Extract and Interview with Xander Black (META: GAME ON)
Xander wasted a lifetime creating cheap disposable ideas to sell cheap disposable products. He’s now focused on creating cheap disposable stories. When not writing he’s reading, watching film & TV, hanging with Sarah, Hesper, and Hattie, and occasionally playing the odd video game. He has a few more stories brewing that may be disposed of soon.
Hello Xander, and welcome to The Fantasy Hive. Thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this interview!
Thank you for having me during these frugal times. At least, I assume there’s an author shortage if I’ve made the grade.
Haha, not at all! We are excited to hear more about Meta: Game on. To start us off, tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
My writing process is odd, it’s definitely not linear. I write scenes and segues, usually on my phone or iPad, I’ll structure them later into the main story and edit them on PC. A lot of the editing is removing inefficient words, continuity, and removing story details better left unsaid. I spend a lot of the day doing other work, managing domestic stuff, and I have a chronic health condition so my writing time is limited.
Music does inspire some scenes but I don’t listen to music as I write, it would be too difficult to concentrate. There were whole scenes from Meta that were inspired by song lyrics. (e.g the song which the Virtualists sing was originally ‘Devotchka – How it Ends’, Wang and Alymere sing ‘I did it my way’ as they’re fighting zombies) I removed them as I couldn’t get copyright, but the chapters were far more powerful with the lyrics in situ so it was a missed opportunity.
In your own words, could you briefly tell us what happens in Meta: Game on?
Well, anyone can read the novel synopsis so I’ll be brief: It’s a high fantasy adventure set in cyberspace. The quest goes awry as a deeper mystery starts to unfold – one which crosses over to the real world. Disparate storylines converge together for the story’s conclusion.
As a writer I had clear objectives outside the actual narrative. At its core, Meta is about how two layabouts end up way out of their depth through unfortunate circumstance. I tried to pen a human story about interpersonal relationships and growth, I wanted enough meat to that side of the story without an epic backdrop and momentous events. I also wanted to combine elements from lots of different genres (fantasy, scifi, mystery, comedy). I wouldn’t be reliant on tropes from any single genre. Cyberspace, for instance, enabled me to write modern humour in a fantasy setting.
Game On is also a setup novel that introduces the main players who’ll participate in a much bigger storyline in future books. At least that’s my hope, my vision might be bigger than my ability.
Some reviewers have pointed out that this novel is ‘The Hitchhikers guide meets Ready Player One,’ What is your reaction to this? Did you have influence from Adams for this novel?
The comparisons to Adams were flattering, but no huge surprise. Not only is he one of my favourite authors, but he was also once a slave to London ad agencies which encourages a certain way of writing. Efficient words, word plays, rhythmic sentences, setups and punchlines are all part of the discipline. But Adams is a frood on another level. He has a mastery of the language I can’t compete with. He conjures up laughs from nothing that hit like a pangalactic gargle blaster. His work isn’t just well written, its beautifully written… so the comparison is very pleasing for me, and perhaps a little unfair to Douglas.
I only saw the Ready Player One film on the advice of a friend when the first draft was complete. I’ve since read the book which is terrific (a real homage to the eighties), but apart from the use of cyberspace and gaming I was surprised by the comparisons. There are hundreds if not thousands of Gamelit books, which share those elements, but maybe Cline’s novels are the only ones which have reached mainstream audiences – hence the comparison.
The Narrative seems to follow different groups of people, who all join together for the climactic end/ cliff-hanger, who would you say are your favourite or least favourite characters in the world of Brith? And why?
The easiest to write was Sir_Pendulous_Wang, he writes himself which makes him a favourite. In my early scribbles, he was just a background character, but I knew he had a lot of potential and needed a bigger, more intrusive role in the story, like his namesake.
I think for most of my readers, the favourite is Ava. She’s just likeable and brings a lot of personality. There are some very strong female characters in the book, but Ava is the most developed. She’s loosely based on my partner, Sarah which also makes her dialogue easy to navigate. Not that Sarah is predictable with her vocabulary… everything she says is incredibly unique of course (have I dug myself out of that one?)
Is Cyrus based on yourself? or Everett? Would you say there are any autobiographical influences for any of your characters?
