Small towns have always produced dreamers, daydreamers above all. As a child, and even into adulthood, I often imagined myself in crisis situations. Say the nuclear plant were to go on the fritz, or the particle accelerator bust, or a fire from the microchip factory to rip through town. I wondered: Would I be the first to respond?
The landscape is ripe for hypotheticals around here, so it’s anyone’s guess why we weren’t more prepared. I can’t help but feel we approached our demise with a certain solicitousness. Turned a blind eye. Corporate tax breaks fell like confetti from the windows of City Hall, the beneficiaries of which included the very particle accelerator, nuclear plant, and chip manufacturer that would later cause such chaos under the direction of @. In the end the industrial expansion was not so much the promised injection of adrenaline into the region’s stagnant economic heart as the construction of an entirely parallel vascular system. One suspects there was never meant to be any overlap between our two worlds at all.
I don’t think there was anything special about me. I lived alone. I spent my days mining data at Midwestern City Insurance (MCI), where I was responsible for screening claims. That time your reimbursement got denied, or your premiums were raised? That was probably me. It was a job. Around the office, leadership was fond of joking that when it came to reputations for corporate malfeasance, banking and pharmaceuticals had provided the insurance sector with cover for so long; now we were shielding tech. As I refreshed my pings on my commute home, gliding through Midwestern City on the self-driving bus, I thought to myself, Just you wait, they’re coming for you, too. Only we weren’t, were we? American Technologies (@) did its thing. We did ours. We were coming for no one. We were coming for ourselves.
It was around this time one began to hear of the enormous charms of KINGDOM, the craze for which had only just begun. It’s a wonder that I’d avoided it so long. People were calling it the game-changer of games. Other VR options could feel just as real, just as absorbing, perhaps even more so. What you heard about KINGDOM, however, was that it was more than just a consumerist world. It was a tender welcome; a form of direct address. It spoke to you somehow. And it was terribly beautiful. Whereas other worlds always betrayed the presence of underlying algorithms, tugging at your wallet, here the artifice was buried so deep, the sense of truth so overpowering, that the experience was said to approach the sublime. Users plugged in not to escape themselves, but to feel less alone. As a master of self-disgust, I can assure you: the difference is profound.
Whatever relief it may have offered one’s general sense of isolation, disappearing into KINGDOM was not without its costs. Quite literal costs, from an insurer’s perspective. At work, I had the numbers. Addiction was on the rise, and with medically resonant consequences. The diagnosis codes pointed to a kind of schizophrenia, but as far as I could tell no one showed any improvement on the drugs we were obliged to reimburse. In my nonprofessional opinion, it seemed users had simply lost the ability to exit a parallel world, a hypothesis supported by my observations of the addicts who began to appear in the streets. They mimed everyday tasks, spoke in reveries to pleasant-seeming people who were not in fact there. At the supermarket, I caught a young man frozen before a bin of bananas. He was brushing his teeth, though there was no toothbrush, no toothpaste, no sink.
In more traditional internet forums, I was a star. I had nine lives and a reputation on populist crypto platforms. Thousands paid for subscriptions to my newsletter, in which I discussed the art of the short. Hundreds more logged in to watch me live-trade, as if markets were no more than an extended LARP which . . . I wouldn’t say they aren’t. I toggled across various accounts on a timer, the way grand masters conduct multiple matches at once. Classic Réti Opening: knight to f3. I hacked, mined, and verified transactions on the blockchain. Bewildering mountains of virtual cash appeared, though it wasn’t clear if it was liquid; wasn’t clear if it existed; wasn’t clear, if so, whether it would last the night. I didn’t mind. I had no use for nice things. I sought only to exercise the full capacity of my intelligence, max out my human RAM. As long as I had an internet connection, I was the knight, the bishop, the queen, the king; I took over the entire chessboard. Offline has always been a different story, I’m afraid.
The year 20—, the same year of KINGDOM’s release, found me shipwrecked on the island of my only relationship. Constantine! Two years, gone in an instant. “That’s nothing,” she said. “You have no idea what a relationship is.” The worst part was, she wasn’t wrong. It was a painful end. I delved ever deeper into the blockchain as well as into my seedier, less-mentionable pastimes. When I looked up again, it was just this past February, and crypto had risen astronomically. It appeared I’d made some two hundred and thirty million, enough to go in with a buddy, had I a buddy, on a small island off Dubai. All this time, I hadn’t spent a single cent.
