On August 23rd of last year, the hacker Diana Bright totaled my brand new Mercedes Benz in some little gas station town a million miles from nowhere.
The whole thing was my fault of course, if you're inclined to look at events that way. Or you could call it destiny and be just as right and just as wrong. My insurance company recorded the incident as an accident, though I'm sure Diana would never have used the term herself. It was, without question, the best thing that had ever happened to me. Of course I did not realize that at the time.
I don't remember the actual crash at all. They say sometimes that happens, and it's true. I do recall waiting forever to make a left out of the Gas-N-Sip. After that my memory track picks up again with the face of a beautiful woman hovering over me, red dreadlocks and a shimmer of rainbow ribbons framed by the sky.
"Hi there," it said, swimming into focus. "Welcome back.”
"What happened?" I managed to croak.
"You pulled out right in front of me. Must have seen a gap across the street and forgot to look before you leapt.” She put her fingers on my neck as if to check for a pulse, and I felt a channel open between us. “Don't worry, you're going to be just fine."
I heard someone yelling something about calling 911 and several figures loomed up behind my new friend. She excused herself with a quick but reassuring gesture, then turned her face to the crowd. "Stay back," she intoned, quietly but with the force of command. "There is no need to call for emergency services. This man is not badly hurt. Thank you all for your prompt response. The situation is under control now." She inclined her head in a way that at once suggested profound gratitude and implied summary dismissal, then turned her attention back to me.
"Start with your fingers and toes and make sure you can still wiggle everything. Slowly.” Fearing the worst I started to assess my condition. Nothing hurt, which didn’t make sense until I remembered that I must still be in shock.
Most of the bystanders started to withdraw, but one man stood his ground. "Don't tell me that this guy don't need an ambulance, girl. How the hell did you pull him out of that wreck? Coulda broken his spine!"
"What’s your name, friend?" She was obviously addressing me, completely ignoring the other man.
"Mike, I answered. "Mike Last."
"Mike," she said in the same resonant voice she had used on the lookyloos, "I want you to sit up and show the nice gentleman that you're not hurt. You can do it. Just like when we got out of the car. Do you understand me?"
I nodded, although I did not understand. I found myself terribly eager to please this woman, my rescuer and advocate. On the other hand, I probably did need a stretcher. I closed my eyes again, confused, and felt her take my hand. Energy seemed to flow into me through her fingertips, suffusing my entire body with a tingling warmth.
"Now, Mike." She pulled me gently and I sat up and looked at her. In my addled state she appeared to be incandescent; lit up from within like a faerie or an angel.
"You'd better lie back down, sir." I turned my head. The voice belonged to a fat middle-aged fellow in a Hawaiian shirt with a big bushy mustache. "You could hurt yourself worse if you move around. Frankly I'm surprised that you're alive."
"I think I'm okay," I said, still holding the woman's hand. "I don't feel broken anywhere."
"Thats because you're not. Stand up and see." She squeezed my palm and pulled me all the way up before I could think about it. I flexed my limbs experimentally. Fine.
"Well, I'll be damned," the mustache said. "It's a miracle!"
It was only then that I got a look at my car. It was a mass of twisted metal and the interior was on fire. Also askew in the street was an ancient VW van that looked like it had been painted over by children. There was not a scratch on it.
"My name is Diana Bright," the lady said, releasing my hand and leaving me somehow bereft. "It looks like you're going to need a ride."
The police showed up eventually, about the same time as the towtruck. Diana did all the talking and it turned out that there was no hassle with the law as she had no interest in pressing charges or filing reports. Her van was fine, after all, and so was she. My car was a total loss, however.
"So where are you headed?" Diana asked when all the business had been taken care of. "I can give you a ride to the airport, at least." Her face had a timeless elfin quality that made it hard to guess her age. I would have thought she was a runaway with her patchy pants and beribboned dreadlocks, but she moved with a confident grace that belied her ragamuffin appearance.
