by Nick Tramdack
“It’s simple,” said Engineer03. “To make a great fantasy you need just two things. A bad guy they love to hate and a good guy they hate to love. You know, with flaws…”
Engineer03 lowered a cup of tea from his mouth. Despite the greenish light flooding out of the bar and its window of fishtanks into the garden where we sat, his arm cast no shadow as it moved.
With the exact same motion, except in reverse, I raised my own cup of tea to my lips and drank. Then, rewinding the move, I lowered it to the table. As usual, I hadn’t tasted a thing.
“So, in our case, the bad guy would be?”
“Oho, this stage in the tale, things ain’t so clear.” Engineer03 winked. “But the hero? I happen to have a little inside info…”
At that exact moment, the night sky jerked. Minutely, 133 stars rotated around the pole.
“You know you wanna know.”
“Why not.” I lit a cigarette. “What’s he like?”
“Teenager. Red hair. Big white sword on back. 130 pounds, zodiac sign Gemini, and blood type O+. He’s in this zone right now, next street over.”
Engineer03 jerked his head sideways, indicating the rest of the map. I recognized that move. I’d used it before myself.
Just as my companion and I were exactly the same shape, we moved in exactly the same way. We were distinguished only by facial structure, clothing, and hair. He was dressed in leather overalls. I was in a business suit and bowler.
“He should be by any second now,” Engineer03 went on. “They say he’s called Glyph.”
“Think he’ll talk to us?”
“Maybe. After he goes into the bar and saves. Usually they get chattier afterward.”
I inhaled on the tasteless, smokeless cigarette. It did not decrease in length.
“White sword, red hair.” I thought hard. “Sounds kinda…”
“Yeah, it’s funny. I remember seeingthe kid. I know he’s come by the Save Point before. I just don’t remember when.”
“Heh, that’s funny,” said Engineer03. “They say Glyph’s got memory problems too. Amnesia.”
“Uh-huh. Nothin’ left but a name and combat skills. And especially about ‘that day’, five years ago. But listen… I was alone? In the Debug Room with Sector9Wench? And shesaid she’d just gotten back from palette-swapping with some chick called BlackBridgeVictim04…”
“Black Bridge,” I murmured. “That’s that place in the Imperial Palace that got nuked five years ago.”
“Right! Now… they say this Glyph kid was only ten, but he was there, they were using him in this, like, magic link experiment…”
“Yeah,” I finished. “So he could hit his Break Limit and awaken the XenoFrame and bring the Promised Day so that Dr. Hakase could gain the ultimate power.”
My friend squinted suspiciously.
“How’d you, uh, know all that?”
A troubling question. How didI know the details of that experiment? Maybe I’d just picked it up on the job. I wasan Imperial Research Scientist, after all. Even though I couldn’t remember actually doing any research. My friend was making me feel defensive.
“I just know, okay?”
“Sure.” Engineer03 shrugged his familiar shrug. “Sure, we’ve all been there. But anyway. Wench was saying everything was going good until this pendant Glyph wore, it started, like, ‘responding’, and all of a sudden this Pillar of Light opened up and nuked everyone, including her.”
“But not Glyph?”
“Course not, he got sucked into a vortex or contacted a wave lifeform or got swapped for a clone or something.” Engineer03 scratched his head. “But my source didn’t hear much more of the scene. What with being dead and all.”
Just as I finished my cigarette, I was struck by a thought.
“I wonder why don’t they put a bathroom into this bar,” I said. “I mean, at least a urinal, you know?”
“Hmmm,” said Engineer03. “What for? You gotta go?”
“Well, no. But listen…”
“Well… you ever get the sense that, uh…”
I watched the fish in the fishtanks, tried to put the feeling into words. The sense that my life was changing, expanding somehow. That sounded too silly, so I just moved my hands in circles… a motion which, due to overuse, conveyed nothing. I tried harder.
“You ever think, like, things are getting better and better for us?”
But Engineer03 widened his coin-sized eyes and slammed a fist on the table. The dishes didn’t move a millimeter.
“You idiot! The city’s chaos is increasing, it’s outta control! Eleven outta fifteen sectors’ve already been overrun by zombies and cyborgs and C-2s, them whatchamacall Chaos Constructions. There’s random encounters all around. It’s a wonder any of us get home at night.”
“It’s always night here,” I said. “And this ishome, for us at least.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Engineer03. “You’re always such a wiseass.”
“But what I’m sayingis…”
“Quiet,” said my friend. “There goes the girl.”
