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.
Here's Day 3 of this story.
The next day, Keith stepped out of his apartment to his pod only to be greeted by an incredible sight.
The haze that had lingered over the Columbia Valley and wafted across much of North America - that had lifted only briefly and partially for a few days over the last 20 years- was entirely gone. Even the filthy brown residue it left behind seemed completely gone.
The sky was not bright and blue, of course; it was overcast and threatening to rain. But as Keith cautiously removed his respirator, standing next to the now-clean pod, a curious sweet smell hit his nose. It took him a moment to remember what that smell was, a smell he hadn't experienced since he was a boy.
It was the smell of spring rain. Fresh, pure, and welcoming.
Keith felt a tremendous swell of joy in his heart as he climbed into his pod, sad to be sealed inside a bubble on a day like this.
"Welcome, Keith," the pod said.
"To work," he said. "Also, can you get me an air quality report?"
"One moment please," the pod said as it advanced toward the highway. "Air quality- Excellent. Pollutants at acceptable levels. No hazard."
"What's the rain acidity forecast?" Keith asked.
"Rain pH levels expected at 5.3. Acidity normal," the pod responded in a smooth voice.
"Incredible," he breathed as the pod carried him across the hills. The rain had been averaging a pH of 3.2 though one particularly disastrous day not long ago had seen many trees killed by rain with a pH of 2.6.
Did it have something to do with that game? It was a funny sort of game after all, with that weird introduction and the curiously challenging puzzle game at the end. But an antique video game couldn't clear the air of decades of toxic fumes and acid rain, could it?
That was silly. This was probably an atmospheric phenomenon. The brown haze and drizzling sulfuric acid would come again, and the world would be miserable once more.
The city of Portland certainly looked no better. The same crumbling masonry buildings, collapsed bridges, corpses, rickety ferry, abandoned cars and mountains of trash awaited him... and at the end of his commute, an empty store.
One of the police officers Keith had spoken to the day before was there, standing outside the shop, also without his respirator.
"Can I open shop today?" Keith asked.
"Not today," the officer said. "We should be wrapped up by this evening. We'll give you a call."
Keith shoved his hands into his pockets and walked back to his pod. The closed shop, the door covered in police tape, was all he needed to see to remind him of the awful truth: Chaz, his friend and mentor, was dead, killed in a senseless act of violence... and the same thing would probably happen to him.
On his way back to the apartment, Keith thought about Chaz's last minutes. He had died alone, with no one to recite the ritual of Consolamentum- the sacred last rites of the Cathars- as he lay on the brink of the unknown, either to find his way to everlasting glory on his own, or to be born again and experience life- its joys and sufferings alike- all over again.
Or maybe it was all silly superstition. It seemed almost comforting to think of death as the final exit in light of the prospect of returning over and over, to be robbed, raped, betrayed, attacked, killed, and dishonored again and again, across innumerable lifetimes. He had often heard professors and preachers alike declare that the concept of reincarnation was "wishful thinking," but compared to a cozy oblivion or an easy ticket to heaven, it was a cold comfort to say the least.
"Where are you now, Chaz?" he whispered softly as he gazed at the sky, the clouds starting to become more scattered as a bright blue sky became visible.
He arrived back at his apartment sooner than expected, and Keith found Tara on her Omnax with a stack of documents next to her.
"You're home early," she said.
"The police said they'll be done with the shop by this evening," Keith sighed. "I'll lose another day of business."
"I'm looking for jobs, actually," she said. "There's a position for a grocery clerk up in Spokane, and one for a car detailer down in Yreka..."
"I really don't want to have to move," Keith said. "I've lived here all my life."
"Well, I don't want to end up homeless in Portland!" Tara replied. "You've seen how it is. You'll get knifed on the first day, and that's if the twitchers don't infect you first!"
"We're not going to end up homeless," Keith protested. "Just give it some time. We'll make it work. Things are already getting better. Did you see the sky today? No haze at all!"
"What haze?" she asked, looking confused.
"The haze that can kill you within ten minutes if you go outside without a respirator?" Keith said.
"Is that why you have that silly thing sticking out of your coat pocket?" she asked. "I'm not sure what you mean. The air's always been fine."
"Then why did we buy this..." Keith turned to where the air quality gauge on the wall should have been, but it wasn't there. "...never mind. Must have been a dream I had."
