1989

This was originally posted 20 years ago, in November of 1999.

God, we’re all old.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Druid, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Rivervale Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old tobacco plants. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about thirty-five, with a moustache and beard, holding a flaming sword. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying to cast gate. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present mana regeneration was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven zones up, and Winston, who was 39th level and had a very low agility, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. THE GUIDES ARE WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of Tumpy Tonics. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the /AUC channel, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely. He moved over to the window: a smallish, frail figure with hairy feet, the meagreness of his body merely emphasized by the leather armor which was the uniform of his class. His hair was very fair, his face naturally sanguine, his skin roughened by coarse soap and blunt razor blades and the cold of the winter that had just ended.

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street the rain fell and fell and never ceased falling, and there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The brown moustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BRAD KNOWS WHAT’S BEST FOR YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at streetlevel another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word VISION. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Guides, snooping into people’s windows. The Guides did not matter, however. Only the GMs mattered.

Behind Winston’s back the voice from the chat channel was still babbling away about Tumpy Tonics and the futility of performing quests for experience gain. The chat channel received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the game client commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the GMs plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

Winston typed /AUC OFF. It was safer, though, as he well knew, even silence can be revealing. A kilometre away the Ministry of Online Community Relations, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape. This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste — this was Rivervale, chief city of Misty Thicket, itself the third most populous of the provinces of Everquest. He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether Rivervale had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting thirteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions? And the oompah music playing, mockingly, from every street corner? But it was no use, he could not remember: nothing remained of his childhood except a series of bright-lit tableaux occurring against no background and mostly unintelligible.

The Ministry of OCR was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air. From where Winston stood it was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Game: GROUPING IS NECESSARY STATS ARE USEFUL IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH The Ministry of OCR contained, it was said, three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below. Scattered about Rivervale there were just three other buildings of similar appearance and size. So completely did they dwarf the surrounding architecture that from the roof of Rivervale Mansions you could see all four of them simultaneously. They were the homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided. The Ministry of OCR, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, and education. The Ministry of Nerfs, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Support, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Trade Skills, which was responsible for economic affairs. (This last ministry was somewhat decrepit from neglect.)

The Ministry of Support was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all. Winston had never been inside the Ministry of Support, nor within half a kilometre of it. It was a place impossible to enter except on official business, and then only by penetrating through a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and /petition queues. Even the streets leading up to its outer barriers were roamed by gorilla-faced guards in odd-colored robes, armed with sparking swords.

-=-

It was nearly eleven hundred, and in the Message Base Liason Department, where Winston worked, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate. Winston was just taking his place in one of the middle rows when two people whom he knew by sight, but had never spoken to, came unexpectedly into the room. One of them was a girl whom he often passed in the corridors. He did not know her name, but he knew that she worked in the Quests  Department. Presumably — since he had sometimes seen her with oily hands and carrying a spanner she had some mechanical job on one of the quest-writing machines. She was a bold-looking girl, of about twenty- seven, with thick hair, a freckled face, and swift, athletic movements. A narrow scarlet sash, emblem of the Junior Anti-Druid League, was wound several times round the waist of her overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of her hips. Winston had disliked her from the very first moment of seeing her. He disliked nearly all women, and especially the young and pretty ones. It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most bigoted adherents of the Classes, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy. But this particular girl gave him the impression of being more dangerous than most. Once when they passed in the corridor she gave him a quick sidelong glance which seemed to pierce right into him and for a moment had filled him with black terror. The idea had even crossed his mind that she might be an agent of the GMs. That, it was true, was very unlikely. Still, he continued to feel a peculiar uneasiness, which had fear mixed up in it as well as hostility, whenever she was anywhere near him. He vowed never to give her a SoW.

