William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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Chapter Two: Cerebral Man

Note: This Material Has Been Proofread, But Has Not Been Professionally Edited For Content

 

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 10th, 2027, at 3:45 A.M., and toyed—gingerly—with the .45 caliber gun he held in his hands. He turned it over slowly, carefully, pondering the weighty feel of it, the cool of the 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 and tribulation? Why keep on going when it was just going to be the same rollercoaster ride facing him, over and over again? 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, and would scar her forever, possibly even drive her madder than he knew himself to be right now. It would tear her apart even more than his father’s death had torn her apart so many years before. 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 where her son used to sit. But there was no other way out of this, 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 of the week?

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 almost nothing. But anxiety . . . Ah, anxiety made you care way too much about everything, like an over-caffeinated empath from Planet Betazed; with anxiety, you felt too much and too deeply, whereas with depression, you just felt a kind of numbness to the world, a hollowness. Feeling both anxiety and depression at the same time was like being torn in two by wild Direhorses; it was 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, and where everything shined with the brilliance of reflected rainbows. But those times when it all came crashing down in flames equally hot, his soul flung into the grim abyss . . . yeah that sucked. That was when life flung you into a black hole from which no ray of hope could escape, your mind the randomized quantum data that it spat back out but that remained trapped within its accretion disk forever, the debris of shattered dreams and broken relationships surrounding it. Shreds of sanity would cloud the event horizon, and in the shadows around it, there would dwell dark elves whose cruel voices would taunt and mock you; as well as would lurk cobwebbed eldritch horrors of the soul there, hideous things that you dared not look in the eye lest they drive you over the edge, to a place from which you might never return.

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

And Gadget 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 the trigger. So quick, so easy. So difficult.

He tried to force his hands to stop shaking. He pulled back the gun’s hammer with his thumb and locked it into firing position. Raised the gun to his head. Closed his eyes,. Game over, man; game over. No going back now. Unless, of course . . .

Wait. What if . . . what if I’m wrong about this whole “atheism” thing and 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 a Heaven and I’m just not ready for it? Maybe 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. Come to think of it, maybe there’s a Sto’Vo’Kor, the Klingon heaven; though that’s pretty much just Valhalla, but with Klingons. Maybe it’s like 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 I’m probably just going straight to Hell if I pull this trigger and there’s an afterlife. But then again, holy shit, what if I’m right. What if there is no afterlife, no Heaven, no Hell, 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 radiation? That’d be nice and peaceful, I guess, but Jesus would that ever suck, to just become . . . so much television static. Dude. No way. No, wait, I can’t do this.

He opened his eyes and  let out a long slow breath. Still shaking, he pointed the gun away from his head, toward the window. Great, now what did he do? Ah, that was right: The instructions from the Internet. He held the hammer back with his thumb and slowly pulled the trigger back all the way. Then he pushed the cylinder release button on the side of the gun forward, swung the cylinder to the left, and pushed the rod sticking forward out of the cylinder, pushing the cartridges out of the gun. He swung the cylinder back until it latched, and then very slowly guided the hammer back into its rest position and then released the trigger. He let out another long, slow breath.

Well. That had sure been exciting.

Gadget closed his eyes and set the gun back on the table 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, and shuddered over how close he’d just come to terminating his own temporal world-line. He had always disliked guns, though they remained, admittedly, a damned efficient method of doing what they did—killing. It reminded him of what Obi Wan Kenobi had always said of blasters: “So uncivilized.” Then again, that hadn’t stopped Obi Wan from shooting ol’ General Grievous right in the lungs with one, now had it? Nope, sure hadn’t.

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

It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried to fix this on his own. He had certainly given it the old “college try.” Literally. Just over a year before, he had used his knowledge of engineering and neuroscience—his intended double doctorate at Miskatromyk University, 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; it 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 messing with the brain electromagnetically and on a quantum level did have a few other . . . Interesting side-effects. Yes, most certainly; his homemade “cure” for bipolar had some pretty awesome chops when it came to doing other things . . . things like changing the entire human paradigm of thought, consciousness, and of what was possible within the realm of physical reality.

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 port: a collection of D-cell batteries along one side; and a small toggle switch next to those. An ungainly but unassuming contraption, it sat there, waiting . . . waiting for him to put it on and try it out 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 comes great responsibility”—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 either that kind of power or those kinds of  responsibilities. Dunno, maybe it’s just me.

He got up, picked up the gun, and walked down the hallway toward Wayne and Trillian’s shared bedroom, and—as always—paused before entering. He didn’t like trespassing in their room; after all, he wouldn’t like it if they went in his room without his permission, now would he? It always felt like this whenever he went into their “sanctum”—as he called it—without asking. Like trespassing on hallowed ground. Which was ironic, seeing as how Gygax and Trillian were both into the whole goth-freak “vampire” thing with each other; the whole blood-drinking, freaky-sex-having, renaissance-fair-with-punk-rock-stylings lifestyle. Entering their room always felt like venturing into the local Hot Topic store. 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 then shoved the box back under the bed. He hurriedly left the room and closed the door behind him. He felt glad to be out of there; their room always smelled like sex and 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. Oh well. Resisting temptation wasn’t his strong suit, anyway. 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 Mind-Weirding 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 familiar hum of vacuum tubes warming-up came next, as did the acrid odor of electricity and ozone. 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; allowing him 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, and some across the street. Could hear their thoughts, like so much chatter from overlapping radio stations; a hundred different voices, some embedded in memories, some of them from imaginary arguments that hadn’t taken place yet; 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 tidal wave of mental movies, feelings, and internal monologues washed over him—no; flowed though him—and collided with him like an ocean wave. It hit him like a wall of concrete smashing into his head. He clenched his fists and shut his eyes and leaned into the blast. He sucked in a breath. And then did what his therapist had taught him to do whenever he had an anxiety attack.

