Rain misted the yellow windows of a hundred-fourteenth-story apartment. Six train cars glided across a dead mouse. A man resignedly took his headset out of a box and lay it upon his couch in readiness.
* * *
Rain misted the yellow windows of a hundred-fourteenth-story apartment. On the other side of the window, an alarm clock buzzed atop the nightstand. A narrow man rose from bed, waded across the cat litter, and took a leak into the splattered bathtub.
The man went to the kitchen to check the coffee timer. Hot and ready. He hit the button to release a double dose of Vygexa, stirred the drink with a fork borrowed from the pizza box on the counter, and sat down at his dining table.
Raindrops traced ancient patterns down the kitchen window. A morning sun passed through the streaked glass, throwing blurry angels against the far wall. The entire building shook as the 6:06 from uptown passed over the window, blocking out the light, descending the buildingside tracks toward the subway junction at street level.
When the train’s darkness had passed, the blurry gray angels reappeared on the crumbling white plaster. Dust and cat litter settled back into the carpet like pesticides misting a field.
The narrow man stared at the table as he drank his way awake. Old newspapers traced hard lines across his face. The table was servicably bent and endurably broken, torn vinyl stretched across cheap steel mesh, unable to stand straight but unable to fall. The coffee tasted like week-old hot chocolate, a burned mimicry of plastic beans impregnated with the stale sweetness of Vygexa. It got him awake, but it didn’t make him smile like the face on the bottle implied it would.
Going to the kitchen, the man knocked the empty pizza box into the sink and pulled open the cabinet door to the right of the microwave. The exciting colors and designs on three half-empty cereal boxes competed for his attention, their cheap printing faded but still garish, like aging hookers trying their damnedest to make rent.
Gnarly Nightshades was bran, pepper, and tobacco, with light brown flakes, dark brown flakes, and crunchy pipettes colored to resemble cigarettes. Rainbow Celebration had sixteen kinds of fruit in TruSeal coatings that made it hard as hell to chew. Uncanny Unchocolate was nothing but cloned cocoa and lab-sugar.
Setting a bowl on the counter, the man poured himself a serving of cigarette-flavored cereal. He squeezed a bottle of variety milk onto the flakes and pipettes, and turned on the news.
Global news. War in the southwest again. Scientists in Arginon may have developed a new way to combat green fever. Belfast is expanding, Han is subdividing. The timer came up on the right side of the screen, revealing that the man had only one month left to complete his remaining ten hours of Global Social Information Awareness.
Spoon into cereal. The narrow man crunched through a satisfying bite of ashen bran. Outside, the rain slowed. The angel shadows on the far wall vanished. Without the angels, the entire apartment was monochrome pointalism.
Local news. We could see rain for up to a week. The chairwoman of New Central Acoustics has announced a deal with legal maintenance officers in the five-city area. Sign up for this month’s citizen stockholder awareness program to satisfy up to four hours of L-SIN. A different timer came up on the right side of the screen, revealing that he had only one week left to complete his remaining half hour of Local Social Information Awareness.
Cereal broke into satisfying pieces between his teeth. Outside, the rain was all gone. Harder shone the sun, evaporating the downpour into clear streaks on the yellow glass.
Building news. Occupancy levels have fallen below four hundred thousand, so unfortunately, owner dividends will be reduced this month. If you know of a friend or family member in another community who is dissatisfied with their living situation, let them know: you can each receive a bonus if they become an owner here for at least one year. Please make community policy complaints to the ground floor administrative super and not to your local floor’s maintenance super. A yellow star came up on the right side of the screen, indicating that the man had a surplus of two and a half hours of Building Social Information Awareness, which would roll over into next month. Not exchangeable between categories.
The narrow man walked into the bathroom. He looked at his newsprint face in the chipped gray mirror. “No,” he said, head shaking as he brushed his teeth, “I don’t want a revolution.”
* * *
Six train cars glided across a dead mouse. Wet pink innards and dry white fur intermingled among the quivering tracks. The train stopped, picked up a load of passengers, then raced away.
A boy rushed forward from the bottom of the platform. Shielding his tears with a hand, he toed through the mouse guts. “Buh, buh, blessed be, oh Trainfather, oh Trainfather who are all around us, an’ me, even when it’s complete quiet.”
