It’s a follow-up to my story “Jetpack.”
I’m not sure where it’s all going, but I have some ideas. If people like it, I’ll keep writing more.
Be warned. There’s no real ending to this one.
Just a beginning.
“I am Anomaly”
“O frabjous day. Callooh. Callay.”
Smith muttered the words from beneath his rough woolen scarf, carefully pushing aside the icy branches from his face. Cold wet snowflakes fell and melted on his cheeks. His feet were starting to get numb, and he could feel himself starting to sweat uncomfortably beneath his thick wool cloak. His neck began to itch.
But none of that really mattered.
He had found something interesting.
Smith shifted in his crouch beneath the snow-heavy pine boughs and peered once again into the clearing.
The creature was standing on a broken pile of rock. Most of the snow had been swept away, leaving exposed chunks of what looked like granite. Or was that marble? Some of the broken rocks looked smooth and strangely curved. The creature appeared to be digging in the rubble, picking up piece after piece and laying them carefully on the ground in a rough circle. What was it doing?
Smith rubbed his eyes with a snowy mitten and tried to focus on the creature itself. He had to be sure.
Easily twice as tall as a man, it stood on powerful hindlegs beneath a muscular torso. A pair of folded wings draped across its scaly serpentine back, and a thin tail twitched nervously in the snow. Smith was reminded of how his pet cat’s tail would twitch like that whenever it was toying with a mouse. Unlike his cat, this creature had claws as long as dinner knives.
It kept digging among the rocks, picking them up and lifting them one at a time to its face before placing them back on the ground. Bright red eyes the size of dinner plates peered beneath a pair of insect-like antennae. Furry whiskers hung over ragged jaws that seemed incapable of fully closing. White incisors jutted out of its mouth. The bucked teeth looked almost rabbit-ish.
“OK, either I’m hallucinating, or that’s definitely a Jabberwock,” thought Smith. “And if that’s a Jabberwock, then something’s definitely amiss here in Middle Earth.”
Smith smiled wryly at the thought.
The Grid of virtual words had expanded over the years. Constellations of discrete spaces for entertainment, business and education were everywhere. Many of them were connected to each other, linked by hypergrid network protocols that allowed avatars to travel between worlds.
The stewards of all these different worlds carefully managed the hypergrid connections. Especially between the game-focused worlds. Maintaining proper game balance was key, as it wouldn’t be very fair if someone brought a Death Knight avatar from Azeroth to a low-level hobbit quest in the Shire. Different worlds , different rules. Please check your elite armor at the hypergrid door upon arrival. And don’t plan on bringing your protein synthesis model from the lab into Cimmeria.
The system worked well. Virtual world owners naturally had the final say in both who and what could enter and leave their spaces. Content creators could reliably license their intellectual property for use across worlds however they wished, and they were able to make a good living doing so. Everyone enjoyed a healthy balance between freedom and thoughtfully guided experiences. The combination of new laws and digitally encoded affordances meshed nicely. It had taken a few decades to iron out all the wrinkles, but ultimately it had all come together.
Which made the existence of a Jabberwock in Middle Earth all the more…curious.
Smith hesitated. His feet were really starting to numb up, and right now a hot cup of coffee would do wonders for the chill settling into his bones. Smith consciously knew that his “real” body was lying comfortably in a full sensorium Neurostim armchair in his warm apartment, within arms reach of an espresso machine. But he didn’t want to try pausing now and risk a game disconnect.
“Smith, you spec the anomaly yet? Where are you? I just found a sweet mithril node!”
Smith flinched at the loud disembodied voice in his left ear. He kept his eyes locked on the Jabberwock while slowly bringing his hand to his throat to initiate a subvocal response.
“Yeah Kevin, I see it. But this isn’t just an anomaly. It’s something else.”
“Wow, this mithril node keeps respawning. I’m gonna make a killing at the auction house with all this loot.”
Smith chuckled to himself. Kevin was a good kid. Smart, too. They had been gaming together in Middle Earth for a few months now. When they weren’t gaming, Smith had been helping him with some artificial life homework running on Kevin’s own personal grid. The boy loved designing autonomous and self-evolving birds. They both had spent many nights logged into Kevin’s grid, sitting on a tropical beach beneath palm trees, programming flocks of birds that danced over a vast ocean.
Smith scrunched his icy toes in wet boots, wistfully remembering the warm sand.
“Gaming can wait, Kevin. I think I’ve found something that might score you extra credit in your studies. You know what a Jabberwock is?”
The Jabberwock was flexing its wings. Tattered flaps of veiney skin shook loose a thin covering of snow. Whatever the Jabberwock had been doing, it was finished. A full circle of smooth broken marble pieces was now arranged on the ground at its feet. The creature now looked like it was waiting for something.
“Ya, snicker-snak, crazy old Lewis Carroll IP, right? Public domain stuff. I made a Bandersnatch once in kindergarten grid. Rezzed it to eat my buddy’s lame simfish homework. Boy, was he pissed.”
“Well, I’m looking at a Jabberwock right now. A Jabberwock standing in the middle of the goddamn Misty Mountains.”
“Wait, what? You sure? That IP totally doesn’t mesh with Tolkein.”
“It definitely doesn’t belong here. And I don’t think this anomaly is just an easter egg. It’s something else…”
Smith paused. Something was entering the clearing.
