It was just a job, like a hundred different jobs in five years of freelancing. Five years and nothing remarkable. Just the apartment, computer, the bed, and on Fridays, the sidewalk, market, and street. Just the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance and the fog, swirling, endlessly clouding the sky.
Coding was a dream for me. Ever since I was twelve years old, I could see the beauty of the byte. Pure, ordered, predictable. You always know what a line of code wants. You always can find the part that’s broken, the part that doesn’t make sense, and fix it, redo it, repair it, make it whole. With the power of code, I weaved the dreams of my youth into ordered streams of electrons and light that could reach out and change the world.
That morning I was waiting for a phone call.
Ping. A flashing blue icon stamped with an ‘F’ appeared in the lower right-hand corner of my monitor. My dad calling me. I ignored it and continued playing the beautiful and bizarre Japanese strategy game I had imported. My status message clearly said ‘Gaming; lemme be or be pwned’. The little window changed colors as it switched to voicemail. Out of curiosity, I clicked the icon to put it on the speakers and went back to playing.
“Jason? Jason? Are you there? Pick up.” My father’s middle-aged rumble cut through the sounds of artillery fire and inexplicable phrases being screamed in Japanese.
“There’s nothing to pick up, Dad,” I said aloud. “Join the 21st century, please.”
“Oh. Well. I guess you’re not there.” I could almost see his face, fat and wrinkled like a bulldog sans the fangs, wrestling with his words. “Umm…aaah, well. Look, son. Look.” A long sigh. A gurgle of fluid, the clicking of ice. Wonderful. “I know you don’t want to talk to me. You make that clear enough. I can’t even remember the last time you picked up your phone, or your goddamn mouse or whatever the hell it is you use to talk with.” He grunted. In my mind’s eye, his face went red with emotion as he wrestled with his words. “I dunno. I dunno what to say. I’m worried? I miss you? I’m sorry your mom left? Ahh, Christ–” Another gurgle of fluid, the tap of the glass being put down. “Look. Jason. Son. I’m worried about you. You never leave that tiny hellhole you live in–”
I looked around at my tiny hellhole. Bed, or rather, mattress and box-spring. Desk with computer. And of course, my only concession to physicality, the fridge. All in all, I liked my hellhole. I went back to clicking on factories that were manufacturing what were, as best I could tell, praying mantises with tentacles and breasts. Every time I clicked on one, what sounded like a small Japanese girl said something that I couldn’t understand, but had suspected was disturbing and vaguely sexual.
“And that horrible nonsense you put all over your walls. I mean, it was one thing when you were a kid, but you’re a grown man, for God’s sake. And it has to be a fire hazard…layers and layers of paper all over the walls.” He chuckled wetly, and the speakers popped with the sound. “Hell of a way to go, though. Burned to death by comics from 1985.”
My collage, I am proud to say, includes posters, pictures, pages from comic books and role-playing game manuals, video game screenshots, and magazines from as far back as 1973, all surrounding a collection of eyes cut from every picture, magazine, and comic that didn’t make the grade. Some were full pictures, some just a portion I had liked. There were quotes and sentences, sometimes just a single word that I liked for the taste it left in my mouth. Altogether, it covered my walls and ceiling completely, and in some places it went four layers deep. Constantly surrounded by the eyes of dragons, superheroes, philosophers, and gods, I was never alone.
“I guess what I’m trying to say–what I want to say–is that you need to get out of that place. I’m worried, and if your mom was here and…feeling herself, she would be, too.”
My mother was currently living in St. Giles, a mental institution for the criminally insane located here in Beggar’s Grove, California. After a rash of animal mutilations in our neighborhood was tracked back to her, she asked the two detectives that came knocking at our door in for tea. She sat them down in the kitchen, and then proceeded to glowingly give the police her account of torturing twelve cats, two dogs, and one rabbit, with an increasingly inventive array of tools, including a wire clothes hanger attached to a corkscrew. She had even duct-taped someone’s desperately confused pet iguana to a toy rocket and sent him flying into the evening sky, never to be found. The police, horrified and somehow fascinated, stared at her silently as I sat in the living room, eating a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich and watching Spongebob.
