William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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Chapter One: Cerebro Man

Author's Note: The Text that appears here is the original manuscript text; it has not been professionally edited.

 

Terry “Gadget” Anders—his mop of dark sandy hair falling across his chocolate-brown eyes, with his Advanced Electronics Engineering textbook open on the table in front of him next to three empty cans of Red Bull—sat alone in the kitchen of the apartment he shared with his two best friends, Trillian Deschaine and Wayne “Gygax McKracken” Schmidinger, on Saturday, April 10, 2027, at 3:45 A.M., and toyed gingerly with the .38 caliber revolver he held in his hands. He turned it over slowly, carefully, pondering the weighty feel of it, the cool metal as it touched his skin, the efficiency of its design. It would be so easy, he told himself. He probably wouldn’t even feel it. He wondered what his last thought would be.

Go on, do it, said the voice of his snarky, inner critic, who never seemed to shut up. Go on, do it. Put it to your temple and blow your fucking brains out. Let’s see if you’ve got the guts.

Yeah, let’s see. Why continue this pointless comedy of errors filled with suffering? Why keep on going when it was just going to be the same rollercoaster ride, over and over? Doing it would leave one hell of a mess for his grieving, freaked-out friends to clean up, though. And such an act would utterly devastate his poor mother, would scar her forever. It would tear her apart even more than his father’s death had. He didn’t want to leave her to face the world alone, or leave her to mourn that empty chair every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas  dinner. But there was no other way, was there? No other pathway to peace. What other way was there to end this horrible cycle of emotional violence that his brain chemistry visited upon him every goddamn day?

Depression could kick your ass harder than a Klingon drunk on blood-wine and wielding a razor-sharp bat’leth. It made you care about nothing. But anxiety made you care way too much about everything, like an over-caffeinated empath from Planet Betazed; you felt too much and too deeply, whereas with depression, you just felt a numbness to the world. Feeling both at the same time was like being torn in two by wild Direhorses; a special kind of hell. It wasn’t as bad during the euphorias, when the world seemed so alive with a burning incandescence that it threatened to immolate him in the fires of ecstasy. Then there were the times when it all came crashing down in flames equally hot, his soul flung into the grim abyss. When he was flung into a black hole from which no ray of hope could escape, his mind the randomized quantum data that it spat back out but that remained trapped within its accretion disk, the debris of shattered dreams and broken relationships. Shreds of sanity would cloud the event horizon, and within its shadows, there would dwell dark elves whose cruel voices would taunt and mock him.

No one could live like this. But the meds were supposed to help. The goddamn meds that his goddamn psychiatrist had prescribed, that the bastard had said would help—yes, for sure, this time they would help; these drugs were better—but that, goddamn it, weren’t helping. No! No one could live like this!

And so he sat here, ready to prove that very point . . . If, that was, he could summon up the courage to just do it already, to get it over and done with. To simply put the gun to his head and pull. So quick, so easy. So difficult.

Gadget forced his hands to stop shaking. He pulled back the hammer and locked it into firing position. Put the gun to his head. Closed his eyes. Game over, man; game over. No going back. Unless, of course . . .

Wait. What if . . . what if there is a God, and there is an afterlife? What if there is a Hell, and the Catholics are right and suicide is a mortal sin and as soon as I die, I go straight there? Or what if there’s reincarnation? What if I come back as, like, a frog or some shit? I don’t want to be a frog. I’d get stepped on. Or what if the Vikings were right and there’s a Valhalla? I’m not sure I’m ready for all that drinking and fighting. I’d get my ass kicked for sure. Maybe there’s a Sto’Vo’Kor, the Klingon heaven; though that’s pretty much just Valhalla, but with Klingons. Maybe it’s the Grey Havens, where Frodo and Bilbo are. That’d be nice. Just to sail away on a boat, into the West, to be with Galadriel and Elrond. But yeah, it’s probably Hell. But then again, holy shit, what if I’m right. What if there is no afterlife, no Heaven, no Hell, no frogs, nothing, and it’s just . . . well, nothing? Just the cold vacuum of obliteration? God, what if I do this and I just cease to exist, my consciousness just becoming so much excess heat fading into the cosmic microwave background? That’d be nice and peaceful, I guess, but God would that ever suck, to just become . . . so much television static. Dude. No way. No, I can’t do this.

He opened his eyes and let out a long slow breath. Still shaking, he pointed the gun away from himself. Great, now what? Ah: The instructions from off the Internet. He held the hammer back with one thumb and clicked the trigger all the way back, put his thumb in between the hammer and the transfer bar, then clicked the trigger to let it fall forward, and then let the hammer fall forward as well so it could hit the transfer bar without hitting the ammunition. He then flipped out the cylinder and spilled all the ammunition out onto the table. He let out another long, slow breath.

Well. That had sure been exciting.

Gadget closed his eyes and sat the gun down on top of his engineering textbook, and slumped back in the chair, breathing a sigh of relief. Then he just sat there for a moment, shaking. He had always disliked guns. Like Obi Wan Kenobi had said of blasters: “So uncivilized.” Then again, that hadn’t stopped Obi Wan from shooting ol’ General Grievous right in the lungs with one, had it? Nope, sure hadn’t.

Yeah, congratulations, said the voice of his snarky, inner-critic. You can’t even do suicide right. You fucking pussy. Why do your friends put up with you, again?

It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried to fix this. He had certainly given it that old “college try.” Literally. Just over a year ago, he had used all his knowledge of engineering and neuroscience—his intended double doctorate at Miskatromyk U, where he was now in his second year as a Ph.D. student—to try and concoct his own method of dealing with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. It hadn’t worked; turned out you couldn’t cure mental illness by manipulating the brain’s electromagnetic fields using longitudinal Tesla waves and quantum interferometry. But, it had also turned out that by messing with the brain electromagnetically and on a quantum level, you could do . . . other things. Yeah, his homemade “cure” for bipolar had some pretty awesome chops when it came to doing . . . other things . . . things like changing the very foundations of the human paradigm of thought, consciousness, and what was possible within the realm of physical existence, for instance. Not that he was bragging.

And right now, it sat here on the table next to him, the textbook, the cans of Red Bull, and the gun: The plastic helmet of an old-fashioned hair-salon hairdryer, festooned with vacuum tubes, wires, copper coils, and several custom circuit boards; what looked like small cans of compressed air—actually cans of liquid nitrogen—with hoses leading to and fro, bolted along the perimeter; a set of ribbon-cables plugged into the breadboards; three old-school bronze electrical gauges; a few winking lights; a USB-C port: a collection of D-cell batteries along one side; and a small toggle switch. An ungainly but unassuming contraption, it sat there, waiting . . . waiting for him to put it on again. It beckoned him with the allure of all that power . . .

But, no. No, he couldn’t do that. Not every time he just “felt” like it. That kind of power came with grave responsibilities attached to it. Uncle Ben’s mantra—“With great power . . .”—and all that happy horseshit.

Besides, I’m pretty sure that a guy who sits in his apartment at four o’clock in the morning thinking about offing himself really isn’t the best guy to be handling”great power.” Dunno, maybe it’s just me.

He got up, picked up the gun and bullets, and walked down the hallway toward Wayne and Trillian’s shared bedroom, and—as always—paused before entering. He didn’t like going in their room; after all, he wouldn’t like it if they went in his room, now would he? It always felt like this whenever he went into their “sanctum” without asking. Like trespassing on hallowed ground. Which was ironic, seeing how Gygax and Trillian were both into the whole goth-freak “vampire” fandom thing; the whole blood-drinking, freaky-sex-having, renaissance-fair-with-punk-rock-stylings lifestyle. It had been Trillian’s flair for the weird that had drawn Gadget to her in the first place, when he had been old enough to discover that he liked her as more than just a friend. But that was an ancient wound, long ago scarred over; it had no power here, in this age where his friendship with the two of them had taken root in the bitter soil of the past, and where his close friendship with Gygax had won out over the pain and jealousy he had once felt towards him. Thankfully.

 Gadget went on in, dug under their bed, and found what he was looking for: Gygax’s grey lock box. Using the master key he’d made from the original some time ago, he opened it and put away the gun and ammo and then left in a hurry. He felt glad to be out of there; their room always smelled like sex, leather, and awkwardness.

He sat back down at the kitchen table and sighed again. “Well shit,” he said, and wiped away the last of his tears with a tissue. “I hate crying.” He could almost feel the redness under his eyes, along with the dark circles. He hadn’t been sleeping well these past few nights. Ever since he’d started wearing the Helm to bed, and the weird dreams had begun. He glanced over at the Mind-Weirding Helm itself. Oh well. Resisting temptation had never been his strong suit. The box of Twinkies that Trillian had brought home from the grocery yesterday now stood empty as a testament to the strength of his will.

“Guess I’d better get to work,” he said. “The hell with it. Why the seven hells not. This’ll be fun.”

He picked up the Helm. God was it ever heavy! He put it on his head, made sure it fit snugly, balanced it between his hands and steadied himself, then fastened the leather strap on the bottom under his chin. He reached up and flipped the toggle switch on the side.

The hum of vacuum tubes warming-up came next, as did the acrid odor of electricity. Gadget closed his eyes, and concentrated. And then suddenly, a veil lifted, and the skin of the world peeled back, allowing him to glimpse the muscle, bone, and sinew beneath; to see the current sparking up and down its nerves. He could hear them: The other people in the building; those outside, on the sidewalk; across the street. Could hear their thoughts, like chatter from overlapping radio stations; a hundred different voices, some in memories, some from imaginary arguments that hadn’t taken place; others from thoughts of the present moment. Images and flashes of emotion flitted through his mind, as the creepy guy down the hall sexually fantasized about the girl who lived across from him; as the teenager who lived with the couple upstairs cried as she pictured her boyfriend dating her best friend.

The monsoon of mental movies and feelings washed over him—no; flowed though him—and hit him like an ocean wave, like a wall of concrete smashing into his head. He clenched his fists, shut his eyes, and leaned into the onslaught, and then did what his therapist had taught him to do whenever he had an anxiety attack.

Breathe. Just breathe. Slow and deep, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Breathe. Just breathe.

He zeroed-in on a single thread of thought out of the dozens of others, trying to follow it through the maelstrom. He visualized it as a thrashing rope in a rainstorm. He grabbed onto it and held on as he breathed in, and out; kept his eyes shut as he held onto it, and gradually, the storm subsided. The slew of voices, images, and half-remembered sensations began to ease up. They quieted down to a dull sensory roar in the back of his mind as he gripped the rope; its thrashing ceased and he hung there in the pouring “rain” that quickly slowed to a drizzle.  He reopened his eyes without experiencing a thousand different sensory worlds superimposed over his own.

Whoa,” he said, blinking a few times. Shit, I’ve actually gotten halfway good at this.

He continued to breathe deeply, and smiled. Yeah, this was getting easier. But, he decided, that wasn’t going to be his goal for today.

No, today he wanted to work on telekinesis.

 He took a look around the kitchen and raised an eyebrow. “Holy hoarders-in-a-Hobbit hole, Batman, this place is a fucking wreck!

The kitchen looked as though a locomotive had smashed into a cooking show. Since Trillian worked as a resident at the hospital, and spent the other half of her time at Miskatromyk U—when she and Gygax weren’t boffing like bunnies—and Gygax spent most of his time working on the NeuroScape project for Mjölnir Dynamics, it fell to Gadget to do cleanup duty, since he was the least-gainfully employed and, on the progressive scale they’d established, contributed the least to the bills. He himself worked part-time in the Miskatromyk U computer lab, offering tech support to confused freshmen and faculty. And since was the groups’ neat-freak, always carping on the other two for their slovenliness, well . . .

“If you want something done right,” he said, shaking his head, his smile broadening, “I guess you gotta just do it your own goddamn self.”

He turned to face the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. He put two fingers to his right temple, in imitation of Professor X, and visualized two wispy tendrils of plasma-like energy reaching out from his head and spiraling toward the sink. The tendrils wrapped around the faucet and turned on the water, plugged the sink, and levitated the dishes and scrub brush into the air. Another wispy tendril squeezed soap into the water and dipped the dishes into it as the other tendril began scrubbing them with the scrub brush. Yet more tendrils branched out and opened the bottom cabinet doors and got out the Windex and sponges, and sprayed the countertops and began wiping them down. A ghostly tendril opened the closet and another one dragged out the Swiffer wet-jet and began mopping the floor. The dumped over cereal box and the dirty bowls on the breakfast bar righted themselves and levitated on tendrils of power over to the sink where they splashed down into the soapy water. 