The other person was a man named Abashi, a member of the Inner Circle and holder of some post so important and remote that Winston had only a dim idea of its nature. A momentary hush passed over the group of people round the chairs as they saw the black jackbooted uniform of an Inner Circle member approaching. Abashi was a large, burly man with a thick neck and a coarse, humorous, brutal face.Winston had seen Abashi perhaps a dozen times in almost as many years. He felt deeply drawn to him, and not solely because he was intrigued by the contrast between Abashi’s urbane manner and his prize-fighter’s physique. Much more it was because of a secretly held belief — or perhaps not even a belief, merely a hope — that Abashi’s political orthodoxy was not perfect. Something in his face suggested it irresistibly. And again, perhaps it was not even unorthodoxy that was written in his face, but simply intelligence. But at any rate he had the appearance of being a person that you could talk to if somehow you could cheat the message boards and get him alone. Winston had never made the smallest effort to verify this guess: indeed, there was no way of doing so. At this moment Abashi glanced at his wrist-watch, saw that it was nearly eleven hundred, and evidently decided to stay in the Message Base Liason Department until the Two Minutes Hate was over. He took a chair in the same row as Winston, a couple of places away. A small, sandy-haired woman who worked in the next cubicle to Winston was between them. The girl with dark hair was sitting immediately behind.

The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.

As usual, the face of Dr. TwisTer, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. TwisTer was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the community. Then he had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which TwisTer was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Vision’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Vision, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the pale, under the protection of his corporate paymasters, perhaps even — so it was occasionally rumoured — in some hiding-place in Everquest itself.

Winston’s diaphragm was constricted. He could never see the face of TwisTer without a painful mixture of emotions. It was a clever face, and yet somehow inherently despicable, with a kind of senile silliness in the long thin nose, near the end of which a pair of spectacles was perched. It resembled the face of a sheep, and the voice, too, had a sheep-like quality. TwisTer was delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Vision — an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to fill one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level-headed than oneself, might be taken in by it. He was abusing Brad, he was denouncing the dictatorship of the Vision, he was demanding an immediate merger with Ultima Online, he was crying hysterically that the Vision had been betrayed, he was demanding that all outstanding exploits be legalized. And all the while, lest one should be in any doubt as to the reality which TwisTer’s specious claptrap covered, behind his head on the telescreen there marched the endless columns of an army of Ultima Online PKs — row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Britannian faces, who swam up to the surface of the screen and vanished, to be replaced by others exactly similar. The dull rhythmic tramp of the soldiers’ boots formed the background to TwisTer’s bleating voice.

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the PK army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of TwisTer produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Ultima Online or Asheron’s Call, since when Everquest was at war with one of these it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although TwisTer was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be announced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the GMs. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the Game. The Network, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible program, a compendium of all the heresies, of which TwisTer was the author and which circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a program without a title. People referred to it, if at all, simply as the program. But one knew of such things only through vague rumours. Neither the Network nor the program was a subject that any ordinary Class member would mention if there was a way of avoiding it.

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy- haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even Abashi’s heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a Ruins of Kunark CD and flung it at the screen. It struck TwisTer’s nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment Winston’s hatred was not turned against TwisTer at all, but, on the contrary, against Brad, the Vision, and the GMs; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies. And yet the very next instant he was at one with the people about him, and all that was said of TwisTer seemed to him to be true. At those moments his secret loathing of Brad changed into adoration, and Brad seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Ultima Online, and TwisTer, in spite of his isolation, his helplessness, and the doubt that hung about his very existence, seemed like some sinister enchanter, capable by the mere power of his voice of wrecking the structure of civilization.

The Hate rose to its climax. The voice of TwisTer had become an actual sheep’s bleat, and for an instant the face changed into that of a sheep. Then the sheep-face melted into the figure of a PK who seemed to be advancing, huge and terrible, his energy bolts roaring, and seeming to spring out of the surface of the screen, so that some of the people in the front row actually flinched backwards in their seats. But in the same moment, drawing a deep sigh of relief from everybody, the hostile figure melted into the face of Brad, full of power and mysterious calm, and so vast that it almost filled up the screen. Nobody heard what Brad was saying. It was merely a few words of encouragement, the sort of words that are uttered in the din of battle, not distinguishable individually but restoring confidence by the fact of being spoken. Then the face of Brad faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Vision stood out in bold capitals: GROUPING IS NECESSARY STATS ARE USEFUL IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH But the face of Brad seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone’s eyeballs was too vivid to wear off immediately. The little sandyhaired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like ‘My Saviour!’ she extended her arms towards the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of ‘Brad! . . . Brad!’ — over and over again, very slowly, with a long pause between the first ‘Brad’ and the second-a heavy, murmurous sound, somehow curiously savage, in the background of which one seemed to hear the stamp of naked feet and the throbbing of tom-toms. For perhaps as much as thirty seconds they kept it up. It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Brad, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise. Winston’s entrails seemed to grow cold. In the Two Minutes Hate he could not help sharing in the general delirium, but this sub-human chanting of ‘Brad! . . . Brad!’ always filled him with horror. Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise. To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction. But there was a space of a couple of seconds during which the expression of his eyes might conceivably have betrayed him.

