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.
Sorry for the long absence! Here's the conclusion. I'll have another story soon hopefully.
Tara rolled over, letting out a soft moan.
On the nightstand next to her, the alarm clock in Keith's Omnax had gone off.
Keith leaned over her, grabbing the flat Graphene sheet and tapping it once, then moving back to his side of the bed and yawning sleepily.
"What the hell?" said Tara, feeling the piece of paper under her and reading it. "Was I really stoned last night" she asked.
"No, remember? I asked you to join me in witnessing a miracle," said Keith.
"I vaguely remember that, but not much else," she said.
"You mean there's no such thing as Twitching Death?" Keith asked.
"There was," said Tara. "They cured it, remember? It killed a lot of people, but they developed a vaccine. I'd have to be pretty stoned to write a note to myself about it as if I wouldn't know in the morning."
Keith sighed. She wasn't stoned when she wrote that note. She was stone-cold sober. He shook his head.
"Yeah, I guess I'm crazy then," said Keith. He got up and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
"Wait... hon, where are you going?" asked Tara.
"To work," said Keith.
"I think you should stay home, hon," Tara replied. "You're in no condition to go to work. You need to take it easy!"
"Hey, crazy or not, I've got to put food on the table," said Keith. "I'll be fine. I can still run the shop."
He threw on his clothes, grabbed his things, and ran out the door, hoping to get downtown early to see exactly what difference this latest change had made.
The drive to work was slow. With the remaining population now well, the city now in good condition, and the air now clear, the 26 into downtown was bumper-to-bumper for the first time Keith had seen in many years.
His pod made slow progress in a sea of a few thousand pods all swarming the Vista Ridge tunnel like colorful ants streaming in and out of their mound. There were even a few proper cars out this time, though the tiny, nimble electric commuter pods still outnumbered them a hundred to one.
A little while later, he arrived at the shop and found the street outside the shop busy with street musicians, people down on their luck, scores of pedestrians and cyclists moving from point A to point B on their usual routines.
The shop was the busiest it had been in forever for Keith, and he was unaccustomed to having this many customers. He could barely keep up. By the end of the day, he had sold a mid- 20th century hand-made brooch pin, a small collection of 2008 election campaign memorabilia, three books of Victorian sheet music for Harmonium, a copy of "The Vision of Godric the Heretic" from the mid 1950s, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder from the early 80s.
But by the end of the day, there was no one to make small talk about how busy the day had been, or to count cash with him. After the shop closed, it became painfully quiet and Keith found he had to put some music on his Omnax to keep from feeling so jittery while he closed shop.
Then it was time to go home... time to play that game again and see if it could really raise the dead. He wanted to know if it would work; he'd seen three miracles in three days so he had real reason to hope it would.
But would it really be right if I could bring back Chaz? Keith thought. Maybe it's more than I ought to intervene with... then again, it is a miracle, isn't it? If it's a miracle that I'm capable of making happen, then I owe it to Chaz and everyone who loved him to try.
But would it really be that easy? He had seen Chaz dead, looked into his lifeless eyes as he lay there on the floor. He had seen them cart away his body. He had pretty well accepted that his friend was gone by now and it would be weird and awkward to have him back. Suddenly, having to do this after he had just begun to let go seemed more painful than he had realized.
Maybe it'll just be the victims of that plague, Keith thought. Maybe it won't bring back Chaz. Then how would I feel?
In that light, it made more sense to hope that Chaz would be alright after all.
* * *
At about 7: 30 Keith arrived home, and almost immediately, he went to set up the console.
"Oh, hey hon," said Tara as he fumbled with the video cables. "I need to take the pod. I need to go over to Jasmine's place for a bit. She's really upset about something."
Keith paused a moment. Twenty-four hours ago, she would never have volunteered to venture over to her sister's place, or even out of the apartment for anything but necessities. But Tara thought nothing of it. She was going over to see her sister across town as if it was nothing out of the ordinary.
"Sorry I took so long getting home then. Things got really busy. Tell her I said Hi," said Keith, wondering if Jasmine would even remember his face after all this time.
"Alright hon. Love you," she said.
"Love you too, dear," said Keith, still a bit shocked by how disturbingly normal things had become.
Tara left, and Keith decided to do dinner on his own. Tara and Jasmine were close, and he was sure they'd be a while.
He opened the refrigerator and freezer to find them brimming with food. Before, they would have been nearly empty. Keith took out a bag of frozen french fries from the freezer and set them on the counter. He took a Styrofoam tray of fresh mushrooms, eggs and beer from the fridge. In the cabinet he found tempura mix and peanut oil. Perfect!
In a short while, he had whipped up a decent snack of fried mushrooms and french fries. It had been years since he'd eaten this well; Keith had grown accustomed to ramen and macaroni at this point since everything else was too expensive or hard to find.