"Maybe the stress is getting to you, hon," Tara said. "I know how much Chaz meant to you. You deserve a day off."
"I suppose so," said Keith, going to the kitchen and pouring himself a glass of milk... milk that wouldn't spoil in ten minutes if he left it on the counter. How weird it seemed to him, but to Tara it must be second nature.
"Want to see how that old NES works?" Keith asked.
"Maybe in a bit," Tara replied. "Let me finish these applications, okay?"
"Alright," Keith sighed. "But I really don't want to move to Yreka... or Spokane."
* * *
A little while later, after an awkward conversation about why the console and the antique TV were wrapped obsessively tight in clingwrap, Tara and Keith sat in the living room.
"So the first thing you do is you wire up these video and audio cables and this antenna cable... they didn't have wireless docks back then," Keith explained. "Then you plug in the controllers here in the front, in these big chunky slots. Now you switch on the TV, make sure it's on channel 3, and put a cartridge into the console..."
He grabbed the strange game he'd been playing the night before without hesitation and put it in the console. "Now you just press the 'Power' button..."
He pressed the button and the title screen for the game displayed, this time playing a bleepy electronic version of "O Welche Lust" from "Fidelio."
Tara chuckled. "Oh my god! Look at those awful graphics!" she giggled. "Someone will pay thousands of bucks for this?"
"Well hey, this was almost seventy years ago!" Keith said. "And these had a huge following. They were still making new systems to play games made for this console well into the 2010s, though almost none of them survive and they're not nearly as valuable. This is an original, and it's immaculate. Only an original Famicom is more valuable... that, or an earlier console like the Atari 2600."
"Not many people left alive who remember these old consoles, though," said Tara.
That was when the tears Keith hadn't been able to find the day before finally broke through.
It finally hit home: Chaz was gone. The old man had taken him in, introduced him to the Neo-Cathar community, taught him how to run his antique store, and helped him and Tara through so many difficult times.
The tears came, thick and uncontrollable. Sobs tore through his body, each one a shock of physical pain as his muscles tensed, his nose ran, and his eyelids ground against each other.
Keith hadn't cried like this since he was a little child, and it was terrifying to lose control like this, especially in front of Tara. He was supposed to be the calm one! Where was his strength now? Without Chaz, he had no hope for anything but abject poverty and a short life in a dying world as food prices spiraled, and people all around him lay dying, twitching in the streets, left to rot where they fell. How the hell had Chaz kept an antique store open in this world? It was more than Keith could do... he could never hope to match what Keith had done, keeping the only antique store left in Portland- perhaps in the entire Northwest- open just a little while longer.
"I'm too weak," he sobbed again and again. "I'm too weak."
"I'm sorry," Tara said "Do you want me to help you put this all away?"
"No, that's OK," said Keith, starting the game.
This time, a new intro greeted him. The screen went black as the text appeared word by word in white letters:
The Nag Hammadi Codices were buried in the desert by members of an early Gnostic church. They had been persecuted since the days of the emperor Constantine, who saw Gnostic theology as a threat to his power. He encouraged the more authoritarian wing of the church to flourish, and filled churches with colossal images of himself.
This was followed by a screen showing a reconstruction of a colossal statue of the emperor in a Roman basilica.
"Seems a bit biased," said Tara.
"Maybe just a bit, yeah, but it's not terribly far off from the truth," said Keith. "Many of the things decided at the Council of Nicea were things the church most often held against Gnostics throughout the centuries. I think the bit about the colossal statues might have to do with the basilicas being civic buildings originally, though."
More text appeared on the screen.
Still, Gnosticism held on, until the church actively tried to stamp out what it saw as heresy. Then in the Middle Ages, a Gnostic sect called the Good Men, or the Cathars, arrived in France. They were peaceful vegetarians who treated men and women as equals in faith and posed the first real challenge to the established church. This sparked a long and bloody war in which many Cathars were killed and the sect wiped out.
The scene showed the same knights from the first level of the game, riding into a village and slaughtering villagers, then tossing a torch onto the thatched roof of a house an letting it burn. The screen went black again and new text appeared.
After the siege of Beziers, soldiers were ordered to slaughter the whole city, some of whom weren't even Cathars, the local abbot said...
The image changed to that of a scowling abbot pointing to a crowd of peasants and one line of text.
