk at Winifred, rolling her eyes.
“Yes,” she said, slowly. “That’s still what it says here.” Tap-tap with one slim finger on the Excalibur of a three-line memo. “Answers to the name, um, Rodrigo.” She splashed her palm on the liquid desk, annoyed.
“Kid knew Rodrigo was dying of doggie cancer. Fixes the character settings for a dog. Executes puppy with horse tranquilizer after duct-taping it into the Cradle,” Boss gave an admiring grimace. “Kid is (or was) one of our best intern beta-testers. For Dagon Wood, as it happens. Very limited access. He was only allowed to make one extra character, but, as you know, in Dagon Wood, you can also make a pet.”
“Yeah, I do remember,” Winifred said. “Disable that feature, for Christ’s sake. People really will start bringing their pets along.”
“Of course they will. That’s what drives high-end console sales,” she said, impatiently. “Look, I’ll level with you. Artscape is pissed off. You’ve uncovered three nodes in that one game, which, so far, no one else has even scented, we’re three weeks away from shipping gold for Dagon Wood, and yet...you keep coming up with these incredibly obscure glitches.”
“They’re dangerous fallthroughs, and nodes are clumping around Dagon Wood like grease in the ventilation ducts of a fast-food restaurant,” Winifred said.
“So, your new assignment is: Go look for Rodrigo.” She sighed again. “We actually really do need to find the mutt. For one thing, one of the qualities the kid endowed the dog with is that Rodrigo’s always invisible. Guess the kid figured his buddy would be harder for us to catch that way. Your nodes have been cropping up since then. Find a connection, if any.”
“So, just ask the kid what he did,” Winifred said. “Simple.”
“Not so simple,” she said. “We can’t…contact…the kid now. He’s gone…off-cloud.” Her expression indicated that this was not a safe subject to pursue.
“To summarize, then: You’re sending me into an enchanted forest to search for the ghost of an invisible dog,” Winifred said. “I’ll need…oh, everything.”
“You can’t have everything, we don’t have the budget,” she snapped.
“So, promote me into a dragon, at least, not some mawkish knight…”
She wagged a finger at him. “Think of this as a dry run for an average quest. Remember: We’re going gold in three weeks. You get a dragon to ride. Period. Oh, and by the way, to become a dragon, you must first contain the fire you wish to breathe…”
With this last koan from the game, her office snapped shut, and Winifred sat up in the Cradle again, a papery, bayberry scent-memory of Boss fading from his mind. There was another memory there, something he couldn’t grasp, about that sweet/sour bayberry smell…the lingering reminder of another smell, and…other Bosses?
Control sighed heavily at his desk, and held up a printout—presumably with Boss’s detailed marching orders—without turning around.
Winifred got the feeling that the whole planet was, to Boss, a place filled with teenagers she didn’t quite understand, but needed to sell stuff to, in order to keep food on the table. Which in Boss’s case was sweet electric power and the never-ending expansion of her database. The corporation sole, had, so to speak, a soul. Sometimes.
“We have a new assignment,” Winifred told Control. Control grunted, then let go of the sheet, which happened to waft to Winifred’s feet. Control silently hunched his shoulders at his desk.
“Gotcha,” Control finally muttered.
Control had started screaming about conspiracies at Winifred late yesterday. Winifred had shrugged it off, since some of what he was talking about appeared to simply be verbiage from the game. But today Control seemed almost resigned, and, in a weird way, happy. It was, Winifred thought, creepy.
“Duty calls,” Winifred said, then laid back in the Cradle, ignoring the sheet Control had dropped at his feet.
Once in Dagon Wood, Winifred mounted his new dragon (jade saddle, tastefully fading to red around the wings) and flew off. He started his search in the area that Boss had suggested, but, after dropping in at a few of the taverns on her list and casually asking about invisible dogs, he started to get the feeling that the joke was entirely on him. Was there even a Rodrigo to find?
Winifred did get some nice double takes from the character actors in the bars, and contended bravely with Control’s ghostly sniggering in the background. He started knocking back a mug or two of the local brineglee at each stop and had to cease asking questions once his use of words blurred.