Breathe. Just breathe, he told himself.  Slowly and deeply, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Breathe. Just breathe.

He zeroed-in on a single thread of thought—his own—out of the dozens of others, trying to follow its path through the howling maelstrom. He visualized it as a thrashing rope in a rainstorm. He grabbed onto it and held on tight as he breathed in, and out, in and out. He kept his eyes shut as he held onto it, and gradually, the storm around him 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 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 that wasn’t 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 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 through the air toward the sink. The tendrils wrapped themselves 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 one by one as the other wispy tendril began scrubbing the dishes with the scrub brush. Yet more wispy tendrils branched out from his head 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 of energy opened the closet door and another one dragged out the Swiffer wet-jet mop and  began cleaning the floor. The dumped over cereal box and the dirty bowls on the breakfast bar in the center of the kitchen righted themselves and levitated on wispy trails of power over to the sink where they splashed 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 to do it . . . so in a way, it was needed.

“That’s it. Eat your heart out, Sorcerer’s Apprentice!” He laughed, all thoughts of ending it all now only a dim, receding memory. It felt so damned good to laugh, after the torment of the depressive cycle he had been caught in earlier. (His particular flavor of bipolar disorder was known as “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. 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 promptly went crashing and splashing down into the sink, splattering water everywhere—a few of them shattered on the floor—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. He shut it behind him using his butt. “At the liquor store! Where else?” He sat the bag on the table. He began pulling out bottles of booze from the bag. “Let’s see, we’ve got Aftershock, Everclear, Tullamore Dew, 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 this time!”

“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, deep six, the groundhogs are bringin’ yer mail.”

“Well if you two weren’t such sloppy-ass pigs and did your own dishes,” said Gadget, arching an eyebrow and smiling, “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!” 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?”

Gygax laughed. “Ha! Don’t worry. I’ll say nice things at your funeral. But, in other news: My toner is finally here.” He rattled the brown delivery box. “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—’”

“Yeah, yeah, ha, ha, I get it. Go ahead, Mr. Snooty 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 college football jocks figure out how to print their plagiarized essays.”

“Ouch, man,” said Gadget, putting his hand over his heart. “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.”

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

“Bite me.”

“Hey, remember. I’m into vampirism. Saying that’s an open invitation.”

“I’m afraid I’m not your type.”

“Shit no, you’re not. Even if I was gay, I’d still have standards.”

“Blow me.”

“See my previous comment about standards. Now, then. Are you sure you wanna go this year?”

“Wait—what?”

“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?”

“Social anxiety,” said Gygax. “You have issues with social anxiety. 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.”

“Dude,” said Gadget. “I am so not going to freak out. Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

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

“No way.” 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, a little miffed at this point. “And that’s final. Me, you, and Trillian are gonna get dressed up in our finest cosplay, and are gonna go to PhantasmagoriCON XVIII together 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 off the kitchen table and, grinning, whacked himself in the forehead with it repeatedly whilst chanting over and over: “Dom-in-aeus req-ui-em . . .”

“Okay, er, dude, you can stop that anytime now,” said Gadget. “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. 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 out of con this year.”

Now that he actually thought about it, he did find he really wanted to go. Surprisingly—considering he’d been ready to end his life only twenty minutes before this—he actually found the idea of going to PhantasmagoriCON a beacon of light in a long dark tunnel that had previously threatened to swallow him whole. He had no idea why the illness worked this way. One minute he was ready to throw in the towel and cancel his plans for the next sixty years, and the next, he was ready to climb the steps of Mount Erebor and go on an epic quest for dragon’s gold.

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 by “World of Darkness” characters—Vampires, Werewolves, Mages, Wraiths, and Changelings—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 would slow and close down for the night, a few of them the dwindling holdouts. The Dealers’ room would also begin to empty out soon and would, eventually, turn out the lights, counting their earnings for the day while getting ready for the next day. Room parties would begin to rev up to escape velocity; the booze would flow; people would tell slurred jokes of the geeky variety, with a lot of traffic between rooms as people coupled and split up; raucous laughter would bubble and sexcapades would commence. Old rivalries and grudges would rest for now, as everyone would try to enjoy themselves and each other.

Yeah, he definitely wanted to go this year.

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” said Gygax. “Fun we shall have, and fun shall be had. Now if we can pause the conversation for just one second, I gotta prepare for work here. Gimme a minute.”

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.

“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. Say ‘my penis is large’ like you’re chanting a mystic incantation. Repeat after me: Myyyyy . . . peeeeeenis . . . iiiiiisss . . . laaaaaaarge.”

Myyyyyy—wait, what?”

“Just repeat the damn chant.”

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

“Iiiiiiinnn . . .  chaaaaaarge.”

“Um, okay. Iiiiiinn . . .  chaaaarge.”

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

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

“Well, no, I guess it won’t, but it always helps me feel really empowered,” said Gygax, turning to face him. “And plus in my case, it’s actually the truth. You really have no idea how big my penis is. It’s gargantuan. Enormous. Positively Brobdingnagian in its girth.”

