Posted on December 4, 2015
I’ve spent so much time working on the Dangerous Thoughts series that I have had zero time to come up with new stories for First Friday Free Fiction. Instead, I’m going spend the next five consecutive Fridays serializing the first volume of the series.
One chapter every Friday for five Fridays. Or if you get impatient you can go here and buy Volume 1 for all of 99 cents.
What follows is Chapter 1 of Volume 1: Hive of the series Dangerous Thoughts.
Text Copyright © 2015 Jake MacMillan
All Rights Reserved
1. Paul Corday lived inside of a dangerous quiet, the coiled spring of his rage held in place by crumbling restraints and, where his rage was unable to penetrate, a sense of desperation filled the empty spaces. He was only able to survive day to day life by assuming the blank expression of pleasant respect required of any seventeen-year-old Primitive, though for him it was a mask that barely concealed an unhinged wildness.
As he sat on a bench at a very long table in an overlit chow hall eating porry for the third time in twenty-four hours, he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that the tasteless sludge drooping from his spoon was more like an angry slur against the very concept of taste buds than it was a meal. He suspected it had once possessed some kind of flavor but that it had been removed by a complicated chemical process in the kitchen before being served. Now all it had was texture and not a very pleasant one.
The man across from him, Rev Greer, noticed he wasn’t eating and said, “Not hungry?” All the men in the hive were built the same, quick muscle on a lean frame, shaved head, bright blue windows on an angry soul, but Rev Greer was a senior layman which made him just a little bit more dangerous than regular men.
Paul looked at the men lining the seemingly mile long table, their ill-fitting white shirts buttoned to their throats and awkwardly cut black pants that didn’t quite make it to their ankles. He saw nothing but robots there, meat husks filled with the gears and windings of automata. The animal hidden inside him yearned to break loose so it could caper and cartwheel on the table, to kick their porry bowls into their laps, to scream incoherently and go for their throats with its yellow teeth.
But Paul’s mask said, “Just wondering what they put in the porry that makes it so nourishing.”
Rev Greer leaned forward, locking eyes with Paul, and quoted scripture to him:
“The very nature of faith precludes the need for questions.”
A reverend making eye contact was a thing calculated to be intimidating, and it was intimidating, but in this case not for the right reason. Paul averted his gaze because he was terrified the senior layman might see the demon behind his eyes scratching to get out. In a place where a boy like him could be honor killed for saying the wrong thing, the thoughts that churned so dangerously and restlessly inside his head were like a candle flickering next to a pool of kerosene. One unfortunate lick of the flame and his whole life would be consumed by fire.
Rev Greer had said his piece, had shut the boy down, but wasn’t ready to turn him loose yet. The system of suspicion that infected every person in the hive had a terrier’s devotion to detail. When it thought it had picked up a whiff of something slightly off – something like a boy who was obviously not thrilled with eating his porry – it nagged at the situation until all wounds had been opened and plenty of salt had been poured in. He said, “You finished yesterday, yes?”
Finished. Yes, he had finished school yesterday. No Primitive “graduated” high school. Their dogma wouldn’t allow them to accept the public school system’s imprimatur of acceptable mediocrity as some kind of achievement. Instead, hive students completed their requirement to the state. They finished. “Yes, sir.”
“What will you do?”
The unspoken stream of consciousness that kicked up in Paul’s bent-going-on-broken mind would have said something like this: I’m going to train to use maximum violence on the unarmed and the defenseless. I’m going to spend my whole life trapped inside this stinking building. Born here, die here. I’m going to work for my father but I will never be able to make him proud of me because we’re Primitives and pride is a sin. What he said out loud was, “I’ve started working for my father.”
“That’s good,” Rev Greer said, though he didn’t sound enthused. “The hive can always use more technicals.” Then, as he lowered his head to his spoon, he muttered, “If you can handle it.”
While it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a sin to pat your son on the back and give him a thumbs up, hive fathers frowned upon the idea as “coddling.” The world was a hard place for Primitives and they had to break a lot of bones in their efforts to turn it into the right kind of place. Coddling was the worst thing a father could do to a son. It made the boy weak.
The demon doing backflips off the walls inside Paul’s skull gleefully shouted, “A poison dagger to your heart, you farting old bag of gas!” But Paul kept his eyes down and said, “Yes, sir.”
“I understand your sister is of age,” Rev Greer said.
Now this was a place where the walls between Paul’s rage and the outside world became dangerously thin. It was only the threadbare rope bridge of his faith that kept him from using his spoon to scoop out Rev Greer’s eyes. Instead, he swallowed hard and said, “Two years, actually, Reverend.”
“Two years until she can marry,” Rev Greer countered. “But she could be betrothed now, according to the Word.” Then he allowed the slightest of smiles to curl at the edges of his mouth, making his expression just that much more cruel. “If I’m not mistaken.”
Reverends were never mistaken. Calling a lay preacher on a mistake was akin to calling down the judgment of God on yourself. There would be no end to the punishment until you were dead. But in this case, Rev Greer was correct. Mary had just completed her sophomore year of high school which meant she was eligible to be pledged to a marriage with anyone her father saw as a viable suitor.
Technically, female Primitives had the right to refuse marriage until they reached full womanhood, but the Word wasn’t clear on what exactly differentiated a girl from a woman. The federal government was of the opinion that a girl shouldn’t be married off until she graduated high school but the Primitives were more aligned with the “old enough to bleed, old enough breed” school of thought. A woman bound by marriage and enslaved by offspring was easier to control.