Dazed, I walked into the kitchen. Stretched my arms overhead. Not much of my decision-making up to this point had been about getting rich. But certain back-of-the-envelope calculations are unavoidable.
All my life, I’ve been able to recite credit card numbers, customer accounts, chess sequences, social security numbers, and passwords that I should probably forget. Mom calls me for her debit and banking PINs, even though I’ve stressed we shouldn’t be reviewing that kind of information on unsecured lines. Only as an occasional, anxious backup do I jot down financial ephemera. The self-driving bus might crash, for example, scrambling one’s capacity for recall. It turns out that heartbreak is just as detrimental. Returning to my computer, I found that, like an unsolicited software update, emotional devastation had wiped my cookies clean. I retyped the key. Tried leaving it up to muscle memory.
Password not recognized
The extent of the problem began horribly to dawn on me. I tapped the side of the screen. My computer! How could it forget? I was suddenly faced with the nearly impossible task of hacking my own account. Locked out of my candy mountain, I backslid royally into my humiliated routines. I looped in servers from the office to help churn the wishful SQL code I wrote to crack my own shibboleth. I stared at the program. It never progressed. When I did sleep, I dreamt of alt-me, Dubai me, Swiss Alpine me, hopping from mountain chateau to mountain chateau, million-dollar accommodations that in retrospect borrowed embarrassingly from certain Hollywood movie sets. It wasn’t only myself I mourned. Mother, my mother! I could have bought her a house. For years she’d nagged me about a knoll in Midwestern City’s central cemetery, a grassy thumbprint in the earth nestled in the roots of a benevolent oak. I had planned to buy her that plot. I resolved to reserve it for her that very evening with whatever savings I had left. I’d buy her the whole cemetery, as soon as I recovered my crypto access. I straightened myself up and wiped my eyes. Found an apple and brewed a stale sachet of tea. Logged into my sorry fiat bank account. A plot was 10K, and I was at most half as liquid as that. I reviewed the available offerings, only to find my mother’s chosen resting place had already been snagged.
It was the KINGDOM addicts who kept me from sinking into an even more irredeemable depression. They drifted through town as quiet warnings of what I might become. You spotted more and more of them now. On my way to work, they floated past the bus window in worlds of their own making, holding up foot traffic with tasks that seemed to be growing in scale. It was a dark sort of game, trying to guess what their miming meant. I observed a man lugging what appeared to be a long, heavy rope along the storefronts, or else a light rope attached to some burdensome cargo. Several more laid invisible bricks. One woman tried to do so in the middle of a crosswalk. We left her to her wails; from her perspective, I suppose we’d crashed brutally through her imaginary wall. They were going to get themselves killed, these addicts. Why did we tolerate it? Why didn’t we take action then? I suppose there was a general sense that they’d done it to themselves. Privately, however, we were envious. To dissolve into a parallel life in a parallel world in which you were imbricated, progressing according to some inevitable plot of a flair and beauty Midwestern City was unlikely ever to achieve—well, our bus route paled considerably by comparison.
To keep from winding up another data point in my own spreadsheets, I resolved on a material program of self-improvement. Zincing up the bridge of my nose, I went out for walks. Midwestern City has a number of pleasant strolls. The sprucing, repaving, the fresh cul-de-sacs topiaried and lamp-posted, had tunneled through the apartment block where I was born. The lake and manmade canal were flanked by glass palaces that ran along the shores like endless mirrors: Who’s the fairest? Not I. The new construction was occupied exclusively by @ folk, and one had the feeling they considered themselves benevolent for allowing the rest of us to remain. Everywhere you turned, you were reminded of all that you had never wanted until you, say, lost your crypto password. It was the aura of optionality that nagged.