And it was exactly at this moment that the significant thing happened — if, indeed, it did happen. Momentarily he caught Abashi’s eye. Abashi had stood up. He had taken off his spectacles and was in the act of resettling them on his nose with his characteristic gesture. But there was a fraction of a second when their eyes met, and for as long as it took to happen Winston knew-yes, he knew !-that Abashi was thinking the same thing as himself. An unmistakable message had passed. It was as though their two minds had opened and the thoughts were flowing from one into the other through their eyes. ‘I am with you,’ Abashi seemed to be saying to him. ‘I know precisely what you are feeling. I know all about your contempt, your hatred, your disgust. But don’t worry, I am on your side!’ And then the flash of intelligence was gone, and Abashi’s face was as inscrutable as everybody else’s.

-=-

A trumpet call floated from the telescreen just above their heads. However, it was not the proclamation of a military victory this time, but merely an announcement from the Ministry of Nerfs.

‘Comrades!’ cried an eager youthful voice. ‘Attention, comrades! We have glorious news! Our glorious Classes are being enhanced! Returns now completed of the output of all Classes show that the average damage output of each Class has risen by no less than 20 per cent over the past year. All over Everquest this morning there were irrepressible spontaneous demonstrations when Necromancers marched out of dungeons and swamps and paraded through the streets with banners voicing their gratitude to Brad for the new, happy life which his wise leadership has bestowed upon us. Here are some of the completed figures. Two-handed swords-‘

The phrase ‘our new, happy life’ recurred several times. It had been a favourite of late with the Ministry of Nerfs. Parsons, his attention caught by the trumpet call, sat listening with a sort of gaping solemnity, a sort of edified boredom. He could not follow the figures, but he was aware that they were in some way a cause for satisfaction.  For the moment Winston had shut his ears to the remoter noises and was listening to the stuff that streamed out of the telescreen. It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Brad for raising the effectiveness of Clarity by twenty percent. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that Clarity was to be reduced by twenty percent. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it. Parsons swallowed it easily, with the stupidity of an animal. The eyeless creature at the other table swallowed it fanatically, passionately, with a furious desire to track down, denounce, and vaporize anyone who should suggest that last week Clarity had been somehow better than it was today. Syme, too-in some more complex way, involving doublethink, Syme swallowed it. Was he, then, alone in the possession of a memory?

The fabulous statistics continued to pour out of the telescreen. As compared with last year there was more creature spawns, more unique items, more spells, more fun — more of everything except camping, crime, and boredom. Year by year and minute by minute, everybody and everything was whizzing rapidly upwards. As Syme had done earlier Winston had taken up his spoon and was dabbling in the pale-coloured gravy that dribbled across the table, drawing a long streak of it out into a pattern. He meditated resentfully on the physical texture of life. Had it always been like this? Had food always tasted like this? He looked round the canteen. A low-ceilinged, crowded room, its walls grimy from the contact of innumerable bodies; battered metal tables and chairs, placed so close together that you sat with elbows touching; bent spoons, dented trays, coarse white mugs; all surfaces greasy, grime in every crack; and a sourish, composite smell of bad Tumpy Tonics and bad coffee and metallic stew and dirty clothes. Always in your stomach and in your skin there was a sort of protest, a feeling that you had been cheated of something that you had a right to. It was true that he had no memories of anything greatly different. In any time that he could accurately remember, there had never been quite enough to eat, one had never had armor that was not full of holes, spellcastng had always been battered and rickety — nothing cheap and plentiful except Tumpy Tonics. And though, of course, it grew worse as one’s body aged, was it not a sign that this was not the natural order of things, if one’s heart sickened at the discomfort and dirt and scarcity, the interminable zone crawls, the slowness of one’s sword, the spells that were always resisted, the Cooking results with its strange evil tastes? Why should one feel it to be intolerable unless one had some kind of ancestral memory that things had once been different?

