In the context of The Beast, this phrase usually signifies the design aesthetic that the game would never admit it WAS a game. It would present itself as absolutely, resolutely real.
But the first use of the phrase was different. A few weeks into the Beast, I started to worry that the audience was treating it too much like a series of puzzles, and not enough as a story; that things were being analyzed instead of felt. “This is not a game,” I said to Elan. “I want it to feel like a book, or a movie.”
One of the main characters in the game was a young woman named Laia, who was in the habit of sending periodic update emails to her friends. (That’s right: Laia basically invented Facebook.)
Worried that what was supposed to be a work of art might devolve into a series of cryptograms, I sat down on Easter weekend to write a diary entry from Laia that couldn’t be seen as just a stack of clues – something that would force the audience to admit there were emotional stakes on the table.
Two years ago I found something out that made me terribly unhappy. It wasn’t something I could imagine talking about. For six weeks I carried this thing inside me until I was all withered up, like a stick inside. I couldn’t find a way to touch things anymore. I tried to back out of the camping trip Abuela and I take every year with the Chans, but she wouldn’t let me. We were hiking in the Appalachians. On the fifth day of our trip we were camped beside a lake. I couldn’t sleep, so I slipped out and went down to the water. It was dark and cold and lifeless. Evan came up beside me. He had heard me slip out and had come to see if he could help. I tried to tell him I was fine, but the lie caught in my throat and I started to cry. I cried and cried and cried, horrible jerking sobs that shook my whole body. I cried a whole lake of coldness and darkness. And Evan, who is normally so cheerful and kind of goofy, was very quiet. He put an arm around me and let me cry for a very long time. I couldn’t stop saying “I’m sorry!” I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. It’s okay, he said. Usually I forget that he lived through the Warming. When he was a child, he and Nancy and Jeanine saw horrors I will never face.
Easter Sunday, 2142. I am kneeling on the dock at the Drowned Lands, cleating the bow rope of Abuela’s Zodiac and smiling at a little solemn-eyed girl. I guess she’s around three, but I’m not a good guesser. Her parents are still chatting with the waiter inside; I can see them dimly through the smoked glass of the café door. “Hey,” I say, smiling at the kid. “Didja just have breakfast?”
It’s twenty minutes earlier and I am buzzing along the canal in the Zodiac. The canal runs east-west, and at this hour you get long morning light over everything. It’s a soft blush on the old concrete buildings. The colors are brighter on newer things, the jetties and walkways and bridges strung like nets between buildings. Brushed ceramic and blown steel take the stain of dawn like the puffy clouds overhead, in streaks of pink and gold.
I would complain about having a smug familiar, but it’s pretty obvious that they catch their personalities from us, like colds or mumps, so I guess I only have myself to blame.
Someone waves at me from the deck of the Lucky Junk! It’s one of the Seven Skinny Sons who works the pawn boat. He’s tickling a fish out of the gullet of their cormorant. I’m not the only person to wonder if Old Fat Mrs. Chee doesn’t keep bands around her sons’ throats too. For the record, nobody’s sure there are exactly seven of them. We just assume.
The cormorant, done for the morning, flops indignantly to the bow and spreads his wings out to dry. The Lunky Junk! watches me go by. We’re old pals; I fell off her once when I was a kid, forcing a rescue from one of the Skinny Sons. “Hey!” I shout. The old boat winks. These days I need that little benediction every time I go up the canal.
John XXVI doesn’t move a lot of product in NY, but still plays pretty big back home. Two years ago he . . . re-issued? Reconfirmed? Covered? Clement’s decree that robots don’t have souls.
Since the days of Pfeifer and Steve Potter, Abuela says, we’ve been pretty sure that you need a body to achieve consciousness. Or at least, it definitely helps. The first step in creating “me” is to bump into the edges where Me stops and Not Me begins. Allen Hobby took it as axiomatic that consciousness-volition, emotion, motivation (and lust and charity and that feeling you get when someone at a party is wearing exactly the same frosty rig as you)-would always manifest far sooner if the cpu was seated in a body than if it was running in a featureless machine connected to the datasphere.
