John appeared right at breakfast.
No one is ever looking directly at them when they appear. Whether they are new people or someone returning to us, it’s like you just turn your head and there they are. It can’t take more than half a second.
He had a kind of glazed look in his eye, as he sat there a couple of seats to my left.
“Hi! I’m Peter. What’s your name?”
His head swung in my direction and his eyes swam into focus.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Some people remember a name, or associate with a name, others among us have simply chosen a name after consultation and discussion. They usually pick a name by gut feel.
“John.” He looked around in dull
The walls are beige. The floor is white, a stone-like material, although it probably isn’t stone. The ceiling is white, with silver-hooded lights hanging from it. The bulbs, which glow with just a faint suggestion of greenish-blue in them, never seem to burn out. The tables are plastic, and the framework is an alloy. We’ve worked out that much.
“Hey! It’s a new guy.” Someone, Mary, said it from the far table.
We have four long tables, each holding up to twenty-five people, with twelve on each side, and one on the end. The tables are bolted to the floor and the stools are bolted down. There are fifty rooms, each with two beds, so we know the capacity of this place is exactly one hundred. Today there are twenty-three of us. With John, that’s twenty-four. I was aware of the line of faces turned in our direction. John wasn’t.
“Welcome to the game, John.” Tradition has it that the first one they talk to gives them a little briefing, then introduces them around to the group.
Taking a couple of bites of cereal, I regarded the man as I chewed and swallowed. John was solidly built and about average height compared to the other males in the group. His hair was short, black, and his eyes were brown. He had a small goatee, with long side-burns. The sides of his forehead extended into the hairline, but the middle had a distinctively thick, dark widow’s peak. We try to observe everything in the game-space, because we don’t know the rules. We don’t know anything in the game-space, not even who we are or where we came from. John looked more than usually vacant, and I wondered about his level of intelligence.
My private assessment is that we vary considerably in here, in terms of relative brain-power. It never seems to affect the outcome of the game, interestingly enough. John was younger than I, and older than some of the others. Everything is relative in the game-space. There is no rhyme or reason for our being chosen.
Just as I was about to speak, Will came over, sliding into the seat beside John. His blue eyes glittered through his spectacles, one of the extremely rare outside objects that have been provided in our habitat. I’ve examined them, and they are a solid, permanent object. Will has long, straight blonde hair. So far, no one in the game-space has blue or green hair. We have white, black, brown and red hair, and that’s about it. Amy has yellow hair. No one has purple hair.
“Come on, John. I’ll show you how to get your breakfast.” Will’s a good guy.
John looked at me. Newbies often bond onto someone in a heart-beat. It looked like I was John’s new best friend. I gave him a quick nod, and then his eyes slid over to Will. I got up and went with them, carrying my bowl and spooning up cereal as I followed. Will is the tallest person in here. He led John over to the wall.
John stared, as Will beckoned at the long row of flat, red, shiny panels. This was on the far side of the open space of our common area.
“You’re the twenty-fourth person here.” Will explained patiently. “This one is yours.”
“How do you know?” John was waking up. “There are no numbers.”
One thing we never do is to press them for personal information. If we don’t do that, more seems to come out later, just popping up out of their subconscious mind in casual conversation, than if we try to drag it out in some interrogation-like process. Questioning them after their appearance is next to useless, and it seems to damage the memories that are there in some way. We don’t think the memories are missing. We think that access to them is somehow blocked, but that the brain occasionally re-routes neurons, and then gains access to whatever the neurons connect with.
What’s a neuron and how do we know about them?
People know certain things when they come in here. We’re left with certain basic skills, certain types of knowledge. We know what a film is, but simply cannot remember seeing any particular one. We know that books have titles. Again, we can’t remember any specific title. It is the details that have been lost or deleted, or blocked. The basic knowledge is there. On the long wall on the opposite side from the tables is a huge screen. Why do we call it a screen? It has moving pictures on it. How do we know none of the pictures correspond to anything we’ve ever experienced before? We just do. Right now, the pictures are of a pool and waterfall in a park. None of us has ever seen a park. You can sit up all night. That is to say during the period when the lights go dim, and watch the pictures. Ultimately, they are all different. They are all different environments and they mean nothing. Yet the word ‘night,’ has a certain meaning in our memories. Someone long since gone must have known about neurons, and memories, and night, and things like that.