I glanced over the edge of the garden and up into the street. A green-haired girl, who couldn’t possibly be the missing princess who looked just like her, dashed by. She scattered twinkly tears the size of precious stones (a garish effect), sobbing:
“Glyph is an idiot!”
“Won’t be long now,” said Engineer03. “Assuming he saves.” He cleared his throat. “…That girl seemed really angry at somebody.”
“Um, that would be Glyph,” I said.
“Hey,” he said. “Can’t I practice my linehere?”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, good idea, he’s probably just…”
At that instant I felt a kind of curious shift, a coming into focus.
There is nothing like being in the same zone as a hero. There is no feeling like being in sight of his bright body, under the enforcing weight of his eyes. There is no sensation more real.
Under the stars and the downspilling streetlights, the brilliant child called Glyph trotted along down New First street, his big-toed combat boots tapping out identical sounds on cobblestone and trash. A gigantic white sword hung on his back, its method of attachment unclear. His cute, doe-eyed face gave an impression of fierce vulnerability. It was all too obvious that Glyph was a hero with a dark past… and that, no matter what, Glyph would never give up.
With insistent tinksounds, the hero targeted doors, switches, posters, streetsigns, and people of interest along New First Street. These sounds, louder even than my own voice, seemed to structure the world and give it a pulse…
IMPERIAL RESEARCH SCIENTIST
As that transparent green frame appeared above my head, I felt a little proud to know that I too was a person of interest to a hero.
Glyph ran down the stairs, past the two of us. He entered the bar. Through the distorting water of the aquariums, I could see him step into the incorporeal green pyramid that people called the Save Point. Glyph saved; with a jangle, a shower of heatless green sparks drifted upward.
Then Glyph ran out of the bar again.
This was the critical moment. Time to say the line, the line pressing on my tongue, waiting to leap into sound:
On that day, five years ago… one of Dr. Hakase’s experiments went out of control at Black Bridge.
144 people died… but the body of the test subject was never recovered.
Could that mysterious Pillar of Light… be the source of the Chaos Constructions?
Except I never got a chance to say it.
Because Glyph ran straight past us and out into New First Street in the direction the girl had gone.
“Well wouldja look at that,” said Engineer03. “He ignored us!”
I shook my head. A corny gesture, I realized, but I couldn’t stop midway.
“This isn’t right,” Engineer03 burst out. “What the hell are we here for if he won’t even talkto us?”
We were silent for a while.
“A GP for your thoughts,” I said.
“What were we talkin’ ’bout again?”
“How things are changing.”
“Like, we weren’t always chatting like this.”
“Yer right about that,” said Engineer03. “Time was, we didn’t say nothin’ till the hero came onscreen… Yessir, you areright on that one. But it’s not like it matters. We ain’t got long left anyhow….”
“What do you mean?”
My friend took a sip of tea. “You said the disaster happened when they tried to connect Glyph to the XenoFrame. Well, you ever been down to the end of the street?”
“…” was my reply.
“Okay, fine,” said Engineer03. “But here’s what I heard… down at the end, past the Boss Crab, there’s the ruins of the Imperial Palace. The Pillar of Light’s still there. Look, you can even see it. It’s just behind your shoulder.”
I tried to turn, but failed.
“So?” I asked.
“I’m saying, the Pillar of Light’s been there for five years, and it’s waitin’ for that kid!”
“You’re saying, that when Glyph touches the pillar again…”
“Yep.” Engineer03 set his teacup down. “Except he’s become much more powerful since he was a lad. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole city got nuked this time.”
“But we should try to warn him,” I said. “Glyph. I mean, he doesn’t knowhe was the test subject, he’s got amnesia.”
“In this town, who doesn’t?”
“You don’t get it. I mean, my line? What I say? It’s for irony, I say it to Glyph because he doesn’t know it yet, oh fuck!”
I knew I was supposed to keep still and chitchat forever with my friend the Engineer. But I just couldn’t anymore. I was learning. I was feeling.
For the first time ever, I stood up.
My legs popped, entering the uncrossable space of the chair on which I sat. In precisely one-thirtieth of a second, collision correction routines had jolted me thirty centimeters backward.
And I was on my feet behind the chair.
I turned around, stomped my foot. Sound rang out: not Glyph’s footsteps but my own.
I was free!
“I’m going after him,” I said.
Engineer03 blinked. “You’re crazy. You’re nuts. You can’t change the scenario.”
“That’s just not the way it works. It’s, like, boundto happen. They planned everything in advance…”
“Who planned it?”
“Well… maybe the same people who gave us our lines?”
