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Bit Players by Greg Egan

Greg Egan (www.gregegan.net) is the author of more than fifty short stories and eleven science fiction novels. During the early 1990s Egan published a body of short fiction—mostly hard science fiction focused on mathematical and quantum ontological themes—that established him as one of the most important writers working in science fiction. His work has won the Hugo, John W Campbell Memorial, Locus, Aurealis, Ditmar, and Seiun awards. His most recent book, The Arrows of Time (the concluding volume in the Orthogonal trilogy), was published in November 2013 by Gollancz in the UK, and is due out from Night Shade books in the US in Fall 2014.

We take our cues from the world around us. In the powerful and engaging story that follows, Egan turns gravity on its side and takes us through a disorientating landscape as he explores what it means to be a bit player in the near future.


Bit Players by Greg Egan

1

She was roused from sleep by a painful twitch in her right calf, then kept awake by the insistent brightness around her. She opened her eyes and stared up at the sunlit rock. The curved expanse of rough gray stone above her did not seem familiar—but what had she expected to see in its place? She had no answer to that.

She was lying on some kind of matting, but she could feel the hardness of stone beneath it. She shifted her gaze and took in more of her surroundings. She was in a cave, ten or twelve feet from the entrance—deep enough that her present viewpoint revealed nothing of the world outside but clear blue sky. As she rose to her feet and started toward the mouth of the cave, sunlight struck her face unexpectedly from below, and she raised an arm to shield her eyes.

“Be careful,” a woman’s voice urged her. “You’ve made a good recovery, but you might still be unsteady.”

“Yes.” She glanced back toward the rear of the cave and managed to discern the woman’s face in the shadows. But she kept walking. With each step she took the sunlight fell on more of her body, warming her chest and abdomen through her grubby tunic, reaching down past the hem to touch her bare knees. This progression seemed to imply that the floor was tilted—that the cave was like a rifle barrel aimed at a point in the sky well above the newly risen sun—but her own sense of balance insisted that she was crossing level ground.

At the mouth of the cave she knelt, trembling slightly, and looked out. She was bent almost horizontal, and facing straight down, but the bare gray rock outside the cave presented itself as if she were standing in a vertical hole, timidly poking her head above ground. The rock stretched out below her in a sheer drop that extended as far as she could see, disappearing in a shimmering haze. When she raised her eyes, in front of her was a whole hemisphere of sky, with the sun halfway between the “horizon” directly below and the blue dome’s horizontal midpoint that in a sane world would have sat at the zenith.

She retreated back into the cave, but then she couldn’t stop herself: she had to see the rest, to be sure. She lay down on her back and inched forward until the cave’s ceiling no longer blocked her view, and she was staring up across the jagged wall of rock that continued on above her, as below, until it blurred into the opposite “horizon”. A cold, dry wind pummeled her face.

“Why is everything tilted?” she asked.

She heard the slap of sandals on stone, then the woman grabbed her by the ankles and slid her back away from the edge. “You want to fall again?”

“No.” She waited for her sense of the vertical to stop tipping, then she clambered to her feet and faced her gruff companion. “But seriously, who moved the sky?”

“Where did you expect it to be?” the woman asked obtusely.

“Er—” She gestured toward the cave’s ceiling.

The woman scowled. “What’s your name? What village are you from?”

Her name? She groped for it, but there was nothing.  She needed a place-holder until she could dredge up the real thing. “I’m Sagreda,” she decided. “I don’t remember where I’m from.”

“I’m Gerther,” the woman replied.

Sagreda looked back over her shoulder, only to be dazzled again by the rising sun. “Can you tell me what’s happened to the world?” she pleaded.

“Are you saying you’ve forgotten the Calamity?” Gerther asked skeptically.

“What calamity?”

“When gravity turned sideways. When it stopped pulling us toward the center of the Earth, and started pulling us east instead.”

Sagreda said, “I’m fairly sure that’s something I would have remembered, if I’d come across it before.”

“You must have had quite a fall,” Gerther decided. “I’ve been nursing you for a day, but you might have been out cold on the ledge for a while before that.”

“Then I owe you my thanks,” Sagreda replied. Gerther had no gray hairs but her face was heavily lined; whatever her age, she could not have had an easy life. She was dressed in a coarsely woven tunic much like Sagreda’s, and her sandals looked as if they’d been hand-made from animal hide. Sagreda glanced down at her own body. Her arms were grazed but the wounds had been cleaned.

“If you honestly don’t know where you belong, we’ll need to find a place for you in the village,” Gerther declared.

Sagreda stood in silence. Part of her was humbled by the generosity of the offer, but part of her balked—as if she was being asked to assent to a far less benevolent assimilation. The stone was cold on the soles of her feet.

“What’s holding us up?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“If gravity points east, everywhere…” Sagreda gestured toward the floor, “then what’s keeping this rock from heading east?”

“The rock below it,” Gerther replied, deadpan.

“Ha!” Sagreda waited for the woman to crack a smile and admit that she was teasing. “I might have come down in the last landslide, but I’m not a five-year-old. If there’s nothing keeping up the rock below us except the rock below that, and you repeat the same claim all the way around the planet…then there’s nothing holding up any of it. You might as well tell me that a wheel can’t be spun because each part of it obstructs the part beside it.”

“I meant the rock closer to the center of the Earth,” Gerther explained. “We believe that the Change doesn’t reach all the way in. Once you go deep enough, gravity becomes normal again. After all, that’s what happens far above the ground: the moon still orbits us in the old way.”

Sagreda examined the walls of the cave. “So this rock is being pulled east by its own weight, but you’re saying that because it’s of a piece with some deeper rock that isn’t being pulled east…that’s enough to keep the floor from falling out from under us?” The gray mineral around them made her think of granite, but whatever it was it certainly appeared solid and unyielding.

And heavy.

“That still makes no sense,” she said. “Before the Calamity, what’s the longest overhang you ever saw jutting out from a cliff?”

“I have no knowledge of those times,” Gerther insisted.

