First published in On Spec, Winter 2007.
Maybe you were born that way. Maybe a stray cosmic ray or mutagenic molecule slapped hands with one of your parents’ DNA days or years before your conception.
Or maybe it was your parents’ fault for leaving you on your own when you were so young. You don’t remember being told they were dead. Your earliest memory is the waiting room at the social services office: the warm afternoon light, the tear in the blue vinyl seat, the smell of weariness and despair. You nodded when the woman with the tired eyes told you about the accident (at least, you think you did), but that’s all.
Or maybe you were still like the others then. Maybe it didn’t start until later, as you went from one foster home to another. Maybe it was Mr. Larsen’s fault. Or Mr. King’s. “It’s OK,” your therapist said, years later, as he unzipped his pants so that you could “act through” what had happened. “It wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could have done.”
But no–you made that up. You made it up because you didn’t want Janie to leave. Life was so much…warmer…with her in it. She needed to know why you were so passive, why nothing ever seemed to touch you. She needed a “why”, so you gave her one, and it worked, at least for a while. She still left in the end–everyone did eventually–but that was OK. By then, you knew there was something strange on the third floor.
You were used to lying by the time you met Janie. You don’t remember when it started, any more than you remember your parents. You wondered about it for a while when you first realized you were different from other people, then put the question aside. Children always imitated one another: if one fell down and cried, others would start crying too. You just took it a little further. Presents never made you happy; the death of pets never made you sad. Nothing ever made you feel anything, not the way other people seemed to feel things, but you pretended. You learned to bounce from foot to foot in line outside the movie theatre as if you were excited. You learned to snarl back at bullies in gym class, reciting vaguely-understood threats and obscenities you’d overheard outside the industrial ed building.
By the time you left for university, you had even figured out how to act around girls. That was hard; you only understood later that it had been hard for other boys, too. Indifference didn’t work: when you acted indifferent to other boys’ feelings, people called you moody, but when you acted indifferent to girls, they called you gay, and that meant more snarling. That meant shoves and punches and having to play chess in your head to figure out how to just make them all leave you alone. It was so tedious, so undignified, so you learned to stutter, just a bit, whenever you had to talk to someone with cleavage. They still made fun of you, but your pretended weakness drew their malice like poison, and that was all you cared about.
None of it made sense, not like chess and math made sense. They had rules. They made sense. Knights and pawns didn’t pretend to move one way, but actually move another. The bisectors of triangles always met at a point: always. People said you had a gift. They didn’t understand. You didn’t love what you were doing. You didn’t love anything. You were just building yourself a nest so that everyone would leave you alone. Sonya, Melissa, Janie…they were just your way of checking to see if you were still broken and incomplete.
Because of course you knew you were. You could tell the difference, even if other people couldn’t. You could tell that when other people laughed, it was because they actually found things funny. You could tell that when they tickled a child, or had that first sip of red wine after a day spent painting their apartment, or slipped a hand up under someone’s sweater, that they felt something, and you wanted to feel things too. You tried sports, drugs, sex, religion, and good works. Nothing helped.
Sex did get you the job at NightWorks, though. Math had become geometry had become computational geometry had become a post-doc in computer graphics and an even-less-satisfying-than-usual arrangement with your supervisor, a balding Turk with nicotine-stained fingers. “Their next game is going to change everything,” he confided to you, his feelings no more sincere than your own. “They could use someone like you. And it would do you good to get out of academia for a while.”
You played it through in your head that night after walking through early snow to Janie’s apartment. You were comfortable in your nest. People left you alone to tinker with intersecting splines. You could stay there for the rest of your life, and die without ever really feeling anything. No. You didn’t watch Star Trek–you had to have some standards–but you recognized your kinship with Commander Data. You didn’t know what it felt like to feel things, but you wanted to.
So you applied, and interviewed, and took the job just five months before the first version of Containment was released. NightWorks was calling it “the reinvention of the first-person shooter”. At first you thought it was just marketing hype: there was a semi-coherent back story about ancient gods on the verge of reawakening, lots of guns, and an uninspiring soundtrack that mixed the worst of 1920s jazz with speed metal.
But then you saw the monsters. “What is that?” you asked, knowing it was what they expected. They grinned and slapped you on the back. “That’s your new job,” they said. “They’re non-polygonal, and we have to render them twenty times faster than we can right now or kiss our bonuses goodbye.”
“Non-polygonal” was the most anodyne description possible. They…shifted, somehow, even in the stills from the art department on the third floor. You felt a twinge in your stomach. Was the yogurt you’d had for breakfast? No–it was fear. You felt afraid.
You and Janie had sex that night for the first time in months. She got angry when she realized you’d been watching the stills from the art department cycle randomly on your screen as she did the things she thought you liked. She shouted a bit, then cried, then left. You lay on the couch all night, wondering if the pictures would get you excited again. They didn’t. You needed more.