As a rare compromise with the government, Primitive dogma marked a girl’s transition into womanhood as the day she turned eighteen with a two year minimum on any engagement. As a result, the young men who lived – and would eventually die – inside the walls of the hollowed out Hilton hotel began to circle early for the right to claim a 24 month waiting period on the various girls who came to awkward and terrified puberty inside the hive.
Life for a boy who had his own mind from an early age had not been easy in what amounted to a murderous cult and Paul had only been able to survive because of his sister Mary’s calming influence. Even though she took the brunt of the disdain for being female, she had always worked to keep Paul from acting out and getting himself killed. Now, seeing the boys descend on her like dogs sniffing out a bitch in heat and knowing what they thought of her – and of women in general – he found it more and more difficult to deal with the idea that he would soon have to let her go.
Hearing the filthy, sideways leer in the reverend’s tone was almost enough to make him snap. Paul was just barely able to keep his anger knitted into himself and his expression inscrutable, but Rev Greer sensed blood in the water and refused to let the subject drop. He said, “Someone will turn her into a good wife, I’m sure. The breaking-in process can be painful, of course. A female is a prideful thing, but they heel to the lash eventually.”
The beast leapt free of its bonds and used the porry spoon to dig great, unquenchable gouges in Rev Greer’s jugular, joyously bathing in the crimson fountains that erupted from the wounds. But while it cackled in the blood rain of its dying enemy, Mary’s restraining voice whispered in his mind, “They win by making you lose. You win by denying them their victory.”
“So true,” Paul said, nodding as he returned to his porry. “God give us grace.”
“God give us grace,” the reverend agreed.
2. The twenty minutes allotted for meal time expired with the ringing of an old fashioned fire alarm, a metal bell with a mechanical striker inside, that caused every diner in the male chow hall to stand at attention and begin filing out for their next assigned space. For Paul, it would be a five mile run on a treadmill. For Rev Greer, free weights in the gym. They would swap places later.
After aerobics and weightlifting, Paul went to the combat training facility, a dark, cavernous space split by pools of yellow light that illuminated a dozen boxing rings. All male Primitives were required to keep their blacklegging skills sharp at all times. Having finished school, Paul would soon be eligible to join in when the government called for their services.
The very idea submerged him in an ice bath of pure dread. Certain as he was that the monster inside him would take over completely the moment he even loosed his grip on the tether, he was convinced that he would become an unstoppable killing machine if he was ever put to use out there in the streets. If they sent him out there, armed with an axe handle or a baseball bat, and set him loose on some unfortunate group of redleg protesters, he would likely start killing and then keep killing until someone put him down like a rabid animal.
He returned to the facilities after combat to shower and eliminate waste. Those three minutes in a stinking ceramic stall were the only privacy he got every day. Three times a day, nine minutes total. Then he went back to his tube so he could return to his job.
As the men streamed out of their side of the facilities, their faces grim and determined as ever, their heels driven by the clanging of the steel bell, they merged with a similar group coming out of the women’s side. To hear Mary tell it, the routine was the same for women but differentiated by their gender’s need for specialized training. They had the same meal of porry and performed aerobics, for instance, but did stretching exercises to help with giving birth rather than weight lifting and had classes on calming their menfolk instead of combat training.
The tube walls hove into view as their groups mixed and poured out into the main cavern of the hollowed out building and, for one terrible moment, it was possible to see them in their entirety. To repay the Hilton family for their energetic resistance to the Reformation, the government had seized all their holdings and the prime properties had been gifted by the state to the Primitives as a bounty for their loyal support during the struggles.
Where there had once been a large, mid-priced hotel, every heart of every urban development zone now had a hive bristling with Primitives. The main structure of each building had been gutted and filled with stacks of micro-residences, or “tubes”, and the other structures had been converted into support facilities.
The tube walls extended up so far they disappeared into the darkness, their black faces laced with gangplanks and catwalks, the whole mess held together with guy wires. When the lights flickered off in one section, bright fluorescents blinked to life in another, causing the occupants to slither out onto the platforms and head down the ladders for their turn at the facilities.
Paul caught himself grinding his teeth in frustration as he watched the mindless, insectile precision with which his hive brothers and sisters proceeded through the empty shells of their lives. They looked like worms to him, sliding out of their holes when disturbed by the bell. To him, the whole place was a science experiment that had gotten terribly out of hand and now all these people were caught in it, the energy of their lives sapped from the pores in their pale, sun-deprived skin and their spirits beaten down by the relentlessness of a dour, dogmatic cult.
It was even more terrible for him because he knew that out in the vastness of space, unimaginable distances from Earth, colonists spent every day fighting for their lives, striving to establish a human presence on far flung planets while the residents of the hive shut out not just the wonders of the universe but the wonders of the planet and of the city block just beyond the walls of the prison they had created for themselves. It was such a waste, such a terrible waste, it caused him physical pain to think about it.
“I know what you’re thinking,” came a sing-song voice from just next to his right shoulder. Mary had managed to slip up beside him by cutting through the crowds of the returning shifts and was now doing what little sisters had done since time out of mind: teasing her older brother.
“You know nothing,” he said. “As usual.”