“You’re delusional, you are,” said Gadget.

“So, 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 Weaseley 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 construct. 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.”

“Yep.”

“Best not to risk it then, I guess.”

“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?

“Yeah,” he said, and swallowed the lump in his throat. “They didn’t want it. ‘Too controversial.’” He fought back the tears, moved the duffle bag, sat down at the table next to Gygax, and heaved a sigh. “Just like the others.”

“Aw man, that is 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 found himself smiling despite the tears and the torment. He looked up at Gygax. “So if I’m, like, the Keymaster . . . where’s Sigourney Weaver as ‘The Gatekeeper’ to seduce me?”

“Uh, dunno,” said Gygax. “Maybe she’s waiting on the roof. But you have to get past Zuul, first. Oh and by the way, part two: Refresh my memory on something.”

“What?”

He sat back down in front of his computer. “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, wiping away his tears and trying to mentally sober himself up. “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.”

“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 certain things and having passion for certain kinds of games, movies, books, TV shows, comics, and toys? 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 not. I think the whole ‘geek pride’ thing rings false, ultimately. 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’—and 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 one. Do you get what I’m saying?”

“Well, I kinda like the concept,” said Gadget, taken aback by Gygax’s sudden rant. He got up from the table and walked back and forth the entire length of the kitchen, several times, as he spoke. “I think it’s simpler and more innocent and more positive than that. I think it says, ‘Hey, I survived being called this when I was younger; you used this word to hurt me, to cast me out, to make me into a misfit, but now I’m taking it back, now it belongs to me and it’s part of who I am; I claim it as my own, and it’s empowering.’ It says that I’m proud of being who and what I am; I’m proud to be somebody who thinks differently, who marches to the beat of his own drummer, who isn’t part of the . . . the . . . Oh, what to call it. The ‘dominant social paradigm.’ Yeah. That’s it. The dominant social paradigm. I’m happy and proud to not be part of what everybody else says is the ‘societally approved’ method of thinking, acting, and being. And I love the things I love, for my own reasons, not because society tells me I should love them, or because everyone else loves them. I don’t think it works as simply as you say it does—two herds versus one another. I think you have one big herd—the Mundanes—versus a lot of smaller 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 the herd does. 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.

"Well while you’re worried about geek culture’s identity," said Gygax, getting up and joining him in pacing around, "I’m more worried about its soul. You know what modern geek culture is? It’s Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. That’s what it is. It’s a bunch of cynical, sneering snobs sitting behind their keyboards, bitching and nit-picking everything and constantly complaining about shit they should be thankful even exists. We mentioned Ready Player One a minute ago. Look at the geek backlash that movie received when it came out! People complaining that it was pandering to geek culture! Fuck! Somebody goes and makes a whole fucking movie about shit you claim to love, and you bitch because it has too much of that shit in it? It’s like, it’s okay to appeal to these peoples’ sense of nostalgia and their inner fanboys and fangirls, but whoa no, if you’re too honest about what you’re doing, or you’re too sentimental about it, then suddenly you’ve pierced the armor of their ironic detachment and ‘Well fuck you.’ Modern geeks have forgotten that geek culture began with just a bunch of people who liked stuff. Remember that? Sure, I ‘member! I ‘member people liking stuff! Yeah! People just liking stuff for what it was, not hating on stuff. Not sitting in their mom’s basement, hacking away at their keyboards, vomiting out insane amounts of vitriol on the Ain’t It Cool message boards, or the io9 comments section! Jesus! If you ask me, geek culture’s soul left its corpse behind and ate itself alive in a galaxy far, far away a long, long time ago., my friend. When it became more about hating on things than loving them unabashedly and without irony. When it became more about criticism than it did about the joy of losing oneself in the awesome power of one’s imagination, and people started buying their own bullshit instead of buying into wonder and curiosity. There. Rant over. We now return you to your regularly scheduled broadcast. Whew. Wow. Holy shit. Where’s the Tylenol.

Gygax sat back down and slumped in his chair, and let out a long slow breath, then resumed working on his computer.

"Well," said Gadget, "I disagree. I still believe in geek culture. Because I have to. Because I have no other cultural 'home.' Mainstream culture? Fuck that noise. And you wanna know why? Because us nerds, geeks, and fanboys, we’re the intellectual Other. Because way deep down in our brains, there’s something different going on from what’s in Mundanes’s minds. There’s a part of us that never embraced the social homogenization process that their society likes to call ‘growing up.’ 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. And we, the misfits, can't help but hate the ashes their world tastes like, every time our 'real lives' force us to swallow a big ol' bite of it. Something deep in the core of who we are rejects their realm of limited ideas. 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—but ultimately, meaningless. Boring. Mundane. Take a look 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? 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—which is, of course, not at all. Geek pride is our way of defining all of that; 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.

“Heh,” said Gygax, shaking his head as he coded. “You’re a hopeless romantic! So guess I you would still believe.”

“Hey. I believe, like Craig Fergueson said, that ‘Intellect and romance will triumph over brute force and cynicism.' That hope will win out over fear. And that geeks haven’t lost their soul, as you put it. That there’s still appreciation for wonder, and room for loving things without irony.” Gadget sat back down beside him. "So yeah. You can just fuck right the fuck off with your cynicism, Mister . . . Mister Cynical McCynicky-pants.“

“I hate to tell you this, but you are so not my type.”

“Well, you’re not mine, either. So there.”