"New York City," I replied, "and no, thank you. I don't fly. If I could make myself get on an airplane I would never have tried to drive across the country in the first place." There. Now I could be even more humiliated, as if that were possible.
"What’s in New York?"
"Business conference. I'm a software engineer.”
Actually I design computer games," I admitted. My career at that time had made me immensely popular with thirteen-year-old boys, but it rarely impressed the women folk. Especially not new age hippie-dippy types who ran around in VW vans. I didn’t quite expect the reaction that I got, though.
She started to laugh, hard. I turned my face away and waited for her to wear herself out. A video game designer who crashes his car and won't fly on planes. Hilarious. I was about to become indignant in spite of everything when she finally caught her breath.
"So you are that Michael Last!" She seemed inexplicably pleased. "Of course you are. I was wondering what this would turn out to be about." She beamed. "I was only going as far as Kentucky, but I can take you the whole way if you don't mind a stop."
I was dumbfounded and must have looked it. The more I examined the situation the more unlikely it all became. "Thanks," I said, rolling with the dreamlogic. "Just as far as a town with a rental place would be terrific. It really is very kind of you, what with my having tried to kill you and all."
"Nonsense," she laughed as she opened up the passnger side door for me. "You just weren’t looking where you were going. Or you were only looking where you were going, more likely." Diana walked around and let herself into the driver's seat. "This here is the Free Starship Rocinante," she announced proudly as she sat down. "Welcome aboard!"
Her van smelled of white sage (San Palo?) and Nag Champa, and it looked like the hippie nest I was unconsciously expecting, except cleaner. Talismans littered her dashboard, and a tiny but intricate dreamcatcher hung from the rear-view mirror. Peacock eyes covered the entire ceiling and much of the interior, overlapping each other like the scales of a magical fish. A bead curtain screened off the cabin, but I could make out a little stove and a sink in the back. "Wow," I said. "Do you live in here?"
"Right now I'm living in here," she replied. "and so are you, Michael Last" She fastened her seatbelt and eased the behemoth out onto the road. "Funny that I should run into you, so to speak. I'm quite impressed with some of your work."
Part of me was gratified that my games had penetrated such an unlikely demographic and part of me was already trying to guess what the 'some' was for. "I'm surprised that you know who I am,” I told her. "You're not exactly who I had in mind when I was working on the Deathmark series."
"Oh, I was more interested in RealVille," she said, flashing me a sparkling smile. "and Lightquest! What ever happened to the sequel that was supposed to come out last year?"
Diana had named my two favorite projects. Also my two least successful. "Not enough tits and guns," I sighed. "Alas."
She nodded ruefully. "You're a few years ahead of your time."
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. I’d been telling myself for a long while that the stuff I was working on was the tip of a whole new iceberg. Not many people fully grasped the implications of my work, though, because the technologies it exploited were still in their infancy. My first games were practically the Pong of cyberspace - barely any graphics at all, but playable over the internet by several users at once when that was still new and exciting. By the time I met Diana, my games were never being played by less than half a million people at any given moment. I knew they were still barely scratching the surface of what was possible, though.
"So what happened back there?" I asked after a time. "I don't really even remember getting out of the car." She cocked her head but did not respond. "I'm so sorry for jumping out in front of you like that. It's a lucky thing that we're both still alive!"
"I don't believe in luck," she said. "I saw that you weren't going to stop and I only had a second to hack it. Sorry about your Mercedez. I'd have done better if I hadn't been so startled.”
“Hack it?” I repeated. “I don’t think I take your meaning.”
“Well, that’s because I haven’t given it to you yet!” She rolled her eyes and shook her head, as if this ought to have been obvious.
“If the universe were a computer game, which of course it isn’t, then one could think of me as a hacker.” She shrugged. “I mean, of course everybody does it unconsciously, but a hacker is someone who's good at it, and does it on purpose.”
“Does what on purpose?” I asked, growing suddenly a bit uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. “What are you talking about?”