Amidst the distant roar of subterranean air being displaced, he prayed to the Trainfather for justice. He scraped the worst of his sacrifice aside. From the platform above, a woman sneered horribly down at him.
Hanging his head, the boy shuffled across the tracks. Up the maintenance ladder, through the dark tunnels, across the magnetized crawlspace. Through the ancient sewers and out onto eight hundred forty-ninth street.
“Keep th’faith,” he whispered, rushing onto the elevated sidewalk. “Keep th’faith.” In his shirt pocket, he carried a squirming white mouse dressed in a blue-striped conductor’s hat.
The boy crossed the busy street where the trains were smaller and carried only one or two passengers each. Every conductor was calm, red-cheeked, and smiling. Their trains carried them along, track by track, to wherever they needed to go. On the sidewalk, a poor boy played with a secondhand mini-train that had no track of its own.
Across the street, the boy with the mouse in his pocket skipped through the forty-storied shopping mall. Here the trains were even smaller, and they carried only the purchases and persons of those who shopped within. Sparkling perfume misted the air. Brightly decorated bags glittered from the baggage cars of the little aluminum shopping trains. An orderly network of thousands of rails traced through every store, every interior plaza, and every concourse. Elevated rails permitted trains to hoist their occupants from one floor of shopping to another.
The boy with the mouse in his pocket stopped inside the jeweler’s shop. He gave his last mouse a final kiss and taped it to the railing just around a corner, where it would remain unseen until it got run over. “Sorry, ol’ boy,” he apologized, like lustful Abraham to quivering Isaac.
A woman conductor with several rings on her fingers approached the corner immediately prior to the intended sacrifice. With a discriminating air, she slowed her engine to study the gemmed bracelets atop that shop’s counter. Nothing met her approval. She loosened her throttle, gliding around the corner and over the trapped mouse, splitting it in twain.
When the bejeweled woman’s engine car and baggage car had moved well on, the boy with the empty pockets rushed over.
“Oh Tuh, Tuh, Trainfather!” Crying, the boy fell to his knees beside the mouse innards. “I gave you all I got, an’ then some! Puh, please, please take me off the rails of this life, an’ let me find somewhere I can make my own way!”
“Hooom, hoooom…” A deep moaning came from the dark corner of the jeweler’s shop. “Hooom, little boy, what moves you to cry and pray so?”
The boy with the empty pockets turned in alarm.
There in the shadows stood a man in an old-style conductor’s cap and coveralls, white with blue stripes, decorated just like the one the last sacrificial mouse had been wearing. Long gray mustaches grew under the man’s nose, tufted gray eyebrows grew above his eyes, and foul yellow spots grew upon his gnarled skin. “Hoom,” he said again, eyes severe. “You’ve called to the Trainfather, I see. And what do you think you’ll have of Him?”
Bravely, the boy stood. “If you please, sir, I want to go off my rails.” He pointed downward. “Like a mouse, sir. I want to go where I want, when I want. To not be stuck in an engine, made to go only where the track leads. To…to have a different life than everybody else who shops in this city.”
The aged conductor’s eyes shone. “And you think the Trainfather can do that for a boy?”
The boy with the empty pockets swallowed. “I know rails’s the way of life. I know the better part of the whole world’s now nothin’ but trains. I know it’s written down that way in the Engineer’s Manual. I know mankind’s made mistakes when he’s been off the rails. But I don’t…I don’t think that should bond me forever. Sir. If you please.”
Out from the shadows came the elder. “Get some sense about you, boy. There’s no such thing as the Trainfather.”
Snorting, the old man said, “We might’a built too many trains these days, but that don’t mean we built a god along with’m. And you might be a poor kid, but that’s no excuse for running a bunch of innocent mice over. Now get outta my shop.”
The boy stared in amazement. “But…but…”
“Go on back to whatever gutter your mother dropped you in,” the man dismissed. “Bein’ cruel to mice won’t get you out of this world. Go to school, study hard, and you might yet buy a shiny new engine all your own, someday.”
“But the big boys said…” The boy with the empty pockets moved his mouth like a fish out of water. “They said if you sacrificed three mice in three spots, all on the same day…an’ I went to the L, the subway, an’ the jeweler’s shop on the eight hundred fiftieth street mall…an’ I did it just like I was supposed to, an’ I kept my faith ’gainst adversity, an’ now…an’ now…”
“And now what?” Turning his eyes away, the old man fetched a utilitarian golden watch from the counter display and began shining it free of the hour’s worth of soot that covered every exposed surface in the shop.