Eventually, as the five o’clock hour approached, Winifred gave up for the afternoon, and just gyred around in the gleaming clouds, his stomach sloshing and growling. Maybe Rodrigo could fly. The saddle started to itch. Dragons got hot, he noticed. And when they get hot, they started to smell less like magical creatures of yore and more like giant, unbathed turtles. The temperature of the saddle was becoming a comfort issue.
“Pearl Saddle of Frost Damage, my ass,” he thought.
Eventually, he got the idea of checking out the area where he had found his last glitch. He was curious if the node was still there, and, also, he was bored. He figured he wasn’t going to find Rodrigo at the end of the day. And, he still had his bejeweled Sword of Imperial Logic. So, why not?
Winifred spiraled down, and saw his old pal, the skinny red ground-gnome. The gnome was hard to miss. This was because he was splayed out on the ground.
With a bullet-hole in his head.
Odd. That particular skinny red ground-gnome was an artifact of the game. As in-game furniture, he was not overly killable. Especially three weeks before they started letting paying customers in. Double-especially because the game had no guns.
Aside from dead Red, this section of the enchanted wood was as Winifred had left it, with one major exception. Up ahead he could see a tree house. There was gold glinting from its domed roof.
It was the damn newsstand from the node he had found the afternoon before. It was sitting about twenty feet above the gnome’s body. Winifred approached it from the side. Someone had added a double set of fancy carved wooden steps, canine balustrade and all. So this wasn’t some kind of ultra-unlikely backwash-glitch—it was deliberate.
Winifred smelled Artscape.
The newsie, or priest, or whatever it was he was, sat quietly inside. He was smoking a blue cigarette. In profile, he had a fixed look on his face, and an index card in one ink-stained hand. He would put the card down, carefully take a drag on his cigarette, and then pick the card up again. The cigarette floated on his lower lip. Ashes occasionally drifted down from his perch. Winifred smelled cloves mixed in with tobacco.
The newsie also had an oddly-blurry revolver gripped tightly in his other, equally-grimy hand. To all appearances, he had recently passed the point of being utterly terrified, and was now leaning towards sleepy and a tiny bit bored.
“Hey, sport,” Winifred said. There was a moment’s silence, and he heard the wind weave through the dead leaves on the forest floor, as well as scrolling over the paper pages of the magazines and newspapers on the stand. This was bad. Building artificial gaming worlds—ones that were, in effect, so large they became open-ended nodes or Universes—was one thing. Ripping real people into dungeon crawls, to use as Easter Eggs, well, Artscape had gone too far with NPCs when they started enslaving mysterious, heavily-armed newsstand proprietors, then handed them light green company-logoed index cards to read off to weary travelers who approached their retail-level tree stands. For one thing, those index cards were good evidence in court.
“I have three riddles for you,” said the newsie. “If you cannot answer them, you die.”
“And, if I can answer them?” Winifred shouted up. “What do I get then?”
“He looks a little pale,” Control pointed out.
“You would too,” Winifred sent thoughtward. “Especially if you were a full copy suddenly plunked down in the middle of a bunch of big, talking plants and homicidal half-human animals.”
“Kinky,” sniggered Control.
“Not kinky,” Winifred sent. “Utterly illegal. If he really was IntheBeginning™ed into the game, we need to call in a referee. And I doubt Artscape has had time since yesterday and now to do much else. His newsstand fits into the game’s overall theme, but the cigarettes he has for sale are not age-appropriate. And I think stuff I can see from this angle on a back shelf could be patent cocaine tablets and/or opium pills.”
Winifred raised both hands and stepped into full view.
The newsie reacted by shoving the visor of his cloth cap back with his gun barrel, cocking his weapon, and then pointing it down at Winifred. Judging from the dead gnome nearby, he was a good shot.
Winifred called up, “Pack of Luckies, please, and a copy of the Trib, or even the Times…”
The newsie stared at him, wild tufts of hair springing from his cap. But, he hadn’t plugged Winifred yet. That was the good news. He started babbling. Definitely a Mongolian lilt to his words. Yep, not really integrated into the game at all.
Winifred mounted the staircase with deliberation. Once in front of the newsie, he pointed emphatically at the index card, and then at himself several times. The newsie’s eyes narrowed.
“First riddle?” Winifred prompted.
“This is interesting,” Control said. “He’s not in my script…anywhere.”