...Kill them all. Let God sort them out.
Tara shuddered. "Is that true?!? My great-great-great-grandfather had a patch on his jacket that said that! It had a skull and some lightning bolts on it. Mom used to keep that jacket in the attic and would take it out every now and then. I always wondered why someone would say something like that though."
"It's more or less true," said Keith. "It was more like, 'Kill them all, God will know his own.' Pretty much the same meaning."
Then, abruptly, the screen went dark and the bright flash of indescribable color came. This time, the last thing Keith saw before he passed out was the word "Elijah."
He woke to Tara screaming and shaking him.
"Keith! Keith!" she called. "Can you talk to me, sweetie? It's OK, I'm gonna get you some help," she said, taking out her Omnax.
"Put that thing away," Keith growled, sitting up as if nothing had happened. "The same thing happened yesterday too."
"You just fainted for no reason while playing with that old Nintendo set twice?" Tara asked.
"I didn't faint for no reason, I fainted because of that bright flash. It did something to me," Keith replied.
"I didn't see any flash," Tara breathed. "Keith, are you sure you're okay? This sounds like a seizure."
"I'm fine. It's just a quirk of the game is all. It hasn't hurt me, the thing's hit me twice and I got over it pretty quick," said Keith, noticing a touch of vertigo as he sat up in his seat.
Tara frowned. "It was full of a bunch of Cathar stuff, hon. Maybe it's some kind of weird weapon they're using to try to kill you?"
"Tara, please! This is no time to get paranoid!" he said, putting up his hand. "Look, I'm scared too, but they're not going to create some kind of killer light beam generator just to kill me. I'm a nobody, and I went underground with the faith ages ago. They have nothing on me. Here, see? I'll play the rest of this game and it'll be just fine."
Keith selected "Day Two- Restore What Is Broken" and pressed start.
It showed a medieval walled city, crumbling.
Beziers lays in ruin. To restore the city, find the ancient scrolls hidden somewhere in the city but beware, the armies of the Inquisition are after you!
The game became a side-scroller full of hazards like the Day 1 game, but much more difficult. The black knights were faster this time, and they were joined by an abbot figure who would spawn twenty knights if he touched the player's sprite. Once again, the player could only finish a round by using extra lives, which were harder to find at this level.
After about an hour of this, Tara shifted in her seat. "I'm starting to get bored with this, hon," she said.
"Aww, OK," said Keith. "I'll probably stop after I beat this game. There was a puzzle level after the side-scroller level last time so I'll be at it a bit."
"I'm going to our room to watch my Omnax," said Tara. "Try not to be up too late, OK?"
"I won't, hon," said Keith as he guided his sprite through a maze-like cityscape crawling with black knights.
It took another half hour before Keith had finished the level. His sprite was now in a subterranean chamber, and some text came up on the screen.
Curses! It's all in cipher. Use your code wheel to de-code the text. Hurry!
A passage of random symbols, a code wheel that showed what letters matched with the symbols, and a timer showing nine minutes and fifty-nine seconds appeared on the screen.
Using his controller, he went one by one with each symbol, scrolling through a series of letters until the right one came up, the same way a player would while entering their name in other games. It took about five minutes altogether, and the text was just random letters.
Then, a second cipher came up, this one with two parallel alphabets. The first letters of the top line spelled out "YSEGRIN" followed by all the rest of the letters not used in that word, while the bottom line featured the letters from A to Z in their correct order.
Ysegrin... that was medieval slang for a corrupt and contemptible priest. Must be referring to that awful abbot, he mused, then paused. Where did he know that from?
The clock ticked away, and working as fast as he could, Keith revealed the message with three seconds to spare:
The one who seeks should not cease seeking until he finds.
At that, the screen went solid white, then changed to a screen of the town of Beziers, restored to its normal state. Strangely, with its bridge and the layout of the city spilling down from the slope of a hill, it almost reminded him of Portland as it was before the quake.
"You've restored Beziers! But your work is still not complete. Day 3 of your quest awaits!"
With that, the game returned to its menu.
I wonder if it'll do that thing again tomorrow, Keith thought, though not quite sure which unusual "thing" he was referring to, the weird Elijah bolts to the head or the fact that "clear the air" did seem to clear the air with no one seeming to remember what the air was like before.