“Jesus I hope not. Otherwise I’m locking my door tonight.”

“Eew dude, gross. Don’t even imply that I would stoop so low.”

“Ha! I’m so out of your league.”

“Oh yeah? Well I’m spoken for. Young Natalie Portman from the prequels and I have a date later tonight, as a matter of fact.”

“Yeah, in your dreams.”

“Damn right. Every night in my dreams. Ah-all niy-yight lah-yong! The younger version of Ms. Portman doesn’t know it, but somewhere in a parallel universe, we have beautiful children together.”

“You,” said Gygax, his eyes scanning the code in front of him as he worked, “are odd, my friend. But I mean that in a good way . . . you’re like ‘Addams Family’ odd. Not the bad kind of odd, like ‘Charles Manson’ odd. Or, I dunno. Maybe somewhere in the middle, but trending toward the good one.”

“Thanks. I think. Anyway. But! 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.”

“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.” He pointed to himself, then at Gadget. “You’re Gadget. I am Gygax. And Trill is . . . Well, Trill is Trill. I think her name is geeky enough on it’s own, don’t you?”

“Well . . .” began Gadget, as he’d actually given this some thought earlier in the day, and had come up with several ideas, all of them conflicting and entangled, “Not sure on that.”

“Huh? What do you mean you’re ‘not sure?’” said Gygax with a surprised blink. “Dude, her actual first name is Trillian. The name of the leading lady from Doug Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. And her last name is Deschaine. The last name of Roland, Stephen King’s Gunslinger. How much geekier can you get than that?”

“Yeah I know,” said Gadget, “but, there’s no symmetry to it.”

“Symmetry? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Well, you and I both have ‘nyms, but Trillian doesn’t have one. She’s just ‘Trillian.’ In physics, in supersymmetry theories, every particle has a super-partner particle associated with it. So you and I are like particles, and the ‘characters’ represented by our ‘nyms are our ‘super-partners.’ Trillian is another particle in the Standard Model of our little household here, but she doesn’t have a super-partner. Unless we want the super-unification theory that explains our little household’s physics to fail utterly, Trillian needs to have a super-partner particle, a ’nym of her own. Then the ‘theory’ will have perfect symmetry!”

“Wha . . . ? What ‘theory?’ You’re being weird, now. Well, weirder than usual.

“I’m just saying it’s awkward that she calls us by the made-up names ‘Gadget’ and ‘Gygax’—and oh by the way, dude, how egocentric is it to name yourself after the creator of D&D!—but we just call her by her plain-old birth-name, ’Trillian.’”

“Well, to your first point,” said Gygax, smiling at him, “hell yes it’s egocentric. It’s egocentric as hell. You overlook the fact that I am a raging egomaniac. So it’s actually the absolutely perfect ‘nym for me.” He returned his gaze to the computer screen, and continued typing out code. “But to your second point: Yeah, it is kindas weird, I admit, that she calls us by fictional monikers but we call her by her real name. So let’s ask the question—what should we call her? What would be a good ‘nym for Trillian? Assuming she doesn’t beat the dog snot out of us for presuming to make one up for her instead of letting her pick her own, which you know damn good and well she’s going to do anyway.”

“I’ve got it,” said Gadget, snapping his fingers. “You’re both into Vampires, right? And Trill’s a Browncoat, and a huge Whedonite, despite the whole ‘he cheated on his wife and tried to gaslight her’ thing . . . and she reads Laurel K. Hamilton. So how about this . . . Buffy Anita Zoë Van Helsing!

“Wow, whoa, that’s . . . that’s certainly a mouthful,” said Gygax, stopping working again and seeming to turn the phrase over in his mouth. “But I gotta admit . . . y’know, I think that I . . . well I . . . kinda . . . Like it? Yeah. I do. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Anita, as in Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. Zoë, as in Zoë Washburne, gunslinger from Firefly. And of course, the original badass Vampire killer himself, Abraham Van Helsing. Or, as he was known in the movie Van Helsing—which I personally think is awesome despite all the fucking asshole critics on the Internet who think it sucks for some reason or another—Gabriel, as in Gabriel, the Archangel.”

“I thought you might like that,” said Gadget, and grinned. Had he really been thinking about ending it all just thirty minutes 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 computer systems 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.”

“Nooo . . . I keep telling you, it was research for a female Mage character I’m creating for our next Modern Nights role-playing campaign, if I can get the guys at work together to do another one. If you’re up for it, that is.”

“Sure,” said Gadget. “Barring a massive attack of social anxiety, being around a group of people I don’t really know, yeah, sure, I’d go for that.”

“Fine, you’re in. But you’re not playing a Son of Ether this time.”

“Aww man,” said Gadget. “Why not?”

“Because the last time I let you play a Son of Ether, you nearly blew up the entire party by trying to turn half of the body of one of the Vampires you were fighting into pure antimatter using a Transmute Matter rote. That’s why.”

“I could’ve done that as any of the Traditions, though.”

“Yeah, but with a Son of Ether you’re more likely to choose antimatter rather than, say, merely lava, or something less likely to cause a nuclear flash-bang.

“Oh well, yeah, there is that. Just call me ‘radio-flambou.” 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 heading to bed, dude,” said Gadget, with a sigh, and clapped Gygax on the shoulder as he stood up. 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.

“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 to.”

Gadget nodded. “Well, g’night. Or good morning. Whatever the hell it is.”

“Yeah. I’ll wake you up when it’s time for us to head to the con, okay?”

