Cassidy still wasn’t used to the vertigo she got when viewing things from the perspective of the game makers, but she no longer needed support to do it. That was something, anyhow. Once she might have said that her greatest fear was spiders, or the dark, but that version of Cassidy was an amusing memory now. If she were to answer that question honestly, which she wouldn’t do among the game makers, she’d have to admit that it was infinity that ripped her from her sleep in a cold sweat. The human mind wasn’t built to confront its endless expansion.
That was another reason why she didn’t trust Professor Cruz’ friend John, with his wide smile and easy manner. It was something subtle. Something… off. And it wasn’t prejudice. The human faction of the game makers was small, and she liked a good number of the non-human game makers she had met. She just couldn’t understand why John insisted that he was human. No one would have thought anything of it if he’d told the truth about… whatever he was. He couldn’t be human, the way he navigated the infinite planes. Even Cruz said so, though he said it with affection.
Cassidy slowed her progress, thinking she had spotted what she was looking for. Cruz raised the bar on every game and only seemed pleased when she did the same. Well, her next project would get his attention. Cruz’ games were always multi-dimensional, but only in specific contexts. Either he drew the contestants from various dimensions and held the game on one plane or he took contestants one at a time to a board that accessed many dimensions at once. He also refrained from playing with time where possible. She couldn’t tell if these restrictions were hesitation, limitation or wisdom, but she’d find out soon. John didn’t seem to be inhibited by anything. She found him everywhere through time and space, meddling with his big grin that seemed to fool everyone. How could they not wonder how much he hid behind those shining teeth?
“Gotcha,” she muttered, splicing a path into one of the streams before her. She had started to detect a pattern in John’s appearances in a certain period of time, across nearly every parallel she found. It was a woman, or a girl depending on when John stepped onto her path. John was often in the company of beautiful women, no doubt due to his charming grin, but Cassidy had weeded the others out through careful study. This one woman seemed to catch John, no matter what her life story or various points of departure. He was as involved with the successful scientist version of her as he was the artist, the street urchin and the stuffy legal assistant. Where she was, John soon followed.
“What’s your name?” she wondered, watching the woman smile with obvious infatuation at John.
She could find out easily with a quick visit, but she was still learning the myriad ways to view the game fields and didn’t know yet how far she could reach before she was noticed. She wasn’t ready to play her hand just yet. Caution was best. She made a stitch, attaching this moment to her playing board and reached for the next parallel stream.
“Cassidy,” Professor Cruz said in way of a greeting as he entered her room.
Cassidy closed her project and turned to her mentor smiling sweetly.
“How is your game going?” she asked.
“Good,” he said, taking a seat. He looked exhausted. “We may have a winner this time.”
“Really?” she asked, going to her kitchen to pour him coffee. “I thought this one was nearly unbeatable.”
“Nearly, yes,” he said, nodding with a grateful smile as he accepted the cup. “Unfortunately.”
“What makes you think you’ll have a winner?”
Cruz blew on his coffee and sipped, closing his eyes to savor it. Cassidy wondered after a minute if he had fallen asleep, but he heaved a deep sigh and opened his eyes again looking even more tired.
“It’s a hunch,” he said. “We had a volunteer enter the game to save a player. They’re perfect strangers.”
“Compassion,” Cassidy nodded.
Cruz often talked tough but he was a big softy. His games always had a moral. This one, if she remembered correctly, made the objective seem one thing while its complete opposite was the true way to win. He’d hinted that he was using this game to seek out candidates for another, larger board, but he wouldn’t say more than that. Perhaps his exhaustion had to do with extra hours spent planning that larger board.
Cassidy found she wasn’t as interested in Cruz’ plans as much as she used to be. She itched to get back to her own planning. Just one more stitch and she would have enough to set her snare. She still needed to go back through and check her work for loops. The consequences of misusing time were still a bit hazy to her and this game would push limits.
“…was thinking of giving you a larger role in the next phase,” Cruz was saying. Cassidy realized he’d been talking for a little bit, and she had no idea what he’d said. “Have you selected your contestant for your next game?” he asked.
Cassidy pictured John’s obnoxious grin and smiled. “Yes,” she said.
“I look forward to seeing your game,” Cruz said, perking up. “I think you may be ready to shadow my friend, John, at the rate you’ve progressed. I’ll talk to him to see what he has cooking.”
The hairs at the back of Cassidy’s neck prickled. She’d done just fine apprenticed to Cruz. There was no need to bring that man into her education. She couldn’t even say what it was about him that got under her skin, but just thinking about him made her want to punch things. She focused on her game to calm her thoughts. The moment she activated it, John would be indisposed for a while. There was no need to worry.