“An’ now…!” The boy let out a cry. He rubbed his sooty fingers into the sooty corners of his sooty eyes. “An’ now, I’m supposed to get a pass to the one free island, way out in the sea. The island where, where there are no rails, an’ are no trains, too! Where people ride beautiful great mice that talk, an’ where they’re buildin' an army to someday overthrow the train tyrants of the rest of the world!”
The jeweler in the conductor’s outfit shook his head in disgust. “Rubbish.”
“I’m destined to lead that army!” promised the boy. “I got a scar like an old railroad-crossing on the inside of my arm, an’ the old lady who raised me as an orphan, after my parents died in the deep’n mines, she said that scar was holy, an’ it means our time has almost come. An’ that means, it means I’m destined to lead that army, that army of mice and men, to destroy this world of confor’minty, an’ remake the world anew, with love true an’ bravery bold, an’ battles an’ a’ventures along the way! Everything that you can only get off the rails!”
Replacing the golden watch on the counter display, the old shopkeeper said, “That’s interesting. Now get out of here, or I’ll call the train police to throw you in the mall jail for cruelty to animals. It’s really disgusting, what you’ve done here.”
Tears ran down the boy’s face. “I thought it was true…” His voice fell to a piteous whisper. “I thought…I really believed it was true.”
Chuckling over the drab silver watch he now worked at polishing, the jeweler said, “Then you’re a fool. I’ve run this shop near thirty years, and there’s no underground network of mice spies; there’s no Trainfather; there’s no magical island where mice have the shape they used to have before most of ’em were turned into treacherous spies by the first train-builders, and there’s no rebellion that wants to rip the tracks up all over the world and make men free. Hate to say it to you, but there’s no great meaning to any of this cruel train-track life, boy. It’s simply a way of getting around. Point A to Point B, and sometimes forgetting something and stopping off at Point C, or changing your mind and ending up at Point D.”
“No,” whispered the boy, head shaking. “They said…they said…”
“Smokestacks and chug-a-chug, rail grease and slip-a-slip, engine and car, car and engine…go on your way, boy, and grow up.”
A sob escaped the boy’s lips. Crying openly, he ran from the store.
Out in the mall plaza, surrounded by whistles and chugging and well-lubricated metal rails, the boy with the empty pocket found a colorful bench and sat against the fountain. Here, mechanical gnomes followed tracks of their own, going into the water and out, dipping their affixed buckets into the greasy water, then pouring that water into the cooling tanks of whoever’s engine had stopped in the proper place. A woman conductor, noticing the boy’s tears, produced her striped handkerchief, but he only sobbed and would not take her offering. So she chugged away in her three-car train, her, her babes in coveralls of white and blue stripes, and her caboose full of shopping bags, all heading for the track down to the ground floor.
The boy cried there by the fountain for about a quarter hour.
When the boy with the empty pockets had gone, the Trainfather walked to the edge of his jewelry shop. He shook his head in disappointment. “No faith in the face of adversity, that one,” he said to no one in particular. “Did he really have the crossing birthmark under that old jacket-sleeve? Tsk, tsk. If only he’d insisted just a little more, I could’ve permitted him to travel to Freedom Island.”
Replacing a brass ring in its niche among dozens, the old man began to polish another. “Guess it won’t happen in my day. Guess this old life has about seen its last chance.”
* * *
A man resignedly lay his headset on the couch. The weather was bad outside, gray and cold, but inside, the air glowed colorfully warm with the scent of a dozen candles. Outside his windows, billions of microscopic shards of rust-frozen metal snow fell gently to Earth. Inside his windows, unending holiday music lent a misplaced cheer to this cold May afternoon.
The man walked to the window. For just a moment, he looked out on the metalfall. “No,” he decided, “I don’t want to go outside.”
From the couch, he picked up his headset. Putting it on, he checked his messages, then sent his mother in New London a picture of the metalfall: Still going here mom I love you just gonna game for a while until work starts tonight, love, Jake.
It was now one o’clock. He selected the menu and the submenu and the title sequence. The headset took his thoughts. For a moment he floated in the surreal mist of an ideatic loading zone. Then, all of an instant, he was swept into a new self.