“Magic!” Diana took her hands off of the steering wheel for a second and wiggled her fingers mysteriously at me. “Reaching in and changing the universe, mapping your will onto the world, probability surfing. That sort of thing.” She moved into the fast lane to pass a semi. “It’s fun and easy, but it takes a bit of practice. You think I must be some kind of total psycho now, don’t you?” She grinned, apparently not worried about what I might think (add comma?) much at all.
I’ve always been somewhat contemptuous of magical thinking, and under normal circumstances I would have marked her as a weirdo and proceeded to ignore most of the rest of whatever she told me, unless I thought I had a chance to get her into bed. My brush with death had left me shaken, though, and there was something terribly compelling about this strange woman that made it hard to dismiss anything she said.
“Um…” I said with my customary eloquence. “I think that you are a lovely woman who is very kindly giving me a ride. As far as I’m concerned you can think you’re Napoleon. Just don’t expect me to think it with you.”
“I am Napoleon,” she giggled, “and you are, too. But that’s for the advanced class.”
“I see,” I said, although I didn’t. I decided to change the subject.
"Where are you headed?"
Oh, right. She had already told me that. "You told me that. What for? If I may ask," I added, not wanting to seem nosey.
She waited so long to respond that I thought she might have forgotten the question. "My great grandmother recently passed away and I'm taking her ashes back to the reservation where she grew up," she said finally. "She asked me personally to take them there myself."
"I'm sorry," I said, wishing that I hadn't asked.
"Don't be. She wasn't. She loved her life, and she was ready to let it go. Besides, if it hadn't been for her death, we never would have met!" She reached over and patted my leg.
Her touch stirred up a host of conflicting feelings. I was two months out of a two-year relationship at the time, which was about as long as they tended to last. Aside from one drunken and regrettable incident, I had been celebate since the breakup. Hiding in my cave, as Susan would have put it. Susan was the kind of woman who read books about relationships, and I was glad that I wouldn’t have to argue with her anymore. I also missed her like hell. According to Susan I was immature, egotistical and totally unaware of, or unable to respond to the needs of others. Additionally I was afraid of commitment and I couldn’t face up to it when I was wrong. I suppose that all of this was somewhat true, but not mostly, and not, I thought, in the ways that really mattered. In any event I had failed to raise the necessary energy for a big push to salvage the situation, and now it was history. Probably I would never see her again and rarely think of her, just like all of the other people that I had for a time thought I loved more than anybody in the world except myself. My sex drive had been suppressed during my depression, but I felt that it would soon be making a comeback. On the other hand, I was going through the phase of my bounce back routine that had traditionally been marked by me toggling between the exaulted states of Needy Baby and Indifferent Asshole. I was therefore reluctant to inflict myself on this charming and seemingly innocent young lady.
“Are you married?”
It is so hard, when you're a guy, to tell what’s a come-on and what’s just casual conversation. The imagination always wants to inflate everything.
“Nope. No wife, no kids, no pets. I don’t seem to have the talent for relationship. You?”
“I guess I have a talent for relationship,” she said enigmatically. “That’s what hacking is all about, after all.”
“Ah.” Right. The psycho factor. Another reason to get out of the van as soon as a rental car could be located. It was getting on toward sunset, and by the time we reached ----------- all the rental places would be closed, if they weren’t already. I was getting hungry, too. “Listen,” I said a bit awkwardly. “I’d be surprised if I was able to get a car before tomorrow. Maybe the best thing would be for us to just go ahead and get dinner and you can drop me off at a hotel.”
“I think you’re going to end up riding with me,” she said matter-of-factly. “But we can try to do whatever you want. I don’t have an agenda.”
I was inexplicably annoyed by her confidence. “And what makes you think so? Can you see into the future, too?”
“Something like that.” She turned off Rocinante’s A.C. and rolled down her window to take in the evening air. “The future isn’t exactly written yet, so it would be misleading to say yes. Don’t you ever just know what’s going to happen, though? You don’t usually see a scene from the future like you see the past in your memories. It’s more like when you’ve been listening to a song for a while, and you start to be able to anticipate the changes. Sometimes you can even sing along!”
