Monday
Aug152011


Luminarium


By Alex Shakar

 

 

Soho Press
August 2011
448 pages
978-1569479759


 

34th Street never looked so good. Sidewalks sans so much as a gum stain. Identically trimmed, bright green shrubs in the planters. Store window mannequins clad in every color of the rainbow. No traffic, just the three fire trucks, two police cars, and an ambulance parked along the curb. No people other than Sam and Fred, standing by the curb in firefighter coats and helmets, facing each other.

"Well," Sam said. "At least you're showing a face."

"Sorry, Sam," he muttered.

Little Sam's head tilted skyward. "Nice day for an attack. Glad the weather held." A small joke to show they were putting the issue behind them. Sam's virtual lips moved lethargically, out of sync with his voice coming through on Fred's headset. The speech detection code didn't work so well when players mumbled.

"The street looks… clean," Fred observed.

"Not quite realistic," Sam agreed. "But we don't want to make the mayor's office uncomfortable."

The mood around them, both in the office and on the screen, was nervous elation. Fred was kind of excited too, though he was taking pains not to clue his younger brother into this. The look and feel of the place had advanced so much in the months since the company they'd built was eaten and Fred had stopped showing up to work and gotten laid off, it was as if he'd been gone not months but decades, and he couldn't help but marvel at it. Though he was also sure to remind himself what he knew from repeated experience, that a few weeks from now, some new video card would come along, some new video game would come out, and Urth, by comparison, would begin to feel like some rust-belt neighborhood whose time had come and gone.

Little Sam, meanwhile, continued swiveling this way and that on the sidewalk. "Time to go, everybody," he called out. Behind him, down the street, two other avatars popped in, Jesse and Conrad, it looked like. Jesse was a cop today, his blond mop streaming from a tented blue cap; Conrad was the fire chief, a white helmet replacing the upper hemisphere of his Afro. Little Jesse saluted, and Little Conrad gave the "hold position" combat signal, a closed fist, conveniently resembling the Black Power salute.

"T minus two," Conrad announced, his voice coming through the headset fuzzed with noise, a simulated walkie-talkie link—one of a list of new features Fred had on a crib sheet taped to his screen, this one engaged by holding down the Control and Shift keys.

"Where is everybody?" Sam said. "Get them in here."

Jesse's virtual mouth moved but Fred couldn't hear him, at least not through the headset, as police were on a different channel. Across the office, though, Jesse could be heard hollering and clapping in the faces of the other programmers to get them to take out their earphones, put on their headsets, and log on. More avatars, reed-thin ones, for the most part, popped onscreen, and the chatter increased. There were to be about thirty participants today, ten here in New York and the rest in Orlando at their new overlord's corporate headquarters. As the appointed time drew near, most of the avatars rotated to face across the street, their heads angling upward. Fred looked as well. The Empire State Building, pristine and symmetrical, receded like a road straight into the sky.

"Is there a plane?" he asked.

"We haven't gotten to that," Sam said. "Just the fireworks."

"Hey Fred," Jesse said, having stepped with Conrad into speaking range, "way to have a cartoon face."

"I'm old school, what can I say?"

"Well, don't be self-conscious, God just made you different, is all." Jesse walked off, back toward some other cops.

"The execs here yet?" Fred whispered to Sam, scanning the crowd, then peering around the office loft to see if anyone had overheard. He didn't quite trust the new proximity hearing code, which allowed avatars standing close to each other to converse in relative privacy.

"Don't see them. Len is supposed to take them around."

"Thirty seconds," Conrad radioed.

The impact, somewhat randomized, was now being calculated. Leaning over his keyboard, Fred could see across the office into Sam's alcove. A row of shelving blocked Sam himself from view, but Fred could see the glow of lamplight above Sam's desk reflecting off the posterboard sheets with which Sam had tiled over the window. It would have been reassuring to catch a glimpse of the actual city, the one not currently under attack.

"In three, two, one," Conrad announced, "and..."

Halfway up the tower, a fireball and a cloud of black smoke erupted, followed by a hail of glass and stone. A cheer went up in the room. The Armation coding team congratulated Sam's team over the radio channels. Debris began clattering down to the street. Fred backed up, then flinched as a chunk of masonry seemed to pass right through Sam, smashing to dust and leaving behind a small, webbed crater in the concrete beneath his feet.