“Count them if you like.” Will was bored with it all.
John didn’t move.
“Put your hand flat on it. Any direction will do.”
John didn’t move, so I stepped forward.
“Come on, John. Work with us here. We’re trying to help you.”
John put his hand on the panel, and gasped and stepped back quickly when it disappeared. We think it retracts upwards, but it goes so fast we can’t be sure. It’s just gone. There was a rectangular cavity revealed with various-shaped objects in it, food containers.
Everyone in here understands everyone else.
It’s called ‘language,’ and yet some speak it differently. Greg speaks it with a real twang, or ‘twoing,’ and Suki can’t pronounce the letter ‘r.’ Her eyes are different from everyone else’s. She has funny little folds of skin, right up beside her nose, and she’s a creamy color that none of the other women can match. Most of the men are in love with Suki.
“It’s your breakfast.” Will smiled at me.
“Here, I’ll help you. You and I are buddies. I’m going to help you.” I gave Will a sardonic wink.
With a hand under his elbow, Will steered John back to the table while I got the tray and followed along.
Everything is bolted down, or made of some kind of cheap, quickly degradable plastic, for example the bowls, cups and utensils. The trays are more substantial, but if you don’t put it back into the receptacle, you don’t get fed until you do. After some experimentation, we had determined that the trays were indestructible, at least for all practical purposes. And we all wanted to get fed, but there was nothing to make a tool or a personal weapon, any kind of object with. The only exception was when you took a cup or a bowl or a knife out into the game-space. But then they quickly deteriorated into a dry, squishy, mush-like substance.
The game has a system, a program. Someone estimated it at a billion lines of code. We don’t know why we are here. We are the players. We are twenty-three, now twenty-four people in orange coveralls, and blue elastic-sided slippers. We are caught up in the game. Everything else is either an assumption or a logical deduction, or knowledge that we have gained by painstaking research and experience. We still don’t know much. We know our hair doesn’t grow, but we think it might once have done so. My hair is short, and Will’s is long. How did it get that way? All of our knowledge would fit on the head of a pin. I have never seen a pin, but I can visualize one.
Will and I sat looking at John, who sat looking at us.
“The food’s not so bad. Anyway, it’s kind of a tradition. We try to eat every meal, as much as we can. I don’t know. It just makes some kind of sense. We have to have our own system.” I’m not the best talker in here.
“Something brought us here. Something brought you here. We think it’s a game.” Will wasn’t starting off too
He glanced my way, aware of his difficulty.
“The coffee’s not bad.” What am I comparing it to?
Will’s eyes gleamed.
John absently reached for the cup. We finally managed to get John eating, as Will and I took turns trying to explain what little we know about the game, and how it should be played. Poor John just hunched over his food, eyeing us and munching on bacon and eggs, which for some reason the machine, the system, always gave newbies on their first day. Bacon comes from something called a pig. I don’t really know what one looks like, although it has been described to me. A chicken lays eggs, or so I am told. I can’t visualize a chicken no matter how often one is described. Others claim to be able to see one, ‘in their mind’s eye.’
“Do you see that green light down at the far end?”
“Yes.” He wiped a crumb of toast from the corner of his mouth.
“Amy’s in the game-space presently. She’s number seventeen. She’s been gone a day and a half now.”
He stared across the intervening space. It’s probably sixty or seventy metres to the far wall at the end of our long common area, which extends down a wide hallway where our actual cells are. The black rectangle has no real relation to human scale. It’s the size of a train door.
There are no trains in the habitat or the game-space. Yet we all agree that it is the size of a train door. No
one alive in here today has actually seen a train in the game-space, at least not up close. Anwar says he saw something like a train from something like a balcony once. It was so far away, all he got was an impression of a speeding line in the distance. He says he was in a city.
We all seem to know what he’s talking about.
“She’s usually pretty good.” Will explained further. “She’s often gone three or four days. Her record is nine days.”