I thought it safer to confine myself to the topic of food. “Well, if it wouldn’t be too dischordant, could we stop at the next place to eat?”
Diana beamed her approval. “That’s the idea! We can and we shall.”
The next place to eat turned out to be a truck stop in --------. When I was a kid I’d always loved truck stops. They had meant roadtrips with my mom and stepdad, which at the time was the pinnacle of high adventure. Greasy food late at night on our way to somewhere wonderful, while all of my school friends were in bed back at home. Then of course there were the truck drivers themselves; the cowboys of the open road who ate and shopped and even showered there. A mysterious fraternity sending secret messages across the night on their CB radios.
By that point in my life, truckstops had lost most of their appeal. They were just another part of the vast nowhere between somewheres; sad little islands of light and noise along the dark and lonely desert highways that strung America together. Their denizens had lost their mystique, as well. They made me feel melancholy, mostly. Fat, scruffy men eating alone at little plastic tables under fluorescent lights, miles away from home and family, if they had any. I guess that sort of thing is just a part of growing up. It didn’t seem to have happened to Diana, though. She fairly skipped up to the double glass doors and held one open for me with a flourish.
“Welcome to the Center of the Universe!” She strode inside and planted herself in front of the little sign that says ‘please wait to be seated’ with the expression of a kid next in line for a five ticket carnival ride. I stared at the machine that never let you grab a toy with the metal claw and hoped she was not about to embarrass me. After a minute or two a bored looking waitress approached us and absently dug a couple of menus out of the side of the register table. Diana walked up and shook her hand, and I thought I saw her palm the woman a bill in the process.
“We’d like the best seat in the house, please!” The waitress looked confused, then annoyed, but Diana held her with her sparking eyes and she finally settled on amused.
“Right this way, Madamoiselle,” she drawled, drawing herself up straighter and motioning for us to follow her. She stopped in front of a window booth overlooking the parking lot with a view of the freeway and set down the menus. “This is where I sit when I have my breaks, Love.”
“Well, if it’s good enough for you, Tammy, it’s good enough for me.” The woman glanced down at her nametag as if she had forgotten that it was there. Probably not many people bothered to read it. Truckers, maybe. Regulars.
When it came time to order Diana declined, asking only for a glass of water. I ordered a cheeseburger, then immediately felt stupid. She was probably some kind of tenth-level vegan and now she would think I was a Visigoth. Oh well. I probably didn’t stand a chance with her, anyway.
When Tammy had gone I asked what all the center of the universe business had been about. “The center of the universe is wherever you happen to be,” she said simply. “Right now, for us, the center of the universe is the Lucky Trucker. This is the stage. These are the characters. This is not a dress rehearsal. Right now is the only moment that exists, you know. It’s all we’ve got to work with. If you’re not living right now in the moment, you’re not really living. You’re just thinking about living.”
“I like you,” I said, realizing that it was true as I said it. “I think you’re a little bit crazy, but your company is refreshing. I’m almost glad that we met. I mean, I would be glad,” I amended, “if we had met under better circumstances. Thank you for being so understanding. Most people would have been in their lawyers office with a fake neckbrace right now, not giving me a ride across the country.”
She studied me as she sipped her water. Most people don’t look right at you these days, and it’s disconcerting if you’re not used to it. I found myself figiting under her gaze. Without breaking eye contact she picked up the salt shaker and placed it carefully on the table between us. When she was finished she sat back and admired her handywork. “Your turn,” she said.
It took me a second to catch on. I selected the little glass Tabasco jar from the clutter of condiments by the window and set it down again on edge by the isle. Hotsauce to syrup three.
"What do you think the games of the future will be like, Michael?" She fished a little cube of individually wrapped jelly out of a bowl (strawberry) and laid it down so that it formed an equilateral triangle with the salt and Tabasco. "How do you think they'll be different from the games of today?"