Finally, someone must have remembered their job, and I heard them put her under arrest. They took me with them, and then, after a thorough questioning, my dad arrived and took me home. I went to see her a few times, but her enthusiasm for torture had not waned, nor had the Thorazine sufficiently destroyed her love of a good story. Nothing ruins eating your mom’s hospital pudding like stories about strangling kittens with clothesline. I haven’t seen her for five years, since I was eighteen, but looking back, I was perversely proud that my mother was the founder and sole engineer of the short-lived Beggar’s Grove Iguana Aeronautics Program.
“Look, I’ve been talking with Dr. Brecker again. He says he would really like to see you.”
They had me seeing a psychologist for a while after my mom went away. Told me he had worries about my ‘engagement with reality’ and ‘lack of connection with others’. Eventually, I just stopped going.
“I told him about you not leaving the house, never picking up the phone or answering my calls, and no friends.”
I have friends. Over three hundred of them on Facebook alone, not to mention Twitter and Last.FM.
“He thinks you might be suffering some sort of break.”
At that moment, my game froze, and Japanese characters appeared on my screen. At that moment, I had been the one doing the killing, rather than getting killed, so I assumed I had won the game and closed the window.
Ping. Another call. No letter on the icon. I right-clicked the blue blob, and it opened into a small window: ‘Video-chat request: Nathan Alhireth’. The client. I clicked off the speaker on my father, still babbling drunkenly, and clicked ‘Answer’. A window popped open, and there was my client.
Tall and lean, skin dark beyond brown or black and well into the conceptual absence of light. He wore a black suit with a purple tie, and everything about him, from his delicate cheekbones and arched brow to the large amethyst ring on his left hand, spoke of wealth and elegant sophistication. His skin seemed to soak the light in, to conceal depths rather than reveal surfaces. I couldn’t place the nationality, with only some vague memory from a childhood field trip to a museum coming to mind.
“Hello, Mr. Alhireth! Glad to finally put a face to the emails.” I did my best to smile and look ‘friendly’ and ‘engaging’.
“Please, call me Nathan, Mr. Raene.” His voice was soft, velvety, but with a subtle, dusky menace and a touch of humor. The slight accent spoke of exotic climes, but I could not place it. He smiled, and I felt something cold on my back. For a moment, I thought my never-used air conditioner had kicked on, but it was silent. “Have you considered my proposal?”
“Yes. It is more than acceptable, and may I say that it will be an honor to work on a game like this. Your budget and concept together with my code will put this game on every screen in America.” I always enjoyed these projects. It was definitely better than yet another uninspired client with a corporate website or “Software As A Service” application.
“Ah, my boy, my dear bender of electrons, your scope is too small. My game will go everywhere, in every language.” The smile never left his face.
“And how much will you be charging?” I asked.
“The game will be free.”
“Free?” I said, surprised. “As in free to play? Free to download, then pay to play? Micropayments? What?”
“Free.” He smiled wider. “Gratis. At no cost to the player.”
“So…how do you expect to make money from it? I mean, from what you told me, you are going to put millions of dollars into this game’s development and marketing.”
“Yes.” He flicked an invisible speck off the lapel of his suit.
“But you’re not going to charge?”
“Oh, I get it,” I said. “This is your flagship game, which puts your company on the charts, and then you release an expansion or sequel and charge through the nose for that, right?”
“Whatever it is you need to believe.” He leaned forward into his camera, and his face filled my screen. “Do we have an agreement?”
“Sure.” It was more money than I had ever made. I would never have to work again, and I could do nothing but code and sleep and game and dream. “Just send over the specifications for the project.”
“They will be sent to you as soon as you email over your signed non-disclosure agreement and contract.” The man’s mouth filled the screen as he leaned even further into the camera.