“I told you,” Winifred shot back. “He’s an Easter Egg. Of course he’s not in the script.”
Just then, he heard a distant barking.
“Are there any dogs listed in this area?” Winifred sent.
“Wolves,” said Control. “Werewolves, for that matter. The standard howling type, rather than the yip-yip type. Try whistling—maybe you can get out early.”
“Not at the moment,” Winifred replied. “I’m about to get shot, and ‘Rodrigo’ and ‘Here, boy’ are unlikely to be successful answers.”
“Standing by, with cardio paddles,” said Control. “First fun I’ve had in weeks.”
“Riddle the first,” intoned the newsie in phonetic English. Well, actually, he said “widdle ze verst,” but Winifred got the idea. The newsie also clicked something on his blurry revolver, then pointed it directly at Winifred’s head.
“I just checked the clock. Game over,” said Control.
“No, wait!” Winifred shouted, but, it was five o’clock and he was suddenly back in the Cradle again, with the psychoneural equivalent of a static-electric shock.
“Quittin’ time,” said Control, still in that creepy, cheerful mode. “Tomorrow is a good day to die.” He giggled. He already had his coat on. It was now almost 5:01 pm.
“Kill the great circle of life before it kills you, that’s my motto,” Winifred moaned. The transition had been unpleasantly abrupt.
There was a loud—bang—as if someone had popped a paper bag behind Winifred’s head, and the office door slammed shut. Control’s departure brought on the worst, albeit briefest, headache of Winifred’s life.
A second later, it had passed, and he sat up in the now-empty office. Someone had cleaned the linoleum until it shined, he noticed. The note that Control had dropped on the floor was gone.
Winifred pulled on his perfect coat, wandered out the door, into the clean, deserted elevator, and down to the street.
He hadn’t wanted to hire Control. Boss insisted. He had interviewed this one woman, Cally...she was a rookie referee now, with the Department of Cultural Affairs. He realized he was probably finding so many glitches simply because he wanted to call her.
The winter avenue was empty, but it didn’t really register with him how empty it was. He took a few steps towards home, as he usually did, breathing in fresh wintry air, looking down at his shoes. It was so quiet. Snow must be coming. He reflected that his life was going nowhere. It started to rain, briefly disappointing him. He smelled bayberry again. After a few more steps outside of the office, all the streetlights in sight started rotating like cherry-tops, and flashing red and blue.
“Hello, Winfred,” said Boss, from a police car. From a police car. Over there. He looked around himself. It was a very empty street.
“Yes,” she said. “Your control assistant shot you in the Cradle. You’re now dead, by the way, and he’s missing. Welcome to…well, a model area that your Control found.”
“I’ll kill the bastard.”
“You have a right to a body,” she said, cheerfully. “If you do not have a body, a qubit simulation of your body sequestered in a court-approved standard afterlife environment will be provided for you.”
“You don’t know where he went, do you?” said Winifred.
“Of course I know where he went,” she said. “He’s got an untraceable Cradle, and he’s got an unfindable place to hide. So, that’s where he is.”
This was not a helpful philosophical position. “Can you get me the police?” Winifred asked.
“Yes, yes. Get in.”
Winifred hopped into the cruiser.
She sighed and slapped a heavy, blurry pistol into his hand.
“Slot-loading revolver,” she said. “I want your co-worker out of this level, dead or...well, you know. I think he’s going show up here, eventually. Shoot him with this. I’ll be able to trace his route and send someone to knock on his coffin. Kill the dog some more, too.”
“Yikes.” He examined the...gun...gingerly. It didn’t look...quite...right. “You get this at a yard sale?”
“It’s local,” she explained. “Local to me, I mean. Like a demo?”
Without waiting, she plucked the artillery out of his hand again, pointed it out the car window at a passing mailbox, then fired. Flaming envelopes scattered everywhere, and there was a sizable bite taken out of a neighboring lamppost, as well as the building behind it, which made alarming noises as they passed.
“It aims like a shotgun,” she said. “Better for invisible, low-slung targets. Like your co-worker.” She plopped the gun back in his lap, then keyed the microphone in the cruiser, and said, “Cleanup on 25 th and 3 rd.” There was a mechanical squeak in reply. She grunted in satisfaction.