The next day, you asked to meet the artist. “It’s, uh, we got them from the guys on the third floor,” you were told. “They’re kind of in the middle of a lot of stuff. Just figure out how to animate them, OK?”
Your first attempts took two months of round-the-clock work, and were still pathetic. Morphing from one still to another produced green glowing blurs that RDST and sub-pixel sampling couldn’t cure. Polygonization got you nowhere: the best least-squares code you could find couldn’t fit a mesh to what was on your screen.
In desperation, you turned to the web. “The poor man’s library, the homeless man’s librarian,” the Turk had sneered, but this time it did the trick. A search for splines on two-dimensional projections of non-Euclidean surfaces found an OCR of a paper from the 1950s. Buried in the references was a mention of work done before the war at Miskatonic University. The description was too vague for you to be sure, but you had run out of leads. If Containment wasn’t on the floor at E3 in two months, you’d have to find a new job.
You rented a car and drove north through towns the post-industrial renaissance hadn’t reached. You expected Arkham to look the same; instead, its streets were brightly lit, and its houses freshly painted. New money, and lots of it: every third vehicle was a late-model SUV, and every second face had the focused look you had only ever seen on recruiters for three-letter government agencies.
The university librarian seemed relieved when you explained what you were looking for. “Not the special collection?” he asked. “You’re sure?” No, you assured him, wondering briefly what made the special collection so special. All you wanted was Volume 31 of the Upper New England Transactions on Pure Mathematics.
Nothing smells like old ink. Nothing sounds like old leather and binding glue bending for the first time in decades. No, you told the hovering librarian, you wouldn’t need to lay it flat for photocopying. You showed him the zoom lens on your cell phone camera, assured him it didn’t use a flash (“Ultraviolet can be so damaging to these old dears”), then photographed the article’s twelve dense pages.
You almost went off the road on the way home when you realized you were humming along with the radio. A quick study of the grainy images in Figures 2 and 5 had been enough to tell you that it was what you had been searching for. They had made your stomach squirm. They had made you feel.
It took you three days to understand the paper. The author had been a Hungarian, and his English bent at angles almost as strange as those he used in his splines. You searched for him online; all you found was a potted biography that said he had fled Europe in middle age. A refugee from the rising tide of speeches and uniforms and camps and fires, you thought, but no, the timing was wrong: the paper had been published in 1931. You wondered briefly what he might have been fleeing, then put the thought aside. Later, you would be able to guess.
Three days to understand it. A thirty-hour sprint to turn it into code. Six hours of troubled sleep that ended when the guy from the next cubicle shook you awake. “You OK?” he asked with more suspicion than care in his voice. As bleary as you were, you understood what he meant. Two of the sound effects team had been let go the month before. The head of HR had given everyone a stern lecture about controlled substances and personal responsibility, which had made no sense: Qixiang, sure, but David? David was allergic to everything. He had started muttering under his breath, and drawing five-pointed stars decorated with what looked like Arabic, or maybe Tolkien’s Elvish, on every flat surface in his cubicle, but that wasn’t far enough from the mean for programmers to merit firing.
The guy from the next cubicle was still watching you. “Just a nightmare,” you told him. “But hey, check this out.” You turned your keyboard right side up and typed a few commands. The image on your screen flowed through a texture-mapped corridor.
“Jesus shit.” He laughed nervously. “That’s pretty gross. But hey, it’s not clipping right. See?”
You are momentarily irritated. The best thing about working with programmers is that they don’t find your lack of social skills odd. The worst thing is their lack of those same skills. Still, he’s right: the thing you have created on the screen isn’t clipping properly when it turns corners. The thought brings its solution with it. You drain the last warm Coke from the can you discarded as empty last night and start typing.
Containment is the hit of E3. The hit, the only thing anyone talks about. The pre-release reviews brush past the storyline and game mechanics; what they all rave about is the graphics. Your graphics. Your “thing”.
There are congratulations. There are pats on the back. There are bonuses, and smiles from people in suits, and a million other irrelevancies. There is even an email from Melissa, whom you haven’t spoken to in five years. You read the first three lines and delete it. She doesn’t matter. The games you let her play with your body in the hopes that you would feel something don’t matter. The increasingly unearthly shapes you are coaxing out of the computer are all that matter.
And then the hammer falls. Your team lead takes you aside. “We decided to ratchet down the quality a little,” she says. “So that mid-range cards could handle the load.” She shows you what it looks like with thirty-five hundred irrational NURBS per frame instead of the twenty thousand you have been using.
It isn’t right. You feel nothing when you look at the images. You protest, heatedly, and even use some of the language you remember from those confrontations outside the industrial ed building, but she shakes her head. “This has come straight from the third floor,” she says.
You demand to speak to them. She hesitates. “Actually, they want to speak to you.”
The elevators don’t go to the third floor. You have to get off at the fourth, walk past security, through a double-locked door, and down a flight of stairs. There’s another security guard there, who checks your card against your face very, very carefully. “Safeguarding our core intellectual property,” they say, but you can tell they’re lying.
