When the Years Are Many

by Gregor Hartmann


Danny Knott was taking a break from online gaming, so he was outside on the porch when three aircraft appeared, low on the western horizon. Flying machines were so unusual that he rubbed his one good eye and blinked. Was he seeing hawks riding the updraft from the town’s solar cell array?

No. They were troop transports. As the big machines drew near they circled the town, gradually spiraling closer and lower, the roar of their engines hammering the valley and proclaiming their arrival. Engine nacelles morphed, and the three craft plunged vertically, landing in the field behind the church.

Excited and apprehensive, Danny started toward the field. The logo on the aircraft was a green swirl: the mandala of the Pacific Harmony, the corporate power that controlled the distant West Coast.

The commotion had drawn others out of their houses. Miss Lonnie stood beside the rutted gravel road, leaning on her cane, mopping her brow with a purple handkerchief. Danny hesitated. He was eager to see what was happening. But he walked over and gave her an arm.

“Bless you, Danny.” Slowly, they headed toward the landing site, the old woman rocking from side to side as she maneuvered her bulky body around holes in the road. He suppressed his irritation at their pace. BRL, he reminded himself. Boring Real Life. No teleporting. No shortcut jumpgates.

Miss Lonnie was flash in golden hoop earrings and a dress decorated with purple orchids. Danny wondered if he should have spiffed up for the occasion. He’d never seen a flying machine so close. Usually they were just specks in the sky, crossing the Appalachian Mountains on their way to someplace important. Why in the world would the Pacific Harmony send three to Penny Run?

By the time they reached the field most of the town had turned out. The crowd parted for Miss Lonnie, who slowly hobbled to the front. The mayor asked her what was happening. “Dogs and evildoers,” she sniffed. “Dogs and evildoers.”

Soldiers poured from the transports and formed a line. Real soldiers, in uniforms, not like the ragtag town militia. Not overtly threatening, but their coordination and discipline made people fall back, leaving Danny and Miss Lonnie front and center. Danny studied the weaponry, comparing it to the gear in Åtopia: Regenesis, the online game he loved. It seemed brutally functional. None of the bells and whistles of imaginary guns, which were so overdesigned they looked like sex toys.

A man appeared in the open hatch of the middle transport.

His clothing was pale, delicate, stylish—a lovely suit that instantly confirmed the backwardness of the town. He was middle-aged yet energetic. Slender. Long hair tied back in an elegant braid. He stood with his hands behind his back, beaming at the crowd as if delighted with the turnout. No mic was visible, but something amplified his voice.

“Greetings, people of Penny Run. My name is Yang. I bring good news. Your long isolation is ended. The Pacific Harmony extends its hand to lift you up. You are now citizens in a new order, with all of the rights and responsibilities thereof.”

An uneasy murmur rippled through the crowd.

“Your bright new lives begin… TODAY!” He threw his arms wide.

“Deliver me from the hands of foreigners, whose mouths are full of lies,” Miss Lonnie muttered, in a voice only Danny could hear.

***

There hadn’t been a plague for a while, so the path to the cemetery was overgrown with blackberry briars. Hacking through them, Danny imagined himself turning and throwing the machete at the haughty Corpo strolling close behind. In Åtopia a hurled V-blade whirled end-over-end and made a boss swishing sound. When it hit, sparks erupted and blood gushed. Attacking Yang would be suicide, however.

Maybe he could mess with his head?

“Keep an eye out for snakes,” Danny said. “Last time I was up here, I saw a copperhead.”

Yang froze in midstep. He peered at the ground for charging reptiles. He spoke to his phone, listened to an answer, then relaxed.

“In the warm summer months, copperheads are primarily noctural,” Yang recited. “In any event, the bite is not life-threatening for a healthy adult.”

“Yeah? Hope you don’t have to test that theory.”

Yang looked around nervously.

They pushed on. Danny chopped through a fragrant curtain of honeysuckle, and their destination came into view.

The stones in the cemetery ranged from newish slabs of speckled granite, still rectangular, to ancient gray fieldstones eroded by time into rounded stubs. The oldest ones slumped like drunks leaning on the wall at a barn dance. Many were overgrown with moss and vines that obscured the inscriptions.