“You’re thinking that the heart of God is so large there is surely a place in it for all His children.” She was using the private code they shared, one that involved saying one thing out loud while using subtle hand motions to modify the meaning. With her gestures, she amended her statement to mean, “You’re thinking that space must be large enough that there is surely someplace you can go to get away from here.”
“You know me too well,” he said, a smile spreading reluctantly across his face.
She could always make him smile. That was her gift.
As they reached the lines for the ladders, she said, “I also know it takes courage to find your place in God’s heart.”
“I have the courage,” he replied, steadily inching forward as, one after another, the people in the line scrambled up the ladders. “All I lack is the opportunity.”
“Promise me one thing,” she said. “Promise me that you’ll be brave enough to go to the door. Today.”
“Just to the door?”
“To the door, that’s all,” she said. She was the queen of begging an inch so she could demand a mile. “Then promise me you’ll have the courage to step across the threshold.”
“There’s no room for me there, Mary. They won’t have me.”
“Promise me that you’ll do it today,” she said, sticking her chin up at him. She had their mother’s blonde hair and high cheekbones. He could only assume that her cheery nature and general optimism had once also been a part of their mother’s nature before her spirit had been broken. The glum shell of a human who lived under James Corday’s thumb these days gave no hint that there had ever been a smiling girl there, but it seemed likely she might have been very much like Mary before life in the hive had reduced her liveliness to a timid shrug.
“I promise,” he said, though he had no intention of actually keeping that promise.
It was just a way to get his sister off his back.
“Good,” Mary said. “I look forward to a full report.”
3. They traversed seven ladders and nine rickety gangplanks to reach their shared doublewide tube. Once there, they grabbed the overhead handles and swung themselves inside feet first with the precision of synchronized swimmers.
He didn’t have much to do work-wise apart from tracing a few censorship infractions for his father — something that would take all of ten minutes once he got online. He wouldn’t be assigned a full time job for a few weeks, having just finished high school he had been temporarily given a wealth of free time like he had never known in his life.
He smiled and reached up to grab the visor attached to the ceiling over his half of the tube. It was a black thing that bore an unnerving resemblance to a gas mask with no eyeholes and was attached to the tube’s ceiling by a thick cable threaded through an attenuated arm. Once placed on his face, it attached itself to his skin with a nano-hermetic seal that could have been a claustrophobic thing had he not been wearing one since early childhood. He was even used to the eager way the visor leapt toward his face when it got within range and the way it hissed while making a tight seal.
There was a moment of disorientation while the visor put him into something like sleep paralysis and threaded its way through his nerves until it had gained access to all of his senses. Then he was awake and found himself standing on a sidewalk watching slow moving foot traffic crawl by on a wide boulevard that cut through the heart of someone’s imagined version of a once-upon-a-time American small town.
This was Main Street, the common landing spot for all Americans entering the virtual space called Trinity Net or, usually, just The Trinity. He wasn’t actually there, of course. The place didn’t even really exist in a physical way. The visor was projecting a digital version of his real self into a virtual construct. That projection was called a vector. He could move it in exactly the same way he would move his own body in the physical space. The visor took care of that in the same way it allowed him to hear sounds, taste food and feel texture, though it severely muted the pain response so he wouldn’t would be inadvertently damaged by his online interactions.
The ambient temperature was around 78 degrees, warmed by sunlight that radiated out of a pale blue sky and cooled by a slight breeze that raised virtual goose bumps on his vector’s skin. The sunlight reflected off store windows and hurt his eyes if he looked directly into it. If his vector shook hands with someone, he would feel it as if he were there doing it himself. He could go to a malt shop and have a burger and a shake that would taste exactly like an actual burger and milkshake and then get up and dance to music he could both hear and feel.
Or rather, other kids could do those things. Primitives weren’t allowed to even cross the threshold of a malt shop or a pinball arcade and, even though they were allowed to enter sock hops, they had to stay away from the dance floor. And while other users were allowed to customize their vectors with stylish clothes and haircuts, a Primitive’s vector had to be a faithful rendering of what he looked like in real life down to the ill-fitting clothes and clunky, hard leather shoes.
Paul didn’t care about any of that stuff anyway. He was there to spend ten minutes getting his work done so he could then go out and indulge himself in the only fun activity available to a boy like him.
The small town paradise that Main Street had been modeled on had probably never actually existed anywhere apart from the fever dreams of old people lost to the vapors of nostalgia but he had no way of knowing that. He assumed this was what the world was like outside the hive’s boarded up windows and doorless walls.
If he were to somehow manage an escape, would he find himself facing a world of quaint shops, temperate climes and bright sunshine from a clear blue sky? Would he find Walt’s Haberdashery next to the Curl Up & Dye? Would the Woolworth’s be doing brisk business in items that cost somewhere between a nickel and a dime? He hoped so. The fact that he wasn’t allowed to go into any of those establishments in the virtual world only made him that much more keen to find out what they were like in the real one.
He crossed the street at the light and made his way to the county courthouse, a broad building that squatted on its stone haunches in the middle of the park at the center of the town square. It was a massive thing made of marble and granite with white columns in front of every set of doors and tall windows with green shutters in the blind walls.
The courthouse acted as the central location of authority for Trinity’s DC hub, housing the police department, tax office and other government functions along with a portal to Central Inquisition in case anyone had a question they wanted to ask of the Missionary. Something no one in their right mind ever did.