Cyrus is very different to me but emotes like me. We’re emotional clones who contend with chronic illness. How he reacts to situations is very natural for me to predict. His relationship with his dad is made up, but maybe an imagining of my relationship with my daughter in years to come.
There are aspects to Wang which are based on me, and even Lord_Scottish has a few thoughts which reflect mine. I think a lot of Everett’s anxieties are based on a twenty-year-old me. He’s a very different character otherwise, and I find him challenging to write sometimes.
Astrovid-42… screaming similarities to Covid-19 and pandemic… what made you include this historical context in the novel?
Just the volume of misinformation and conspiracy theories around COVID-19, I knew would be a rich vein to draw on. Additionally, the pandemic changed social behaviours globally. If a true cyberage came along, we’d need not only the tech, but other social change drivers to catalyse the transition. I began writing during the first lockdown so it all fell into place.
What fears for the contemporary world do you think have leaked into the narrative?
I actually believe that Meta offers a very optimistic view of the future. Everything from Universal Basic Income, climate change, lab grown foods, to quantum computing, all very topical stuff today, has been taken through to a successful conclusion from the novel’s onset. The lack of material need in such a world, has changed people for the better. They’re not so superficially driven by personal gain or define themselves by their career.
The dangers of a society like that are nothing like what we contend with now. Complacency, devolution, and division of world views would threaten an automated cybersociety… that, and potentially the artificial intelligences entrusted to govern things.
What was your main influence for this novel?
There was a lot of TV. Stranger Things, Star Trek, Community, Rick & Morty, Devs, Westworld, and others. The whole scene with the Seer in the Piaf flower Gardens, for example, was inspired by an episode of Community in which they find a trampoline hidden in the college gardens.
The world narrative and backdrop of Brith I already had. It was based on an old DnD campaign which dated back to being a teen Dungeon Master in the eighties and evolved through several iterations.
In our chats on instagram, you mentioned that anime hugely influenced Meta, in what way? any particular shows/series?
One Punch Man. I watched it by chance and fell in love with the storytelling and humour. It’s the only anime I’ve developed any real connection with. Although my book is nothing like it, OPM probably inspired me more than any other source to write. You may see some influence in the build up to battles between meta players.
I absolutely loved the sneaky Easter-egg type mentions in this novel, such as Neverborn (Neil Gaiman), connections to Westworld, and Lord British (remembered in your novel by ‘Lord Scottish’ of Skara Brae) – what were the ones you think might have been missed by readers? (If any?)
Hugo_Shaggins, the barrel rider was an obvious Hobbit nod, mentions of ‘giving up due to a higher ground advantage’ was Star Wars. There are countless old game references, Pokemon, Wizardry, Ultima, Neverwinter Nights, DnD, Warcraft, and quite a few nods to Monty Python. There’s many more. At least ten thousand words full of that sort of thing were cut in editing.
Hugo_Shaggins! Of Course.. I cannot believe I missed that one!
The ‘Skin Creeper,’ was genuinely really creepy, but seriously clever, a creature in the game that hunts down characters with bad game-karma! What made you construct such a bizarre monster?
You know, it’s funny, the skin creeper was created as quickly as I could type the words, there wasn’t much forethought. It did occur that they were a bit like the Skulltulas from Zelda. The karmic retribution part was also made up on the spot.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
It’s hard to beat a dragon, but I’ll say a Kirin just to be different. If memory serves me right, they can run across water and through the air. Although the question itself is flawed… like Cyrus, I’d be riding away from the battle (unless the enemy left me a bad review on Amazon.)
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel? I believe animals might be coming to Brith…
I’m currently working on Meta : Game Changer which is book 2 of the series. It follows two years after events of the first book. Nothing is finalised yet but I’ll include a snippet.
No animals in Brith, but they’ll be appearing in other cyberenvironments. Certainly, no animals will be harmed during the writing of this book if that offer reassurances.
What is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
First and foremost, I hope they’re entertained. I’ve also included a lot of observations relating to the human condition and our world. If those, or any of the characters resonate in a meaningful way to readers, that’s a bonus. The ultimate scenario is that the audience leaves with a few memorable quotes or phrases. If people started using terms like lunt, that’d be really schwifty.