A literal Aura, in fact. The shimmer first appeared by the glass chateaus on the canal, around the time of KINGDOM’s rise. My own building was at the outskirts of this celestial glow, near a patch of trees. It was a temporary glade, earmarked for further luxury development, but just as they broke ground, someone had found the Aura and then—gasp!—a bird. All the real wildlife was by now protected in the actual Zoo, making this lone sparrow an appalling holdout, one that had triggered the full force of the housing department’s environmental codes. The case was by now so red-taped at city hall that those of us still living in the neighborhood had allowed ourselves to become attached to this rare parcel of green, chosen, after all, for its scenery. I often strolled here while listening to nature sounds. That my virtual fortune had ballooned to surpass a small and resource-rich nation’s entire GDP was exactly the kind of thought on which I vowed not to fixate as I waded through downy grasses and silent pines, dew soaking through my cargos. Nevertheless, I was comforted to think that the developers shared my pain. The glade taunted them with equal financial impoundment. With its idyllic pines and seas of grass, they could have easily charged three times what I paid for my own apartment, which looked out onto the bus lane. It’s possible I was drawn here for the schadenfreude alone.
One morning, deep into my usual walkabout, my earpods died. There I was, damp to my knees with dew, listening to birds and insects and other kinds of wildlife one expects to appear in glades, but which no longer do, and in the next moment, to actual silence. It was eerie to experience the landscape sans the soundtrack that ought to have accompanied it. The totality of the silence—no traffic, no cars, no buses, no ambient streaming from neighboring phones—made me forget my own misfortune. Then I heard a faint little sound.
My heart raced. Could it be—? The lonely little sparrow, I thought, to have single-wingedly stymied the developers! I slowed my breath. No breeze rustled in the pines. There was a mechanical quality to the song that struck me as extra-avian, a cross between a beatbox riff and a whistle—almost a religious chant. Removing my earpods, I leapt between patches of moss. I was a hunter, a scavenger, a survivor. This here was experience. The earth and the man, the grass, the prey, the hunt—! Though in this scenario I was of course a rescuer. The chant grew louder. I was closing in.
A crop of ferns stood between me and a small clearing. I crouched behind it. Through the lace of the fiddleheads lay a patch of dirt and an odd little scene. A dancing man orbited a fire pit. He was elvish, not even half my height, accenting his syncopated hyperchatter with little jerks, manipulating his voice with the muffle of his hands. It took me a moment to decode the message.
“001 1001!” he said.
Just then my phone rang. It was my mother, a detail important only in that I had, like many children of parents a little too keen to be in touch, furnished her with a ringtone of her own, the better to screen her calls. It was a funeral dirge, in fact. As an accompaniment to the deranged elf’s binary chant, also distinctly disharmonious. I cursed myself for forgoing the virtues of silent mode. But how was I to know? There was something almost digital about the glade. The silence of the supersaturated green recalled the dead zone of a VR space. That is to say it was not a place where you expected to receive calls. The green veritably ensured the absence of network coverage.
The interruption in any case was justifiably unwelcome. “001 1001!” said the imp. He sprang over the flames, heading in my general direction. He was a quick little imp, propelling himself in great bounds. I faked left, faked right, tried to lose him in the fiddleheads, which is how I found myself back in the clearing by the fire, running circles around it myself. If only I were doing this by joystick, I thought. Then I’d have the advantage. The creature, sensing that I was waning, pursued me with a demonic focus. He’d begun his chant again. “001 1001!” I had half a mind to call my mother back, to tell her that I loved her and that this was the end. I was sorry that I had failed to reserve a resting place for her, alongside which she might now snag a spot for me. I reached for my phone. The imp dove for my ankles. I went down like a cartoon.
I couldn’t tell you if what the imp said next was still in binary code. If it was, then I suppose it is a language I technically “speak,” in the end. What I can offer, in any case, is the following transcript of what I heard:
“Who are you?”
“Nobody. Your neighbor. I work in insurance!”
“These are overlapping sets from which no unique solutions can be deduced.”
“I’m harmless, truly!”
“Query 95 percent confidence interval for optimal descriptive category. Else, crack elbow.”
My whole being concentrated into a single point, in particular, the vertex of my elbow joint.
“Depressed,” I finally said, “with confidence 99.99 percent”
My hip-high opponent might not seem like such a formidable challenge, but I was pinned. I would like to suggest that he was a not only a supernaturally strong, but a super-computing, imp. Cheek to dirt, a supercomputing knee stabbing into my lumbar, I admit I coughed up my woes, my despair.
I explained about my crypto.
