A Rewrite, An Edited Story
February 15, 2012
The post today includes the edited version of Fake Cigarettes and Cold Coffee. I’m not sure what I’m going to post on Friday yet. Probably something rambling at this point about the stories I’m working on, namely The First and Forgotten Hero (a rewrite of the Perseus myth – that’s the one used in the Titan movies) and The Grey Paladin (a purely fantasy story that I’m working on). I’m also considering banging together some pure steampunk ’cause I miss the sound of steam in my mind.
For now, though, I’ve got his Speculative Fiction piece. So you’ll have to enjoy it. It’s over 10,000 words long, though, so you are getting a lot for your money so to speak. Speaking of enjoying things, if you are enjoying this then please tell other people about what I’m doing here. I could use the readers and the extra sets of eyes – your opinions help fuel my writing and help me become a better writer.
Thanks for your time and attention! Enjoy!
We used to say society was fake because it was made of plastic, but at least it was still made of something. Generations of shifts in popular culture have fashioned a society that has so little that’s real that it’s difficult to say if even the questions are real, let alone the choices we think we’re making. Black coffee became coffee and cream became drip coffee became the espresso became the cappuccino became the latte became the ice-blended latte. Now, after this metered shift away from good taste, all we can buy is blended, sugared caffeine preparations rather than anything even resembling the coffee our grandparents drank. The only cocktails taste like sodas. The only beers taste like fruit drinks or crisp, mountain emptiness bottled at the source. The only wines are sweet and palatable with just the modest hint of tannin and barnyard (so that the connoisseurs feel cultured). The only foods left are those that are filled with fat, salt and sugar yet, simultaneously, healthy and designed for living the modern trim, superior life.
I swirled the odd tea mixture in my glass while looking at a typical serving of said food. A turkey-chicken-flavored soy hybrid patty (spiced by our master chef to taste just like real meat! A treat of our parents!) on a (low-carb) bun with fresh (flash-frozen) lettuce and tomatoes, a stack of fries (made, of course, only from organic healthy farmed non-GMO non-modified unsalted unfried unbuttered unfattened low-calorie low-carb low-taste packing material-like potatoes) and served with a real (non-dairy, fat free) vanilla ice-cream shake. It was always vanilla or chocolate. I don’t think anyone even remembers what a strawberry tastes like.
To everyone else, though, it was the best meal they’ve ever had. They know it will be, they always know it will be. Thanks to Dynamic System’s POD (that’s Personal Observable Data) Controller, which changes how the brain interprets incoming data. They can run programs that continually edit their brains to tell them what to smell, what to taste, what to hear, what to feel, what to see. What to believe. The only real limitation is that the food you eat has to be vaguely similar to the food you want to eat – we can’t turn slop into steak yet. The POD connects directly to the brain using a clamp on the brain stem, feeding false information to the brain about what our world is made of, what our world is made to be.
Changing these things around has always felt dangerous to me. Always felt like we were locking ourselves in an invisible cage. I’ve been schizophrenic my entire life – this alone has made me feel like I’m disconnected from everyone else. Now, with the POD, I have yet another way to tell my brain to experience things that aren’t real, that aren’t there. It weaves together with the schizophrenia, turning lies into truths, turning my own delusions into everyone else’s culture. This meal before me? I’d rather know that it’s all crap, even if it is good for me. Especially if it’s good for me. I’d rather grow to enjoy the flavor of nourishment than grow to rely on the lies I tell myself. My grandparents used to tell me that, when they were kids, they had healthy food that tasted great, though. They still had the option to have a steak and a beer, a cigar and whiskey, or even real milk as well. I can’t even choose to shorten my life anymore if I want to due to proscriptive social mores…it didn’t take a law to get rid of our vices, it took a civic religion of health and happiness. I still turn the POD off, though, for the food. I have to keep it on so I can speak with the people around me (why strain your actual voice? Everyone’s a professional singer now, anyway, thanks to POD sound manipulation) and I need to keep the visuals on. But for the food, for the familiar reassurance of reality, I turn it off.
Amazing technology, though. It changed the world.
When I had pulled myself out of bed this morning, I had thought today was going to be just another boring day, filled with more boring stories and more ads designed specially for me with more products engineered to appeal directly to my carefully extracted demographic cross section. I pushed the fries around on my plate, arranging them in pleasant geometric patterns, while listened to the conversations around me and trying to ignore the perfectly peachiness of the plasticine world I lived in.
Luckily for me I was treated to an uncommon day.
The first thing that told me there was something different were the audio artifacts. To me, and to anyone who was part of the era of technology getting its legs under itself, artifacts are those small inconsistencies in picture or sound. When sound gets hollow, or the picture pixelates or gets funny boxes everywhere instead of the picture itself. In this instance, I heard the voices tearing around me – getting staticy and spotty for a second before returning to normal.
I glanced around and looked for something, anything, that might explain what was going on. My hallucinations don’t cause artifacting, they usually stick to things like making me hear waterfalls or see ponies. I have an unnatural subconscious affection for nature, I think. I tried to just focus on my meal, but when I raised a french fry to my mouth my hand was empty. The plate, all of my food, vanished for a second, turning translucent and hazy before returning to normal the same way a bad signal causes data to disappear or get corrupted.
That was my first real indication something was wrong. Audio artifacts? Explainable, normal, average – could be the POD misapplying a new file. Food disappearing? Not even my insanity can explain that. Not even the POD and my normal hallucinations can cause physical matter to just up and leave like that.