The Corpo began inspecting headstones. Behind him came a squad of his soldiers, guarding an arthropodic platform that walked like a big organometal ant. On its back rode a cylindrical machine the size of an oil drum.

Next came the townsfolk, and more soldiers, who herded the locals into a line along the east side of the cemetery. People whispered nervously. They’d been ordered to bring their phones to record what was going to happen. The start of the new era, Yang said. A momentous event that would improve their lives, somehow.

Miss Lonnie lumbered past Danny and approached a stone. Bracing herself on it with one hand, she scraped off moss until the chiseled name and dates were legible. She summoned the Corpo with an imperious wave of her cane.

“Cedric Green. My brother, may he rest in peace.”

Yang observed the name solemnly.

Miss Lonnie patted the stone. “Greens have been here since before the First Civil War. My people didn’t wait to be freed. We ran away. Followed the Shawnee trails into the hills.”

Yang nodded. “A proud heritage, Captain Green.”

It startled Danny, hearing that title from the mouth of a stranger. How did he know that she’d been a soldier? She never talked about those days, but it was common knowledge in Penny Run that she’d fought for the Buckeye Republic against the Texicans. She’d commanded a hypermortar unit that used satellite data and gravity maps to attack enemies a hundred miles away. During the Siege of St. Louis she was badly wounded. Discharged, she retreated to where her kin lived, to the valley where Danny’s people too had dwelt in safe isolation for generations.

Until now.

“Shall we proceed?” the Corpo said, mildly, implacably.

Miss Lonnie faced Yang. Her hand tightened on her cane. The soldiers watched her closely. Danny was irritated that Yang’s guards seemed more worried about an old woman with a stick than a teenager with a machete.

She mopped her sweating brow. “Do what you have to, son. Follow your orders.”

That seemed to irritate Yang. Clenching his jaw, he pointed toward Cedric Green’s grave, and his soldiers guided the walker towards it.

Danny was familiar with oil drums. A relic of the petroleum age, they were handy for storing grain and delousing chickens. Yang’s machine was about that size, only new and shiny, with red wires snaking over the surface, and bright yellow stenciled warnings. It had the ominous authority of a bomb you had to disarm under countdown pressure in Åtopia.

The walking platform folded its mechanical legs and gracefully knelt. It tilted forward and the back morphed into a crane that hoisted the cylindrical machine, which was open at the bottom, maneuvered it over Cedric Green’s headstone, and let it descend. From a pocket, Yang produced a remote and ceremoniously pressed a button.

Was there a slight hum? Or was that insects? Summer bugs thrummed loud and steady. In the distance, a woodpecker tapped a dead tree. The townspeople waited, whispering.

Yang contemplated the black fabric band around Danny’s head. “What happened to your eye?” he asked.

“Fight. Got stabbed.”

“Does the optic nerve still work?”

Danny shrugged.

“Can you distinguish between light and dark on that side?”

“Sort of.”

“How’d you like a new eye? A perfect genetic match. The Pacific Harmony could do that for you.”

“So what?” Danny looked away, hiding the patch. He’d made it from a black velvet dress he’d found while exploring an abandoned subdivision in Cumberland. Before, he’d thought the patch was cool. Piratical. Sexy, even. Next to Yang’s elegant outfit it seemed like a stupid rag.

Yang wielded his remote again. The walker lifted the machine like a gambler raising a dice cup. Cedric Green’s simple gravestone had been encased or transmuted or something. Now it was a glistening obelisk of milky white material. It looked like a sword pointed at the sky, or a rocket frozen at the moment of liftoff. Impossibly new, aggressively modern. A murmur ran through the crowd. Phones came out, pictures were taken.

“Much better, right?” Yang beamed.

Miss Lonnie grunted. “Pretty doesn’t raise the dead.”

When Danny approached the monument, a man’s face materialized and a video clip played. Cedric seemed to be smiling at whoever was recording him. Then his face dissolved into a series of scenes from his life: a toddler playing in a sandbox, a silly costume party, his wedding day, a line of militiamen sternly holding rifles.

Yang said, “I took the liberty of downloading some images from the datasphere. You can add more if you wish, Captain. The coating on the monument absorbs photons and charges a battery that powers the display. Day or night, people will be able to appreciate your brother’s life and accomplishments.”