“But we say morethan our lines now. We don’t haveto stick to the script. Look, I gotta go!”
“Wow,” said Engineer03. “That’s brave, I gotta say. I’d like to shake your hand…”
I wanted to shake his hand too. After all, the guy was my only friend.
Too bad we didn’t have an animation for shaking hands.
So we just shrugged at each other, one last time. Then I turned and ran.
I followed the kid’s trail up New First Street. Straight ahead, maybe half a kilometer away, loomed the hazy, lens-flared image of the dimensional pillar. A white fountain against a vault of stars. The powderkeg that was about to destroy all fifteen sectors of this city and everyone who lived here… With the possible exception of Glyph and his party members. They’d probably escape somehow.
I could see Glyph trotting along ahead of me. Now and then he’d stop to read something or pick up a coin from the street or enter a shop.
I passed other people, some of whom ignored me; others glared or stopped still. I didn’t care. I was running for my life, for all our lives…
Glyph was making for a gateway like a toll booth. This was the end of the sector, the edge of the map. One step beyond it, and this sector would vanish, only to be reconstituted again somehow… That had to be the explanation for the deja vu felt, the knowledge I had, the tics and habits I retained from previous cycles…
But I had no wish to repeat anything anymore.
It was time to break some more rules.
I approached a police officer standing at the entrance to a dark, slimey, and shallow-looking alley, another exit. He was wearing a paramilitary uniform, knee-high boots, and a totally opaque helmet. I wondered how he could see anything. Maybe he couldn’t.
“Move along,” said the guard. “It’s dangerous.”
Maybe I can provoke him, I thought.
“Move along,” said the guard. “It’s dangerous.”
“Didn’t you hear me?”
“Move along,” said the guard. “It’s…”
“Damn,” I muttered.
I had no time for this, so I gut-punched the guard. The blow could never have killed him, but it gave me time to pinch his pistol while he stumbled back into the indistinct darkness of the alley… and off the edge of the map.
Mysteriously, the guard was whisked away.
Pistol in hand, I opened the menu and dumped all my skill points into Proficiency-Firearms-Light. Then I looked up New First Street. The hero was almost at the gateway…
I settled my aim onto the hero’s back, an inch below his white sword. Then, carefully, I fired.
And the beautiful adolescent hero never saw a thing.
A splatter of red blood, redder than Glyph’s hair, discolored the gate that led out of Sector Thirteen…
“Sappari wakaranee,” muttered Assistant Project Director Yamada Goro, pausing the game and kicking his desk. His wheeled chair shot back out of his cubicle and into the aisle. He directed a shout down it: “Oi! Inoue-san yo!”
Inoue Hideaki’s shaggy head appeared out of his own cubicle, eyes dark-circled underneath.
“This Total Reflection AI of yours! I thought you fixed it!”
“Eh? “It’s still happening?”
“You moron! Why did it even happen in the first place?”
“I’m sorry,” said the programmer. “I don’t have any excuse.”
“I don’t want an excuse! I want a stable alpha where the NPCs don’t randomly attack the hero! We’re already two weeks behind schedule. At this rate, we won’t finish the game by the end of the year and our division will be a laughingstock! You want a ’40’ in Famitsu? Hell, you want a score Famitsu, you better get this shit fixed!”
“Yessir,” squeaked Inoue, who bowed, then vanished into his cubicle.
Yamada sighed. He needed a cigarette.
Overthinking, that was the trouble. He longed for the days when it had been possible to do things in simple, rational ways. When you could say: this sprite will sit on this square and speak if spoken to. He’d been conned into allowing this hotshot Inoue to try out his ‘Total Reflection AI’, on the grounds that it would save work in the long run. No need to laboriously script the movements of walk-on characters when they could arrive at the proper moves themselves. Right?
Wrong. In fact, Inoue’s AI had turned into a beast. It was using up too much memory, lagging the game, and pushing Yamada toward his second heart attack.
Overthinking. Yes, that Inoue was definitely overthinking things…
“Reset,” he grumbled, pronouncing it ri-setto. He brushed snack crumbs from his shirt and reached painfully down to the hot machine below his desk. “Yet again, reset...”
And he hit the button on the side of the console.
Nick Tramdack was born in 1985 and spent his childhood playing games not unlike those depicted in this story. He works in a research library in Chicago and will join the Clarion West class of 2011 this year in Seattle. His statline is classified.
Marco Attard is an accidental traveler through various points in time and space. This unfortunate condition makes him continually feel lost and confused, not to mention the constant vertigo. In between orientating himself to different times and histories, he reads, writes, and continually avoids deadlines.