Claim as an interdimensional time-looper with an imaginary friend was a bad one, although the ski mask/suit combo did really help to sell the concept in my head. The guy sure dressed like the type of dude who spent his time messing around with the space-time continuum.
It was a stupid concept, and that wouldn’t have changed even if I had done the work of seriously fleshing it out. Yeah, not as dumb as the ending to Space Attorney, but still pretty bullshitty and unfair. The second Knox Commandment was probably the worst one to break, all things considered. Suddenly allowing for the existence of the supernatural tended to piss people off.
(On top of all that, Gloria was such a dumb name for ZB. She wasn’t a Gloria; too regal. I wondered why I’d chosen that one in particular…)
I looked further around the table, coming up with more stupid endgame scenarios. It was fun.
Caroline Plite, as the mastermind. As it turned out, she was actually DM, and she’d been stalking me for years prior to the game, infuriated by an anti-rationalist comment I’d once made online and long ago forgotten about. After covertly inventing a general AI and propelling herself to the high status of secret tech-billionaire, she’d designed the game as a way to put me through the same torture she felt that I had inflicted on my readers. All the other players? Her robots, of course.
Quote, then. After being driven mad from a decade of playing the same videogame over and over, she decided that she’d make a videogame of her own — my reality. In truth, the whole game — along with everyone inside it, me included — were simulations, all of our brains and emotions and histories nothing more than ones and zeroes repeating inside a digital prison. In truth, she’d restarted the simulation millions of times, each reboot altering our personalities and appearances as she saw fit, enjoying the experience of torturing beings she incorrectly saw as without true consciousness.
Zeezrom. Mild mannered and polite on the surface, but in actuality, a cloned spy sent from Salt Lake City to infiltrate the game. Following his arrival, he was ordered to hijack the airwaves in order to spread hypnotic religious propaganda, with the intention of making the entire world nice and Mormon. If everything went according to plan, by the time December rolled around, there wouldn’t be a single coffee shop left on the Western hemisphere.
Cornea. A medical expert who predicted the rise of an artificially created superbug that would wipe out humanity. He set up the game in an effort to keep a small amount of individuals safe among the Armageddon soon to ensue, determined to preserve life as best as he could manage. The Facility wasn’t actually a game show, but it wasn’t a prison either; it was our sanctuary, the last safe place left on Earth.
Martha. A disgruntled ex-reader still angry about the ending to Space Attorney.
Lu. A young girl having a nightmare, dreaming us all up.
Hold. A deranged serial killer with plans to punish us all for what he deemed to be our sins.
ZB Popsicle. A hyper-intelligent penguin pretending to be a human (pretending to be a penguin).
I snorted. Hyper-intelligent wasn’t the best choice of words.
Regardless of how much fun it was, there wasn’t much value to what I was doing beyond entertaining myself. It was neat to place myself back in the shoes of a hack author, but I was practicing for something I knew I didn’t want to do anymore. I had eschewed that type of thinking a long time ago.
Amelia was wrong, I’d already decided. Good authors didn’t trick their audiences; at least not in the way that those kinds of cheap, unpredictable twists tried to. That was what I thought.
But that wasn’t what I had always thought.
If an impartial observer had been able to observe my dream with Amelia, they might have assumed that I’d only let myself slide over to her position at one single point in my life, during the ending of Space Attorney. That I’d only done what I’d done because I was pressured and unprepared, and that under other circumstances, I would’ve been better.
Maybe that was a little true, I guessed.
But not really.
Space Attorney failed utterly as a piece of writing, and it did so for many, many reasons. The characters were disjointed, inconsistent, and unrealistic. The pacing was horrid, somehow both too slow and fast to hold people’s interest. Every “solution” to each mystery was either insulting obvious or offensively out of left field, and people got sick of it fast — the ones who’d been able to get past my awful prose, anyway.
However, the greatest crime — apart from the ending — was me.
The biggest difference between a web serial and almost any other type of medium came down to audience interaction. A normal author didn’t have to deal with mini-Q&A sessions between every chapter, but someone writing parcel by parcel on the Internet lacked that luxury. Once a certain baseline of popularity was hit, people always weighed in, as was the design, with questions, comments, and criticism.