“Done.” I clicked ‘send’ on the prepared email and attached contract. Almost immediately, I had a response carrying a rather large attachment. “All right, everything looks to be in order. Is there anything else–”
He was gone. The window was empty and blank; the words ‘Call Ended: 7m23s’ blinked at the bottom.
“Huh.” I guess he doesn’t have anything else he needs me to do, I thought. I opened the attachment and found an archived folder. Documents, specifications, background literature, every little detail you needed to build a game. Maybe more than you needed.
I opened the first file and leaned back for some long reading.
The name of the game was Fire and Glass, and it was brilliant.
That was the only way to describe it. A massively-multiplayer online role-playing game that would make Warcraft look like Hello Kitty Online. The details provided were flawless and omitted nothing, right down to the placement of the stars. The premise: a world much like our own, with normal people leading normal lives, but melded and interspersed with the world of dreams. Ancient cities of crystal and glass share space with skyscrapers. Eldritch monsters, long forgotten in the ancestral memories of our earliest mammalian ancestors, stalk the shadows alongside muggers and corrupt policemen. Within this realm, one part noir and two parts myth, players live a life of wonder, fighting monsters, exploring ancient ruins, discovering bizarre creatures, and living out any fantasy.
And I do mean any fantasy. The specifications were to allow player-created items and abilities, as well as open-ended quests. A player could create a world, destroy it, or even save it, provided they become powerful enough.
And that was the rub, of course. You had to gain levels, get more powerful, all in order to increasingly warp the game’s reality to your own will. Become powerful enough, the specifications promised, and you could literally rewrite the game’s reality itself, changing the rules for everyone and everything within it. Don’t gain power fast enough, however, and you become the potential victim of not only the antagonists in the game, but other players as well.
Ancient cities, alien colonies, townships ruled by sentient cats, and other wonders interspersed with real life cities. London was there, and New York. Sure enough, as I sifted my way through the concept art, I found my own beloved San Francisco. Every city in the world. Every piece of empty land. Every inch of road. All of it modeled exactly like our own, but with the second world, the world of dreams, merged into the scenery. As one walked through Golden Gate Park in the game, one entered the Enchanted Wood rather than the Shakespeare Garden…and was subject to its rules.
The monsters in the game varied a great deal. I could see the writer had put a lot of imagination and research into them. Some were familiar…ghouls, ghasts, giant rats, and the like, but there were some I had never heard of before. Zoogs, and Voonith, and Dholes, all of which I could easily imagine based on Mr. Alhireth’s meticulous descriptions. Still, I didn’t envy the graphics people who would have to produce all of that.
I set myself to my job: the game engine itself. Almost every aspect of both modern life in our world and the dream world was accounted for in the specifications for the game. The way each interaction functioned, everything from opening your character’s inventory to curb-stomping a ghoul, had to account for everything, every possibility.
I had been challenged to recreate creation, and what the alleged creator of Heaven and Earth did in six days, I did in twenty-three. To be fair, he had omniscience and omnipotence at his disposal, while all I had was Mountain Dew and the latest Daft Punk album set on repeat, so by the time Mr. Alhireth–Nathan–called me, I was feeling pretty good about myself.
“Hello, Nathan! How are you liking your new game engine?” I sincerely smiled at a client for the first time in years. “I had a lot of fun making it.”
“Mr. Raene. It’s good to speak with you, my weaver of worlds.” The smile was ever-present, apparently. The same smile. I wondered if he ever stopped. “Did you enjoy all the little details of my game, Mr. Raene?”
“Please, call me Jason,” I said, chuckling. “After all, you just made me rich.”
“Yes. Well. If you don’t mind me asking, Jason…how did you finish the game engine so fast?” His smile never seemed to quite reach his eyes. His enjoyment was genuine, but not his warmth. “I was quite astounded.”
“Well, honestly, I kind of wracked my brain for a while when you sent over the specs.” I had wracked my brain. How could I realistically code a whole world? Real physics don’t understand certain aspects of fluid dynamics yet, how was I to model them? “Then I had a dream, and it came to me clearly.”
