Bombi practically glided forward, right past the flickering grass patch. She moved into the tinkertree orchard, only stopping when her nose filled with the smell of wood chips, apples, glass, and machine oil. It certainly was an interesting combination. She turned to ask Morphib what he thought of it, but he was clearly enthralled by something else entirely.
“By the sparkling stars themselves,” the anytaur declared in awe. “That was a decisive move if I’ve ever seen one. I thought you said you struggled? There was a choice before you one moment and you were past it the next!”
“Did you… learn anything?” she asked, stretching one side of her mouth. She wanted to help the pathetic creature, but whether or not he could discern anything was entirely up to him and the nudge that had moved her.
“I did. You’ve got something special Bombi. Something that blows through you and catches you like a sail. I could not feel any breeze around you, so it must be a bit unnatural. Unnatural things are unsavory to most anytaurs, but they’ve already told me I am not among them anyway. I have no reason to not go find some of this unnatural wind myself.”
“Would you like to join me?” she held out her elbow for the creature to take, but he did not advance. He closed his fleshy colorful eyes and shook his head, a slight croaking tremble in his throat pouch.
“I cannot. This was your choice Bombi; I don’t want to step all over it. Besides, it would still kill me to make it without some of that wind. I must be off to find some of it. You wouldn’t have any clues for me would you?”
“Normally I’d recommend talking to runners, but they’re likely to exploit you if they have a chance,” she admitted. “How did I get mine?” She thought for a moment. The smell of the orchard made it difficult to concentrate, plus she heard something like wooden clockwork in the distance. “A pastry shop!”
“What’s a pastry?”
“A golden edible thing of bread and sugar. Lots of towns and cities have shops that sell them. They sit in big displays, taunting you with their smells and colors.”
“How will a pastry shop help me?”
“They always involve incredibly difficult decisions. I’ve seen people straddle their options for minutes, even with a bustling line behind them. Yet, the decision is of little consequence. You should find a pastry shop, with some of our money in hand so you don’t annoy the baker, and try to decide on one to eat. The decision will always be tough, but never of consequence. It would be a great place to look for a friendly nudge.” Morphib’s eyes brightened. He ribbited and slapped his webbed hands together in wet applause.
“Wonderful! Thank you Bombi. I shall go at once. I hope you enjoy your decision. Do not worry; I’ve only ever heard good things about the tinkertrees. They are gentle and clever, like toy puzzles that won’t mock you for failing to solve them! Good luck! I’m off!”
Bombi waved goodbye to the muddled creature as he hopped and slithered back into the trees of the much wilder forest. She was alone now, though she wouldn’t be that way for long, judging by the closeness of the sounds and smells of a tinkertree settlement. She followed them deeper into the organized plot of trees. She hadn’t told Morphib that she’d never made a pastry decision herself, she merely observed her employers do it, but that likely didn’t matter. She had smelled them just as much as anyone else, and imagined being able to pick one out and hand over a hard-earned coin.
There were no clear borders to the tinkertree village, but her surroundings slowly changed until she was obviously in their homes. Copper wires appeared in the perfectly angled branches overhead, sometimes snaking in loose coils and sometimes wrapping them tightly. Suddenly there was steam hanging about, but she was certain it wasn’t from cooking. Yellow lights glowed within the steam; whatever they were they emitted slight buzzing sounds, like teeth snoring in your head.
She reached up and tapped one of the lights, revealing it as a glass bulb swaying on a wire. Even in the wealth of the palatial city she’d never seen electric lighting. It was strange, but not frightening in the least. The spectacle urged her forward, closer to the buzzing and ticking and tocking of the tinkertrees.
She stumbled right into the midst of them, as the entire orchard was their home. There were no walls to keep them apart, no rooves to keep out the rain they drank. They were squat creatures, few of them higher than her breast. They trundled about on root-toes and had branching heads full of bushy green leaves. Their eyes were just bright dots in the seams of their woody skin.
One of them grabbed her by the hand and pulled her into a circle of them. They were dancing, and she was forced to go along with the steps to avoid being run into. It was extremely difficult given the general confusion of the tangle that was their toes and feet. Once they realized she couldn’t keep up she was grabbed by another one and pulled out. The tinkertrees knew their machines, integrated them into every tree around, and they knew when a piece didn’t fit.
“Who are you?” the one that had her by the wrist asked. Their voices were cricket chirps and birdsong; she couldn’t tell if they were male or female.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your… festivities?” Bombi guessed. She bowed.