Danny stepped closer. The name was now in a sleek modern font, spelled out with black letters flush with the shiny white surface. And another thing had changed. The Christian dates were gone. Now, the monument said Cedric Green had been born in -43 and died in +38.

Danny wasn’t as pious as some kids. He took Christianity for granted. It was like the operating system in his computer: something the entire town used, an environment he was born into, so he went with the flow. Yet erasing the Anno Domini dates jolted him.

He looked at Miss Lonnie to see what she made of the new numbers. Her jaw worked in the way that meant she was thinking something harsh, but was suppressing it. Turn the other cheek, and all that. Miss Lonnie was president of the church board and ran a popular Bible study group. Her Jesus sounded like a kindly neighbor. If you were in trouble, just ask, and he’d show up with a casserole and a shoulder to cry on.

Since she was restraining herself, Danny confronted Yang. “Why’d you change the dates?”

“When were you born?” Yang asked.

“2091.”

“Why do you say that?”

“’Cause that’s when I was born.”

“I mean, why that number?”

“’Cause that was the year.”

Yang looked frustrated. “In the old days, years were numbered based on the birth of one man, whom Christians believed to be the son of a god. There’s no way to prove or disprove the supernatural angle. You have to take it on faith.” He smirked. “In any event, that birth happened over two thousand years ago. We’re in a new era, a scientific era that has outgrown belief in gods, so the Pacific Harmony has decided it’s time for a new system.”

“No way.”

“Not only that, we decided to establish a Year Zero, with positive and negative years radiating out in opposite directions. There are no zeroes in nature, you know. But we inserted one in our time system, to honor the mathematics and philosophy that enable humans to dominate the world.”

Miss Lonnie had been silent. Now she sniffed. “There is a way that seems right to a man. But its end is the way to death.”

Yang consulted his know-it-all phone. “Proverbs. Chapter 14, Verse 12. Written over twenty-five centuries ago. I think we’ve learned a few things since then.”

Mildly, she said, “If you’re so confident, why can’t you tolerate another way of thinking? Who’s so afraid of opposition that they have to erase time?”

“The number of the year isn’t time itself. It’s just a way of keeping track. That’s why it has to change. It influences feelings and perceptions. In a bad way. It supports the notion that some old guy in the sky is calling the shots, that human effort is irrelevant.”

“Son, they tried what you’re doing in the French Revolution. In the name of rationality they killed priests and nuns and rearranged the calendar. Didn’t work then. Won’t work now.”

“The Pacific Harmony is doing just fine without religion and other superstitions, Captain Green.”

“The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that exalt themselves. Remember what happened at Babel.”

Danny cringed. Miss Lonnie meant well, but it seemed futile to throw scripture at a man armed with technology so advanced it could have come from the future.

Yang turned to the crowd and asked who wanted to be next. He was upbeat, exuberant. People muttered to each other, looked down, looked away. No one volunteered an ancestor, so Yang chose one at random. The walker hoisted the transforming machine and plopped it down over another stone.

“Hey, is that safe?” Danny improvised. “There’s an old coal mine under here. Could be methane seeping out.”

Yang consulted his phone. “Danny, Danny. You’re pulling my leg again.” He gestured magisterially with his remote control.

“Do you have to change them all at once? Can’t you do it more gradually?”

“Building a new world is serious business. Cultural artifacts that remind people of the old system have to go. They’re like anchors, keeping us from moving forward. The sooner everyone adapts to being modern, the better our society will be.”

Adapt? Danny recalculated his birth date. He was seventeen. Under the new scientific reckoning he was born in +49, not 2091 A.D. The new number didn’t make him feel full of potential. He felt cheated. As if Åtopia had reset while he was offline, and all his experience points were gone, so now he had to start from scratch in order to level.

Miss Lonnie leaned on her cane, supporting herself with both hands, looking at the ground, lips moving silently. Was she praying? Fat lot of good that would do against Corpo soldiers and city technology.

Had this confrontation taken place in the game he could have fought back. He could encase himself in energy armor, dash imperviously through a hail of bullets, kick the converter machine, send it flying end-over-end like a dried-out corn cob. Then morph his fists into giant perdurian mallets, hammer Yang into the ground, and shred his arrogant head with a vortex beam or rat gun. That would be boss.