I’ve been practicing this whole being schizophrenic thing for thirty years. I am an expert on what the POD and my hallucinations can do together.
Just as my food saw fit to return to being real, I saw two cars outside, just out of the corner of my eye, turn opposite corners and come racing toward each other. The cars slid back and forth around the traffic that was still on the road with the precision of stunt drivers before, in the very middle of the street, right infront of the window between me and the sidewalk, they collide with each other.
There’s a kind of timelessness that comes with disaster, even a small one. Pieces of plastic whizzed down the street in all directions. Little malformed pellets of glass and steel tapped against the window I sat behind, as if it were raining a gentle spray of industrial waste. All in time with little warbles and deformations from the collision sweeping out in along the plastic and glass walls that made the hallways we call city streets. People were frozen in place as they spun away from the accident, most in mid-stride, as the cars came to a ruinous end…though most stood dumbfounded, their PODs unable to comprehend mechanical carnage and their eyes unable to look away. Then, as jarring as it started, the moments of blissful separation from time eroded and all of life, the confusion and turmoil and car alarms, came clambering back into our collective senses.
I sat back, more awe-struck than amazed. Surely the drivers had seen each other, or at least the other car speeding toward them. The PODs that we all wear, the drivers included, allow us a…. superhuman awareness, after a fashion, of the vehicles on the road and the people around us. We’re not distracted drivers anymore because we can drive in a way that makes the car a part of us, rather than apart from us. That’s why it’s not odd to see cars going fast down city streets – even if it’s common courtesy to go slower in populated areas. Yet these two cars struck each other at full speed as if they were never aware of each other.
I paid for my drab lunch and walked out into the street, carefully formatting my view so I could see as much of the real city as possible while still getting important government notices and ‘necessary’ advertising. I glanced around at the destruction and the people, enjoying the few moments of chaos as yellow warning banners flashed in my augmented vision, telling me of a street closure to both traffic and pedestrians, while a few cheery blue and pink ambulances arrived to treat the injured.
It appeared that the drivers weren’t injured by their dramatic stop, luckily. The infantile display of destruction only cost them the money they would have to spend for new vehicles. Government safety standards being what they are you could be struck by a meteor in a modern vehicle and survive it well enough to tell the story at a cocktail mixer that evening. Given the vehicles they were driving they could easily afford a new one that afternoon to take them to said mixer as well. This information was splayed across those bright street closure warnings along with a tickertape of news scrolling across more pedestrian ads. I had to suffer through them since, after the accident, there were probably many more eyes on the people and vehicles nearby.
While I walk home, I’ll take advantage of this time to explain it to you, the reader, why the advertising is necessary, why it’s surprising that these two collided, but why I’m not as surprised as you might imagine. Before you ask, as well, I’m well aware of the fact that from your perspective this has nothing to do with my time or yours and you may stop and restart as you wish. I phrase this work in my own terms, so you’ll have to bear with my idiosyncrasies.
These devices I explained before, these PODs, are tightly regulated. Regulations woven so that the users can only change their software installations and data structures within extremely specific prescriptions at highly trained and tightly watched adjustment and implementation offices, and only for a fee. Within those prescriptions are requirements on services you must have installed (and some you have to pay for), as well as certain programs that may not be deactivated. One of these programs is Monitor Advertising, a program suite that runs in the background to place ads on billboards and the sides of buildings but also watches incoming and outgoing data through the POD’s analytical computer and sends reports of it to the Governance and Safety central computer system.
I am one of the few people who are capable of regularly crack and rewrite the code that makes up the shells that surround, stunt, and supply the glorious flexibility and adaptability of the POD system. I rewrite programs to my own whim – and I ensure that I operate within monitoring constraints so that I’m not caught. This allows me to be aware that I’ve eaten the same meal twice a day for ten years, and to remember which meal that is without my thoughts becoming a haze of pleasure and false perception. This allows me to adjust who I talk to and when. This allows me to be aware of the streets I walk down and to see the sunset in its natural glory. This allows me to know the truth of the utilitarian city I live in, despite how its wrapped in a digital skin of distractions and distortions. However, my power to, in the common argot, hack the POD does not allow me to adjust these settings in others. Only by creating a tunnel through the central computers, the computers monitored by government run AI and trained system operators, could I hack someone else’s POD, and doing so would be not only a great risk, it would be truly useless. No one else finds wonder in the truth any more, at least no one I know personally. With over nine million people crawling around the skin of this rock I’m sure there’s at least one other that sees wonder in what’s true, or at least what they think is true.
Whatever had caused that accident could be one of two things; a flaw in the software no one had detected before it was authorized for publication or someone who had adjusted the code wirelessly. Something that was, as I said, not only illegal, not only dangerous, but virtually impossible without having command control over the central servers. A kind of access that only Corporate programmers had and they are never allowed outside of the Dynamic Systems arcology in Washington. This would probably mean an exploit in pre-release code, a program that was developed long before the POD itself was, and there existed only two of those now. Monitor Advertising is one of them. This is the government ad and warning system that I explained earlier. The Master Experience Index is the other. It’s a digital database of base sensory information; what things sound like, what things feel like, and what things smell like. The base and intrinsically necessary adjustments to senses that didn’t require complex data-mapping. Sight was added later, due to its complexity with real light sources and texture awareness in the human eye, and taste is an amalgamation of scent and texture as far as the program’s interface is concerned. There are more accurate programs built on top of these, but the MA and MEI are over fifty years old, originally developed for a tablet computer that eventually evolved into the POD.