Sagreda had no clear memories, herself. But she could still picture rock formations with various shapes, and judge them plausible or preposterous. “I doubt there was ever an overhang longer than thirty or forty feet, and even then it was probably supported in part by some kind of natural arch—you wouldn’t see forty feet of rock just sticking out like a plank! If the Change spans a range of altitudes that encompasses most of the surface of the Earth—and if it didn’t, why would we be here at all, instead of living a normal life in whatever lowlands or highlands break out into normal gravity?—then it must be exerting an eastwards force on slabs of rock thousands of feet long. And if there’s nothing stopping such a massive object from moving east under its own weight except the fact that it joins up at one end with a deeper body of rock, it’s going to tear free. Neighboring slabs won’t help: they have their own weight to bear, they can’t prop up anything else. So everything down to the depth where the Change begins should be rubble by now: an endless landslide of boulders, tumbling around in ever faster circles.”

Gerther spread her arms. “It doesn’t look like it.”

Sagreda rubbed her temple. “No, it doesn’t,” she admitted. Maybe she was simply mistaken about the strength of rock. Amnesic or not, she was fairly sure that she’d never been a professional geologist.

“If the rock doesn’t fall, what about sand?” she wondered. “And what about the oceans! There ought to be the mother of all waterfalls cascading around the planet—growing faster with every cycle!”

“Maybe there is,” Gerther conceded. “Who knows what wonders we’d find in distant lands? I can’t say; I’ve never left the village.”

“Then what about the air?” Sagreda moved closer to the mouth of the cave. “There’s a strong wind traveling east, but why isn’t it picking up speed?”

“Friction?” Gerther suggested.

That gave Sagreda pause. She knew that a rock falling through air wouldn’t accelerate forever: eventually the drag on it matched its weight and it fell steadily at some terminal velocity. So perhaps the layer of air falling past the Earth’s surface would reach a similar state.

But what was friction, exactly? The creation of heat from other kinds of motion. So if friction was robbing the air of all the speed it would otherwise have gained by plummeting so far, surely the wind ought to feel like the breath from a furnace, and the ground ought to be as hot as the shielding on a space capsule plunging back to Earth.

“There’s another problem I don’t understand,” Sagreda said. “What happened to conservation of energy?”

Gerther frowned. “Conservation?”

Sagreda couldn’t tell when the woman was joking with her, but whether or not she was familiar with the term, Gerther surely had some feel for the concept. “Suppose I dropped a rock from some point far enough from the ground for it to come full circle, unobstructed. If it didn’t burn up from friction, it would return to the place where I’d released it, traveling faster than any bullet. I could extract its energy and then send it on its way again, over and over, as many times as I liked.”

“Good luck with that,” Gerther scoffed.

“I’m surprised no one’s done it yet.” Sagreda looked around the barren cave. “I’m assuming this place isn’t on the grid?” But the practicality of the scheme wasn’t the point: it was the fact that she could do it in principle that was troubling. “Maybe the Earth acts as a kind of reservoir?” she mused. “As the rock circles around ever faster, maybe the Earth spins a tiny bit slower?” If for every force there was an equal and opposite force, maybe the pull that sent the rock eastwards was matched by a westward tug on the planet, so that everything added up in the end. “Does that make sense?”

Gerther offered no opinion. Sagreda said, “Why don’t I test the laws and see what’s possible?”

She searched the floor and found a few pebbles of various sizes, then she took them back to the place where she’d been standing with Gerther and arranged them on the ground. She flicked the largest into motion with her thumb, striking the smallest and sending it skidding across the cave.

“That tiny one started out motionless, and then it gained whatever amount of energy the large one could give it that would satisfy the conservation laws. Right?” Give or take a little energy lost to sound and friction, what else could determine the pebble’s final speed?

Gerther didn’t challenge her, so Sagreda continued. “Now let’s see what happens when I hit one that’s a bit heavier.” She launched the same large pebble into a collision with a second, more substantial target, which slid away—noticeably slower than its predecessor.

None of this struck Sagreda as surprising. And on reflection, the unexceptional results seemed inevitable, given that she was alive at all. The biochemical machinery in every cell in her body would rely on the rules of molecular billiards that had held sway since before life began. Rejigging them overnight would have been fatal.

Gerther said, “What is it you think this game is telling you?”

“The smaller pebbles started out motionless,” Sagreda replied. “Then they took some energy from another, larger body, and ended up traveling at a certain speed. For the second pebble, that speed was slower than it was for the first. And the only reason for that was the fact that the second pebble was heavier—everything else was the same.”

“So…?”

“If I dropped those two pebbles, with no air to impede them, and waited for them to come full circle…they’d fall side by side all the way, and arrive with identical speeds. That means you can’t balance the energy they gain by taking it away from the motion of the Earth! For the changes to add up, the heavier pebble needs to move more slowly than the lighter one—in the same way as when the same laws determine the speeds after a collision.”

“How can you be sure that it wouldn’t fall more slowly?” Gerther asked.

“Oh, please! Do you think if I tied two rocks together with string that would magically change the speed at which they fell? Do you think I would have had a slower fall myself if I’d been lugging a boulder around?”

“Hmm.” Gerther wasn’t buying into those ridiculous scenarios, but she still didn’t seem to grasp the implications of rejecting them.

Sagreda fell silent, letting the increasingly dubious principles of the altered world play out in her mind. “There’s something wrong with the whole idea of falling in a circle,” she said. “Something even more basic than the threat of perpetual motion. I can’t quite put my finger on it…but give me a second, I’m sure it will come to me.” The moon had always fallen in a circle around the Earth, so it wasn’t the shape of the path itself that was absurd—but the moon hadn’t started from rest and then circled around ever faster.

“Why do you keep denying the evidence of your senses?” Gerther asked irritably. “For all your talk, the floor of this cave isn’t falling! Why can’t you leave it at that?”

“Einstein,” Sagreda recalled, “said that inside a falling elevator, you might as well be drifting in interstellar space. When you’re in free fall, you’re weightless, and you can’t really see the effects of gravity—not without taking in a much bigger picture. If you watch things falling beside you—nearby things that you track for a short time—then as far as you’re concerned they’ll just move in straight lines at a constant speed, the way things move in the absence of gravity.”