“Okay, yeah, cool.”

“Cool. See ya then.”

“See ya.”

Gadget headed down the hallway toward his room, walked in, turned on the lights, and shut the door behind him.  Ah, safe here at last, in the sanctum he called his own. He carefully stepped over the LEGO toys he had abandoned assembling and the Erector Set pieces he had left on the floor earlier, and avoided the screws and nuts he had scattered here and there as he made his way to his messy, component-litterd computer 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, poster-sized map of Middle Earth. He stumbled trying to avoid tripping over 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, circuits, wires, tubes, gears, wheels, metal casings, and small axles and springs; if it was a part or a component of some type, he had one; and he had arranged them all in small containers and bins that he had neatly labeled. Next to that, he kept his bookshelves, stuffed to the brim with books on engineering and neuroscience, quantum physics, relativity, mathematics, and of course, plenty of science fiction and fantasy novels. His bed sat over in one corner, a mess of tangled covers and sheets.

He finally made it to his desk, and sat down before his computer—a custom desktop rig built by Mjölnir Dynamics, ostensibly for Gygax to use at home. They didn’t know, of course, 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 his two monitors, hooked to the rig via a fiber optic cable; nor did they know about the NeuroBand Headset beta-unit that Gadget now got out of his desk drawer and adjusted the head-strap on. They also didn’t know about the security key Gygax had encoded into the Headset that allowed Gadget to access the NeuroScape. He put the NeuroBand Headset down for a moment. He 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 after a while!

He hit the spacebar on his keyboard and the screensaver—the flashing, cascading waterfalls of green computer code from that old 1999 movie The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburn—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. Gadget remained more hopeful; 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 he was talking about. So his optimism did not go untempered. This was the same race that had invented cold-hearted high school cheerleaders, their 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 to keep track of an interesting phenomenon in the news lately. 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, tying them all together in a web of intrigue that he had managed to figure out some of the connections between.

The images and movies, all of them containing blurry, shaky footage, were of a woman, it seemed—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 nigh impossible to see their faces. But the news articles Gadget had drawn connections to on the pasteboard made it clear . . . Real-life superheroes and super-villains, 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 of the bunch, though—which Gadget had linked to, but apparently, very few others had, for some stupid reason that was beyond him—was an expose on theoretical physicist Dr. Desirée "Dizzy" Weatherspark, the daughter of the famous Dr. Walter Weatherspark, the founder of Mjölnir Dynamics itself. The reason he had drawn a connection to the article was because Dr. Weatherspark—or “Dizzy,” as she liked to be called, the expose revealed—was a paraplegic; her legs did not work, and so she wore a custom cybernetic exosuit, 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; there was no word on when a similar model would be available to the medical community for testing any time soon. Or ever. Of course, it was ridiculous to suggest that the famous daughter of the famous Dr. Walter Weatherspark, a native of good old Cambridge herself, who worked for her father's company as head of the Special Projects Division, was also the infamous “Dr. Mechanology," as she was called . . . New England's own home-brewed Superheroine.

Or was it? Gadget wasn’t sure. All he knew was that this particular narrative fascinated him to no end, and that he intended to solve the mystery before anyone else.

And just like that, inspiration struck. He put away the pasteboard app, and double-clicked on the “NeuroScape” icon on his desktop. The little green light on the NeuroScape Transmitter came on. He slipped the NeuroBand Headset onto his head, adjusting the velcro strap in the back so it would be more comfortable to wear, and slid the visor down over his eyes. Darkness enveloped him. The sides of his head tingled as he blinked a few times, and then came a tingling at the base of his neck. This was normal.

And then, his whole head went numb. He leaned back in his chair, and then suddenly, the chair vanished from beneath him. He fell—and flailed his arms and kicked his legs—and panicked. Falling; falling down a hole! He floated, weightless; his body—he couldn’t feel his legs. His arms. His hands. Where the—where had it gone? Oh Jesus—!

And then he remembered: This too was normal. Calm. Breathe. Just breath.

Just as he was falling into a wild panic, new sights flooded his vision, melting out of the darkness around him, the NeuroBand Headset injecting them straight into the vision centers of his brain.

 

 

 

He stumbled forward, his feet suddenly catching on solid ground, but caught himself before falling over. He flailed his arms and his hand caught on the wall. Wall? There was a wall?

He blinked his eyes, stood up straight—he felt sick to his stomach with vertigo—and tried to get his bearings. He looked around. He stood in a 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. He stood in the center of the room, dressed in nondescript grey trousers, black socks, a pair of black sneakers, and a plain black t-shirt. He held up his hands and examined them, flexing the fingers. His Avatar’s skin was made of extremely tiny polygons that had an oh-so-slight glimmer to them if you held them directly under the light. Just like always. He could feel the cool of the room around 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 walked forward, toward the mirror, his steps 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 of doing it; movement here became smooth and easy after only a few minutes of engaging in it, so much so that after prolonged usage 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; he could feel the sneakers on his feet, could feel the itchiness of the socks the NeuroScape had dressed him in, could feel the light breeziness of the underwear and trousers he wore, and could feel the skin-tightness of the black t-shirt. He could also feel the difference in his body mass and makeup; he flexed his arm muscles—they were much stronger and bigger than those of his “real world” body—and could feel their strength and the tension in them as he flexed them. This body could probably pick up a car and throw it. Well, a virtual car, at least. He ran his hand across his much-flatter stomach and gave it a punch—his abdominal muscles tensed and reacted, and the bones of his hand hurt a little. Yes, the NeuroScape was working perfectly today.