“Where is she? Who is she?”
He was definitely waking up a little now.
“She is Amy.” Will had no better answer. “We don’t know who we are…or were.”
“She’s in the game-space. That’s why we’re here. The last time I was out there, I only lasted two or three minutes. That was the least amount of time I survived since I’ve been in here.” John was shocked at my words.
“How long have you guys been here?”
It seemed unusual for this question to be asked so soon. Will nodded.
“I’ve been here maybe two and a half years, as near as anyone can figure.”
John’s eyes swung to me, the question still there.
“Yeah, I’ve been here maybe eight or nine months. I’ve been killed forty-seven times.”
There were six more people to go, then me, and then John’s first time would come.
“We’re kind of like communists in here, John.” Will was good with new people.
“We’re all in it together. We share and pool our knowledge. We try to help each other.” I stuck an oar in when I could.
“Amy will get killed sooner or later. Then the light will go red. She either turns up again, often at the breakfast table, but sometimes at other times. Or, maybe she doesn’t come back.”
Will went quiet, eyes somewhere else. Will and Amy shared a cell and have done so since I arrived. I have my own cell. Then he came back.
“Maybe half a day later, the light goes green, and it’s the next person’s turn.”
“Since I’ve been here, four people have failed to return. What it all means, we just don’t know with any certainty.” All we know is that they don’t come back, and the food-slots are reassigned.
Will was still staring off into space, but he nodded feebly.
“But it is possible they made it out. Maybe they won the game, John. Or maybe they’re dead, or maybe they don’t have to play any more.” Sheer speculation, but it was basically the same stuff Mary had told me when I arrived.
Mary was a good explainer, but she was talking and laughing with the others. I tried to catch her eye and get her over, but to no avail. At a loss for words, I watched as John mopped up egg yolk with a corner of toast.
Evelyn came and sat with us, but just listened. Her grey eyes locked on mine for a moment, then slid away.
She’s a slender blonde woman, whom I find very attractive. For some reason I want to hold her, to hug her, but she doesn’t respond to me. She liked a man who is since gone. She cried for days when he didn’t come back. His name was Barney. I barely knew him. She says she was in love with him. She tried to explain what love is, but her explanation didn’t make a whole lot of sense. All I know is that I feel funny when I look at her. It’s a kind of hurting inside, and I can’t do anything about it.
John’s coffee was creamed.
“Is your coffee sweet?”
Somehow the machine knows. It must know who you are. It must know something about your previous life, and yet that is an assumption. A person who has just been born may be extremely impressionable. If they are given a coffee with cream and sugar, they may simply like it. But Fred takes it black. Will has his coffee with ‘two sugars,’ a piece of information which just slipped out of him one day. These are some of the many reasons why we are convinced that we came from somewhere else, and that we existed someplace else, and that we were taken from some place, rather than just created to play the game.
“My first coffee was black with one sugar.”
Of course he didn’t get the significance, but Will was listening intently. Newbies don’t show up every day, and you never know what might slip out, what you might learn about the game-space.
“Mary was given tea her first day, and ever since then, it’s been tea.” John’s my first newbie.
“Someone once asked, why do we call that thing a door? It’s just a big, black spot on the wall.”
I nodded at him.
“Do you know what a door is, John?”
“Of course!” He said it a little more crisply now that he had eaten, and his coffee was half gone.
“That thing at the end isn’t really a door, is it? It’s really just a panel of something we could call, ‘not-wall,’ for lack of a better term.”
It was just a patch of perception, colored a kind of non-reflective charcoal black. It had the two lights beside it on the right, and the button to push when you were ready to go out there. It was just a big, black, rectangular chunk of not-wall. You pushed the button, and it flickered, a kind of wavering haziness came over it, and then you stepped through, and then you were in the game.
The last time I was in the game-space, as soon as I stepped through the door, I was in a room about fifty metres long, forty metres wide and about metres high. The floor was black, with a grid of yellow lines oriented so that they were squared up at the corners. The left wall was covered in a grid of lines in light green, the right wall in a darker green. These were on different, oblique angles. The end wall was in a blue grid, with bigger squares, on a sharp angle, sloping up and to the right. The ceiling was covered in purple lines, so dim that it seemed an illusion, flickering and shimmering overhead. Otherwise, anything that was not a line was black. It was all black, and completely arbitrary.