He gazed at it there happily, on a cheap but cheerful red plate. He took a couple of the french fries and ate them, then tried one of the mushrooms, then another.
After devouring the meal before he could even sit down with it, Keith switched on the NES.
Here goes nothing, he thought.
This time the intro was incredibly short. A white text said:
Now the time has come. Undo this injustice. It has been appointed you to raise the dead. Go to Montsegur where your brothers and sisters lay burned and slain. But beware: the Armies of the Inquisition know you're coming."
What followed was a side-scroller with a simple mission: travel to Montsegur on a route crawling with black knights.
Very much aware of how difficult this game would be, Keith made it a point to round up all of the extra lives he could find in the early, easy part of the game and still grabbed them wherever he could.
About midway through, it became such that you couldn't advance more than two screens without losing a life. Black knights poured out of cottages and castles in pursuit.
Suddenly, Keith heard a knock at the door. "Police! Open the door!" he heard a voice shout.
On the screen there suddenly appeared a message in large letters:
Keith's hands shook. He knew why they were here. It wasn't because he was a Cathar; that wasn't a crime any more. It was a murder suspect they wanted.
Keith tried to keep playing, his palms sweating and his pulse racing.
The police began to ram the door. Keith could hear the timber framing of the door crack and split with each strike. But again the same message appeared on the screen.
Then, suddenly, the police burst through the door, guns drawn, in solid black uniforms with full-face helmets and carrying fearsome-looking bullpup-style .308 rifles.
"Hands in the air!" Keith heard them shout, just before he saw on the screen that he had reached Montsegur and the black knights had disappeared.
Keith then raised his arms, expecting to be frisked.
Nothing. Stillness and silence.
Keith turned. His front door was exactly as it had been earlier, not rammed open. There were no police, and no guns pointed at him... and no knights on the screen.
Keith shuddered, then went on to playing the next level, now certain that it would do something.
The next level wasn't a puzzle level as it had been before. In fact it was boringly simple.
Strike the earth with your staff. Every strike will raise one person. To strike press A.
Keith hit the A button and the screen flashed. A score in the corner began to display.
Suddenly he realized how tedious this was going to be. If he wanted a good chance of raising Chaz, he would have to raise tens or hundreds of thousands of people or else he'd have almost no chance.
So that's how it's got to be. No ulterior motives of bringing back someone I loved. I have to think of all the other people I'm bringing back. If Chaz is one of them, that's wonderful, but if he's not, he wouldn't want me to be upset. He'd want me to be happy for all the others.
He smiled as he thought of how generous and considerate Chaz had been. With his heart now a thousand times lighter, Keith began to press the "A" button in rapid succession.
Keith managed to repeat this simple action 657,291 times before a transformer exploded nearby in a shower of blue sparks, sending the neighborhood into darkness as power to the entire apartment complex failed.
By this time, his strength had failed him. He collapsed onto the couch, matted with sweat and panting. Whatever happens now, thought Keith, I did all I could.
He began to cry softly, his composure suddenly crumbling. The last few games had wrought miracles, but this one had truly scared him when the black knights on the screen became real police in his apartment, and only now, as the adrenaline wore off, did Keith realize just how upset he really was.
He got up weakly and dragged himself to bed, checking his Omnax as he settled into the cushions.
There was a voice mail from Tara.
"Hi, hon, hope you don't mind, Jasmine and I were up kind of late talking, so I decided to stay the night here. Hope you're OK. Love you! See you tomorrow evening!"
Keith sighed. He didn't want to have to sleep alone after what had happened. He lay there, half-awake, his eyes wide open for most of the night until sleep finally found him in the wee hours of the morning.
* * *
"Hey there!" said a warm, familiar voice as Keith walked into the antique store the next day.
Keith shuddered. Predictable, but still incredible, he thought to himself.
"What's wrong?" asked Chaz. "You look rough, Keith."
"Nothing," Keith said, coming behind the counter and embracing the old man. "It's nothing, I'll be fine."
"You're acting weird," said Chaz.
"Just had a bit of trouble sleeping, that's all. People knocking on my door late at night, wasting my time, you know how that is," said Keith.
"Yeah, I know how that is," said Chaz. "Back when I was just starting out with my own apartment, there were these kids down the stairs who would pull a ding-dong-dash at 11:30 in the evening!"
"Anyway, I'll be fine to put in hours today. If it's anything like yesterday, I'll have plenty to do to keep me awake," said Keith.
A grin spread across Chaz's face. "Are you kidding? Yesterday was slow!" he said.
* * *
The next day, Keith got the day off and made it a point to talk to someone about this weird affair with the game console.