“Yes, of course,” she said, rising. She was agitated. She needed to move. “More coffee?” she offered.
“No thank you,” Cruz said, standing as well. “I’m headed back.” He stopped at another thought. “Come with me,” he invited. “I think the conclusion could come soon and I’d love to explain the meanings to you if you want to observe. Then we can visit John together and see what he thinks about taking you under his wing.”
“I’d like that,” Cassidy agreed, drifting back to her work station.
She opened her project and flipped the trigger. There was no way she was going to work under John.
“Good,” Cruz said, holding her door open for her.
Cassidy stuck close to his side while they walked. The corridors and rooms in this area of the academy had been constructed to mimic a three dimensional space but the mimicry was incomplete and she always struggled with vertigo when she moved too quickly. Gravity and time were supposed to be stable and underlying in this section but that didn’t always go as planned. Further, little effort had been made to differentiate one door or hall from the next, turning it into an infinitely possible labyrinth to the uninitiated.
“I don’t often step in once a game is in progress, and I definitely don’t like to meddle with the chances of the contestants,” Cruz explained, “but I think you’ll agree that it was worth the interference in this case.”
Cruz’ eyes were bright with excitement. He got that look when Cassidy managed to impress him with her game designs. She hadn’t seen that look for a while. She hoped she’d see it once he realized the scope of the game she’d just set into motion, though she knew it would be mixed with other emotions. The purpose of her game wasn’t for someone to win, it was to expose John for whatever he was so that Cruz could finally see it for himself. She knew he wouldn’t appreciate it at first, but she hoped that the game maker in him would win through in the end and he would realize that she had just pushed the outer edges of reality as she understood it. He’d appreciate the beautiful arcing structure of her design, eventually. A nagging thought caught at the back of her mind. Hadn’t there been another step to take though before the architecture was complete? What would that do if she had missed a step?
“I gave her the choice,” he was saying. “I don’t always require that contestants know that they’re playing, or understand the rules, but it is absolutely imperative that we enable contestants to make their own decisions at each step of the game. Even if they are traveling a path to villainy, which can be essential to some games, they must make those choices themselves.”
Cassidy nodded, thinking through her splices. There had been one more that she’d intended to make. There was a chance that she could make it this evening before John got too deep into the game’s structure. She was playing with time as well as parallels and distance after all. She had time to go in and make that one correction. She fought with creeping panic. What would happen if John made it to the break? Would it be a back door? She didn’t really know how it would play out.
Cassidy stopped when Cruz did. He was studying her soberly.
“Tell me you understand,” he said.
Cassidy tried to remember what he’d been saying. He’d been talking about why he’d interfered with his game. Was her professor making a confession to her? Did he need some kind of absolution?
“I understand,” she said sympathetically.
“The choice is far more important than anything else I teach you,” he said. “We play with great power here. To remove choice in these exercises is a crime.”
Cassidy wondered if she had allowed for choice in John’s game. She hadn’t given him a choice in entering the game, but that wasn’t a big deal. Yes, she decided, he had plenty of choice. He’d be pressed tighter and tighter until he was exposed, but his choices would shape how and where that exposure took place. Yes. He’d choose. In the end, it would be his choice to reveal himself to Cruz as… whatever he was.
“I understand,” she said again, and this time it was as a student to her teacher.
Cruz nodded, satisfied, and turned them down the corridor that led to his arena. John stepped out of a door ahead of them and a stone sank in Cassidy’s stomach as he turned his gaze on her. His smile was missing. He looked tired, if not older than she remembered him. He didn’t acknowledge Cruz at all. He strode up to Cassidy, forcing her to stop walking. They stood nose to nose. Cassidy could see fury in John’s eyes.
“I don’t know what I did to you,” he said. “Perhaps it’s something I haven’t done yet.”
Cassidy stole a glance at Cruz, who watched them with interest. Something had gone wrong. Terribly wrong. Of course! Time had been a factor in her game, but not the way she was thinking about it. She’d had it backwards. Her game had already completed itself and John had gone through… all of that… with no one to see what he revealed. But he had been driven to reveal it. He knew she was responsible, and he’d gotten out. He could have used the gap to escape early or, for all she knew, he’d fought through to completion, however long that had taken. And now he stood before her, furious, demanding answers. She didn’t have a good one. The game had failed.
“Well,” he said, “you made your choice.”
John pushed past her, his shoulder shoving her aside roughly. She looked back at Cruz, trying to think of what to tell him in explanation, but no words came. His eyes weren’t bright with excitement. They didn’t hold disappointment or accusation, either. It was sorrow.
“I always let my players choose their roles,” he said. “Even my villains.”
Written by W. C. McClure. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Also, please help support this indie author by buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!