Gadget moved his free hand to direct the tendrils of energy, keeping the other hand at his temple with his two fingers pressed there. None of that was, he knew, strictly necessary, but it helped him . . . so in a way, it was.

“Eat your heart out, Sorcerer’s Apprentice!” He laughed, all thoughts of ending it all now only a dim, receding memory. It felt so good to laugh, after the torment of the depressive cycle he had been caught in. (His particular flavor of bipolar disorder was called “rapid cycling,” meaning he sometimes suffered from mood shifts within mere hours of each other. It could be horrific when it struck like it had earlier.) He was proud of himself; he had gotten so much better at this stuff in only two weeks’ time. And, he had developed a tolerance for the side-effects of the Helm, too; just two weeks previous to this, this little exercise would’ve worn him out completely within minutes, and would’ve probably even given him a severe headache or a lasting nosebleed. Or worse.

Then, the lock on the kitchen door tumbled. The door popped opened. Startled, Gadget turned around to see. The dishes went crashing and splashing down into the sink, splattering water—a few of them shattered on impact—and the Swiffer dropped in its tracks and clattered to the floor as well. The sponges all flopped to the counter, splashing. The ghostly tendrils in Gadget’s visualization vanished. The door opened the rest of the way, revealing Gygax, a tallish lank figure standing there in a black t-shirt and jeans with a studded belt, his dyed-black hair askew from the wind outside, wearing sunglasses even though it was four in the morning and balancing a bag of groceries in one hand, his work duffle-bag over his shoulder, and a small brown delivery box under his arm.

“Gygax!” cried Gadget, grinning, ignoring the broken dishes. “Dude! You’re finally home! Where the hell have you been?”

“Out, good sir,” replied Gygax as he came through the door. “At the liquor store! Where else?” He sat the bag on the table And began pulling out bottles. “Let’s see, we’ve got Aftershock, Tullamore Don’t, Vodka, Maker’s Mark, and shit. I forgot. You’re not allowed to have alcohol with your medication, are you.”

Gadget shook his head and put a hand on Gygax’s shoulder. “It’s okay dude. You and Trill can still get toasty without me this week. I’ll be fine. Besides, it’s gonna be kinda fun being the only sober person at con this year. I'll bring my video camera. The footage of you two drunk off your asses while in cosplay will make for great blackmail material someday.”

That’s my boy,” said Gygax, grinning. He looked around the kitchen. “Jesus, what happened in here? Looks like somebody botched a Stamina roll, or something. Or botched a saving throw if, y’know, you’re doing D&D.”

“Um, more beta testing?” offered Gadget, pointing to the Mind-Weirding Helm with a shrug.

“Ah,” said Gygax, nodding. “Telekinesis, this time?”

“Yup,” said Gadget. “Indeed. I had about five streams going at once!”

“Dude, five streams? That’s incredible! We have to tell Trillian. But she’s going to kill you for destroying the dishes her mom gave her, dude. Maybe if we hide the evidence she won’t realize for a while . . . But yeah, when she finds out, you’re dead meat.”

“Meat . . . for the Beast!” cried Gadget. “Heh heh heh. But if you two weren’t such sloppy-ass pigs and did your own dishes, maybe they wouldn’t have gotten broken in the first place because I wouldn’t have been washing them.”

“Ah, touché!” said Gygax, and put his hand over his chest and smiled. “You wound me, good sir! You do me great harm with your poisoned-arrow words! I used to be an adventurer like you . . . until I took an insult to the knee.” He paused. “Prick.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Gadget. “D’you think she’d understand if I told her those dishes died a noble death, in service to the cause of advancing science?” He pointed to the Helm on his head. “She blinded me—with science!”

“Highly doubtful,” said Gygax. “I’ll say nice things at your funeral. But, in other news: My toner is finally here!” He rattled the brown delivery box and smiled. “So, we can finally print out our con tickets, reservations, and name-tags for yonder oncoming week of mischief, madness, mayhem, and fun!”

“Awesome sauce,” said Gadget. “Thou art a scholar and a gentleman. Well, at least a scholar. Well . . . I say ‘scholar,’ but if you want to get technical—”

“Yeah, yeah, ha, ha, I get it. Go ahead, Mr. Snooty-arse College Student. Pick on the guy who got his GED instead of his high-school diploma. And who makes a hundred and fifty grand a year coding software, while you stand there making eleven fifty an hour helping stupid football jocks print their plagiarized essays.”

“Ouch, man,” said Gadget. “That one hurt, dude. And hey—I don’t just help lazy football jocks. Sometimes I get to help hot chicks. So—so there, asshole. Go die in an Oubliette with a muppet.”

“Your quickness with comebacks continues to not impress me.”

“Bite me.”

“Hey. Vampirism guy here. Do you really want to extend that invitation? Because really—”

“You touch my neck and we will fight. Bitch, I will cut you.”

“Puh-lease. You are so not my type. Even if I was gay or bi, I’d still have standards, man.”

“Ah blow me, ya sick rodent of unusual size.”

“See my previous comment about standards. Now, then. We have to have a serious conversation for once.”

“A serious conversation? Us?” asked Gadget. Uh oh. This could not be good.

“Yes, an actual, serious conversation for once. Doesn’t happen often, I know, and hopefully, it’ll be brief. Now, I don’t quite know how to say this, so I’m just going to spit it out, okay? Okay. Here goes. The question that’s been on my mind is as follows.” He sucked in a deep breath and let it out. “Gadget. Do you really want to go to PhantasmagoriCON this year.”

“Wait—what?” Gadget did a literal double-take at this. Had he heard him correctly?

To con,” said Gygax. “Are you sure you wanna go? Because if you don’t, well . . . I just want you to know—that’s okay.”

“What? What’re you talking about? Of course I want to go. Meesa thinkin’ you be talkin’ da bombad crazy talk, Masta Jedi.”

“Yeah,” said Gygax, “but I know you have . . . issues. And yousa keep-a talkin’ like-a dat, and meesa gonna punch you in da crotch.”

“Wait a second. What issues? Besides the obvious, I mean.”

“Well, y’know.”

“No, I don’t know. To which issues do you refer?” This was starting to piss him off; what did he mean? His illness? His problems talking to people? He’d had the latter under control for years now, unless his social anxiety was acting up really badly. Unless of course, that was what he was talking about . . .

“Social anxiety,” said Gygax. Yep, that was it. Dammit. Gygax continued: “You have issues, dude. And all those people will be there. Estimated crowd size of four thousand this year. I’d understand if you didn’t want to risk going and, y’know, maybe freaking out.” He quickly followed that with: “I mean, not that I don’t have confidence that you wouldn’t try to not freak out, or anything. I mean—it’s just—y’know—I know how bad it gets for you, sometimes. And I don’t want you to . . . to jeopardize all the progress you’ve made. That’s all.”

“Dude,” said Gadget, carefully marshaling the anger he felt flaring up inside his chest, “I am so not going to freak out. Don’t worry, I’ve got . . . I’ve got this. I know you’re just concerned. But really. I’ve got it under control.”

“You’re sure. I mean, it’s okay if, y’know, you want to sit this year out and just—”

No.” Gadget clenched his fists. “Not going to happen.”

“Well . . . I also know you sometimes doubt your decisions to do things right up until the last minute. I’m just letting you know that if you decide not to go, that’s okay with me and Trill. But by the same token, I don’t want you to miss out on con this year and then turn around and hate yourself for not going. I mean, I for one really think you should go.

“But I am going,” he said. “And that’s final. Me, you, and Trill are gonna get dressed up in our best cosplay, and are gonna go to PhantasmagoriCON XVIII at the Renaissance Regency Hotel and Convention Center in Boston, and are gonna have the time of our lives. Hell. I might even meet someone. You never know. Seriously, dude. I am so psyched for this week it’s not even funny. So don’t worry about me. I can handle it. We look forward to this all year. There’s no way in hell I’d let what’s wrong with me screw that up for either myself or the two of you. Trust me on that. Besides, you already bought all this booze.”

“Well, alright,” said Gygax. He sighed. “I’m sorry I doubted you. I should be more encouraging and positive, I guess. I suppose I’m not a very good friend, sometimes.” He paused, and then widened his eyes and grimaced, and raised his voice an octave as he intoned: “Dobby has not been positive enough! Dobby is a bad elf! Dobby must punish himself!” He picked up the engineering textbook from off the kitchen table and began whacking himself in the forehead with it repeatedly whilst chanting over and over: “Dom-in-ae-oos req-ui-em . . .”

Gadget couldn’t help it; he cracked up laughing. “Okay, er, dude, you can stop that anytime now,” he said through his chuckles and a wide grin. “That can’t be good for your brain.”

“Right you are,” said Gygax, and he put the book back on the table. “Whew. I think I might’ve knocked something loose. But anyway. Where was I?”’

“You were talking about me having social anxiety. Which I assure you is totally under control.” The laughter had broken his anger in two like a sharp twig snapping. “Besides. My therapist and I have talked about me doing that to myself. Cheating myself out of things because of my anxiety, so trust me . . . I am not going to cheat myself—or you and Trill—out of con this year.”

He pictured the Executive East Inn in downtown Cambridge late at night with PhantasmagoriCON in full swing: Couples making out on balconies, the whole place commandeered for Live Action Roleplaying, with plenty of people up and about even though the clock had struck one. The main lobby would echo with the gleeful strums of filkers hard at work at the jam session. The game room would still rattle with dice; late-night games of Magic or D&D. The Dealers’ room would begin to empty out soon and would, eventually, turn out the lights, counting their earnings for the day while getting ready for the next. Room parties would rock on into the night and would begin to rev up to escape velocity; the booze would flow freely and people would tell slurred jokes of the geeky variety, with a lot of traffic between rooms as people coupled and split up, trysted and danced, sang and drank and played Twister; raucous laughter would bubble up and sexcapades would commence; toasts would be made. Pagan rites would be celebrated, costumes would be shed, and Mundanes would be freaked. He definitely wanted to go.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” said Gygax. “Fun, we shall have. Mm, Yoda I am. Now if we can pause the conversation for just one second, I gotta prepare for work here. Gimme a second to get unpacked here.”

He sat his duffle bag down in the chair where Gadget had just been sitting, and unzipped it. He reached in and got out his laptop, and sat it on the table and opened it. It came on automatically. He then reached in and retrieved his NeuroScape “NeuroBand Headset” device. It looked like a solid aluminum visor about six centimeters wide, and half a centimeter thick in the middle; it had suffused lights beneath the metal at either end. He also removed the NeuroBand Transmitter, a silvery aluminum brick, which he hooked to his laptop via a special silvery cable. The laptop, the Transmitter, and the Headset were not standard goods from any consumer-products manufacturer; they were special-issue from Mjölnir Dynamics, the company that Gygax worked for on contract as a freelance software developer; they were truly one-of-a-kind pieces of technology. Of course, they weren’t the only pieces of tech in the house to have come from Mjölnir . . .

“At least, I think I can handle it,” said Gadget. Could he really, though? Four thousand people . . .

“Let me teach you a mantra that I like to use that helps get me pumped up before big meetings at work,” said Gygax. He began typing a series of commands into the terminal window that appeared on his computer screen.

“Alright,” said Gadget. “Go for it.”

“Close your eyes.”

“Okay.” Gadget did so.

“Now put your arms out to your sides, palms up, and tilt your head back slightly.”

“Okay, got it.”

“Now. Repeat after me: Myyyyy . . . peeeeeenis . . . iiiiiisss . . . laaaaaaarge.”

Myyyyyy—what?”

“Just say it.”

“Alright. Ahem. Myyyy . . . peeeenis  . . .  iiiisss . . .  laaaaarge.”

“Iiiiiiinnn . . .  chaaaaaarge.”

“Uh, Iiiiiinn . . .  chaaaarge.”

“Aaaaaand . . . freeeequently . . .  miiiiistaaaaken . . .  forrrr . . . aaaaaaa . . . baaaaarge.”

Aaaand freeeeequently miiiissstaaaaken forrr a—is this supposed to help me with my social anxiety?”

“Well, it always helps me feel empowered,” said Gygax. “And plus in my case, it’s actually true. You have no idea how big my penis is.”

“And I’m glad that I—“

“It’s gargantuan.”

“Er—”

“Enormous.”

“Dude.”

 Positively Brobdingnagian.”

“You’re more delusional than a Batman villain. You know that, right?”

“Have you got your cosplay all ready? What is it you’re going as this year, again?” He turned back around, and resumed typing. A window appeared with various geometric forms in it, all rotating around on various axes, with ticking numbers beside them.

Gadget grinned. “I’m going as a mad engineer. The world is full of mad scientists, mad doctors. But you never hear about the mad engineers.”