On one hand, for a responsible writer, that was awesome. You got to see what people thought about your stuff as you wrote it, and that was an astounding advantage, both as a motivational tool and as a way to see what to hone in on. If people liked or hated character X more than a writer had anticipated, that could be accounted for, their importance in the story boosted or cut down as needed. Problems with phrasing, pacing, and poor writing habits could be fixed in real time, a community of individuals able to point out issues someone may have ever failed to even notice present within their own work. When used correctly and knowledgeably by those who truly wanted to see a story get better, the gift of interactivity helped to accomplish just that.
Of course, that interactivity had a negative side, of which I’d already reflected plenty on. Aside from the perils of a DM type scenario and everyday bad faith criticism, there were always people who’d try to abuse that direct contact to move the serial into a direction more suited to their views. They came in every variation imaginable: rationalists, ultra-rationalists, anti-rationalists, racists, optimists, misanthropes, weebs, anti-weebs, memers, anti-memers, libertarians, gamers, communists, crypto-fascists, socialists, pro-ladderists, pro-stepladderists, misogynists, misandrists, neoreactionaries, theists, agnostics, atheists, anti-theists, anti-anti-theists, anti-anti-anti-theists, centrists, and folks who seemed to know way too much about age of consent laws…
There were a lot to name.
But, as was important to note, the audience was not the only part of the equation, and they certainly weren’t the only ones who could damage the discourse (and the serial, by extension). I had power, too.
And god, did I abuse it.
Sometimes, especially as I’d gotten further and further into it, I started messing with my audience for nothing more than fun of it, just because I could. That sounded pathetic, and it was, but to the mind of a teenage idiot with a burgeoning god complex, the idea of tricking a small readership into believing something false was the coolest thing imaginable.
Once, after one of the rarer occasions where I’d posted a chapter to generally positive reception, I told everyone in the comments section that I’d gotten pleurisy. I was in the hospital, I’d said, but that didn’t matter. I was still endeavoring to get every chapter out on time, and I would, illness be damned. A tiny little thing like not being able to breathe wasn’t going to stop me from adhering to my schedule.
That had been a lie, of course. I hadn’t gotten sick since I was a little kid, not even once.
Why would I have lied about that? What did I possibly have to gain, beyond the satisfaction of knowing that a small amount of people on the Internet might have given me undeserved and unneeded sympathy?
Nothing. But that was all I’d wanted. The small amount of fans that did enjoy my early work believed what I’d said, and they’d wished me well, and that was astounding to me.
They had listened and accepted without question, without doubt, without hesitation. I told a lie, and then many, many more, and they kept believing me just because I’d written something that they liked to read. Even the proud rationalists and the ultra-rationalists did too, because hey, they were there to question the story, not the author.
The author would never lie. They knew that much. Absolutely.
Of course, it wasn’t like those types of lies mattered. If anyone had ever found out the truth, they’d have laughed it off.
“Why would I have ever questioned a statement like that? It wasn’t as if I was losing anything by wishing you well in the comments. If some dude in an elevator told me that his name was Jeff, I wasn’t going to demand to see his ID; I’d simply accept it, like I would for anyone else. If he broke out into a fit of giggles the moment I left because he was really named Raul, that was more indicative of him having mental problems than it was of me being a crappy mystery solver.”
But I knew it didn’t matter! That’s what had made it fun. The meaningless of it.
Still, the better lies were the ones that did matter, because that’s what bothered people. The more obvious ones especially.
Space Attorney — like Ionia of Illumination — was a biweekly serial, posting a new update every Wednesday and Saturday, typically somewhere around two to five thousand words in length. I did sometimes do bonus chapters, but that was more at my random whim than anything else. Once, after a bonus chapter, I wrote that I was changing my schedule.
“Until further notice, the chapter schedule will be changing. Temporarily switching to a three chapter per day format, starting tomorrow.”
I still remembered it very clearly, how someone in the comments section or our chat group had asked for clarification. They were confused, as could be expected, but instead of thinking me a liar, they tried to figure out how they could fit what I’d said with reality. Anything to rationalize it away; the simplest explanation (and the correct one) was the only idea that no one had been willing to suggest.
