If you don't watch The Revengineers, you probably can't appreciate what all the fuss is about. You probably go to plays or something.
(I know I've got important things to talk about, but bear with me here.)
The series is authored by twelve thousand random people collectively steering the twelve virtual intelligences of the regular cast. You know you've been picked to participate if a scope arrives in the printer, and then you wear it while the show airs.
The vicarious adventures you're invited to care about stir in you feelings that are fed back to the streamers, influencing which of the potential streams of narrative are actualized. In this way, the reactions of the authoring swarm define the show's reality.
The effect can be baffling but oddly narcotic when it works retroactively. If enough people in the swarm really wish some event had never happened, the show starts to behave as if it never had. Wishful thinking bears real fruit. The unscoped audience can't help but pray along.
That's what hooks you in. Your caring can matter. If enough of us care, the show feels it and together we have the power to undo that which we want undone.
(You can see this converging on my life now, right?)
I wish, I wish, I wish The Revengineers was real. I wish my life were that. I wish twelve thousand people were squinching their eyes shut in an effort to visualize a better history for me in hope of a better fate, trying with everything they're worth to make the scope read them the way they want it to.
That's the catch -- you don't necessarily want what you think you want. The scope knows you better than you do.
But nobody's scoped on me now. I'm no actor.
I can't take anything back.
(Okay, I know that I'm rambling. It's getting really hot in here. It's stuffy and I can't think. Actually, that's not it -- it's more that the next part makes me uncomfortable. I might as well be honest while I roast. The next part is bad.)
After fleeing East Spire I rode around in the World Train for a while. I was made of stone, or something else heavy and cold. We were humming through the dark side and there was nothing to look at except my own pallid reflection in the glass. I gave myself a wan smile, to see if I still could. The effect was unflattering so I closed my eyes.
I got off the train, eventually. I forget why.
Numbly I crossed the field to the contractor hostel. To myself I seemed tall in a loose way, like my feet and all their walking business was happening far, far below. I was a balloon.
I was startled by the laughter.
It echoed off the walls of the hostel lobby, and in my irritated confusion I looked over my shoulder when the paratroopers pointed at me. At this they fell into each other, gasping theatrically for air. I realized what they were laughing at was me.
Angiers said, "So tell us, fatbags: did screwing her require a Philips or a flat head?"
Suddenly, I knew how to feel.
The feeling rioted up from my insides like hot vomit, the journey unstoppable once begun. I was lost in its blaze. The next thing I saw was Angiers face, mysteriously bloodied, thrashing back and forth at the mercy of a white, red-spattered blur. He was so very far away and I was floating somewhere above him, breathing hard.
It occurred to me that the blur was my own hand. Dimly I could detect its ache as it rhythmically collided with bone.
In an instant my senses snapped fully on and I was jostled back into awareness. My face stung. Someone had hit me. I had stopped hitting Angiers. I was straddling his torso while he moaned. His eyes were swollen shut, purple. It was not possible to discern his mouth from his wounds, because everything was red and shiny. He was blowing bubbles.
Someone hit me again. I turned around.
Lieutenant Carmichael was standing beside me panting, rearing back to swing the sensor tripod at my head for a third time. She swung. I sort of fell aside ahead of it, dropping off Angiers. Carmichael stumbled forward. I caught her by the face and shoved her back at the stairs with everything I had. She cried out in a pitiable way when she landed, her leg bending under her at a rude angle.
Somebody jumped me from behind but I rolled with it and used our collective inertia to crush them against the wall with my shoulder. Something cracked and my attacker gave out a surprised, dismayed gasp. "Motherplugger."
When I stood back and turned the rest of the platoon was arrayed around me. With the hate pumping hard through my veins I was sure I could take them all. I could grind them together like clay. I was a juggernaut. They had unleashed my beast -- a thing growing inside of me since the very first day I was tripped and pushed and mocked as a kid.
But I didn't get a chance to find out how much of that bravado was delusion because the military police charged into the lobby and gassed us all before anyone could make another move.
In the fog we were all equal: a few seconds to cough, to drop to your knees, to flail or grimace and then give in to sweet, sweet slumber's iron pull...
The detective who came to question me at the hospital said it had taken a hundred and one sutures to close the wounds on Angiers' face. I didn't say anything. He went to explain that I had fractured the paratrooper's cheek bone and broken both his jaw and nose. In the process I had cracked my own knuckles and gashed open my fingers. They were sore.
The detective said, "You're going to have to talk eventually."
"My fingers are sore," I said.
"Plug up," he snapped.