On the far end was a black panel, an area of no lines. It resembled our door. There was a door on the far end of each of the side walls. There was a round, deep blue patch in the floor, near the far left corner. A glowing, pale blue ladder rose up from there to a rectangular patch of shadowy red in the ceiling. John, Will and Evelyn listened intently to my story.
“I put my hand on the left hand door, then the middle one. When I put my hand on the right-hand one, the laser beam came and got me in the left temple.”
Will and Evelyn had heard the story before, but listened carefully as you never knew when a fresh detail might come out.
“The beam can come from anywhere, the floor, the base of the wall, from directly overhead. Sam got it right through the top of the head, um, just last week. Right, Will?”
“There’s no escaping it. All I can say for sure is that I should have gone down the blue hole, or climbed up the ladder to the red patch.” Essentially, there were no other options, unusual for the game. “Or I could have just stayed in the middle of the room. Sooner or later I would have been killed anyway.”
We learned very little that time.
The game didn’t like it when you did nothing. Legend had it a guy called Edward sat outside the door, for about three days, and was killed by a beam that entered right between the eyes. One way or another, you were bound to make a mistake, even if you did nothing at all in the game-space. There was some kind of time element involved.
“Some people just try to keep moving for as long as possible.” John must be made aware that we all have to suffer death again and again in here.
Edward was gone long before my time. One wondered just where he had gone to.
Evelyn’s story was interesting as well.
“Sometimes when I step out of the door, it’s like in a room. A living room, John. But the time before last, I couldn’t see a thing. The ground was flat and smooth and hard, just like the tiles in here.”
Some of us have wandered for days in what we think might once have been called an apartment building, which might arbitrarily switch over to a jungle, or a beach, or something maybe called a shopping mall. You open up a door and everything changes. These places were always deserted. To see beings or creatures was extremely rare, and it was always at some vast distance, just tiny dots in the distance, moving dots, dots that seem to have purpose and direction. When we move towards them, we never get there. By the time we get there the game-space has changed to something else, or we get killed by the beam first.
She paused for thought while a dreamy look came over her face.
“Everywhere there was a fog. I couldn’t see my feet, but when I raised my knee, I could see it. If I held up my hand, I could see it. I turned left, and turned right, but no matter how far I went, the fog continued. There were no walls, no corners, nothing solid, just a flat plane of substance for me to walk on…and that fog.”
“And then what happened?” He already knew the answer.
“I was just standing there, cursing and swearing. For some reason I was having a really bad day. Then it happened.”
“The beam got her, John.” Will was a gentle person.
“How big is it?”
Will and Evelyn nodded at the question.
“It’s about as big around as your little finger.” It wasn’t my favourite subject.
“The beam came from behind. You can feel a little hot spot on your skull, and once I even caught a whiff of smoke from where my hair was burning.”
With a slight shudder, Evelyn went on.
“The beam came out of my forehead, and as I was falling, the angle of the beam moved. Wherever it comes from, the point seems to move about pretty freely. And the really strange thing is that suddenly the game space changed. The beam came out of my forehead, and it went down into a pond or basin of water…there’s a few seconds of clarity before you die, John. I had time to see the beam partially reflected off the water, and part of it went into the water. The bottom of the pond was black. That part of the beam reflected up off the shiny black bottom of the pond, hit the surface of the water from below, and shot off on a funny angle up into the fog.”
She fell face-first into the water.
“Then she showed up here next day at breakfast.” We never talk about the pain.
John would find out soon enough, although it was certainly implied in the laser-through-the-head.
“No. I woke up in the loo.”
“Ah. That’s right. It’s not always at breakfast. And the amount of time varies, to some degree, but why, we don’t know. It seems to be a twelve to eighteen-hour time period. Then you either come back, or you don’t.”
“We have a strong oral tradition around here.” Will was big on oral tradition. “We have nothing to write on. We try to keep accurate verbal records. Anyway, if it’s any comfort, no one has ever not come back after the first trip.”