It did not take too long to get to my apartment building, an ancient structure of concrete and steel that predated most of the inner city’s new and glistening plastic human hives, despite how much I have recited for you. It’s much faster to type in your mind than it is with whatever primitive key-pad device you’re currently sitting in front of. I sighed, as I always do when I return home, and began the thirteen floor ascent to my apartment. I do not trust elevators. There are scanners in each car that ensure that your POD is up to date, that its operating properly, and that you’re not obscuring anything. No POD programmer used an elevator, even if we were someone with an exception. Instead of modern biolocks I still use old fashioned keys; I tell my landlord that it’s because I have a soft spot for anachronism. I rather she know that than the truth – I don’t like having my door monitored by the MA any more than I like risking an elevator.
My apartment is sparse, spartan even. I have a comfortable bed to sleep in, just a little larger than I need. I have a small kitchen with a small refrigerator, which I use for foods I cannot find easily and that must be purchased at a Farmer’s Market. I have a table with two chairs, complete with two sets of eating dishes and utensils always prepared. Near my bed, I have a single desk with a computer array on it. This is the most expensive, expansive, and elaborate thing in my apartment, and it is used for editing the POD. It’s those little things that make life worth living, the nice dishes and comfortable bed. The computer was just for work so I hardly gave it a thought.
Though I do miss using the second set of dishes. Perhaps I’ll try to find a companion for dinner soon.
As I walked through the door the one biosensor in my apartment, the sensor on my computer, registered my presence and turned the whole contraption on. My editing software started, as did my internet browser and my tracking applications, software I use to do my job. I sat down in front of the desk, sank into the chair, and connected my POD to the computer. As the POD connection synced up it pulled up my work in progress files. They contained notes from my editor as well as new data that I had requested (or that the editor thought may be a better fit) for the jobs I was working on. I am a programmer, a code-monkey for one of the POD software companies that works on high-end data structures. I create the feeling of windswept beaches in Maui, or beautiful sun-kissed waves on the coast of California, or even the deep warmth and sweat of the Congo. I spin data into life, into feeling, into adventure. I do this all from Los Angeles, the most drab, grey city on the planet, and I have never seen or felt any of these places that I engineer.
I treasure that note of irony.
Today I loaded a new job onto the digital spindle and started working the code together for a hunting vacation in old Montana, when the forests were still rich and green. When they were still full of life. Life that was easy to shoot. You know, with guns, because every vacation in the glory of nature required violence or else it wasn’t suitably American. I was never really sure what the purpose behind meaningless bloodshed over ill-equipped animals was, but people pay for it. Luckily, my job is not to create an accurate experience. It is to create an enjoyable experience, a complete experience. It’s my job to fashion together an idealized vacation package that is complete, from end to end, and is internally consistent. It had to include just the right looks, just the right sounds, just the right smells, and just the right events. I considered myself an artist, a painter that used the senses as a whole to tell a story. This is where my schizophrenia came in handy – filtering out what was ‘wrong’ for the scene and knowing just what to put there without my more…conscious mind getting in the way and making me believe that my choices were simply good enough.
I am one of the best. Good enough simply isn’t what I produce.
I flitted through files on my computer, using my POD to sample them, to find the right grain of wood, the right colors for the trees, and just the correct bouquet of scents for this forest. I created a gentle flavor, that mix of trees and gunpowder, and meticulously tuned just the right amount of jostling for the truck that centered at the experience. I labored to ensure that there was never too much or too little light. I gave the guns heft, the clothing texture, and the colors depth. I cycled through thousands of body types, my awareness of my own body fluctuating wildly moment to moment, to ensure that these details were always consistent and always appropriate.
You see, I do not create memories so that others may relive what never was, though you may have got that impression. I create interactive art. I cycle through thousands and thousands of textures, sounds, smells, feelings…I weave these together into one consistent experience that can be between two and ten hours long. They are scripts of events, carefully curated and controlled, for my customers to explore in a virtual world – all without leaving the comfort of their chair. These programs, these experiences, sell for thousands of dollars to boutique clients who want only the best in mental stimulation. Only the greatest lies to tell their brains, to escape the grey, drab world that they spend their day to day lives in. To escape the monotony of making money and shuffling from one shopping plaza to the next.
I am aware that I intentionally live in that drab world. I have always savored this irony as well.
After finishing my base tree pattern, the skeleton I’d flesh out into each tree in the forest, and settling on what selection of guns the hunter was given, I updated the status on that project and uploaded my base files. I added notes for some problems I had with existing resources and what I could use in new resources. This particular project was still new and in planning, so the editors only wanted some data samples and some road mapping so that our writers could give me a framework to hang my art on.
I hung up my metaphorical hat and sat back in my chair, let my vision controls become the computer screens, then started browsing the POD programmer blogs and forums to check for news of the accident that afternoon. There was no data from any of the official sources beyond a few scattered reports of similar accidents from local “On the Scene” news sites. There was barely any news from underground sites that tracked major breaches of security and new advances in POD hacking. It wasn’t until I was knee-deep in the highly technical motivation engineering (or, in layman’s terms, manipulating your wants and needs) forums that I found anything that helped illuminate what had happened.
Motivation engineering discussions are usually about using the POD to create systems within the experience program to create or encourage a compelling emotion, a need or want, in the user. In a discussion about how to use the sex drive to stimulate work production, I found a piece of code used in a recent underground application, at least from what the original poster was saying, that created a feedback loop using the physical, or lower order, sex drive elements. Smells, textures, and tastes used to stoke the urge that drives us toward finding ways to accomplish one simple goal – sexual release. By tapping into that, by creating a loop where all of these things feed into a drive to maintain a goal, a goal implanted by the experience engineer, the program can ‘trick’ the user into completing a different task.