“Festivities?” the tinkertree pondered aloud. “No, no. This is just life. We dance and sing to encourage our stoic siblings to grow. We put in pieces here and there, wire and glass, and we make our light.” Bombi looked up and around again. There were a hundred bulbs of various shapes, but they all glowed with incredible brightness. “The light keeps us dancing through the night. Nothing has to stop here. We’ve converted time into frivolity through the wonders of science!”
“I hope I’m not too much of a disturbance.”
“That depends on how easy you are to figure out. I ask again, who are you?”
“My name is Bombi. I was… am… Well, have you heard of speed runners?”
“You’re a runner! Oh that’s perfect. No wonder you didn’t fit into the dance. That’s not your place. I know exactly where you fit. Come with me.” The tinkertree dragged her away, towards a series of root-burls upon the ground that had been hollowed into chests and fitted with latches. Their grip on her wrist was tight, but not at all unfriendly. The creature was simply certain of something, a certainty Bombi couldn’t achieve without some of that unnatural wind Morphib had raved about.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re not going anywhere. Just over here. Here’s a tidbit for dealing with us; if you can see your old place from your new place; it’s the same place! That’s never failed us before. Anyway… I’m babbling. I’ll continue babbling to pass the time until I find… aha! This one!” The tinkertree stuck a twig-finger into the brass latch on a burl-chest and popped it open. Velvety moths, brown and cream, fluttered out in the hundreds, immediately forming their own dancing circles around the glass bulbs. Bombi took a step back, but the tinkertree was unfazed. They leaned their little body over the edge of the chest, kicking their legs in the air as they dug around.
I wonder how they know about speed runners. They claimed that, as a runner, I fit in somewhere. That can’t be right. Speed running is the definition of not fitting in. That’s what Chagrinn would argue anyway. Yet… they have meeting places like the Gone Basin. They have routes they follow; they have their own words for things. At the least they fit in with each other. I suppose if enough people try to rebel against something there’s no rebellion at all.
Even though the tinkertree rooted through the chest like a digging dog, they didn’t toss anything out. There was no reason to make a mess or risk someone tripping. Eventually they found what they had searched for and presented it to Bombi. They held it out eagerly, so she gingerly took it and held it up to the abundant light to examine.
A box. A foot in length. Thin wood painted with colorful but rigid designs like stars and suns, or perhaps blooms. It was rather light, but she knew it was full of something, as that something had split the box in several places and grown out. The extrusions were transparent, but their shapes were clear; it was like the air had been frozen to form them. She touched one of the air icicles and found it was solid, but had no other qualities she could put words to.
“What’s in here?” she asked. “And why are you giving it to me?”
“We don’t really know what’s in it,” the tinkertree admitted, “but a speed runner left it here a long time ago after his red heart suddenly stopped beating. That distressed him greatly. He took his own body and left.”
Bombi knew better than to question what exactly the tinkertree meant. Speed runners did all sorts of life-defying things, so transporting their own corpse didn’t seem out of the question. She noticed a small latch on the lid and tried to open the box, but it was stuck tight.
“We never could open it either,” the tinkertree said. “We didn’t want to break it because we hate breaking things; we prefer to grow them in different directions. You humans, for some reason, make boxes that can’t grow.”
“And you want me to do something with this? Take it with me so it doesn’t take up space around here anymore?”
“You’re a speed runner, so I assumed you had a trick or two up one of those sleeve things you have. Can you figure out what’s in it without breaking that nice box? Our guess is that it’s some sort of seed stock, because they have sprouted and broken through here and there. The breaks distress us, so that’s why we stored them away.”
Bombi once again poked at the projections drooping down from the cracks. There was a way. She still had her duplication ring. If she touched it to one of the projections it would make a copy outside the box; then they could see what the ‘seeds’ actually were. She warned the tinkertree of what she was about to attempt, but they just leaned in closer. Bombi shifted the verdant ring up to the end of her finger and then, very gently, like a lip touched to the edge of a glass, tapped an extrusion.
A duplicate landed in her palm. It was indeed seed-shaped, with three small roots hanging off the sides of her hand. While the edges were transparent, there was something cloudy in the middle. Bombi and the tinkertree leaned closer. Not cloudy after all, just extremely dense. There was the Lands of Shook and Cain, packed and folded inside like decorative paper. Bombi felt its energy course through her arm. She knew it had been hidden; she knew the sheer power of its reality.
Bombi gasped and gripped it with her other hand. There was that nudging wind, stronger than ever before. These seeds were hidden because they changed everything. Her run mattered no longer; she already accomplished something nearly unfathomable. Minds all across the world woke to a new truth. They had choices. They could see how thin the walls were. They could see speed runners moving about under them like parasites under the skin. This was not what the world intended for them.