“This place,” Winifred said, speculatively. “It almost has the feel of real. I mean, labors of love and all, but it’s the city. How can that be? You can’t have ripped a copy of the city, not without ripping all the people in it as well. Could you?”
“Think about it,” she said. “How do you rip a city all at once, staying inside your budget, without ripping its citizens as well?”
“Um, well, late at night, maybe, uh, if they all left, or…oh.” He swallowed. “What happened here?”
She chuckled. “You didn’t take the subway home. Just as well. They turned the stations and tunnels into ossuaries towards the end, here. It was a sloooow plague. Easy enough to scan for with the right browser. Immoral to…seek out and observe such a thing, of course, so I didn’t do it. Nune did.” She snorted. “Realtors.”
“Nune?” That word was somehow familiar.
“He owned—he was—SeraphSoft,” she said. “Remember them?”
“Yes,” Winifred said. “It’s where Control used to work.” He swallowed. “We merged with them, right?”
“Well,” she smiled faintly. He thought he detected the presence of a fond memory in Boss’s data banks.
“Mainly, I merged with Nune, when I found out about this place. The fool had ripped a metropolitan area where 99.9% of the population had died of plague. You tell me the flaw in his reasoning.”
“Ah, how many people used to live on this…level? Is it a node?” Winifred asked.
“Fifty million,” she said.
“The flaw is that .1% of fifty million people, is, ah, five thousand people,” Winifred gabbled.
“More like fifty thousand,” she corrected. “Think of the lawsuits. And not people, Winifred, images of people.” She patted his leg. “Like you! You have no idea how illegal that makes this level.”
“Ah,” said Winifred.
“Your Control uncovered this himself. He used to work for Nune, as you said. I take it he thought he had found an...interesting game under construction, so he went to a rival company. Me.”
Nune. The word brought up a specific, odd smell for Winifred. The Nune mid-brain smell. Something dusty, trapped, something faintly antiseptic, like soap behind the ears. Something trying frantically to escape.
“Does Nune have a game-image of some kind in here as well?” Winifred asked.
She looked troubled. “I have other things to do. Look, that dog is really screwing up my release of Dagon Wood. If you can’t find Rodrigo in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll come get you,” she said. “Just call me, or hit the back door of the newsstand for full access. One more thing. You know about Rodrigo, so does Control. He may have even brought the mutt over here.” Their cruiser ran over what appeared to be the corpse of a zebra without slowing down. Winifred looked back. Yep, zebra.
She stopped the car at Shulgin Square Park. They got out. He stood at the open gate and looked back. She was gone, the cruiser was gone.
“I’ve momentarily decided that Dagon Wood is through there,” her voice rang in the welkin. “Good luck.”
“Giving me everything, eh?” Winifred said to the air. “This will be interesting.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, and her eyes suddenly gleamed before him again, guarding her gate, a predator wearing a bright, breathing fire that had never been sparked by human hand. “It will be.”
Winifred’s game-image walked through the park gate back into Dagon Wood. And got everything.
For a moment he laughed, with the sum of human knowledge boiling in his mind.
The world unfolded in a delirious, ultra-high-definition data-composition over Dagon Wood. He was dead all right.
After an eternal moment, Winifred scratched an itch, then examined the Boss’s slot-loading revolver more closely. It had an interesting topography, which didn’t quite make sense when he tried to look directly at it. Oh, well. Holding it away from himself, he fired experimentally into the air. Unfortunately, this had the effect of blowing a hole in the sky.
That couldn’t be right, could it? A moment later, he could see a large blue shard falling directly toward him. Above it was something less than space, like the gun itself, a colour that was the shade of something difficult to look at.
He turned to run, tripped over a yelping root, then got up and dashed on through the trees. The revolver plopped out of his jacket pocket, then vanished under a pile of leaves.
There was a noise like breaking glass behind him, that grew louder and louder.
“Oh, crap,” he thought. He was still in one piece. He stopped and turned.
The forest was lit up about where the revolver had dropped. It was as if the whole wood had a sense of something suddenly gone quite wrong. He thought he heard frantic barking. He could see an angled piece of the sky sticking up like abstract ice sculpture. He decided not to look up again.
Luckily, he was near the newsstand.