He looked round the canteen again. Nearly everyone was ugly, and would still have been ugly even if dressed otherwise than in the uniform leather armor. On the far side of the room, sitting at a table alone, a small, curiously beetle-like man was drinking a cup of coffee, his little eyes darting suspicious glances from side to side. How easy it was, thought Winston, if you did not look about you, to believe that the physical type set up by the Vision as an ideal- tall muscular barbarians and deep-bosomed wood elves, vital, sunburnt, carefree — existed and even predominated. Actually, so far as he could judge, the majority of people in Rivervale were small, hairy, and ill-favoured. It was curious how that beetle-like type proliferated in the Ministries: little dumpy men, growing stout very early in life, with short legs, swift scuttling movements, and fat inscrutable faces with very small eyes. It was the type that seemed to flourish best under the dominion of the Vision.

The announcement from the Ministry of Nerfs ended on another trumpet call and gave way to tinny music.

-=-

They had done it, they had done it at last!

The room they were standing in was long-shaped and softly lit. The chat channel was turned to a low murmur; the richness of the dark-blue carpet gave one the impression of treading on velvet. At the far end of the room Abashi was sitting at a table under a green-shaded lamp, with a mass of papers on either side of him. He had not bothered to look up when the servant showed Julia and Winston in.

Winston’s heart was thumping so hard that he doubted whether he would be able to speak. They had done it, they had done it at last, was all he could think. It had been a rash act to come here at all, and sheer folly to arrive together; though it was true that they had come by different routes and only met on Abashi’s doorstep. But merely to walk into such a place needed an effort of the nerve. It was only on very rare occasions that one saw inside the dwelling-places of the Inner Circle, or even penetrated into the quarter of the town where they lived. The whole atmosphere of the huge block of flats, the richness and spaciousness of everything, the unfamiliar smells of good food and good tobacco, the silent and incredibly rapid lifts sliding up and down, the white-jacketed servants hurrying to and fro — everything was intimidating. Although he had a good pretext for coming here, he was haunted at every step by the fear that a black-uniformed guard would suddenly appear from round the corner, demand his papers, and order him to get out. Abashi’s servant, however, had admitted the two of them without demur. He was a small, dark-haired man in a white jacket, with a diamond-shaped, completely expressionless face which might have been that of a Chinese. The passage down which he led them was softly carpeted, with cream-papered walls and white wainscoting, all exquisitely clean. That too was intimidating. Winston could not remember ever to have seen a passageway whose walls were not grimy from the contact of human bodies.

Abashi had a slip of paper between his fingers and seemed to be studying it intently. His heavy face, bent down so that one could see the line of the nose, looked both formidable and intelligent. For perhaps twenty seconds he sat without stirring. Then he pulled the keyboard towards him and rapped out a message in the hybrid jargon of the Vision:

The /corpse ability (dragging) is relatively new to EverQuest, and was put in to help people get their corpses out of inaccessible areas without having to wait for a GM/Guide. At this point, it works well for that use and we decline to invest further time into it. Stating it as plainly as possible, we consider the issue closed.

He rose deliberately from his chair and came towards them across the soundless carpet. His expression was grimmer than usual, as though he were not pleased at being disturbed. The terror that Winston already felt was suddenly shot through by a streak of ordinary embarrassment. It seemed to him quite possible that he had simply made a stupid mistake. For what evidence had he in reality that Abashi was any kind of political conspirator? Nothing but a flash of the eyes and a single equivocal remark: beyond that, only his own secret imaginings, founded on a dream. He could not even fall back on the pretence that he had come to borrow the dictionary, because in that case Julia’s presence was impossible to explain. As Abashi passed the screen with the chat channels displayed, a thought seemed to strike him. He stopped, turned aside and pressed a switch on the wall. There was a sharp snap. The channels had stopped.

Julia uttered a tiny sound, a sort of squeak of surprise. Even in the midst of his panic, Winston was too much taken aback to be able to hold his tongue.

‘You can turn them off!’ he said.

‘Yes,’ said Abashi, ‘we can turn them off. We have that privilege.’