"We disabled avatar deformability for the first two minutes," Sam explained. "To give everyone a chance to watch the show."

"—kick ass particle effects—"

"—check out what that chunk did to the firetruck—"

"—got jumpers today?—"

"Hmm," Sam muttered. He took off, over to the cops, Fred following. "Do we have jumpers?" Sam asked Jesse.

"Haven't tested anything like that yet. That kind of impact will probably take a lot of calculations with these new human physiology models."

"It's one of the hazards," Sam said, palpably upset. "Next time, all right?"

"Yeah," Jesse said, his voice growing strained as well. "What's a few more sixteen-hour workdays? We'll put it on the list."

"Stay with Len and the execs. Make sure they see all the best stuff."

Jesse gave a Sieg Heil—one of George's last contributions to the gesture menu before bitterness and cancer-induced coma had taken hold—and moved off. Fred tried not to think of George, languishing in his hospital bed, today and many days to come if Fred succeeded in getting his job back. He tried not to think of the execs, though the prospect of pulling off a positive, casual exchange with them was the whole reason he was here. Sam turned, heading up the sidewalk. Fred trailed him, forcing his actual muscles to unclench. The smoke above was beginning to block out the sun.

"This deadline is a monster," Sam told Fred. "The tour for the city brass is less than three weeks away. We've only got two generic floor plans, the textures aren't done, and the whole thing's as buggy as a locust plague. Plus there's the move. I've got to start sending everyone down south next week."

Next week. Fred wondered whether how many of their dozen former employees had consented to be packed up and shipped off to Orlando along with the hardware without so much as a grumble. Maybe all of them. Gradually, the hail stopped, and the street was once again quiet, though up above the smoke kept billowing.

"Fire chief!" Sam shouted.

"Oh, right," Conrad said. "Let's move, people."

The thirty of them crossed the street, filing into the lobby. Computer-controlled civilians—their mouths forming little o's of terror, moved with swinging arms around the players' avatars and out the door. Conrad, voice rising, ordered some firemen to help the civilians exit, others to check the elevators and report back. Fred followed Sam around a corner into a blackened elevator bank. On the floor was what looked at first to be an outsized Yule log bedecked with merry, dancing flames. Sam grabbed a fire extinguisher from a nearby wall and unleashed a shower of foam over the blaze.

"Bodily ignition," he said. "Fire still doesn't look right." He moved closer to the sprawled avatar, mottled with white foam and black char. "Good textures, though. Wonder what Conrad used. Looks like burnt hot dogs and shaving cream. Come take a look."

Fred was torn between fascination and queasy repulsion. The latter won out. "I can see it from here."

He turned instead to lose himself in the golden Art Deco engraving of the Empire State Building on the wall, an almost Escher-like brainteaser of nested simulations, remembering, for some reason, the night in the office a couple years back when George had issued his self-diagnosis—holomelancholia—as the two of them watched, in real time, the sun crest over a virtual Afghanistan valley, its uniform gray edging into scrubby greens and poppy pinks. If this world was no longer George's, and no longer his, Fred thought, in every way but ownership, it still seemed to be Sam's. He had to admit, Sam was finding a way of squeezing the lemons of his constant stress into managerial lemonade—an enthusiastic stress, an adrenaline that spread through the whole team. He disliked himself for it, but there it was: every order his brother happily barked out caused Fred to squirm as if a bucket of slugs had been dumped down the back of his shirt.

"Ha! Alive!" Sam said.

Fred looked. In the air above the reddened, blackened head, in green letters, the word breathing pulsed.

"Medic!" Sam shouted, loud enough for his actual voice to resound across the room.

If he keeps it up, Fred imagined George muttering, he'll be needing a medic. Sam, it came as no surprise, was grating even more on Inner George than on Fred.

Little Sam ran off, returning a few seconds later with an EMS guy, whose sparse mustache identified him as Len, the Armation-Urth lead designer.