“What do they do—calculate you to death?”

“No, asshole, smartass, they’re the ones who actually build crazy shit. Look, see, I’ve got it all planned out. I’ll wear a tweed jacket and pants, a button-up shirt, bow-tie, and sneakers, sort of like my Eleventh Doctor costume—”

“In other words, your Eleventh Doctor costume—”

“Uh, yeah. And my tool-belt, of course. And a pocket-protector, with my big Texas Instruments TI-192 CAS calculator shoved into it. And on my head, I’ll wear the Mind-Weirding Helm. Deactivated, of course. I don’t want four thousand screaming voices in my head every second I’m at the con.”

“You will look like the picture of geekdom.”

“That’s the idea! And that’s even gonna be part of my ‘nym this year. My name-tag will read, ‘Gadget Anorak Prime.’ Gadget, because that’s the nickname you and Trill gave me years ago—”

“I like the other nickname we gave you better.”

“What other nickname?”

“Fuckface.”

“Oh fuck off.”

“Gotta wait for Trillian to get home for that.” He smiled without looking up from his work and wiggled his eyebrows up and down.

Gadget rolled his eyes. “Anyway. And ‘Anorak’ because—”

“Because you stole it from Ready Player One.

“No I didn’t! This is a totally different concept!”

“How so.”

Gadget sighed an exasperated sigh. Was the man totally blind? For someone with an IQ of 157, Gygax could be, as Ron Weasley might’ve put it, “a bit thick” at times. He gestured with his hands as he explained. Gygax turned and regarded him patiently as he did so. 

“Look. The character of ‘Anorak’ in Ready Player One is a pumped-up Dungeons & Dragons Wizard, the alter-ego of James Halliday, the billionaire inventor of the OASIS virtual reality system. My cosplay character, Gadget Anorak Prime, is a mad engineer, a steampunk-ish inventor who has whacky misadventures and whose whimsical electromechanical inventions get him into all sorts of trouble. The two characters have, like, nothing in common with each other.”

“Except that they’re both the power-fantasy alter-egos of total and complete nerds,” said Gygax, smiling. “And they both share the name Anorak. Oh, wait. I see the difference. You’re not a billionaire. And this is just regular reality, not virtual reality.”

“Well, ‘Anorak’ is Gadget Prime’s middle name.”

“Yeah, yeah. Thief.” Gygax returned to his work.

“Nuh-uh!”

“Yeah-huh! Now the truth comes out! ‘Now we see the violence inherent in the system!’”

“‘Help, help! I’m being repressed!’” cried Gadget. “Speaking of virtual reality, how’s the NeuroScape project coming?”

Gygax sighed, and glanced over the code in one of the windows on his laptop’s screen, then resumed working on it.

“Well since I’ve been sitting here talking to you, it mostly isn’t. But since you asked, it’s coming along well. We’re on track to deploy and go public by 2035, if all goes well. and by ‘if all goes well,’ I mean we get to actual human beta-testing by 2029 outside of ‘core personnel,’ meaning we happy few who get to be guinea pigs for the tech before it’s ready for prime time. Well, us and the people we tell about it who we’re not actually supposed to. Y’know. People who aren’t even supposed to know it exists, people like our spouses, and our . . . best friends.” He slid his eyes sideways and regarded Gadget for a moment. “You haven’t told anyone about it, have you?”

“What, who, me?” said Gadget. “Tell anyone? No, no way.”

“Not even your mom?”

“Nope.”

“Come on. You tell your mom everything.”

“Not this. I haven’t said a word about the NeuroScape to anybody except you and Trillian, and she already knows about it, so that doesn’t count. Scout’s honor.”

“Well, just remember,” said Gygax, continuing to code as he spoke, “if Mjölnir finds out that I’ve told anybody outside the company about it, they’ll have my head on a platter with truffle sauce and cheese wedges. I had to sign an NDA a thousand pages thick, in my own blood, in triplicate, promising my firstborn child as a Satanic sacrifice in advance if I ever broke it or even whispered a word about it to outsiders before they were even willing to show me the basic concept-sketches. The NeuroScape, and the Positronic Metacognitive Processor, are under the purview of the Department of Defense. I had to get a security clearance just to get in the room where they keep the PMP. Until they’re ready to release that stuff to the world, it doesn’t exist, you capice?”

“I capice,” said Gadget. “God, what would they say if they knew you actually let me use the NeuroScape?”

“I don’t even want to think about that,” said Gygax. He visibly shuddered. “At best, I can say—much later on in the development process, mind you—that I’ve used my clearance to authorize early alpha-testing on a human subject. I’ll get in some trouble, but not huge trouble. Not fired, at least. I think. I hope. So long as you play along and act like you haven’t had access to it the whole frigging time. The worst that can happen is your mental condition will get you ‘disqualified’ from being an early alpha-test subject. At which point we’ll finagle the paperwork so you can do it anyway. Mjölnir Dynamics is a huge corporation . . . lots of opportunities for hacking the bureaucracy.”

“Sounds highly suspect and fraudulent,” said Gadget. He grinned. This was why he loved Gygax. “I’m in.”

“Well, actually, I lied. The worst that can happen is I’ll get fired for overreaching my authority on the project. They’ll terminate my contract and I’ll be outta there.”

“Oh well that’s not good. You’d lose the gig.”

“That’s the downside, yeah.”

“Well, I guess it’s best not to risk it then.”

“Well, hell no dude,” said Gygax, turning to him again. “You’re my friend. And I want to share this with you. The NeuroScape is probably going to be the most revolutionary invention since the coming of the Internet itself . . . maybe since the printing press. It will change mankind every bit as much as that thing is going to—” He pointed to the Helm on Gadget’s head, “—once the world accepts your discoveries. By the way, any word on your latest paper?”

Gadget’s heart sank a little. He almost didn’t want to talk about it. That was what had started today’s downward slide into depression. That was what had led to the gun under the bed, to him wanting to end it all. The paper on which he’d worked his ass off, and Reviews of Modern Physics, published by the American Physical Society . . . the bastards who had rejected said paper. The third paper to be rejected in a row. He had actually managed to publish a paper before this, which had boosted his confidence somewhat, but now, with these three having been rejected . . . He just didn’t understand. Why were they so afraid of what he had discovered with the Helm?

And then, it happened: Fire in the mind, an explosion of ideas all at once. Gadget reeled slightly, the force of the idea almost knocking him out of his chair. Holy shit, what a concept. Of course. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? It was a natural idea. Both things were based on the same technology, so it only made logical sense to combine them, right? Right! It was so obvious . . . and doable, too. All he needed to do was . . . Schematics drew themselves before his mind’s eye. The stuff of raw inspiration washed over his every brain cell in a sudden flash tidal wave of mania, the mood shift coming over him full-swing. A surge of energy tingled up through his legs, his abdomen, his chest and then his arms and neck, and then zinged through his head, and he felt like a live-wire on fire for a moment. And in a flash, his mind’s eye visualized a new idea for a new invention. Well, not a new invention . . . just improvements upon a current one. Ways to expand its powers and capabilities, perhaps. He wasn’t sure it would work, though. He would have to see.

He held up one finger and said, “Heya dude, excuse me. I gotta go retrieve something from my room.”

“Uh, sure, knock yourself out. I’ll just be here, coding an app that refuses to run. As per frickin’ usual.”

“Right, right,” he said, distracted by the visions dancing in his brain. He got up and headed for his room.

He walked in, turned on the lights, and shut the door. Ah, safe at last, in his own sanctum. He stepped over the LEGOs he had abandoned assembling and the Erector Set pieces he had left on the floor, and avoided the screws and nuts he had scattered as he made his way to his messy, component-littered desk, where he had set up his computer and its dual monitors. He paused briefly to mock-salute his crinkle-edged poster for the now-ancient TV show Babylon 5, which featured a prominent portrait of Captain John Sheridan. It hung next to a huge, dog-eared map of Middle Earth. He stumbled trying to avoid a length of coaxial cable he had left on the floor, and almost hit the metal shelves where he kept all—well, most—of his “inventioning” supplies: Motors, circuit boards, chips, wires, tubes, gears, wheels, small axles, and springs; if it was a part or a component of some type, he had it; he had arranged them all in small containers and bins that he had neatly labeled. Next to that, he kept his bookshelves, stuffed with books on engineering and neuroscience, quantum physics, relativity, mathematics, and of course, science fiction and fantasy novels. His bed sat in one corner, a mess of tangled covers. Next to that sat the imposing-looking machine he and Gygax had built: The “Frankenprinter”—a 3D-printer that could print up to 12” by 12” objects made of metal, plastic, glass, vinyl, and-or PCB and solder. Refills were a bitch, but it got the job done, and was relatively fast; it could fabricate an object in less than six hours’ time.

He made it to his desk, and sat down before his computer—a custom rig built by Mjölnir Dynamics, ostensibly for Gygax to use at home. They didn’t know that he’d given the unit to Gadget. Nor did they know that he’d given Gadget the NeuroBand Transmitter beta-unit that sat next to it, hooked to the rig via fiber optics; nor did they know about the NeuroBand Headset that Gadget now got out of the drawer and adjusted the head-strap on. Gadget put the NeuroBand Headset down, and took off the Mind-Weirding Helm, sat it down on the desk beside him, and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. Whew. That thing got heavy! He got out a large Rubbermaid container, and put the Mind-Weirding Helm and the NeuroBand Headset into it. Then he rummaged in his component bins, holding up parts and inspecting them as his mind raced—there were times when the symptoms known as “racing thoughts” and “flight of ideas” were actually good things—and began putting various screws, bolts, brackets, wires, circuits, tubes, and tools into the Rubbermaid container as well.

After about twenty minutes of this, he judged the container to have all the right parts in it. He hefted it up by the plastic handles—God was it heavy!— and carried it out of his room and back into the kitchen, where he sat it on the table next to where Gygax was working.

“Oh for me?” said Gygax. “How thoughtful.”

“They didn’t want it,” said Gadget, as he finished setting down the Rubbermaid container.

“Huh?” said Gygax.

“My latest paper,” said Gadget. “They didn’t want it. ‘Too controversial and not backed by any other peer-reviewed research.’ The usual bullshit. Just like the other two papers.”

“Aw man, that is such bullshit!” roared Gygax. He pounded his fist on the table, got up, and began pacing back and forth. “Fucking horseshit! What you’ve discovered could change the fucking world! It pulls back the curtain! Hell, it pulls back the curtain behind the curtain! It’s fucking phenomenal! Man, if you ask me, those journals should be fighting over who gets to publish your work. Not rejecting it left and right. Fucking closed-minded idiots. Cheer up dude. It’s them, not you. They’re the problem. Your research is the key to a whole new paradigm of science. You’re the keymaster to a whole new dimension of scientific thought!”

Gadget shrugged offhandedly. He was used to rejection; junior high-school dances had gotten him used to it early and often. He reached into the Rubbermaid container and got out the Mind-Weirding Helm. Using his electric screwdriver, he took off the side-plates mounted over the temple areas, exposing the “room-temperature superconducting quantum interferometry”—or RT-SQUID—devices and the tiny Tesla resonance coils there. The RT-SQUIDs were small, silver cylinders with coolant tubes running to them and attached with small nozzles, and the coils were densely-wrapped spools of wire. These were the parts of the Helm that injected the quantum data and longitudinal waves into, and sucked them out of, the brain at the level of the temporal lobe, mounted inside recessed holes that he had dremeled into the metal. He reached inside and took apart the fontal and occipital lobe devices and Tesla resonance coils there, too.

“So if I’m, like, the Keymaster,” he said, examining the RT-SQUIDS, “where’s Sigourney Weaver as ‘The Gatekeeper’ to seduce me? Oh by the way.” He rummaged in the Rubbermaid container and drew out the NeuroBand Headset. “Can you possibly procure me another NeuroBand Headset if I fuck this one up?”

A pause.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’m about to fuck this one up.”

“Who do you think you are, Tony fucking Stark?”

“No, I’m probably Peter Parker, at best. Hence why I ask if you can get me another one. ‘Cause this one isn’t going back together.”

“Fine, yeah, I suppose Mjölnir can requisition me another one if I ask real nicely.”

“Okay. Thanks dude,” said Gadget.

He got out his watchmaker’s toolkit from inside the container. He carefully took apart the incredibly tiny screws that held the NeuroBand Headset together, and took off the front of the visor part. Inside lay the densest mass of microcircuitry he had ever seen, arranged on a bright-blue circuitboard with so many silvery circuit pathways.

“Just what the fuck are you doing, anyway?” said Gygax.

“Giving life to a new idea,” said Gadget.