He was opposite them now. His solid form towered over the pair of them, and the expression on his face was still indecipherable. He was waiting, somewhat sternly, for Winston to speak, but about what? Even now it was quite conceivabIe that he was simply a busy man wondering irritably why he had been interrupted. Nobody spoke. After the stopping of the telescreen the room seemed deadly silent. The seconds marched past, enormous. With difficulty Winston continued to keep his eyes fixed on Abashi’s. Then suddenly the grim face broke down into what might have been the beginnings of a smile. With his characteristic gesture Abashi resettled his spectacles on his nose.

‘Shall I say it, or will you?’ he said.

‘I will say it,’ said Winston promptly. ‘That thing is really turned off?’

‘Yes, everything is turned off. We are alone.’

‘We have come here because-‘

He paused, realizing for the first time the vagueness of his own motives. Since he did not in fact know what kind of help he expected from Abashi, it was not easy to say why he had come here. He went on, conscious that what he was saying must sound both feeble and pretentious:

‘We believe that there is some kind of conspiracy, some kind of secret organization working against the Vision, and that you are involved in it. We want to join it and work for it. We are enemies of the Vision. We disbelieve in the principles of class balance. We are exploiters. We have also engaged in cybersex. I tell you this because we want to put ourselves at your mercy. If you want us to incriminate ourselves in any other way, we are ready.’

He stopped and glanced over his shoulder, with the feeling that the door had opened. Sure enough, the little yellow-faced servant had come in without knocking. Winston saw that he was carrying a tray with a decanter and glasses.

‘Zatkin is one of us,’ said Abashi impassively. ‘Bring the drinks over here, Geoff. Put them on the round table. Have we enough chairs? Then we may as well sit down and talk in comfort. Bring a chair for yourself, Geoff. This is business. You can stop being a servant for the next ten minutes.’

The little man sat down, quite at his ease, and yet still with a servant-like air, the air of a valet enjoying a privilege. Winston regarded him out of the corner of his eye. It struck him that the man’s whole life was playing a part, and that he felt it to be dangerous to drop his assumed personality even for a moment. Abashi took the decanter by the neck and filled up the glasses with a dark- red liquid. It aroused in Winston dim memories of something seen long ago on a wall or a hoarding — a vast bottle composed of electric lights which seemed to move up and down and pour its contents into a glass. Seen from the top the stuff looked almost black, but in the decanter it gleamed like a ruby. It had a sour-sweet smell. He saw Julia pick up her glass and sniff at it with frank curiosity.

‘It is called wine,’ said Abashi with a faint smile. ‘You will have read about it in books, no doubt. Not much of it gets to the player base, I am afraid.’ His face grew solemn again, and he raised his glass: ‘I think it is fitting that we should begin by drinking a health. To our Leader: To Dr. TwisTer’

‘Then there is such a person as TwisTer?’ he said.

‘Yes, there is such a person, and he is alive. Where, I do not know.’

‘And the conspiracy — the organization? Is it real? It is not simply an invention of the GMs?’

‘No, it is real. The Network, we call it. You will never learn much more about the Network than that it exists and that it provides you with 10MB of web storage space. I will come back to that presently.’ He looked at his wrist-watch. ‘It is unwise even for members of the Inner Circle to turn off ICQ for more than half an hour. You ought not to have come here together, and you will have to leave separately. You, comrade’ — he bowed his head to Julia — ‘will leave first. We have about twenty minutes at our disposal. You will understand that I must start by asking you certain questions. In general terms, what are you prepared to do?’

‘Anything that we are capable of,’ said Winston.

Abashi had turned himself a little in his chair so that he was facing Winston. He almost ignored Julia, seeming to take it for granted that Winston could speak for her. For a moment the lids flitted down over his eyes. He began asking his questions in a low, expressionless voice, as though this were a routine, a sort of catechism, most of whose answers were known to him already.

‘You are prepared to die and not ask for an XP res?’ ‘Yes.’

‘You are prepared to PK?’ ‘Yes.’

‘To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the loss of connection of hundreds of innocent people?’ ‘Yes.’

‘To betray the game to other companies?’ ‘Yes.’