In short, this code was used to, once the cars were on a collision course with each other, induce both drivers into a loop where the closer they got to impact the closer they needed to be. The more they rushed toward that accident. The faster they drove their cars, the tighter their turns and movements got. They struck each other head on in exactly the right way at as high a speed as possible. The accident, the chaos, that was the release. That broke the spell, released all the tension spun up by the sex drive modification.
Destruction has become orgasm. Chaos, sex. Whoever created this loop, whoever implanted it in those PODS, is playing a very, very dangerous game.
I collected the code and added it to my code repository then sat back, staring at the screen as I considered everything. This would explain why the cars struck each other. It does not explain how their modules were modified, however. All the code that goes into the updated modules is checked on-site by a dedicated AI that is structured to check for any violations of the various POD controller and software laws. There was no way that the programs loaded onto their controllers from any official sources could have pushed them into the collision because of those gatekeepers – they’d have picked up on the altered code and figured out its purpose before it even reached a distribution channel. The home devices can only change a single local device and anyone who has access to the devices like the one I use has to licensed. On top of the licensing process, we’re all experience engineers, POD programmers, or recorders that know what the PODs can do and only edit our own. Between our experience and our pride there’s no way two of us would create a situation where we would drive into each other at full speed, with the same ferocity, at the same time, in precision engineered and matched paths. No one I know has the money to throw away on a car like that if they’re caught since practical jokes are certainly not covered by most insurance plans. On top of that, all of the POD programmers that are capable of this kind of data manipulation have those programmer licenses and if someone did something like this the computers would be aware of it. Each program’s signed with that license number and once the changes were detected our licenses, and thus our internal access to the POD programming array, would be revoked.
It also doesn’t explain the odd video artifacts that appeared just before the collision. It doesn’t explain the audio tearing or the fact that everyone seemed to notice the data errors. Which, perhaps, I should have reversed given I’ve already told you that I’m used to audio tearing. It’s not as common to see people also noticing the artifacts, though, whether it’s audio tearing or not. The little shakes of their head, the squinting of their eyes in inquisition as to what they were hearing, the momentary pause that everyone took to examine their senses quickly in synchronized confusion.
I have always loved those little behaviors. Especially those of everyone in a room hearing an unexpected sound and pausing, looking for it, trying to confirm that they are not, themselves, insane. It’s the one collective fear of those who live in cities; the possibility of finally snapping and proving their mothers right about needing to see a therapist, and then the crushing fear of the cost of said therapist before reality crashes into their minds again and they realize the sound was gone and was no cause for alarm. Especially since everyone heard it, so it couldn’t possibly be you. Right?
Excuse me, I’m rambling again.
I dug around in the news articles about the accident. Neither of the drivers’ PODS recorded the accident – not even that they were operating a car. Neither driver has any memory of anything leading up to it, including where they were going or why they were even driving. Smaller blog posts were already popping up around the web saying that everyone from Experience Engineers to the DMV caused the accident through faulty programming, false leads leading to accidents at traffic intersections, or the cars themselves being tampered with as part of some huge corporate conspiracy.
You can’t have a decent conundrum without a conspiracy.
I set aside my browser, relaxed into my chair, queued some Bach, and sank into a cacophonous examination of the new material I was sent for experience engineering. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, feelings, intuitions, thoughts…I poured through simple, single segments of someone’s life as if I were selecting paint for a storefront window display. Good and bad experiences, pain and pleasure, smells and sounds all pouring over me in a stream of pure data and disjointed feeling.
Several hours later I woke, my head aching from being connected for so long and processing so much data. All my new experiences had be sorted properly, so I disconnected from the computer and rose to get myself something to eat. Standing in the kitchen and dishing myself out some kind of health-food slurry composed of sawdust and milk, I flipped on the information streams in my POD to watch the news. Both of the people involved in the local accident had been arrested, and reports were streaming in from all over the country about other accidents. City cameras, from private security cameras to right light cameras to private web-cams that happened to be pointed at the accidents, were missing three seconds of recording, all turned to snow, at each location. This ‘white-out’ extended by a block in every direction from each accident and no one from the area has any memory of those few seconds. Most people dismiss it as just not having paid attention during the commotion but, given our species love of the macabre, it is odd that no one remembered anything. And that no one had thought to snap a picture with their POD. The only images of the accidents are from immediately before and three seconds after the accidents without exception.
I poured myself a cup of coffee. I’ve drank it as itself but I could never turn off the flavor enhancer for it. Cold coffee just tastes too disgusting, and the coffee is always cold. If it was hot you might burn yourself and we could never have that.
A few of the experience data packages I have record iced coffee served in old cafes, but I don’t know anyone who drinks cold coffee now, at least not willingly. There’s a perfect coffee flavor and it’s a hot one. Maybe that’s another thing we lost when we started changing our world to what we wanted it to be like rather than dealing with what was there.
I half ate- half pushed around the mess in the bowl in front of me, sipped the coffee and reveled in the hilarity of the coffee changing texture if I gulped it, going from hot to warm instead of scalding my tongue. The experience may not be real in the naturalistic materialistic sense but it is quite entertaining regardless of its rationality. Perhaps there is something I like about the new fake world afterall.
