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.
On Day 4, things get really interesting!
"Predictable but incredible," murmured Keith as his pod- now in better than new condition- came over the crest of the hill and gave him his first view through the trees of Portland as it was. The game, it seemed, had worked a bona fide miracle on a grand scale.
Throughout the town, the sick and dying still lay on the sidewalks and alleyways, and there were few healthy people to be seen, but there was no sign of the earthquake that had killed this once-lively city.
Then Keith saw the Burnside Bridge, exactly as he remembered it, its bascules together and straight for the first time in many years.
The piles of trash and burnt cars were all gone, too. Some buildings even looked better than he remembered, stripped of later mid-century facades to reveal ornate brick work from the 1910s and 20s, though many of them strangely empty even as a few long-dormant businesses seemed to be thriving again. If not for the twitchers, it might have been tempting to give work a miss and go for a walk, something Keith hadn't been able to do safely in many years.
Then on MLK, Keith noticed something that caught his attention. "Stop here!" he said to the pod.
"Yes sir," the pod replied, stopping in front of an old brick building with a sign painted on the glass that read "Montsegur Cathar Charities." The place had been closed for the last four years, but he saw a few people inside.
He stepped inside.
"Hi, may I help you?" said a young brown-haired woman who stepped in from the back hallway. She had a Toulouse Cross pendant on her necklace, a very elegant one made of gold and decorated with jasper and chalcedony that must have cost a fortune.
"How long have you been open?" asked Keith.
"Since 2036," she replied.
"I mean since they closed the place down back in '51," Keith persisted.
"They never..." she began.
"...they never closed you down," Keith interjected. "Incredible. Predictable, but still incredible."
Keith began to laugh nervously. Was that game really calling down divine powers, or were those flashes at the start of the game slowly causing him to lose his mind? Maybe it was a seizure, like a petit mal from something that flash did to his temporal lobe?
"You know what? Never mind," said Keith, opening his arms. "I'm just thankful to meet a fellow Cathar... I've been away for a while. Can I have a hug, sister?"
The two embraced. "Hope you're okay," she said. "You look positively haunted. Portland has one of the highest concentrations of Cathars in America. You'll find plenty of Bon Chretien here."
"I'll be fine," Keith replied. "Funny, I've lived here all my life and I didn't know."
You're a bad liar, Keith, he thought to himself. The City of Roses had long since become a Cathar stronghold. A shudder went through him as he thought of Beziers, its hills and bridges that looked just a bit like Portland, if you squinted enough...
The two chatted a moment longer, then Keith made his way for the antique shop.
* * *
The worst thing Keith had to do that day was clean up the blood behind the counter. There was not a lot to be done with most of it; the best he could manage was an ugly brown stain on the wall and floor that would have to be covered with paint and a rug.
No one came into the shop all day, strangely, and it gave him time to catch up on some chores and to check the shop to make sure nothing was missing after having the place closed to everyone but the police. These days, valuable items seemed to disappear quite regularly whenever the police investigated a place. It had been that way since the earthquake and the Twitching Death, really.
Since the earthquake that never happened... he thought as he surveyed the store. Not a single item looked the least bit out of place.
There was, however, an item that caught his eye.
Resting on an old upright piano was a 1955 translation of the Jung Codex, the very first translation of any part of the Nag Hammadi library to see print in modern times.
Keith picked it up. His first instinct was to go hide it somewhere, or destroy it so he wouldn't get caught with it, but he thought better of it; if a Cathar charity could operate openly in this new world he'd woken up in, then he could be seen reading a copy of the Jung Codex. The General Religions Act had never happened and years of strife had been undone.
Keith read through the book as he stood behind the counter or lounged behind the curtain in the office, and kept reading as his pod drove him home along smooth, un-damaged streets as the blue skies turned a brilliant orange far to the west. He had lost Chaz, but Keith felt strangely at peace with this for once; he had gained a community of fellow Cathars who could help him if he needed it, just like they had seven years ago when he'd met the old man. Suddenly, he didn't feel so alone in the world.
Tara was there in her usual spot, on the couch watching old movies on the Omnax projector dock. "How was your day?" she asked.
"Kind of slow. Spent the day cleaning up. Do you remember the Religion Act or the earthquake, by the way?" Keith asked.
Tara gave him a strange look. "No," she said, shaking her head.
Keith sat next to her. "But you were with me last night, when I played the level called 'Fix that which is broken.' You had to have known last night that Portland was a mess after the earthquake, and I know you knew about the Religion Act, you even said you thought this game was sent as a plot to kill me for being a Cathar," he said.
"Are you alright?" replied Tara. "I'm worried those flashes might be doing something to you, hon."
"I'm fine," said Keith. "Look... play the game with me, alright? Or at least stay and watch for the whole thing. Maybe then you'll see."
Tara sighed. "Fine," she said. "I'll watch you play all the way through. You're starting to scare me, though."
"Please humor me, just this once," said Keith. "I have an idea. You know about the Twitching Death, right?"
"Of course I do!" said Tara. "It's the reason I hardly leave the apartment any more."
"Write it down then," said Keith.
"Why?" asked Tara.
"Just trust me," said Keith. "Write it down now, and keep that piece of paper with you at all times. It doesn't seem to have any effect on objects I'm using or observing at the time..."