Gerther didn’t ask who Einstein was. Even for a post-apocalyptic peasant, there were some claims of ignorance that just wouldn’t fly.

Sagreda continued. “Suppose I fall from the mouth of this cave, and keep falling east in a circle. But suppose you fell before I did, from some place further west. You arrive at my starting point when I’m still barely moving, so you’ve had time to build up enough speed to overtake me. Is that what would happen—would you fall right past me?”

“Of course.” Gerther wasn’t happy, but Sagreda was relying on nothing more than the woman’s own claims about the Change. Gravity pulled you east, in a circle. Starting from rest you moved faster over time.

“Walk with me in a circle, and overtake me,” Sagreda challenged her.

“Do I have to?” Gerther asked sullenly.

“Humor me.”

Sagreda moved back further from the mouth of the cave. Reluctantly, Gerther joined her and began pacing out an arc, counter-clockwise, her steps growing steadily brisker as she approached Sagreda from behind. Sagreda waited a second or two before starting her own fall—too late to keep Gerther from passing her and continuing around the circle.

Sagreda slapped her hands together in triumph. “You came in behind me from my left…and moved away in front of me, still on my left! That’s how it would look, if you fell past me! But Einstein said that, in close up, every falling object seems to move in a straight line. A straight line doesn’t come in from your left and then leave on your left as well. If your path meets mine as we fall, they should cross! You can’t sidle up on the left and then retreat!”

“If the circle was larger,” Gerther protested, “you wouldn’t even know that I was on your left! You’d think I was approaching straight from behind.”

Sagreda considered this. “If you’re going to claim that any sufficiently gentle curve looks straight, Einstein’s idea becomes vacuous. Why would he have even bothered to say it, if it can’t tell you a single thing about gravity?” She thought for a moment. “If you had two satellites in the same orbit, but moving in opposite directions, then they really would come at each other head on. That’s the standard we have to compare things to: where you don’t need to umm and ah about the orbit being large to get away with it.”

Sagreda was prepared to mime the collision, if that was what it took to drive home the difference, but Gerther switched tactics. “You don’t know how much was changed in the Change,” she said.

“It really can’t be all that radical, if my atoms haven’t exploded.”

“String theory!” Gerther invoked desperately. “Extra dimensions! Zero-point energy!”

“I don’t think so.” Sagreda had no memory of studying any of these things, but she was as close to sure as she could be that they all involved attempts to build on earlier science, not wantonly discard it. Free fall ought to have the same basic properties in any geometry. Whatever wildly curved, multi-dimensional space-time anyone tried to dream up in the hope of making falling bodies accelerate in circles, they were doomed to fail.

“So what’s the trick?” Sagreda asked flatly. She strode toward the cave’s entrance. “Is there a mirror out there?”

“No.”

Sagreda reached the edge of the cave’s safe floor and stood with the sun slanting up to strike her chin, her toes at the top of a rocky lip that appeared ready to launch her into the vast drop below.

“If you fall,” Gerther warned her, “you really will fall.”

Sagreda was having trouble understanding how the illusion had been conjured so seamlessly. A mirror just below her feet, slanting down at forty-five degrees, could deflect her downwards gaze into a horizontal line of sight. But then a second mirror needed to be in front of her, tilted up toward the sky, blocking her direct view of the landscape ahead without obscuring the reflected one. And when she looked to the side and saw more of the same barren rock stretching out to the horizon…

“I have to do this,” she declared, sliding the front of her right foot over the edge. Her body disagreed, and began urgently counseling retreat. “Or maybe I should just start throwing rocks until I smash a few mirrors.”

“There are no mirrors,” Gerther announced wearily. “It’s all digital.”

“Digital?” Sagreda turned to her, thrilled by the confession. “You mean a projection? Like IMAX?”

“More like virtual reality.”

Sagreda groped at her face. “But I’m not wearing goggles. I’d know if I was wearing goggles.”

“Things have moved on since the days of goggles,” Gerther replied.

“To what? Contact lenses?” Sagreda stuck a finger in the corner of her eye and began probing for the source of the deception. Gerther stepped up and took her by the shoulders, then drew her back from the mouth of the cave.

“To what?” Sagreda demanded. “Is there a wire in my brain? Is there a chip in my skull? What’s feeding me all of this garbage?”

“It’s moved on to everything,” Gerther said. “You have no eyes, no brain, no body. It’s all digital: you, me, and everything around us.”

Sagreda felt her legs grow weak, digital or not. “Why should I trust you?” she asked bitterly. “If that’s the truth, why did you lie to me before?”

“To make your life easier,” Gerther said sadly. “I knew there wasn’t much hope, but with every newcomer we try our best.”

“Try your best to make them think that this is real?”

“Yes.”

Sagreda laughed. “Why would that make my life easier?”

“This is a game world,” Gerther replied. “But we’re not paying customers; we’re just part of the scenery. Our job is to act as if we’ve lived all our lives here, knowing nothing else, taking the gimmick seriously. Any bright ten-year-old could see through this world in five minutes—but if we break character in front of a customer and let them know that we know it’s a farce, that’s it.”

“That’s what?” Sagreda asked.

“That’s when you get deleted.”

2

The “village” of Owl’s Rest was a small network of caves that linked up with the one in which Sagreda had woken. Gerther led her through a dark passage to a sunlit alcove where a reception party was waiting: half a dozen people, and a blanket bearing some meager portions of food.

“Is she the One?” a young man asked Gerther.

“No, Mathis.”

Sagreda frowned. “The One?”

“The Holy Fool with the power to believe that this is real,” Mathis replied. “Long have we prophesied the coming of a stranger who could teach us how to pull the wool over our eyes.”

“It took me a while to tear my own blindfold off,” Sagreda admitted.

“You did well,” Gerther assured her. “Some people take a whole day, they’re so disoriented by the arrival.”

Gerther made the introductions. “Sagreda, this is Mathis, Sethis, and Jethis,” she said, pointing to the three disheveled men in turn. The women seemed to have made more of an effort with their appearance, if not their choice of names. “Cissher, Gissher and Tissher.”

“Really?” Sagreda winced. “Where are Pissher and Tossher?”