“They’ll be extra short, I’m guessing.”
“No. The chapters will continue to be normal length.”
Absolute, unmitigated bullshit. How would that have been possible? What, did I have a backlog taller than I was? How could it even be reasonably conceivable that someone as hacky as me could commit to writing upwards of ten-thousand words a day?
It wasn’t like I’d said that and thought even for a second that it was possible. I never even tried. I made the claim, stopped looking at comments, and came back at the normal time next Wednesday, one single normal-length update in hand.
“What about the extra chapters?”
“What extra chapters?”
And so on, all original comments and references to extra chapters wiped away like old dirt. It did nothing but erode trust and slightly disappoint the small amount of people on the planet who might’ve cared, but at the time, I saw nothing wrong with it. As Amelia had essentially said, what did I owe them?
They were babies. If they whined about it, honestly, who gave a shit? That’s what babies did. They cried.
That was a idiotic way of looking at it, but it was sincerely the way I’d seen it back then. Most teenagers probably went through a phase of thinking that they were better or smarter than everyone else, but most (mercifully) weren’t given a platform from which to piss on others from. (If only I’d been as lucky.)
Maybe that was a chunk of the reason why I liked shitting on people who saw themselves as smart so much. It bugged me because I used to be that person, and that wasn’t an easy thing to accept. It was the artistic equivalent of a middle schooler wearing an eye patch and claiming to have secret dark wizard powers that no one else could understand.
God, I was a fucking loser.
I shook my head. I could hate myself and toy around with second-rate psychoanalysis and shitty imagination sequences later. I still had a game to play.
It was interesting, seeing what everyone had asked for.
The large fridge and cabinets in the back of the kitchen contained a laundry list of typical kitchen staples that everyone probably could have made a meal out of, with our individual fridges holding only what we had asked for. There wasn’t anything stopping anyone from taking food outside of other people’s fridges, although all were so fully stocked that it hardly even mattered. A small screen mounted to the wall near the back of the room listed the rules to The Dining Room, including the helpful fact that the fridges were set to be restocked daily at midnight.
Out of my fridge, I’d pulled out a few bottles of kombucha and a jar of fresh unlabeled kimchi, which I’d dumped into a bowl and almost immediately started digging into. There were enough food and ingredients available for me to make just about any dish I’d ever heard of, but the sentiment among the majority of us seemed to be grabbing whatever could be eaten on the spot. We were hungry.
(Among our scramble to check everything out, I made one detour, spotting out of the corner of my eye a large roll of tinfoil sitting inside a cabinet. When it seemed like no one was looking, I ripped up a few large chunks of it and folded it up inside my skirt pockets, hiding the roll itself deeper inside the drawers. As excited and surprised as I was to have found it, I’d have to wait until I got back to my room to try it out and see if it’d actually work.)
The request paper we’d been given said that we could specify brands, and I’d neglected to, not thinking it to be that big of a deal. Generally, without me having asked for any particular variety, one might have assumed that they would’ve gone for the cheapest available options.
Any blind person who’d listened to the sixteen of us go at it might have assumed we were having some type of freak mass orgy, at least going off our inability to stop loudly orgasming our way through every bite. Part of that was the fact that we’d had nothing beyond chips for a full day, but even past that, god, the food.
It was the best kombucha I’d ever had, bar none, fizzy and sour and sweet in exactly the way it was meant to be. The kimchi was no different; the cold stuff that came out of the jar was somehow better than any version I’d ever had prior, either prepared with care at home or from a good restaurant. Everything I ate was fresh and delicious and perfect, and it stood as even more unbelievable to me than the literal dome I’d just walked out of. Did they have a conga line of gourmet chefs hidden inside the walls?
Most everyone seemed to feel similar about what they were eating, our momentary breaks between mouthfuls serving as opportunities only to breathe and moan about how amazing everything tasted. (Only Claim refrained from eating, for obvious reasons.)