‘You are prepared to cheat, to dupe, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming programs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases — to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Vision?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to become a gnome warrior — are you prepared to do that?’ ‘Yes.’

‘You are prepared to lose your identity and live out the rest of your life as a human rogue?’ ‘Yes.’

‘You are prepared to log out, if and when we order you to do so?’ ‘Yes.’

‘Good. Then that is settled.’ There was a silver box of cigarettes on the table. With a rather absent-minded air Abashi pushed them towards the others, took one himself, then stood up and began to pace slowly to and fro, as though he could think better standing. They were very good cigarettes, very thick and well-packed, with an unfamiliar silkiness in the paper. Abashi looked at his wrist-watch again.

‘That will do for the moment. Later we will arrange something else for you. It is important to change one’s hiding-place frequently. Meanwhile I shall send you a copy of the program’ — even Abashi, Winston noticed, seemed to pronounce the words as though they were in italics- ‘as soon as possible. It may be some days before I can get hold of one. There are not many in existence, as you can imagine. The GMs hunt them down and destroy them almost as fast as we can produce them. It makes very little difference. The program is open source. If the last copy were gone, we could recode it almost byte for byte. Do you carry a brief-case to work with you?’ he added. ‘As a rule, yes.’ ‘What is it like?’ ‘Black, very shabby. With two straps.’ ‘Black, two straps, very shabby — good. One day in the fairly near future-I cannot give a date — one of the messages among your morning’s work will contain a misprinted word, and you will have to ask for a repeat. On the following day you will go to work without your brief-case. At some time during the day, in the street, a man will touch you on the arm and say “I think you have dropped your brief-case.” The one he gives you will contain a copy of the program. You will return it within fourteen days.’ They were silent for a moment.

-=-

With a sort of voluptuous creaking in his joints he climbed the stair above Mr Charrington’s shop. He was tired, but not sleepy any longer. He opened the window, lit the dirty little oilstove and put on a pan of water for coffee. Julia would arrive presently: meanwhile there was the program. He sat down in the sluttish armchair and undid the straps of the brief-case. A gold CD with the word “ShowEQ” scrawled on it. Winston inserted the CD into his computer and doubleclicked on the “README.TXT” file icon that appeared. The first words of the file were:

THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF 
MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER ONLINE ROLE PLAYING GAME DESIGN 

by
 
Dr. Nathaniel L. Twister, Ph. D.

Winston began reading. Without having even run the program, he knew what TwisTer’s final message must mean. The future belonged to the players. And could he be sure that when their time came the world they constructed would not be just as alien to him, Winston Druid, as the world of the Vision? Yes, because at the least it would be a world of sanity. Where there is equality there can be sanity. Sooner or later it would happen, strength would change into consciousness. The playerss were immortal, you could not doubt it. In the end their awakening would come. And until that happened, though it might be a thousand years, they would stay alive against all the odds, like birds, passing on from body to body the vitality which the Vision did not share and could not kill.

‘Do you remember,’ Winston said, ‘the bixie that sang to us, that first day, at the edge of the wood?’

‘He wasn’t singing to us,’ said Julia. ‘He was singing to please himself. Not even that. He was just singing.’

The bixies sang, the orcs sang. the Vision did not sing. All round the world, in Rivervale and Freeport, in Ak’Anon and Kaladim, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers, in the streets of Qeynos and Halas, in the villages of the endless Karana plain, in the woodlands of Faydark and Kithicor — everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead, theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that armor class is the only statistic that matters.

‘We have been banned,’ he said.

‘We have been banned,’ echoed Julia dutifully.

‘You have been banned,’ said an iron voice behind them.

They sprang apart. Winston’s entrails seemed to have turned into ice. He could see the white all round the irises of Julia’s eyes. Her face had turned a milky yellow. The smear of rouge that was still on each cheekbone stood out sharply, almost as though unconnected with the skin beneath.

‘You have been banned,’ repeated the iron voice. ‘Remain exactly where you are. Make no movement until you are ordered.’

It was starting, it was starting at last! They could do nothing except stand gazing into one another’s eyes. To cast an evac, to log out before it was too late — no such thought occurred to them. Unthinkable to disobey the iron voice from the wall. ‘Stand out in the middle of the room. Stand back to back. Clasp your hands behind your heads. Do not touch one another.’