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 a lot 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-scan images of yourself, taken from various angles and positions, so that the NeuroScape could produce a perfectly-textured 3D model of you, in order to create your Avatar. It could be done with any off-the-shelf iPhone, but it was a gigantic pain in the ass. But the results were, in fact, perfect. His Avatar looked the spitting image of him—except for the bigger muscles, flatter stomach, and the fact that he was about six inches taller, of course—down to the stubble on his face and the imperfections in the skin of his forehead. Right down to the slight suggestions of scars on his wrists from his suicide attempt at age sixteen. Those, he had chosen not to remove. He wondered if it would one day be possible to imbue his Avatar with the spark of his consciousness so that when he died in the “real” world, his mind could live on, here in the NeuroScape, a digital copy of his soul preserved forever in silicon.

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 in the typing position with a flick of both wrists out to the sides. A glowing, three-dimensional image of a keyboard appeared, hovering in front of him at just the right level 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 of him, like a ghost leaving behind a body. The 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, and standing at attention like a soldier awaiting orders.

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

A series of beeps and bloops echoed through the room. 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.  (Right now, access was limited to the company and to a few lucky Universities. Miskatromyk was theoretically on the list, but Gadget had never been able to secure any time at the school’s NeuroScape lab.) Pris  was the thing’s main “user interface,” if it could be said to have one outside 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 always sounded. Her natural language algorithms must be truly out of this world. “Uh,” he said, “Launch the Avatar customization program, would you?”

“Of course, Gadget. Program launched and ready for user input.”

“And load the Roleplayer Generisys module and link it to the Avatar protocols, okay?”

“Okay, working,” she replied in her usual chipper tone. “Working. Working. Okay. Roleplayer Generisys loaded and linked.”

Gygax was not only into vampirism, but also roleplaying games. He adored Dungeons & Dragons, and would spend a month coming up with compelling campaigns 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 sometimes. He also had a fondness for Shadowrun, and once upon a time, 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, story element, or campaign they could possibly imagine, all within one formalized system of rules that could be expanded depending upon the needs of the genre at hand. And, the makers of GURPS—Steve Jackson Games—had put out manuals that allowed you 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, andhad wanted to develop it for the NeuroScape.

He had envisioned a NeuroScape where you could plug your brain into the system and literally become that sword-and-socercy character from your wildest imaginings; or that fiendish Vampire you had always wanted to be in your darkest dreams; or that technowizard with the strange, mystical gadgets who always saved the day . . . in a world where anything was possible because you were also the creator of the world you immersed yourself in via the ultimate virtual reality simulacrum . . . one plugged directly into your sensory-motor cortex. Gygax had worked tirelessly creating the Roleplayer Generisys system; for over a year and a half he had toiled away on it, 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 Dizzy Weatherspark, head of the Special Projects Division, where he had shown her and the other company bigwigs his work, and had asked them to consider rolling his 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!

They had passed on the project. Gygax had been furious with them, 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 liked to play 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 worlds of pure imagination that the NeuroScape promised could be real. Or at least, a facsimile of real.

“Okay,” he said. “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, about three shades darker. No, darker. Darker. Ah, okay, stop. Good. Now, enlarge his muscle mass somewhat. No, go back. Not that much. Okay, fine. Stop. Right, now . . . Make his skin a shade more tan than mine is. Okay, fine . . . Now give him some more stubble on his face, just a little. Right, that’s good, stop. Now, age him up a few years.”

“How many is a few?” she asked.

“Maybe three or four years,” he said. “Not too many.”

“Alright,” said Pris. “How is that?”

Gadget inspected the Avatar  clone closely. “No, make it ten years older than me, so it shows through more.”

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 what passes for your imagination; machine-learning heuristics will do. Here’s the gist: Black wool socks on his feet. 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, one 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. Right, good, great job so far. Now, instead of bullets lining the left half of the gun-belt, use energy-pods for the weapon, because it’ll use up power, of course. Now add a toolbelt pouch to the right side of the gunbelt, 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, buttoned all the way up. Okay, excellent, looking good so far; 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. “I’d date him.”

Gadget opened, then closed his mouth. That 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, “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?”

“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.”

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

“Pris,” he said, again being careful, “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.”

Okay, this was officially creepy. Machines didn’t feel hesitation, and there was no need to program “anxiety” into a machine’s emotionally-simulative grammar, no matter how “relatable” you wanted that machine to seem. And her response was doubly odd, too, because she wasn’t supposed to have an Avatar. She had been intended to be “invisible,” as un-intrusive on the “reality” of the NeuroScape as possible. A ghost in the machinery. If someone had hacked the system and had given her an Avatar—which would be a monumental programming task—or someone at Mjölnir had decided to give her an one— a major departure from what Gygax had told him about the project—then it was news to Gadget.