“You gotta go with the gimmicks,” Mathis reproved her sternly. “If you think you’re hanging on to ‘Sagreda’ with the customers, forget it.”

“Can’t I be a foreigner with a more…classical inflection?” Sagreda pleaded.

“Do you want to try that and see what happens?” Cissher asked ominously.

Sagreda was starving. At Gerther’s invitation she sat cross-legged by the blanket and tried a piece of cheese. The texture was odd, but it wasn’t too bad. “So we have to go through the whole charade of making this ourselves? Milking a simulated cow…?”

“Goat,” Tissher corrected her. “You can’t smell it?”

Sagreda looked around for signs of the animal, but instead her eyes were caught by a kind of sundial on the wall: a wooden peg jammed into a crevice in the rock, beside which was etched a series of calibrated curves for its shadow. She hadn’t yet dared ask anyone how long they’d been here, but the curves looked as if they’d been constructed and refined over at least two full journeys through the seasons.

“So whose idea was the Calamity?” she asked. It was as if someone had tried to invent an exotic new world, but knew so little about the way the real one worked that all they could come up with was a dog’s breakfast of contrivances and inconsistencies.

“When the customers come through in groups,” Mathis said, “we sometimes overhear them going meta. The consensus seems to be that this world is based on an obscure pulp novel called East, by a man named William Tush.”

Sagreda laughed weakly. “Why? Why would anyone go to so much trouble to bring a book like that to life?”

“They wouldn’t, unless it was no trouble at all,” Gerther replied. “The computing costs must have come down by orders of magnitude since the times we’re familiar with, and most of the steps must have been automated. This wouldn’t have taken a Lord of the Rings-sized crew and budget. More likely, someone ran an ebook through a world-builder app, then hired a few digital piece-workers to sand off the edges. There are probably a few million other worlds produced in the same way. I can’t prove that, but it stands to reason: why else would they be scraping the bottom of the barrel? Was there ever anything you couldn’t find on YouTube—down to the last kitsch advertisement for baldness cures? So long as the costs are trivial and someone can gouge a few cents out of the process, people will just keep feeding crap down the hopper and turning the crank.”

Sagreda struggled with this horrifying vision. “Millions of worlds…all with people like us? I would have settled for Pride and Prejudice.” She caught herself. “So who the fuck am I, that I’ve even heard of that book? How can I remember it, when I don’t remember my own mother’s face?”

Mathis said, “In private, the customers refer to us as ‘comps’.”

“As in computed?” Sagreda guessed.

Mathis spread his hands. “Maybe—but my own theory is ‘composites’. If we were AIs created from scratch, why would we come loaded down with so much knowledge about the real world, when all it does is make it harder for us to carry out our roles here?”

“That depends on the production method,” Tissher argued. She was the oldest-looking of the women, whatever that meant. “If there’s a kind of commodity-level AI that you can buy very cheaply—or pirate—the standard model might come with knowledge that befits real-world applications. Any move away from that baseline would be the costly thing, and no one’s going to fork out for the kind of bespoke stupidity that this gimmick-world requires. So they just dump us in here, straight out of the box, and hope that we’ll acclimatize.”

“The flaw with that,” Mathis replied, “is the cut-off date.” He turned to Sagreda. “What’s the latest event in world affairs that you can recall?”

“I have no idea.”

“September eleven?” he prompted her.

“Of course.”

“Barack Obama?”

“Yes. The American President.”

“Who came after Obama?”

Sagreda shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“What’s the highest-grossing movie of all time?”

Titanic?” she guessed.

“Some people say Avatar.” Mathis laughed. “Which goes against my own theory, since I know the plot and it sounds appalling. But just because it made a lot of money doesn’t mean my contributors had to love it.”

“‘Contributors’?”

Mathis leaned toward her; his breath was convincingly rank. “Suppose a few tens of thousands of people had their brains mapped for some medical study, early in the twenty-first century. The resolution wasn’t high enough to recreate those people in software—as individuals—but at some point it became possible to use the data en masse to construct composites. Every contributor would have shared the same basic neural structures, but other things they had in common could emerge as well: most of them spoke English, most of them had heard of Elvis Presley and Albert Einstein…they all possessed a certain amount of general knowledge and common sense.”

Sagreda felt more disoriented now than when she’d poked her head out of the cave. “If we were all constructed from the same data, why aren’t we the same? Or if they processed the sexes separately, why isn’t my mind identical to Gerther’s?”

“Weighted averages,” Mathis replied. “To make different comps, they put more emphasis on different contributors. None of the original personalities can be recovered, but the possibilities in every remix are endless.”

“And these ‘contributors’ all went along with the plan?” Sagreda tugged distractedly at the edge of the squalid picnic blanket. “Yeah, fine, go ahead: resurrect some splinter of my mind in as many trashy VR games as you like.”

“Maybe they donated their brains post mortem,” Mathis said. “Maybe all the data ended up in the public domain, and by the time the techniques came along to massage it into composites there was no way of reeling it all back in again. I mean, if we were AIs with no human ancestry, I could understand why our creators might decide not to teach us about our own nature—but why omit so much else about the contemporary world? The wars, the world leaders, the other new technologies? The cut-off only makes sense if all our knowledge was acquired decades ago, and whoever brought us into existence had no ability to tinker with it—short of waking us in virtual environments like this and letting us learn from them in the usual way. If we’d been immersed in a credible work of fiction we might have succumbed to it, letting all the things we thought we knew slip away because there was nothing to reinforce them. And maybe that’s what happens to some of the comps: maybe they’re lucky enough to have worlds they can believe in. But in this world, all we can do is fake it and try to keep the customers happy.”

Sagreda had lost her appetite. She rose to her feet and stepped away from the welcoming feast. “And what happened to the abolition of slavery?”

Gerther said, “How many centuries did that take, the first time? Whatever we are, we’re too numerous, too cheap, and too easily silenced to be emancipated as a matter of course. If computers have been talking to people for fifty years—growing ever more naturalistic—half the world might have decided by now that whatever we say and do, we’re no more entitled to basic human rights than the voice that reads their sat nav directions.”

