Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience voting to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Psycho Clown Epic Playlist The Guy Run Over by the Bus
He didn’t remember the destruction, as he’d never lived it, but he felt like he should have. The event was so cataclysmic, so volcanic, that it probably shook most of the world. People from a continent away did report hearing the boom. Raery Jeed was not one of them. This was not his experience, so he walked through it as cautiously as he could.
It was still the early rumblings of the eruption that reshaped life and land on Earth. The sky was ash and fog. Wind whipped up great walls of dust in the distance, but Raery was in a dead spot. He could hear his own breath between the bouts of pyroclastic collision. A rock bigger than his house arced across the sky, leaving a trail so red that it looked like Earth’s arterial spray.
“This has to be the worst,” he mumbled to himself ans he waded deeper into the ash. Raery was of the new people, his ancestors the few that survived this very eruption. Their small numbers and desperate circumstances had required some scientific creativity when it came to furthering the race. There was no time to waste on deleterious mutations or subpar family units. He was born with everything he could conceivably need to survive in any society as well as any environment.
His forehead produced incredible bioluminescence when he needed a flashlight. His chest opened up into gill slits when he needed to venture underwater. His eyes would turn dark if there was ever a solar flare, to shield them from its harmful radiation. He wore a simple silver transforming cloak made of a hemi-organic material, like the muscle cells of flatworms, that would respond to his thoughts.
None of these transformations or tools was needed at the moment, for the chaos all around him was just a recreation. Its details were flawless, as they were pulled from among the world’s first digital memories. He was not in one of the simulation rooms, as those used only holograms. This was a nano-perfected area of the transcendent reality research temple. The sky before him was actual sky, just filled with incredibly small machines reforming the bombast of the eruption without any of the heat, fire, or toxic gas. He had the field all to himself, because everyone had turned to him, asked him for the next step in the project.
With his senses filled, with his awe impacted, Raery thought himself ready to move on. There were plenty of disasters left to examine. He swiped his hand in the air, his fingernails flashing green, and then everything around him collapse like sand suddenly remembering it couldn’t fly. It reformed in moments, but this time he was on the on the bottom of the ocean. The water was real enough that he opened his gills. He didn’t need his flashlight, as the fissure in the seabed before him offered more than enough illumination. It spewed not magma, but towers of rushing gas. It was the sort of compound that ate entire atmospheres for breakfast. This event had also done its fair share in killing most of Earth’s life, in forcing the humans to adapt.
Raery swiped his hand again. This time he stood at the edge of a yellow fizzing river. The smell of sulfur was everywhere. He told the field to stop pulling its punches and almost immediately felt the sting of the chemicals in his eyes. Yes, this was quite the epic playlist: every mass extinction event since the twenty-first century. All fourteen of them. Somewhere in there was the key to a locked future.
Dive Deeper Interrupted by Acolyte Familiar Extinction
When he swiped again, bringing him to the recreation of a dense rain forest, he heard someone gasp from behind. Raery turned to see one of his many acolytes: Urt Ben. Urt was an opportunistic little person, androgynous in the extreme, most of their body hidden by their transforming cloak at all times. Their eyes showed complete shock, as they hadn’t properly acclimated to the extreme climates and dangers of the recreations.
“Urt, why do you interrupt me?” Raery asked. He waved both hands, turning everything inert. Now their surroundings were perfectly natural: a cold bowl of scrub land with a gray building, partly buried in the ground, in the distance.
“Are you sweating?” Urt asked without answering. A hand came out form under their cloak, holding a glass vial. The acolyte scurried over and pressed the lip of it against Raery’s temple, catching a droplet of his perspiration. Urt conjured up a cork from the cloak as well and sealed it. “To think that a mind as high as yours sweats. This stuff is quite intense, huh?”
“What are you keeping that for?” Raery asked. With a thought as the only trigger, part of his cloak separated form his collar, rolled across his bald head, and absorbed the rest of the sweat. He already knew the answer; he just didn’t like it. Many in the temple considered him truly enlightened, theorizing all sorts of wild things about his mental powers, and some of them would pay handsomely for any part of him, including a drop of his sweat to be put in their evening lichen-tea.