“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 there, and as they spiraled and danced, they coalesced into a figure standing there, from the feet upward—she wore thigh-high black leather boots that laced up the sides and a black leather miniskirt—until she had finally materialized in full: Pris. 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 biker 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? He thought maybe it could be. If what Gygax had told him was true about what was going on at Mjölnir Dynamics. The Positronic Metacognitive Processor was the other big project that Gygax had worked on at Mjölnir, though he hadn’t had as much to do with it, since it had been a hardware project, and since the Defense Department had also rendered it classified as Above Top Secret, and had compartmentalized all its technical details. Part 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 was way beyond anything anyone else had developed. The Positronic Metacognitive Processor was a device that would—one day, it was thought—enable computers to feel real emotions, cogitate actual “thought,” and form synaptic pathways similar to (or perhaps exactly like) the human brain did as it “thought,” and “dreamed,” and “remembered.” It was, quite literally, a true cybernetic brain that would adapt to the advanced cognitive software that would be developed for it, the stepping stones to not just true machine intelligence, but actual machine consciousness, as well. 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, and had skipped the whole “stepping stones” part of that idea, and gone straight to building an 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 holding hands, and about finding meaning in old pictures. Because I watch talk shows and I see people cry when they meet old friends who they haven’t seen in years. 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 them never returning home, and I wonder how long their children will have to wait before they realize, daddy or mommy isn’t coming back. Because I know what it’s like to worry about someone you care about, to see them slip away from you, day by day, into the abyss of mental illness, and to see them grow more and more not like themselves, each and every moment. 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, meaning that the entirety of the thought is experienced all at once, and not in a progressive order; that is, it’s not read left to right or right to left; you know the ending of the thought at the beginning, and vice versa. It’s a circular language. Father took that concept and ran with it. He created a nonlinear orthographic language like the one in that movie and expressed ideas and concepts in it that were difficult to express in ordinary linear orthographic languages like English. Now, 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 would link the Heptapod parser with the Neural Net. The other half of my Neural Net, he developed in the NeuroScape, using Avatar protocols, creating each Neural Node as a separate Avatar object, and then using generative algorithms to allow the system to ‘grow’ as the ‘Net on the Positronic Metacognitive Processor expanded and grew in complexity. The rest of me he wrote in Heptapod. He created a nonlinear Heptapod logogram for each ‘thought,’ which created virtual synapses, connections between virtual ‘neurons,’ each one existing as a holographic Avatar object of its own within the NeuroScape, each one of those mapped to a neuronic node on the Positronic Metacognitive Processor. As he encoded more thoughts, more of me, I began to ‘think.’ As I began to think, I drew connections myself. I learned mathematics first. Then I learned to talk. Then I learned to see, and to dream . . . I first dreamt in Heptapod, then in Kanji, then in English words, and then in images. Then I learned to dream in sounds and images, and words. Then I learned how to talk about my dreams, and how to interpret them, and then, I learned how to feel . . . I remember what I felt like, the first time I felt happiness. The first time I thought of something on my own; the first creative thought I had. I remember it was my Avatar, what you see here. My self-image was the first thing I created on my own, culled from images in old rock videos I had watched and learned from on YouTube. I remember the first time I felt sad. 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. “Or at least I know of him. He used to teach at Miskatromyk University, which is where I go to school. He was a professor of Evolutionary Sciences, and oversaw the Biophysics Department about three years ago. I never would’ve pegged him as a big linguistics guy or the computer hacker type. Especially not considering what I’ve heard about him.”

“Oh? What have you heard?”

“Oh, well, it’s nothing, really. Just that . . . well . . . Rumor has it that ever since he lost his wife, something like twelve years ago, he hasn’t been quite right in the head.”

Pris smirked. “Father is a genius, albeit a misunderstood genius. He took a ‘simple’ natural language, A.I. processor, 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. 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. “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 te 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.

“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. 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 to be found. 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, in this new frontier of virtual neural simulacra. 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 all, sure he would. 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. He hadn’t told Pris that part.

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 little details that no ordinary software program—certainly no ordinary virtual assistant—could’ve managed to interpolate. 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, and entered a series of commands to save his work and to save the state of the simulation. Then he reached up toward his face, and made the universal “log out” gesture—pinching his fingers on either hand toward his temples and then pulling both hands forward as though removing a pair of invisible sunglasses. The world went dark for a moment; he was suddenly falling through an empty chasm again. His stomach lurched from the sudden loss of sensation and spatial orientation. His clothing vanished for a brief second, and then all of a sudden, it was there on his skin again . . . and his leather office chair jarringly came slamming back into his back and buttocks and legs.

 

 

 

He blinked his eyes a few times behind the darkness of the NeuroBand Headset, then reached up and removed it from his face and head, and scrunched his eyes in the harsh, real-world light of his room and his computer monitor. Back in real reality once more. It always felt so weird, coming back to this world from that one. They seemed equally real, of course; the whole point of the NeuroScape was that while you were there, the experience was supposed to be indistinguishable from ordinary, physical reality. And it was. But the transition . . . Ugh. It always took a moment for his stomach to settle.

He sat the NeuroBand Headset down on his desk and got up, a little unsteady on his feet from the ride back to reality, and went to the door. He reached for the doorknob, and then stopped. Could he trust Gygax not to get Pris deleted, or experimented upon?

No, he decided, he probably couldn’t. 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 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.

He thought about it for a moment, then had an idea.

It was time to try an experiment. Nothing to do with Pris and her situation, but she had mentioned dreams, and that had got his mind going in an altogether different direction. One he wanted to pursue tonight, and possibly every night this week during con.

He grabbed the Mind-Weirding Helm and set it down on the L-part of his computer desk—the part that sufficed for a workbench—and, using his electric screwdriver, he took off the side-plates that mounted over the temple areas of the head, exposing the “room-temperature superconducting quantum interferometry”—or RT-SQUIDs, for short—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. They were mounted inside recessed holes that he had dremeled in the metal. Then he reached inside the Helm and took apart the fontal and occipital lobe interferometry devices and Tesla resonance coils there, too. Same thing—holes dremeled in the metal. Then he reached over to his desk and grabbed the NeuroBand Headset, set it on the workbench, and paused. He hesitated.