Mr Charrington came into the room. He gave Winston a single sharp glance, as though verifying his identity, and then paid no more attention to him. It occurred to Winston that for the first time in his life he was looking, with knowledge, at a GM..

-=-

A long time passed. If it had been midnight when the skull-faced man was taken away, it was morning: if morning, it was afternoon. Winston was alone, and had been alone for hours. The pain of sitting on the narrow bench was such that often he got up and walked about, unreproved by the unseen GMs.

The boots were approaching again. The door opened. Abashi came in.

Winston started to his feet. The shock of the sight had driven all caution out of him. ‘They’ve got you too!’ he cried.

‘They got me a long time ago,’ said Abashi with a mild, almost regretful irony. He stepped aside, from behind him there emerged a broad-chested guide with a long black truncheon in his hand.

‘You knew all along, Winston,’ said Abashi. ‘Don’t deceive yourself. You did know it — you have always known it.’

Yes, he saw now, he had always known it.

-=-

He did not remember any ending to his interrogation. There was a period of blackness and then the cell, or room, in which he now was had gradually materialized round him. He was almost flat on his back, and unable to move. His body was held down at every essential point. Even the back of his head was gripped in some manner. Abashi was looking down at him gravely and rather sadly. His face, seen from below, looked coarse and worn, with pouches under the eyes and tired lines from nose to chin. He was older than Winston had thought him; he was perhaps forty-eight or fifty. Under his hand there was a dial with a lever on top and figures running round the face.

Without any warning except a slight movement of Abashi’s hand, a wave of pain flooded his body. It was a frightening pain, because he could not see what was happening, and he had the feeling that some mortal injury was being done to him. He did not know whether the thing was really happening, or whether the effect was electrically produced ; but his body was being wrenched out of shape, the joints were being slowly torn apart. Although the pain had brought the sweat out on his forehead, the worst of all was the fear that his backbone was about to snap. He set his teeth and breathed hard through his nose, trying to keep silent as long as possible. Abashi drew back the lever on the dial. The wave of pain receded almost as quickly as it had come.

‘That was four,’ said Abashi. ‘You can see that the numbers on this dial go to eleven. Will you please remember, throughout our conversation, that I have it in my power to inflict pain on you at any moment and to whatever degree I choose? If you in any way complain about your Class being unbalanced, you will cry out with pain, instantly. Do you understand that?’

‘Yes,’ said Winston.

‘I am taking trouble with you, Winston,’ he said, ‘because you are worth trouble. You know perfectly well what is the matter with you. You have known it for years, though you have fought against the knowledge. You are mentally deranged. You suffer from a defective memory. You are unable to remember real events and you persuade yourself that you remember other events which never happened. Fortunately it is curable. You have never cured yourself of it, because you did not choose to. There was a small effort of the will that you were not ready to make. Even now, I am well aware, you are clinging to your disease under the impression that it is a virtue. Now we will take an example. At this moment, which Class is the most powerful?’

‘When I was arrested, Enchanters were the most powerful class.’

‘Enchanters. Good. And Enchanters have always been exactly that powerful, have they not?’

Winston drew in his breath. He opened his mouth to speak and then did not speak. He could not take his eyes away from the dial.

‘The truth, please, Winston. Your truth. Tell me what you think you remember.’

‘I remember that the Whirl Till You Hurl spell used to actually be useful in combat. Before that — ‘

Abashi stopped him with a movement of the hand. More than ever he had the air of a teacher taking pains with a wayward but promising child.

‘There is a Vision slogan dealing with class balance,’ he said. ‘Repeat it, if you please.’

‘All classes are equally balanced and all classes are useful and desired in groups’, repeated Winston obediently.

‘All classes are equally balanced and all classes are useful and desired in groups’, said Abashi, nodding his head with approval. ‘Is it your opinion, Winston, that all classes are equally balanced?’

Again the feeling of helplessness descended upon Winston. His eyes flitted towards the dial. He not only did not know whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was the answer that would save him from pain; he did not even know which answer he believed to be the true one.

O’Brien addressed Winston, his back turned to him.

‘What effect does Dexterity have on combat, Winston?’

‘It controls how often your weapons proc.’

