Jay Banksman sat before Mr. Oatman. His stomach hurt, and he was irritable. He’d explained to Oatman how his pants came to be missing. Mr. Oatman didn’t doubt him. But he seemed unwilling to punish Jeremy, or even to ask Jeremy for Jay’s pants back. Instead, he lectured Jay on the pitfalls of victimhood. So Jay stopped listening. He had other things to consider.
He was going to meet Liz tonight, and let her use the disk. That mean they’d have to come back to school, break into Tutorial, and somehow have Stevie’s internet login. When he’d made the offer to Liz, he’d been flustered, and hadn’t considered how many hurdles remained between him and his plan.
He stared past Oatman, on the wall behind him was a handmade prom poster. In pink and blue bubble letters it advertised Spring Fling. Jay realized: Prom was tomorrow! In everything that had happened, he’d lost sight of prom. And yet it was vitally important, he knew. Whatever this game was about, he was certain it centered around prom. His dream had told him that much. And he was going with Liz, which was amazing, yet she said he’d be disappointed. It was overwhelming. Jay shook his head.
Mr. Oatman stared at Jay over his glasses.
“Oh, no. I was shaking my head… in agreement.”
“I hope that’s true. I hope you can find a way to make these last few weeks work. As we near graduation, it gets harder to keep a lid on things. The energy gets a little... out of hand. When students cause continual disruptions, it’s easiest just to pull them out of school.”
Jay clamped his mouth shut. The idea of him as a troublemaker filled him with rage. Expulsion was no longer a concern; he had bigger things to puzzle out. But it was vitally important he not get kicked out of school before prom. Liz had said that he wasn’t a player, but if she expected him to sit by the sidelines, she had another think coming.
The door swung open, and Derek Deckford, the mousy, well-dressed freshmen, popped his head in. He held up a pair of bright red track pants. Across one side were stenciled the bold white letters “Cascadia Vandals.”
“These were all I could find.”
Principal Oatman nodded. Derek tossed the pants to Jay, then ducked out. Jay dressed under Oatman’s disdainful gaze, blushing at the humiliation.
“Don’t make yourself a victim, Jay. Make yourself small and scarce, and we won’t have any more problems.”
“Yes sir.” Jay muttered.
Jay walked out of the front office feeling ridiculous. Thankfully, everyone was in third period. There was no way he was going to class. He had to get back into Tutorial somehow. If he could sneak back in now, he could unlock the window for later entry.
He wound his way through campus, through the pines and up the ramp. Through the door, he heard Ms. Rotchkey in the middle of a muffled lecture. He knocked softly on the door, and her voice stopped.
He opened the door. The kids of Tutorial looked up at Jay, then down at his sweatpants. Ms. Rothchkey’s gray face colored red.
“What is it? I’m in the middle of class.”
“I was, uh, coming up to apologize.”
“That is not a conversation we’re having right now.”
“Should I come back, or—?”
“Shut. My. Door!” She glanced down at his pants. “And no sports apparel during—”
Jay shut the door before she could finish. He stood out on the ramp, pondering his options. He could wait around for school let out… but that was impossible in his current dress. He thrummed his lip with indecision when the PA system—muffled through the walls of Tutorial—crackled to life.
“Students and faculty, please report to the gym for an all-school assembly.”
The buzzer went off. Jay instinctively leapt over the Tutorial railing, and climbed underneath it. Above him, he heard the door swing open, and footsteps thunder down the wooden planks, as Tutorial kids filed out. He heard the door click shut, and then silence. Ms. Rotchkey hadn’t locked it. He grinned in the shadows of the ramp. An assembly was the perfect cover.
Jay waited a full minute—timing it on his Frogger watch—then crawled out on his hands and knees and grabbed the guardrail. He was about to haul himself up and over the guardrail, when he heard the Tutorial door swing open. He ducked back down. Footsteps ran down the ramp. Jay peered down the trail. It was Stevie, running down to the assembly.
Before Jay could think he fiercely whispered:
Stevie swung around. Jay saw her eyes scanning the forest, before finally finding his own, hiding beneath the ramp. She walked back up the path, cautious.
Jay realized that he must look like a fugitive, hiding behind the ramp. He stepped out onto the path. Stevie glanced back at Tutorial.
“What are you doing?”
“I, um, have a hypothetical for you.”
Stevie looked back down towards the C-Court assembly, clearly anxious.
“Say our world was a video game.”
Her face was blank. Jay started over again.
“Hypothetically, what would it take to recreate this,” Jay indicated the world, “using a computer. Like, if you had to render out all the lighting, the physics, the trees, everything...”
Stevie straightened. Everyone had a tell when they were thinking hard; good posture was Stevie’s.
“Hmm, interesting theoretical. If Moore’s law holds, and you have a doubling of circuit transistors every two years… well, hold on.” She pulled her backpack off and twisted it around her shoulder, unzipping it. She pulled out her Texas Instrument calculator and punched buttons.
“I mean, this is really rough, but I think it’d take at least three decades before we were anywhere close.”
Three decades. So if Liz were right, sometime in the future—say, 2023—two people had set up Dunam in 1993 to play some sort of a game. What the game was, Jay couldn’t yet imagine. Then he remembered what Liz had said about there only being two players.
“What about A.I.? Suppose all the people in the system were actually just artificial intelligence. Could software and hardware three decades from now simulate that level of intelligence?”