He ran up the limestone steps and darted inside, threading his way through crowds of vectors there to do court time for minor infractions like tickets, or to pay their taxes, or to lodge complaints, and made his way to a wooden door with a pane of pebbled glass that had stenciled on it “Sheriff’s Office” in black letters with gold drop shadows.
Beyond the door was a standard 1950s sitcom version of a sheriff’s office complete with three jail cells and a pair of desks. A bubble gum smacking secretary in a poodle skirt and too tight sweater occupied one of the desks while a deputy stood blankly at the other. A comical drunk snored heavily in one of the cells. These were all non-player characters, or NPCs, rendered by Trinity’s system software to fill out the roles human vectors either couldn’t or wouldn’t play. Their AI was pretty good. You could carry on a fairly natural conversation with them as long as you stayed inside the domain of their subject matter, but if you wandered outside of jail/sheriff/law enforcement topics, they got confused in a hurry.
Paul took note of none of this. He was only passing through the sheriff’s office to get to a private room, one that existed only for him, where he would trace a few IP addresses and forward them to his mother at the Bureau of Censorship. Then he would be free to enjoy the few online fruits available to him until his next shift in the facilities.
The door in the back of the sheriff’s office was simply marked “Private” and could only be opened by vectors on official business. When Paul pushed through it, he found himself in a small room dominated by a quarter sphere holographic display showing a cool dozen data screens and readouts.
He dropped into an oddly anachronistic mesh chair and made specific hand gestures for a few minutes to grab the flagged messages, strip out their address and routing information, and then sat back to wait for the trace-routes to come back. When that was done, he connected the messages to their points of origin and forwarded them in pairs to his mother in Censorship.
Then he backed out of the room, sprinted out of the courthouse building, and returned to Main Street. He had five hours and forty-five minutes of free time before his next shift in the facilities and he knew exactly where he wanted to spend it. East of town, actually blocking that end of Main Street, there was a medieval castle that existed solely for the discretionary entertainment of boys like him. Even Primitive boys.
But just as he was beginning to start off in the direction of afternoon fun, he remembered his promise to Mary. It came creeping into his consciousness like the nagging first pangs of a headache. “Promise you’ll be brave enough to…”
He stopped and looked west.
Even from where he was standing at the center of the simulation, he could see in the far distance a massive glass and steel monstrosity that shot impossibly high into the virtual sky and loomed over the whole of Main Street like a gigantic single-finger salute.
That building, the one that was so jarring to look at in the context of the mid-century, small town aesthetic of Main Street, housed the virtual offices of Intra-Galactic Enterprises, the most powerful multinational corporation on planet Earth.
They didn’t have much of a presence in the U.S. because all foreign and multinational companies had been banned during the Reformation, but they were still strong enough to maintain a virtual office on Main Street when no other non-American company could.
Beyond the walls of Pax Americana, the world shivered when Intra-Galactic caught a chill. If it was made, sold or bought, IGE had, at a minimum, a 70 percent interest in making it, selling it, and shipping it to the buyer. Three quarters of the weapons used in the rolling thunder of continuous warfare across the planet were made by them. Eight out of ten GMO crops came from their labs. 60 percent of vaccines and 90 percent of hospital equipment were produced by their various industrial arms. In short, the world was gradually becoming one giant collection of Intra-Galactic franchises.
Paul only had interest in a single Intra-Galactic enterprise, the one that owned and operated the only successful off-world colonies. China’s single settlement above Titan had to be fed a constant stream of supplies and human lives and even then they were still only holding on by the skin of their teeth. The attempts by Novaspania and the South African Republic to establish asteroid mining colonies had been written off as bloody disasters. Intra-Galactic’s installations, on the other hand, were going strong. Word was that they were already showing a profit in exported raw materials shipped back to Earth.
Intra-Galactic was a darling of international finance now that stocks of raw materials back home were running thin. Would it be difficult to live in a city that floated above a sea of naturally occurring hydrocarbons? Yes, absolutely, but the contents of those oceans could be siphoned off and shipped back to a planet starving for such fuels. Would it be better to live out the rest of his life in a place where he had to wear a full body mesh-suit and face hugger than to spend one more day in the hive? Undoubtedly. It was a thing he believed with the absolute, unshakable conviction of a teenager.
All he had to do to commit to that course of action was to honor his promise to Mary, to turn west and then to make his way to the IGE building and then to push through the doors and then to demand to be allowed to apply for off-world service.
Except that was in no way a true characterization of his situation. That was the maddening part about Mary’s request. Simply applying for admission to the Intra-Galactic colonial program wouldn’t automatically lift him out of the hive. Off world life was exceedingly difficult and it cost a lot of money to put someone out there. IGE accepted very few applicants and the process for winnowing down the ones they did accept was legendary for its brutality.
He would be immediately rejected because he was an American. Intra-Galactic did not under any circumstances accept Americans into their program. This was a well-known fact. And even if he somehow managed to make it past that hurdle, they would reject him for being a Primitive. No one wanted to be trapped with a turgid, humorless demagogue in a colony from which there was no escape. And if he made it past that one, he would be tripped up by the psych profile or the physical test or the training program that had a 70 percent washout rate. Every person on the face of the planet wanted nothing more than to get off of it and every single one of them was currently in the process of applying to use Intra-Galactic as their escape pod. There was no point in even trying.
But he had promised Mary.