At this confession, I was released. Crouching on his haunches in the ash we’d kicked up around the firepit, the imp fell into a deep consideration. I took the opportunity to gather myself into the fetal position on the forest floor.
He said, “I can calculate your password, but in return, you must give me your next girlfriend.”
“Ha!” I replied. For obvious reasons.
The imp scuttled over to the fire and wrapped his arms around his knees. He gestured at his lonely board.
“I want someone to play chess with.”
Nowhere did I grant the imp an answer in the affirmative. Neither did I explicitly refuse. I signed no papers, negotiated no terms to authorize its ridiculous and frankly misogynistic proposition to engage in hypothetical human trafficking. I had only brushed the evidence of my defeat from my khakis and hurried back into the glade when I heard him call a knight to f3. I remember thinking that he wanted me to play chess.
It wasn’t until I reached my condo that I began to wonder how the imp had found its way into the lifeless woods. I checked my phone for PSAs. My first suspicion was that innocent shimmer over the Canal. For months, after it first appeared, anxiety had hung over the metropolis. People worried of a leak from the particle collider, where they were hard at work cooking up new worlds, discovering the origins of ours. But as city hall soon announced, with no small help from our very own MCI, the Aura was an ultimately harmless, naturally occurring phenomenon. There was no measurable uptick in adverse events, at least none that could be somatically observed. And so we’d come to accept the Aura as a part of the scenery. Like the addicts, or the clouds.
In deeper internet dives, however, one found less benign hypotheses. There were kooks who argued that the Aura was itself a kind of tear in the virtual fabric, propagated by the particle collider, and that through this breach a few programs still in beta had escaped into our world, such as the one that deleted all the birds. Public understanding remained they’d simply migrated south; we’re used to the idea, in Midwestern City, that inhabitants would rather be somewhere else. But dark web chats suggested otherwise. It is our very obligingness, they said, our tendency to underestimate ourselves, that has allowed the Aura, and by extension @, to take such advantage of our town. I’d never believed in any of this myself. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the imp had had something of the Aura about him, too—a touch of something shimmery and slick. I recalled the staccato rhythm of his chant, the reverberations in my chest, how it was so very syncopated as to be random. I wondered if he weren’t, in fact, a glitch.
A good night’s sleep can usually put such existential doubts to rest. Two pills and twelve hours later I woke up determined to forget the entire incident. I dressed for work, downed my orange juice, hovered over my laptop while brushing my teeth. My crypto tragedy seemed far away; a brush with mortality puts things into perspective. It was out of sheer habit that I went check the interim SQL progress. The screen was still asleep as I approached, the program whirring on the other side. Toothbrush in one hand, I touched the other to the trackpad. I knew to expect no change.
Only, to my astonishment, a result had finally arrived.
The solution sat there at the bottom of the log. I could have died with embarrassment.
Hands shaking, I copied this humiliating reminder and navigated to my account. There were my Bitcoins! Which, sans supervision, and like a secret garden of incestuous quintuplets, had in my absence spawned. How to describe my response? I admit of joy and its opposite. Who wouldn’t welcome four hundred and twenty million to their name, regardless of plans to ever actually spend it? Though it did occur to me that with this kind of cash, I could easily evict the overachieving bidder from my mother’s rightful grave. I was deeply proud of the success of my program.
And then immediately afraid. My programs were the means by which, I felt, the imp would hack my life; already I sensed outside intervention. And so what would happen with my trades, or in my office, when I booted up for work? I didn’t really want to know. Ridiculous, of course. But in my cubicle the following day, I stalled. I sat at my desk and bounced my knees. Snapped the blinds. Wiggled the mouse. Even if the Aura wasn’t real—and I was still determined to believe it was not—I had the sick premonition that It wasn’t done with me yet. I opened my eyes. For the retinal scan. The desktop loaded. Apps populated categorical bins. Totally normal. I had fifteen new emails, and Mom was cropped into the upper right corner of the screen, mixing a mocktail on the balcony. The bougainvillea heaved.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
For a few blissful hours, I almost forgot that dark forces had fixed a target betwixt my sloping shoulders. I entertained modestly monied dreams: I’d buy my mother a house with a real yard, in which her bougainvillea could run freely. The man in his alpine chateau, hypothetical me, stared into the amber residue at the bottom of his snifter, looking rather sorry. I banished him from my thoughts.