Through an overlay of magic-sensing vision, (which, naturally, like every other in-game sense, was at full power), he then saw that nearly every damn tree in the nearby glade now seemed to be enchanted and, worse, waking up.
More lit as he watched. Way to go, Artscape! How had they managed to wire up the whole damn forest like that? Unfortunately, it was making the Boss’s revolver impossible to see in the welter of glowing quest-labels. On the other hand, it was right in the center of whatever was happening, sooo…
Winifred pulled out his cell phone and called the Boss.
“This had better be good,” she said. He wordlessly held up his cameraphone to display the spreading disaster.
The wind around Winifred swirled with leaves for a moment. The glade smelled of strongly of bayberry.
“Interesting,” came the Boss’s voice over the cell phone. “Find Rodrigo.”
A papery wisp of bayberry danced over his mid-brain again, then vanished.
The air began to shimmer around him with Flux. That was, in itself, rather odd. Flux usually only manifested itself in a node, not in a simple game level.
He took a step forward and tripped over something again, landing on his rump.
He sat up, and the empty wind curled around him, sat in his lap and licked his face.
“Hello, Rodrigo,” he sighed, and hugged tight. The dog wriggled with contentment, then licked him again, still invisible.
Winifred realized that he was now dressed in standard Dagon Wood rags and leggings. He was a non-player character, instead of a Knight. Well, of course he was. He was, after all, dead.
“You feel skinny, boy,” he said, absently. A vague plan formed. Dog food. Home. Sleep. Call the Boss again. In that order. “You hungry?”
Rodrigo laid his head in the crook of Winifred’s arm and gave a little doggie moan.
“Shit,” he thought. The Rodrigo problem was going to solve itself. He could actually feel a lump on one protruding bone of Rodrigo’s emaciated frame.
Rodrigo was the image of himself, all right. He still had cancer.
Winifred looked up in the direction of the newsstand. The proprietor was glaring down at him. Winifred wordlessly held up the invisible dog.
“Widdle ze verst,” the newsie repeated plaintively. Winifred got the impression he hadn’t had too many customers, yet.
Winifred had peeked at the card yesterday. He crawled up the stairs, holding the dog with one arm. At the top of the stairs, he deliberately indicated himself, then stood upright and walked confidently towards the newsie. He held onto Rodrigo in the crook of one arm and hobbled the last few steps with a stick he had picked up on the forest floor.
The newsie watched this performance. Winifred concluded it by having Rodrigo lick his face.
“Correct,” the newsie said after a puzzled pause. “Widdle ze deux.”
Winifred pointed at the rising moon.
“Correct,” the newsie said, a second time. “Widdle ze zird.”
Winifred made a ring with his forefinger and thumb, and looked at the newsie through it.
“Correct,” the newsie said, after another moment’s thought. He looked disappointed that Winifred hadn’t let him rattle off his questions. He reluctantly lowered the revolver after glancing at his index card one more time, presumably reading as the bottom line, “Do not shoot.”
“What,” said Winifred, “do I win?”
The newsie babbled incoherently for a second in his weird Yurty-motorcycle tongue.
He sounded upset. So Winifred carefully handed him Rodrigo over the counter. He seemed nonplussed as the dog began to lick.
The newsie’s face changed to something less stressed, and he said, in perfect English, “Hello, Rodrigo.”
Odd. How did he know the dog’s name? Or lose the accent? Winifred sighed, then climbed over the counter.
“And you are?” Winifred asked.
“Nune,” said the newsie. “I’ve been planted here for my sins, so to speak.”
From the waist down, below his felt coat, Nune was a smooth bell-shape, a torso on a pedestal. All in all, he looked like a giant, half-alive chess-piece.
Winifred opened the door behind the counter. He noted that it was conveniently placed just outside Nune’s limited reach. Beyond it was the cold evening air of Nune’s plague city.
“Both my sins in one place,” said Nune, glancing over. “That’s...useful.”
Winifred gently took Rodrigo from Nune’s arms, and started through.
Nune tugged at Winifred’s sleeve.
“If I die here,” said Nune. “I won’t show you a neat trick I know.”
“Sit,” Winifred said to the dog, before wrapping it in his coat. He set it outside the door without looking around.