Finally, where can we recommend readers buy your book?
Here’s an unedited preview of the next book:
In the expansive realms of Brith, the eternal war between good and evil was heating up a little. This was no surprise to many of the long-term inhabitants who had some foreshadowing of future events. The news didn’t come in the form of some obtuse ancient prophecy, nor was it whispered about in hushed tones at secret councils. It came in a form that was rather unmistakable. Neverborn V1.5 featured the tagline, Join the Battle for Brith which was a bit of a dead giveaway.
Despite the conspicuous announcement, the general populace continued to live their lives as they’d always done; seeing it as just a minor inconvenience if their favourite pub happened to be burnt to the ground by marauding crusaders, or if their fiancé was brutally beheaded during a sudden skirmish. Only the most powerful, elite, strategic and time invested players, the Metas, followed the Brith narrative as it unfolded. Two such Meta players; Vanja and Sir_Pendulous_Wang, ranked fifty-nine and sixty-two respectively, had travelled Northwest to the Kingdom of Crad where they were pursuing a vital clue. Their search had led them to a seedy tavern on the outskirts of the town of Skystead.
“What’s his name again?” shouted Sir_Pendulous_Wang to his companion so he could be heard above the blizzard.
Vanja responded with a heavy sigh. “How do you remember every detail of everything you read, but you can’t remember anything I tell you?” she replied making no attempt to moderate her impatience.
“Well, you know what Crad names are like. They’re just ridiculous random syllables strung together. It’s not like there’s anything memorable about them,” argued Wang defensively.
Before entering the establishment, they both took a moment to straighten themselves out amidst the storm. The aim was to look intimidating. Vanja achieved this easily with her cool demeanour and classically beautiful features, she naturally possessed a degree of unapproachability. It was a state harder to achieve for Sir_Pendulous_Wang. Despite his large frame and full plate armour, his toothy-faced optimism, and bowl-like hairstyle was often difficult for many to take seriously.
“Barniwoodle Whopjam is his name,” reminded Vanja as they opened the door.
Barniwoodle Whopjam was amongst the next generation of Turing 5.0+ COGs in the game. Whilst not completely self-aware, they possessed a versatile matrix that had the appearance of true sentience. This meant they could be befriended, reasoned with, bribed, tricked or threatened. According to Yuki Matsumoto, Arctik Studio’s AI Director, “They’re as close to cognizant as we want them to get. The last thing we need is truly sentient AIs roaming Brith. Can you imagine what’d be like if it suddenly dawned on you that you were some random character in a game?”
The tavern, if rumour was to be believed, acted as the headquarters for the local Thieves Guild. Eight patrons who certainly looked the part of cutthroats, sat idly, watching the newcomers carefully as they trudged in out of the snow.
“Good sirs, which of you is Barniwoodle?” asked Sir_Pendulous_Wang puffing himself out with hands on hips. Any intimidating effect his posture may have had was sadly countered by his cheerful polite tones. “We seek the Amulet of the Elders, an artifact of the Neverborn. We’d be ever so grateful if we could exchange a few words about it.”
Vanja elbowed Wang sharply in the ribs with a harsh whisper, “You’re doing it wrong.”
“Ahem… and I might add, that if we get what we need, no one needs to die.”
This last statement seemed to get their attention. Blades were drawn and axes raised.
“That worked didn’t it,” whispered Wang with a wink to Vanja who rolled her eyes as she unholstered her bow.
“I’m Barniwoodle,” said a sly looking man seated at the back of the bar. “I think you’ll find in Skystead, we don’t take kindly to threats. You’d best explain yourselves quickly, or you’ll end up in our basement like our last guests.”
“Is there something we should see down there?” asked Wang.
“You’ve unlawfully acquired a map which shows the location of the Amulet,” interrupted Vanja with a cold bluntness.
“Perhaps it’s in the basement?” asked Wang.
“You’ll find your deaths down there,” replied Barniwoodle with a twisted smile.
“Oh,” replied Sir_Pendulous_Wang considering the new information. Before he could offer a response, Vanja took matters into her own hands. With a blur of motion, she fired off seven arrows leaving all but one of the pub patrons mortally wounded.
Amidst the moans of pain, Barniwoodle, the sole survivor, ran left and right in a panic as Wang and Vanja approached.