It’s seventy-five minutes later and I’m heading back to Abuela’s apartment. She’s probably spent the whole time going through her correspondence with her Administrative Intelligence. I guess working hard is the price you pay for ruling the world. She’s a Warming survivor and she shows all the classic symptoms of the generation: hard-working, high-achieving, anxious, always waiting for the axe to fall. You can see her struggling not to ask why I don’t try and do something more purposeful with my life. Generally, the Survivors think my cohort is lazy and decadent. Which we are, compared to them.
But then they had a world to save. We’re just waiting for ours to wind down.
They have taken the little girl’s pinkie off right at the root, leaving just a sliver of reinforced bone to socket the artificial digits. Her parents will have to keep buying new prosthetics as she gets bigger. That’s putting your money where your beliefs are.
I’m sure they think they are doing the best thing they can to prepare her for the world she will grow into.
It’s the exact same moment. The girl’s parents are still chatting with the waiter inside; I can see them dimly through the smoked glass of the café door.
And when I think of a snake I can see them as red ghosts.
And when I think of an owl I can see the little girl, but this time with a purple face and hands where her sunscreen is.
I used to eat at the Down and Out; now I get my coffee at the Drowned Lands Cave.
The little girl and I look at one another. We both stop smiling. We are both unclean.
It’s seventy minutes later. The canal is noisy. Did I mention that? Chugging engines, the slap and splash of water everywhere, people yelling cheerfully to one another, the deep throbbing whine of the police amphibicopter as it peels off and heads heavily down a side canal. And of course, over everything, the constant shrieking of seabirds, grey and black ones wheeling overhead and perched on window ledges and scavenging for scraps. One settles briefly on my bow.
She knows the name, but she is no kin to that bird. I am. The bird and I are meat, and what meat means. I could club it with an oar and it would fluff in a spray of feathers, its hollow wingbones splintering like mine might in a ‘copter accident tomorrow. No back-ups for us (unless you count the pale copies the very rich can make, but I remain unconvinced.)
That gull and I are trapped in four dimensions, not just three. Maybe that’s the pressure that squeezes consciousness out of us. Maybe “I” is just the name we give that thing that doesn’t want to die.
If he weren’t worth caring about, it wouldn’t hurt so much. Nancy wouldn’t be so angry. Abuela wouldn’t be so grim. There would be no therapist working with Cloudmaker, there would be no for-evan.com.
A courier shoots by on a one-foot, drenching me in his rooster tail. “Dammit! Mephista!”
I flash the courier one unenhanced middle finger but he doesn’t seem to care. Abuela tells me it has always been this way.
My day improves. Solidarity in sisterhood.
It’s forty minutes earlier. I am working on my second meth roast and my head is beginning to clear. I have a film on the table in front of me and Mephista and I are re-arranging clues for the thousandth time, trying to figure out what the hell happened to my friend Evan. I am staring stupidly at a long list of Japanese teas cross-referenced against the meaning of the character in Sencha’s puzzle. I send out a query in search of a user profile, feeling like a character in that ancient Link story, “The Girl Detective.”
The little bell over the café door jingles and Isaiah 3 shuffles in, smiling. He is old and black and blind. Rumor has it he can resurrect the dead. He’s always very friendly, but everybody gives him a wide berth.
It’s Easter Sunday, 2135. I am standing on a dock again. This time my mother is stepping into a rowboat on a river in Spain. She is going offline.
“So I guess this is it,” I say. My frosty new moving tat winds around my shoulders. I can feel it on my skin like the prickle of lizard’s feet.
“You’ll find me someday.”
“No, I won’t. That’s what going offline means.”
“I’m sorry,” she says. But I’m seventeen and I’m not buying that for a second.
“Yeah, well. Your choice,” I say. I’m almost too angry to allow a last hug, but I force myself to lean forward. The moving tat creeps under the strap of my halter top and clings to the edge of my collar blade. My mother looks at it for a long moment.
She can’t bring herself to touch me.
“Goodbye,” she says.
Evan never flinched from touching. Yes, he fell in love too often and too easily. But if that was his weakness, he paid for it with his life; and it was his strength too.
What I think is, sometimes it’s all right to cry. Sometimes life hurts.