He played the immersion game of Rulengard Restored, Act Four in Chronicles of Rulengard. Born of an unknown father to a pretty parlor maid in a rural province, he quickly leveled himself through infancy and childhood. A benevolent lord in his mother’s household took the boy under his wing, teaching him the language of the realm, the sword, horsemanship and archery, and the inviolable precepts of Rulengardian honor. At thirteen, the Court Adviser slew the young man’s lord in secret, and he became homeless; at fourteen, he entered the Duke’s army and was swiftly recognized for his skill. At twenty, when gargoyles from the north raided the land, the foul Court Adviser became Regent. Then, sensing his calling, the bastard child became the Gleaming Knight: the only man in the Duchy of Rulengard who still remembered the old ways.
Through the headset, preplanned memories replaced those of the man on the couch in his apartment that cold May. For an hour that lasted forty years, and for forty years that lasted an hour, he was the Gleaming Knight. Throughout it all, he was dimly aware that he was actually Jake, playing a game from his couch in the city, but it was easy to push that to the back of his mind and enjoy himself. He felt five horses die under him in battle, and he saw the gold in his purse diminish each time he replaced them. He cried when the old witch of the southern woods breathed her last, when he was privy to visions of her childhood. He shook with rage when the Regent ordered executions in Hollenbarr. Sword in hand, he slew a successively stronger series of impish minions, men-at-arms, and black knights, always pursuing proof of the Regent’s involvement in that initial treachery.
Once, he made love to a peasant girl. She took an instant interest in him when he rode into her village in the garb of the Gleaming Knight. He hair was golden-blonde to her waist, her cheeks were flushed pink, her eyes were the brightest blue, and her bust positively spilled from her loosely-laced cotton blouse. Removing his gauntlets and her blouse, he handled every curve of her data and achieved a dry release. She promised to be there for him every time he returned to Rulengard.
Once, he slew a tainted ogre. The fell beast emerged from the muddy Slough of Despair west of the village of Westenra, and all the villagers looked to the Gleaming Knight to set things right. He rode into the slough on his newly purchased horse, took heavy wounds, and drove his broadsword deep into the ogre’s chest. When it was over, he drank three potions and rested the night. In the morning, he searched the ogre’s body. There he discovered an amulet of power, two potions, and a black sword perfectly suited to his new fighting style. Out of the morass he rode, stronger than before. The villagers promised to be under threat again every time he returned to Rulengard.
Atop the highest tower, amidst the darkest storm, he faced the Regent. He defeated the vile succubus with whom the Regent had despoiled the royal bedchamber. He defeated another black knight. He withstood the Regent’s offers of power. Standing above the Regent’s corpse, he proclaimed justice throughout the land. A newly composed symphony returned him to his couch in the real world.
Back in his apartment, the man turned off that immersion game and flipped through headset menus. It was now two o’clock. He selected the menu and the submenu and the title sequence. The headset took his thoughts. For a moment he floated in the surreal mist of an ideatic loading zone. Then, all of an instant, he was swept into a new self.
He played the immersion game of Kubo’s Kwibbles. Born into a world of simple shapes and colors, he bounced and rolled his way through a dynamic environment of shifting geometry. Puffy blue clouds, smiling yellow suns, and guiding green arrows showed him the way through each and every one of Kubo’s unfortunate kwibbles. As he played, he gathered thirteen hundred and seventy-four royens, with which he purchased boots that enabled him to jump even higher. He leapt from the geometric surface below to the cloud levels above, and there continued playing as Kubo.
Through the headset, simple goals and cheerful perspectives replaced those of the man on the couch in his apartment that cold May. For half an hour that lasted half an hour, he was Kubo, and he had many kwibbles. Throughout it all, he was dimly aware that he was actually Jake, playing a game from his couch in the city, but it was easy to push that to the back of his mind and enjoy himself.
Once the cloud levels grew too repetitive, he ended the immersion. A cheerfully-waving Kubo returned him to his couch in the real world.
“Stupid kid stuff.” The man flipped through headset menus. It was now half past two. He selected the menu and the submenu and the title sequence. The headset took his thoughts. For a moment he floated in the surreal mist of an ideatic loading zone. Then, all of an instant, he was swept into a new self.