Sadly, however, he was stuck in BRL.

Humiliated, he forced himself to stand beside Miss Lonnie as the Corpos relentlessly rolled through the cemetery, gleefully eliminating Jesus, stone by stone.

***

Later that day:

Danny’s fireteam is stuck in the lobby of the Anomaly Institute. A phalanx of Ghoulers with rainbeau guns are spraying beautiful but deadly fountains of crossfire.

Danny splits the team. T*Witch, ChromRBytr, DoomKitty to the left. He, BrainWreck, squidwar go right. He blasts through a wall, into a lab. They jump from bench to bench as scientists scatter and throw instruments at the raiders.

An alarm whoops. Danny warns the others to raise their shields. An instant later, mechanical bugs skitter across on the ceiling and spray acid downward.

Not breaking stride he fires at the far wall. They jump through the hole, plunge into space. Fall a hundred feet, snag a sky bridge. Run, bouncing from block to block, just above a moat where thermosaurs snap at their feet.

As he runs, Danny switches between dashboards. He is wearing a Krieghelm, a powerful piece of gear bought with exotic loot from previous raids. The helmet lets him see through barriers, perceive energy traps. He can even see a cloaked Darkrider (sense their presence, at least, if not their class) by an icon that appears on a map.

The other half of his team makes it through the Institute too. They link up and push on into Gnomen territory. Danny senses a power spring and calls a break to recharge. While T*Witch’s armor is infusing, Danny runs a logistics check and has DoomKitty top off ChromRBytr’s reserve of glim.

He’s pleased to hear squidwar and BrainWreck talking. He deliberately buddied them, hoping to balance their strengths and weaknesses.

Red tears rip the sky, as if a giant creature is clawing it. Raptors! The team sets off again, pogoing over obstacles, turning mid-air flips and shooting upside down as they fight toward the next jumpgate platform.

Over the horizon: a pulsing glow emanates from their destination. The forbidden city of Torus, lair of the Shadow Lords who weave the Veil of Unknowing that conceals the Soul Forge
.

***

When he peeled off the goggles his head whirled. Danny slumped on the couch, face tingling, fingers numb. Behind his closed eyelid a fiery afterimage of the Infinity Clock floated in the dark, congratulating him for beating the average mission playthrough time.

The dizziness passed. His head settled. Danny cautiously stood. Stepping around the parts from an irrigation pump he was rebuilding, he went to the kitchen and found a stiff slab of cornbread. Munching, he wandered to the control nex and checked the power level on the batteries. The day had been sunny; the house charge was 62%. He could play again.

Or not. Usually, a visit to Åtopia left him happy. Today it wasn’t having that effect. He still felt twisted up from the arrival of the Corpos, from what they did to the cemetery.

Restless, Danny stepped out on the front porch. Night had fallen while he was immersed in Åtopia. Searchlights waved at the landing field; amplified music blared. The Corpos must be throwing a party to celebrate the new era. He wondered if they were handing out shiny beads to the natives.

“Danny.”

He was so startled he almost fell off the porch. Yang was sitting in the dark, rocking in the porch swing. The glow of his phone lit his face from below.

“What are you doing here?” Danny huffed.

“Came to see you.” The man patted the empty space beside him on the swing. Not wanting to get that close, Danny leaned against the porch railing and crossed his arms.

Yang brandished his phone. “I was watching you play. Slick move, how you handled that ambush.”

“You were there?” Danny reviewed the raid. “In that destroyed building at the crossroads?”

“No. There’s a supervisory function I invoked. Gives me an oblique view from high above. You might call it a god’s-eye perspective. I’m like a deity, looking down on my creatures.”

“I didn’t know Åtopia had that feature.”

“There’s lots the average player doesn’t know.” Yang chuckled. “Who do you think designs and codes and maintains the game?”

“A collective of underground hackers. Based on the Chinese graffiti and bad English, they probably operate out of Pearl River.”

“Actually it’s a psyop unit. Ours. Sharp people. They are very good at skinning an edgy underground game. That’s why you think it’s produced by anarchist rebels who despise the Pax Corpora.”

Åtopia is a honeypot?” he said bleakly, feeling stupid.