Carmichael had earned a greenstick break in her right leg, and Henderson's collar bone had snapped under my ministrations. According to the security feeds all of this took place in less than ninety-nine seconds. "Ninety-nine seconds," repeated the detective gravely.
"Is that a good score?" I asked.
He growled, "What?"
"I never fought back before," I explained. "So I guess I'm just wondering -- how did I do?"
"You were fierce."
"It is definitely not cool."
"I've had enough of your lip. This is a serious matter. Get your attitude under control."
I shrugged. "What's to stop me from jumping out of this bed and pounding your face until you need a hundred and one sutures?"
His eyes widened slightly. "What's to stop you?" he echoed, regaining himself. "What's to stop you is the fact that you're a real smart guy, and you don't want to make this situation worse than it already is. You've had your fit but now you've had a while to calm down. Damage control is in your best interest. Co-operation with me is the best form of damage control available to you. Make the most of it."
I considered this, chewing my lip. "Fine."
We chatted the matter over. I took him through pretty much what I've taken you through, starting with the circus and ending with the laughter. Even just remembering it cut me inside, and my hands started shaking. The detective sent a nurse to get me a cup of tea.
"Those troopers are dicks," he told me heavily. "But that doesn't excuse what you've done, Tim."
"No sir," I agreed quietly. "I've never acted like that in my life. You have to believe me. I didn't choose to make it start...it just started."
He nodded. "I've read your scan, and I believe you. But I want you to understand that your actions were criminal and, therefore, prosecutable. You could also be open to various civil liabilities. It's a whole jumbo-size cargo pod of faeces. You get me?"
"Yes sir," I said.
He held my eye for another moment and then sighed. "On the other hand, you've been flagged as critical personnel for Project [REDACTED] and the management system has made a request to the justice system to re-integrate you." He paused again, compressing his mouth into a thin line. "That request has been granted. You're due at your duty station in less than two hours."
"I -- what?"
"You're off the hook, Tim. You're too important. We need you to get back to work as soon as possible."
My mouth dropped open.
When I didn't move he clapped his hands and barked, "Hup-hup-hup!"
Everyone at work wanted to know about the bandages on my hands and the cut on my head. Gossip doesn't flow quickly in a high security environment. When I told everyone I'd beaten the snot out of a platoon of private paratroopers everyone assumed I was joking around. "How was the circus, anyway?" asked Fast Annie.
"Unforgettable," I mumbled.
"What was the best part?"
"When I fellated Admiral Phong."
There was no reason to be prickly to my colleagues but it wasn't something I felt I could control. I dove into my assignments rather than grumpily chat. I fondled the prayer beads in my pocket and muttered from The O Parables under my breath. It was strength from familiarity -- by the umpteenth repetition I could almost smell my mother's cookies.
I began to salivate.
And then, right in the middle of the shift, the management system sounded a bell for our attention. We each looked up to our upper infographic screens, our faces falling simultaneously as we processed our new instructions. Shogo Natamo's rumour was true: we had only three days until the tank test, four days until the field test.
Three days to the tank test. Three!
(That's twelve shifts, if we didn't sleep.)
"This isn't solid, bodies," grumbled Quality Barbecue Sauce, shaking his head. "This isn't solid at all. We've had the roadmap planned for ten months, pared to the bone -- how can they compress any of it and still expect a body to deliver?"
"Fornication," swore Fast Annie. "There's no way."
"When the brass says jump, we jump," said Shogo Natamo philosophically.
"Even when it makes no sense?"
"Especially when it makes no sense."
"That makes no sense! Is this engineering or politics?"
"It's neither. It's war."
"There's no war on. No real war. We already won."
"We all know the Jovies could revolt any time."
"We only all know that because the brass is always saying it."
"What you're implying is treasonous."
"I'm not implying anything!"
Our industrious and happy torus descended into overlapping shouting, pained rhetorical questions, plaintive whining, a babble of insecurity that made the air stink of rank mammal fear.
The management system had evidently been prepared for this: according to the readout we were on an unscheduled refreshment break without penalty.
When I saw that I laughed. It wasn't a merry laugh. It was too desperate, too wheezy, too lost. I stood over the back of my chair, leaning on its back for support. "What?" asked everyone. "What's funny, Tim?"
"This is expected," I said, suddenly sober. My eyes stung.
Fast Annie furrowed her brow. "What do you mean?"
"This," I repeated, gesturing around the room at the ten of us -- flushed, glistening brows, breathing hard; "This is expected. Everything we're feeling right now...maybe it's confusing or seems complex, but, you know what? To the motherplugging management system it's obvious. Look at the clock. Just look."
