In the story, a Cathar revivalist sect is being persecuted by a fundamentalist government, in a historic mirror of the Albigensian Crusade some decades in the future. In Portland, Oregon, things have gotten especially bad since the big quake leveled most of the city, and in the wake of an earthquake came a devastating sickness that killed many thousands of people.
Keith Montrose, a Cathar antique store clerk, is offered an old NES console in an age when poor air quality has made the plastic on most of these consoles turn to dust.
But there is more to this console than meets the eye.
This was inspired in no small part by Philip K. Dick's musings about God reaching through to this world from the "trash layer," so credit where credit is due.
The next day, the smog was a little less dense and more people were out, but business was slow as usual.
A very tired-looking young fellow was the first customer in the door.
"Hello, how can we help you?" said Keith as Chaz inspected a box of glassware that had arrived late the day before.
"Oh I'm just..." the customer's arm and face twitched. "Just looking."
Keith's blood ran cold. He reached for his respirator. "Chaz, we've got a twitcher!" he hissed.
Chaz dove behind the counter and put on his respirator. "I think you should leave," he said.
"Please, I've just come..." twitch. "...come to..." twitch. "...come to get out of the haze!" The young man struggled to force the words out as his agitation made the twitching worse.
"Go!" Chaz shouted, handing a baseball bat to Keith.
Keith jumped over the counter, his heart pounding. He didn't want to do this. This was someone in pain, someone who would die soon, who deserved compassion... why did it always have to be dog-eat-dog? Civilization was a cruel joke. He was ready to bash another man's brains in to keep himself safe and that was considered reasonable under the current law.
"Fine..." twitch. "Fine then. I'll go." The young man left as quietly as he had come.
Chaz picked up a can of disinfectant spray. "Catch!" he said, tossing it to Keith, who promptly began spraying down the inside and outside of the door and every inch of the floor the twitcher had touched, spraying a fine mist in the air for good measure.
He walked back to the counter. "That was a close one," he said as he removed his respirator.
The rest of the day went slowly. A woman close to Chaz's age came in and began quietly looking at the merchandise, but then left, and the store went painfully quiet.
"So what was it like back then?" Keith asked Chaz. "Back in the 80s and 90s?"
"We spent most of the day playing outside," Chaz said. "Back when parents used to let their kids play in the front yard, or bike around the neighborhood. If we played video games, it was only occasionally, and it was all console games, mostly Nintendo and Atari. Then there was TV... it all seems so silly now, but we used to all gather around the TV when our favorite shows were on. And at night I would lay in bed listening to my radio. Sometimes, when I was half asleep, it almost seemed like I could hear the voice of God in the music and commercials, like He was beaming in to tell us that everything was going to be alright."
"That's weird," said Keith, taking glass cleaner and polishing the counter for the fifth time that day just to keep his hands busy. "The voice of God in a commercial?"
"Yeah, it was the strangest thing," said Chaz. "It started to get less and less common around '89. Then around '92 or 93, it stopped."
"Well, you were what, ten years old? You probably just grew out of it," Keith said.
"Maybe... though it seems there was something different about the ads too. They seemed... more negative somehow," Chaz said. "It used to be a happy jingle and a joyful voice telling you how their product could make your awesome life even more awesome... and then around '93, it all became about how you were worthless unless you bought the product. It all became about 'keep it real' and 'show your street cred' and 'don't be a wuss.' Call me crazy, but it's almost as if God simply stopped trying after a while."
"I have nothing against God speaking to us, but through a radio commercial?" Keith said. "Yeah... I think I'd have my head examined if I thought God was speaking to me through my radio."
"I don't see why not," said Chaz. "If the divine Light can come down through us, then it can come down through any physical object. The Deceiver's illusions of reality mean nothing..."
"Whoa, easy on the you-know-what," said Keith, sensing that Chaz was hinting at a Neo-Cathar view.
"Sorry," said Chaz. "Well look at it this way, a commercial is all about persuasion, right?"
"Well, yeah, that's the whole point," said Keith.
"Persuasion is just a nice way of saying your inner world, your thoughts and values, are going to invade someone else's," said Chaz. "That's just how it is. So if the Divine chooses to speak through you, it might use a means of invading the thoughts of others... why not a commercial?"