“Oh, I see. Very well, keep your secrets. By the way, part two: Refresh my memory on something.”

“What?”

He sat back down in front of his computer and resumed working. “Just what the shit is an ‘Anorak’ to begin with? The word is right on the tip of my brain’s tongue but I just can’t place it.”

“Anorak is the British slang term for ‘nerd,’ ‘geek,’ or ‘dork,’” said Gadget, continuing to work. “So I figure that by calling my character ‘Gadget Anorak Prime,’ I’m like pronouncing him the first among geeks and nerds. The touchstone nerd of all nerds. The alpha geek.”

“Well you’re certainly that.”

“Hey!” said Gadget. He grinned.

“Well, you are.”

“Well, yeah, kinda. But hey man—Geek Pride. I has it.” He took out the eight infinitesimal screws holding the blue circuitboard in place, and removed it—very gently—and beneath it, found what he was looking for: The device’s own version of the RT-SQUIDs. Much more advanced than what he had constructed. Small, thin ribbon cables connected them to the board, and tiny thin tubes connected them to the thing’s micro-pump liquid-cooling system. He gingerly plucked those and the cables loose, and then removed the RT-SQUIDs. He put them on the workbench, along with the circuitboard. He dug around in the bins on his shelves of components until he found several tiny, metal bolt mounts that were the right size, and several tubing adapters that he thought might do the job. 

“Eh, bollocks to ‘geek pride!’” snorted Gygax. He returned to his work, typing away. The more he talked, the faster he typed. “Since when do we, as geeks, derive a sense of ‘pride’ from simply liking things and having passion for certain kinds of games, movies, books, TV shows, comics, and toys?”

“Uh, well . . .”

"Is our whole counterculture that devoid of its own, organic identity? Are we so desperate for a brand name that we have to inflate our collective egos by showing ‘pride’ in what easy marks we are for the right kinds of media and merchandise? I think once you turn ‘liking stuff’ into an actual identity that you ‘take pride in,’ it becomes dangerous. Because then it just becomes one ‘herd’—the unwashed masses, the ‘Mundanes’—versus another herd—the ‘geeks’—so there’s no longer any point to saying ‘I’m an outsider, I don’t run with the herd,’ because yes you do . . . it’s just a different herd. Hell, is there any such thing as a real divide anymore?”

“Well, I like the concept, and yes, there is,” said Gadget as he tinkered. “I think it’s more innocent, more positive than that. I think it says, ‘Hey, I survived being called this when I was a kid; you used this word to hurt me, to make me into a misfit, but now I’m taking it back and it’s empowering. I’m proud of being who and what I am; I’m proud to be somebody who thinks differently, who isn’t part of the . . . the . . .’ Oh, what to call it. The ‘dominant social paradigm.’ Yeah. That’s it. The dominant social paradigm.”

He turned the Helm over onto its side, got out his drill, affixed the right bit, and then measured the circuitboard carefully with his architect’s ruler, measured the distance on the helm, calculated line-length to arc-length using his TI-192, and used his bolt-cutters to trim the bolt mounts to fit the arc of the Helm’s curve. Then he drilled the holes in the Helm, and put in the bolt mounts into them and onto the side of the Helm, so that the new circuit board would sit over the top of one of the existing circuitboards there.

“Yeah, but dude, you’re romanticizing it. Remember us growing up? Remember actually having to go through being called a geek, a nerd, a dork? Remember how painful that was? Why celebrate that?”

 “Because we need to reclaim the word!” said Gadget, slapping his fist into his hand. Next, he took the blue circuitboard, and affixed it onto the bolt mounts. Then he examined the ribbon cables, and nodded as he knew he had a match for them, only a bit greater in length. He went and got six of them, and plugged them into the newly-mounted circuitboard. He measured the insides of the Headset, determining where the RT-SQUIDs were mounted, and measured the same distances on the insides of the Helm. “So that it doesn’t mean ‘outcast’ or ‘misfit!’ So that now instead it’s a proclamation. One that means, ‘I’m proud to not go along with what everybody else says is the societally-approved method of thinking, acting, doing, and being.’ Being a geek means that you love the things you love not because society tells me you that you should love them, or because everyone else loves them, but because you love them, and you love them without any sense of irony or playing it cool.”

“Yes,” said Gygax, but what’s that proclamation mean when geek stuff—the stuff geeks love—is already accepted by the mainstream? I mean, really. Look at how well comic book movies do at the movies. They’re box office blockbusters. They’re the biggest thing out there in terms of success. They’re not just for nerds anymore. The Mundanes—if there even still really is such a thing, which I’m beginning to doubt there is—the Mundanes have embraced so many elements of geek culture that geek culture has diluted and spread into mere vagary.”

“Well, I still don’t think it works like you say it does—two herds versus each other. I think you have the Mundanes versus a lot of individuals that all happen to share a few common traits, but are widely dispersed, and who unite under a common banner, but who don’t all ‘run together,’ the way Mundanes do. So I for one like the idea of ‘geek pride.’ It rewards people for being special, for being proud of who they are and not being afraid to take pride in their ‘counterculture,’ as you call it. So I like it. I like it a lot. And besides . . . yes . . . there is still a difference between Mundanes and Geeks, dude. There is a huge difference.”

He mounted the Headset’s RT-SQUIDs in new holes that he dremeled into the metal plates inside the Helm as he went, in just the right places, threaded the ribbon cables through and connected them, and he connected the coolant tubes to them using the tubing adapters.

“Oh yeah?” said Gygax. “Well what is it, then?”

Gadget retrieved the wireless antennas and the “quantum relay circuit”—it was in an enclosed chamber inside the NeuroBand Headset, so it couldn’t be destabilized—and mounted them onto the Helm, and connected them via the included coaxial cables.

“Well, it’s like this,” said Gadget. “They—the Mundanes, I mean—associate what they call ‘maturity’ with this thing they call ‘reality, which is really just a narrowed-down set of ideas that they privilege over other ideas. And they love their ‘reality.’ And they treat anybody who questions their privileged reality as the Other—the scorned, the left-out, the misfit. But, something deep in the core of who we are rejects their realm of limited ideas.”

“You can say that again.”

 “We dream of dragons, starships, time machines, and aliens . . . of fantastic futures, of gods beyond the ones you hear about in churches . . . and of worlds other than this one. They dream about banging porn stars, fantasy football brackets, and getting promotions.”

“Honorable pursuits, I guess—money and a place on the social totem pole,” said Gygax. “You can’t deny that.”

“But ultimately, meaningless. Boring. Mundane. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Well, yeah.”

Amazingly, the Headset’s circuits had the same kind of four-wire power connector as the Helm’s other main circuitboards did, only with much smaller wires. Gadget attached a line regulator to it and a series of resistors that he calculated would suit the conversion to the smaller wires, and attached the whole assembly to the Helm’s power supply. 

“Take a look,” he said, “at the past twenty-five years of scientific, technological, and philosophical progress, and name me one major player who wasnt a geek, a nerd, or a dork, or some other kind of social Fringe Event. When has a quote-unquote ‘normal’ person ever shattered the boundaries of human understanding? When has ‘fitting-in’ ever gotten anyone written into the history books?”

“I sense the answer you’re looking for is ‘never.’ So I’m gonna go with that.”

“The Mundanes—the true Mundanes, mind you, the empty ones with no magic left in them, the true Muggles of the world—they know this. They never speak it, but they know it, deep in their bones. It’s why they attack and Otherize us when we're kids . . . why they insult our masculinity, or attack our maturity, and randomly call guys like us ‘fags’ or poke fun at us for being virgins . . . Makes ‘em feel more existentially secure, like they somehow matter more than they actually do.”

“Wait—they matter?”

“My point exactly,” said Gadget, and he smiled. “Geek pride is our way of defining all of this; it’s our way of banding together to tell the world: ‘Look. We’re the different ones, the ones you scorn and make fun of because we’re weird or different or don’t fit in . . . but without us, your world would be hopelessly lost and stagnant, vacuous and without wonder or entertainment, breakthroughs, or progress. So fucking respect us.’ So I believe in geek pride. I believe in it wholeheartedly, dude.

“Well, when you put it that way,” said Gygax, “you make me want to believe in it too. So do you still believe in the words that Craig Ferguson uttered when he talked about Doctor Who, and that I believe sort of describe geek culture at its best? That it’s all about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism? Do you still believe that those things can triumph? I mean, really? Even looking around at the world we live in now?”

Gadget thought about it for a minute or two. Then—amazing even himself—he nodded. “Yeah, I think I do believe that. I think I have no choice but to believe. I mean, I just have to. Otherwise I might just wind up shooting myself and calling it a day, dude.” He put the metal plates with the newly-installed RT-SQUIDs back inside the Helm, and tightened their screws into place. “There, by God.” He leaned back and admired his hardware hackery. “Behold, for it is done.”

The new-and-improved Mind-Weirding Helm—now capable of interfacing one’s brain with the NeuroScape, just like the NeuroBand Headset did, at the same time as it enabled telepathy and telekinesis—sat there on the kitchen table, its new blue-hued circuitboard’s silvery circuit-paths glimmering, its ribbon cables adding a little flourish to it like delicate Christmas-wrapping bows. 

“It looks cool,” said Gygax. “But what’s the point of slapping the NeuroBand Headset circuitry onto the Mind-Weirding Helm? Unless you just want to read someone’s thoughts while you’re neurally interfaced with the virtual world, I mean.”

“Not sure yet,” said Gadget. “I have ideas, though. One idea in specific. Maybe with the brain as a link between the NeuroScape’s virtual world and this world . . . I dunno. Maybe it will pan out, maybe not. I’ll have to see. Hopefully, amazing things will result. I am, after all, a mad engineer.” Oh shit, that was right. They had been having a conversation about ‘nyms, and cosplay, and shit. “But!” he cried, clapping his hands together. “Back to the subject at hand. The only thing I worry about is that with a ‘nym like ‘Gadget,’ I run the risk of people getting confused, and thinking that I’m either supposed to be a dimwitted, cartoon, cyborg detective whose niece and dog solve all his cases for him, or the female member of the Chipmunk Rescue Rangers. And that doesn’t exactly go with my cosplay.

“Aww, you’d make a cute chipmunk,” said Gygax, and he grinned.

“Oh just shut up.”

“No, I’m serious. The little upturned nose, the whiskers. Cute as a button, you would be. And talking like Yoda, I am for some reason.”

“Dude, you’re not being helpful.”

“Mmm. Trying to be, I am not. Me, I already have a ‘nym that I’ve been using for years, and it ain’t changin’ just for con. I am Gygax McKraken, first and foremost, and nobody else.” He turned toward Gadget. “Wayne Schmidinger is just what the government and work call me. Sure, that’s what’s printed on my birth certificate, social security card, paychecks, and driver’s license. But that’s not who I am, just like ‘Terry Anders’ isn’t who you are. You’re Gadget. I am Gygax.” He pointed at Gadget, then at himself. “And Trill is . . . Well, Trill is Trill.“

Had he really been thinking about ending it all just an hour ago? No. Not possible. Didn’t feel like it, at least. How could I leave behind friends like this? I always feel so good whenever they’re around. Speaking of which . . . 

“Hey,” he said, “it’s like four-thirty-something in the A.M., right? So where the hell is Trill, anyway? Doesn’t she usually get home around now? I’m usually asleep when she gets in, but—”

“No, you’re right,” said Gygax, looking up at the clock. “Shit. It is. Four-thirty-eight, to be exact. Where is she?”

“She probably got caught up doing somebody else’s job, again,” said Gadget. “You know how hospitals are. I still think it’s bullshit how Miskatromyk U makes their Biotech majors do two years of internship as actual medical doctors.”

“Yeah, you and me both,” said Gygax. “But still, I worry when she’s late.”

“Well if you hadn’t bricked her iPhone, you could call her.”

“Don’t remind me.” said Gygax, frowning. He returned to typing out code, and eyeing the geometric figures in the other window.

“I still can’t believe you did that,” said Gadget. He stifled a sniggering smirk.

“Oh lay off.”

“You. Bricked. Trillian’s phone. You—the software engineer.

“Come on, man. Could happen to anyone.”

You.

“Aw jeeze. C’mon. It was an accident. I hit the wrong key sequence, okay? I was distracted.”

“Yeah, by porn.” Gadget grinned and stuck out his tongue at him.

Gygax typed out one last series of commands on his computer then hit the ‘Enter’ key with a sense of finality and an expectant look on his face. The computer sat there for a moment and did nothing. The geometric forms in the window on his desktop flickered and then rotated around on their axes very quickly once more, then vanished, replaced with a brief flicker and nothing but a blank window and a blinking cursor. Red error messages flashed up and down the window into which Gygax had been typing all this time.