4. There was an obvious solution to the conundrum of Mary’s request: Just do it. Just go to the IGE building and ask to apply to the off-world program so they could turn him down. Then he could go back to Mary with the sad news that his dream of escaping the hive was now officially dead. It would be sad, but it would finally bring the nagging question in the back of his mind to a close.
Which was exactly why he hesitated to do it. He had formed the colonial fantasy as a little boy living in a harsh environment where the craving to be nurtured was met with indifference or the back of a hand. He had polished that fantasy to perfection over the years, shining it up as a bulwark against a sea of angry and desultory moments. But at some point, he had begun to suspect that it was a pipe dream, a thing he would never be allowed to pursue, and even then he had still clung to it, fearing that life in the hive without the dream of escape might shatter his brain. That was when he had begun to treasure the fantasy for the thing it was, an emotional security blanket, and not as a light at the end of the tunnel.
If he went to Intra-Galactic today and got shot down, he would know for sure that his future involved living and dying inside a hollowed out hotel surrounded by people who disgusted and terrified him. But if he retained the dream, if he cupped it in his hands like a secret candle, he could lean on it for as long as he was able to keep the flame alive.
If only he hadn’t promised Mary. Even at her young age, his sister’s smile had already begun to dim as the relentless negativity of the hive bore down on her bright spirit. She had been born with enough love in her heart for a hundred people but love dies when it’s not nurtured and hers was already browning at the edges as the petals curled in on themselves. If he, of all people, were to break a promise to her, what would that do to the flower of her faith?
The most damning and confusing thing about the whole situation was that he knew she had planned for it to play out in this exact way. She had used his affection for her as a goad to push him over the ramparts of his internal objections. She was full of love, yes, but she was also ruthless when she wanted something.
In the end, he did the only thing he could do. He traveled in the only direction she had left open for him. He turned west and moved toward the IGE building.
The trip was an odd one. Owing to its unfathomable size, the IGE building was further outside the city limits than it appeared. He kept walking and walking but the thing stubbornly remained in the middle distance. At first, he was surrounded by other vectors going about their business along shiny city blocks, but the crowds eventually thinned and the neighborhoods became more decrepit as he put more distance between himself and the town square.
Finally, as he crossed out of the nominal city limits, he found himself alone in a part of the world Trinity rendered as cracked asphalt streets and weed sprung sidewalks fronting abandoned lots and rundown houses with brokeback roofs and shattered windows. It was the kind of place nice people feared to tread, the kind of place where you would feel like you had asked for it if someone sprang from the ragged bushes and mugged you.
He managed to keep moving forward by reminding himself that this was not in any way real. There were no foaming-at-the-mouth redlegs in the online world and even if one did somehow manage to leap at him from ambush he would simply jack out of the simulation and instantly return to his tube with no harm done.
He continued to walk until it got boring and then put his vector into auto-run mode. He ran until he got bored with that and turned his attention to other matters while his vector trotted along the desolate streets of an abandoned suburban neighborhood that looked like it had suffered one too many rounds of layoffs at the big factory, moving over increasingly broken territory until his feet landed on polished marble. The change caused him to look up from the puzzle he had been playing with while his vector had been slogging through the empty wastelands.
He was standing at the very edge of the massive plaza that surrounded the IGE building, a gigantic circle of blue marble with lines of pink stone radiating out from the center. The building that erupted from the middle of this disk looked like a spire of aquamarine glass and brightly polished steel that had been given an angry twist by a passing giant.
Standing in its shadow, he felt a little disoriented. The plaza thrummed with the vectors of businessmen coming in supplication from all of the developed countries to the greatest power on Earth. He understood for the first time that he wasn’t just paying a visit to some entity, he was mounting an assault on IGE’s headquarters.
This understanding surprised a laugh out of him. His shoulders dropped slightly and his breathing evened out as he realized this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. He had nothing to worry about. He wouldn’t even make it to the application process. He wouldn’t even make it through the lobby!
He stood there on the furthest edge of the plaza, watching businessmen in bespoke vectors drop into existence and head toward the giant spiral of glass and steel that turned endlessly like a needle pointed at the heart of the fake sky.
Finally, he bent over so he could put his vector’s hands on its knees while he laughed with all his guts.
What had he been thinking? All this time, his plan to go off-world hadn’t been a pipe dream at all. It had been the wild fantastical product of a psychotic break, a further split in the already broken mind of a cult prisoner who had been living beyond the realm of reason since he had been old enough to understand how damaged his situation truly was.
Oddly enough, this realization only made it that much easier to follow this doomed strategy to its logical conclusion. Seeing the massive spire and the ocean of natty aspirants teeming toward it, he finally understood that there had never, not for one moment in his whole life, been a chance. There had never been a shred of believability to his tissue thin fantasy. He was going to join the throngs of businessmen, the ones who actually belonged there, and be rejected the moment he tried to cross the threshold of Intra-Galactic’s massive lobby.
5. He pushed through the glass doors into a lobby whose ceiling was so far overhead he couldn’t quite see it. There was just an impression of a ceiling up there somewhere out of sight. Vectors in suits passed this way and that, coming and going, looking important, carrying briefcases, shaking hands. He stopped to gaze at them, to look upon the wraiths of the business world who haunted buildings like this one all over the world. They looked like success but stank of cologne and questionable values.
“Yes? May I help you?” It was a girl’s voice and, inasmuch as this could be true, it sounded like a pretty girl’s voice. “Sir? Mr. Corday? May I help you?”
