Myra surveys her troops. The army cheers as they form a grid, rows and rows of ragtag fighters. Their clothing is torn, dirty, threadbare; their armor dull, with dying faces imprinted in their former shine.
The soldiers unsheathe their weapons and assume a ready position. Some wave their swords wildly around their heads. Some thrust their staves toward the row in front of them. Others throw oddly-sized projectiles high into the air and run in circles hoping to catch them. And a few are curled up in balls of fear, clutching their blades as though they are being forcibly taken from them.
Night falls. The moon rises demurely behind a mist. She gives the order to attack.
There is a power surge, and then a blackout.
“Goddamnit!” Myra bangs her fist on the desk. Her officemates glance at her blackened screen. Myra shifts in her seat, blows at her bangs, taps her fingers. After a minute, she turns her computer back on.
Load from save. Head to the harbor. Destroy anomaly. Load from save. Head to the harbor. Destroy anomaly. Myra fixates, reaches. Her surroundings have become a blur. She brushes her fingers over her eyelashes, touches a spot below her navel, swipes at a fly. An electrical buzzing shudders through her.
Load from save.
Myra’s isolated cubicle is at the midpoint of a barren office, the prescribed conduit of communication. She assures quality. Her move there was a logistical strategy: to facilitate ongoing test requests, to carry out neutral research and development, to demonstrate the value-added capability of an open network between similar divisions.
Head to the harbor.
But in truth, Myra knows she’s insignificant. Her placement has no purpose. Her new location only makes her more conscious of her environment. She misses the ability to close her door, to measure out the distance to her walls, to slowly rub her bare foot up and down her leg. All this comes at the expense of an open office, a constant community of efficiency, a system to massage the masses.
Today is for testing movement, not for unpacking fantasies. She loads and reloads. Do the physics work? Now add weather. Switch weapons. The time of day. Characters: female with child; weather: rain; weapon: wire hanger; time: high noon. Myra works fast, making up for the lost time from this morning’s awful appointment. Testing is almost complete. Myra averts her eyes, only for a second.
Then – blackness.
Frustrated, she picks up her phone and dials.
“Help desk.” Myra can practically smell the cigarette smoke on Peter’s breath emanating from the receiver of her phone.
“This is Myra.”
“Myra, we’re busy. Under attack. Viruses left and right.”
“My machine crashed. Again.”
“You’re sitting five feet away. Why are you tying up my line?”
“You told me to follow protocol.”
He unsheathes his two-way radio. “Mark, status? We are swamped, I repeat, we are swamped.”
Myra leans just far enough out of her cubicle to see Mark, with a badly tousled mane resulting from the uninstructed application of pomade, rolling down the hall on his office chair. He kicks the wall and sails toward Peter.
“If it’s Myra, just tell her to reboot.”
Myra reboots her machine. The fly lands on the flickering screen and seems to follow her cursor for a moment before lifting off again. One testing note: “The weight and size of the M202B2 rocket launcher, like carrying a small child, causes a delicate character to tilt. Dodging enemies could be catastrophic. Why one would choose a single-use anti-tank weapon while scaling up a steep mountain is another question altogether. The wire hanger is enough.” Otherwise, movement in the game is adequate. Movement in reality, not so much.
Again, as with earlier, as with all day today: omphaloskepsis. Bend as far as possible. Stare straight through, straight to the empty room.
The next morning, Myra purges. Uninstall. Delete. Delete. Whole directories: delete. She runs the command line: Rm -r *. She pushes her cubicle toward the back wall. Her desk now blocks the long expanse of walkway. She explains to a superior that she is still at the midpoint, only now she has the comfort of seeing everything that takes place before her.
Myra adjusts her headphones, hidden in the expanse of curly black hair, and watches the outside one last time. Peter scuffles past, oblivious to the new arrangement. She overhears a fragment of his cell phone conversation as he passes:
“You cannot create without being able to destroy. That is the nature of machines.”
As she has every day for the past five years, Myra double-clicks on her game; but this time she watches the intro movie – no skipping to the actual play. A ritual usually reserved for new games, playing the intro signifies a new beginning, a re-entry into a known world. The image before her swerves through rushing waves in an immense ocean, across dusty patches of land and into the billowy whiteness, fading from the milky blue into space, past swirling planets, crumbles of magenta asteroids, fiery stars, celestial bands of hazy colored light, to the very edge of the universe, to the blackness.
Retrodisplaced. Retroflexed. Retroverted. Incarcerated. Words thrown off, tossed aside by her doctor. Something is tilted, something needs to be removed, something is impossible, irreversible, unrestartable. No load from save, no heading to the harbor. Only destroying the anomaly.
