LevelUP: an 8-bit novel
(April 2018, Geek Thoughts)

What is an 8-bit novel?
80s nostalgia (like Stranger Things)
geeky retro gaming (like Ready Player One)
interactive text adventures (like Zork)
with a touch of Mr Robot.

Read the first chapter free.

Level 0

Level 0-1: Lockheed Superfund Site


If asked, Max would say living in the camp isn’t that bad. Well, not completely soul-crushing. On most days. Today, though, something in or around Max’s tent keeps beeping, and it’s driving him out of his mind.

Camp sweet camp. Located atop an enormous pile of garbage, where the whipping wind is an everyday companion. There’s shelter. One-hundred-and-twelve residential tents to be exact. And three bathrooms—four if you count the salt marshes at the bottom of the hill. Which, if anybody asks, is definitely not a thin stratum of earth covering decades of heaped military research waste. “Superfund” is a nice way of saying ‘too expensive to clean up.’

At least there’s food, which is better than most people can say in 2041. Soylent bars and bottled water, shipped in weekly by the graces of the LevelUP corporation, the camp’s sponsor. Most weeks, the deliveries aren’t even more than a day or two late.

And that’s how it works. Every legally-mandated necessity one could hope for in exchange for seventy-two hours of “voluntary” labor at the conveniently-located sweatshop.

Oh, and nobody can enter or leave camp without getting scanned. The camp runs on equipment that used to line museum displays[1]. That’s right, museums. People used to be well-off enough to collect their old junk behind glass simply to be looked at. Now those things were far too valuable to sit unused.

Not getting trampled by the march of progress suits Max just fine. As far as he’s concerned, all technology’s ever done is throw gasoline on the smoldering fires of injustice.

A flutter of his tent flap announces a visitor. Maria, one of Max’s regulars, every year of her age showing on the lines of her face, rushes in. She speaks in her usual urgent tones, as if in mid-sentence. “Five minutes. No, three minutes, is all I need, to make sure my nietos are okeydokey,” she says. She’s looking for time on the camp’s archaic copper network, one of the few communication channels still available. It’s probably the most valuable resource at hand, especially since LevelUP tightened the noose on daypasses. “I know you can do it.” She presses a ration credit into Max’s hand. As she does so, another beep, or maybe a chime, sounds from somewhere nearby. Where is that coming from?

“Did you hear that?” The look on Maria’s face doesn’t change. Must be that she’s too focused on her goal to talk about anything else. “Tell you what, let me walk with you to the access point, and see if I can sweet-talk Nolan into giving you three minutes of the A-line.”

“Thank you Max, you’re my salvador,” Maria says. As she ducks out through the tent flap, Max slips her ration chit back into her bag without her noticing.

Not that he can afford it. He can’t do this every time. Better to keep people from building expectations. Max barely keeps this little Mercantile afloat as it is, and everyone in the camp depends on his continued services. But, every once in a while, he’ll make an exception for those looking after little ones.

They squeeze through the narrow divide between tents and descend a worn footpath toward the access point, a platform precariously perched on the steep descent of the hill. At some point, someone carved a terrace into the slope, making the ground more level. The construction exposed a cross-section of crumpled gray metal—something left over from the Superfund era. Nolan set up shop there and carried on as if nothing was unusual about it.

From a distance, the distinguishing feature of the IT department is the thick mass of wires sagging from splintery poles. They emerge through a gash in the tent’s side; a bottlenecked connection to the outside world, by way of an ancient building once known by the ridiculous name Yahoo!, exclamation mark and all. Upon closer approach, the distinguishing feature is the warmth radiating from the dirty canvas. All those machines inside shed lots of heat.

Max ducks inside the tent, and the smell of hot electronics makes his stomach churn. He can’t help but notice Nolan’s rash, a little redder than last time, peeking out from behind his salt and pepper beard.

Cross-legged on the floor of the tent, playing a beeping 1980s-era handheld video game with her good arm, is Nolan’s daughter, Molly. Well, technically she’s playing with both arms, but one ends in a bent piece of coat-hanger wire, angled in just the right way to reach the tiny arcade buttons on her device.

Molly wears long black braids interspersed with occasional bright purple. Her face and skin are an even mix of both her parents. She’s about the same age as Max, not that people treat her that way. Thanks to her disability, she’s exempted from the work requirements. Beyond that, there’s something else different about her. In practice that’s led people to dismiss her as something broken. Max wonders how many people realize how smart she really is. The tinny sound of her game is familiar, but not loud enough to be the sound Max keeps hearing at his tent.

“Max!” Nolan says without looking up. He taps at his IBM PCjr keyboard, and the fifty-pound glass CRT flickers from a spreadsheet to paragraphs of text. “Let’s see. ZORK.EXE, still in progress. Here we are. ‘To the south across a shallow ford, is a dark tunnel which looks as though it was once enlarged and smoothed. To the north, a narrow path winds among stalagmites. Dim light illuminates the cavern.’”

Max ponders for a moment, recalling his journey through the interactive story. His imagination has far better graphics than any computer program could produce. Once again, he’s lost in the maze of twisty passages, all alike. “North,” he replies.

Nolan taps on the keyboard. “Sorry, compadre,” he says. “You have walked right into the slavering fangs of a lurking grue.” He slaps his desk, sending the monitor into a precarious wobble. “Start again?”

“Maria needs to use the A-line.”

Nolan’s smile falls away. “C’mon man. You know how expensive analog calls are. What am I supposed to do, interrupt a paying customer’s data transfer?”