Mr. Corday? She knew who he was? Of course, she did — by law, his vector carried with it all his personal information. Anonymity was forbidden on Trinity – but her knowing his name seemed to put a crack in his cold resolve to chicken out. He looked up and saw the girl behind the desk who had called out to him was an NPC pixie with neon pink hair and overlarge eyes with pink irises, modifications that would not be allowed outside of this building. He tried to speak but was only able to stammer out a few disjointed syllables before giving up. “I… the colony… there’s a… Intra… never mind.”
“Intra-Galactic? You want to sign up for our off-world program?” She offered him a badge of stiff clear plastic, producing it seemingly from thin air. “Clip this on and go to the first elevator. It will take you where you need to go.”
He pressed the badge to his chest and watched as it physically attached to his vector.
“And, may I say, I’m quite proud of you for being so brave. The colonies can use men like you.” She beamed up at him, her broad smile and doe eyes bathing him in warm reinforcement.
“Oh… thanks,” he said and wandered off, still stunned at having made it this far.
He had expected uniformed security guards to swoop in and block his attempt to enter the building but the receptionist had been friendly and he was now apparently just a short ride upstairs to fill out his application for the off-world program.
He was circumspect about joining the crowd of vectors at the elevator bank, but it quickly became clear that their badges would decide who got on which lift. He stood on the edge of the crowd of very businessman-looking vectors until one particular elevator refused every other attempt at entry. One of the men, a silver fox in a custom skin, turned to him and said, “This one must be for you, kid.”
He excused himself, moved through the crowd and got into the elevator. The doors closed, giving him a momentary twinge of claustrophobia, and the box rocketed upward with speed he felt in his knees.
A moment later, the doors opened onto a large expanse of carpeted emptiness. In the distance, he could see a small cluster of furniture. There were some chairs, a coffee table, and a large desk. A distant figure waved impatiently for him to come forward.
“Let’s go! I don’t have all day, Bible boy.”
Of course, in the virtual world it was nothing for a structure to be bigger on the inside than it was on the outside, but he had to wonder why this particular megalomaniac had chosen to put the elevator what felt like miles away from his desk.
“That’s right, that’s right,” the man said, still beckoning with one meaty hand, waving it over his head like he was signaling to a reluctant animal. “You’re learning now. You can walk! Congratulations. I’ll send a nice flower arrangement to your parents. They’ll be so proud.”
Finally, after what seemed like ages, he reached the small cluster of furniture where he found a short man with a head of hair that was not at all on top and thinning on the sides and a bulbous nose over a mouth with thin lips formed into a permanent frown. He was a living shrug. The personification of disappointment in human form. And even though Paul had only just arrived after a long journey, this man was already tired of dealing with him.
“What is this?” he barked as Paul came into view. “I’m standing here for an hour or something waiting for you and you finally show up and you’re a Primitive? Bingo for me. I wasted half a day and got bupkes. Congratulations, you ruined my whole week.”
Paul was completely discombobulated. He had expected some sort of bland, white-on-white recruitment center populated by automatons but had ended up with the grumpiest middle-aged middle manager in the history of the world.
“So, what’s it gonna be, buttercup?” the man asked. “You in? You out? Make a choice, I’m busy.”
Paul had been prepared to fill out an application that would then later be rejected by some faceless bureaucrat. Then he could tell Mary he had tried and that would be the end of it. But this man, whoever he was, wanted him to decide right now if he truly wanted to go off-world. “In,” he blurted out. There had never been any other answer but he still found himself terrified to say the word out loud in the presence of another person.
“Rejected,” the man said. “Have a nice day.” Then he went back to work.
Paul felt his insides turn to water and slide out through the soles of his feet. Even though he knew down in the callouses on his toes that his quest to join the colonial program had been a pipe dream all along, this moment was making it final, making it real. This obnoxious old fart had just rejected him out of hand and put ‘final’ to his future. “No.”
The man raised his head, looking over half glasses perched at the tip of his nose. Since vectors had perfect sight, these were an obvious affectation that he used with great power to show off his disdain. “You said what?”
“Is that a question? Is this Jeopardy? Please take door number one on your way out.”
“No,” Paul said. He wanted to say more, wanted to plead his case, to promise to be the hardest working, most loyal colonist ever in the history of off-world exploration, but he couldn’t make himself actually speak the words. His spine had turned into a steel pole and his muscles felt like wet rags draped over the back of a chair.
The man swiped the glasses from his vector’s face and started wiping them with a handkerchief. “Look, kid, it’s not up to me. I could give you an application and send you off to fill it out but that would just be cruel because you ain’t getting into this program, not no way and not no how. And we both know why.”
“Because your company is atheist and I am a Christian.”
The man looked disgusted with this answer. “No! I mean, I don’t know if a whole company can be an atheist – I mean I don’t think it is but who am I? – I do know there are two things on this planet this company hates more than anything else: Governments and churches. And you, my son, belong to the one church that is both.”
Paul was momentarily tempted to make the claim that he wasn’t a true Primitive but that would just be fudging the truth. Even if he hadn’t swallowed the Primitive doctrine whole, he was still a member of the most contentious, combative and outright dangerous religious cult on the planet. Could he guarantee that he wouldn’t get to a colony and turn out to be a humorless ideologue who refused to compromise on any subject? He could make the promise, sure, but even he didn’t know if it would be one he could keep. He had never been outside the hive, had never been forced to interact with non-Primitives. He decided the only play here was to bully his way through. That was something Primitives were good at. “I still want to apply.”