The model I’d been tasked with building that morning held my full attention. We were supposed to compare rates of success between Antipsychotic A and Antipsychotic B, both of which showed promising off-label potential for treating mass KINGDOM addiction. By now even the national news outlets had caught on. But I didn’t care so much, this morning, what the drug was for. I was simply glad it had nothing to do with me. By the time my program concluded, Antipsychotic B had pulled ahead: it brought KINGDOM addicts back to reality with an efficacy rate of 24 percent (p < 0.05) and a 10 percent lower incidence of nausea besides.
On the bus ride home, my level-headed calm endured. I was pretty sure, for example, that I didn’t really want an island off Dubai. I checked the markets. All indicators suggested that Bitcoin, like KINGDOM, was still on the up and up. Perhaps I ought to hold on? There was nothing I needed immediately, except of course to bribe the cemetery into selling me my mother’s rightful grave. The idea brought tears to my eyes. The family name would end with me.
At home, I went to my desktop to divest one hundred grand in the name of my mother’s eternal rest; plans for a proper mausoleum had taken shape in my mind. Next door, my neighbor was nailing something into place. The drywall shuddered. The dial on my computer spun. I waited for the transaction to complete. I still hadn’t spent a cent. The hammering next door grew louder and louder, like a drumroll. Still the dial spun. As the screen resolved, there came a strange, destructive screech, followed by a sudden storm of insulation that made it impossible to see. As the debris settled, I could make out a large hole opening onto the apartment adjacent mine. Centered within it was a woman’s dusty silhouette, the hammer still raised in her hand. The drywall dulled the dark luster of her hair like volcanic ash. It clung to her eyelashes, fuzzed her upper lip.
“Damn,” she said. “My bad.”
Mesmerized, I answered, “That’s okay, I have insurance.”
And so Clara and I came face to face for the first time, through a breach in the sheetrock. I studied the gash she’d made between our two abodes. “Could I borrow your hammer?” She obliged. I drove a second nail through the wall, from my apartment into hers, conscious of her curiosity as I chipped away. It took a while, worsening the mess considerably. “There,” I said, wiping my brow as the second plume began to clear. Now, when MCI came to investigate, they’d be able to confirm that it was I, not she, who’d caused the collapse, and my policy would cover it. The home insurance group, however, was horribly backed up. Clara and I were looking at months of living more or less as roommates. I tacked up a bedsheet. It was impossible to forget that she was on the other side.
More than any vow or diet or tea cleanse, it was the fact of Clara’s presence that permanently revolutionized my routines. I found myself listening for her movements. I became attached, I must say, to the rustle of her robe, the whistle of the kettle, the sound of her puttering about her morning vanity. I understand that I should not have listened, should not have projected the two of us together in her kitchenette, which I imagined (correctly, as I would later find) to be a mirror image of mine. I ought to have worn earplugs. “Hey,” she said one morning, a week or two into our housing predicament. “Do you drink this shit?” She gave a little rap on the wall and then pulled away the sheet. A fist appeared, waving a box of green tea. Then the sheet lifted a little further, revealing the sharp line of her jaw and one of her eyes. We looked at each other; I from my dresser, struggling to fix my tie; she from the porthole, crouching slightly, the rest of her face still hidden behind the delicate floral pattern. Her soft fringe fell like sea foam over her brow. She blew it aside with a little orca puff.
“I grabbed the wrong box at the store,” she said. “And it was kind of expensive.”
This became a morning ritual. We woke up. Clara would make two cups of tea, one green, one black, and pass the first through the hole in the wall. I’d installed a little curtain hook to hold back the sheet so that we could more comfortably conduct these chats from either side. With the curtain pulled away, we sat each of us on a stage set solely for the other. Clara confessed she was divorced. I said that must have been hard. She shrugged. “He was a crazy fuck.” She had a way of abruptly walking off whenever our conversations cut too close to the bone. We both had our secrets; after all, I hadn’t told her about my crypto fortune. There was never time. The tea was drained to dregs. I had to leave for the office. From the depths of her apartment, she called, “So long, sucker!” (Clara worked from home.)