"Wait! Wait a minute here!" said Tara. "You're talking crazy, and you're asking me to go along with it. Not cool!"
"Just this evening, hon," said Keith sadly, turning away from her. "Just for tonight. Give me a chance. And if you still think I'm crazy, you can ship me off to the funny farm if it'll make your day brighter."
"You're not going to let this go, are you?" Tara said, exasperated. "Alright, this is your last chance to prove to me that you don't need serious help." She grabbed a pen and paper from a drawer, crumpling the paper slightly and then smashing it hard on the dining room counter to smooth it out. "What do you want me to write dear? Some kind of magic words or symbols?"
"Just write 'Yesterday I knew about the Twitching Death, a disease that killed two thirds..."
"A quarter. It's only killed a quarter of the population," said Tara.
Stopping the earthquake from ever happening must have saved thousands of lives by keeping so many people from becoming homeless, Keith realized. It had started with an unknown carrier, probably a hospital patient contracting a superbug bred in the harsh sterile climate of an operating theater, but it had really taken a grip on the city from the homeless camps that swelled to unmanageable sizes after the quake destroyed so many apartment buildings. Many of them, such as some of the student housing on the PSU campus, were old brick structures, and they weren't designed to withstand a magnitude 8.3 earthquake.
"Fine, a quarter of the population of Portland," said Keith. "Go ahead, write it down."
Tara practically gouged the letters into the paper with the pen. "Fine, I wrote it down. Now what?" she asked.
"Just keep it with you until you wake up tomorrow," said Keith. "Then you'll know for sure that I'm not just imagining this."
She sighed. "You mind if I roast one while I watch you?" she asked.
"Go ahead," said Keith, going to the living room to set up the console.
She sat on the couch and opened the drawer on the coffee table, taking out a bag of some decent home-grown herb, a grinder, some paper, and a pipe, and began to prepare a bowl.
As Keith started the NES, she packed the pipe's bowl and held it to her lips, then lit it with her lighter and took a deep hit, holding it a moment, then blowing out a thick mushroom cloud of pungent smoke.
"Feel better?" asked Keith.
"Yeah," she said, offering him the pipe.
"Not tonight," he said. "My coordination's crap when I'm blazed."
"Okay," she said, taking another hit as a narrow-eyed smirk crossed her face.
This time the intro was different again.
With war comes disease. Marching armies carry deadly germs with them, leaving the survivors of their campaigns frightened and ill.
The screen changed to show a mother and four children huddled in a ruined cottage, shivering and looking sickly.
Then the game select screen came up. Keith selected "Day Three: Heal the Sick" and started the game.
The screen changed to a ruined village of burned and broken cottages. The text said:
Traveling west from Beziers, you come across a ransacked village. The people of this village are ill and disease is spreading. You must gather herbs in the forest. In the hidden Cathar texts you found an herbarium. To consult the Herbarium on which plants to pick, press "A" and to pick a plant, press "B."
This game proved the most tedious of all, and it had the longest learning curve. The idea was to gather the herbs in the herbarium while ignoring plants that looked like healing herbs, but were toxic. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to tell them apart with the small, sparse detail in the 8-bit graphics, and Keith failed several rounds by gathering the wrong plants.
Then, just after Keith had managed to gather all of the plants, the console made a strange sound, a short beep followed by a long beep an octave higher, in a loose imitation of a signal horn. Several knights entered the screen and surrounded his sprite, and he was bumped back to the beginning of the level. Frustrated, he tried to finish the level one more time and this time he managed to finish before the knights could close in.
Then the screen displayed a broken aqueduct and a pile of rubble, and text that said:
"You just need one more thing to make a healing tea: clean water. The Armies of the Inquisition have destroyed the ancient aqueduct that has watered this village and dozens of other villages for over a thousand years. You must rebuild it!"
Tara, who at this time was on her third bowl of the most potent bud she'd ever grown, gazed at the screen giggling, unable to say what had made her laugh so much.
Keith didn't bother to ask.
This puzzle game proved far more difficult than it seemed. There were a lot of pieces, and they all had to fit together just so or the whole thing would collapse and he would have to start again.
He was nearly done when he heard that signal horn sound effect. This time the black knights knocked it down and ended the round.
Surprisingly, it was on his third attempt on the second round when he finally realized that the pieces of the aqueduct were on a randomizer and were never exactly the same when it loaded again. No matter how many times you played, it always took a few tries to figure out how it all went together.
When the last piece was in place, the aqueduct fused into one solid piece and more text appeared on the screen.
"You did it! Thanks to you, many people will be healed."
"Okay, now when the Twitching Death is completely gone tomorrow, remember this!" Keith said to Tara.
"I'll try to, man. I'm pretty blazed," she said with a giggle as Keith turned off the console.
"And if I'm wrong, then you can cart me off to the funny farm," said Keith.
"Don't wanna do that. I love you too much, babe," she said, slinking over to him and laying across his lap.
"I know, hon," he said with a warm smile. He loved the side of her that came out when she was stoned. It was a loving, innocent side of her that didn't hide behind defenses, that knew she was loved and didn't worry that their love would go wrong because she trusted her heart.
"Just wait, you'll see," he said as he stroked her hair lovingly. "If I'm right, I'll show you a miracle tomorrow, love."