“I don’t believe it,” Ricki said before she finished thinking it. She pulled her thick round glasses off and rubbed her eyes. She stuck them close to the monitor. She pulled them back. The information wasn’t changing; it truly wasn’t an illusion. She had to check, because a hallucination seemed more reasonable than the alternative, especially considering she’d been up examining code and assets for more than ten hours.
It was pitch black outside, with the only sounds being the occasional hooting of a frat boy or the chucking of an empty beer can. Her campus was mostly dead; nearly everybody had chosen to go home or on road trips for their five day break. Whoever remained of the clubs and teams roamed the walkways and designated smoking areas like packs of bored dogs. Ricki hadn’t been out of her dorm in two days, and was subsisting only on bagel chips and her last stores of her mother’s homemade mango leather. She picked up one of the empty chip bags and tossed it at her snoring roommate Reagan.
“What time is it?” she asked without lifting her head. She fumbled for the lamp switch and found it, but it was a silly toy of a thing: a globe that filled with purple plasma filaments. As soon as it was on, her messy hair stood on end.
“It doesn’t matter what time it is; discovery never sleeps!” Ricki said giddily. She pulled the pillow out from under her roommate’s face, causing her head to flop against the mattress. “I’m trying to get you to look. Pick up your head and look. It’s worth it; I promise.”
Ricki picked up the monitor and placed it on the bed, stretching the cord to its maximum. Only then did Reagan exert the effort to lift her head. She squinted, complaining that she couldn’t see it without her glasses. Ricki removed hers and handed them over. Their matching prescriptions weren’t the only similarity. They were both avid gamers, both taking courses in coding and animating, and both obsessed with the same video game at the moment: The Lands of Shook and Cain.
“What is all this?” Reagan asked. She got to her knees and grabbed one edge of the monitor. Instinctively she tried to scroll through the information with a mouse, but there was nothing there except a wrinkle in the sheets. She growled while Ricki leaned back to the desk and did the scrolling for her. “Did you make all this stuff? You didn’t tell me you were making a mod.”
“This isn’t a mod,” Ricki teased through her grin. “I was digging around in the game’s code around the tinkertree orchard. Well, first I was looking at a speed run online and I noticed an item acting weird. Then I dug around and found it. We were never even supposed to see it.”
“What do you mean? If it’s in the game of course we were supposed to see it.”
“The developers put this in,” Ricki explained, “but it’s either unfinished or unreleased. Maybe they wanted to sell it later or something. Look at all this.” She pointed out various features of what she had uncovered. “These are like the seeds of an entirely different game. I think this was supposed to be DLC for a different mode. None of these ‘seeds’ are active, but if I do a little creative modification…”
Ricki went back to the mouse and clicked a few times, so in tune with the device after their ten hour session that she didn’t need to look at the monitor to know where she clicked. Reagan lifted the monitor by both sides like a child holding a big flat storybook open. Once Ricki activated the modification the screen came to life, a version of the game taking over, smothering the spreadsheets and speed run windows.
All of the characteristics of the The Lands of Shook and Cain were there: third-person camera, a treasure trove of magical weapons and items, and a setting that spanned from the high fantasy of its towers to the low fantasy of its cavern-dwelling monsters. Reagan’s trained eye caught something different.
There was a new icon, jumping from character to character as the player strolled forward. Ricki kept her finger pressed on the W key to keep them moving, to help Reagan see. The icon was a green cone with a metallic texture, and there was no head it couldn’t adorn. It followed the player’s gaze, moving from the scalp of a vendor, to the hat of a noblewoman, to the ears of a dog, to the spiraling flight of a fat fly, to a child playing in the street, to the child’s straw-filled doll, and to a person so covered in armor that their sex and age could not be determined.
Ricki clicked. Now that armored body was the avatar. She spun it in a circle, stopping and facing the dog. She clicked. Now the dog was playable, complete with keys for jumping, grabbing things in its mouth, and barking.
“By the code of Hammurabi,” Reagan muttered, “this changes everything. You’re right; this is a whole new game. With these seeds turned on everything is playable. There are no more NPCs! You can literally play as any character in the game! I can play as Ander Mander! Oooh, no, I could be one of the constellations…”
“That’s just the obvious stuff,” Ricki said. “No more NPCs means hundreds of new routes for speed running. When we reveal this, we’re going to break that community in half. It’ll be chaos. They’ll probably get the run down to five minutes! Playing The Lands of Shook and Cain will be faster than buying it!!”
Ricki and Reagan high-fived in victory. The NPCs were going to have their day, and it would be rapturously brief.