She freelanced in game design but was also a wonderful analog artist. Her whole apartment was adorned with drafts of other worlds. I could see these partial murals through the gap. They appeared as further portholes on cupboards, above baseboards. I asked her about them as we dined in the evenings, potluck style, passing dishes through the drywall. We never planned our menus out beforehand, but they always harmonized. Clara dipped a nugget into my boxed potato mash and brought it to her lovely mouth. She said of the murals, “They’re helpful when I get stuck.” She’d worked on the first two iterations of KINGDOM. A little ashamed, she explained that recently she’d been contracted for a reboot, which would launch next year. It was rumored to be even more real, all the more beautiful.
“Wow,” I said, because I was genuinely impressed.
KINGDOM was the most popular game ever created. It was also the only game I ever feared, as I divulged to Clara that night. I was concerned that I might lose myself among the addicts. More than most, I was aware of the push to cover off-label applications of antipsychotics. One man had recently launched himself from the glass palaces by the canal while attempting a flying sequence.
“I hear it’s the most aesthetically pleasing experience the world has ever had.”
Her laugh was sad. “I guess.” She popped another nugget into her bow-shaped mouth. “It depends on the person. I have nothing to do with the storytelling, though. I’m strictly details. A flower here. A fungus there. Think trees that anticipate their own poetry.” She invoiced for a cabbage, or Rapunzel, and engineers spliced it together on the backend. It was melancholic, she explained, working piecemeal on other people’s worlds.
After dark, we continued our courtship platonically, over the screen, via two-player games. We played GRIMMS and END OF THE WORLD. Clara was eight years younger than I, and so belonged to a different digital generation entirely. I showed her APOCALYPSE and INVASION; she introduced me to FARM. We played, she in her bed, and me in mine, the original version of LEPRECHAUN. She beat me every damn time.
Soon we were living out of both apartments. I quietly dropped the insurance claim. Neither of us wanted the wall boarded up now. After dinner, we sat together on my sofa and considered the gap. We had big dreams, Clara and I. We talked about tearing down the rest of the wall to let the special sunlight from her world spill into mine. Instead of hovering in the corner with her headphones, Clara could have the entire Western front. Then, one night, in a passionate fever, and because things were getting serious, I relayed my whole story from top to bottom, hesitating over but ultimately including the demands of the imp.
I was always aware that I did not deserve Clara’s love. The evening I confessed my curse to her, I fully expected her to leave. For one thing, suggesting you believed the Aura was more than just some naturally occurring weather phenomenon was to be dismissed as a nut. For another, should the imp’s completely nonconsensual contract come into effect, what I owed was the very woman standing before me now. I lowered my head into my hands. The tea grew cold. Clara, perched on the couch, listened without interrupting. I’m losing her, I thought. She’s gone! She took a sip. Her nails flashed an updated shade of red.
“It has something to do with that Aura, I know it.”
I frowned. “You do?”
She gave me a tragic look.
It will hardly come as news that Clara’s sister Queenie, CEO of @, is one of the most powerful people in Midwestern City. She has since seized my property, had me fired from my job (to think how much I miss that cubicle now!), even threatened to repossess my mother’s gravesite, which is really going too far. Leave the mothers out of it, I say. But no good ever came of dwelling on the past. Clara paced the combined length of both of our apartments as she told her tale. Her fluffy hair, that perfect little pouf of fringe that she so habitually cleared from her brow, bounced with every step. She crossed her arms at the small of her back. Each time she met the ravaged wall, she stooped delicately through it.
“My sister and I are very different women,” she began.
As Clara told it, they’d spent their childhood in the vicinity of the particle collider, acting out scenarios involving some version of “climb the fence.” Clara was all dreams and engineering; Queenie a mastermind in leadership and rhetoric. She would have made a decent general, or a fine specimen of the aristocracy. Even back then, Clara said, she’d displayed a Machiavellian edge. A drawn-out divorce had put a strain on life at home, and so out they went toward the particle collider, to combine their dangerously complementary skillsets.