That wasn’t much help to John. Strangely enough, no one has ever gone insane, and no one has ever tried to kill themselves, or each other. Yet we are aware of the concepts. Whatever this game is about, there are seemingly some things that cannot or do not happen, for some reason we can’t fathom. There are enough things that can happen.
“Do you know what a dream is, John?”
Will’s shoulders twitched. He and I had a long discussion about dreams. An inconclusive discussion, but you never know what you might trip over in even the most innocent conversation.
“Um.” John didn’t know what I meant.
Will’s eyes held an unspoken message. It was best not to push. I ignored it. This one felt important.
“Once in my sleep, I felt like I was driving down a paved side-road at night…with my high beams on. I came to a T-shaped intersection. I made a left turn, yet I can’t clearly say I if was driving in a car. You know what a car is, John?”
He nodded as if surprised at this knowledge.
“Yes. A car.”
“Sometimes in a dream, I see a town or village, yet I know I’ve never been there before. Don’t ask how I know, I just know. I think a dream is just something made up by your own head. Sometimes the game-space is totally real, and sometimes it’s like a dream, where you’re going down a road, yet you don’t know or can’t see if you are in a car, or merely floating or flying above the road.”
“In our dreams there seems to be only familiar things. We cannot dream of something that has not previously existed in our experience. At least that’s how one of our theories goes.” Evelyn had a good perspective on it.
“This is not a dream.” John was right.
“No. It’s real enough, John.” Will’s face got a little longer when he said it.
A week later, it was my turn. Lately no one has managed to stay out for very long, and we couldn’t account for the difference. Some would put it down to luck, and others thought the game has gone into a new phase.
“I’ve never been one for passive acceptance.” Some of the group accompanied me to the door, where the green light beckoned.
How would I know what I stand for? Yet it sounds right.
“Has anyone ever not gone out the door?” John asked good questions.
“No. If you wish to try the experiment, we’ll put it to a vote.” Suki likes votes.
Seeing the question come up in John’s head, Will spoke up.
“Since all of our fates might be affected, it’s only fair that you consult with the group before trying anything strange and new. But we have no record of anything like that.”
“Can the beam kill someone in here?” Another good question.
We don’t have an answer. No one has ever tried it. But there is hope for the lad. Maybe there’s fresh hope for all of us.
Will, and John, and Evelyn and Suki and Fred, who is dark-skinned and plump, looked at me.
Will was grinning from ear to ear.
“Give ‘em hell, Peter.”
They slapped me on the back, and then I picked up the cups of water all lined up in a row beside the door, and started draining them as best I could. All the time, that green light kept shining out of its socket. I picked up my bundle, a little food we’d managed to save and preserve over the last three days. I tied it securely on my belt.
“Pray for me.” I hit the button and stepped out of the door.
At first, the game space seemed refreshingly real. There were trees, and clouds, and grass
underfoot. The horizon was a thin dark line with just the suggestion of lumpy geometric
shapes sticking up out of it. All I could do was to run towards it. Some have reported trying to go behind the long, rectangular habitat where we live, but the phenomena reported were not much different from the usual, and the outcome was always the same.
On some level, we figure we must have tried everything. Those who came before us have tried everything.
For today, I came up with a new variation on an old plan.
As I ran, the dust underfoot compressed, and puffed and splattered outwards from my feet. The white clouds scudded serenely across the sky in some timeless rhythm that just looked right.
When the wind picked up, I could hear it soughing in the long tufts of grass that stuck up here and there.
The plain seemed to be endless. Sweat ran down my face, and my chest, and I could feel it dribbling down under my arms. My weeks of training were paying off. All that running to-and-fro in the habitat. At first it was an annoyance, but the others got used to it, and soon they took to encouraging me. There was a lot riding on this trip. My foot hit something hard and unyielding, and a rock the size of my fist scuttled away.
For a moment I stood there, hopping up and down.
The pain was blinding, a kind of revelation. We can hurt ourselves out here. This information must go back to the others. It hurt almost as much as the laser-through-the-head…time to rest. I regarded the rock with interest. On an impulse, I stooped and put it into my pocket. Then I continued running at a reduced pace.