He called up Kate, an older woman who had been Keith's mentor. Kate was a Parfaite or ascetic, the nearest thing in the Cathar faith to clergy, and she was wonderfully insightful and helpful. He had met her through Chaz, and they had built a good rapport that allowed Keith to discuss his deepest concerns, misgivings, doubts, fears, and ambitions. She never met him with judgment or tried to fix him, she just listened and helped him solve his own problems by asking the right questions.
It was a nice day, and the two agreed to meet at the Hoyt Arboretum, among the grove of giant sequoias that formed the most tranquil part of the park. A heavy mist crawled through the columnar trunks of the giant trees, cascading over hillsides covered in giant ferns and settling in low valleys where rain-swollen streams ran.
There was Kate, in her usual ankle-length paisley skirt and knit top. "Hi Keith, how are you?" she said warmly, embracing him. "It's been a while."
"Yeah, life's kept me busy," said Keith.
"So you said there's something bothering you?" said Kate.
"Well... it's hard to explain. Just a few days ago, I could have sworn the skies were so polluted you couldn't be outside without a respirator, this disease called the Twitching Death killed two thirds of Portland, and an earthquake had laid the city waste but it was never rebuilt. And to make things worse, they were rounding up Cathars, accusing us of having 'terrorist tendencies.' Then there was this guy who came in with an old game console from the late 80s, and we were treating it like some kind of treasure, as if the bad air had made them a rare item. Seems the guy wanted eight thousand bucks for it. So we told him we wanted to see it work, he comes in the next day, and while we're setting up he shoots Chaz. Kills him."
"Wait, what?" said Kate, her eyes going wide.
"No, don't worry, he's fine. But five days ago he wasn't... at least that's what I think happened," Keith replied. "Anyway, this guy went running, so I chased after him, and he jumped in the river and got swept away. I couldn't do anything. I went back to the shop and the police were waiting for me. They acted like they thought I killed him. But then they left me alone, and they let me take that old console for some reason. Now, this is the weird part..."
He went on to tell her about the mysterious game and how each level seemed to increasingly invade his world until, by the end of the game, he wasn't sure if it was a SWAT team or the Armies of the Inquisition breaking down his door in the early morning hours.
Kate rubbed her chin. "I'm going to have to think about this one," she said. "But you might be interested to know I had a dream about the world you just described once. I was stuck inside my apartment, afraid for my life, because this disease was killing everyone and I was wanted for my faith. Then they came for me. The last thing I saw was those police, with helmets like Teutonic knights, pointing their guns at me. Then I woke up screaming and crying. It never happened again."
"But it wasn't a dream, look!"
Keith took the mysterious game cartridge out of his coat pocket and shuddered. The plastic was now yellowed, cracked, and corroded so badly that it crumbled in his hands and fell in pieces on the ground, exposing the corroded metal and cracking plastic of the circuitry inside. The thing looked more than a thousand years old.
"I don't understand," said Keith. "It was whole when I left the apartment, I swear!"
"I believe you," said Kate. "But now it looks like it's corroded pretty bad."
"This is the way things would corrode back when the air was all brown and toxic," Keith said sadly. "I don't understand."
"It couldn't cross planes of reality, perhaps," said Kate. "I don't know, really."
"Could the world become like that again?" asked Keith.
"Absolutely," Kate replied. "The illusion is imperfect. The lower plane you just ascended from is one of many above and below us. At any time we can move up or down to better or worse planes according to our willingness to be overwhelmed by the illusion."
"But these plane shifts must be imperceptible?" Keith asked. "At least, to people who aren't insane?"
"To most people, yes," said Kate. "Only the really gifted and the really unhinged tend to notice. Children notice too, especially when they're young, but most grow out of it. Some re-learn that sight, either through focus or through madness, but you always know the ones who do it by focus: they're not full of fear and hate. You're not crazy, Keith. You've got some good things going in your life and I can't imagine if you were crazy you'd be doing this well."
Keith shook his head. "Well, time will tell. If I start losing my grip completely..."
"...then you go on and get help, dear. But it looks to me like you're a long way from losing your grip, trust me!" Kate replied.
"One more thing," said Keith. "Why would the Light speak to me through a video game cartridge anyway?"
"The light can manifest in anything or anyone," said Kate. "But it tends to move from the lowest strata to the highest. It's kind of the same way enlightenment works, like the Kundalini moving up the chakras, or the paths of the Tree of life move from the lowest Sephirot to the highest. In Buddhism, it's a lotus blossom that rises out of the mud. Same concept. So if the Light couldn't get through to you some other way and needed to invade your world, it'd invade your world by becoming part of it and what better way to do that than as a normal object, rising out of the trash of this world to catch your attention?"
"I hadn't thought of that," said Keith. "It kind of makes what Chaz said make sense, about hearing the voice of God between the words in radio commercials when he was a boy."
Kate's eyes went wide. "You know, I thought I was the only one who heard that," she half-whispered.