“Did it, now?” He seemed to smile even more broadly than before, if that was possible. “And what was it?”
“Use the same method nature did. Biomimetics, technology that imitates nature.” I pulled open a notebook that sat beside the computer and showed him the diagram. “Here’s the design. I woke up with it in my head. It ‘grows’ software and evolves it, creating code that writes itself.”
“How?” He was leaning down into the camera again, his smile enlarging to dominate my screen.
“Well, I made a model using a design like a cell. There is code that runs it, like DNA, which randomly generates code to try and solve problems like falling realistically, shattering, things like that. And there is code that, like a body, performs functions in the world of the computer. I made a whole bunch of them, with minor differences, and put them in a virtual interaction with the object or function they were supposed to react to in the game.” I flipped the page in the notebook and showed him the next page. “So, a vase, or a sword, or whatever was tied to one of these cells. I gave each certain parameters: gravity, the speed of light, time’s progression…all of the standard model of physics.” I flipped the page again. “I made another batch of cells for objects and functions from the dreamworld and did the same, according to your specifications. Then, I just let them go through multiple generations, changing the cells to incorporate what code had worked. The process ran sixteen days, through several billion generations, and now we have a game engine.”
“Dreamlands,” he said absently as he sat back and rubbed his chin. I was astonished. For once, his grin was lost in a look of contemplation.
“They are called the Dreamlands.” The smile returned. “And you have made them perfectly, however you did it.”
“Thank you. I hope things are going as well with the rest of the development team.” I was lying. I had my money and didn’t care how the rest of the project went, though the game did look awesome. I was pretty sure that I would try it once it came out. “I look forward to playing it after release.”
“Oh yes, it is all going very well. The engine has been populated with the graphics and sounds, while the text is being incorporated in stages.” His eyes twinkled with merriment. “While I applaud our author’s creativity and attention to detail, his grammar and spelling can be a bit…tiresome.”
“Well, that’s too bad. But otherwise, it’s going well?” Again, I didn’t really care, but I knew how to play the game with someone who had just given me over five million dollars for the work of less than a month. “We’re launching soon?”
“Yes, we should be launching very soon.” He leaned forward into the camera, but this time it was his eyes that filled my screen. They were dark, the pupils dilated and liquid. “If you choose to play, I invite you to join a guild with the rest of the developers and myself.”
“You mean a ‘cult’.” I remembered the spec sheets. In this game, guilds were called cults. “And what kind of guild?”
“Yes, a cult. And it will be the most hardcore cult in the game.”
“What’s the name going to be?” For some reason, this was always important to me. Names were powerful.
“Harbingers.” His eyes filled the screen. The only reason I believed there were whites in them was because I knew there must be. No one’s eyes are all pupil, no matter how dark. “It means ‘those who prepare the way’. A first sign of what is to come.”
I considered the proposition. I had, of course, been in many guilds, clans, player associations, and clubs over the years, but I had always played the game before joining. Ah, what the hell, I thought, it’s just a game. I can always quit.
“I’m in,” I said, smiling broadly.
Fire and Glass wasn’t only brilliant, it was popular. The game launched and went gold, and the next thing we knew, it was the most played game in the world. I started playing with the Harbingers, and we quested and harvested and worked our way through the game together, but somehow we never really talked about anything except the game. The only person I talked to from the cult outside the game was Sabrina, the graphics developer. She was kind of cute, a little Asian chick with purple strips in her hair, if her Facebook picture was anything to go by. I didn’t know whether she was Korean, or Japanese, or what. Frankly, I was afraid to ask. She lived near me, a couple of miles away near Market Street. We became friends on a few sites and talked on IRC late into the night, after everyone else had logged out of the game. That’s how we decided to raid the King in Yellow, the last boss in the game.