Stevie shrugged and looked back down the path, anxious to get away. “I suppose so.”
“Okay. Last question. Would it be possible for one of the A.I. characters to edit the simulation from inside of it? If they had access to the code?”
“If they were intelligent enough, and they found a glitch, or a console inside the program, then yes.”
Jay nodded. It was just as Liz said.
“Great, thanks. Uh, is the Tutorial door unlocked?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Uh, listen, I gotta to pop in real quick. To, uh, get some homework I forgot.” Jay blushed, wishing he were a better liar. “Will you do me a favor and not tell anyone?”
Stevie, also a bad liar, swung her gaze swung involuntarily towards C-Court. Her smile trembled and she grunted “okay.” She obviously meant to go straight to Ms. Rotchkey.
“Thanks,” Jay sighed.
They turned from one another and ran in opposite directions. Jay swung the Tutorial door open and stepped inside. He only had minutes now. Ms. Rotchkey would be furious when Stevie told her Jay was in her classroom. She would come storming back up, and Jay didn’t want to be around when she did. Luckily, he only needed a second.
The lights were off, except for the computer monitor. Jay moved to the window, unlocked it, and opened it just a hair. Mission accomplished.
Jay was about to leave, but the computer caught his gaze. Out of curiosity, he walked over, and double-clicked the CompuServe icon on the desktop, and the dial-up box expanded. There was a number typed in, and a password auto-filled. Jay hadn’t peaked at The Build since yesterday. He wondered if there were any more clues he could glean from it, now that he knew it was a console for changing his world. He sat down and clicked “connect.” The modem screeched and whined as it booted. He slipped in his disk, and double-clicked The Build.
As he waited for it to load, he thought back to his conversation with Liz. She had said there were only two players. Jay wasn’t one of them. So who were they? Liz, that was obvious. Who was the other? Onscreen, he saw his pixelated self, sitting alone inside Tutorial. He scrolled down, over the path and into C-Court. In the gym, all four hundred some students were in the bleachers. Mr. Oatman stood before them, a little, wordless speech bubble coming out of his mouth. In the center of the bleachers sat the pixelated figure of Jeremy. He sat in the exact center of the other kids, the epicenter of their student school. Out of curiosity, Jay clicked on Jeremy. A bunch of stats popped up: Health, Energy, Wealth. Jeremy clicked on wealth.
A window popped up: Total McKraken wealth: $4,328,440.
There was the answer, staring Jay in the face. Jeremy was the other player. It was so obvious, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it immediately. If anyone could be said to be “winning” at high school, it was Jeremy. He had the money, the Miata, the Johns, the forearms; the power. Somehow, this was a game between Jeremy and Liz.
Jay felt a surge of jealousy. And what did that make him? And Colin, and the other Tutorial kids? Jay’s blood boiled to think of himself as pawns in Jeremy’s game. As non-player characters in Jeremy’s stupid game. King Jeremy does whatever he pleases. What idiot would play a game where the whole point was tormenting people weaker than you? His hand shook with rage, as he right-clicked the McKraken wealth, and changed it to zero. He saw the numbers disappear, and he clicked “save change.”
Then he right-clicked on Jeremy. A pull-down menu appeared with several options. “Move, edit, pause,” and all the way at the bottom “delete.” Jay hovered on delete. Delete Jeremy? That would be the ultimate revenge. But no, he didn’t want Jeremy out of the picture. He just wanted to watch Jeremy lose.
Instead, he scrolled over to the McKracken’s house on the bluff. It was more of a compound than house, really. A skybridge connected two giant mansions. Its interior was vast, its living room alone the size of Jay’s house. Jay shook his head. Jeremy was definitely winning. But he would show Liz that he could be a player too. He right-clicked, and selected ‘delete.’ He watched in amazement as the pixelated house burst into splinters.
Then he scrolled over to the A-Court parking lot. There was Jeremy’s red Miata, his pride and joy, nestled amongst the John’s trucks. He right-clicked, selected ‘delete.’
BOOM! An explosion rocked the walls of Tutorial, startling him. Two seconds later, the Miata onscreen burst in a stilted animation of orange and red.
Jay heard shouts from down in C-Court. Students were out of the assembly, looking for the explosion. Moving quickly now, he scrolled to the old dirt road above Tutorial. Through the walls of Tutorial, he could now hear voices approaching. The high-pitched explanations of Stevie, followed by the deep, angry murmurings of Ms. Rotchkey. But he wanted to send Jeremy a message, so Jeremy understood not to mess with him anymore. He pulled a Miata from the object library, then quickly choose it’s color—green—before dropping it on the road and clicking ‘save.’
Footsteps pounded on the Tutorial ramp. Jay panicked and smashed his palm into the eject button, grabbing his disk and his backpack in one fluid motion. He opened the Tutorial window and crawled out, using one hand to pull the window back down. Then he dropped, hitting the ground with a thud as branches crunched beneath him. He heard voices on the Tutorial ramp, and then the Tutorial door squeaked open and he heard Stevie’s voice through the partially opened window.
“—asking me a bunch of weird questions—”
Jay turned and ran through the woods until he was out of breath. He pushed his way towards the light on the other side of the Tutorial pines, and stepped out into the open air. There, on the dirt road, was the brand new Miata. His Miata. He flushed with excitement. He was finally in control.