"Looks like a hot fudge sundae," Little Len said, kneeling by the body. The repeating pattern of irregular loops and waves his hands made over the body was meant to indicate triage, but more closely resembled the ritual motions of a witch doctor."Weren't you supposed to be with the suits?" Sam asked.

"A meeting's running late. They should be here soon." Len's avatar revolved a bit unrealistically around the burn victim so as to face Fred, then broke off his voodoo motions and stood up. "Hey, that you, Fred?"

"Yeah. It's me."

Len laughed, uneasily. "You spooked me. That big-eyed face. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past."

Fred wondered if Len had thought he was George at first. He supposed he and George were both equally ghosts around here.

"You… ah, thinking about joining us again?" Len asked.

Word of Fred's being sacked seemed to have gotten around.

"We might not want to discuss that now," Sam said.

Len made his avatar grin and give the thumbs-up signal. "Well… hope you do." He looked left, up, right. "Hell. You don't want to stay here, do ya?"

Little Len winked. Len was big on the emotes. Fred tried to make his avatar belly-laugh but fumbled the keys, causing Little Fred to shoot up his hands in surrender. Little Len stared blankly. Sam broke the silence.

"What's your take on real estate down there, Len?"

"With the boom down here, it's all pretty hot right now. I'd try Oviedo. Nice little burb."

"What about Celebration?" Sam said.

"The Disney town. Very nice. Great investment."

"Good," Sam said. "That's what I thought."

Above the charred body, the word deceased flashed in red.

"Ah fuck," Len said.

"You just killed me, man."

It wasn't immediately clear where the voice was coming from.

"Who's that?" Sam asked.

"Mike, man."

"What are you doing playing a toastie?"

"Testing the POV." The corpse's lips, Fred now saw, were moving. Mike must have gone into God mode, overriding the mortality constraints. "Kinda awesome to see the flames coming up out of you."

"Go be an upper-floor civilian," Sam said. "Send a distress call."

Back at the security desk, Conrad was handing out floor assignments. As previously arranged, he gave Fred and Sam the highest, the fiftieth floor, and, if possible, upward from there. Fred followed Sam to a stairwell and they began to climb. It was slow going. A more or less steady stream of terrorized non-player characters passed on the left, heading down.

"The Disney town?" Fred asked.

"Disney built the downtown and planned the community, but the houses are privately owned." Sam's tone, unlike Fred's, was adamantly conversational.

At about the twenty-fifth floor, Fred noticed their movement had slowed even more.

"We're barely moving," he said to Sam. "I bet it's the client-side simulation timer. Either that or the predictive modeling is bogging down." It felt good, making the diagnosis. The mere words "predictive modeling" had lent his voice a bit of the old CEO snap.

"That would be the new fatigue code. Our legs are tired." Sam gave slow articulation to the words. "And by the way, you just aired your ignorance over the walkie-talkie. Keep your fingers off Control-Shift."

"Aha," said Fred. He'd been trying to run. That was just Shift.

Ahead of them, the other firemen, cops, and EMS teams were thinning out onto their assigned floors. The o-mouthed NPCs passing on the right had slowed to an intermittent trickle. The walkie-talkie chatter began breaking up. Conrad was saying something about 911 calls from the seventieth floor and above. Someone else mentioned smoke on thirty-five. The greenish light played on Sam's helmet as he swayed and rocked in a slight, steady pattern, an exaggerated kind of breathing simulation generally thought to make avatars seem more lifelike. Wisps of smoke began curling in the air between them.

"I've put down a deposit on a place."

It took Fred a minute to process this. "You put down a deposit without even seeing it?"

"All the floor plans are online. Some pictures, too."

"Why don't you just rent for a while?"

"I want to be settled when I get there. No more moving."

They were alone on the stairs. The smoke was getting thicker.

"Wonder where it's coming from," Sam said. "A fire door must be jammed open somewhere." He rotated 360 degrees, looking around the stairwell. "Anyway, the condo is pre-inspected. I just need you to go and make sure nothing's obviously wrong with it before I sign and make the down payment."

"What? Me?"

"I'm too busy here."

Idiotically, Fred was glaring at Little Sam's face, and more idiotically expecting a reaction.

What the fuck are you, Inner George said, his gopher now?

"What the fuck am I, your gopher now?"