Max nudges the vintage telephone handset off the desk. The heavy plastic thumps across the floor, dangling on the end of its coiled wire, releasing the scratchy sound of the modem into the tent’s stuffy air. The sound makes Max’s eardrums itch.

“Hey, what’d you go and do that for?” Nolan asks.

“Looks like you’ve got an opening right now,” Max notes, coolly. “Three minutes. Remember how happy you were after I sourced you that 56k modem? Do this for me and I’ll tear up that IOU with your name on it.”

“Now we’re talking.” Nolan flips to another screen and starts provisioning the call, typing rapidly. “You know, people come in here and offer to pay in Maxes now.”

“Maxes? Do I really want to ask what that means?”

Nolan looks up, but his fingers continue flying over the keys. “Your legendary IOU-ing has become its own form of currency. Nice touch, writing each one out in rhyming verse.”

From the corner, Molly speaks, but not to anyone in particular: “It’s going to be a long day.” She does things like this more often than most people are comfortable with. Trouble is, when she says something, she’s usually right.

In any case, Max isn’t sure if being in charge of a currency system a good thing or not. “I’m just trying to—”

A work shift klaxon sounds. “What?!” Nolan says. “No way—it’s Saturday. We’re supposed to get Saturdays off. Ice isn’t going to be happy about this.” Ice is what everyone calls Ishawna, Nolan’s wife.

Maria’s patiently waiting right outside. Max takes her leathery hand and guides her to the desk chair. “Hurry,” he says. “You’ve got three minutes, then meet us on the floor. You’ll be fine.”

Nolan produces a long-distance card from his pocket. Maria picks up the telephone handset, spinning the rotary dial to work through the long string of digits. The delighted squeal of children hearing their grandma on the phone spills into the tent as Max and Nolan make their way out. They walk together toward the factory floor.

“How am I supposed to keep this place running if I’m giving away time?” Nolan mutters.

“It’s called doing the right thing,” Max says. “C’mon. She was willing to trade food for minutes. Besides. I know you have an extra stash of A-line access cards.”

Nolan has the decency to look at his feet. “There really are no secrets in this place.”

The greeting consists of a cheery recorded voicing of ‘welcome,’ followed by a rough synthesized vocalization of a specific name.

“Welcome…Max Root. Welcome…Nolan Matheson.” Ice lines up behind Max and Nolan. She’s wearing a ratty white Pink Floyd t-shirt that stands out against her dark skin. “Welcome…Ishawna Matheson.”

Max passes through the jaunty animated blue arrow that LevelUP corporation inexplicably chose as a holographic mascot, to a screen where the real action is: work assignments for each person entering the factory. Other than the hologram projector, it’s the same system keeping them prisoners in the camp.

Assignments march across the screen in a jaggy font. Their consecutively assigned workstations are at the far end of one of several workbenches that stretch the length of the building. Max settles in and fires up the soldering iron. By the time the choking fumes of burning flux attack his nostrils, the first workpiece arrives on the conveyor belt, a plastic tray that would normally hold components with pictorial instructions on how to assemble them. The initial set of trays contain only paper.

Nolan groans in agony. “Content moderation.”

“Shhh!,” Ice hisses.

Ten hours of mindless soldering would be preferable. Doing this work, Max has seen things, even in grainy fax-machine resolution, that have scarred him for life. What could possibly trigger an entire weekend duty roster of sifting through photos? Max slams his iron’s power switch off.

The intercom above crackles to life. “Attention content moderators: Your quota for the day is one-thousand images per volunteer. Follow all instructions to the letter.” That’s a not-so-nice way of saying that, just to keep the workers on their toes, the company will deliberately intersperse sentinel images they expect to get flagged for something—and pity the poor fool who carelessly passes one of those along without comment.

Max takes a deep breath and flips over his first page. It’s not what he expects. It’s not a vacation photo from some unimaginably rich person’s yacht. Not a crime scene. Not some propaganda tract. There’s no blood, or gore, or bodily fluids at all. It’s an aerial photo. His eyes scan to the printed instructions: IDENTIFY SUSPICIOUS STRUCTURES.

Suspicious structures? That could mean anything. Max’s eyes glaze over for a moment at the prospect of doing this all day. He’s about to dismiss this one, when something catches his eye. A small shed, or maybe an outhouse in the middle of a grassy field. It’s hard to make out in the low-resolution image. Is that suspicious? Nope. Max fills in the little circle next to the word UNEXCEPTIONAL and moves on to the next one.

And the next, and the next, and the next. It’s going to be a long day.

“This is ridiculous,” Nolan blurts out.

“Less talking, more working.” It’s Lora, the camp’s acting administrator. “The faster we all work, the faster we’ll get out of here.” She’s just doing her job, but that doesn’t make people resent her less.

Hours crawl past. Mind-numbing stretches of mental effort not quite repetitive enough to get used to. No way to slip into an easy pattern. Max’s stomach grumbles, and he needs to close his eyes for half a minute for each new page, otherwise it’s too blurry to make out.

“Mom?” calls out a small voice from behind them. Lora swoops out of nowhere to confront the new visitor.

“Oh honey,” Ice says, “You can’t be in here. We’re almost done. Go back to the tent and play on your Game Boy.”

“It’s an Atari Lynx,” Molly corrects. She doesn’t look Lora or her parents in the eye, but she holds her gaze at a spot a few inches above Max’s shoulder. She’s flustered about something, in her sweetly insistent manner.

“What is it?” Max asks.

“We have a visitor,” Molly says.

“FINALLY FOOD!” shouts a volunteer closer to the door. He abandons his post and dashes out. Seconds later, a full stampede is in progress.

❖ ❖ ❖

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[1] with a few notable exceptions