"Well," I said, considering my move, "They'll have better graphics, obviously. That means they'll look better."
"I know what graphics are," Diana informed me. "I happen to be a hacker in the technological sense, as well. As a matter of fact, I'll bet you tomorrow’s breakfast that I have a better rig in the Starship than you have in your home."
As a professional top-end game designer working out of my house I was sporting quite a sexy system indeed. I could tell from her look that it was a sucker bet, though. I decided to retreat a few inches with the tabasco sauce. "You're full of surprises," I said. "Next I'll find out that you're a secret agent."
"Out to steal your precious trade secrets," she agreed, shifting the catsup. "Tell me what kind of game you would design if you could do anything."
I thought about it. It all depended on the parameters, I supposed. "Do you mean if I was in charge of all of the content and I could use the best equipment in the world to write it and it didn't matter if very many people could play it when I was done?"
"I mean," she said with exaggerated patience, "if you could do Anything." As she pronounced the last word she raised one hand in a sort of a fist with her fingernails towards me. My nephew is deaf so I happened to know a bit of sign language. The letter 'A'. With the other hand she scattered a few sugar packets around. "Think big."
I hefted the mustard. Anything. Okay. "Well, for starters everybody would be able to play the same game at the same time regardless of their experience level. That's one of the things I was trying to do with RealVille and Lightquest. In my ultimate game everybody would have exactly the challenge level his character was rated for, but he would still be immersed in the same world as other players of every level." I set the mustard on the windowsill. “It turns out to be demonically difficult to achieve, because powerful characters take advantage of weaker ones, and in order to challenge them you have to create dangers that would just frustrate beginners.”
“Check,” Diana clipped, rotating a menu card that advertised cherry pie. “That’s an excellent description of how the universe works. Everyone can play together at the same time, no matter what their experience level is. The system dynamically calibrates itself to each individual, and offers just enough resistance to make it as challenging as it needs to be in order to help that character advance. All the taking advantage and so forth is a part of the same equation. The fact that it all hangs together as neatly as it does is proof enough that something is at work that is not immediately apparent from our default vantage point.”
"Do you always talk like that?"
She paused for a breath and took a sip of water. “Yeah, I guess I do,” she confessed. “Am I hard to parse?” (parse means to distinguish and identify each word, not asking if he gets her meaning)
“No, you’re perfectly clear. You just sound like Mr. Spock.”
She raised one eyebrow in a perfect imitation of the Vulcan in question and I laughed. “Let me ask you one more game design question.”
“What would be the ideal control interface for your game?”
The pepper found a new position next to the catsup while I thought about what I wanted to say. “As far as the interface goes,” I told her, “The more intuitive it is, the better. You don’t want to have to think about using the joystick."
Diana stacked another jelly cube on top of the first one. “Check again. The ultimate refinement of the gaming interface would allow you to control your character with your mind! And it’s just what we have! Better yet, we can control all of the settings that way, too. It’s so subtle that for most people the majority of the manipulation takes place below the conscious level. You can’t get much easier to operate than that!”
“I see,” I said. “Funny that everyone isn’t happy then, isn’t it?” I knew that I sounded sarcastic, but I didn’t care. My attitude was that people who spewed this sort of airy-fairy nonsense needed to have their bubbles popped by rational thinkers once in a while or they would just drift further and further off.
“Not particularly,” she replied, unphased. “Let me ask you one more question. What would the goal of the ultimate game be? How would you know if you won?”
“In the games I’m working on now,” I told her rather smugly, “There isn’t a set goal." I layed a bottle of steak sauce on its side and spun it around. It pointed directly at Diana. (did that mean I got to kiss her?)