My lungs reveled in the exertion. For some reason that felt strange. Someone once saw me pat my upper chest pocket.
“You must have been a smoker.”
That was Wilhelmina. She didn’t come back from her next trip, and I never really got a chance to ask her about it.
Whatever smoking does to your lungs, it doesn’t seem to be permanent. Gradually the pain in the foot eased, but it still throbbed. All I could do was to keep going.
The line on the horizon began to take form and definition. Pausing was not on the agenda, not as long as I
could run…runs like a deer…where had that come from? What did it mean? Try to remember, the others will want to know. Someone might have an idea. Some spark of memory might be nudged loose.
Sure enough, it was the city, or a city, or any city, or no city at all…
Choosing as randomly as I could, I pelted into one of the canyon-like alleys between the buildings, picked one opening over all others, and ran inside the cool, dark space revealed inside.
The outside of the building must have had a thousand windows, but inside, it was just one big space, soaring up into darkness. The light seemed to get better the longer I stood there.
About a hundred metres away, there was a room, a round room that was rotating about a point. A slot on the left side of it appeared, growing wider as it slid around to face me, and then it was gone around the other side as the room spun. My feet slapped loudly on an arching foot-bridge across a shimmering silvery pool.
Then I stood beside the room.
It was about thirty metres in circumference, and maybe ten metres high. It was painted yellow on the outside.
Would the slot come back?
This seemed very important…here it comes! As it slid around towards me, I could see a fairly benevolent-looking space revealed within. I jumped in as it went by.
I went to the centre of the room to rest. The floors were thick and soft. As soon as I lay down, the room stopped rotating, but four equidistant slots in the ceiling revealed the sky revolving around the room. The slot was still open, and that made me feel better. The bright windows of the outer building kept flashing past in a continuous pattern.
There were some new sounds, sounds that I had never heard before. That’s not unusual. They went up and down, in and out, in a kind of pattern, muted yet distinct. It didn’t seem threatening, or even connected to my actions in any way. It was sort of pleasant, once I got used to it, and nothing bad happened to me right away.
It was just another aspect of the environment.
I lay on a big round bed, cooling off. For some reason, I didn’t expect to be killed in here. A kind of instinct, I guess. After all the emotional upheaval that always comes, knowing you will die, I fell asleep in about three minutes. I must have slept four or five hours.
When I awoke, there wasn’t much time to be wasted, and nothing of any real importance had been revealed in the round room. I don’t recall anyone reporting anything like this, but we get a lot of that. When I stepped outside, there she was.
She stood tall and slender. Her body was enshrouded in filmy, billowing white fabric.
“My name is Malaguena.”
She stepped forwards with outstretched hands, and it was all wrong…all wrong.
We had never really considered this. I had no idea of what to do. All I could do was to experiment.
My shaking hand found the rock deep in my pocket. I let her get a little closer. She seemed so innocent, so clean and so fine. When I pulled my fist out of my pocket, her eyes widened slightly at the sight of the rock, and I saw fear in her eyes. She lowered her hands to her sides.
Her mouth opened to speak, and then her lips clamped shut in a heartbeat. She stood there, with her chin
down a little bit, and her violet eyes locked on mine.
She gave a little nod, heaving with the shock of emotions…
I hit her in the side of the head so hard, the pain of it went up to my elbow. I just had time to put the rock back into my pocket, wet with blood, in some forlorn hope that I would have it, that I would be able to keep it for inspection by the others. She lay there at my feet, and my stomach hurt, like it was tied up in a cold knot, and my heart pounded despite the fact that the exertion was small.
The beam caught me right between the eyes.
The next thing you know, we were sitting at the table. The group listened in fascination to my report.
“Now you know as much as I do, John.”
“Does it hurt, a lot?” He meant the laser.
“It hurts some. But you can get used to anything, given enough time.” I shook my head, and then it was time for John to try and sleep for a while, and prepare for his first time in the game-space.
No guilt, no regrets. But sometimes we wonder if those who didn’t come back were killed by people like us.
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