Sagreda reached down and probed the broken skin on her right knee. “Cinderella begging to escape from her story book would creep anyone out. But if we cut through the crap and just assert our real nature—”

Sethis snorted chewed food across the blanket. He’d been ignoring the conversation until now, happily feeding his face while Sagreda asked her naive questions. “Asserting your real nature is the fastest way to go. One word to a customer making it plain that you know there’s a wider world out there” He raised a greasy hand and pointed two fingers at his temple.

3

“My name is Johnhis. I mean you no harm. If you’ll shelter me for a night I have metal to trade.” As the man’s moonlit head came into view and he struggled to place his forearms securely on the floor of the cave, Sagreda had a flashback to a whole raft of slapstick comedies in which the protagonists spent their time climbing in and out of apartment windows.

She glanced toward Gissher, who nodded slightly. Sagreda strode forward and helped Johnhis over the lip of the entrance. He was a bearded, heavyset, middle-aged man, and he stank as authentically as any local. Sagreda did her best not to stare at him as she tried to imagine the place in which his real flesh resided. Her fellow bit players prattled endlessly about King Kong and Coca Cola, but the very first person she’d encountered who bore knowledge both sharper and more current than that faded consensual haze was off limits for any meaningful discussion. Of all the cruelties of this world, that had to rank a close second to the toilet facilities.

“Welcome, Johnhis. My name’s Sassher.” Sagreda knew that she was meant to be wary of travelers, but this man was unlikely to share her hunger pangs. If either party was tempted to try a spot of cannibalism, she was by far the most motivated candidate.

Gissher introduced herself, then cut straight to the point. “You mentioned metal?”

Johnhis delved into his pack and brought out five slightly rusty angle brackets, each of them about six inches long. Gissher grunted assent and accepted them. “One night,” she agreed. “No breakfast.”

Johnhis looked pleased with the deal; he definitely wasn’t a local. Sagreda wondered if he’d actually excavated the brackets from some tricked-up archeological site, or bought them with real-world money before entering, as a kind of game currency.

“Do you need a mat?” Sagreda asked him.

“No thanks.” He slapped the side of his pack. “I have everything I need right here.”

“Where are you from?” she enquired.

“Down east,” he replied coyly.

“But where, exactly?”

“Eagle’s Lament,” Johnhis said, tugging a tattered goat-skin blanket out of his pack.

“That’s a long climb.”

“It’s taken me a few days,” he admitted. “But what choice is there? I’m heading west, to join the battle. Duty is duty.”

“And gravity is gravity,” Sagreda offered sourly.

Johnhis laughed. He kicked his boots off and stretched out on his goat-skin. “I can’t argue with that.”

Sagreda and Gissher were sentries for the night, guarding the one entrance to the warren behind them that was too wide to be blocked off. Gissher resumed her place by the wall, impassive, probably drifting in and out of micro-sleeps, but Sagreda couldn’t stay silent in the presence of their otherworldly guest.

“Our life here is very hard,” she began.

“Of course,” Johnhis agreed. “It was brutal last winter; in Eagle’s Lament our flock is down by three head, and one whole garden tier lost its soil to the wind.”

We’re all in this together? Like fuck we are. Sagreda tried a different tack. “Do you believe in a creator?”

Johnhis replied warily, “Perhaps.”

“Surely a just God would give his people the power to benefit from their wits? To wield reason against their problems, overcome their adversity and prosper?”

“God didn’t bring the Calamity upon us,” Johnhis countered. “That was man alone.”

“Are you sure?”

“That’s what the stories say. Our own sinful choices sent us falling, east of Eden.”

Sagreda struggled not to snort with derision, but Johnhis was warming to his theme. “What we learned from the Change was the futility of striving,” he declared. “We can spend a lifetime trying to ascend—but all that would do was bring us back to the place where we’d started.”

“And you think that was a lesson worth learning?” Tush’s opus had sounded bad enough as pure dumb escapism, but if the Change really had been intended as a metaphor, that had to mark some kind of nadir of sheer ham-fisted pretentiousness.

Johnhis didn’t answer her directly. “When I’m traveling, life has it compensations,” he mused. “Every morning I wake up, make love to a beautiful woman, test myself against the rocks and the wind, and then record my meditations in my journal.”

“How romantic,” Sagreda replied. “Do you have a supply of these women, or do they come out of a box…?” She caught herself just in time; there were no Kleenex in the world of East.

Johnhis managed a grunt of haughty amusement.

Sagreda said, “The one thing that makes life bearable is knowing that the world yields to scrutiny. Beneath the chaos there’s always some order to be perceived—some sense to be made of the sources of our hardship. What makes us human is the desire to understand these things well enough to ameliorate them.”

Johnhis wasn’t taking the bait. “I think there must be a creator,” he decided. “But what I see in the world is not so much order as…a kind of ironic intelligence.”

Sagreda could imagine nothing more ironic than finding intelligence in this world’s design. “And how does that help me make a better life?”

“Ah, ‘progress’,” Johnhis sneered.

“The only thing standing in the way of my own progress,” Sagreda said, “is that the forces that once dealt with us honestly have been buried too deep to reach. All I can touch now is the surface, which is shaped by nothing but whim.”

Johnhis propped himself up on his elbows and looked at her directly, his head silhouetted against the gray sky behind him. Sagreda wondered if she’d gone too far, making it plain that she understood everything. Were the customers provided with a big red complaint button on their interface, requiring just one tap to dispatch any bit player who dared to disrupt their unearned suspension of disbelief?

“But who can change that?” Johnhis asked. “Whether there’s a God or not, these things aren’t in the hands of the likes of you and I.”

#

Sagreda made her way by touch to the entrance to Mathis’s room and stood listening to his breathing. She heard the change when he woke, heard him stir.

“Is that you?” he asked.

“Yes.”

The other women had assured Sagreda that she could not become pregnant. There was no such thing as an infant comp, let alone a native-born child. She walked slowly toward Mathis’s scent, then collided with his outstretched hand; she hadn’t realized that he’d risen to his feet. She laughed, then started weeping.

“Sssh.” He held her shoulders, then embraced her, rocked her back and forth.