In this game, however, nothing is impossible. The character she creates, gives birth to, uncannily resembles herself, except with a sleek silver catsuit.
Her foot, bare, rubs up and down the opposite leg.
Myra whips out her flamethrower.
Over the course of three days, Myra paths over every inch of the realm, burning down the grasslands, conquering orange-stained mountains, melting snow. She obliterates planets. She memorizes where monsters spawn and destroys them upon birth.
Myra tries to sleep, to allow her brain to re-sort. She even sets up shop at work: Under her cubicle are plush blankets and a pillow. But over time, sleep becomes less essential. No need to crash. She is fine as long as her character takes time to rest.
To arrest suspicion, she carefully times her colleagues’ morning arrivals and hides under her cubicle in 15-minute intervals. This particular morning, Myra lies down in the sheets and imitates dreaming. Nothing. The sound of her own slow breathing. Thoughts on what area of the game to exploit next. Exasperated, she gets up, bumping her head on the underside of her desk. Peter wanders over.
Myra emerges from the darkness, donning a wild muss of hair.
Peter raises his chin as he lowers his gaze. “Is that a pillow down there?”
“Sure.” Time to adapt her strategy. Myra sits on her chair, demonstrating posture correction. “For my back.” No, that’s not right. Gets on the floor. “Was using it for my knees.” No response. Places pillow on arm like a cast. “Pillows are amazing multi-use objects, aren’t they?”
“You gotta be smarter than that. You could lose everything.”
“OK, but nothing minus everything is still nothing.”
Peter takes a step back. Myra’s focus shifts. By the time she looks up from her monitor, he is gone.
The new year begins. Dawn is reborn. Myra peeks from above the monitor. Her eyes are watering. It has been six months since the start, and she feels a growing dissatisfaction. Her obsession does not necessarily mean she is pursuing something obtainable. The grind continues.
Myra pulls out the cheat codes, the forbidden God mode: useful for early testing, ruinous for regular play. Her fingers tap lightly on the keys, pretending to type in the commands. “Once you cheat death,” she tells her onscreen persona, “there’s no turning back.” In response, her character wavers as she usually does when idle.
Myra’s fingers take the plunge, and to signify the transformation, her character’s eyes glow red. God mode. Immortality. Attention levels intensify; she blinks less and forgoes the expected restroom break..
Myra, concentrated, playing God, does not notice Mark enter.
“It’s 5:00 a.m. Why are you here?”
Her head tilts, acknowledging his presence, but her eyes remain on the monitor. “I could ask you the same question.”
“The servers crashed. I got paged. I came in to watch server load.”
“Is that your version of watching the sun rise?”
“It’s my version of catching fires.”
“Couldn’t you do this remotely?”
“More visceral this way. Feels more real. Remember reality?”
Myra shrugs and turns up the volume.
By midday, Myra has jumped off mountains without reserve, run straight into monsters’ lairs, straight into their toothy mouths, danced in the middle of gang-enhanced gunfire, floated unprotected in space, infected herself with skin-mutating maladies, swum to the depths of oceans and buried herself alive.
One of her superiors approaches, scratching his forehead – a sign of subconscious eczema.
“Myra, please come to my office.”
This particular superior is directly above her, and his itch to climb the ladder is obvious. All the higher superiors generally wear gray suits and lackluster ties, and he is no different. Male pattern hair loss on the vertex. Two eyes, nose in the middle, mouth under.
His office was no less predictable. A sterile imitation executive desk with a thin walnut veneer, topped with a closed black laptop, a gold-finished resin lamp and an empty business card holder. A silver-framed picture of a largely forgotten family, his wife’s face partially obscured by his toddler son’s humongous head, next to the short particle board bookshelf pockmarked with outdated metadata manuals and management self-help books. An old office chair, back broken, for guests. She sits on the edge.
“We hear you keep a pillow underneath your desk.”
“For my back. And my knees. I don’t sleep, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“You know, we take measures to ensure that our chairs and desks are ergonomically sufficient.”
“The pain is separate from my work.” Myra pauses. “Do you want to fire me?”
Her superior scratches the back of his head. Weather: light snowfall. “Perhaps you should take a break every once in awhile. You may not know this, not having a family, but we’ve instituted a policy for family events that take place during the workday. People who choose not to acquire a family can still take advantage of that plan.” Her superior lowers his voice. “After all, why give more compensation to those contributing to overpopulation?”
Myra glances at the metal picture frame. “I’ve considered that.”
On the way back to her square sanctuary, Myra places a hand on her chest. Her heart should be pounding. Nothing. Not even a tiny ba-bump.