“Not everyone is ready,” I typed. “Hell, Josh’s best spell is the Elder Sign. He can’t even Dream Real.” Dreaming Real was a special ability granted at level thirty, or by a special quest, allowing you to add new functions to the game, like spells you came up with, new monsters, or non-player characters. Few cults allowed anyone without the ability to Dream Real to join, but since he was a developer, we had mercy on him.
“Well, we can just do Y’ha-nthlei over and over ‘till he levels,” Sabrina responded. “That should level him up enough and get him some better gear. Then we can do it.”
“Sure, we can do that,” I typed. “I need to harvest sea slugs for tradeskilling, anyway.”
“Hey,” she asked. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“I don’t have anything,” I responded. “I was supposed to help Kevin grind out some quests, but that’s about it.”
“Want to come over and drink and watch some movies?” She asked. “I have the entire Phantasm series rented.”
“I don’t really drink,” I typed. “Interferes with the coding.”
“Oh. Well, what about the movies?” she asked. “You don’t have to drink.”
“I own them all already,” I responded. “The first and fourth are the best.”
“So you don’t want to come over?”
“I don’t want to go someplace else just to watch movies I already own,” I typed. “What would be the point?”
“To watch them together,” she typed. “Look, do you want to come over or not?”
“…” She had me there. I didn’t have much of a concept of ‘together’. I had never had an in-real-life friend, much less a girlfriend. “I…I don’t know?”
“…” That didn’t seem to sit well. Frustration welled up in me. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her…didn’t want her. I just didn’t know what to do, and she wouldn’t tell me.
“SAB-GRAPHICS HAS LEFT THE CHANNEL.”
Damn. I knew I had pissed her off. I even knew it was because she wanted me to come to her house. I just didn’t understand why. I closed the window with a sigh and logged back in to the game.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flicker of motion, then it was gone. Then a second flicker, this one longer, more defined. Something was moving on the wall. I turned my head slowly. I had found insects in here before, and once, even a ragged, half-starved rat. The key to getting rid of them was slow, purposeful movement.
The motion stopped the moment I got my full vision on it. The eyes. I examined the aesthetic center of the collage, trying to see the insect that had been creeping before I looked, but found nothing.
I went back to the game.
I walked out into the garish light of the morning, about a week after launch; I hated this part of the week. Leaving my little lair for any reason perturbed me, but getting groceries always bothered me more than anything. Putting out that much effort for a bunch of carbon and calories. When I thought about the human race, a species capable of touching the stars, creating masterpieces, and contemplating the deepest mysteries of existence, and thought about the fact that we still have to take in fuel through rotting organic matter, I was disgusted and vaguely insulted.
And I wanted to play the game.
The morning air was chilly, as always, though the fog was already burning off. The walk down to the store was uneventful, sidewalk and streets relatively empty. Some homeless kids panhandled next to the store. The boy had bi-hawks–twin mohawks–on his head, and the girl’s hair was green. They were both dressed in filthy army surplus gear that had patches sewn on with dental floss. The girl had a stud through her bottom lip that she toyed with using her tongue while her partner asked me for change. I handed them a quarter, literally the only cash I had on me, and made my way inside.
Inside the small grocery, mayhem reigned. People shouted at each other in groups and pairs, men shoved men as women screamed at each other. The cashier and manager were attempting to shove each other out of the store. One woman, forgotten in the chaos, sat on a display of self-lighting fire logs and wept unashamedly.
I walked through the small market like a ghost as the battles raged around me, picking up what I needed. No one had come to blows yet, but that seemed imminent. I made my way to the cashier, who rang up my goods without pausing in his description of the virtues of the manager’s mother. I slid my card, tapped my code, and fled with my bags. The bell on the door clanged behind me.
Outside, the homeless kids were fighting. I didn’t have time to hear much of it before the young man threw a handful of change and a single dollar bill on the ground and stormed off, over-sized backpack thrown over his left shoulder. As I began to gingerly walk by, the girl called out to me.
“Hey, man, hey.”
I walked over to her.
“Hey, you like to party? Let’s get some wine with this.” She nodded at the change on the ground. “Head back to your place. Have some fun.” She licked her lips.