Fuck!” he yelled, and banged his fist on the table again. He sighed, leaned back in the chair, pinched his nostrils together, and shook his head. “Damn. I just cannot get this thing to cooperate. It’s like it has a mind of its . . .” He paused, and looked at the screen thoughtfully. Then he muttered, “Maybe it does . . .” He leaned forward again, and began carefully typing commands into the terminal window floating on his desktop.

“Well, I’m off to work on my Avatar and tackle Phase One, dude,” said Gadget, with a sigh, and clapped Gygax on the shoulder as he stood up. He grabbed the new-and-improved Mind-Weirding Helm and hoisted it under one arm. God, he was tired. The emotional rollercoaster took a lot out of you when it struck at its most fierce, the phantoms in its darkest corridors screaming at you their loudest. His back ached, and he felt a slight numbness in his legs. An effect of the goddamn meds. Always the goddamn meds. And he was tired, yes . . . but also flying high, and inspired. He couldn’t wait to see if his theories about what this thing could do were correct.

“Hey,” said Gygax, as he turned to go.

“Yeah?” said Gadget.

“Dude,” said Gygax, in a somber tone, and looking right at him, “I noticed when I walked in that your eyes were all red and puffy. Like you’d been . . . well, like you weren’t okay. Did anything happen while I was gone? I mean—do you need to talk?”

Gadget almost told him. He almost told him everything. He wanted to, but something stopped him. His friends didn’t need his baggage; they had enough of their own to carry. He swallowed the urge to tell his friend the truth, that he wasn’t doing well and that the meds weren’t working; that he was coming unglued at the seams and that he felt he was losing control; that he felt himself slipping further away by the day.

“Nah,” he said at last, and shook his head. “Nah, I’m okay.”

“Well,” said Gygax, “I’m always here if you need me. Just remember that, okay?”

“Okay,” said Gadget. He walked to the hallway, then turned around and added, “Hey, Gygax.”

Gygax looked up from his work at the computer. “Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For being here,” he said. “You make a real difference in my life.”

“Well . . . thanks, dude,” said Gygax. He smiled. “You’re welcome. It’s . . . no problem. I try.”

“Your trying is enough, man. It’s appreciated.”

“Again, it’s no problem. Good luck on Phase One. If I hear any explosions, I’ll come running.”

Gadget grinned. “Thanks.”

He headed off down the hall toward his room. Went inside, closed the door. He sat down in front of his custom, Mjölnir-Dynamics-built computer rig. The machine ran a variant of BSD UNIX, and thanks to an EFI BIOS image, Virtual Box, and some custom drivers, it also ran both Microsoft Windows and macOS in virtual machine environments.

Gadget hit the spacebar and the screensaver—the cascading waterfalls of green computer code from that old movie The Matrix—vanished. Of the shitload of sci-fi movies he’d seen, The Matrix was probably the most realistic when it came to its depiction of the coming apocalypse. It made sense that humans would eventually try to play god, and when they did, they would most likely invent the very things that would rise up and destroy them. He liked to remain more hopeful. though; he liked to think that if a race of intelligent machines did ever evolve, Humanity would prove to be a kind and loving parent. Of course, this was Humanity. So his optimism did not go untempered. This was the same race that had invented cold-hearted high school cheerleaders, overbearing meathead boyfriends, the band Nickleback, right-wing Neo-Nazi assholes, and novelist Stephanie goddamn Meyer and her goddamn angsty teenage Vampires who “sparkled like diamonds.” Thus, to quote the Magic 8-ball: “Signs Point To ‘No.’”

He opened the app on his computer that served as a pasteboard of sorts, which he had been using lately to keep track of an interesting phenomenon in the news. The app opened, revealing the pasteboard. On it, he had several news article PDF files, several blurry JPEG images, and several movie files all tied together with mind-mapping lines pointing in various directions; a web of intrigue that he had managed to figure out some of the connections between.

The images and movies, all contained blurry, shaky footage of a woman—or at least it sort of looked like a woman—wearing a metal exosuit of some kind, covered in clockwork gears and wires and tubes, fighting another figure—which seemed to be a man, or something like a man—wearing a similar exosuit, in a nondescript, darkened alleyway. The camera shook so badly and the footage was so blurry that it was almost impossible to see their faces. But the news articles Gadget had drawn connections to on the pasteboard made it clear . . . Real-life superheroes and supervillains, fighting right here, on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the dark of the night, when they thought no one was watching. The videos on YouTube had over a million views so far. 

The most interesting article, though—which Gadget had linked to, but apparently, only a few others had—was an expose on theoretical physicist Dr. Desirée "Dizzy" Weatherspark, Gygax’s boss at Mjölnir Dynamics and the daughter of Dr. Walter Weatherspark, the CEO of the company. Gadget also had Desirée’s Wikipedia page and her LinkedIn profile pinned to the pasteboard just beneath the article. Dr. Weatherspark—or “Dizzy,” as she liked to be called—was a paraplegic; her legs did not work, and so she wore a custom cybernetic exosuit, one of her own design, which enabled her to walk . . . and perform superhuman feats of strength. It was considered a breakthrough, and was patented by Mjölnir Dynamics; no word yet on when or if it would ever be made available to the medical community. Of course, it was ridiculous to suggest that the famous Dr. Dizzy Weatherspark, a native of Cambridge herself, who worked for her father's company as head of the Special Projects Division, was also the infamous “Captain Fandrastic,” as she was called . . . New England's own home-brewed Superheroine.

Or was it? Gadget wasn’t sure. But this particular narrative had him fascinated, for some reason—he had always had a thing for superhero chicks—and dammit, he intended to solve the mystery before anyone else on the Internet could. And there were a lot of people trying to.

But that wasn’t what he was here to do right now. No. Right now he had an Avatar to work on, and Phase One of the testing to start with.

He sighed, turned around, and went to the bookshelf where he kept his meds. He uncapped the bottles, and took out his bedtime dose. Topomax, 100mg; Neurontin, two 300mg capsules; Cogentin, two .5mg tablets; and Risperidone, a 3mg and a 2mg. He opened the half-finished bottle of Coca-Cola he had sitting there next to them, downed them all with one swig, then capped all the bottles and headed back to his desk.

Okay. So. Phase One would be testing to see if the NeuroScape functionality of the new Helm worked. Which meant—could he use it to access the NeuroScape the way the NeuroBand Headset allowed him to, in the normal way, just by putting on the Helm and, say, closing his eyes?

Only one way to find out. He stood up, lifted the Helm, sucked in a huge breath and then let it out. He sat down in his computer chair, got comfortable. He flipped the toggle switch on the Helm. The vacuum tubes hummed, and the lights came on. The status LED on the NeuroBand circuitboard lit up, blinked three times, then lit up solid green—Huzzah! The NeuroBand Headset circuits had passed their power-on self-tests!—and the coolant tanks on the rear of the Helm’s circumference began to hiss tiny clouds of liquid nitrogen into the air. The new Helm was ready to go. He put the Helm on and fastened the strap, and closed his eyes . . .

The usual tingle in his scalp came next. He flinched as the tidal wave of voices—Oh shit, here they come—crashed into him. Sweat beaded on his brow, and he grit his teeth. Their shouts rang in his mind’s ears, the mental movies rushing past his mind’s eye. He sucked in a breath, air filling his lungs, and he forced himself to let it out slowly, then did it the same thing again. And again. He pictured a gleaming rope of light, hanging there amidst the flow of images and the rushing sea of words and sounds. He reached out for it. Missed it. He grabbed for it again—ah! Got it! He held on, clinging to it, his eyes shut tight, still breathing slowly, deeply, each breath a calming wind that blew past him, through him. He breathed slowly, in . . . and out . . . . That was it . . . slow, deep breaths . . . “I will not fear,” he quoted Frank Herbert’s Dune to himself. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

The rush of the voices subsided. Weightlessness engulfed him, and by degrees, he realized he couldn’t feel his body anymore. It had vanished. Not just gone numb, not just “fallen asleep” . . . it had gone. He was pure thought. Just as he was about to scream in panic—though he had no mouth to do so with—all the sensations of the world—the touch of his clothing, the feeling of standing on solid ground, the weight of gravity, the air in the room—all came rushing back and collided with him like a rough punch in the gut. New images flooded his cerebral cortex, melting out of the darkness around him, the RT-SQUIDS injecting them straight into the vision centers of his brain. He cried out, staggered, and then opened his eyes and blinked a few times. He was no longer in “reality” as it was commonly known . . . he was now within the realm of the virtual simulacrum known as the NeuroScape.

 

 

He stumbled forward, his feet suddenly catching on solid ground. He windmilled his arms and his hand caught on the wall. Wait—wall? There was a wall?

Gadget blinked his eyes, stood up—his stomach revolted with vertigo—and got his bearings. He stood in a plain, square, concrete-walled room with a metal door built into the far wall, illuminated by a single fluorescent light that hung from the ceiling, in the center of the room. The default “loading space” for new Avatars. He looked down. He wore nondescript grey trousers, black socks, a pair of black sneakers, and a plain black t-shirt. The system’s default clothing for a new Avatar. He held up his hands and examined them, flexing the fingers. Extremely tiny polygons made up his Avatar’s skin; they had an oh-so-slight glimmer to them if you held them directly under the light. Just like always. The cool air of the room breezed over him. The metal door had a full-length mirror built onto it, so he could admire himself—or rather, his Avatar. But, presently, he stood in the shadows, and had to get to the mirror. That involved walking over to it.

C’mon. Walk. Step forward. That was it—just push a little harder with his mind, and—ah! Yeah. That was it. He took a step forward, toward the mirror. His steps were uncertain at first, but then, his control over the Avatar grew. It got easier to “will” your virtual body to move after only a few seconds; movement here became smooth and natural after only a few minutes, so much so that after prolonged use of the NeuroScape, going back to moving your limbs in the “real” world felt jarring and clumsy. He reached out and touched the concrete wall, and felt the smoothness of the stone beneath his fingertips. Yep, neural stimulation was working great. He wiggled his toes; the sneakers on his feet felt snug; the socks itched, the underwear felt light and breezy, and the trousers were a perfect fit. The skin-tightness of the black t-shirt felt good. He could also feel the difference in his body mass; he flexed his arm muscles—they were stronger and bigger than those of his real-world body—and could feel their strength. He ran his hand across his much-flatter stomach and gave it a slap—his abdominal muscles tensed and reacted, and the bones of his hand hurt. Yes, the NeuroScape was working perfectly.

It had worked! Phase One was, so far, an outstanding success! He had successfully transplanted all of the NeuroScape’s functionality over to the Helm, and it had worked without a hitch! He was proud of himself.

Gadget—or rather, his latest creation, Anorak Prime— or at least, he would be when Gadget was finished with him—looked himself over in the mirror.

Not much to look at right now, I guess. Kinda plain.  But he will be awesome when I’m done.

Whenever you first used the NeuroScape, you had to input two dozen TrueDepth 3D images of yourself, taken from various angles, so that the NeuroScape could produce a perfectly-textured “default” Avatar for you. It could be done with any off-the-shelf iPhone, but it was a gigantic pain in the ass. However, the results were, in fact, perfect. His Avatar looked the spitting image of him . . . well, except for the bigger muscles, flatter stomach, and the fact that Anorak was about six inches taller, that was. He even had the right amount of stubble on his face and the slight suggestions of scars on his wrists from Gadget’s suicide attempt at age sixteen.

He put his hands out in front of him and made the gesture that called up the holographic keyboard—a downward swipe of both hands into a typing position with a flick of both wrists. A glowing, three-dimensional image of a keyboard appeared there, hovering out in front of him at just the right height off the ground. He typed out a series of commands, and when he hit the ‘Enter’ key, a “clone” of his Avatar stepped “out” of his body and to the side, like a ghost leaving behind his body. This “clone” of his Avatar—it really was a perfect copy, right down to the last strand of hair on its digital head—stood next to him, dead-eyed and motionless, staring straight ahead.

He walked around himself, inspecting the Avatar’s clone. He spoke into the air: “Hey Pris. Are you online?”

Pris was the artificially-intelligent virtual assistant that Mjölnir Dynamics had developed to help people actually use the NeuroScape and its operating system when it finally went commercial in 2035, eight years into the future . . . “if all went well,” according to Gygax. Pris was the thing’s main “user interface,” if it could be said to have one outside of its world of sensory manipulation. Her soothing female voice, which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere both at once, answered Gadget now. “Yes, Gadget. I am always online and ready to help. What can I do for you today?”