“Good sir, perhaps you’d like to take a seat and we could negotiate?” asked Wang.
Shaking with fear, the man removed the map from his pocket, throwing it on the table.
“Take it!” he exclaimed in a nervous high-pitched voice.
Shortly thereafter, the two exited the tavern, Vanja held the map rolled out in her hands.
“That was easy,” beamed Wang, “Where to now?”
“Back to Orsus,” she said examining the map carefully, “The amulet is not far from the Twin Cities near the Forest of Lycans.”
“Oh, that will take days to get to. I’ve never liked the Twin Cities, it takes you out of the game when you hear all those American accents in a fantasy setting,” bemoaned Wang.
“It’d be much faster if you were willing to travel by portal,” replied Vanja without removing her eyes from the parchment.
As if to emphasise her words, a dimension gate opened in the distance. A tall cloaked figure emerged and strode with purpose through the storm stopping just ten feet from the pair. Wang and Vanja both watched the stranger intently; his face was masked in shadow beneath a dark hood.
“Greetings, good sir, Sir_Pendulous_Wang, at your service,” began Wang with a welcoming smile, “And this is Vanja, a Captain of Crad.”
“I know who you are,” came a hollow voice in return. “Give me the map.”
“And why would we do that?” asked Vanja as the stranger stepped closer.
“If I get what I need, no one needs to die,” said the stranger striding closer to stand directly in front of them. The newcomer had an imposing stature, standing a good six inches taller than Wang who wasn’t short by any measure.
“It’s funny, I just said that a few moments ago,” said Wang marvelling at the coincidence. Suddenly realising the implied threat, he reached for his sword. As fast as he was, the newcomer was faster. With a quick movement, the stranger firmly held Wang’s gauntlet, preventing him from drawing the blade. The man’s grip was strong, ungodly strong.
“There is no need to fight, this needn’t come to bloodshed, knight,” said the stranger in a calm but echoey voice. Vanja could now make out a familiar helmet visor amidst the shadows of the hood.
The stranger stretched his other hand, palm up, towards Vanja. Much to Wang’s surprise, she grudgingly passed him the map.
“I thank you,” said the man with a nod, he turned away and retreated into the blizzard.
“You just handed it to him?” exclaimed Wang, “Why?”
“That was the number one Meta, Ferbert_the_Invincible,” replied Vanja, “It’s a miracle we’re still alive.”
“I guess he likes us,” mused Wang as the stranger disappeared out of sight.
Arctik Studios Memo: The Battle for Brith continues and the stakes are high. So high in fact that for the first time in years, the top Meta players are pursuing the Brith narrative rather than corporate sponsorship. The current Brith Global 200 is the most competitive set we’ve yet seen. As the potential rewards increase, it’s imperative we maintain our vigilance on the integrity of our community and the game. As you’re aware, Arctik has a zero-tolerance policy towards practices that may result in an unfair advantage over other players,
We are currently running new sweeps of the system that may identify previously undetected exploits and third-party apps.
Live to play!
The year 2066 was a utopia of a different kind. Not the sort where everyone lived in spiritual harmony, or worked towards a common goal. Those were strictly the domain of fiction, and always seemed to contain sinister undertones. Rather, this was the sort of society where everyone did whatever they wanted, when they wanted. Most remarkably, they did it without impinging on the rights and freedoms of others, or even annoying those around them too much. This was achieved through automation that provided for the world’s material needs, and cyberspace.
The world’s most popular cyber destination were the fantasy realms of Brith as featured in the game Neverborn released by Arctik Studios in 2054. As the game narrative moved towards its epic climax, it had gained even more market traction with over four hundred million daily visitors. There players undertook classic high-fantasy adventures without all the sanitary inconveniences of living in a medieval-type world.
It had been a conscious decision on the part of the game’s designers to exclude certain bodily functions from the game. This was for two very good reasons aptly named number one and number two. It turned out that engaging in those activities, and the subsequent clean up, was not how players wanted to spend their time, particularly when there were no modern facilities to make the task easier.