"So God wants us to drink Pepsi and drive a Chrysler?" asked Keith, citing the only two radio ads he had heard from that era.
"No, it's not in the product they're selling so much... it's in the tone," Chaz tried to explain. "It's the tone that says 'you're OK, but there's something even greater that can be awakened..."
"If you buy this product or that product?" Keith asked, puzzled.
"Look, I don't know how to really describe it. But I do know that something shifted, and the message that I began to hear around '93 is 'you're not OK, you're worthless.' I heard it on the radio, I heard it in school, I heard it at home, and I heard it from the pulpit. It was everywhere all of a sudden," Chaz said.
"I'm not sure I really understand, Chaz," Keith replied. "I guess I had to be there. I grew up on the whole 'you're not worthy' thing."
"But you knew in your heart it was the wrong message," Chaz pointed out. "Something inside you remembers, even if you don't. Part of you still remembers a time when people just wanted to be happy instead of forever striving to be worthy of something."
"I guess that's why I got involved in the first place," said Keith, tracing an arc with his foot.
Chaz smiled warmly, tracing an overlapping arc, completing the fish symbol in a gesture the Neo-Cathars had borrowed from the apocryphal legends of the early church. "Keep hope alive, brother," he said. "The laurel will be green once more. Deceiver has no power over us."
Randy, just as wild-eyed as he had been the previous day, walked in a few minutes later, carrying an old TV, the boxed NES, and a cardboard box full of cartridges. "Hey, I'm back," he said, setting the precarious stack on the counter none too gently. "Go on, test it."
Chaz rubbed his hands. "This brings back memories," he said, plugging in the TV and wiring up the console.
Keith, meanwhile, began to look through the titles in the box of cartridges. Besides some common titles- The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Excitebike, and a whole slew of Saturday Morning TV tie-in games, there was one cartridge that stood out. It was all white, and had a simple label with Greek writing and an Ankh.
"This is interesting. What is it?" Keith asked Randy.
"Dunno. It's busted," Randy said.
"Looks fine to me," said Keith.
Randy shrugged. "Maybe you can fix it."
Chaz put the Excitebike cartridge into the console and switched it on. The TV screen flickered with random colors.
"So much for that," said Keith.
"Wait a sec," Chaz said, turning off the console and taking out the cartridge, blowing on it carefully.
"And he huffs, and he puffs," Keith mumbled as Chaz put the cartridge back in and switched the console back on.
Amazingly, the game started right away.
"Alright!" said Chaz, the old man suddenly looking sixty years younger as he guided a cluster of tiny pixels in the vague shape of a motocross bike through a course of increasingly higher jumps. "I hadn't seen this one in forever!"
"Hey, didn't you say the gun still worked?" asked Keith. "Let's try Duck Hunt next."
They plugged the orange plastic gun controller into the console and put the new cartridge in. The screen changed to a pixelated field with low-resolution ducks flying at odd angles, but when Keith tried to shoot, the gun controller wouldn't work.
"Hey, I thought you said the gun worked?" Keith said.
"This one does," Randy said, narrowing his eyes and pulling an old ruger .22 pistol from his coat pocket.
Keith ducked just as Randy fired twice, then the gun jammed.
Randy dropped the gun and ran from the store, putting his respirator on in a hurry.
Keith grabbed his respirator and took off running after the wild-eyed man, trying in vain to keep up with his breakneck speed. In only a moment, he lost sight of him.
Then, off in the direction of Martin Luther King Boulevard, he heard a horn honking and ran to see what it was. Randy had narrowly missed being hit by someone's age-old sports car and had barely managed to make it across the street. He saw Keith and took off running again, making a straight line for the river.
At the river, randy stopped, then leaped in. Instantly Keith saw him taken under by the swift current of the Willamette, never to surface again.
Exhausted, Keith made his way back to the shop, hoping that Chaz had called the police. What had been five minutes of frantic running turned into ten minutes of walking. Keith's muscles ached.
He rounded the corner and found several police cars outside the store... then he noticed a crowd gathering around.
His heart pounded. He ran for the front door of the shop and found several police officers standing around the front counter. That was when Keith noticed the blood stains on the wall.