One side of the third floor looks like any other cube farm. The other is a blank wall with a single heavy door guarded by another security guard. The door frame is covered with the same Arabic/Elvish writing they were so careful to clean off David’s whiteboard after he left.
The man who greets you is in his fifties. There are bags under his eyes, but the eyes themselves are bright, alert, probing. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he says warmly. “Can I get you anything? Coffee?”
You sit together in a side office with two others, a man and a woman, both with that three-letter agency look on their faces. They compliment you on how realistic your images were. You thank them, remembering to be modest. The woman shakes her head. “No, really,” she says. “Let me show you.”
She picks up a remote and turns on a large LCD screen embedded in one wall. It’s Blair Witch jumpy: a gray sky, trees just starting to bud, a ramshackle old barn… And then something moves. Something shifts in directions that aren’t supposed to exist and flees deeper into the woods.
“Jesus shit,” you say, reaching for the first words you can think of. “What the hell was that?” But you recognized it. How could you not, after staring at still frames from that video for two months?
They give you forms. You sign without reading them. They explain that their agency operates outside normal legal constraints. Any compromise will result in dire consequences. You nod. You don’t show your impatience. They will tell you what you want to know.
After years of lying to people, you have become very good at spotting liars. These three are telling the truth. The ancient gods, with their unpronounceable names, exist. Or rather, “exist”, in some sense that minds confined to four dimensions will never be able to understand. They are malevolent, if only in the way that human beings are malevolent toward protozoans.
And they have been contained. Measurement; propositional logic; right angles; religions hollowed out until they no longer demand blood, or even really belief; certain practices persecuted, then ridiculed, until it’s impossible for all but fanatics and the extremely unlucky to separate fact from fiction.
“It probably started by accident,” says the man with the tired eyes. He is famous among programmers for the clarity of his architectures, for his ability to make code do things no one else can. As he speaks, he rubs a blemish on the back of his left hand shaped like the imprint of something with five rounded points, and you wonder about the rumors of tragedy in his counter-culture youth. “The Egyptians invented mathematics to measure their fields. The Greeks invented logic so that they could win political arguments. The Hittites invented iron so they could conquer the world. They didn’t realize it would drive the darkness back.”
“The darkness?” you ask.
He nods, glancing at the three-letter pair for permission to continue. “Magic. Irrationality. Call it what you want–every time someone understood why A squared plus B squared has to equal C squared, another little bit of the world became ours instead of theirs.”
He tries explaining it in evolutionary terms. Rationality was self-reinforcing. Confucian law, the rigorous poetics of Classical India… Each drove magic back a step. Each created a little more space in which rationality was the only thing that worked.
Until one day, the patches of light joined up, leaving the darkness confined to isolated pockets. That was when things started to go wrong. Compress a gas, and its temperature goes up. Compress the darkness, and–
He stops and swallows, unable to go on. The female agent (in your mind, she is definitely an “agent”, even if you don’t know of what) finishes the sentence for him. “And it goes critical.” The camps in Europe. Cambodia’s killing fields. Rwanda. Abba. The Navajo insurrection–don’t ask, it has been wiped from the history books, it never happened.
Squeezing the darkness ever harder could only lead to total criticality. Even the agent lowers her voice for that phrase.
So a plan had been formulated. “Science fiction,” the male agent says. “Horror movies. Alien. Buffy the fucking Vampire Slayer. Astrology columns in the daily papers. Intelligent design.” He snorts.
The man with the tired eyes shrugs apologetically. The thing is, he explains, it seemed to be working, so those in charge of such things–the ones in the shadows, the ones who worked for organizations that never, never, officially existed–had decided to up the stakes.
“The game,” you say. They nod, pleased that you have figured it out. No more hints or surrogates: this time, they would let people see the real thing.
Or at least, something close to it. “Your stuff was just a little too realistic,” the woman says.
It is your turn to nod. “I can fix it,” you tell them. “There’s better ways than just cutting the NURBS count.” You make up details on the spot. It is plausible enough to convince them. They offer you access to archive footage from containment areas, to digital copies of manuscripts written by mad Arabs, corrupt monks, and yes, Hungarian mathematicians who had taken refuge in backwater New England universities in the wake of local containment failures.
They shake your hand, tell you how grateful they are that you have agreed to help. You say what they expect you to, but your mind is already on the problem. You nod to the security guard who holds the fourth floor door open for you, nod again to the people you pass on the way back to your cubicle, noting the curiosity and respect on their faces. You are from the third floor now. You can use that.
You take a bagel from the tray outside the coffee room, lathered in cream cheese, grabbed a double espresso, and sit down in your cube. You close your eyes and replay the footage in your mind. There it is in your gut: that feeling again. Fear, revulsion–it doesn’t matter what it is. For the first time, you feel something, and you want more.
You smile to yourself. “Controlled” release? You chuckle quietly, oblivious to the sound’s manic undertone, and start to type.