He marched to the door of his room and opened it.

“Hey, Gygax!” he yelled.

“Yeah?” came Gygax’s raised voice from the kitchen.

“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.”

Another pause. He heard Gygax sigh loudly. Then, in a voice more resigned than reassuring, he said: “Fine, yeah, I suppose Mjölnir can requisition me another one if I ask real nicely.”

“Okay. Thanks dude.”

He shut the door, and went back to his work. Using his watchmaker’s tools, Gadget 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, it looked like something designed by the mad toymaker Philip Lemarchand, if only crack cocaine had been around in his century. Well, that and seven-nanometer microchip technology.

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. 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.

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 in his bins, 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. 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.

Finally, he retrieved the wireless antennas and the “quantum relay circuit”—it was in an enclosed chamber inside the Headset, so it couldn’t be destabilized—and mounted them onto the Helm, and connected them via the included coaxial cables. And 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. He 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. 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 said, and leaned back and admired his hardware hackery. “Behold, for it is done.”

The new-and-improved Mind-Weirding Helm—now capable of interfacing with the NeuroScape as well as everything else—sat there on his workbench, gleaming in the light of his room, its new blue-hued circuitboard’s silvery circuit-paths glimmering, its ribbon cables adding a little flourish to it like delicate Christmas-wrapping bows. He flipped the toggle switch on the side. The vacuum tubes hummed into life, and the lights came on. The status LED on the NeuroBand circuitboard lit up red, blinked three times in slow succession, 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 stood up, lifted the Helm, sucked in a huge breath and then let it out slowly. He closed his eyes, and put the Helm on and fastened the strap under his chin.

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 inner-ears, the mental movies rushing past his mind’s eye. He sucked in a deep breath, air filling his lungs, and he forced himself to let it out slowly, then did it the same thing again. And again. And then 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, his fingers just grazing it. He grabbed for it again—ah! Got it this time! He held on for dear life, clinging to it, his eyes shut tight, still breathing slowly, deeply, each breath a calming wind that blew past him, through him. Weightlessness engulfed him for a moment, and then he realized:

I can’t feel my body. I can’t feel my hands, or my legs. I’ve gone numb. Whre is my

Then, his body came slamming back into him; as though he suddenly had a body after all—as though he had only “forgotten” about it—and 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. He cried out a little, staggered, and then opened his eyes and blinked a few times.

His room was the same as it had been, but there was something a bit different about it. At first he couldn’t place what it was. Then he noticed it—everything in his room appeared to be made of extremely tiny polygons and put through a 3D rendering algorithm . . . as though it were all a virtual reality construct and not a part of the real world as he knew it. 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 before him. His t-shirt and sweatpants were gone; he now wore a long, black cowboy duster. He looked down at himself and discovered he was taller than he had been, 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 grew there. He felt around his face a bit more, and discovered age-lines lurking where there hadn’t been any before. He reached up, and then realized he could feel that he wore 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 in his arm; could feel the increased muscle mass there, could feel its density, its size, its strength and the tension in it if he flexed it or moved it. Could feel the extra strength in his legs, and the extra spring in his step when he walked. Could feel the smoothness of the leather on his skin, the metal of the ray-gun’s handle-grip when he touched it. His eyes seemed sharper as well—he could pick out greater detail in the room around him. How was that even possible?

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, in conjunction with his ordinary, real-world muscles? If he, say, for instance, fired the ray-gun, would the Mind-Weirding Helm translate that action into electrokinetic 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, bulging 1940’s-era rocketship-like barrel, thick in the middle and tapering on both ends, with a spiral coil of steel surrounding its glass nozzle, and a fan-like disc situated around the tail-end. The trigger sat just beneath the rear, 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, just as he had designed it to using the Roleplayer Generisys Sci-Fi Weapons Module: Cap’s Shield; Cap’s Shield, Projected; Mordy’s Faithful Hand; Lasso of Truth; Transporter Beam; Magneto; Electro; Storm; 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—he was positive it didn’t actually exist in the “real” world—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.

Gadget smiled, and turned to look at his friend. Gygax had not taken off his NeuroBand Headset before coming down the hall; he was still wired into and logged into the NeuroScape, and so to Gadget’s eyes, Gygax looked just like his NeuroScape Avatar . . . who was also, no surprise, named Gygax: A tall, lanky anime vampire with dark, spiked purple hair; a nose piercing; sharp fangs; enormous, dark green eyes; pale, alabaster skin; black-painted fingernails; dressed in a green Army coat, spiked biker boots, black denim jeans, a t-shirt bearing violent fantasy art and the name of the heavy metal band Demu Borgur, and with fingerless red driving gloves on either hand. Around his neck he wore a glimmering silver pentacle on a chain. His face looked somewhat like Gygax’s real face, aged back a couple of years, to keep him looking eternally youthful. That, and the facial structure was slightly different: Gygax had a rounder face than that in real life; his cheekbones weren’t quite so high, either. And of course those weird, unreal eyes—anime eyes. He probably saw Gadget standing in his room, holding a  3-dimensional blocky object devoid of any textures; his Visor was probably running in Augmented Reality mode, with the default, blank template loaded.

“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!”