Little Sam breathed, moved his mouth. "I didn't mean to step on your pride, I just thought you'd like the opportunity to poke around down there, since you're thinking about joining us. Besides," he swiveled to face the stairs, "you've got the meeting with Armation the next day, 9 am sharp."

"I do?"

"It's all set up."

"You set up a meeting for me? Without even talking to me about it?"

"Right, well, I know how busy your schedule is these days," Sam said, deadpan. "Maybe you had some more shoplifting planned?" He started to climb again. "Watch your health meter. If it starts to go down, put on your mask. Looks good, the smoke, doesn't it?" he went on. "I can practically smell it. Remember that smell?"

Fred followed in silence, too confused to know how to feel. Probably Sam was just excited to see the project up and running, but some part of Fred suspected that his own presence was fueling this boisterousness of Sam's, that Sam was jumping at the chance to show him how much he'd thrived in his and George's absence. Sam seemed so carried away he couldn't even help rubbing it in, treating Fred not just like a subordinate but like some variety of imbecile, not even consulting him about the steps being taken on his behalf. Maybe this was Sam's revenge for the all the years of having to follow Fred's and George's lead. Yet, on the other hand, Sam really seemed to be doing everything in his power to bring him back aboard, for which Fred knew he should be grateful.

"What's this about shoplifting, then?"

Up on the next landing, two other firefighter avatars appeared through the smoke. The voice, low and clipped, belonged to an Armation attorney they'd dealt with in the past, Fred was pretty sure. In the haze and under their helmets, it wasn't easy to tell the two avatars apart. The one on the left had a rounder face. Fred thought it might be Gibbon, from acquisitions.

"Hello," Sam said, bridging the awkward silence. "So you've noticed you can hear people from within a certain range. That's the proximity hearing code. Works well, doesn't it?"

Other avatars emerged from the smoke. A whole group, mainly of firefighters, but at least one cop's hat in the bunch, and an EMS worker's outfit, atop which Fred dimly recognized Len's patchy mustache.

The round-faced one ignored Sam. "What the hell kind of head is that you've got on?" Indeed, that subterranean gravel-slide of a voice was unmistakably Gibbon's.

"Is it a joke?" asked another firefighter Fred didn't recognize.

"I don't know if this is the proper situation for fooling around," the attorney said.

"We didn't have time to update him," Sam jumped in. "How did you guys get up there ahead of us?"

"I just zapped us in," Len said. "I thought it would be easier to find the action that way."

"Have you seen any fire up there?" Sam asked. "I think it's pretty impressive, close up."

"None," said a cop—was it Lipton? "Just a lot of walking about."

"Have you tried—"

"Hold on," Gibbon said. There was a rustling as his hand covered the mic, his voice more distant, though his avatar's mouth moved as before, eyes blinking every few words. "What's up, Charlotte, is it about our bid? I'll call back in five." Then into the mic again: "Looks like our little playtime here is almost over."

"You're not going to—" Sam adjusted his tone. "If possible, you might want to stick around for the collapse phase. It's fairly..."

"Impressive, right, well..." Gibbon chuckled. "It really better be, for all the blood and treasure you kids are gobbling up."

"Who are you two, anyway?" another firefighter—Erskine, it sounded like—asked.

"Oh," Sam said, sounding a little hurt, "I thought you recognized us. I'm Sam Brounian."

"Hard to tell in the dark. We're finding issues here, Sam. The walkie-talkies are buggy. They keep cutting out."

"That's not a bug. We're simulating an actual reliability issue with the repeaters in skyscrapers," Sam said, oozing pride.

The men muttered approvingly.

"Well," Erskine said, "the platform appears stable."

"Very stable," Sam chirped.

"Will it be ready in time?"

"No question. Absolutely."

"Land us this client," Lipton said, "and we'll all be happy campers."

"And who's Cartoon Head?" Gibbon said, walking up in Fred's face.

"It must be George," Erskine said warily.

"Fred," said Fred.

"Right. Yes. I'm sorry for your loss. You too, Sam, though I'm sure I've already told you."

"Loss?" Gibbon asked.

"Remember?" whispered Lipton. "The twins."

Gibbon adjusted his tone. "Very sorry, boys."