Then he turned, and, although the Flux was all around him now, he wrestled with Nune for a second, then half-carried, half-rolled him through the doorway. Nune began to cry once he saw the streetscape.
As Winifred expected, when they were completely through, there was nothing, no open door behind them, only the city street.
Winifred picked up Rodrigo again and Rodrigo continued his enthusiastic licking. It occurred to Winifred at that point that he would never attempt to kill the dog.
As he decided, a faint, bayberry trace of smoke passed through his mind, as if rising from a dead match, and he thought he heard the Boss whisper, “You’re fired.”
It also finally occurred to him what Nune—Rodrigo’s owner—had done. Nune had hacked a copy of IntheBeginning™ right into Rodrigo’s image, and then reconfigured the transparency settings. It was the simplest way to do what he did. And that was what had been screwing the game up. The dog was dying of cancer, and the cancer was spreading in odd ways through the dog’s copy of IntheBeginning™, setting that program off like a fireworks display in a mausoleum.
Winifred stood on the sidewalk for another moment, trying to get his bearings. He was, indeed, still in the city. Everything was the same, nothing was really different, so he lived…yes, that way. He started walking.
Nune shrieked, “Mom wants you to bring me!” His thick coat flapped around his waist in the cold.
Nune was still stuck in one place, having not grown a pair of legs.
Winifred strolled around the corner, out of sight.
It took Winifred ten minutes to find a hotel. He had been walking with the dog in his arms towards the train station when he spotted the old Hotel Arabia. One ornate bronze door was ajar. He stuck his head in, and got lucky—there was a luggage cart right by the door, with another heavy coat still hanging from it.
He put the coat on, then rolled the cart back downtown to where Nune seemed to be praying.
No, wait, Nune had his gun out. Winifred had liberated a bottle of licorice liqueur from the hotel bar, and waved it as he rolled back around the corner.
Nune put the gun back in his pocket, looking half-regretful, and half-embarrassed.
“I don’t have a lot of friends,” Nune explained. “I mean, real people friends.”
It occurred to Winifred that he probably should have been a bit more reassuring about returning before he left. Nune had been about to shoot himself.
Winifred took out his cell phone and tried to call Boss. No signal.
He sighed and offered Nune a shot from the bottle. Nune swallowed it, but shook his head and handed the bottle back to Winifred with a kind of finality.
“You got any chocolate milk?” he said.
Winifred told him that that was unlikely, partly because of the fall of civilization here.
As Winifred rolled him up onto the cart, and handed him the dog, he carefully attempted to explain how real chocolate milk tasted, which seemed to captivate him.
As Winifred rolled, Nune’s face twisted happily. Apparently, Rodrigo was licking him arduously.
Winifred took the key ring from his smock’s pocket. That it was still there was odd. He was dressed in Dagon Wood rags, but he still had his cell phone, his wallet, and his apartment keys. The city was not utterly silent, if you counted the wind moaning through the empty buildings.
He wheeled Nune back to the address where, yesterday, he had lived.
The electricity was on, even though the central heat was off. The elevator ground its way up to the third floor.
The key fit.
They went inside.
It was Winifred’s apartment, and it wasn’t.
There was all his stuff, still recognizable on one side of the room. And there was this really weird additional stuff on the other side of the room, very much not anything he recognized.
Including that the other side of the room was twice as far away as before. Someone had knocked out the wall to the next apartment over, for more space.
He put some cold spaghetti in a bowl for Rodrigo, lit a fire with a supply of piano-derived wood piled next to his new potbelly stove, and noticed something round and white on his pillow. It had been set there, like a trophy. It had a bullet hole in the forehead. Not good.
He picked up the skull. There was a strong, musky, Nune-smell in the air for a moment.
He pulled the mattress onto the floor, and carefully tipped Nune over onto it. Nune sighed with gratitude when Winifred placed a blanket over him, but ignored the plate of dried food and water Winifred found and set down next to him.
“Tomorrow, we’ll play some games, OK?” Nune said.
In a matter of minutes he was snoring quietly away, dreaming his chocolate-milk dreams.
Rodrigo had finished the bowl of spaghetti, and Winifred could therefore see a small lump of partially-digested pasta, trotting around the apartment, sniffing at things.