He ran to the counter. "Chaz!" he shouted, tears burning in his eyes, silently praying that it wasn't true.
He pushed past the police officers and looked over the counter. There was Chaz, lifeless, two bullet wounds in his chest.
"No!" he screamed. "Chaz! Chaz!"
A police officer pulled him away. "I'm sorry. There's nothing you can do for him now," the officer said calmly.
"Are you Keith Montrose?" another officer asked him.
"Yeah, I'm Keith," he said, choking back tears.
"Mr. Montrose, we have some questions to ask you," the officer said. "Did you see who shot Mr. Milton?"
"It was a wild-eyed fellow, said his name was Randy," Keith said. "He came in about some merchandise..."
"It wasn't you?" the officer interrupted.
"No! Chaz was... He was like a father to me! Damn you, why would I shoot my best friend?" Keith cried.
"Anger can make us do crazy things, can't it?" the second officer said, holding up the pistol, now sealed in an evidence bag. "Now we have two witnesses who said they saw you take off running right after they heard gunshots being fired. Would you mind telling us what that's all about?"
"It was that guy, Randy... I chased him down to the river, he jumped in, I didn't see him come back up. Look, the guy you want is probably dead, OK? If you don't believe me, you can look at the security camera."
"The cameras were switched off," the second officer said. "Now, are you going to come clean or are we going to have to swab you?"
"I'm telling the truth!" Keith insisted.
"Swab him!" the officer commanded. At that the first officer who had spoken to him seized Keith, pinning his hands behind his back as he swabbed a staining solution on his palm.
"He's clean," the first officer said. "No residue."
The second officer narrowed his eyes. "You're very clever," he said, just as an ambulance crew arrived to take Chaz's body from behind the counter. "If you're lying, we'll find out... Cathar!" He turned to the first officer. "Secure the area, this is a crime scene. Mr. Montrose, is there anything you need here before we close up?"
Keith thought for a moment. He could leave the NES, but it would most likely end up in a police evidence locker, depriving him of a few thousand dollars at a time when the shop was in danger of going under. Yes, it was evidence and it had Randy's prints on it, but they could get prints and hair samples off the old TV if they needed to. And anyway, it wasn't like it would make any difference if they could catch the guy. They'd need to dredge the river to find him. The poor bastard had already paid for his crimes.
"This console," said Keith. "We used it to test the old TV that wild-eyed man brought in."
"Alright, pack it up and get out of here," the second officer said. "We'll let you know if we need anything else."
Keith gathered up the numerous cables, controllers, and cartridges and boxed them up, turning the sign on the door to read "closed," then made his way sadly to his pod, still too numb to cry.
* * *
"Chaz is dead?" Tara gasped. "How?"
"Some random guy off the street came in and shot him, for no reason," Keith sobbed. "Just shot him, two shots and he was out the door... I think it was a paid hit, the cop who investigated even looked me straight in the eye and yelled 'Cathar!' He had that look in his eye like he wanted me dead too..."
"I'm so sorry," said Tara, sitting next to Keith, resting a hand on his. "I know how much he meant to you."
"If I don't make a sale soon, I'm going to lose the shop," he said. "Chaz always knew how to pull a few strings and stay open another month, but he never told me how he did it. I've got this old Nintendo set that seems to work, but if I can't sell that in the next month the shop's done."
"Is there anything I can do?" Tara asked.
"I need to be alone, if that's okay," Keith said quietly.
"Are you going to be alright?" Tara persisted.
"I think so, I just need some time," Keith replied, his eyes cast down at the fraying carpet.
"I'll let you be then," she said gently, kissing him on the forehead. "If you need anything, I'll be around."
"Thank you," Keith replied.
As Tara left, Keith went over to the hall closet where he kept an old JVC dual-system TV set from the mid 1980s. It was an expensive item, a museum piece really, but it was necessary to test the various pieces of antique audio and video equipment he handled from time to time as an antique dealer.
The set was kept wrapped in several layers of plastic wrap, and already, after only a few months, the plastic wrap had begun to go brown and opaque with decay.
He carefully unwrapped the set and placed it on the coffee table, plugging it in and hooking up the old NES, hoping it would work for him.
He took the cartridge with Greek writing on it and looked it over. The cartridge looked alright; if it didn't work, maybe it could be coerced to work?