I shook my head. “I don’t like parties. They make me anxious. I don’t know what people are going to do.”
“You gay?” Her eyes narrowed. “Not that I have anything against it…”
“Look,” she said, clearly exasperated. “If you let me stay at your place, I’ll have sex with you, is that clear enough?”
“Umm…” I considered the offer. I had never had sex, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. And I didn’t want anyone else in my space. “No, thanks.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Her eyes narrowed again, and she tossed her green hair. “I won’t rob you or anything. You can watch me the whole time. I just don’t want to squat with that loser.” She tossed her head to indicate the tiny, departing silhouette of her partner.
“I’m sorry,” I said, walking away. “I just wanted some groceries.”
“You’re mental, ain’t ya?” She rolled her eyes. “A few screws loose? Maybe a little retarded?”
I didn’t answer and kept walking.
She started cursing as I walked away, and I felt bad, but I didn’t know what she expected. She couldn’t really do anything for me that I couldn’t do for myself, and I live in a small place. As I walked past the ground-floor apartments, I saw Mrs. Krantz sitting at her computer through the window, her white hair and oxygen tank unmistakable in the small building. Always intrigued to see old people using new technology, I stopped and watched to see what she was doing. On the monitor, a familiar animation told me all I needed to know; she was playing Fire and Glass.
Our little game was quite a hit.
Two other members of the cult were online, so we went questing. We were silent, as usual. Each of us knew what to expect. The in-game world had become increasingly savage as more players joined and gained power. It was getting hard to find things to kill. Too many predators make for poor prey. Just as we finally closed on another group of players and began to attack, I saw the flash of movement to my side again. I couldn’t stop playing; my group was depending on me, but I couldn’t help glancing over at the wall for a brief second as one of the eyes, cut from a baroque print from the 17th Century, batted its elaborate and filigreed eyelashes at me.
I gasped and pulled back, but my group needed me, so I pushed myself back up to the desk and continued the battle. Each of us conjured new and more powerful twists of reality which attacked the other group or counteracted their summonings. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the baroque eye wink again, then all the other eyes started rolling around and twisting. I split my attention between the game and the wall as we continued the fight. The eyes continued to roll madly in their two-dimensional sockets as we fought in the game. I worked to ignore them; if I stopped playing or logged out, my party would die, and our cult would be humiliated. They had to be hallucinations; only the game was real.
I was my mother’s son.
In the bathroom, I heard water faucets turn on. The echo told me they were the bathtub’s. I ignored the noise and continued to play. The eyes danced madly in the corner of my vision, and I could hear the tub filling in the bathroom, the pitch getting lower as the water level grew higher. Soon, it stopped altogether, and I heard the familiar drip-drip-drip as the faucet drained its last bits of water into the now-filled tub.
Somehow, during all of this, I reassured my mind with trivialities. So someone was in my house, without coming in through the windows or door, and taking a bath? So what? So the pictures of eyes on my wall had decided to have a look around? After the comfort their gaze had given me, it was only fair that I allow them some exercise.
And then the battle was over. My party was victorious, and our experience points reflected it.
“I have to log,” I typed. “Thanks for the group.”
“No problem,” they each typed, almost simultaneously. “Have a good night. Good game.”
“Good game.” I logged out and stood up, looking over at the eyes, almost daring them to do something. They were motionless, but I could still hear splashing and movement from whatever it was that had invaded my bathtub. I slowly walked to the bathroom, careful not to make any noise, and slipped my head around the corner.
Almost submerged in the bathtub, lay a shape…
His fiction work has been used as the basis for the upcoming online game Ghostees!, published by BakedOn Entertainment, and his non-fiction work has previously been published in “Thinking Critically” (10th ed.), published by Cengage Learning, Inc./Nelson Education Ltd., and in “Critical Thinking, Thoughtful Writing” (5th ed.), also published by Cengage Learning, Inc./Nelson Education Ltd. He has been interviewed by Mashable, and maintains a strong social media presence online.
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