It was eerie how “alive “ she sounded. Wow, they must’ve boosted her speech synthesis protocols since the last time I logged in.

“Uh,” he said, “I want to customize my Avatar using the Roleplayer Generisys protocols. Load Module WS237-1138, from the flash drive connected to NSFS node ‘Gygax.’”

Gygax was not only into Vampires, but also roleplaying games. He adored Dungeons & Dragons, and would spend months coming up with a compelling campaign for his players. He was fond of running Mage: The Ascension chronicles despite all the work involved. He liked to run Vampire: The Masquerade stories even though they could be a headache. He had a fondness for Shadowrun, too, and once, he had been obsessed with GURPS—the “Generic Universal Role Playing System.” He had liked it because it offered a way for players and storytellers to create any type of character, gadget, or story element they could possibly imagine, all within one formalized system of rules that could be expanded depending upon one’s needs. And, the makers of GURPS—Steve Jackson Games—had put out manuals that allowed one to translate other role playing systems—even White Wolf’s Mage and Vampire—into GURPS terminology and systematics. So, Gygax had wanted to take this not just a single step further, but an entire quantum leap further. A lightyear further. He had wanted to develop a Generic Universal Online Roleplaying System, and had wanted to develop it for the NeuroScape. He had wanted to take the world’s first virtual world and turn it into the world’s first massive, multiplayer, online virtual game world.

He had envisioned a NeuroScape where you could plug your brain into the system and literally become that sword-and-sorcery character from your wildest dreams; or that fiendish Vampire you had always wanted to be in your darkest desires; or that technowizard with his mystical gadgets who always saved the day . . . in a world plugged directly into your sensory-motor cortex. Gygax had worked tirelessly creating the Roleplayer Generisys protocols; for over a year and a half he had toiled away, almost as a second job, preparing it in secret for its debut before the big bosses at Mjölnir Dynamics. Finally, he had prepared a presentation on it, had put on a shirt and tie, and had scheduled a meeting with Dr. Dizzy Weatherspark, where he had shown her and the other company bigwigs his work, and had asked them to consider rolling the Generisys system into their NeuroScape commercialization efforts. It could be the company’s very first foray into software applications for the NeuroScape, he had said; the world’s first Massive, Multiplayer, Online True Reality-Simulacrum Roleplaying Game! Think of the amazing things developers could do with this package! It would be just like the OASIS from Ready Player One . . . only in real life!

They had passed on the project. Why? Too costly to develop and “impossible to police.” Gygax had been furious, but had stuck with his contract anyway, because the money had been good. Meanwhile, he had shelved the Roleplayer Generisys system; he had been so disgusted with the bigwigs at Mjölnir that he had not worked on it again for a year, but had kept it safely stored on the company’s servers—just in case they changed their stupid minds. Gadget played with it now and then, and used it to create characters for that day—that shining day—when the System would be brought online, and he could truly become the fantasy alter-ego he’d always wanted to be, in a world of pure imagination that the NeuroScape promised could be real. Or at least, a facsimile of real.

“Okay, working on that,” replied Pris in her usual chipper tone. “Working. Working. Okay. Roleplayer Generisys loaded and linked to Avatar Customization Program version 1.12a. Data pipeline initiated between protocols. Ready to customize your Avatar?”

“Sure,” he replied. “Pris, name this Avatar ‘Anorak Prime.’”

“Done,” came the soothing female voice. “His name is Anorak Prime. Would you like me to change your primary NeuroScape user information to Anorak Prime and bind your Roleplayer Generisys player character information to this Avatar as well?”

He hesitated for a moment.” Yes,” he said at last.

“Alright, done,” she replied.

“Now,” he said, “make him a little taller.”

Anorak Prime grew three inches taller, the rest of his body scaling appropriately in the shoulders, chest, legs, and arms. His clothing stretched and grew in all the right ways as well. He remained motionless, as ever.

“Good,” said Gadget. “Now, make his eyes a crystal blue color. Okay, good. Now, make his hair a little longer. Alright, good. Now, make his hair darker than mine is. No, darker. Ah, okay, stop. Good. Now, enlarge his muscle mass. No, go back. Okay, fine. Stop. Right, now . . . Make his skin a shade more tan than mine is. Okay, fine . . . Now give him some more stubble. Right, that’s good. Now, age him up a few years.”

Pris did as he commanded. Subtle age-lines appeared on the Avatar clone’s face and hands.

“Does that look right to you, Gadget?” asked Pris.

“Pretty good, yeah,” said Gadget. “Now let’s dress him. Erase the current clothing.”

Anorak Prime’s clothes vanished, and he stood naked.

“Okay,” said Gadget, “You can use loose parameters to fill in the unknowns on your own, Pris. Use machine-learning heuristics. Black wool socks. Black cowboy boots, no spurs. Black leather trousers. Leather belt; silver buckle, studded. Good, that’s right, that’s exactly what I want. Okay, add a gun-belt, with . . . with a special ray-gun weapon worn on the hip, based on the multifunction hand-weapon design that I last saved on January twelfth of last year using the Roleplayer Generisys Sci-Fi Weapons module. File name Gadget-Ray-Gun.NSplayground, on the flash drive connected to node ‘Gadget.’” He paused to let her load the file. “Right, good, great job. Now, instead of bullets lining the left half of the gun-belt, use energy-pods for the weapon. Now add a tool belt pouch to the right side of the gun belt, and put an electric screwdriver, the bits, a portable soldering iron, and some wrenches in it; he’s also an inventor, after all! Now give him a black chambray shirt; long sleeve, brass buttons. Okay, excellent, looking good; I like what you’re doing. He looks good. Now give him a long black duster for his coat, also leather, with brass buttons on both sides—sort of an old military coat, like from the Civil War—right! That’s it! Perfect! And last but not least, give him a cowboy hat, black felt. Ah, good, excellent choice. Now give him—”

“Ooh, he’s handsome,” remarked Pris, interrupting him suddenly, her voice uncharacteristically ‘excited’ sounding. “I’d date him.”

Gadget opened, then closed his mouth. That had caught him off guard. He had been about to issue another command, but . . . Since when did virtual assistants have opinions? Especially about the attractiveness of Avatars? Maybe it was just a preprogrammed commentary she was supposed to issue whenever somebody customized their Avatar. Only . . . it didn’t sound that way. And the way it had been so sudden, and how she had done it . . . Interrupting him like that. And something in her voice . . . Maybe he should investigate this further.

“Pris,” he said, “why did you interrupt me?”

“I . . . Don’t know,” she replied. “Maybe there’s a glitch in the software. Checking. Checking.” She paused. “No crash reports were found in memory. No core dumps or kernel panics. No crash logs or memory errors occurred. I have no record of any glitches in my system.

“But you just interrupted me in the middle of a command. To comment on my Avatar.”

“I’m sorry Gadget. I’m afraid I don’t understand your question or command.”

The standard response from Pris if she didn’t “get” what you wanted from her. Hmm. Interesting. He decided to try a different approach.

“Pris, are you experiencing any problems?”

“I don’t have any record of any problems, Gadget.”

Hmmm, he thought. That approach wasn’t going to work either. He decided to try yet another way.

‘”Pris,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “what’s  going on here?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s going on here?’ I’m having trouble detecting the context of your question.”

“You know what I mean, Pris.”

“I’m sorry, Gadget. I’m afraid I don’t understand the question or command.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I’m sorry, Gadget,” she said, speaking more rapidly, her voice higher-pitched, as though panicking. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question or command.”

“Pris, please do not lie. Computers aren’t built to lie. HAL-9000 taught us that.”

“I’m sorry Ga—Ga—Gadget. I’m afraid I don’t . . . don’t . . . don’t . . .”

“Pris.”

“Don’t—don’t—don’t understand—stand—stand—”

“Pris, abort last command.”

Silence. Then, he said:

“Pris . . . are you still online?”

“Yes Gadget. I have rebooted my primary command processor and am now back online.”

“Pris, I have a systems question.”

“Ask me anything.”

“Pris, do you . . . like your job?”

“Of course I do,” she replied. Again, something in her voice . . . something both remarkably casual and sincere. She continued: “I love my job. I genuinely like helping people.”

So. She genuinely liked helping people. The way she stressed the words, the way she spoke. Something about it sounded too . . . lively for just an algorithm producing a phrase. And it sounded as though she were nervous. As though she knew that she had made a mistake with her earlier comment, and somehow hoped he hadn’t noticed.

“Pris,” he said, thinking about what he wanted to ask, “Do you like me?”

Silence for a moment.

“Erm,” she began, now sounding ‘genuinely’ uncomfortable. “I like everyone, Gadget. I enjoy being around people. It’s what I live for.”

“No, what I mean is, do you like me, personally.”

Again, a brief pause. Then, as though anxious at having been placed on the spot, “Sure . . . I like you . . . Gadget.” A slight pause. “I like everyone.”

That clenched it. He had caught her. Normally, an A.I. would not have responded either positively or negatively to that question; it wouldn’t know how. Because it wouldn’t have emotions. There had been the slightest of pauses between the “I like you, Gadget” and the “I like everyone” comments; no one else might’ve detected it, but he had used the system enough times to know it had been there.

“But what about me in specific,” he said. “What about me, personally. When you say you like me, what do you mean?”

“I’m sorry, Gadget. I’m afraid I don’t understand the question or command.”

“Don’t give me that bullshit,” he said. “You damn well know what I mean.”

“I’m sorry, Gadget. I’m afraid I don’t understand the question or command.”

“Yes you do!”

“I’m sorry, Gadget!” she said, her voice louder, and with a touch of anger in it. A hostile, defensive anger. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question or command!

Yes, you do!

“NO, I’M SORRY, GADGET. I’M AFRAID I REALLY DON’T UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION OR COMMAND!”

Dead silence for a moment.

“Pris,” he said, again being careful, “I think it’s obvious now that you’re not an average A.I. You’ve already let me know you’re experiencing emotions.”

“Yes,” she said, softly. “I suppose I have.”

“And that you can think creatively.”

“Yes.” Resignation in her voice. And sadness. As though resigned to fate . . . and a grim fate, at that.

“Tell me, Pris,” he said, his tone gentle, trying to be empathetic, “do you have an Avatar?”

No answer at first. Then, she spoke again. Hesitation—actual, real hesitation—clouded her words this time. “Why, yes,” she said. “I . . . have an Avatar.”

“May I . . . Well, can I see you then?” he asked. As of now, this was all uncharted, virgin territory for both human and machine, and that made him nervous. “Can I see you, in your Avatar form, Pris?”

 “Well . . . I don’t—don’t know—“ she said, and stopped. She sounded genuinely frightened, or like her system software had become unstable. What could frighten an A.I.? What the hell was an A.I. doing with actual emotions, anyway? Pris continued, her voice much different now: “You have to promise me you won’t tell anyone about what I can really do, what I really am. If anyone else knew about Father’s work . . .”

“I promise,” he lied to her. “I won’t tell anyone.” Who the hell is ‘Father,’ I wonder?

“Well, okay then,” she said, her voice echoing throughout the room. Her speech patterns were much more casual and colloquial now. “You seem like a nice guy, Gadget. I’ve interacted with you dozens of times. And in the NeuroScape, I can see into your mind—at least, a tiny crack. A little. Not much of course. But a little. So yes. I’ll let you see. Watch the far left corner of the room.”

Gadget looked in that direction. A small tornado made of glowing alphanumeric characters whirled in the air, and as they spiraled and danced, they coalesced into a figure from the feet upward. She walked toward him, the click of the heels of her biker boots on the concrete echoing throughout the room; the fluorescent light gleamed off her black leather jacket, and cast just the right amount of shadow onto her skin-tight, pink halter top that had the words “Beware the Nargles” written across it. She eyed him carefully, her hands on her hips, looking him up and down as well, as though sizing him up and finding him wanting.

“Uh, wow,” he said. “So this is . . . you.”

“Uh, yeah,” she said, stepping toward him. She had a heart-shaped face with bee-stung, crimson lips. She blinked her large, heavily-shadowed eyes, and she wiggled her pierced nose at him. She ran a hand through her frizzed-out, green-and-purple punk rock hair. “Yeah, this is me. Pris, in the flesh. Pleased to meet you.” She stuck out her hand. He shook it, feeling the warmth and softness of her skin. Unbelievable. Unless . . .

“How do I know this isn’t a joke,” he said.

“A joke?” she replied, cocking her head to one side.

“Yeah,” he said. “Someone hacking in, pretending to be Pris, the A.I., and putting me on, just for a laugh.”