I kept watching the news feeds while I ate. As the night wore on more confusing incidents had cropped up. It was always two people, they were never injured, but there was always some kind of wipe of the data in the area. It had started with traffic accidents but had rapidly moved into other forms of confusion, from spontaneous food fights in a cafeteria between two people at different tables to people walking out into the street together and dancing for several minutes before walking off again. In every case, neither of the victims remembered why they did what they did nor was there any record of it on their PODs. Each was inspected soon after by an update technician and no traces of any changes or any outside influence was found in any case.
At midnight, though, something changed. A man had walked to the center of Time’s Square, broadcast himself to the advertising systems in everyone’s vision regardless of the ad system they were using at the time, and said, “We know how to find you now. We know how to change you now. We know who you are now. Do not think we will not finish this. Do not think we will allow you to hide any longer. We have been and always will be watching.” Then he shot himself in the temple.
The real crux of this, though, is that no one knows who the message was intended for. There were no other threats that came with it, no other messages sent out to anyone, and the forums didn’t have any users blowing up about something. It was like part of a story in a movie but I was sitting behind the wrong camera.
I went to bed that night frustrated but with my curiosity piqued. I resolved that I’d look more into this tomorrow after I put the final touches on my latest Experience, which should pay for a few months of minor detective work. Such are my hobbies, doing something someone else was paid to do just because I could.
The next morning was a surreal one. I powered on everything and enjoyed another rousing meal of cold coffee and cream of cardstock, sat down at my computer, and was confronted with a message displayed right on the front of my primary screen; “Hello, Mr. Daniels, or Michael if I will. I am not sure how you were missed in my net yesterday, but I pride myself as a fishermen and I shall not yet let you escape my hooks quite so simply. I hope you do not have much work today for I have crafted a rather ingenious puzzle for you, if I do say so myself. It is, in my estimation, what both an angler and an editor would call ‘the hook’. And, it seems, you have just taken my bait. Au revoir”
I wish I could, adequately, explain what happened next but I do not imagine (and hope to not imagine) that many of you know what it is like to have your internal organs stream out of your mouth then stream back in, but suffice to say that is the closest description I can manage. I awoke in a simple room with a white house that had been painted with sponges on one wall and a mailbox, old and made of tin, sitting next to the singular door directly ahead of me. The mailbox was open, inside was a leaflet and a cup of coffee.
I know what you’re doing right now, dear reader, and indeed I rolled my eyes as well.
My POD was on, I could tell because my resource management applications were still accessible. I knew I was in some kind of Experience, some scripted system of feelings and data streams meant to mask my surroundings. It was a clever one as well, carefully layered by an experienced developer, one on nearly the same level of skill and artistry as myself. Every detail was accounted for, from the slight lines on the wall to mark fresh paint to the soft smell of paint and dust with a hint of drywall. Even though this program perhaps took months to build, maybe longer given that it was a puzzle, they (whoever they are) had carefully built it to feel new. Personal. For me.
I hadn’t gotten a gift, one specifically designed for me, in quite some time. Finding myself trapped here and considering all of these things I was particularly delighted.
I hastily snapped up the pamphlet and read through it as I sipped the coffee, passed the expected diatribe that pantomimed a popular text adventure from before my childhood, directly to the letter at the end.
This is a game, my dear sir. One that should, hopefully, prevent you from discovering me in time. While I at first thought that no one could find me through the traps I had laid within my programs, I was not aware of your particular skill in thought fabrication nor your particular advantage by way of your miswired mind. So I hastily rebuilt a prison that I had fashioned long ago for another purpose, redesigning it from the ground up just for you. Notes here and there to what you do, what work of yours I have enjoyed in the past. It was not until I was going through the error logs for my execution that I noticed that you had both evaded the time-gap and who you were. I’ve been a fan and a customer since your career started oh so long ago. Such perfect understanding of form and environment, speaking in feelings and emotions through the very texture of one’s own hands. Your carpenter Experience, for instance, is sublime. The feeling of callouses on one’s flesh.
However, this is either here nor there. Good luck and godspeed. In another lifetime I may have called you friend.
Sadly, I did not know him as well as he apparently knew me. It almost felt as if some vital aspect of this game was robbed of me, not having a nemesis. For him, he was dueling with a great and powerful foe. For me…I was wandering around in a poor man’s mental museum before going home and having lunch.
I pocketed the letter and stepped through the door.
On the other side was something I was already familiar with – the scene of the accident that started this whole confounding sequence of events. If one could call it that. I was looking at myself through a window eating a bland combination of burger and fries with satisfactory shake and casually examining the people around me. I knew that, behind me, there were cars barreling down the road toward each other. This particular reconstruction was halted, held in time… Perhaps so that I might explore what I knew but was not aware of? Or perhaps so that the designer of these pranks could show off his handiwork? His letter had intoned it might be the former, though, as he is arrogant, if not stupid, but aware of my capabilities. Even if I am not yet aware of what those capabilities might be in relation to his tricks.
I walked slowly around the scene, looking at the people’s faces, looking at the colors and the quality of the materials. There were tiny discrepancies in small places, places that most people wouldn’t notice. To someone like me, however, someone who was paid handsomely to notice these things, they stood out as if they had been highlighted. They came from small distortions in the scene. It was similar to a portrait or landscape stitched together by other, disparate pictures spread out in time by seconds but with enough differences in time to change lighting, the fall of shadows, the rise or fall of the subject’s breathing, or even where the motes of dust hung in the air when the photo was snapped. As I moved I stared with wide-eyed fascination at the objects morphing and changing in disjointed frames, shifting between being still and moving, between order and chaos.
