LevelUP: an 8-bit novel by Micah Joel. Author's definitive online edition.

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Chapter One

0-1: Lockheed Superfund

Sunnyvale Refugee Camp

new section

If asked, Max would say living in the camp isn’t that bad—well—not completely soul-crushing. At least it’s stable. Nothing ever changes. Except that, today something in or around Max’s tent keeps beeping, and it’s driving him out of his head.

Camp sweet camp. One-hundred-and-twelve residential tents huddled on an enormous pile of garbage, a thin stratum of earth covering decades of heaped military research waste. “Superfund” is a polite way of saying ‘too expensive to clean up.’ Here, the whipping wind is an everyday companion, carrying with it the stinging dust and the fetid stench of the salt marshes below.

And life goes on. Every legally-mandated necessity one could hope for in exchange for sixty hours of “voluntary” labor at the conveniently-located sweatshop.

Oh, and nobody enters or leaves without getting scanned. The camp runs on equipment that used to line museum displays[1]. That’s right, museums. Once upon a time, 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—which suits Max just fine. As far as he’s concerned, all technology’s ever done is throw gasoline on the smoldering fires of injustice.

The flutter of a tent flap announces a visitor. In rushes Maria, one of Max’s regulars, every year of her age etched into the lines of her face. She speaks in her usual urgent tones, as if she were already deep into conversation. “Five minutes.” She checks her battered watch. “No, three minutes, is all I need, to make sure my nietos are okeydokey,” she says.

“I don’t want to make you late for the drop,” Max says.

Maria waves the objection away. “I’m not even hungry.” She produces a ration chit and presses it into Max’s palm.

“That’s a week’s worth. I can’t take—” Maria fixes Max with a glare that shuts down any hope of argument. He steps back. “Okay, okay, okay. But I need to be there when the delivery arrives. If we hurry, I can sweet-talk Nolan into giving you a few minutes on the a-line before then.”

Then it happens again. The beep. “Did you hear that?”

“That’s not the delivery truck,” Maria says.

Come again? Max cranes his ear, but the sound of spitting gravel isn’t subtle. A spray of pebbles pelts against the threadbare canvas of Max’s tent. What the? “No, that isn’t a truck at all,” Max says. “Stay here.”

Max emerges into a fog of dust, the stiff breeze wicking it away from the source, a cheap knock-off sports car in the gaudy neon blue of the LevelUP corporation. The gullwing door hisses open. The driver is a gangly guy with greasy black hair and an equally greasy naugahyde vest.

“Vic. Vic Vertex,” he announces, while flashing a broad thunbs-up sign. “Personal assistant to the CEO.”

A crowd begins to gather around the visitor. This is Hemera’s right-hand man. Rumor is that he had his middle named changed to an emoji just to be more like her.

“Where’s our food?” asks Josiah from tent C-8.

“Good news, bad news,” Vic says, still grinning. “Which do you want first?”

“Bad,” says Molly, not looking up from her video game console, firmly grasped in her good hand. As Nolan’s kid, Max sees her constantly in the IT tent, but the two of them have hardly exchanged more than a dozen words, despite being close to the same age. In fact, Molly hardly talks to anyone at all. On account of her disability, she’s exempt from work quotas too.

“Bad news it is,” Vic says with far too much excitement. “Due to logistic issues outside of LevelUP’s control, this week’s delivery of Soylent feedstocks will be delayed. If anyone’s literally dying of thirst, I’ve got a few bottles of water here though.” He tosses one into the crowd. A fight nearly breaks out over it.

“What do you mean, delayed?” Max asks, carefully laying down each word.

“That’s where the good news comes in,” Vic says. “Effective immediately, LevelUP is instituting Saturday work shifts.” He spreads his hands as if he’s just bestowed a valuable gift.

The chatter from the still-gathering crowd rises in volume and pitch. Max senses the rising anger in the crowd; feels the collective tightening of the noose around Vic.

“How is that good?” Molly asks, still without looking up from her console. The bent piece of wire that takes the place of one of her hands taps against the controller buttons.

“It’s good,” Vic pronounces, “because, that’s how you’re going to get food. Complete a extra shift, and the drop will be cleared for delivery.”

Molly looks up, a confused look on her face. “I don’t think that’s actually very good,” she observes. No wonder nobody in camp likes her. Strange girl.

Vic’s phone beeps. Since it runs on 80s technology, it’s approximately the size and weight of a brick, and yet he keeps it clipped to his belt. “Well, look at that. Ten A.M. sharp. Chop, chop! Off to work you go.” Nobody moves. “Off you go, little volunteers.” Max spots several balled fists dotted throughout the crowd.

“You heard the man!” It’s Lora Baines, who took charge of the camp since Isidore Morris, the original admin, disappeared without a trace. “I don’t like it any more than you, but if those are the rules, then those are the rules. Let’s move!”

Her voice slices through the irate trance, and clumps of people split off toward the factory building. Vic slams the door of his car and peppers the crowd with gravel as he peels out.

Max’s stomach rumbles. So much for things never changing. He turns toward the factory building, but stops. Maria. He pivots on his heel and heads back to his tent.

“Thank you, Max, you’re my salvador,” Maria says before he’s even all the way inside.

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, clutching a beeping 1980s-era handheld video game is, Molly. She wears long black braids interspersed with occasional bright purple. Her face and skin are an even mix of both her parents. The tinny sound of her game is familiar, but not loud enough to be the sound Max keeps hearing.

“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.’”

“Didn’t you hear about the new work shift?” Max asks him.

“Of course I did,” Nolan says. “I figure they’ll wait for me.”

Max shifts gears, 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. “You sure you’re cut out for this game?”

“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 says and does things like this more often than most people are comfortable with.

In any case, Max isn’t sure if inspiring a currency system a good thing or not. Max takes Maria’s 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.” While she’s distracted, Max slips her ration chit back into her bag. 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.

Nolan produces an embossed calling 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.”

new section

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 Tesla t-shirt (Greatest Hits) 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. 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. Sifting through random people’s internet postings, Max has seen things, even in grainy 8-bit 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 volunteer content moderators: Your quota for the day is one-thousand pages 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 colors 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, filling her role as administrator. “The faster we all work, the faster we’ll get our food.” 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 loudly enough to get a look from Ice, and he needs to close his eyes for half a minute for each new page, otherwise it’s too blurry to see.

“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 seems flustered about something, in a 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.


[1] With a few notable exceptions.

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