He played the immersion game of Sour Bleak III. Picking up from his exploits in Sour Bleak II, he found himself in the deepest dungeon of the darkest nation of the shadowlands. Though he had successfully carried out his most recent espionage, the Dark Lord had failed to reward him as promised. But the Dark Lord had made a mistake in not killing him when he’d had the chance. Picking the lock of his cell, the man formed a makeshift garrote from shreds of cloth and bone discovered at the bottom of this foul torture pit. He stalked his way up the dungeon, level by level, making use of shadows and corners to hide from guards too powerful to face openly. When he caught them unawares, he dispatched them in secret and seized their weapons.
Through the headset, preplanned memories replaced those of the man on the couch in his apartment that cold May. For an hour that lasted several months, and for several months that lasted an hour, he was the most dangerous assassin to stalk that nameless world. Occasionally, like the unwanted nudge of a quiet alarm clock, he thought he remembered he was only Jake, relaxing on his couch before work. Shut up. Focus. He tortured the prison’s warden for information, and discovered why the Dark Lord had betrayed him after that final contract. Cool vengeance quieted his blood as he set out across the blistered desert for the ancient tomb where the corrupt archaeologists would be gathering talismans to bring about the end of the world.
He hunted through the tomb, quietly slaying all of the Dark Lord’s servants who guarded the excavation. In the most sacred chamber, he discovered that the archaeological expedition’s leader had been driven mad by talismans of terrible power, and had enslaved his own daughter, also a renowned archaeologist. After a long and complicated battle, the wronged assassin slew the head archaeologist, freed the appreciative daughter, and made love to her in a dusty tent pitched there in the ruins. She begged him to stay. In response, he started to leave. In midstep, he stopped the world’s time.
Back in the apartment, the man took off his headset and rose from the couch. He went to toss his clothes in the washer. He rinsed up, changed, took a pill, and returned to the couch. The headset went back on.
In a dusty tent pitched there at the bottom of the archaelogical dig site, he coupled a second time with the demented researcher’s beautiful daughter. They lay together for a while afterward. There on the blankets, his careful interrogatives prompted her to confess several side details which led him to artifacts that would assist him in defeating the Dark Lord.
When they separated, she promised to wait for him in that very tent. She was going to continue her father’s research, she said. If he made the proper purchases in “the outer world,” as she put it, she promised him that her wayward younger sisters would travel to the dig site to help her unravel forbidden secrets deeper in that very tomb, and that they, too, would surely fancy his company.
For now, he dismissed her. He crossed the frozen tundra, slaying ice trolls who had been enchanted to serve the Dark Lord. He crossed the windy mountains, playing deadly games of hide and seek with the nocturnal spiders who guarded the way. He entered the Bleaklands, where the Dark Lord was king, and where the waters ran sour with blood and piss.
It took him what seemed like days to plan his entry into the unbreachable black fortress. When he’d acquired the tools necessary to shimmy through an old privy sluice that the Lord’s attendants had overlooked, he made his way into the bottom of the castle. His skills proved scarcely able to eliminate the troupe of expert bodyguards and deliver him to the very bedchamber of the Dark Lord Himself—but there, he found that mighty entity awaiting his return.
To his surprise, the Dark Lord welcomed him as an old friend. It turned out that it had all been a test: a test to see if he was good enough to face the challenges that awaited in Sour Bleak IV. They sat to an elaborate meal, dandled scantily-clad dancers on their knees, and discussed the true nature of world politics. The successful assassin was handsomely rewarded in gold, weapons, and magical devices. When he lay down to rest, he knew that he would have the opportunity to awaken in a few months’ time, and begin the most daring act of espionage and assassinry he had yet faced: infiltrating the Realm of Light itself, where it had all begun, and killing the Sun Lord to bring balance to the world he had stalked for so many episodes previous.
Flush with excitement and dried semen, hungry but repulsed by the thought of food, he loosened the straps on his headset. Chillingly industrialized rock music heralded his exit.
It was now nearly four o’clock. The man walked to the window. For just a moment, he looked out on the metalfall. “No,” he decided, “I don’t want a revolution.”
* * *
Rain misted the yellow windows of a hundred-fourteenth-story apartment. Six train cars glided across a dead mouse. A man resignedly took his headset out of a box and lay it upon his couch in readiness.