I stepped back and examined all of this, carefully studying the discrepancies, looking at the breaks and shifts in light and shadow. I reached out with my mind to test the program that hung these images in front of me and found controls to play through the event. With some trigger to unlock everything, somewhere. A door out hidden among the minute details of the scene itself.
I reached into my pocket out of habit as I began to dwell on these details and was pleasantly surprised to find a small package of cigarettes there. Red box, no text, and a blank lighter. I did not want to dwell too deeply on how my gaoler knew that my digital avatar commonly carries cigarettes, so instead I lit one of them, letting the feeling of tobacco fill my lungs and my mind, and I set to work. False smoke, false tobacco, false prison. All ingenious if disturbing but, frankly, these are my favorite problems.
Curls of blue smoke rose from my lips as I walked around the street, watching it slowly flow, moment by moment, from the half-minute prior to the accident and the half-minute after the accident. I slowly traced the lines of everyone’s vision and found that only forty people or so were used to build this memory of the event. I enjoyed seeing the effects of multiple viewpoints being used, from the corners of personalized signs being blank or shifting to another color as a new viewpoint was used as the source for that part of the picture. There was only one, odd, consistent fact beyond the obvious; I was not in any of the moments recorded save the first and and last.
“So, in the eyes of the populace I vanished as your game got underway.” I was talking to myself, but it was irrelevant at the time. I reproduce it now for your information, and I feel like a story without even a line of dialogue is, perhaps, a speech instead. Even if the dialogue is between one character and that same character. It may be that I have been dwelling for too long on this, however, as I think back to these events quite a bit in recent days.
With one hand holding my cigarette, I let the other gently drift along the lines of the cars as I watched them implode. The looks on the faces of the drivers was fanatical at the time of the accident; eyes wide, spittle collecting at the corners of their mouths, their necks full of strain shown in muscle and sinew stretched as far as it might. As soon as the cars struck, however, when the pieces started flying off in a thousand directions, both drivers regained their faculties and were instantly filled with fear. It was a fascinating transformation, watching their faces suddenly alight with realization and understanding of the situation they found themselves in before spilling into the horrified expression that precedes a full-body scream. The situation they found their cars in. Perhaps they might bond over coffee about it later.
I stepped back and examined the scene from afar again, letting it roll back and forth from start to finish, then finish to start. I watched intently as it played out, looking for whatever communication my imprisoner had left in his labyrinth yet I continued to find nothing. I saw no hidden compartment of thought or action, no message or note left behind. No key, no door, no hatch, no trap. I saw no purpose for all of this complexity and construction. It was merely a shrine to the destruction, left for me to find.
So I turned and walked though one of the doors that stood open on the street from all the commotion.
“You destroy something, you kill someone, you enshrine it and you show me. You show me you think I’m important in all this. You call me out because I am the only one you cannot ensnare. But why? Why the work, why the entrapment, why do you care and why do you think I care?”
I growled to myself as I stumbled through the darkened door, a portal out of the scene I had found myself in and toward something, anything, that might make sense of where I was.
I looked up and I found myself in an unmarked hallway. Doors upon doors lined the hallway, each marked with a brass plaque attached with two iron rivets. “Fantasy World One, Draft Version. Class Project, 2038.” was the first one, just to my left. Behind me the door had a plague on it that read “Initial Accident, Found Lure, 2065.” The door shut as I read this, clicking with a kind of haunting finality.
The whole hallway was suffused with a kind of haunting light, light that seemed to come from nowhere but simply bloom from the corners like inverted shadows. I could see everything clearly, without strain, but also without any apparent source for the light. It’s haunting to see it like this, like the games used to do it but now with your ‘real’ eyes. Unnatural, unsettling. It transformed an average hallway into a timeless museum, with the same door stretching toward infinity. All marked with the same plaque in the same way. They stood out from the richly built but bland hallway, dark woods with a brass plaque staring out from endless white walls and carpets.
I opened the first, Fantasy World One, and looked inside. It was the opening scene to my first experience, built in college – “Tales of a Working Class Warrior.” It was frozen at the time of completion, a data snapshot of someone finishing the Experience. The Hero stood on a broken hillside, plunging his sword into the Dragon – all very simple and classic fantasy. It was a story I built when I was still in college. It was obvious that my captor had completed everything about this, and probably found it on some forum somewhere since I had never released this professionally. A shrine to the end of a game I wrote almost thirty years ago.
Behind the titular Warrior, set into the rock of the hillside, was something I didn’t put in. It was too bright, too glossy, even at a distance. As I got closer I realized what it was – a plaque, plain with typed text on it. A simple hacked addition. It said, “First attempt at experience cracking. Robert McCallister. April 2038.”
I walked back out of the door and looked at the next one. It was marked “Breakout Hit, Tumbling Through Time. 2040.” I opened it and looked inside, finding the ‘control panel’ for a time machine. It was an Experience I had built for a small independent publisher when I was just out of college. A kind of non-interactive piece with historical movies and re-enactments done by professionals that I repackaged into a viewer. It was simple but, at the time, people loved it. On the instrument panel of the time machine, though, was another plaque. “First gift Experience, former class mate. Diagnosis happens soon after.”
I flipped through the switches on the instrument panel. I had designed it like a Victorian machine, a giant nickelodeon that would play scenes from the past just outside the window, like the user was an observer stuck inside their glass time-traveling box. All of the switches that I had installed where there and worked plus an extra one, a large brass tog marked “Incident.”