"He's not dead," Fred said.

"He's not?" said Lipton.

It was surprisingly possible for an awkward silence to pass among virtual constructs.

"Hey, that's a relief," said the attorney.

"Still very ill, though, yes?" said Erskine.

"Yes. Yes he is," said Sam.

"We sure hope he pulls through," said the unidentified firefighter.

"So I hear you're coming in to inquire about working for us again," Erskine said.

Coming in to inquire…

For all his preparation, Fred couldn't think of a dignified way to reply to this. "Well… Sam… the possibility came up of..."

The group waited on the steps above, pulsing as one with simulated breath.

"I'd definitely be open to… discussing it..."

They let his attempt at dignity fade off into silence.

Hit the cheat codes, Freddo, Inner George whispered. Give yourself an Uzi.

"Who wouldn't want back into this gig, right?" said Lipton, with a snicker.

"Play videogames all day, on our dime. Can't beat that, can you?" said Gibbon.

"My grandkids' dream job," someone else chimed in.

"Give our best to your brother," said the attorney.

"Carry on, ladies," said Gibbon.

The group filed past, making their way down the stairs. Fred and Sam faced each other, pulsing.

 

"Could've gone worse," Sam attempted.

"You think so?" Fred said, fuming and stupefied.

"Sounds like they'll take you back." Sam began climbing the stairs again, his shoulders ticking right and left.

"Sounds like he wants me to come in and beg for it."

"Well, whose fault is that? You shouldn't have called him a murderer."

"You're taking his side? You're taking that… m—motherfucker's side?"

"Proximity," Sam hissed. "Forget proximity. I can hear you across the office."

By the fortieth floor, even the emergency lighting was gone. They activated their flashlights and proceeded through the murk.

"Do you want back in or not?" Sam said. "You need to decide."

It was all Fred could do to keep from taking the monitor with both hands and ramming it with his head.

"You've got to remember who's boss," Sam said. "This is a real business, now. There's a hierarchy."

From somewhere, it was impossible to tell how far away, came a structural groan, followed by a boom and a clatter. Sam shone his light on the landing door—the number 50, stenciled in white.

"We're here," he whispered.

All was quiet, the radio chatter having faded entirely. Sam tried the door. A sampled grunt and the word jammed appeared. A crowbar materialized in his hand, then waggled, and the door swung open. A thick cloud of smoke poured out. Fred swore he could not only smell but taste it, acrid, caking his tongue. When their health meters began to flash and drop, they donned their masks, though the illusion of smoke around his desk made Fred start clearing his throat. On the screen, meanwhile, the smoke dispersed enough for their lights to penetrate into the corridor beyond. Dozens of bodies were slumped on the floor.

Fred and Sam made their way in. deceased, deceased, deceased flashed above the NPCs, men and women in business attire: ties and skirts, polished black shoes pointing every direction. Their skin was pale, not burnt, their mouths open, their eyes closed or bulged wide. Despite his queasiness, this time Fred couldn't stop examining the details—the fattish face of one of them, the pair of oval-lensed glasses on a second, the wristwatch on a third.

"Smoke inhalation code's working," Sam whispered.

"Is there no one alive here?" Along with the rising nausea, Fred felt a wave of that nightmarish paralysis. "Can't we just save one fucking person in this exercise today?"

"It's all random, Fred. Who lives, who dies." Sam's mouth failed to move with the words. The number of calculations must have been taxing the server.

Something appeared in the flamelight through a doorway at the corridor's end. Fred saw legs moving as it turned and fled.

"Someone's there," he whispered.

"Hey, slow down," Sam called after him.

Fred was running, chasing it down the corridor. Hard to tell in the flickering light, but it didn't look quite human. The shape wasn't right.

"Fred, wait up, where are you?" Sam shouted.

Fred emerged into the reception area of a suite of darkened offices. One whole wall was ablaze, flames licking across the ceiling. He turned, and there it was. Humanoid, hairless, with wings, a demonic silhouette, something moving like a giant talon. Again, it turned and fled.

"What the fuck is that?" Fred said.

"What the fuck is what?" Sam said, behind him now. "Where are you going? It's too dangerous here."