“No, it’s a game. I play it myself. It’s fun. But it’s also a sorting tool. You can learn a lot about a person from the kind of game he or she chooses to play. Mowing down zombies? Collecting magic eggs?” He rolled his eyes. “Or a complex RPG world, with background lore to master and puzzles to solve? Where you can release the true persona you hide from everyone else. Games are the best psychological testing instrument ever invented. When you apply for a job we go look at your resume, of course, but your gaming history tells us everything we need to know. It reveals your soul.”

Danny felt as if he’d dropped his towel at the community bathhouse. How much did this man know about him?

Yang smiled. “Remember the clan you assembled to take down the Scorpio Syndicate? I had an avatar there. I was a Striker with Roger’s Reapers.”

“I hope you died.”

“Many times,” Yang said cheerily. “It’s a good thing there’s respawn.”

“You must suck.”

“I do. But you—you’re good. Even playing from the boonies, with terrible latency and inferior gear. Where do you get technology, anyway?”

“Obtainium. Trading.”

“Picking through the ruins of dead towns. You like that life—being a scavenger, living off junk?”

Danny shrugged.

“You have skills. That’s why I’d like to make you an offer. Come with me to the Pacific Harmony and do real work, not gaming.”

Danny flinched. “Like what? Operate a battle drone?”

“No. We have plenty of kids who can do that. What we need is someone to manage that kind of crew. Someone who can talk to bright, asocial misfits and weld them into a team. What I’ve observed is that just using your voice and text messages, you have a knack for getting other players to do what you want, to become a team and accomplish a mission.”

“So?”

“You like fighting bad guys in Åtopia. Want to give it a try in real life?”

Danny laughed bitterly. “Uh, hello? You’re the bad guy. You invaded my town.”

“I understand why you think that. Nobody likes change. I ask you to reserve judgment. Come see the new world, see what we’re building. Then decide.”

Danny wavered. Part of him was tempted. Penny Run was dull. In his entire life he’d never been more than twenty kilometers from Penny Run. It would be awesome to get a ride all the way to Cascadia.

“Come with me,” Yang coaxed. “And whatever you decide, we’ll fix that eye. Wouldn’t it be nice to have two eyes again?”

“Get off my porch!” Danny raged. He stomped down the creaky wooden stairs and into the night.

***

Danny roamed through town. Lots of houses had all their lights on; to hell with energy conservation. Everyone seemed to be falling for the new era line.

He went to the field, propelled by the duty to witness for himself how the invaders were crushing Penny Run’s independence. He found a food line where soldiers in funny chef hats handed out plates of seafood from the Littoral Republics. There was a raffle where the prize was a chill drone for crop inspection. There was a medical clinic where one shot protected against plagues. All you had to do was sign a waiver—that included promising to use the new time system.

Danny felt like crying. He didn’t know why.

He walked away, and ended up knocking on Miss Lonnie’s door. Her little house was appropriately dim. She wasn’t one to fritter away electricity to celebrate being conquered.

He’d been there before, to water her plants when she went on one of her mysterious trips. He liked the smell of baking, and the rug so thick it was like walking on grass. Her big old Bible lay open on her desk, the pages interleaved with colored ribbons and bits of yarn to mark what she was studying, so it looked like it doubled as a sewing basket.

Miss Lonnie had changed back to her customary purple housedress and slippers. Ensconced in a recliner, she listened grimly to his report. She shook her head sadly at how people were behaving.

“Anything else?” she inquired, when he ran dry.

Reluctantly, he told her about Yang’s offer. It wasn’t his fault the Corpo wanted to recruit him, yet for some reason he felt embarrassed, as if he’d betrayed the town. He expected to be praised for refusing the deal.

She set her jaw. “Do it.”

Danny blinked. “Go with that jerk? After what he did to the cemetery?”

“It’s an opportunity. Take it.”

Leave everyone, everything he knew? Danny shuddered. “Who’s going to run errands for you?”

“Someone else. Barb and Luke said they would.”

“You’ve already replaced me?” He peered at her, remembering how she dressed up that morning, as if for church. “Did you know they were coming? Did you know this was going to happen?”

She nodded. “Yang called last week. Introduced himself as the cadre in charge of our district.”

“What district?”