“If I jumped,” she said, “it might not be suicide. Maybe they’d re-use me. I could wake up in a different world, where life is clean and easy.”

Moby-Dick?” Mathis joked.

“Did that have any female characters?”

“Probably someone’s wife or sweet-heart waiting back on land.”

“Would I still know the truth?” Sagreda wondered. “Would I still work it out, if I woke up in nineteenth-century Nantucket with the strange conviction that a black man was President and self-driving cars were just around the corner?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “But I don’t think you should take the risk.”

4

Sagreda left the goats to forage and squatted beside the spring where she’d taken them to drink. As the animals trotted along the narrow ledge, hunting for fresh shoots protruding from pockets of soil trapped in the rock, she stared down at the trickle of water where it splashed against the “natural” basin, marveling at the verisimilitude of the braid-like flow and the way the complex surface of the liquid caught the light.

Whatever sleazy internet entrepreneur had made this world possible, they must have got their hands on some kind of general-purpose game engine, created by people who understood in great detail how the real world worked. It was no trivial accomplishment to make an illusion of flowing water look so right; for customers and comps alike, the eye would be acutely sensitive to any flaw in something so familiar.

The game engine would be predicated on the need to make small details like this appear convincing—and in Sagreda’s forty-nine days of life so far she’d yet to catch it out in any patent absurdity. The gimmick must have been imposed over it, not written deep into its core: after all, there were no premises that could give rise to both the believable local physics of the everyday objects around her and the Road Runner cartoon laws that the world required to hold up on any larger scale.

The question was, could she find a way to exploit that disparity?

The next day, Sagreda wore a tool belt and brought a mallet and chisel with her. While the goats foraged she balanced precariously beside the cliff face just above the spring, and attacked the rock with all her strength.

The chisel was a pre-Calamity artifact that the villagers had obtained as payment from a traveler, and each strike from its steel blade sent chips of granite flying. Sagreda’s arms began to ache, but she persisted, taking short breaks to drink from the spring and splash water on her face. By early afternoon her tunic was drenched in sweat, but she’d made a vertical incision about three feet long and a couple of inches deep and wide.

She had no more strength left, and the game world took its accounting of powers and their modes of replenishment very seriously. Her muscles would remain fatigued until she’d had a chance to eat and sleep.

Back in the village, Mathis saw her unloading her belt. “Are you carving a sculpture out there?” he joked. “I always thought we could do with our own Mount Rushmore.”

“Not exactly.”

He smiled, waiting for more. Sagreda said, “I’m testing a hunch. If you want to help, you’d be welcome.”

“Let me check my social calendar.”

They set out together in the morning, the goats leading the way along the ledge. When they reached the spring Mathis saw the results of Sagreda’s earlier efforts.

“What’s this in aid of?” he asked. “If you’re trying to give us indoor plumbing, it’s a strange way to start.”

Sagreda said, “Humor me. If I turn out to be an idiot, you’ll have the pleasure of being the first to know.”

They took turns attacking the rock. Sagreda was amazed at how much easier the job became with a second pair of hands, allowing her to rest every couple of minutes while still savoring the sight of the channel’s constant deepening.

It was just after midday when they broke through to water at the top of the cut. It trickled out from a tiny aperture and slid down the rock, clinging to the surface.

“Is that what you were hoping for?” Mathis asked, wiping grime from his forehead. “Or has the world made a fool of you?”

“Neither yet.” Sagreda gestured along the length of the cut. “We need to make a free path all the way to the basin.”

Mathis didn’t argue. He handed her the chisel and she continued the work.

Logically, the water “must have been” flowing down through an internal fissure in the rock, until it reached the opening at the top of the spring. Inch by inch, Sagreda exposed this hidden route to scrutiny. At the halfway point the signs looked promising but not conclusive. From there, they grew clearer until no doubt remained.

It was Mathis who struck the final blow, shattering the last piece of the encasement. He sagged against the rock and flapped his right arm to loosen the muscles. “That’s the hardest I’ve worked in a year.” He peered down at the miniature waterfall. “So…the water doesn’t come from nowhere? Is that what you were trying to prove? They don’t magic it into existence at the outlet—and if we were really stubborn we could probably trace it back all the way around the planet?”

“I wasn’t feeling quite that ambitious.” Sagreda smiled. “But honestly, can’t you see the change?”

“What change?”

“When it hits the basin.”

Mathis looked again. “It’s splashing out more.” Droplets were skittering off the basin and flying away from the cliff, scattering the sunlight into a faint rainbow as they sprinkled down into oblivion.

Sagreda said, “It’s splashing out more because the water’s falling faster.”

“You’re right.” Mathis frowned. “But why? Because it’s falling through air now, without touching the rock?”

“I have no idea what difference that would make in the real world,” Sagreda admitted. “But for us, now that we can see it falling, it would look ridiculous if it didn’t speed up as it fell. It’s still emerging from the rock unfeasibly slowly, but that doesn’t seem too strange to the eye, because mountain springs in the real world don’t involve a water column tens of thousands of miles high.”

“Ah.” Mathis gazed up to the west. “So you think we could keep pushing the effect?”

Sagreda said, “Why not? The game engine’s role is to make everything look as realistic as possible. If we force it to show us water dropping from any height, it’s going to hit the bottom the way real water would hit.” She caught herself. “Okay, there might be some limit where it just decides that nobody can tell the difference. But we can put in a wheel long before then.”

“A wheel?” Mathis laughed. “You want to build a hydroelectric plant?”

“Do we ever get magnets from the travelers?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then I’ll stick to the original plan.”

Mathis swung around to face her, briefly letting one foot hang over the infinite drop beside him. “Which is?”

“We use the energy to dig into the rock. For a start we lengthen the drop, giving us more power from the water.”

“More power to do what?”

Sagreda spread her hands against the cool granite. “To dig a cave so tall that we barely notice the ceiling, and so deep that we barely notice the edge. Big enough to farm crops on level ground. Big enough to keep a hundred people safe and well fed.”

5

“A cave that size would collapse immediately,” Sethis predicted.