Remembering what he'd seen Chaz do, he blew on the open end of the cartridge, then put it into the console and started it up.
To his surprise, it started right up. It showed the same Greek phrase, the Ankh symbol, and below it the phrase "Know Thyself" and a copyright date of 1989. An electronic version of the first few measures of Beethoven's overture from "Fidelio" began to play, then the screen went dark, the console went silent, and text began to appear letter by letter:
In 1244, the crusade against the Cathars reached its tragic conclusion at Montsegur, when the last of the Cathar clergy were burned at the stake. However, it is said that before their death, they prophesied...
The screen went dark again, then in larger letters, more text appeared.
After 700 years are passed, the laurel will green once more.
Keith felt his heart stop for just a moment. That was exactly what Chaz had said to him.
The graphic on the screen changed to an 8 bit desert with a pixelated Arab leading a heavy-laden camel and the caption "Nag Hammadi, Egypt- 1945." The pixel man on screen fell into a cave full of scrolls. The screen went dark again.
Of course! The Nag Hammadi codices! They had been banned after the General Religions Act- which made practicing religions that had not been vetted for "terrorist tendencies" a crime was passed in 2051. In reality, the act was used to restrict the choice of religions to a few approved denominations of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and most mainline sects of Judaism or else to force the rest of the population remain unaffiliated with a religious group altogether. When the law passed, Keith had mailed his copy of a 2020's English translation of the codices to a friend in Germany, but it had been intercepted by US customs and confiscated.
The game's introduction ended with a black screen with the words "Stare directly at the center of the screen and press 'Start' to begin" displayed in plain text. Keith fixed his eyes on the center of the screen and pressed the start button.
Suddenly, a bright flash of indescribably-colored light- far brighter than the simple flicker of an old TV set- burst into his eyes. Keith felt disoriented and nauseated, and felt himself pass out.
When he came to, a selection screen awaited him. At the top was the text:
Play one level each day. In this way the laurel will green once more.
Below that were the various levels:
Day One- Clear the Air
Day Two- Restore What Is Broken
Day Three- Heal the Sick
Day Four- Raise the Dead
He hesitated a moment. Didn't that flash give him a seizure, or something like that? It didn't seem a good idea to keep going. And yet, the part of him that was still faithful, still clinging to that shred of hope that a miracle would occur, pressed him onward.
With his hand now trembling, Keith selected "Day One- Clear the Air" and pressed "Start."
The screen showed a green field of pixels with a brown haze lingering in the air over it. A Dutch-style windmill was there, partly-hidden by the haze. The text said:
Gather the parts to fix the windmill.
What followed was a long, surprisingly difficult side-scroll game where knights in black armor would try to stop his sprite from gathering the necessary parts. On the top of the screen, a counter told how many of the six necessary parts he had gathered.
What followed was more than an hour of trying to gather these parts, through many attempts, though the game seemed unbeatable. It was only on the fifteenth attempt that he realized that the gold colored blocks with Ankh symbols that appeared at random intervals throughout the game contained extra lives, and that using these was the only way to possibly complete the level because there were so many hazards.
With that realization, the game went smoothly and in another fifteen minutes, he'd managed to gather the last part of the windmill only to realize that the game did not return him automatically to the windmill; he had to reverse back through the map, dodging the same hazards, then arrived at the windmill and sent his sprite inside only to see the words "Fix the windmill" appear on screen.
This wasn't easy. The parts were all random shapes, and there was no easy indication as to where they went. Another fifteen minutes of fiddling, though, and he had manipulated the last piece of the windmill.
The screen changed to the outside of the windmill. Its blades began to turn as cheerful electronic music began to play, and the brown haze began to blow off screen.
Windmills do not work that way! he thought cynically to himself, though he had to admit that this was a formidable side-scrolling puzzle platformer that shouldn't have been so terribly obscure. Maybe if not for the label written entirely in Greek, he thought.
Still, intriguing as it was, would it be worth dragging the TV and the console out to play again tomorrow?
Keith decided to sleep on it. He got a roll of plastic wrap from the kitchen and carefully wrapped the console, cartridges, and TV set in it, then set them in the closet under a pile of linens to keep the air flow around them minimal, then decided to call it a night.