We all looked. The clock displayed a fifteen minute block of time, assigned in advance to accommodate our hysterics. The hour following our break was graded for low productivity quotas, the graph rising sharply thereafter -- double shifts upon double shifts.
"I can't go that long without sleep," whispered Hija.
"Apparently you can," replied Shogo Natamo, tracing her line on the chart. "The management system thinks you can. But I guess it will be hard for you, because you're slated for counseling immediately afterward." He paused, then raised one eyebrow. "And so are you, Tim."
I began to nod slowly, a sick grin on my lips. "Our behaviour is expected. Even our trips from sanity are included in our fates. We're birds."
"What, body?" said Quality, looking at me with concern.
"We're motherplugging birds," I repeated. Then I grabbed my jacket and left.
In the cafeteria I bought, begged or stole twenty-three standard ration packages and pushed them down my throat hand over fist. People stared at me, but instead of keeping my eyes down I stared back. They looked away. They put their eyes down.
I snorted. I ate more. Plug them all.
The next shifts were a marathon. The ten of us in the Enveloping Keychain Group lived, ate and breathed our work. If we weren't [REDACTED] we were [REDACTED] through virtualization. We slept in our chairs, which everyone grumbled about except me because going back to the contractor hostel to bump into the paratroopers held no appeal and there was no reason to anyway because I couldn't even watch The Revengineers anymore. Cypher:
He siphoned it bravely, she built it to last. The wind broke the news, inspiring a funk. Who denies this?
We were all Fast Annie. Any wasted microsecond made us anxious. When we needed to speak it was in clipped tones with abbreviated words. At one point when he was really up to speed [REDACTED] the loading script, Shogo Natamo peed his pants. Nobody made fun of him. I offered him a napkin. He took off his pants and put them in the garbage chute. His bum looks like a little kid's bum. Who could have guessed? Cypher:
A cucumber endowed with the facility of speech enters a tavern and orders a pint of vinegar. When the proprietor demands payment the cucumber attempts to flee, but fails because it lacks any means of locomotion.
Kevin Marineris had a break-down fourteen hours before the tank test. White robots with soothing voices carried him away. He didn't pee his pants, but he did barf on himself. Poor Kevin.
The final push was hard but in a way I was delighted. I had no thoughts to spare for anything that had happened, no reason to be reminded. I made myself insofar as possible a machine. Cypher:
A bankrupt man stands forty paces away from an isotope that may or may not release a quantity of gamma radiation sufficient to flash fry him in under one second. Given that, what colour was the pubic hair of the mammal to whom he lost his virginity assuming an initial velocity of 120,067 km/s?
When we did venture into the corridors outside the encryption unit it was madness. The ways were packed with rushing people, each convinced their personal mission was paramount. Politeness had long fallen by the wayside. Faces were tight and cold, words few and brusque. Each foray was followed by a rapid retreat back into our warren. Cypher:
Why is a raven like a writing desk? Let me count the ways: a thousand and one, a thousand and two, a thousand and three.
And so dawned the eleventh hour. Our task lists contracted, line by line. There was light at the end of the tunnel and that hope fueled us in the last stages, burning the greasy residue left when all the midnight oil is spent. I worked ten times faster than I ever could have imagined I could, until...cypher:
See how lo-ve-ly she swings, my heart is appeased; I cannot think straight while tracking that trapeze.
The minutes were ticking away. I sat frozen at my console, hands hovering above the contact, quaking. Every decision tree but one had been packed, but I could not bring myself to touch that trailing word. A film of bile slithered up from the back of my throat whenever I tried to move.
"We're at deadline minus two minutes!" called Myrna Babel.
"Done," replied Shogo Natamo, pushing his chair back and closing his eyes.
"Done," echoed Fast Annie.
"This body is done," said Quality a second later.
Another moment passed. I stared at my display, eyes burning. I tried to force my mind to explore the semantic space around the word trapeze according to the protocols before me, but I couldn't make anything stick. All I saw inside was Alaia's skin, alabaster and impossibly unmarred. Beneath that skin: tubes, pipes, cogs, dials, springs...
I squeezed my eyes shut. I wished I was on The Revengineers. Everything felt impossible.
I heard myself say, "Done."
The infographics went dark. Every ounce of available processing power was now dedicated to compiling our [REDACTED]-code packages into the master source tree. There was no turning back.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and sighed heavily, my lungs feeling raggedy and ineffectual. I had done it -- I had mangled the final cypher because I just couldn't bring myself to push that word through its paces. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I suck.
Before I peeled myself away from the console I took solace in the fact that the error correction team was hard at work somewhere far away, in another dome, dotting every i and crossing every t.
Let those motherpluggers deal with the trapeze, I thought to myself darkly.