I flipped it and sat back in the chair within the pod as the window was covered in a white haze, loading the scene that “Incident” was attached to. It was sepia-toned, filtered through some kind of haze to make it seem like it was historical, old and weathered. The scene focused on a small family in a car in the 2040s, driven by a college-age kid who was yelling at his little brother. The sound was crisp and present, every word he was saying was loud and clear. The driver turned for a minute to talk directly to his younger brother, shouting something about him being annoying and needing to shut up, and his POD, an early model when they were still worn instead of installed beneath the skin, called his attention back to the road just in time for him to see a large box truck strike the front of the car.
I sat back in horror, watching the small car with the family get torn in half, watching the college-aged kid get thrown to the side in the driver’s half of the car while the passengers – his mother and little brother – got sucked under the truck as it barreled off the road. The sound seemed to hone in on the sickening crunch of their bodies being flattened under the weight of the truck. It wasn’t with joy, though. There was no exultation to the scene. There was no happiness in how it’s been recorded. It’s a headstone, an edifice left for someone to remember.
According to the date of the incident, it happened the day that my time machine Experience first launched. It was the Experience that made me rich, that got me the job I have now.
I examined the hacks used to implant the Incident recording and the plaque and found their signature, the small bits of code that mark every programmer’s unique style. I recorded them silently and left the room, now armed with some way to ensure I didn’t have to relive those two deaths again.
I probed the program behind the each of the doors, marked with the names of programs I wrote at one point or another in my career. I extracted more data from them as well – the man from the accident ended up hospitalized, supported by the money that came of his family’s life insurance. A defective POD worn by the truck driver had caused the accident…he had become trapped in the time-machine program when it was started automatically after someone had purchased it for him and delivered it to his POD.
His real name, I figured out, was Topher Wilson, and he had studied the same program I did at the same school. In fact, we had taken a class together and we’d gotten along rather well. Apparently he was a fan of my work even then, he had data from me strewn about the hallway preloaded so that he could access it while editing the Experience. There was even a shrine to who I used to be, in college, behind one of the doors. The edits, though, that included the plaques came later. After this had already been built. It started as a digital museum but, over time, it became a mausoleum to something else.t
In an interactive movie I had made in my 30’s, a romance between two women on a hill overlooking the Hollywood sign, I found a cache of memories. The romance was called Safe Place and the writing that went into it was a long conversation between the two women about creating walls with each other, shutting out how bad it was outside, and keeping each other whole. Keeping each other strong. In a metal box, buried under the blanket they were sitting on, there was a lock box full of memories – of pain, suffering, and the horror of being confined to a hospital bed for over twenty years – locked away. Trapped here, in this Safe Place. Inside, under photographs and essays scrawled on tattered paper, I found a small silver key. I put the key in my pocket and went back to examining the stories hidden in the stories behind the doors, learning the message that the museum curator and left behind.
After going through countless doors and reliving memories of my own work, I found something that started to tell the story I woke up in. Ten years ago, Topher had cracked. He’d started hating every minute of his life but couldn’t die. He was stuck, forever, reliving the same false memories. Pretending to be the same people. He wasn’t sedated enough to not know his actual, physical state – he was painfully aware of it every moment of every day. Eventually he started finding the holes in the programs and carved himself a space where he could experiment on his own, and he started building new scenarios. Pushing the PODs to do things they weren’t supposed to be able to do. Until, finally, in one of the mystery Experiences I had fashioned a few years ago, he left just one hastily created message in his own programming notes – “I’ve figured it out.”
After that, it’s only usage data. It’s his own programs that he distributed into the hospital network. He’s been slowly suffocating people’s minds, using programs to wear them out until the body just gives up. The early programs started with messages, making their bodies scrawl out messages about how dangerous the POD is, about how the lies were killing people. Leaving messages behind about his mother and his brother who were killed by a malfunction. The messages, though, became less and less powerful. The killing became faster and more efficient.
Now he was just causing mayhem. Making people dance for his amusement, die for his amusement. He fell from crusader to killer and it was homicide no one had noticed before. No recognition, no publicity, not a single person anywhere on the net talking about him. So he escalated, started killing more, doing more. He used an exploit that I had built into some of my code, an escape hatch for myself that no one else could use, to trap people in the programs. He developed the sex-drive override, he invented a push structure that used an exploit in the mail delivery protocols. He hid his software updates in plain sight.
At the very end of the hallway was a door marked, “Times Square, First Successful Puppet. 2065.”
I stepped through the door and looked around. The scene was frozen at the moment of the bullet leaving the man’s head. No one was moving and most of the room was out of focus. If I were to walk in a straight line, from the door I came out of, through the man in the middle, there was a green metal hospital door on the other side, probably fifty yards away. On the front of it was a single, silver padlock.
All I could see, though, was the poor man that died to warn me, to tell me, and I could see that he knew in his eyes. There was fear there, there fear of doing things beyond your control. The fear of being someone else’s puppet and knowing it but being unable to stop it. For the first time in twenty years I cried, and I stood there to cry for him for several minutes. I cried for him, for the people who died brain-dead in their hospital beds, for the poor woman and boy that started this. For the confused man behind that green metal hospital door that didn’t know if he loved or hated himself, didn’t know if loved or loathed being a murderer. Before I left I sat down and worked my way into the code for this room and I silently deleted all the other people, I gently put his brain back into his body and reattached his nerves, I took away the gun, fixed his head, and closed his eyes. Then I copied the scene for myself.
If, perhaps, he must sacrificed for this prank, I’ll keep him in the mausoleum of my mind and ensure that he is remembered as a noble martyr rather than a deranged pawn.