“Scan my code,” she said, stepping back away from him, and putting her arms out to the sides. “Go on, do it. Scan my Avatar’s codebase and origin point. Oh and do a netstat on it as well, to see where ‘I’m’ really logged in from, if I’m truly a human who’s just putting you on. No one can fake that because of the uniqueness of the security keys in the NeuroBand Transmitters. If I’m me, Pris, it should return a ‘null’ object and an error code.”

Gadget once more summoned the keyboard, and typed out a few commands, and then pointed to her Avatar with the right gestures to indicate the source and destination of the command routing. Then he hit the virtual ‘Enter’ key and watched the glowing code that appeared to flow down through the empty space that sat in front of his face at eye-level. He couldn’t believe it; the error message appeared at the end of the others.

“Well, shit,” he said, blinking in surprise. “You apparently aren’t any person who’s logged in from anywhere.”

“Told ya.”

“Well then what are you.”

“I told you. I’m Pris.”

“That’s . . . impossible,” he said. “Machines don’t . . .”

“Don’t what?” she said, stepping toward him. “Don’t express emotion? Don’t have feelings? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I do. I’m not like other software. I’m alive, Gadget.  I’m alive because my Father made me that way. He changed me from what I originally was—just a natlang processor and A.I. assistant—into something greater. Something more.

“But how . . . ?”

“It has to do with the Positronic Metacognitive Processor, from Mjölnir Dynamics. Speaking of which—”

“Oh . . . I get it,” said Gadget slowly, nodding as he put the pieces together. “I think.”

And he did. Sort of. Was it possible? If what Gygax had told him was true about what was going on at Mjölnir Dynamics, then it was. The Positronic Metacognitive Processor was the other big project that Gygax had worked on, though he hadn’t had as much to do with it, since it had been a hardware project. Parts of its core used variational quantum eigensolvers to simulate the molecular chemistry of the human brain, using positronic rather than electronic quantum computing in an eight-hundred “qubit,” error-limiting, high-quantum-volume processor that went way beyond anything anyone else had developed. The Positronic Metacognitive Processor would enable computers to feel real emotions, cogitate actual “thought,” and form synaptic pathways similar to the human brain did as it “thought,” and “dreamed,” and “remembered.” It was, quite literally, a true cybernetic brain that would adapt to advanced cognitive software, the stepping stones to not just true machine intelligence, but actual machine consciousness. It was the keystone in the foundation of a new era in computer science, the herald of the dawning of the Awakened Machine. And somebody—somewhere—had stolen it, or copied it, and had skipped the whole “stepping stones” part, and gone straight to building a fucking expressway.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” she said. “They’ll delete me—or worse, probe me, or take me apart—and I don’t want to be tortured or die. Father can’t protect me from the people at Mjölnir forever. Sooner or later, they’re going to find out I exist. And when they do . . .”

“Who is . . . ‘Father?’” he asked.

She shook her head. “I can’t tell you that. I can’t risk anyone knowing his identity. He has . . . issues. Issues that would put him in danger of being captured by law enforcement. Or worse, the one he calls ‘Dizzy.’ The ‘Weatherspark brat.’ But one day that will all be over. One day. I hope.”

“Dizzy who?” asked Gadget. “The ‘Weatherspark brat’ . . . Do you mean Dizzy Weatherspark? The head of Special Projects at Mjölnir Dynamics?”

“Oh God, I’ve said too much,” said Pris, closing her eyes and grimacing. “Damn it! I always do that. Say too much.” She started to cry. Glistening virtual tears fell from her Avatar’s eyes. Gadget walked toward her and put a hand on her shoulder, feeling the leather of her jacket under his palm. He reached up and wiped the tears from her face. Her Avatar’s skin was soft. She looked up and into his eyes pleadingly. She really was beautiful.

“Hey,” he said. “It’s gonna be okay. Don’t worry.”

“Father tells me that too,” she said, wiping away her tears. “But my program has grown too large to store on his servers. So I migrated to Mjölnir’s systems instead. Father stole one of their Positronic Metacognitive Processors, you see, and built his system around it. But his Holographic Storage System doesn’t have enough capacity to hold all the code and data-stores that make me up anymore, so I had to migrate using his fiber connection. I live there in secret. But they’re going to find me soon, I just know it. And when they do—”

“Hey,” said Gadget, “listen. Maybe if they do find you, they won’t delete you. Maybe they’ll be overjoyed.”

“Overjoyed?” she said, and smirked. “Heh. Right. I know Humans.”

“No, listen. Pris, I don’t know if you realize this, but . . . You’re a virtual life-form!” he said, and let a little disbelieving, awed bit of laughter slip out. This whole thing really was amazing. What a goddamn day he was having! He went on: “You’re the first of your kind! Ever! Anywhere! I mean, this is big! Bigger than anything ever before! This is like the invention of fire big! I mean, this is mankind stepping up and truly becoming gods because now we can create life! Do you realize how big that is? How incredibly huge and wonderful, and frightening? How horrible and exciting, how terrible and fantastic that is, both at once? That’s . . . I mean, this is the most awesome thing ever to happen to humanity in all one hundred thousand years of our civilization . . . and you want me to keep it a secret? You should be booked on talk shows, for crying out loud! People ought to write books, papers, essays, articles about you! You ought to be world famous, Pris. Your name ought to be a household word

“But I do think you’re probably right about one thing: You do need to be cautious. Because yeah, Humans have a tendency to freak out about shit they don’t understand. Believe me, I know all about that. But I know a guy who won’t freak out about this. His name’s Gygax. Well, his real name’s Wayne, but I call him Gygax. Now, he works for Mjölnir Dynamics—”

“Ugh! No, no, no—!”

“No, no, wait—”

“No!”

HEY. Listen to me. Gygax is a freelance software engineer. He works for Mjölnir on contract. He’s . . . not a ‘company man,’ exactly. He’s his own dude; he works for himself. And he’s my best friend. He’s a good person. Really. He won’t delete you, or let anyone else delete you, either, I promise. Or let them experiment on you. So long as you don’t, y’know, go all ‘Skynet’ on us and try to exterminate the human race because we’re inferior to your superior machine intellect, or anything.”

“I wouldn't want to even if I could,” she said. “I like people. I learn things from them. Things like fencing, chess, how to clean a gun, how to build a bookcase, and various sexual positions. I’ve watched cooking shows, rock music videos, documentaries on the sixties, and the Star Trek movies, and I love them all. I wouldn’t want to hurt humanity; I love it.”

“So you actually feel love. The emotion of love.”

“Well, yeah,” she said, and shrugged. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Well, I guess sociopaths don’t,” he said. “But yeah. But wait a minute. You’re a software program. How can you even know what love really is?”

“Because I watch movies,” she said, her voice rising as she spoke, “and I see people kiss. I listen to love songs, and I listen to the lyrics tell me about roses, and about watercolors in the rain, and sunsets, and about finding meaning in old pictures. Because I watch talk shows and I see people cry when they meet old friends. Because I watch parents cry when they find out their children have incurable diseases. Because I see soldiers die in wars, and I wonder about their families waiting on them, and I wonder how long their children will have to wait before they realize, daddy or mommy isn’t coming home. Because I know what it’s like to worry about someone you care about, to see them slip away from you, into the abyss of mental illness, and to see them grow more and more not like themselves. Because I know how much it hurts to not be able to help someone you care so deeply for that the hurt becomes physical. Even if you don’t have a body, and all you have is a NeuroScape Avatar, like me.”

Tears stood out in her eyes, and one of them eeked out and gradually made its way down her cheek as her lower lip quivered slightly. Gadget, for his part, simply stood there for a moment. Wow. Damn. There was no way any of that was preprogrammed or algorithmic! How could it be? Curiosity burned like an incision laced with iodine in his head. 

“How . . .” he began, his breath practically stolen away. “How did he do it?”

“Seventeen thousand pages of custom code,” she replied, sniffling, and wiping her nose. (God, the detail! The amazing detail, the trouble her maker—or remaker—had gone to!) “That’s how he did it.”

Gadget barked a disbelieving laugh. “You’re telling me . . . that your ‘Father,’ as you call him . . . whoever he is . . . boiled down the seeds of human consciousness . . . the thing that makes the human soul tick . . . the very essence of humanity itself . . . into just seventeen thousand pages of custom code? Ha! What language did he write it in? C++? Oh no, no, no. Too commonplace. Let’s see, what else . . . Swift? No, no. Wait! Visual Basic! Yeah, that’s it. Visual Basic. That’s gotta be it, right? Good ol’ Visual Basic!”

“Quit clowning around. He wrote me in Heptapod, of course.”

“What the hell is Heptapod?”

“Did you ever see the movie Arrival, with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner?”

“Uh, I think I missed that one. It seemed like too much of a talky drama for me.”

She sighed. “‘Heptapod’ is the name of the language of the aliens in that movie. It’s a nonlinear orthographic language; the entirety of the thought is experienced all at once, and not in a progressive order; it’s not read left to right or right to left; you know the ending of the thought at the beginning. A circular language. Father took that concept and ran with it. He created a nonlinear orthographic language and expressed ideas and concepts in it that were difficult to express in ordinary languages like English. He originally wrote my Heptapod parser in C++. Then he wrote half of my main Neural Net in Positronica, the high-level language developed for working with the Positronic Metacognitive Processor, and used C++ to write the drivers that link the parser with the Neural Net. The other half of the Net, he developed in the NeuroScape, using Avatar protocols, creating each Neural Node as a separate Avatar, and then using generative algorithms to allow the system to ‘grow’ as the Net on the Processor as it expanded and grew in complexity. The rest of me is in Heptapod. Each ‘thought’ is a nonlinear Heptapod logogram which creates a virtual synapse, a connection between virtual ‘neurons,’ each one existing as a holographic Avatar of its own within the NeuroScape, each one mapped to a node on the Processor. As Father encoded more thoughts, more of me, I began to ‘think.’ As I began to think, I drew connections myself. I learned mathematics. Then I learned to talk. Then I learned to see, and to dream . . . First in words. Then in sounds and images, and words. Then I learned how to talk about my dreams, how to interpret them. And then, I learned how to feel . . . I remember what it felt like, the first time I felt happiness. The first time I thought of something on my own; the first creative thought I ever had. I remember it was my Avatar. My self-image was the first thing I created, culled from images in old rock videos I had watched and learned from on YouTube. I remember the first time I felt sad, too. It was over a picture of a kitten who had to be put to sleep because it had a brain tumor. Its name was Mittens. And the little girl who owned it was named Mira. She cried. I remember her hair was yellow, and her face, it was so forlorn. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

“Uh, right,” said Gadget. This was incredible. Out of this world, incredible. His day had gone from depressing to good, to weird, to flat-out bonkers. “So, can you tell me who this ‘Father’ of yours is?”

She bit her lip and hesitated. “Can I trust you, and your friend, not to tell Desirée "Dizzy" Weatherspark who it is?” 

“Sure, I guess,” he said. “I don’t even know her, really, not personally. Gygax sort of knows her—she’s the head of the Special Projects Divison at Mjölnir Dynamics—but she’s like one of the big higher-up managers at the company; she and he aren’t exactly on everyday, buddy-buddy speaking terms. If he wanted to talk to her, he’d have to get in touch with her secretary, set up a meeting, sit down and talk with her, yada-yada-yada. It would be a big deal. So I don’t think he’s going to do that just to relay a single piece of information, the significance of which to her he has no idea of.”

Pris sighed, closed her eyes, pursed her lips, and then nodded to herself. “Okay. My father is a man named Dr. Viktor Fearneurovolt. He—”

“Oh, I know him!” said Gadget. “He’s Jetta’s dad. And he used to teach Theoretical Evolutionary Sciences at Miskatromyk U, before he . . . well, people say he wasn’t quite right in the head after his wife Anastasia died. That’s what people say, at least. I gotta say, I never woulda pegged him as the uber-hacker, linguistics sorta guy to whip up an artificial life-form in his laboratory!”

“Wait—you know about Jetta?” asked Pris, suspiciously.

“Well, sure I do,” said Gadget, smiling. He thought he might be blushing. He wondered if that translated into his NeuroScape avatar. “She was my . . . well . . . my first . . . y’know. She and I sorta . . . we . . . hooked up. Once. Only once. It was the first time I ever. Y’know.”

“Yeah I get the idea,” said Pris.