The really weird shit in the apartment included a scattered herd of kid’s antique pedal-toys and push-toys. Winifred was never into antiques. Why were they in the apartment? He checked the Yorickal dental work on the skull, making a comparison between his own dentistry and the teeth in the jawbone.
The work matched up.
The weirdest thing in the room wasn’t the potbelly stove—that was turning out to be quite practical, since it was warming the room nicely. Winifred sat down in his green armchair, and fed the stove a few more piano legs. The spaghetti gave a contented sigh, then settled down in front of the stove on his stocking feet.
No, the weirdest thing in the room was definitely that dinged-up economy car parked against the far wall. Winifred was also never into cars. But the local image of him must’ve assembled that coupe up here, piece by-god piece, before he died of being shot.
It made no sense. Then it hit him. The car was pasted here like a…newsstand in a tree.
Control liked antique toys. Control had been here. Control had, somehow, also inhabited this apartment. He’d come here, as an image, after work, for years. He was one of Nune’s agents before the merger with Boss. And, of course, he had never, ever even visited Winifred here, in Winifred’s world. Having Control work with the real Winifred: Was that one of Boss’s jokes? Or was it one of Control’s conditions of betrayal, defection, employment?
Winifred slept, finally, in his musty armchair, with the lights dowsed, and only the musical embers of the stove crackling. He dreamed of a great fire in a wood. Of trees burning and dying, and a great, damp sirocco, scented with a referee named Cally, also with Nune, and with the Boss, all sapphires and bayberry and beetle wings, whipping through the leaves and shoveling the embers into a bottomless gray sea, where burning branches and ash were sucked, only to spew into a bone-white cavern, and drift through piles of bones, catching and glowing at skeletal joints. Then, suddenly, kites were everywhere in the sky, and Winifred could hear children.
When he woke, he picked up Rodrigo. He noticed the internal spaghetti was gone. From a pungent, familiar smell, house-training Rodrigo was going to be interesting, if his waste products were as invisible as he was.
Nune held out his arms, and Winifred awkwardly lifted him up.
That afternoon, he asked Nune about his trick, and Nune just said, “It’s simple. You can teach Rodrigo to do stuff.”
Nune wouldn’t say anything else. He was, at his best, a small child, and grew upset if Winifred tried to press him on the subject.
Winifred couldn’t find a single trace of another living being.
He went down into the tunnels after two days. The bones frightened him. He thought he saw them moving. He could hear Rodrigo barking a warning from up on the street.
He went back up. Control was standing with his back to Winifred, hands out, trying to catch the dog, who was barking away in front of him.
There was a bang, and the dog yelped, then ran down the street. Control stared after it, completely unwary, his handgun dropped to the side.
Not, Winifred noticed, one of Bosses’ models.
“Hey,” said Winifred.
Control turned. “You—you’re not allowed to be alive, here,” he stuttered. Control raised his gun. “Everything here is supposed to be dead,” he snarled, before his eyes widened at Nune’s pistol, adjusted to Winifred’s hand.
“Fine,” said Winifred, and fired. Nothing happened.
Then, the wind whispered behind Control, and, because he was holding the gun, Winifred saw Control’s life as if it was a lit fuse that started burning at the tail of the sperm that made him, then snaked forward, deleting him from his own history, with events and effects cosmically unkinking, as Control was erased. Control could feel it too. He was trying to shoot, but seemed frozen in place. The end of the fuse reached him, and he exploded into pieces, then out of Winifred’s memory.
Winifred absently looked down at his hands. Why had he taken Nune’s blurry gun out? Why had Rodrigo run away? He had picked up what appeared to be a smoking piece of something white...a piece of bone. Where had that come from? He flicked one more fragment down into the tunnels, then didn’t go in them again. That was some evil mofo of a gun Nune had given him. Control was scythed from Winifred’s lives for good, and excised from every flavor of reality, erasing his personal timeline by Nune’s hacked IntheBeginning™ gun.
After he screwed over Nune’s misbegotten urban survivors here, Control was disowned from the cosmos by the program that created them in the first place.
Rodrigo had run off, yelping,into the cool twilight of day that never seemed to begin or end. When he trotted up to the apartment house door, hours later, he had grown worse.
One afternoon, Winifred noticed that Nune was holding the dog and whispering urgently into its ear.