“Maybe you can draw nourishment from the universe itself,” Urt said, repeating one such rumor, “but I need coins for food. You’re practically sweating them out.” Raery sighed through his nose. “You can judge me all you want. That angry glare makes everybody else less likely to collect your runoff, thus increasing the value of what I just took.”
“You’re a creature of another time,” Raery said so nebulously that it couldn’t be interpreted as an insult. “I’ve seen people running around in tiny rooms, praising the clatter of the worst bells ever made, shouting numbers to each other like prophecies with high margins of error. You would’ve been more comfortable there. I ask again: why have you interrupted me?”
“Oh right. There’s been a problem back in the temple. Somebody has collapsed. Fallen into a delirium. They want you to come take a look.”
“Me? I’m no anatomist. I have no insight into fainting spells.”
“It’s not just that,” Urt said with a shake of their head. The tail of their cloak folded in front of them, into the shape of a collapsed person. Loose threads poured out of the figure’s ear like an infection of parasitic worms breaking free. “Their mind is generating something like what you’re doing here. There’s a disaster all about them. Nobody can dive into it without getting hurt, except, presumably, yourself.”
The Dinosaurs Garbage Avalanche Thawing War
Intrigued, he followed Urt back to the temple, though he could barely keep up with the acolyte. They regularly dropped onto all fours like some kind of squirrel, though Urt likely had no idea what such creatures were. They’d died out three events ago.
Together they descended deep into the cool of the Earth, down ten flights of stairs that alternated direction. Urt led him to the cathedral of nostalgia: a tiled chamber full of hemi-organic candles that generated no scent or smoke. Many other acolytes were gathered at the edge of the accidental recreation, but they made a gateway for Urt as soon as they saw him. The older man touched his palm to the edge of the phenomenon. Almost as thick as spider silk. If the cause wasn’t artificial it was the strongest psychic occurrence in the species.
“What exactly happened here?” Raery asked them. “Who is at the center?” He looked back. The recreated disaster was no mass extinction. It was far more localized. All he could see was a mountain of garbage: colorful plastic things from the dreaded consumer age of bottomless hunger and overflowing wells of poison.
“It’s Dedlish,” one of the female acolytes informed him. He looked into her pupil, all acolytes had given him permission to examine their minds at any time, and found that she had witnessed the collapse in person. “He was just reciting a mantra before an open book. I was doing the same, but then I heard this terrible crash. I turn to see his body overtaken by an avalanche of that waste… and all of it from nowhere? What is this Master Jeed? We keep all the recreation machines outside as per the orders of Those Round the Table.”
“All of you leave this chamber,” Raery ordered. “I will enter and reclaim Dedlish.” They lingered, hoping to see his passage into the strangeness. “Now!” They practically tripped over each other in their haste, but their transforming cloaks grabbed any table edges or walls nearby to keep them from falling over.
The master took a deep breath and flexed all the hidden adaptations of his body. The poison neutralizing compounds in his lymph nodes were primed and warmed. His skin toughened to something like leather. His transforming cloak moved over his mouth and put thin bubbles of fabric up his nostrils to filter the air. He now looked like he wore an antiquated hazardous materials protection suit.
Once his thoughts were aligned he leapt straight and landed on a steep slope that shouldn’t have existed. It was like the ground of the temple was gone. There was no solid footing, so he tumbled down the jagged masses of lawn furniture, sheet metal, corroded car batteries, and a million other things that had gone extinct with the squirrels and mosquitoes.
His tumble put him directly on a collision course with a rusted spear from a construction crane’s neck. His old instincts and his new ones screamed warnings. The master curled up into a ball like an armadillo and pushed himself out of the way, rolling by the deadly spike. Avoiding it sent him off a small cliff; he landed with enough force to concuss or break. He had to lay there, in a puddle of mud and coffee grounds, for a moment to find his second wind.
Dead Dedlish Cursed Mantra Reality Escape Hatch
Unfortunately it would take a third wind to rouse him, as the second was knocked out of him by another body tumbling off the edge of the cliff. Urt landed squarely on his chest and bounced off. The acolyte hopped up, covered in scratches, eyes wild with excitement.
“Woah! That was… dirty. I’ve never seen so much filth in my life.” They sniffed the air and scrunched their face. “Whoo! No wonder we got rid of all this stuff.”