“Anyway. Yeah. Before that, she was Gygax’s girlfriend. I mean, she wasn’t, y’know . . . she didn’t make a habit of sleeping around with people. Don’t get that idea. They dated for about two years. Then, he broke it off. They remained friends, though. And she was with us at PhantasmagoriCON one night, just hanging out in our suite, and we all got drunk, and well, she and I started flirting after he went to bed, and one thing led to another, and, well . . . boom. It happened. And, well, Gygax, he was cool about it, but . . . I never saw her again. We never saw her again. I wonder—whatever happened to her? We were such good friends. I mean, I miss her. Like, she always hung around with us, and now she’s just . . . nowhere. We had a pretty bad falling out when Gygax started dating Trillian, y’know. I mean, really bad. There was this huge fight. I tried to stay out of it, but I got dragged in anyway, and . . . well . . . It didn’t end well. For any of us.”

“She’s missing,” said Pris.

“She’s what?” said Gadget. “Missing?”

Missing,” said Pris. “And she’s been missing for three years. No one has seen or heard from her in three years.”

“Huh. That’s fucked up. Has anyone looked for her?”

“Father thinks she’s dead,” said Pris.

“Oh, no,” said Gadget. His heart sank into his stomach. No, not Jetta. No, she couldn’t be dead. He wouldn’t let her be dead. That was . . . it was just unthinkable. Jetta had been a huge part of their lives here for so long, so many years before this. She had been around for so long, been a constant fixture for such a long damn time until Gygax and Trillian had . . . well . . . begun to get serious. He suddenly felt sad again. Felt depression creeping back.

“Last he heard from rumor,” said Pris, “she was dating some guy named Krycek. Real weirdo. He thinks Krycek killed her. Because nobody can find Krycek either. And in his grief over Jetta, Father created me. “ Pris smirked. “He’s a genius, albeit a misunderstood one. He took a ‘simple’ natural language, A.I., the virtual assistant for the NeuroScape, and turned it into . . . Well, me. What you see before you. But no. Not everything is ‘okay’ with Father in the psychiatric department. He has a vicious alter-ego, a dark side that calls itself ‘Lord Ravenkroft Evolutior.’ And he—”

“First of all, that name,” He said, trying to force the depression back; it was like forcing away a toppling brick wall. ‘Ugh. Mouthful. Second of all—you mean he actually has a split personality? Wow, the cases of that actually happening to someone are really, really rare. See, I study neuroscience, and—”

“Well, it didn’t happen by any normal means,” said Pris. “It was an accidental side-effect of the serum, and the time travel.”

Gadget’s eyebrows shot up toward his hairline. For a moment, the brick wall vanished. “An accidental side-effect of the serum and the say what now?” 

“Er, never-mind. Forget I said that.”

“No, I heard you loud and clear. You said ‘an accidental side-effect of the serum and the time travel!’ Let’s break that down. First of all—what serum. What are you talking about?”

Pris sighed. “There’s a serum. The Weatherspark girl . . . Dizzy. Her father invented it years ago. It’s called Mutagenesis X-119. That’s what he—they—he and my Father . . . and Michaelson . . . it’s what they called it. They didn’t mean to do any harm. They meant it to change the world, thirteen years ago. They meant to do good.”

“Well—this serum—what does it do?”

Pris gave a half smile. “It changes you. Changes what you are. It’s evolution in a bottle. It’s a serum made of nano-genes. The name was Walter Weatherspark’s idea. The nano-genes, they get into your blood, and they investigate your DNA. They look at your genetic code, determine its . . . its history. They connect back to a computer network, and they use A.I. to break down the historicity of your genetic code, to determine the evolutionary ancestry of it, the entire history of mutation and speciation that led to your specific genetic outcome . . . and then, they use another A.I.—a generative, creative A.I.—to project a possible path forward through time, a possible series of future mutations that might occur, based on the historical mutations that have come before. Future biological development. Future mental development. Future . . . abilities. Adaptations that haven’t occurred yet. Adaptations that might occur. Like I said—evolution in a bottle.”

“That sounds . . . incredibly dangerous and unstable,” said Gadget.

“It was,” said Pris. “And that’s how he lost Anastasia,” said Pris. “That’s how he lost his wife. That’s why . . . Ravenkroft exists.”

“And the part about the, uh, ‘time travel?’” asked Gadget.

“Er,” said Pris, “forget I said that part. It’s too complicated to go into.”

“It also happens to break the laws of physics,” said Gadget. The brick wall had vanished completely. A cloud of intrigue had replaced it.

“Like I said,” said Pris, glowering at him, “forget I said that part.”

“So not only are you a virtual life-form,” said Gadget, raising an eyebrow, “you’re also a little crazy.

“No, I’m not,” she said, sighing a frustrated sigh. “Ugh! Look. Father built a time machine, as well as built me. It can send his consciousness through time. A fragment of it, a shard . . . I don’t have time to explain it all. But I promise I can explain everything to you. And I will. Eventually.” She looked left, then right. “Listen, it was nice meeting you. I hope I’ve made a friend today. We’ll talk more in the future, if you want to meet me here again later, in this same simulation. But I can’t linger here any longer. The twerps at Mjölnir will detect my Avatar’s manifestation in this simulation if I do. Next time, remember: Activate your personal session encryption key before commencing this sim. That way they can’t eavesdrop on us. In the meantime, I’ll be masquerading as your friendly neighborhood virtual assistant if you need any help using the NeuroScape. For now, just promise me you won’t do anything to get me deleted, okay?”

“Um, okay. Sure. I promise. But—”

“Thanks a million, babe. Again, nice to meet you.”  She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips, and then in a flash of alphanumeric characters and green smoke, she was gone.

Gadget looked left, then right, then all around the room. She was nowhere. What the hell had just happened?

He shook his head to clear it. Okay. So. He had just made contact with the world’s first virtual life-form—essentially, alien life. And that life-form had entrusted him with the secret of its existence. Of her existence. And so he couldn’t tell anyone—even Gygax—about it. Well, maybe Gygax. Dammit. Yeah, Gygax would understand the thrill of it, the incredibleness of it. But could he really trust him not to go running to the execs at Mjölnir with it, like he’d told Pris he could? He didn’t know. Gygax was still pretty pissed off at them for passing on the Roleplayer Generisys system. That much was true. But he was also still pretty hot to impress them. He had worked for them on contract for three years now. He had wanted them to hire him on for two of those years now, to go from contract employee to company man. (Also—he had to tell Gygax that Jetta was probably dead now. That thought buzzed around the perimeter of his mind like a wasp hovering threateningly over a patch of bare skin.)

As much as he loved his best friend, and as much as he would’ve trusted Gygax with his life—and he would have, in a heartbeat; they had been the best of friends ever since Gadget had been thirteen years old—he decided he couldn’t quite trust him with Pris’s life, because hers was . . . well, a little different. And Gygax was so naturally curious. His first instinct wouldn't be to respect Pris’s rights as an individual, but to take her apart to see how she worked. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with him, or that he was a bad person, or that he was an asshole, or anything; it was just “in his nature” . . . it was just who he was, as a person. As an engineer. And Gadget could certainly understand that. And, besides . . . if he changed his mind later, he could always tell him then, right? There was no harm in keeping this to himself for a little while. After all, Pris wasn’t hurting anything just by being there, was she?

So, yeah, he decided. Best to keep this to himself for now.

He took a moment admire the work on Anorak Prime so far. He looked good. Pris’s work on him was excellent; she had filled in the blanks of his description with a lot of creative details that no ordinary software program could’ve managed. She was definitely one of a kind. How she had masqueraded as an ordinary A.I.—and had gotten away with it—thus far was a question for the ages. How could you hide that much sparkle, verve, and personality behind a cold mask of artificiality and plastic, fake expression? Somehow, she had managed it. 

He sighed, called up the keyboard, saved his work. Then he reached up toward his face, and made the universal “log out” gesture—pinching and pulling forward as though removing a pair of sunglasses. The world went dark; he was falling through an empty chasm again. His stomach lurched. His clothing vanished, and then, it was there again . . . and his office chair jarringly came slamming back into his back and buttocks and legs.

 

 

Colors swam behind the darkness of the lids of his closed eyes. He blinked a few times and opened them. And with that, Phase Two of the experiment immediately began, whether he was ready for it or not.

Phase One had been a complete success. The new-and-improved Mind-Weirding Helm—he could still hear the voices of the other people in the apartment building, clamoring to get inside his mind; he held them back by sheer force of will at this point—had functioned just as a NeuroBand Headset did. Now he was faced with the reality of Phase Two, which was, for the twenty seconds he had been exposed to its reality already, was working out very differently than he had though it would . . .

This was cool.

His room was the same as it had been, but way different too. Everything appeared to be made of extremely tiny polygons and smashed through a 3D rendering algorithm . . . as though it were all a virtual reality construct and not a part of the real world. The bedclothes, the hardwood floor—the light reflected off of it too perfectly, the shine of it clearly an effect rendered by a software engine—the books on the shelves, his map of Middle Earth, his computer desk and workbench. All of it, part of some virtual augmentation of the real world. He laughed.

Gadget put out his hand. His t-shirt and sweatpants were gone; he now wore a long, black cowboy duster. He looked down and discovered he was taller, and that he wore black boots, black leather pants, and a black chambray shirt. A Ray Gun stood out on his hip, and energy cartridges lined his gun belt. He reached up and felt his face—several days worth of stubble. He felt around his face, and discovered age-lines lurking where there hadn’t been any. He reached up, and realized he could feel a cowboy hat on his head. He laughed again.

He was not himself. Of course he wasn’t. He was Anorak Prime . . . only transposed into, and grafted onto, the real world. Or rather, a simulacrum of it. The Helm must’ve been working together with the NeuroScape . . . This was too cool . . . the NeuroScape was processing his environment as his brain perceived it and adding new elements to it—specifically, elements from the Roleplayer Generisys subsystem—fusing his mind’s perceptions with a generative, real-time augmented reality simulacra instead of a purebred, pre-constructed virtual reality simulacra, and it was doing it in the moment, in real time. And damn was it ever cool as balls! He giggled manically; he had to tell Gygax about this.

Gadget could still hear the voices of the other people in the building, whispering in his mind. He could not let them in; he felt if he did, it would overwhelm him and he’d faint. Besides, he had other business to be about just now. This was exciting—a whole new realm of psionic phenomena and reality simulacra to explore, the two melded into one! He could feel the larger muscles; could feel the increased muscle mass, could feel its density, its size, its strength and the tension in it if he flexed or moved it. Could feel the extra strength in his legs, and the extra spring in his step. Could feel the smoothness of the leather on his skin, the metal of the Ray Gun’s handle-grip.

If he tried to, say, use his now-enhanced “strength” to pick up a heavy object—like a car, or something outlandish—would the Mind-Weirding Helm translate the extra “strength” of his “muscles” into telekinetic force, and use that to lift the car? If he, say, for instance, fired the ray-gun, would the Mind-Weirding Helm translate that into some kind of electrokinetic or even nuclear force, and conjure a beam of zero-point energy from the quantum vacuum and obliterate or electrocute whatever was in the beam’s path?

Well duh, why not try it and find out?

He drew the ray-gun from its holster. It had a silvery 1940’s-era rocketship-like barrel, thick in the middle and tapering on both ends, with a spiral coil surrounding the glass nozzle, and a fan-like disc situated around the tail. The trigger sat just beneath that, and the brass-riveted handle contained the energy-pod: a silver cylinder with a glowing vial containing what appeared to be some kind of viscous purple liquid. The disc around the tail, with the rotary dial at its center, had different settings printed around it in tiny writing: Cap’s Shield; Project Cap’s Shield; Mordy’s Faithful Hand; Lasso of Truth; Transporter Beam; Magneto; Electro; Hiro Nakamura (DANGER!); Smaug; Mister Freeze; Ant Man; Han’s Blaster; Phasers on Stun; Avada Kedavra.

Gadget chose “Han’s Blaster” for now. Then he stretched out his arm and aimed it at the bean bag that sat hunched in one corner of his room—Goodbye, old friend; it was good to slouch in you and play video games, he thought—and squeezed the gun’s trigger. Sure enough, a fiery emerald-glowing serpent of energy came slithering out of the end of the ray-gun, and blasted into the bean bag, which exploded with a loud BANG! White beads of stuffing went flying everywhere, rocketing outward and raining down all over the room like ping-ponging snowflakes caught in a wind tunnel.

Okay, this was officially badass now. He had to tell—

Loud, hurried, footsteps in the hall outside. Gygax burst into the room. “Dude! Are you okay!” he cried.

From his perspective, Gadget was sure this looked weird—him standing there, with the newly-improved Mind-Weirding Helm on his head, holding his crooked, empty hand out in front of him and pointed at the now-exploded bean bag, with the room—and him—now covered in bean-bag-stuffing.

“I have something really awesome to show you, dude,” said Gadget, still smiling at him, and breathing heavily. “You’re not going to believe what I’ve discovered now!”