Once or twice a week, while their parents were meeting with the lawyers, Queenie would propose a proper visit to the heart of the plant. “They didn’t give tours back then, not like today,” Clara said. Her sister had asked her to devise a contraption that would help them clear the barricades. Clara assumed the challenge was to be pursued in the same spirit as the other games she and Queenie played, which is to say, as a kind of daydream. And what is a hypothetical, really, but a test of your capacities, a means of discovering where your limits lie? Clara devised sketches of the requested machine. It was only later that she realized she’d been purposely diverted. Absorbed in her highly theoretical designs, she hadn’t realized that Queenie was simply memorizing the schedule for the changing of the guards, perched in a tree with her kid binoculars. “Come on,” she said one night, taking Clara by the arm. They stole out of the woods, approached the fence, and slipped in behind an entering cart.
What first struck her, Clara told me, was the stillness. It recalled the glade by our apartments. She looked down at the grass. The particle collider lay just beneath her feet, and she wondered if she could detect the shimmer of its activities—a little tremor in the ground. She noticed the smell. That is, the absence of one. “I wasn’t enjoying myself.” The compound was characterized not by the electric charge of discovery, but the slick, withholding quiet of a cover-up. A premonition she’d learned to recognize from Queenie, no doubt.
Clara climbed back through the porthole and collapsed beside me on the couch. Now it was her turn to lower her face into her hands. I took her in my arms.
“She knew I wouldn’t approve.”
Her forehead rocked against my shoulder as she shook her head. “It’s all my fault!”
There’s a reason, you will have guessed, that KINGDOM is the most beautiful, most captivating game the world has ever known; Queenie had quite literal universe-building powers at her command. Clara looked at me with teary eyes. I held her close.
“Don’t leave me,” she said.
The particle accelerator, the imp, the confidential statistics stored in spreadsheets at MCI: assembling the various parts, Clara and I found ourselves in the unique and terrifying position of being the only people to understand the true predicament Midwestern City was in. The Aura was a breach in the analog and digital worlds, and we had begun to blur.
The one thing a program like KINGDOM cannot resist is the proposition of a game. This is its only weakness: it likes to play. Assuming the temptation is proportional to sentience, then for a program as powerful as KINGDOM, giving in can occupy the better part of server capacity. We had some slight chance of hacking @ through the backdoor, if only we could design a suitably irresistible distraction. This Achilles’ heel is not so different, really, from our own. We become obsessed by the pleasures placed just within our grasp, put up blinders in real time—and this is a surefire way to lose at chess.
After the city beautification drive demolished the apartment block where I grew up, Mom had appealed, like so many others, for relocation assistance. The process was slow, so slow that in the end we gave up and found a place ourselves, as the city had probably intended. The new co-op looked upsettingly like the old, so much so that I would think they’d simply relocated the original building, brick by brick, had I not watched the wrecking ball plow through it myself. In any case, Clara and I suddenly found ourselves in a fresh and similar housing predicament. Our paradisical and partially conjoined apartments were no longer secure. Within the hour, we’d packed and boarded the bus for Mom’s. We needed a safehouse, a place to plan.
The nice thing about Mom was that she wasn’t interested in why we’d come to stay. In fact, she seemed to intuit that we didn’t want her to know. The first night, we let her dote on me as we loaded a game in the living room and tried to teach her to play. She couldn’t beat a level to save her life. The mobs swarmed her every time. Nothing made her happier, it seemed. She sat between us on the couch and laughed and laughed.
“Aren’t they cute!” she screamed.
Clara and I had been playing a lot of chess. What I had taken to be an intellectual union of the purest kind was in fact rigorous preparation. She’d been training us, I realized. We set up the board by the bougainvillea. This was the essence of our plan: instead of waiting for the imp to come to us, as we were certain that he would, we would go to him. Clara paced around the balcony, balancing a bag of Cheetos in one hand.
“My proposition will be that if I lose, I’ll be his companion for life, playing board games or whatever. But if I win, he’ll leave the city, and in particular the two of us, alone for good.”
It was the former scenario that worried me. A neon sheen of cheese dusted her bangs. She trumpeted it away per usual. Her eyes narrowed as they always did when she was concentrating.
“While the imp and I are engaged, the rest of the network will get pretty distracted. That’s where you come in.”
I shook my head. Backlit by the bougainvillea, she glowed.
“You made four hundred million mining crypto,” she said, as if my primary objection were the difficulty of the task. “You’ll find a way.”
The nightly dinner call came from the kitchen.
“Mac and cheese!” Mom said.