For the past two years, the lands of Brith had been gripped by a holy war. Two factions of knights, the Seraphim and the Dark Flame, searched in secret, for the second coming of an all-powerful being named the Neverborn. Who or what the Neverborn was, remained something of a mystery to the general populace, although a few amongst the Meta were starting to form a picture.
And so, Brith continued without bathroom breaks, and with the vast majority of the population paying no heed to current events simply because they felt too disempowered to make a difference. This made Brith not that dissimilar to our own world.
There were however, two individuals amongst the throng of its mediocre inhabitants who did understand the significance of the Neverborn, and were determined to try make a difference. It’s with these unlikely would-be-heroes, that our story begins.
CHAPTER 1 : THE PUB
Arctik Studios Memo: We are pleased to welcome our newest sponsor, Pear Quantum® to Brith. Many of you will have grown up with Pear Quantum®, they were, after-all, the first to bring the quantum computing age to people’s homes. Some will recall they recently suffered brand damage when qOS v7.0 introduced deliberate performance problems to their line-up of products, forcing hardware upgrades whilst simultaneously doubling the price of their new generation of home devices. Although many cried, “planned obsolescence” Pear responded with a PR campaign blaming the issue on a ‘necessary upgrade to counter an unfixable quantum memory allocation issue’ which turned out to be a hard sell. Unfortunately, Pear’s next generation devices aren’t selling either. Pear Quantum® are now aggressively marketing to rebuild goodwill with their audience.
So, what could Pear Quantum® bring to Brith? Pears of course. They’re sweet, refreshing, and delicious, providing both health and stamina to players at an affordable price. It should be noted that the pears have a limited lifespan and should be thrown away if not consumed before the next batch is available.
Live to play!
As with all good fantasy yarns, our story begins at the PUB. Not the sort where you drink on a Friday night before deciding a 12am Vindaloo is a good idea, this particular venue catered for a very different crowd. The Philosopher’s Union of Brith or PUB for short, was universally considered to be the second biggest ‘circle jerk’ in cyberspace. More pretentious than the Brith League of Poets, more conceited than the cyber folk band, the Bards of Aerynhall, and more pugnacious than the Elven princess, Ketta Wenon.
In reality, the field of philosophy had declined for many decades. This was put down to the best young minds being attracted to more practical fields. By the mid-twenty-first century, most academic institutions had dismantled their philosophy offerings altogether. Many of those out of work academics ended up in cyberspace where they progressively became even more unnecessarily verbose than their forerunners, in an attempt to sound intellectual.
“This is pointless,” breathed Cyrus. “What could these people possibly tell us that we don’t already know?”
“We haven’t been able to decipher the meaning of these pages in two years, and these people call themselves the greatest thinkers on Brith… it’s worth a shot,” replied Everett.
“Philosophers? Greatest thinkers?” guffawed Cyrus letting his predisposition to the discipline get the better of him. “Sounds like PR to me. That may have been true two thousand years ago, but these days they’re really scraping the bottom of the academic barrel to find anyone willing to enter the field. You know what Sedwick, the Complete Unified Theory architect said about philosophers?”
“He said, ‘philosophical discourse is like eating artichoke hearts, once you strip away all the unnecessary verbiage, there’s really very little to sink your teeth into.’”
“Well, he’s a physicist like you. You’re all a bit elitist yourselves.”
“We are not! And we don’t label ourselves the greatest thinkers on Brith. We just object to intellectual snobbery directed our way from a group that often lacks the brain power to tackle basic calculus.”
“Look, there’s no interest in the Meta quests from these guys. There’s no danger of them doing anything with the information. We might get answers, and they’re low risk.”
“Fine,” huffed Cyrus, “but we still have to listen to them and their pompous attitudes.”
Cyrus had had a few run-ins with philosophers in the past. In fact, two of his former classmates, both of whom, far less academically gifted than he, had done quite well in the shrinking field of philosophy. Of course, Cyrus’ own career as a physicist had been cut short by a rare form of Dysesthesia that subjected him to phantom pains, and placed a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He sometimes likened his disorder to contemporary philosophy, ‘Painful with nothing tangible behind it.’
The interior of the PUB was sparse and reminiscent of renaissance paintings that depicted scenes of intense philosophising. The large hall featured concrete floors, walls and classical pillars. The only furniture were a few wooden benches and several broken pieces of concrete that seemed to double as seats for the residents who were mostly dressed in Romanesque style robes.