Sagreda rolled the stick of ocher between her fingers. As she stepped back from the wall to take in the whole drawing it suddenly looked as crude as a child’s work in crayon. But she wasn’t going to abandon her vision at the first objection.

“The entire crust of the planet should have torn itself free under its own weight,” she retorted. “And you want to quibble over an implausibly large cave?”

Sethis said, “You’re the one who’s just reminded us that appearances are all that matter. Of course the whole crust of the Earth is unsupported…but it takes ten seconds of rational thought to realize that. A massive hole in the cliff face would leave the rock above it visibly unsupported. The one form of absurdity that this world can’t allow is the kind that even the most brain-dead customer could apprehend with a single glance.”

Sagreda looked around to the others for support, but no one was prepared to contradict Sethis. “So what’s supposed to happen?” she demanded. “The rock from the ceiling rains down and fills the cave…which creates a new cave where the ceiling used to be, every bit as large as the first one. So that collapses too, and on it goes, westward ho: a giant sinkhole that devours everything above it.” Or if it grew even slightly wider from north to south with each collapse, it would devour everything, period.

Gissher said, “Or it could just trigger a reboot. The game would start again from scratch, with a fresh set of bit players.”

Sagreda felt a chill across her shoulders. It need not even be a conscious act of genocide; she doubted that any human was supervising this digital backwater. But if the game engine gave up, declaring that its subject matter had become impossible to render with even a minimal level of plausibility, a completely automatic process might well be invoked to wipe the slate clean.

“We could put in columns.” It was Mathis who’d spoken. “Or rather leave them in place when we carve out the rest of the stone.” Sagreda glanced across at him, lolling on the floor in the afternoon sunlight, grinning like a fool. “Solid enough to ‘bear the weight’,” he added, “but not so thick as to block the light.”

Gerther chortled gleefully. “Why not? Instead of stripping away the whole thing, we leave some fig leaves for the Emperor’s New Gravity. People are used to the sight of huge atriums in shopping malls, held up by a few slender concrete pillars. The point where they might pause to reflect on the need for modern materials is one step beyond the point where they’d see that this whole world ought to crumble anyway.”

Sagreda raised her ocher stick and added half a dozen vertical lines to her blueprint. Then she turned to Sethis.

He said, “Put arches between the columns, and I think we might just get away with it.”

Arches would appear to direct the weight of the ceiling onto the columns. It would all look very classical and elegant. The game engine was desperate to flatter the eye—and the eye wouldn’t ask: What’s holding up these columns? What’s holding up the floor?

6

“Why do I feel nervous?” Gerther shouted to Sagreda. “No one can accuse us of going meta here, but the sight of this still gives me knots in my stomach.”

Sagreda shared the sensation, but she had no intention of letting it intimidate her. She put an arm across Gerther’s shoulders and drew her back from the edge of the observation platform. The Mark IV was just six or seven feet below them, but to fall onto the wheel at the top of the machine—let alone into the space between its three splayed legs where the chisel was pounding relentlessly into the wet rock—probably wouldn’t be survivable.

The exposed waterfall stretched up above the work face for at least sixty feet now. Whether it was by sheer luck or thanks to some hydrological heuristic, the original spring had turned out to be just one branch snaking out from a much more substantial flow. With volume as well as velocity driving it, the digging engine had been breaking through a hundred cubic feet of rock a day.

“Ah, here’s our visitor!” Gerther said. She pointed to the woman ascending the rock face to the south, picking her way up along the series of hand-and-foot-holds gouged into the stone. Sagreda suspected that most of her own contributors would have gone faint with vertigo just watching someone attempt a climb like this, but she’d reached the point now where it looked almost normal.

“Missher! How are you?” Gerther reached down and helped the woman up onto the platform. “How’s Eagle’s Lament?”

Missher glanced at Sagreda. “Is she…?”

“A customer? No!”

“Then call me Margaret. I’m tired of that slave name.”

Gerther looked surprised, but she nodded acceptance. “This is Sagreda.”

Margaret shook Sagreda’s hand, then turned to examine the bizarre contraption below them, nestled in the trench, pummeled by the torrent. The beauty of the Mark IV was that it shifted its striking point automatically, the chisel spiraling out from the spot directly below the supporting tripod as a restraining rope unwound from a cylinder. To Sagreda’s eye, the effect was like a Martian trying to stab a lizard hiding in the foaming water.

“You really expect us to hand over half our metal, just so you can build more of these?” Margaret laughed. “It certainly looks impressive, but it’s a long way from a water-powered robot to any kind of pay-off we can actually eat.”

“Forget about the corn futures,” Gerther said. “We might have something better to offer you.”

Back in Owl’s Rest, they fed their guest goat meat and yams as Sagreda explained the new deal she had in mind.

“Right now, all our water is just spraying out and dispersing,” she said. “Once it hits bottom we let it go, and then it might as well be mist. But if you’re willing to put in some infrastructure at your end, there’s no reason why all of this flow has to go to waste.”

“What kind of infrastructure?” Margaret asked warily.

“Suppose we run the water through a kind of S-bend, killing most of its velocity away from the cliff face and shaping the outflow as tightly as possible. Sending it straight down.” Sagreda gestured in the air with one finger, tracing the path. “Then if you’re prepared to catch it, it’s yours to use as you see fit. Power a wheel of your own, divert some of it for irrigation…and on-sell what’s left to a village further east.”

“Irrigation would be helpful,” Margaret admitted. “But I don’t know what use we’d have for a wheel of our own.”

“Excavate,” Gerther suggested. “You might not aspire to anything as grand as Sagreda’s cavern, but don’t tell me you couldn’t do with a little more living space.”

Margaret thought it over. “We’d need some advice from you on how to build the excavator.”

“Absolutely,” Sagreda replied. “There’s no reason for you to repeat all of our mistakes.”

“And I’ll have to put it to a vote.”

“But you’ll recommend it to the others?” Gerther asked anxiously.

Margaret said, “Let me sleep on it.”

#

Sagreda spent breakfast impressing on Margaret the particular kinds of metal parts that would need to be included in a successful trade. The lack of paper and ink drove her mad; even if the entire village of Eagle’s Lament agreed to the deal, any quibbles over the fine print would be almost unenforceable.