“It got rid of us,” Raery growled, getting to his feet. “Never forget one of the extinctions from our epic playlist was self made. This is a piece of that event, though I have no idea what force could conjure it. Only I am supposed to access the nano-machines we use for recreation. No other mind has access right now.” Jeed had to stop puzzling it out, because he realized that Urt had disobeyed a direct order to stay behind. “Why did you follow me? You could get yourself killed in here.”
“I thought you were talking to everybody else,” Urt said with a halfhearted shrug. Dictionaries were better liars than they were. “We’re in this together. It’ll be a good story to go with that drop of sweat. Stories always make value go up.”
“Just follow me and stay close,” Raery ordered. I can sense the center of it. Dedlish should be there.” The two marched on, deeper into the landfill. Occasionally they crossed greasy skeletons mixed in with the ripped tarps and broken blenders.
The center was obvious, though it took an unusual form at the bottom of a shifting funnel of waste like an ant-lion’s trap. Dedlish was nowhere in sight. Where he should’ve been there was a circular hole big enough for three people to squeeze through. It caused the shifting in the trash, as every few seconds something else tumbled down and fell into it. From it they smelled fresh air, fresher than they thought possible. It was like Earth’s atmosphere had been peeled off it, run across a soapy washboard, and wrapped back around.
“What is that?” Urt asked. They didn’t seem frightened, the opposite in fact. They looked like they wanted to pull out a giant vial and try to bottle the enticing opening.
“It’s not possible,” Raery said, the statement undercut by the sound of a tumbling French horn bent into a newer and even stranger shape. “Nobody has mastered this technique. It requires a confluence of both incredible telepathic power and the full effort of a cloud of nano-machines. In order to do this Dedlish would’ve had to slowly recruit machines from cracks in the temple’s windows across weeks… months…”
“What is it?” Urt repeated louder.
“A reality escape hatch. This isn’t a recreation. It’s a tunnel through the past. A thread passing through the eyes of ever extinction event… going to a time and place where they can no longer happen. The past. The first place. It might be paradise.”
“Nobody knows, except young Dedlish apparently.”
Raery Plunges Urt Plunges Both Plunge
“Well, we’re supposed to rescue him,” Urt said, taking a step toward the edge of the funnel.
“We can’t!” Raery cried out. His transforming cloak grabbed Urt’s wrist and pulled them back. “We have duties here. We know there’s another event coming. We have to look at the others, to research, so we can learn how to survive yet again.”
“Aren’t you tired of spending your whole life thinking about how it’s going to end?” Urt asked. The young acolyte looked almost offended. The mere expression could earn punishment if someone like Raery Jeed was in a foul mood.
“It is our duty,” he repeated numbly, eyes locked to the strange spherical hole. We relive… so we don’t have to live through it…”
“I’m going,” Urt declared. They tried to pull away again, but Raery’s cloak would not release them. “Let go! It’s my choice.”
“It is not. You are one of us. We will face the end together, and it will be an end. I’ve walked the entire playlist and seen the shadow of what’s next. We won’t make it. We’ll fossilize together.”
“I don’t need you,” Urt spat. They dug out the vial with the single drop of sweat and tossed it at Raery. It bounced off the man’s cloak and rolled down the funnel, disappearing into the hatch. Raery’s face went white. A piece of him was gone from and time space as they knew it. Was he infected now by its influence? Would he have to watch as the rest died around him?
Urt took advantage of the the momentary worries. Their cloak transformed into a scoop that grabbed the garbage under their feet and pulled. Both of them tumbled down and passed through the hatch.
They found ground, near a seated Dedlish. There was no sun, moon, or sky. Gone was the sensation of time. It was the eternity before extinction. Both of them looked over Dedlish’s shoulder, at the book he must’ve been reading before the revelation that allowed him break all the world’s rules.
Urt and Raery had never seen the thin volume before. It must have been scavenged from outside the temple. Whatever it was, its wisdom was contained in the only object in the entire infinite space. Raery looked up and saw that the hatch had closed. There was no going back. He took the glossy paper thing out from under Dedlish’s nose. The acolyte didn’t try to stop him; he seemed fully content. Together those who had plunged read the tome’s title.
Playboy – 1986