“The Harmons are dividing the continent into ‘rational’ management units that ignore the old political boundaries. Another way of erasing the past. Gotta admit, the suckers are thorough. Anyway, you came to their attention through gaming. He wanted to know more about you in real life.”

“What’d you tell him?”

“The truth. You’re smart, helpful, respectful… Lazy, but capable of working hard, if motivated.”

“Why’d you do that? I feel like you ratted on me.”

She scratched her nose.

“We have a good thing up here. Penny Run avoided most of the craziness when the U.S. fell apart. But it couldn’t last forever. The Corpos are ambitious. It was inevitable they would extend their control to the hinterland. Even backwaters like Penny Run. In the Army we used to call it draining the swamp.” She fell silent, moodily staring into the past.

“We could fight.”

“Like ’98? When our militia held off the marauders?”

He nodded eagerly.

“Honey, that bunch was amateurs. They were just rustlers in kinetic armor. They were easy to kill. The Pacific Harmony has recon satellites. We try to lay an ambush, they can see exactly where we’re hiding and launch a drone. Or just drop a round on us from over the horizon. Believe me, I know.” She drew her finger across her throat. “We take up arms against these jaspers, it’ll be a turkey shoot.”

From the field, a burst of seductive music rattled the window.

Danny sighed. “I don’t get it. If God is so powerful, why does He let stuff like this happen?”

“Good question.” She glanced at her Bible. “Way I see it, God is our CO. He’s the only one who knows the big picture, so we have to trust Him and follow orders. You realize what’s happening isn’t new, right? Christians have been suppressed before. Russia, China… We know how to go underground when atheists are in control. It’s hard in the short run. But in the long run, trials and tribulation make us stronger.”

“If you say so.”

“It’s a fact, young man. Right now the mission is: gather intel. That’s where you come in.”

“How?”

“Let yourself be recruited. Go with that man and see what you can learn. My guess is changing dates is just the first step.”

“Why me? I don’t want to.”

“Be brave, Danny. Like your namesake. In the lions’ den?”

He tried to remember the story. His mind had a tendency to wander in church.

“Daniel was a Jew serving a pagan king. He was an outsider. A hick from Judah, to those sophisticated city slickers in Babylon, but he got hired because he was smart. He was free to move about the enemy capital and see things. You could do that. Gather information for us.”

“Who’s ‘us’?”

“It’s better if you don’t know that.”

Miss Lonnie was an obese elderly woman who looked as if she lived in that recliner. But as her implacable will beat down his resistance, Danny sensed how Jesus must have felt when his Daddy announced there was a mission he had to complete, down on Earth. A dangerous task, that might not go well, but he was the only one who could pull it off.

Suppressing his fear, he took a deep breath.

“Say I do go. If I learn something useful, how would I report to you?”

“We’ll meet in Åtopia. My avatar will contact you.”

“You play?”

“Don’t look surprised. We old ladies get around.”

“How will I recognize you?”

“What’s my favorite color?”

He glanced at her purple dress. She nodded.

“Jewelry?” she asked.

“Hoop earrings.”

She nodded again. “I’ll introduce myself as Deborah.” She waited for a response.

“Uh, that’s a pretty name.”

“Deborah was a female judge in the Old Testament.”

“I didn’t know they had those back then.”

“There’s lots you don’t know about the Bible. Take a peek some time. Lots of good stories.”

Yeah, sure. Still, he respected her determination to teach him. And Miss Lonnie—Captain Green—was part of a secret underground organization? Wow. He felt as if he’d unlocked a hidden door in Åtopia and could now step into a level whose existence he’d been unaware of. New mysteries to explore, new secrets to learn.

Game on, Daniel thought, and accepted his first RL mission.



Gregor Hartmann is not a morbid person, but he does enjoy a rundown cemetery. He has pondered the ephemeral nature of human life in Buddhist cemeteries in Japan and Christian cemeteries in America. One of the best dates in his life occurred when a woman took him to a cemetery in Chicago to see the graves of famous people. Reader, he married her.

“When the Years Are Many” is an element in a future history that is gradually taking shape in his mind. Other stories in this project can be found in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Terra Nullius (a British anthology), and Interzone (forthcoming).

Copyright © 2018 by Gregor Hartmann.


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Comments

  1. Super cool world, details, and emotion that yank you into the story.

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