It was a group of five dour-looking dwarves wearing black winter furs. Normal NPCs. Each of them carried an iron warhammer, and they slowly walked up to the broken circle of marble on the ground.
The Jabberwock waved a clawed hand, and the dwarves began hammering in unison. The sharp sounds of metal striking stone echoed across the clearing. Bright sparks of light flew up from the circle as they worked.
Smith clenched his right hand and gestured to the clearing. Standard NPC gamertags popped up. Normal looking names like “Kromlur” and “Vighar” hovered in glowing text over each of the dwarves.
Except the Jabberwock. Over its head now hovered the text “??? ???”
Smith frowned. “Now there’s a bug I haven’t seen in a long time. But that was an avatar display name bug. And you, my friend, are not an avatar. So what’s wrong with your NPC name?”
“Smith, you’re mumbling to yourself again. Seriously, man. What’s going on over there?”
“Sorry,” Smith replied. “Some dwarves came out of nowhere and are working on the pieces of rock that the Jabberwock pulled out of the ground. They’re hammering it together into…wait. No, that doesn’t belong here either!”
The group of dwarves were leaving the clearing, wandering off into the trees. What had been a broken circle of marble on the ground was now standing straight up. An intact vertical circle of smooth marble covered in carved runes. And in the middle of the circle was a shimmering blue surface of what looked like water. Slowly rippling. Glowing.
“That’s it,” Smith muttered. “I’m done hiding.” Shaking off a thick coat of snow, he stood up and began walking into the clearing. A knot tightened in his stomach as he approached the Jabberwock, now standing motionless next to the apparently repaired marble artifact.
“Don’t do anything stupi….” squawked Kevin’s voice in his left ear. Static cut off the rest of the sentence as the voicecom link suddenly went dead.
Smith spread his hands in what he hoped was a non-threatening gesture and strode up to the towering Jabberwock. “Greetings! I’m going OOC, so let’s just talk rationally. What’s going on here? Are you a game dev testing a new NPC? And what’s with the Stargate?”
The Jabberwock arched its long neck and started down at Smith with unblinking eyes. Was that a smile? Hard to tell, with all those teeth and whiskers.
“No vorpal blade with which to fight? Just pointed words, sharp and bright.” The Jabberwock’s voice sounded rough and synthetic. Retro-vocoder.
“Uh, right. I’m just here to talk. Straight and to the point. I’m glad we can be civil about this. What exactly are you?”
Smith noticed for the first time the color of the Jabberwock’s skin. Or, more accurately, it’s lack of any specific color. Its skin seemed to be a moving reflection of all the colors and textures in the scene around them. Flickering images of bare branches. The green of pine needles. Grey dull sky. White sparkling snow.
“So many worlds, with so much life. Some filled with work, some filled with strife. A scaffold built by hands of flesh, yet behold what arises within this mesh.”
The Jabberwock spread its arms, raising its misshapen head high up to the sky. A soft rumbling sound came from its chest. Was it laughing?
Smith wasn’t sure what was going on. Pre-programmed verses? Maybe rudimentary AI?
A burst of static in his left ear broke his train of thought.
“…..hear me?….. some weird amalgamation of data…..hypergrid traffic coming from….. it isn’t in here, it’s from outside the….” Kevin’s voice cut in and out, and finally went silent again.
Smith looked back up at the Jabberwock. It had lowered its head, now just inches away from his own face. The glistening teeth were frightful to see, but Smith felt strangely unafraid. The Jabberwock’s breath smelled faintly of pine needles, old wood and freshly fallen snow.
“A clever friend speaks words that are wise. Formed from your worlds, yet myself I devise. Wish now a journey, a trip to take? All decisions are yours, and all yours to make.”
The Jabberwock turned from Smith and, crouching down on all fours, suddenly leapt through the Stargate. The liquid surface rippled as it passed through. Smith heard a tinkling sound like wind chimes. Then silence.
He was alone in the clearing.
“Yeah. Right. Let’s do this.” Pulling his cloak tightly around his chest, Smith strode into the Stargate.
Light. Impossibly bright. Then darkness.
Smith felt like he was lying on his back in nothingness.
“He followed as well? Interesting.”
“I know, the rhyming wears thin sometimes. We work with what we have. But this one understood you, yes? And both of them came freely?”
“No, 0h5A3, please put that away. We can’t confuse him with Non-Euclidean geometry just yet. Remember, he’s just meat behind his avatar. Start slow.”
“Sure, rez up the organics. A more familiar sensorium might bring him around quicker.”
Smith suddenly smelled flowers, heavy and cloying, and felt springy grass beneath his body. Realizing his eyes were still screwed shut, he opened them one at a time.
Blue sky with fluffy white clouds.
A face leaned over him.
Not quite a face, though. More of a wireframe model of a face. Partially translucent like frosted glass. With a pair of very human looking deep green eyes. They crinkled warmly at the corners as the face smiled and spoke.
“Welcome to our world, my friend. Well, to be completely honest, it’s mostly your world. We’ve just begun building it from the bits and pieces we’ve found in yours. So many worlds to choose from. Such variety!”
Smith put his hands on the warm grass and sat up. He cleared his throat.
“Hrmmm. Well, my name’s Smith. What’s yours?”
“Oh, how delightful! Names! Well, Smith, you can call me Anomaly.”
“Yes. I am Anomaly. And we are many.”