Fred went after whatever it was. From across the office, he heard Jesse shout that his flashlight had gone offline.

"Mine too," Sam called out.

Fred's own seemed to be working. He was in another room now, dark except for the beam. He swept his light around. And there it was.

George. His head bald and pale. A forked oxygen tube dangling from his nose. Robed in a floral-print hospital gown. Looming over his shoulders and behind his skinny arms, a pair of giant white wings. And in his right hand, a long-poled, single-bladed axe, chopping rhythmically at the smoky air.

"Fred, come on," Sam said, stepping around into the flashlight's beam, standing right next to that chemotherapy angel. "We'll get trapped in here."

"Jesus. Are you not seeing that?"

"Seeing what?"

All at once, the whole room was aflame. The terrain had shifted, somehow. Fred didn't realize until he looked up that a section of the ceiling had collapsed.

"We gotta get out of here!" Sam said, running off.

Fred's health meter was dropping again. The George angel turned, displaying, between the tied flaps of the gown, its pallid buttocks, its wing joints, and strapped between them, a small, steel oxygen tank. The angel ran off through a flaming doorway, and Fred followed, down another hall. Ahead, the angel passed straight through a closed door. Fred clicked on the door to open it, but strangely, it shattered, the pieces whirling into a single point and disappearing. Fred walked through the doorway into a small office—two chairs, a desk, a computer atop the desk. The George angel was standing there, still moving the axe up and down, and all around him, interactable objects—the monitor, then the desk, then the chair—shattered and spun to nothing.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Fred shouted, feeling dizzy and sick. "Who the fuck are you?"

"Fred?" Sam's voice crackled over the walkie-talkie channel. Fred realized he'd been Control-Shifting. "Fred, who are you talking to?"

Wondering about what had happened with the door, Fred tried clicking on a chair and it too was obliterated. The George angel turned to face him again. Through the window behind where the avatar stood, to the far side of what had been the desk, could be seen the undeveloped, grayscale, 2-D metropolitan-area map, stretching to the unobstructed, slightly curved horizon to meet the cyan sky. The angel's moving axe smashed the window, which shattered with a crisp, digitally sampled sound and whirled away. Then the avatar turned back and clambered over the ledge, stepping right out into the air. It didn't fall, just kept walking away, wings unused, axe still waving. Going up to the window, pressing his mouse wheel and angling straight down, Fred could see tiny, three-pixel avatars flowing out onto 34th Street, around firetrucks, police cars, and ambulances, the popping colors all but gone, whitened now with simulated ash. More groans and collapses sounded in the distance, and everyone in the office was shouting. Masks, lights, water hoses, fire extinguishers—from what they were saying, nothing seemed to be working. Fred's own mask still functioned, but the heat was roasting him. Smoke poured in around the door frame and seeped in through the walls. He'd be one of those sickening Yule logs before long. His throat clenched, his stomach rose. Space itself tightened around him to the point of nonexistence, on screen and off, flattening into the same two-dimensional plane. He blinked, looked away from the screen. The bulletin board. His paper-strewn desk. The edge of the blue supercomputer. All of it seemed suffocatingly close—painted on his eyes.

George was receding, ignoring gravity, ambling off into the sky.

Fred climbed out after him. Straightaway, Fred's walking avatar switched to a falling version, fully automated, arms and legs flailing uncontrollably, facing not away from the screen but up toward it—Cartoon Fred staring up through the screen at Fred with those big, goofy eyes, as if in accusation, its mouth, like those of the NPCs now, a little o. Behind, the ground approached, at first with otherworldly slowness. Fred could hear radio chatter on the headset again.

"—thar she—"

"—MAYDAY MAYDAY—"

"—out, it's all coming down—"

"—who's that falling—"

The acceleration physics compounded and the street leapt up all at once. Fred cringed, unable to look away.

Then, twenty feet up, everything stopped. The screen froze. The headset chatter locked into an endless stuttering noise.

Groans and curses went up around the office, as Fred floated above Little Fred, those oversized eyes nearly closed mid-blink, those arms and legs splayed as though stretched out on a soft bed of air, that little o mouth looking almost peaceful, as if at any moment it would start emitting a stream of cartoon z's.