One such occupant was seated on a broken pillar head, striking a classic ‘thinker’ pose by the entrance. He looked up with a bored expression as Cyrus and Everett approached.
“Hello,” he began in uninterested tones, “or so goes the normative fallacy bequeathed upon my role as concierge. We can obviate the rest of the pleasantries and explicate your presence.”
“I told you this was a bad idea,” whispered Cyrus.
“We need the help of a think tank,” said Everett with enthusiasm, “It’s a bit of a riddle that’s been challenging us for a while. We thought you and your colleagues might be up for the challenge.”
“Of course, elucidating the unexcogitable is what we do. Is the nature of the conundrum virtual or existential?” asked the man in a heavy eye-lidded manner that managed to convey both tedium and contempt.
“Virtual,” replied Everett.
“I’m certain we can hypothesise an epistemologically sound resolution provided no indefeasible condition exists. But I’m afraid such rigor takes time, and phrenic ministrations of this nature may require emoluments,” sighed the concierge without a trace of irony.
“Uh… yes, I think so, maybe…” replied Everett with a sideways glance to Cyrus.
“What do they want, Fabian?” asked a white-haired bearded chap who wore a cream-coloured tunic and green leggings in contrast to his finely garbed compatriots.
“Riddle needs solving apparently. Probably some quest,” replied the concierge, suddenly losing his obscure vernacular.
“Send them through,” ordered the older man who seemed to have some sway.
Turning back to Cyrus and Everett, Fabian narrowed his eyes and issued a harsh command, “A convocation is granted, this is no time for cunctation, promptitude is required.”
Everett went forth eagerly, pulling his documents from a pocket. Cyrus moved more cautiously, in fear that another bombardment of ambiguous language would be directed his way. “Chop chop! Our time is indispensable,” said Fabian in just the right way to get under Cyrus’ skin.
“So, you’re on a quest, are you?” asked the white-haired gentleman with one raised brow and a hand resting comfortably on his beard.
Everett blurted, “Yes, it’s a problem we’ve been trying to solve for some time now. A prophecy in a riddle of sorts…”
“Show it to me,” interrupted the old man with an outstretched hand. Everett gingerly passed the parchment to him.
For long moments, the old man read the texts trying to grasp the meaning. “Black wings so vast they will cover all the lands in shadow… life takes form without being born,” he murmured before calling over some of his colleagues. They gathered around passing the parchment, one to another.
“It speaks of a giant raven that will conquer the lands,” declared one suddenly.
“No! It speaks of coming war, already the signs are there,” said another.
“You’re only seeing the surface. This speaks of innocence stolen through war,” said a white-haired lady.
“Ice in their heart and eyes. Innocence stolen, yes, but it is of a young maiden, ‘A visage cold as the moon’,” said the first philosopher.
“No, this speaks of a giant chicken,” stated another with confidence.
“A chicken?” questioned the first incredulously.
“It comes from an egg, ‘life takes form without being born,’ wings, and this talk of the tupelo… ‘When the tupelo tree of the broken lands is red with blood…’ tupelo is an anagram of poulet. It’s French for chicken you know,” continued the philosopher in an even more condescending tone than the others. “This prophesises the coming of an apocalyptic fowl.”
“These people are idiots,” whispered Cyrus.
“Um, well, I think they could be getting somewhere,” replied Everett, uncertainty was creeping into his voice.
“You know who could really help us with this. An AI that’s who.”
“They’d need to be well versed in Brith lore. No one’s seen the Polymath for two years, he’s the only COG with that sort of knowledge.”
“I wasn’t thinking of the Polymath,” replied Cyrus.
“It’s a quandary of our virtual lives. Is life in cyberspace living at all? Are we present here? ‘Life takes form without being born’. This denotes our virtual existence. None of us are born into it, and yet we endure,” proclaimed another philosopher arriving at an eureka moment. “In cyberspace we take flight, it is our shadow that covers these lands, that spreads war through malcontent.”
Shifting the problem from a simple riddle to a more existential framework seemed to get the group excited. All at once, they started talking animatedly, abandoning the parchment on a wooden bench.