Three months later, Myra leans back in her chair and stares at the ceiling. Her eyes are watering, and she emits a faint glow. Something stirs inside. She is in world-building mode and can therefore create. Omnipotence trumps mere immortality.
Myra picks out a remote spot to begin her development. She creates a planet – simple enough. An aqueous planet for her aqueous humor. The monsters she generates are huge blobs of dull silver; they wander endlessly, confused by their fluidic environment and oppressed by the pull of gravity. She amuses herself by watching them eat each other.
In a week, she adds some land and applies similar rules to the various atmospheric creatures. A few tweaks to the A.I. and there is no need to exert her éminence grise; instead, she can leave monsters to exist for generations and return to see how they’ve evolved on their own. Do they become lonely? Godless? Do they continue to propagate without any direction from her? They do. A few more tweaks, and a single species develops a slight understanding of self. Disappointing, but acceptable. She molds civilizations with this species, watching them rise and self-destruct. She doles out small miracles for some and turns her back on others.
One week, out of sheer humor, Myra increases their proclivity toward violence, which generates wars and furthers their technological stance, thus bringing about an industrial revolution. She zooms to her current state. Closer, into her version of Olympia. She surreptitiously creates an office building. Then her office floor. A quick scan, and she finds the monsters who most resemble Peter, Mark and the rest of her coworkers, gently nudging them to find jobs over at Olympia, Inc. “What a quaint town,” she whispers to them while they sleep. “What a beautiful position. What potential for efficiency.”
They are easily beguiled.
She draws the familiar cubicles and takes the opportunity to push hers to the back wall. Myra blesses her avatar with free reign. The character wanders, interacts with others, but then resigns herself to her cubicle. There she sits, just like her real self, unmoving. Hours pass. She nudges the others to address her. Still, she remains motionless.
Myra squints. On her character’s tiny monitor, a miniature of her own, is an image of another tiny monitor, encapsulating another tiny monitor, and on and on. She feels herself being drawn into the vortex, one abstraction after another, multisession loads from save, all with the same result.
It was as though she had given birth, and her descendant fell into the same trap of obsession, escaping life via machine, via game, via avatar. The same could happen to her descendant’s descendant, and her descendant’s descendant’s descendant, and on and on, cascading into emptiness until some cataclysm from above gives her genetic perpetuity a way out of the unproductive, resource-wearing, infinite loop. The only escape – an early lesson in programming – is to force a crash.
On a whim, concerned about her well-being, suddenly self-aware, Myra tries to find her pulse. She fingers her wrist, her thumb, her neck, any pressure point. She feels her upper left chest. Nothing. She holds her breath. A minute passes, an hour, and still she sits and does not move.
“Maybe I need to go outside.” Myra staggers toward the elevator bank. Down button. How primitive, she thinks.
“Maybe I’ll watch the sunset,” she tells the security guard. He glances up with his mouth slightly open, not registering what she has said. His eyes wander the room before returning to his desk.
Myra walks for a few miles in the light rain, hit by a bout of nostalgia for the godless years, and roams the network of streets, ending on the bridge to the nearest inlet. North and west and straight on until morning, she instructs herself. Eventually, she reaches Percival Landing, among the mess of boats floating on the dusky blue, almost bumping, their thin poles and wires reduced to lines and angles, lines and angles to be calculated. She progresses to the edge of the nearest pier and squeezes her eyes as the sun nears the Puget Sound.
A whisper, in awe: “The sunset … it looks so real.”
Hours pass. Myra stands, and the paschal full moon hovers, out of focus. For a moment, she sees crevices and cracks on the moon’s surface, but her vision becomes hazy. She rubs her eyes and looks, harder, craning her neck a bit. Myra sees the same details again, but beyond that, a tremor. A squint, and the satellite is nothing more than a milky white roundness. Some sort of bug, she thinks. Focus, Myra, focus. Eyes widen; pupils dilate. Now that the moon mass is firmly in place, she can almost feel the textures of the cinereal terrain.
Her moment of clarity, she knows, will only last a few seconds longer than the previous insight, so she scans quickly for signs of a moonquake. She does not move, even with the systoles, even with her strong need to push through. A superior conjunction forms between the earth, Myra and the moon.
Deliver the anomaly.
She thinks if she stares long enough the moon will come permanently, and the camera view will zoom in, onward toward space, into the shadowy expanse. There, with her silvered arms, she will hold the moon together and cease its rumbling. As if in a pause reset eternal, Myra stands, gazing, waiting for the moon to come into focus.
Jennifer Estaris is a writer and game designer. She has not had a computer or internet connection at home for the last five months (and counting).