We spent two blissful weeks like this. For brief moments, it was even possible to forget our conundrum. To begin to imagine what it might mean to live a normal life together, minus the fact that we were living with Mom. She served us iced tea and went to the store. “Look at you! Always working,” she said, so happy it seemed she might cry. She baked fresh bread and gave us the heels. We raised the buttered slices to our chins. Fresh steam rose through our plans.
“This is really fucking good,” Clara said.
It was during one such blissful moment that we heard an ominous thump. I slowly lowered the laptop lid. Clara retracted her legs from my thighs. Even the bougainvillea shivered. Quietly, we made our way to the door. Pressed an ear each to the surface. Clara’s eyes were wide. Sure enough, we could hear the telltale signs. “001 1001!” The creature simply couldn’t help itself. It was out there whispering furiously, even as it attempted stealth. Clara brought a finger to her lips. With the other hand, she counted down. On the third beat, she cracked the door and then immediately slammed it again. There was a streak of light, followed by a crash. An imp-shaped hole had appeared in the door. Beyond the balcony, the ravaged bougainvillea. Its plundered pink vestments lay in ribbons all around.
I believe Clara must already have had most of her plan in place by the time I confessed to her my idiotic and nonconsensual non-promise to the imp. She was the hero from the start. Or, from @’s point of view, the sole defense against our imminent deletion. Because where to go for further growth when you’ve reached total saturation? Nowhere, of course. One simply doubles the world. Starts over again. I wonder now, however much it pains me to say this, if I simply presented a means to Clara’s heroic ends. That’s all I was. My feelings aside, she sprang so admirably to action.
We returned to our conjoined apartments that very night and set up our desks on either side of Clara’s porthole. Over the tops of our monitors, we each confirmed the other was still there. The blue glow of the screen fell over Clara’s skin: she was in. I rustled my fortune and converted it all to cash. Clara brought out a box of snacks. I wish I’d paused to appreciate the way the late sun fell across her shoulders, bringing out the delicate highlight of flavor dust along her collarbone, deposited as she rearranged a bra strap. She was golden. She always was. I rallied my old mining buddies from dark corners around the web. Comrades, I typed. This is not a drill. KINGDOM would wrest no more from our city, there would be no need to take Drug X or Y, no more cures for people whom @ was phasing out. Comrades, I announced into the chat again. I felt positively Shakespearean. I was Henry V at Agincourt, except no one was about to die. At least I didn’t think so. Comrades, I typed once more, because, well, anaphora.
I myself have rarely played KINGDOM. But there is a scene, I recall, from Clara’s piecemeal work on Level 81, when Rapunzel finally lets down her hair. You’re standing there at the bottom of a tower, totally alone in the foreground of the scene, kind of hopping back and forth from foot to foot in that little dance avatars do when they’re at rest, still trying to figure out the rules. Toggle right. Then a little left. All at once, the game decides. The hair drops like a guillotine. And spills and spills. The whole world is quiet. No woodland creatures interrupt your thoughts. And you think you’re supposed to save her, you see. Like in the story. That’s the only way to get out of this mess. To find the woman to whom all this hair is attached. Only the hair is monstrous. It floods the ground, encircles the tower like a moat. You do what you can. You start to hack away, only to find that it grows back twice as fast. So you start to climb, hand over hand, only the hair keeps pouring down, keeps growing, it’s actually lowering you back to earth. It will be the end of you, this flood of hair. And look at you, you idiot, you walked right into the trap. In a panic, you start to slash. You use the machete you won levels ago. The blade shatters in your hand and falls, presaging your imminent demise. You’re not thinking about the girl anymore. It’s clear now you both are lost. You’d like to stop, but the game goes on. That’s how it works, this level of the KINGDOM. There is no death. Just the slow, infinite catastrophe of drowning in royal locks. You can see your vitals start to drop at the bottom of the screen. But however much you struggle, tapping frantically at the controls, still the downfall, your downfall, refuses to bottom out. You’re still thrashing. Still alive. The game continues even after you’ve given up, released the keys. Hair pours ceaselessly across the screen. The game will run for days or weeks like this, for as long as the power still flows. You realize then that you’re just a lone organism battling its own exhaustion. The only way to exit is to get up, cross the room, and jam the power button—that is, if you can—to end yourself.