“This really isn’t the place for this,” said Cyrus furtively grabbing the documents amidst the rising chorus of philosophical debate.
“Where to then?” questioned Everett, who was arriving at the same conclusion.
“Skara Brae. You know full well the two greatest AIs in the land are there.”
“I’m not going to Skara Brae,” said Everett, his face contorting in alarm.
“Just put your personal feelings aside,” began Cyrus, “you know there’s no bad feelings towards you. You’re the one harbouring all the ill will.”
“Well, I…” Everett started faltering, but it seemed he had nothing to add. Or at least nothing that could be crafted into a coherent argument.
“This speaks of a harbinger of war; a storm crow. War is inevitable, but the path to war is not easily trodden,” declared a philosopher loudly. “All the roads we have to walk are winding.”
“And all the lights that lead you there are blinding,” retorted the white-haired lady to much applause. She had clearly scored a point in the eyes of her peers.
“Look, we’ll discuss it later. Let’s just get out of here,” whispered Cyrus as he grabbed Everett by the arm. They made a stealthy line for the door hoping to sneak past the concierge, unnoticed.
“I trust our inexorable pursuit of veracity has uncovered a fundamental verisimilitude amidst your tribulations,” remarked Fabian, as the two passed which made Cyrus finally lose his cool.
“Tosser,” he breathed on the way out.
“Ad hominem,” rebuked Fabian losing all interest as Cyrus and Everett fled the PUB.
“They’re still our best hope. Too much depends on this,” Cyrus pointed out, once they’d cleared the building. “It’s been two years since we last saw Ava, you can’t still be feeling rejected.”
“I’ve felt rejected my whole life, I’ll have you know, and I’ll probably feel rejected for the rest of it too. When it’s your normal state, you get comfortable with it,” retorted Everett. “If I had a penny, for every time I was rejected by a girl… I’d probably… well, actually… I’d probably stop being rejected.”
“Well, maybe the story isn’t over, maybe there’s one last chapter to write in the tale of Everett and Ava,” replied Cyrus trying a different approach.
“What story? There was no story, it was just a joke. A one liner… it didn’t even have a punchline… or maybe I was the punchline.”
“Would you stop feeling sorry for yourself, times have changed. Hardly anyone ends up in committed arrangements these days. And Ava’s probably even less likely to.”
“I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m just being realistic.”
“Well try be realistic about our chances of getting this text decoded. We need someone with much more historical knowledge than us whom we can trust. And you know Kyra and Ava will help us, without some ridiculous fee.”
“Fine. Just don’t expect me to make much small talk,” harrumphed Everett.
“We’ll never know who the Neverborn is if we never try,” finished Cyrus using the best sales line a physicist could muster.
The Neverborn’s identity remained a mystery, but there was no doubt that their arrival was imminent. Arctik Studios had planned seven prophetic signs which would usher in their coming, two of which had already played out. The first was a zombie hoard born of a plague known as the Moaning Death. This was not received well by the Brith populace, many of whom had been overexposed to the zombie genre and felt it was pushing a cliché too far. To counter the negative publicity, Arctik fired the head of narrative, Max Brunson. Brunson’s dismissal was seen as a corporate sacrifice to appease the masses. He would resurface at Arctik in a part-time consulting capacity to ensure certain story threads he’d put in motion continued. Ironically, in his state of half-employment, he was affectionately known at Arctik as one of the working dead.
A year later, the second sign would unfold. This consisted of a swarm of giant scorpions who emerged from underground burrows in what Arctik labelled, a once in three-thousand-year mating ritual. This was received no better with players mounting a stinging attack on the narrative team. The department itself would become more toxic than the scorpion plagues themselves as employees pointed fingers, and deflected blame, trying to distance themselves from the episode. The entire team responsible was fired.
The third sign of impending apocalypse was due, and had undergone a number of revisions based on testing and feedback. The narrative team were, in fact, so paranoid about losing their jobs, should public sentiment turn, that most had taken out employment insurance. Cyber bookies were offering long odds on various possible events ranging from meteor impacts, to earthquakes, and even foreign invasions. However, it was general consensus that the most likely bet to pay dividends, was that the narrative unit would be dismissed. Odds sat at fifty-fifty, but it was perceived by many as a sure thing.