A few dishes stood out as extra interesting, beyond mine. Strait had offered me some sweet-tasting gourmet kettle corn in exchange for a sip of my “apple cider”. I accepted, providing ample warning that he probably wouldn’t like it, but he pressed on, just barely keeping it down. He was sitting to my immediate right, and I almost threw him an empathetic backpat as he coughed and tried wiping the taste of one large sip out of his mouth, thankfully remembering his thing about touching.
Most of the group’s attention was split between Soso and Joyo, who each served as either end of the snobbishness spectrum.
Soso was the only one who had chosen a dish with any preparation beyond pulling it out of a fridge and dumping it onto the plate, and was therefore last to start eating, bringing her dish to the table after fiddling around near the stove for awhile. It was maybe the only thing at the table that smelled stronger than my kimchi (if the repulsed faces of my cohorts were anything to go by). It wasn’t a bad smell, though, dense and earthy.
She’d boiled some green noodles and doused them with oil, cream, chopped asparagus, and a thick layer of bent black flakes, the combination of which had us all leaning closer in fascination and jealousy. She offered no explanation after bringing her meal to the table, but Quote smiled at her, asking her to tell us what she’d made.
“Just some noodles.”
Dent wiped some guacamole off his face.
“What’s that shit on top?”
Dot, who was next to Soso, sniffed at the air and answered for her.
“…Truffles? I originally thought that scent was just truffle oil, but that smells like the real deal. Did they actually give you real black truffles?”
She gave a small nod before eating, taking small, careful bites in stark contrast to everyone else (she didn’t want to smudge her lipstick, I realized). I was somewhat fascinated with the way she ate and behaved, her movements slow and controlled without coming off as snooty. She came off like either a very socially anxious person trying to be graceful, or a very graceful person pretending to be socially anxious. (Regardless of whichever it was, she was doing a good job.)
“Fuck,” said Joyo. “You people are goddamn pretentious.”
He unwrapped another greasy cheeseburger, tossing the yellow paper behind him on the floor.
“You better not leave that there,” I said.
“I won’t, don’t worry. But I ain’t gonna worry about cleaning up in the middle of a meal.”
I raised an eyebrow. Dent laughed.
“He’s just being a sore fucking loser; don’t worry about it. These fuckers would’ve given us anything. You could’ve asked for gold-encrusted ice cream, if you’d wanted it, and they probably have given it to you. And this retard-”
Quote elbowed him.
“…And this loser asks for fast food. And now he’s being a giant fucking baby, because he realizes how much of a dumbass he was. He had all the power in the world, and he wasted it on cheeseburgers.”
“No, I’m just not a fucking snob.”
“Nobody’s accusing you of that, bud. Hell, I’m sure you got your fans. Ronald probably loves you.”
Joyo smiled, taking another greasy bite and chucking a fry at Dent’s head, barely missing his top hole.
Dent grabbed a fistful of tortilla chips from the bag he was holding and aimed, a decisive voice and outstretched hand cutting him off.
“Stop,” said Caroline, looking at Dent. “He probably chose that on purpose so he could create more opportunities to antagonize. It’s just a distraction. It’s stupid, sure, but there’s about ten million things here more deserving of our attention. Speaking of…”
She looked across the table, at the seat to the left of Quote and Dent, our doctor swallowing what might have been his twelve-thousandth consecutive strawberry. He had a popcorn bowl filled with the fruit in front of him, and I’d unconsciously watched him work his way through them all with the same intensity that I’d have lent a car crash. He’d started with the wimpiest strawberries first, and by the time she brought up the question was only left with the plumpest and reddest of the class, his face not too different in color or proportion.
He made it clear that he was listening to her as she spoke, but did not look her in the eye, his attention split evenly between her and the remainder of his meal.
“I was an EMT in college, and I know more than a fair share about drugs and the administration thereof, but you’re clearly the expert, so I’ll defer. Cornea, taking all knowledge of even the most revolutionary methods of anesthesia into account, from a scientific perspective, is the existence of a substance like the one they describe even remotely possible?”
“Of course not,” Cornea said.
He plucked and ate another berry, stroking several chins. A thin line of red juice slipped out of the corner of his mouth, falling.
“Something like Sludge could only exist in the realm of fantasy.”