‘And if the Vision says that you are not to know this, that Dexterity has other uses in combat, do you still believe what you say?”

‘Yes’

The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to nine. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. Abashi watched him intently. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.

‘Do you still believe, Winston?’

‘Yes.’

The needle went up to ten.

‘Is that your FINAL ANSWER?’

‘YES! YES! What else can I say! Everyone knows Dex is useless in Everquest! Stop! Please!’

The needle shot to eleven, and stayed there.

‘Do you still believe Dexterity is useless, Winston?’

‘NO! NO! Stop the pain, please! How can you do this! Stop! Stop!’

‘No, Winston, that is no use. You are lying. You still think the Vision is wrong. Your answer, please?’

‘Yes! No! Yes! No! Anything you want! What do you want! Only stop the pain! Please!’

Abruptly he was sitting up with Abashi’s arm round his shoulders. He had perhaps lost consciousness for a few seconds. The bonds that had held his body down were loosened. He felt very cold, he was shaking uncontrollably, his teeth were chattering, the tears were rolling down his cheeks. For a moment he clung to Abashi like a baby, curiously comforted by the heavy arm round his shoulders. He had the feeling that Abashi was his protector, that the pain was something that came from outside, from some other source, and that it was Abashi who would save him from it.

‘You are a slow learner, Winston,’ said Abashi gently.

‘How can I help it?’ he blubbered. ‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Dexterity is only worthwhile if you have a Ykesha!’

‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes it can be used for learning skills. Sometimes it affects your mana regeneration. Sometimes you just have no idea at all. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane. Do you know where you are, Winston?’ he said.

‘I don’t know. I can guess. In the Ministry of Support.’

‘And why do you imagine that we bring people to this place?’

‘To punish them.’

‘No!’ exclaimed Abashi. His voice had changed extraordinarily, and his face had suddenly become both stern and animated. ‘No! Not merely to extract your confession, not to punish you. Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you ! To make you sane ! Will you understand, Winston, that no one whom we bring to this place ever leaves our hands a powergamer? We are not interested in those stupid levels that you have attained. The Vision is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely delete our enemies, we change them. And soon, you will understand.’

-=-

A shrill trumpet-call had pierced the air. It was the bulletin! Victory! It always meant victory when a trumpet- call preceded the news. A sort of electric drill ran through the cafe. Even the waiters had started and pricked up their ears.

The trumpet-call had let loose an enormous volume of noise. Already an excited voice was gabbling from the chat channels, but even as it started it was almost drowned by a roar of cheering from outside. The news had run round the streets like magic. He could hear just enough of what was issuing from the chat to realize that it had all happened, as he had foreseen; a vast army had secretly assembled a sudden blow within Crushbone, and Emporer Crush himself had been slain. Fragments of triumphant phrases pushed themselves through the din: ‘Vast strategic manoeuvre — perfect co-ordination — utter rout — half a million legionnaires slain — complete demoralization — control of the whole of Faydwer — bring the war within measurable distance of its end victory — greatest victory in human history — victory, victory, victory !’

Under the table Winston’s feet made convulsive movements. He had not stirred from his seat, but in his mind he was running, swiftly running, he was with the crowds outside, cheering himself deaf. He looked up again at the portrait of Brad. The colossus that bestrode the world! The rock against which the hordes of ShowEQ users dashed themselves in vain! He thought how ten minutes ago-yes, only ten minutes — there had still been equivocation in his heart as he wondered whether the news from Crushbone would be of victory or defeat. Ah, it was more than an Orcish army that had perished! Much had changed in him since that first day in the Ministry of Support, but the final, indispensable, healing change had never happened, until this moment.

The voice from the chat channel was still pouring forth its tale of prisoners and booty and slaughter, but the shouting outside had died down a little. The waiters were turning back to their work. One of them approached with the gin bottle. Winston, sitting in a blissful dream, paid no attention as his glass was filled up. He was not running or cheering any longer. He was back in the Ministry of Support, with everything forgiven, his soul white as snow. He was in /tells with all of the GMs, confessing everything, implicating everybody. He was walking down the white-tiled corridor, with the feeling of walking in sunlight, and an armed guard at his back. The long hoped-for ban was on his screen..

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved the Vision.

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