“Check, check, check!” My cheeseburger was coming and Diana jumped over everything on the table with the salt, replacing each item in its starting position as she picked it up. “You just said it all. Some people want to die with the most toys, some want to maximize their effect on other people or on the gamespace itself, some want to insure their genetic lineage or see as much of the map as they can see, and some people just want to get through all the levels and beat the game. It’s up to the individual, as it should be. I’m glad that you said that. It’s the aspect of your work that’s most intriguing to me.”
Tammy smiled when she set down my plate and asked if there was anything else she could get for us. I noticed a lighter patch on her left ring finger, as if she had worn something there for years, now missing. It occurred to me that this woman must have a whole life; a whole universe that she was the center of (of which she was the center). And here she was spending part of it to bring me a cheeseburger with a smile. Humanity. “No, thank you,” I said to her, and felt my throat tighten unexpectedly.
If she objected to the cheeseburger, Diana kept her politics to herself. An apple appeared from a hidden pocket somewhere and she ate with me while we talked.
“You’re an enigma,” I mumbled through a mouthful of fries. “I guess I don’t know too many new age types myself, but I tend to think of people like you as being mostly anti-tech. Threatened by computers, you know? Like on one hand you have the rational thinkers who tend to be the ones interested in the sciences, the physics people, if you will; and on the other hand you’ve got the metaphysics people…”
“And never the twain shall meet,” she finished for me. “Well, it wasn’t always that way. Take the alchemists for instance. Science and philosophy have grown apart somewhat over the years, but they’re starting to converge again and I think both sides are finally coming to terms with that. It’s as if the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain have been reaching out for the same answers all along, and they’re just now beginning to realize it. Particle physicists are saying things these days that sound suspiciously like what mystics have been trying to tell people for millennia. It’s gotten so you can’t tell the wingnuts from the college professors, what with all the talk about enfolded dimensions and quantum entanglement. Science is getting cool enough for the intuitive thinkers, in other words. It’s started to confirm their instincts."
"But it criticizes their methods," I reminded her, "and rightly so."
"Rightly so if the intuitive thinkers want to weld their findings onto the edifice of the scientific endeavor. Scientists are bound by an extremely rigorous standard. They have to be, in order to do what they do. Their methodologies are uniquely appropriate for surveying certain aspects of the situation in which we find ourselves, and they’re perfectly right to insist upon them. They’re not the only tools in the box, though. There’s a lot to be said for the analysis of direct experience, as long as one keeps the subjectivity of ones observations clearly in mind. Different lenses.”
“Mmm.” I stuffed another bite of burger in my mouth and chewed. This woman communicated so lucidly that it was hard to remember she was certifiable. Dangerous. “Well,” I said finally, “People have been claiming to work magic for thousands of years, and nobody has managed to prove they beat the laws of physics yet. Doesn’t that seem a bit suspicious to you?”
Diana was stirring her water with a spoon, apparently to watch the ice spin. “Not at all,” she replied. “The findings of science are quite valid as far as they go. If you went back to our collision this afternoon, for example, and watched everything in slow motion, you wouldn’t find a violation of the laws of physics. Physics is the description of what is possible. Magic is the art of determining which of the infinite number of possible futures will actually occur.”
Unbelievably, I had almost forgotten about the events of the afternoon. I experienced a moment of inner vertigo as I considered her words. A good con artist is someone who can say something preposterous with conviction. Diana would have made a great one. I finished my dinner in silence, which my companion somehow made quite comfortable. After paying for my meal, (plus a big tip for Tammy) we got up and headed back out into the night.
When we got to her van we stopped and Diana fixed me with a long appraising look. “You need proof, don’t you?”
“I do,” I said. “That’s the kind of guy I am and I’m proud of it.”
She nodded slowly. “Okay.” She reached into her pocket and drew out a handful of coins. “Heads!” Her sudden shout startled me as she threw all the change into the air. She didn’t duck as it rained back down around us, and as soon as the tinkling stopped she let herself into the Starship. I stayed out and picked up all the change, becoming more and more disturbed the whole time. I managed to find eleven coins, and not a single one of them was a tail.
Created: Jan 13, 2010Document Media