The man returned his glasses to his face with a heavy sigh and said, “Okay, done.”
“Done? Don’t I need to fill out a…”
“Son, do you really believe there is even a shred of information about you we can’t find on our own? How do you think we get to keep this big ugly building on Main Street despite the way the church feels about us? We built the Net. The whole goddamn thing. They’re terrified they can’t keep it running without us.” He waved a hand as he went back to work. “Now get out of here. You’ll get a rejection letter in the not too distant future. Let’s make it two weeks. I’ll add a note for them to take a little longer so it looks like we really gave you a shot.”
6. Paul was walking on the plaza again, completely unaware of how he had traveled there, stunned as a bull stabbed in the ring. He had gotten further than he had expected, though in the end, he had to admit he had achieved little more than the expected result. Though his application had technically been submitted, his escape valve had still been welded shut and his dream had been killed. Later, when he dropped out of Main Street and returned to the hive, he would see the caverns of tube walls for the first time as the place where he would spend the rest of his life.
In two weeks. He reminded himself that the man had said the rejection wouldn’t come for two weeks, a promise that allowed him fourteen days to bask in the hope that the application process would somehow turn in on itself, swallow its own tail, and end up farting out a mistake that would inadvertently allow him to enter. And when that didn’t happen – because there was no way that was going to happen – he would climb to the top of the tube wall and take a majestic swan dive to the concrete floor below. As God was well aware, he wouldn’t be the first to take that plunge.
But for the next two weeks, minimally employed and living on the sweet liquor of distilled hope, he knew exactly how he would spend the time remaining to him.
“Shortcut to Demon Hunter.” As he said the words, an eight foot oval of what looked like shimmering water opened up in front of him. He stepped through it and found himself at the east end of Main Street.
When the architects had put together the initial designs for Main Street, they had left the west open for expansion – that was why there was so much space between the IGE Tower and the occupied parts of the simulation – but they had blocked the east end with a medieval castle, the lands of which spread unhindered to the sunrise.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Reformation an unknown person who was still able to think somewhat rationally came to the conclusion that a large number of young men with no outlet for their biological imperatives could form a quite effective counter-revolutionary force. Demon Hunter, a game where boys played knights bent on purging demons from a vaguely medieval landscape, had been quickly laid in on top of the existing infrastructure for a pre-Reformation game called Blood Sport in which the players simply killed everything that moved.
Demon Hunter provided a safe outlet for boys to exorcise their less appetizing appetites without committing any virtual atrocities. All the opponents in the game were either pure demons or somehow demonic in nature and they were all played by NPCs. No one got hurt and the boys aged out of the game at twenty-one when their hormones settled down and they were ready to take a wife and make a family.
The players were ranked against one another based on points earned during various missions. Paul had recently added enough points to his score to move him into 13th place out of the tens of thousands of players in the DC hub. As a result, he had earned a level of respect inside the Demon Hunter game that he didn’t enjoy anywhere else in his life.
When he crossed the drawbridge into the squat barbican perched across the moat from the main castle, his vector was automatically dressed in leather breaches, boots and a cloth tunic under a skin cloak edged with fur. His boot heels landed like gunshots on the wide planks of the drawbridge while the roar of many male voices, all of them deep and hearty, boomed from within the castle.
How it had come to pass that even Primitives were allowed to alter their appearance inside the game was anybody’s guess. It was one of the few things Paul had never bothered to stop and ponder. Instead, he chose to relish his time in another skin, a time when he could pretend, even if only to himself, that he wasn’t a waif trapped in a well.
His vector, now a broad shouldered, square jawed titan with a formidable beard, cracked a crooked smile of gleaming white teeth and headed inside to join his fellow knights.
The Main Hall was a massive room with a ceiling that soared thirty feet overhead. The windows were covered with intricate leaded glass artwork – history not being a favorite subject of the current administration, the “Medieval Europe” constructed in the game had more in common with old movies than any basis in fact – that looked down on row after row of long wooden tables where brawny men drank from pewter mugs and gnawed on oversized turkey legs.
The sound of manly merriment thrummed against Paul’s skin and roared inside his ears as he came through an arch and raised his arms in a triumphant salute.
“Lucky Number Thirteen!”
A cheer went up as several hundred tankards were raised in salute. “Gawain!” Baritone voices carried his name back to him on waves that stank of envy and testosterone.
Most of the boys chose to name their Demon Hunter vectors after the Templars or the more famous knights of the round table. This crowding of the selection process yielded names that had to be individualized by appending digits, like Arthur-128 and Lancelot-209. Paul had chosen to name himself after a barely consequential knight of Arthurian legend named Gawain. There were no stories in the official church lore about him – he was only mentioned once in passing in the state censored version of the Tales of Arthur – so he wasn’t a popular choice among the other players. As a result, the nameplate that hovered over his character’s head simply read, “Gawain.”
He passed through the crowd slapping the hands held out to him until one knight in particular stood out from the crowd and opened his arms. The nameplate over his head identified him as Percival-954. “Gawain, join me in a tankard of ale.”
Alcoholic beverages having been outlawed generations ago, no one knew what a tankard of ale was supposed to taste like so the game designers had given it the flavor of strawberry soda.