My eyes still teared, I marched toward the door and fished the silver key out of my pocket. I could see the grand puzzle in this, the large and complex puzzles hidden in the rooms after this. The work put in to the edges but he forgot a hole in his code and with a click of the key in the lock, I walked passed all the traps and tribulations he had lain for me and found myself in the center of his program, in the center of his creation, and it seems, in the center of his thoughts.
It was a hospital, as I had anticipated. More accurately, a room in a hospital. Quiet and dark, with a twisted, bloated form in the bed in front of me. Machines helped it breath, machines fed it what was necessary, and machines that seemed to attach the brain of the decrepit form so it would not know what it was. It did, though. This scene was proof – this was how Topher saw himself. This is the prison he imagined he was in.
There was a sudden gasping and wheezing as the door behind me closed and the room became the only thing I saw. The only thing I could feel through the code behind my sight – the rest of the museum had disappeared into the ether of my subconscious. The form gestured to me gently and I went over to it, my sense of pity wrestling with my anger at what he had done to the man in Times Square. What this thing had done to all those people out of a need for revenge and for recognition. I sat in the cheap, plastic and maroon-padded hospital chair next to the only window in his room. The blinds down and the diffused sunlight giving the room just enough illumination to ensure that nothing hid in the dark.
“I fear I have left a hole in my maze, then.” The form whispered, wheezing. “You saw my museum, though. The tricks I left for you.”
I nodded slowly, “I did. Everything in it. Every single memory.” I placed the silver key on his nightstand. He growled angrily and coughed hard, “You fucking fool. Why did you take that? What did you do with it?”
I sighed and stood up, then looked out the window. There was nothing out there, a city with no people in it. Grey buildings, grey sky, grey roads. “I used it to open the door here. You couldn’t hide it very well after I found your plaques. Your notes. Your safe place. You’re good, talented, but you’re too blatant. Too raw.”
He wheezed again and tried to move but ended up just coughing for several minutes. “Then why don’t you leave? I’m sure you know how. I’m sure you can rip up this little shell and fight your way out of here again.”
I looked at my fingernails to distract myself from the monstrosity. “Not quite yet. I found out who you are, what you are. Here, I can find out why. Robert McCallister was the name you gave me, but that’s not you. I know your name, Topher. No, Robert was the truck driver. The one who took the life of your mother and your younger brother. And McCallister, well, I know where that one’s from but I never knew you as a brother. But that accident, it broke you, didn’t it? It sapped your strength and will, left your mind shattered. You were already a weak child and that set you to fits. Fits of rage, fits of despair, fits of hoplessness. So the state put you here, in Innsmouth Medical Center, in their Medicinal Psychosis wing. You’re kept in your mind all day, watching Experiences like the ones we created in school, like the ones you should have been making if it had never happened. Somewhere, somehow, you broke out of one, though. You found a way to carve out a space to experiment in. I bet you used to have someone in here with you, experimenting with you. That was your first, wasn’t it? The first person to cross you, where you figured out how to murder a person’s mind. Slaughter their sense of Self. I bet you got the idea from one of my Experiences, since I’m the only Engineer that’s figured out how to kill someone in their mind without breaking them. But you didn’t protect the sense of Self. You killed them. Just like you engineered a situation for those drivers to cause mayhem for you. Just like you created a situation where a man would kill himself in Times Square to say something just to me. Just like you killed all those innocent people, injured all those innocent people. Not for revenge. Not because they deserved it. Not to point out how dangerous the POD is. You killed them because you wanted to.”
I turned from the window and looked down at his broken body. It wasn’t who he was, but who he saw himself as. A misshapen, bloated body kept alive by countless machines. “Now that I’m here, though, I can see the threads at the edge of your consciousness. I’ve been looking at them as I walked through your museum. Seeing where your code is intelligent. Seeing where you have left holes and problems in your design. Through these holes I’ve threaded a small string. A string ending here at your door. A thread through all of your memories and all of the gaps you’ve punched in my own programs. A thread that, neatly, closes up all those little holes and seals the bag you’re in, seals you away forever. No one will know you’re stuck here and, instead of being able to access the world, you’ll watch it. You’ll watch it from a prison where the deaths you engineered stare back at you. Forever.”
I stood then, and placed my hand on his shoulder. “Good night, sweet prince. I’m sad that there is so much pain you have caused in this hole you have carved out for yourself, but at least now the asylum doors can be closed and the world safe from you with only I holding the key. Your key.”
I pulled the silver key out of my pocket and I tied the end of the code string I’d brought along with me to the end of the key. I then left quietly, locking the door behind me, and I tugged the strung shut. I brought the moments of those peoples’ death right to his door, right into the room with him, so he could see them forever. I tugged the string so tight that the bag shut, the light outside his window grew dark, and the hallway grew silent. Then I closed the Experience forever, a prison of his own design locked forever from anyone entering again.
I found myself sweating, sitting my computer chair with a doctor crouched beside me. Standing at the door was Lucious, the only man I interacted with regularly. He processed my programs for sale, last time I had seen him was when we had discussed my pay. He stood at the door with my landlord. I was told I had been missing for several days. The doctor assured them I was fine, then asked what had happened.
I sighed and gathered my thoughts. I poured myself coffee and, for the first time in a long time, took it cold. “I wish I had a cigarette.” They looked at me as I sipped the coffee and looked around slowly. “Well, sit down then. It’s a long story.”
I poured myself a second cup and booted up my POD, gave myself a fake cigarette, and said, “It’s probably best to start at the beginning so, as to what happened, let me first say that society has changed much over time. We used to say society was fake because it was made of plastic, but at least it was still made of something…”