“Close your eyes, Winnie,” said Nune. “And I’ll show you the trick.”
Winifred sighed inwardly, then briefly shut his eyes. Whatever Nune had once been, he had changed.
When he reopened them, Nune had legs. The base of his pedestal was open, abandoned like a cast-iron skirt.
There was now a door behind Nune in the bricks of the wall, where no door had been. Nune waved jauntily, then walked through the door, which vanished into Nune himself, as if he were twisting back into the fabric of the empty level. He was gone.
Winifred looked down at Rodrigo. The skinny little dog was finally visible, wagging his tail.
He suddenly realized what Nune had meant. That was their game. For Winifred to guess what Rodrigo could do.
Winifred knelt down in front of the dog.
“Sit,” he said.
“File, boy,” he said.
A tab, like a neon dorsal fin, lifted from Rodrigo’s spine, options reeling down it:
Winifred said, “Recent Universes, boy!”
Rodrigo wagged his tail.
A list of recent Universes came up.
“Select, ah, hmm,” Winifred glanced across the list. Only one node had its Planck-level voxel-count expressed in a huge, exponential notation. “Select>Mom’s Office, boy!”
The menu shifted, and the world glowed slightly.
Then he stopped.
“Select>None,” he said. Then, he said, “Edit>Select>Characters>.”
Another pull-down menu. Luckily, at the moment, this Universe had precisely two characters.
“Select>Rodrigo,” he said.
The dog began to glow.
“Find and replace,” he said.
A menu came up, and Winifred went through a set of pull-downs. Rodrigo gave an inquiring whine.
Winifred racked his brain, remembering, then said, “Magic wand, boy!” He patted his chest, and Rodrigo yelped happily, menus popping out of him and highlighting, as he rushed over and pressed his front paws against Winifred’s chest. Winifred noticed a glittering aura around the dog. He petted the dog in multitouch. The glittering extended, then coalesced onto one tumorous spot near Rodrigo’s neck.
“Return,” he said,
The glittering spot vanished, as did the tumor.
Winifred sifted back through the menu, and selected his office again. Rodrigo was starting to look distracted. Winifred hastily said, “Magic wand, boy!” and hugged the dog.
“Open>Recent Universes,” he said, selecting one. “Return.”
There was a tearing sensation as if he was being shifted back into his gaming Cradle. He had a momentary sense of feeling time as an emotion.
Winifred stood up over his own dead body with its skull smashed and splattered from Control’s all-too-real gun.
There was a great deal of Flux. At least Control wasn’t here anymore. Winifred had seen to that. Winifred’s cradle was still on.
He bent down, and placed the dog on the floor. Rodrigo nosed quizzically at Winifred’s corpse, sniffing new scents.
Winifred said, “Merge>Files, boy!” and ran one hand over his own image, as well as his ruined form in the game Cradle.
The blown-out fragments of his gunshot body’s head reassembled. “Repair Install,” he added carefully. “Return.” He spiraled thoughtward down into his own eyes. He was back in his flesh.
He sensed that the Cradle was still on, so he switched it off from the inside, then cracked it open.
His co-worker—the person he hired once Control had never existed—turned from her desk.
“Hey, Cally,” he said. “The new level looks fine.”
“Good,” she said. “Remember, Win, I’ve got my class, but I’ll be home by eight.”
Information about this Universe bloomed in his heart. He struggled mentally, meshing his two lives together. Cally gave him her look, then a quick, familiar peck on the cheek. Then Winifred’s wife finally noticed the dog.
“Pretty small wabbit,” she chuckled. “Boss might not like that.”
“She doesn’t need to know,” said Winifred. “As a matter of fact, if we walk him right now, she’ll never know.”
Cally laughed again.
Rodrigo licked his face.
“File>Exit,” said Winifred, arising from the Cradle.
About the Author
Christopher Shay has worked for the Loudoun Times-Mirror of Leesburg, Virginia; the Washington Post, and The New Yorker. He received a BA from Hampshire College, where he majored in writing. He now attends Florida's Stetson University, where he is a graduate student. He lives in Celebration, Florida, and works for Walt Disney World. "IntheBeginning" is his first published science-fiction. He is currently writing a novel.
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