Paul stopped for a moment, just long enough to embrace him and pull away. According to the leader board posted on the wall above the tables of the great hall, Percival-954 was ranked 50th. Not bad but not top 15, either. He, like most of the player vectors applauding Paul’s entrance, really just wanted to tease the clues to his success out of him.
“Can’t,” Paul said, his voice coming out like that of a much older, much larger man, the booming basso profundo of a Falstaffian warrior. “I’m out on a scouting run.”
“Scouting run?” Percival-954 said, arching an eyebrow.
Paul leaned in close and lowered his voice. “When you get to a certain point, it’s stupid to simply ride out and make a frontal attack. For the last six months, I’ve been scouting in advance and then laying on attacks at an oblique angle before retreating to heal. The bosses are bad at this level. You have to be smarter than them if you want to move up in the ranks.”
Paul pulled away from Percival-954’s grasp and made his way through the crowd, knights closing in behind him to pepper the mystified Percival with questions about what Gawain had said to him. With only two weeks left to live, Paul felt beholden to his comrades to share what he had learned but he also enjoyed a twinge of ego from watching the lesser players fawn over the scraps of advice he dropped on his way out.
He exited through the back door, stepping down into to the part of the inner bailey where the stables had been constructed. He was automatically greeted by his squire Thomas who came with his horse Gringolet in tow. The squire was an NPC. By law, all townsfolk, demons, servants and so on were Non-Player Characters. The only characters in the game with humans controlling them were the hero knights.
Thomas, whose smile was missing enough teeth to look like a poorly dealt hand of cards, passed the reins to Gawain saying, “There’s trouble to the east, good sir knight.” This was the standard greeting. All missions occurred to the east of the castle because that’s where the game’s virtual real estate was located.
Paul, now clad in his armor and bearing his glowing sword of righteousness and red hot war hammer of redemption, climbed into Gringolet’s saddle in a gravity-defying move that didn’t require him to take hold of the saddle horn. “Anything I should know?”
Thomas shook his head. “Trouble in a village. Marauders and brigands.”
Marauders was a key word that meant rogue knights were involved. This was a common theme lately. As his score had climbed, the game had adapted to provide him with ever more challenging missions. Demons were easy to kill. Being unarmored and unarmed, he just had to get in close to use his sanctified weapons without letting them land enough blows to weaken his own armor. The more powerful weapons he had gained over the years of gameplay made this a trivial exercise. One touch of his blade of righteousness would turn a demon into a plume of sulfur smoke. For most of his time building up experience points, the game had simply increased the size and number of the demons as a way to raise the bar of difficulty, but at some point he had tripped a logical wire and the game had moved on to possessed knights as an enemy.
These knights weren’t just armored demons with weapons. They were smarter and worked together tactically to outflank or overwhelm him. His enjoyment of the game, which had been flagging, had immediately ratcheted back up with these new challenges.
As a result, he had been forced to come up with new strategies for ever more difficult engagements. Rather than simply clashing head long into his enemies, he found it necessary to ride out and reconnoiter the situation first, maybe lay on a surprise attack and then immediately retreat long enough to heal. The bad guys in Demon Hunter never healed. They had to wear any damage he landed on them until they were killed or somehow managed to kill him. If Paul performed this thrust and parry ritual long enough, he would eventually wear down their armor to a point where they were basically naked. Then he could just ride in and finish them off with one touch of his flaming sword.
He spurred Gringolet into motion and rode out of the castle at a full gallop trailing dirt clods and dust clouds in his wake. Beyond the castle, spreading out to the horizon in the east, the landscape opened up into a massive computer generated version of what people commonly believed the medieval world was actually like – lacking only the plagues, foul language, rampant copulation, and murderous robber knights to make it historically accurate.
Normally, Paul found passing through the countryside with its semisweet smells of hay and wild flowers and the sounds of birds chirping in the trees to be a soothing respite from the murderous gloom of the hive, but the knowledge of how little time he had left filled him with a low grade sense of urgency that made him want to rush the gate in everything he did. He gave the command to shortcut the journey and was presented with a portal that instantly took him all the way to the area where he would engage his enemy.
He spurred Gringolet through it, always expecting to feel like he was riding through a waterfall when, in fact, he felt nothing at all, and rode out onto a dirt road lined with oak trees much further into the simulation and much closer to his destination. In the distance, he could see a gathering of thatched roofs, more a collection of serf dwellings than a proper village, where three knights in black armor sat astride their twitching mounts. Women and children and old men with bent backs cowered in terror at their feet.
Paul called up the stats for the black knights so they would float in front of his eyes in three side-by-side transparent windows. They were all approximately half his rank in offensive power, a third in defensive armor and hit points, and their plus weapons were -2 less powerful than his. No single one of them was much of a threat but grouped together they made a formidable challenge. Not impossible by any means, but he would have to be careful if he wanted to add their XPs to his score without getting himself killed in the process.
As in life, death cost everything in the game. If he allowed his vector to be killed, he would lose his character Gawain, his horse Gringolet, all the possessions he had collected over the years — including his plus weapons and armor — and all his experience points. He would then have to start again at zero with leather breaches, a single wooden club, and a plodding mount better suited to the farm than to battle. None of that was acceptable to a boy on a suicide dive at the top of his arc. There was no way he would allow himself to die in the game before he reached his own very real end.
He drew his Warhammer of Righteous Smiting and began swinging it over his head as he spurred Gringolet toward the group of demon knights.