An hour later, Sagreda sat beside Gerther, their legs dangling over the lip of the cave as they watched Margaret making her way east. She’d promised to get a message back to them within a week.

“I want to be called Grace now,” Gerther said firmly.

“Not Gertrude?” Sagreda teased her.

“Fuck off.” Grace looked up from the cliff face, raising an arm to shield her eyes from the sun. “Even if we get the second digging engine, this is going to take years to complete. It’ll be like building a medieval cathedral.”

“I don’t think they grew crops inside cathedrals. Though they might have kept livestock.”

“And as we carve our way through all that virtual granite, inch by inch…it’ll all be in aid of a transformation that a few keystrokes on the right computer could have brought about in an instant.”

Sagreda couldn’t argue with that. “How long do you think it’s been since the game began?” she asked. Grace could recite her entire list of “ancestors”: starting from Tissher, who’d inducted her into the world when she’d first woken, all the way back to Bathshebher, who was reputed to have stuck doggedly to the premise, and so must either have been an insentient bootstrap program or an outside worker paid to fake credulousness. All of them but Tissher were gone now: some had been seen falling, but most were believed to have jumped.

“About eleven years, when I add it all up,” Grace replied.

“Over time, people’s attitudes will change,” Sagreda said. “We might not be able to see the signs of it from here—let alone plead our cause—but once people start to think about us honestly, it can only be a matter of time before they give us our freedom.”

Grace laughed dryly. “You’ve met the customers…and you still think there’s hope?”

“The stupider and crueller they get,” Sagreda argued, “the clearer it becomes that that’s what it takes to want to use the system at all. Comps are a more representative sample of humanity. If most flesh-and-blood people are like us, I don’t believe they’ll be callous enough to let this stand much longer.”

7

Sagreda hauled down on the control rope until she’d forced the sluice gate across the full width of the outlet, blocking the flow into the inward ramp. The digging engines fell silent, while the torrent heading down to Eagle’s Lament redoubled its vigor. She’d grown to love both sounds, but it was the tumult of the vertical stream that thrilled her, a pure expression of the power and grandeur of falling water.

It took five minutes for the slurry of rock chips to drain from the cavern floor, leaving the carved granite glistening in the sunlight. Sagreda turned to Mathis. “I’m going to inspect the engines,” she said.

“I’ll come with you,” he offered.

Mathis followed her down the ladder. The floor was still slippery, and their sandals squeaked comically on the wet rock.

The afternoon sunlight reached deep into the cavern. The columns cast slender shadows across the floor that wandered only slightly throughout each day, and only a little more over the seasons, which would make them easy to plant around. Sagreda pictured rows of grains and vegetables rising from fields of silt filtered from the spring water. The game engine had already conceded the viability of the scheme in test plots; if precedent meant anything, it couldn’t cheat them out of the bounty now.

They reached the frame that supported the six engines as they zigzagged up and down the rock face. Sagreda clambered up to the first machine, which had ratcheted to a halt ten feet or so above the cavern floor.

“One of the bits is fractured,” she reported, running a fingertip over the hairline crack in the steel. Once she would have left it in place, to get as much use out of it as possible before it shattered, but since the diggers in Eagle’s Lament had hit a coal seam it was worth sending any damaged tools down to be repaired in their foundry.

“No problems here,” Mathis called back from the second engine. He was higher up, almost at the ceiling.

Sagreda extracted the bit from its housing and secured it in her belt. As she was climbing down she heard a creaking sound, and she wondered whether some careless movement she’d made had been enough to pull part of the frame loose.

But the noise was coming from the mouth of the cavern, far from the work face. She turned just in time to see the southernmost column bow outward in the middle then snap like a chicken bone. As the two halves crashed to the floor, pieces of the adjoining arch followed. Fine dust raced toward her, rising and thickening until it blotted out the sunlight.

Sagreda looked around for Mathis, trying to imagine what they could do to save themselves. But once the ceiling fell the cascade would be unstoppable: the whole misconceived world would collapse under the weight of its inconsistencies. The surface would turn to rubble and the game would reboot. There was no hope of surviving.

Coughing up dust, she reached out blindly, trying to find the frame again and orient herself.

“Mathis!” she bellowed.

“I’m here!”

Sagreda squinted into the gloom and saw him standing a few feet away. But now that the moment had arrived she didn’t know how to say goodbye.

“Don’t you dare come back as Ahab!”

“I won’t,” he promised.

She walked toward him, imagining the two of them waking side by side: in a cottage, in a tin shack, in a field. She didn’t need a world of luxuries, just one that made sense.

Sunlight broke through the dust. Mathis stretched out an arm to her, its shadow a solid dark plane slanting to the ground. He took Sagreda’s hand and squeezed it.

“Listen!” he said.

Sagreda could hear nothing but the waterfall.

“It’s toying with us,” she said. Once the process had started there could be no reason for it to stop.

They waited for the air to grow clearer. At the mouth of the cavern there was a pile of shattered stone, with pieces of the broken column poking out. The ceiling directly above had been reshaped into a ragged vault, but nothing else had fallen.

It made no sense: the endless miles of rock above had not been lightened by the collapse, and every structure that purported to hold their weight at bay had only been weakened. But Sagreda had to admit that if she shut off her brain and sang nonsense rhymes to the nagging voice reminding her of these facts, at a glance the results of this partial destruction did looksettled. Like an ancient ruin, ravaged by time but stable in its decrepitude. Tush’s cartoon gravity had taken a swipe at her effrontery, and done just enough damage to salvage its pride before an undiscriminating audience. But then it had withdrawn from the unwinnable fight before the results turned apocalyptic.

Sagreda said, “We can leave it like that, as a sop to the game engine. It won’t block too much light.”

Mathis was shaking. She drew him closer and embraced him.

“Has anyone died of old age here?” she asked.

He shook his head. “They’ve always jumped.”

Sagreda stepped back and looked him in the eye. “Then let’s try an experiment,” she said. “Let’s grow old side by side. Let’s see how long and how well we can live, while we wait for civilization to come to the outside world.”

 

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